About John Holbo
John Holbo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He works on philosophy of literature and literary theory; Wittgenstein and Nietzsche; also, science fiction, fantasy, film, comics; also, more highbrow literary stuff. He blogs at Crooked Timber and John & Belle Have A Blog. Some of his writings are here. The Valve is pretty much his baby, and he's pretty much Editor-in-Chief.
Posts by John Holbo
Monday, September 15, 2008
Bob Stein’s ‘unified field theory of publishing in the networked era’
Interesting post at if:book. Some discussion of the possibilities (you - being a new media-savvy blog reader - could probably fill in many of details yourself off the cuff). Then this thought:
Hmmm. On the surface that sounds a lot like a Wikipedia article, in the sense that it’s always in process and consideration of the the back and forth is crucial to making sense of the whole. However it’s also different, because a defining aspect of the Wikipedia is that once an article is started, there is no special, ongoing role accorded to the the person who initiated it or tends it over time. And that’s definitely not what I’m talking about here. Locating discourse in a dynamic network doesn’t erase the distinction between authors and readers, but it significantly flattens the traditional perceived hierarchy.
More like a blog, then. The author posts. Others comment. Yes, but blogs are more of the ‘new thing every day’ model.
All this stuff interests me enormously because I have such a strong sense that academic publishing is so much worse than it could be. Structurally. But it’s very hard to change. I’ve talk about all that before. I’ve been unable to spend as much time thinking and doing stuff about all this as I would like, lo this past year. (Hell, I hardly have time for blogging these days.) But I’ll just mention one thing. Academics are perfectly accustomed to the flattening of traditional hierarchy of which Bob speaks: it’s called a ‘conference’. It’s funny that academics could be creatures who regard books and articles as things that make sense, and conferences as events that are valuable enough that people should fly to them from all points around the globe. Still: it would be mad - mad! I tell you! - to thoroughly standardize the production of hybrid products (sort of like a book, sort of like a conference.)
Obviously we here at the Valve wisely stage these books events. Good on us. We should find time to do more of that.
Monday, September 08, 2008
The Journey Prefaced
Sorry for being late to the party - The Journey Abandoned event, that is. Also, sorry for being absent from the Valve of late. But here I am. I was very excited and eager to read Trilling’s abandoned, unfinished novel. Well, truthfully, I did worry that those adjectives might not be without purpose in this connection. But Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination is really an important book for me, personally. I read it in graduate school - in the throes of doing picky-picky analytic philosophy stuff - and it inspired me to get back into literary criticism and literary theory. It made me realize that I liked reading, hence would like writing, a certain sort of essay. (Do you know why I picked it up? I bought it for the Edward Gorey cover. Maybe you didn’t even know that was an Edward Gorey cover. Funny old world.)Continue reading "The Journey Prefaced"
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Ted Clayton on “Reading Comics”
This is Ted Clayton’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” Event. Clayton is the proud winner of a free copy of Wolk’s book, because he sent me an email in response to my Crooked Timber post on the subject. Other than that, I don’t know a lot about the guy. So let that be a lesson to you. - the former editor
It’s a pretty safe bet that I am the least comics-knowledgeable person involved in this event, so if you’re looking for keen, informed insight into the medium of graphic novels or its practitioners you should probably skip this piece entirely. Like probably everyone else here, I’ve read Maus (both parts) and Watchmen, but that’s about it for me, unless you count Action Philosophers as a graphic novel. As a kid and a teenager I read and collected comic books, but those days are now a couple of decades in the past, although I do still read them in the grocery store if I’ve got a few minutes.Continue reading "Ted Clayton on “Reading Comics”"
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Ian Gordon on Reading Comics
This is Ian Gordon’s contribution to our Reading Comics event. Ian is a colleague of mine at the National University of Singapore - he’s in the history department. He is the author of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture (2002) and, more recently, editor of Film and Comic Books (2007). He’s working on a book about Superman, I think. - the former editor (John Holbo)
I just returned home from attending the Comic Con in San Diego. One of the many dilemmas at the Con was deciding whether to attend a session with Douglas Wolk or a session with Jim Starlin since they were on at the same time. I opted for the latter based not on my long ago remembrance of Starlin’s work, but rather on Wolk’s praise of that work in Reading Comics.
Reading Reading Comics while on the road in Australia and the USA the chapter on Starlin and his handling of Warlock jumped out at me together with the chapter on Tomb of Dracula. To be sure these two chapters took me back to the 1970s when I was in the habit of reading comic books on a very regular basis for amusement and diversion, but it was not so much a sense of nostalgia that gripped me but a sense of rediscovery and that these comics had spoken to me in ways that at the time I could not articulate.
Discussing Starlin’s work on Warlock Wolk gives a potted history of the character and a brief summary of the plot and then moves to a description of the technique: “visual devices … repetition, symmetry, and inward motion,” and then shifts to analysis. For Wolk “those tricks underscore the story’s themes: change that isn’t progress, dichotomous oppositions, looking into the mind instead of out into perceived reality.” Gosh was that the way I was reading it or was I just in thrall to the art, which was like something I had never seen before, and heh I am a story not an art guy so that is saying something. My first response was to re-read the comics, but I am not sure if I even have them in my remaining stash of comics, which are carefully secured in the bottom draw of a filing cabinet in my office in Singapore. I started to get the fan boy sweats - I have just got to have these comics to re-read. And then I arrived at Comic Con.
At his session Starlin spoke of his early years in comics as a time when he was not in the best place, parlance for much of the social and personal confusion of the early seventies. Raised a Catholic in Detroit he shipped out to Vietnam under, as he tells it, somewhat under a cloud and with no other choice. On his return he enrolled in junior college, took a course on psychology from which he derived the genesis of his character Thanos. Starlin’s characters by his own telling were not cast in moral lights of black and white, but rather complex flawed beings. If I understood him correctly Warlock and Starlin’s other 1970s stories, particularly on the Captain Marvel title, were a mediation on religion, American might, and the futility and horror of superheroic powers. All of this conducted within a struggle against Marvel Comics’ corporate style, the indentured servant like status of work for hire artists in the 1970s, and the corroding of American life. Pretty heady stuff. It seems that Wolk got Starlin down pat. All that is left to do is re-read the comics and see if they resonate that way to my older self.
Tomorrow when I go to work I will look for the Tomb of Dracula comic books I know are there. I have not looked at these for some twenty years, but I am pretty sure I have a decent run and I have a desire to read those again too. Wolk points to three great things about these books. First the on-the-fly nature of the whole enterprise, which he sees as finally settling on an overarching mode: “total panic.” Second the randomness of the violence Dracula commits: the first serial killer of literature given visual form in a comic, it was not something to read late at night at the end of a dark country road. Third the way the comic was a “lustily and faithfully executed vampire story.” Forget Marv Wolfman’s purple prose (there’s a name to die for) or rather linger just a moment to realise that the whole point is to be somewhat over wrought; it’s a comic book! As Wolk says in the title chapter this is the “cheap, strong stuff.” The strength of the book as Wolk notes comes from the art of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. Wolk reproduces a page from Tomb of Dracula #42 in which Colan and Palmer use the old technique of motion lines in abundance and to new effect to create a misty ethereal Dracula only just present in corporeal form. I think Wolk captures the essence of the book. It reveled in being a comic book, it pushed boundaries, including the space opened by a change in the comic code and eventually moved on to a black and white magazine free of the comic code.
Maybe there was something in the water in the 1970s, but Colan, Palmer, Starlin, and others like Paul Gulacy, Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, and Mike Kaluta all broke from prevailing styles. Comic Con had a session on the 1970s to which Gulacy and Chaykin were no shows but Starlin and Wrightson attended. Overseen by Mark Evanier it was a fun romp through the years, but I wish Wolk had been on the panel to tease out some more reflections on just why things went the way they did in these times. I wish he had written more about 1970s comics. That said Wolk has got me going back to read those comic books and given how rare I do that for a paid up comic book scholar that’s a good thing.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Kip Manley’s Contribution Is Up: Let Comics Be Comics
Kip Manley’s take on new-minted Eisner-winner Wolk is here:
Much as any good fencer has studied his Agrippa, Douglas Wolk has read his Delany ...
And so it goes.
UPDATE: OK, on second thought, this is not the right time to be coy. Kip has written a great essay! Go read it! It’s about that stuff I was talking about. What is it to read? I’ll snip a bit of the hilarious dialogue he relates:
See, I don’t think of comics as reading.
You don’t think of comics as reading?
What’s the big deal? Why is that a big deal? Comics is about looking and reading. It’s not just reading. It’s a sort of dual process that you undertake. It’s a totally different process than reading a novel, and it’s different than watching a movie, so I guess I think of comics as a separate activity than reading.
It rests right next to the same place as reading.
It’s a couple of doors down.
It’s definitely a kissing cousin of reading.
To me that’s like saying that when I’m listening to you or Cecil talk, that I’m not listening the way I’m listening when I’m listening to music. You’re still listening, you’re still using the same—
I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess I think of comics—it’s something else, it’s a different kind of process. I certainly don’t read Dan Clowes in the way I read, you know, Updike, or something. So it’s a different thing. You have to decode the picture—
I don’t read Cecil Castellucci the same way I read Hemingway, either.
And so it goes. If it quack quack wackos like a comic, and it quack quack walks like a comic, it’s a comic.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Doug Wolk Wins!
He just won an Eisner for Best Book. Tor (that’s the link) has a brief interview with him.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Jim Henley on Some of Origins of Marvel (and Other Comics)
Jim Henley’s contribution to our Doug Wolk event is up. He writes up a nice, thumbnail history, aiming to debunk a certain ‘myth of the fall’:
Once upon a time, the comic-book industry offered a stupefying variety of material. From the late 1930s through the late 1960s you could buy monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, and, yes, superhero comics. Alas, as the 1970s turned to the 1980s, the two major corporate publishers, Marvel and DC, turned their backs on the general audience - especially children - to saturate the emerging (adult) fan market flocking to comics specialty stores, and since the fan market wanted superheroes and more superheroes, that’s what the Big Two, and a remora-school of wannabes, gave them. As a result, circulations plummeted ...
This, he points out, is backwards. I think he’s probably right. The following interesting and true observation follows in due course. Why did the superhero pamphlet-sized comic die more slowly than other genres?
I think it’s because superheroes really did remain comic books’ competitive advantage: they were the kind of genre story that comics could tell effectively that other media couldn’t. Romance readers enjoyed the rise of Harlequin and Silhouette. Milporn enthusiasts could buy Mac Bolan paperbacks, at least until they stopped reading. Horror fans had numerous low-budget movies that delivered the various kinds of fright kicks more effectively than could drawings on newsprint. If you wanted war stories, you could get them from movies, books or TV. But until recently, other media couldn’t or wouldn’t provide superhero entertainment as well as the comic-book medium could. It’s not that there were no TV shows, no cartoons or no movies. It’s just that, for the aficionado of superheroes, there weren’t enough of them, and many of the ones that did exist didn’t measure up.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Jason Grote: Thoughts On Douglas Wolks’ “Reading Comics”
Anyone able to get on the internet and read this should have ample familiarity with fan culture (as it is the internet, increasingly), but here’s a brief primer: around the 1960s and 70s, subcultures surrounding comics, science fiction, and fantasy began to emerge, coinciding with various counterculture publications that began to apply emerging academic fields like cultural studies to the subject of pop music. Fan culture—supported in large part by mimiographed, photocopied, or cheaply-printed ‘zines, and meeting at a few large conventions every year—presupposed the internet with its creation of a large community that transcended physical distance. One of the purposes of fan culture (conscious or not) was to fill a void created by the mainstream media’s dismissal of popular art forms like comics or rock and roll music. This has always been fandom’s greatest strength—its breathless enthusiasm for its subject. At its best, fan writing offers obsessive knowledge, passionate debates, and thoughtful analysis. At its worst, (as can be seen all over the internet), fan culture can be racist, misogynist, and stupid, or Manichean in its thinking (either uncritically loyal to a creator, character, or brand name or consumed by knee-jerk complaining about how everything sucks).
At the opposite pole, there is traditional formal criticism, a discipline which (with a few notable exceptions) seems to primarily be the purview of fine academics, art critics, or dramaturgs. At its best, this field is cross-disciplinary, combining all of the various traditions of art and speaking about its subjects in various larger contexts—aesthetic, historical, sociopolitical. At its worst, formal critical thought is hidebound and ossified, and can be academic to the point of irrelevance—it often comes off as an experience of pounding a square peg into a round hole.
The genius of Reading Comics is that it combines the best of both traditions.
I quite agree with all that.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Reading Wordless Books
Here’s a postscript of sorts to my ‘is comics a language?’ post.
I just settled down to read a new book, Wordless Books, the Original Graphic Novels, by David A. Benonä (with introduction by Peter Kuper).
It’s a handsome volume, 11 chapters, most of them devoted to individual author/artists - eight in all, plus a chapter on 3 ‘cartoon book’ artists, a general historical background chapter and conclusion. Each chapter gives you generous samples, plus pertinent bio and intelligent commentary on influences, style and technique. So it’s a good introduction. It “represents the major woodcut novels and wordless books, from 1918 to 1951” minus a handful of titles that are listed at the start. So a real effort has been made to achieve comprehensive coverage.
As I happen to own several of these works already, in nice enough editions, it’s a bit redundant on my shelf. But that’s how it goes.
Anyway, here’s the opening of Peter Kuper’s introduction, which seems relevant to the whole ‘comics a language?’ question.
It may seem a little contrary to write about a wordless art form, but a blank sheet of paper doens’t carry much in the way of insight, so bear with me.
In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humanity has developed one unifying language and comes together to build a stairway to heaven. God, as was His wont, destroys the structure and as an added bonus undoes people’s ability to communicate through a single language for all time.
Apparently he overlooked Lund Ward’s picture story God’s Man.
Ward, like Frans Masereel, Otto Nückel, and the other artists included in this collection, discovered a way to sidestep our language barriers and create complex political, emotional, and humorous stories that can be universally understood.
We humans have been using drawings to tell stories as far back as when our ancestors called caves home. Pictures were used to describe their actions - say hunting a wooly mammoth - and the very traces of human existence remain thanks to the artists who scrawled on those cavernous walls.
Throughout human history, image functioned as language - including the Sumerians’ cuneiform pictograms carved on clay tablets, the expressive symbols painted on the tombs in Egypt, and chinese scrolls with silent illustrated epics that unrolled before the reader’s eyes ...
Here we find the same ambiguity. Is it a language? Or does it function as language (but perhaps it isn’t a language)? Is it universal because it’s a universal language or because it’s not a language at all? It’s worth noting that one of the main reasons we are tempted to say ‘comics’ - or sequential images telling stories - is a language is that we read comics. What else would you read except for language? But this is a bit arbitrary. We call it ‘reading’ because these are books. What else would you do with a book except read it? But we wouldn’t be so presuming about, say, the Bayeux Tapestry or cave art. The verb ‘to read’ tends to tag along with certain sorts of artifacts associated with writing. But that is not to say that everything you do with artifacts of that sort must be ‘linguistic’, per se. Also, it’s a bit peculiar that ‘reading’ comes to seem such an important word in these discussions. The essence of the novel is that it is a thing you read. So if these are novels, you must read them. But this isn’t even true. Illiterate people can listen to audiobooks.
Obviously the interest of the question does not lie in beating our ordinary words to death - ‘language’, ‘read’.
I’m not going to try to write this out here, but an idea I’m toying with is this: a lot of theory of interpretation - hermeneutics stuff - is skewed to the assumption that if you are interpreting it, it must be language-like. The fact that you can even have ‘wordless novels’ is a counter-example to a lot of accounts, then. And this isn’t just a case of the accounts neglecting this somewhat forgotten, perhaps marginal class of works. Rather, the fact that a theory of interpretation must work for wordless novels suggests that most theories of interpretation of literary works are barking up the wrong tree. They are treating interpretation of works as a theory of interpretation of words. But, since images aren’t words, that’s not right. Just a thought.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Katherine Farmar’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” event: Belgian Style Waffles?
Her post is up here. She likes the book but makes one criticism. Wolk’s exclusive focus on American comics - while justified - risks missing things one sees if one steps back to take in non-American comics styles and forms.
What do I think of this? In a sense criticisms of this sort are always correct. Focusing in makes you miss the big picture. Stepping back for the big picture loses the details. So the value of this criticism depends on what one actually makes of it. What does Katherine make of it?
The distinctness of the visual and narrative techniques used by Franco-Belgian comics creators is less obvious, but as I discovered after a longish period of reading nothing but Franco-Belgian comics, they, too, have their own language which is subtly different from that used by American creators. And again, the differences are structural and cultural, resulting from different publishing models and from the creators being raised and immersed in a different way of looking at the world.
It’s certainly true that manga does operate by “a slightly different set of rules”. Actually, that is if anything an understatement: manga’s quasi-abstract emotional iconography, splashy panel layouts combined with the use of visual cues in the art to direct the reader’s eye, emotional expressionism, convoluted plots and premises, speech bubble placement, distinctive story pacing… and so on and so forth… amount to not just “a slightly different set of rules” but effectively a different visual and narrative language.
I have a good joke about this one in the archives somewhere. Ah, here it is.
(That’s from an old boucx comic that appeared in Heavy Metal, by the by.)
Right. Now I quite agree that looking outside American comics - looking to the way other comics traditions do it: - teaches us about American comics by really showing how much they all have in common. (Katherine is suggesting Wolk may suffer from slight narcissism of small differences, in dividing up the American tradition. This is the critical burden of the point.) But is it really right to say these differences amount to a ‘different visual and narrative language’? There’s a bit of a waffle between ‘the Belgian-style works by its own rules’ and ‘the Belgian-style constitutes its own language’. Certainly there are rules for drawing manga. Belgian-style punches don’t look like manga-style punches. The sensei wanders around: “make sure your direction lines don’t get mixed up.”Continue reading "Katherine Farmar’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” event: Belgian Style Waffles?"
Monday, July 07, 2008
Reading Comics: First Round Round-Up
Let the Reading Comics Readings Begin!
Our Doug Wolk Reading Comics book event is now officially open.
I know that Tim Burke has something lined up and ready to go. And Lawrence White has something as well. So I’m going to let them start things off - either today or tomorrow. We have a lot of participants and I’m very excited. (Alas, I am also very busy with other thngs. But I’ll be contributing myself in just a few days.)
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
I’m organizing a book event for Doug Wolk’s Reading Comics [amazon], which is now out in paperback. The event will be nominally hosted here. I got to know Doug on the strength of mocking him with my masterful New Skrullicism post of yore. Then I read this great book of his, which only made me like him more. I posted about it here. Anyway, this post is mostly a heads-up that the event is going to happen round aboutish July 10. I’ve already got participants lined up, but several people are going to participate just by posting on their own blogs so you are welcome to show up in the usual ‘I’ve got a blog too’ way.
In other news: I’ve really been enjoying a lot of music by people named Finn. The two albums currently on heavy rotation are The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive (lead singer Craig Finn) and Liam Finn’s “I’ll Be Lightning”. A couple YouTube links: Liam Finn’s “Second Chance" and The Hold Steady’s “Little Hoodrat Friend" and “The Swish". But the one you really need to listen to and watch is “Stuck Between Stations". Bruce Springsteen wishes he was as awesome as vaguely Randy Newmanesque Craig Finn. Who is apparently starved for groupies. I’m not really eligible myself.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Some good reads. The Locus Award winners have been announced.
Michael Chabon won for Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I thought it was ok - fun - a bit of a disappointment after Kavalier and Clay. What did you think? OK, I’ll write a short review to finish this post out. Now, on down the list.
Terry Pratchett, Making Money. Very funny, as usual, but sort of by-the-numbers.
I haven’t read Miéville’s Un Lun Dun or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. (Put them on the to-read list.)
Cory Doctorow’s “After The Siege” is magnificent. It’s a harrowing tale. It will definitely give you that ghastly, crazy, infowar siege of neverland feeling. I listened to it as a podcast, read by the author himself. I see that someone else has re-recorded it. Throw it on the iPod.
“Witch’s Headstone”, by Neil Gaiman. Haven’t read it.
“A Small Room in Koboldtown”, by Michael Swanwick. You can download it as a free PDF. (And a podcast.) I guess I’m a bit surprised it won. It’s a funny genre mash-up. Hardboiled detective fiction, locked-room murder mystery, meets ... well, I’ll quote the first paragraph:Continue reading "Locus Winners"
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Ian Hunter, “Talking About My Generation”
I owe a follow-up to my Jameson post. Some discussion of the Ian Hunter response to Jameson’s piece. This is it - at least a stab at it. The Jameson/Hunter exchange, a response to an earlier Hunter essay, is to be found in Critical Inquiry 34 (Spring 2008), for those with subscription access. Hunter’s contribution is “Talking About My Generation”.
As Rob noted in comments, the Hunter response is quite good. Better than his original essay. I agree. I fear that I have somewhat dragged it, by association, through the mire of my traditional comment box sparring stylings. So I thought I would just quote a few substantial chunks, let them stand on their own, to make clear that Hunter is not, per se, Holbo, nor vice versa.Continue reading "Ian Hunter, “Talking About My Generation”"