Is there no end to the seemingly endless fascination with superhero media? Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Travis Smith, who teaches political philosophy at Concordia University, to discuss. Travis sees their resonance as a matter of metaphor: How can we do more with the abilities we have? His book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes, 10 Ways to Save the World, Which One Do We Need Now? matches up heroes like Batman vs. Spider-Man for ethical comparison: Both “act locally,” but Batman would like to actually rule over Gotham, while Spider-Man engages in a more “friendly neighborhood” patrol. What philosophy should govern the way we try to do good in the world?
Lurking in the background is the current release of season two of the Amazon series The Boys, based on Garth Ennis’ graphic novels, which assumes that power corrupts and asks what regular folks might do in the face of corporate-backed invulnerability. This cynical take is part of a long tradition of asking “what if super-heroes were literally real?” that goes through Watchmen all the way back to Spider-Man himself, who faces financial and other mundane problems that Superman was immune to.
Given Travis’ book, we didn’t really need supplementary articles for this episode, but you can take a look at this interview with him to learn more about his comic book loves and the Canadian heritage that led him to start fighting crime (you know, indirectly, through ethical teaching).
One of our goals on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast has been to look into not just our favorite creators and genres but into things that get a lot of buzz but which we really don’t know anything about. Manga is a great example of a “look what these crazy kids are into today” kind of area for many (older) Americans.
Deborah Shamoon, an American who teaches Japanese studies at the National University of Singapore and has loved manga since adolescence, here schools manga noobs Mark Linsenmayer and Brian Hirt–along with Erica Spyres, who also doesn’t read manga but at least has a complicated history with anime. What are the barriers for Americans (whether comics readers or not) to appreciate manga? For some of us, manga is actually easier to appreciate than anime given the latter’s sound and pacing.
We talk about manga’s publication history, how fast to read manga, and its use of iconography to depict sound and movement. Deborah gives us the truth about the famed Osamu Tezuka’s place as “god of comics”; we discuss his Metropolis, Astro Boy and Princess Knight, which is not as you may have been told the first “shojo” manga, meaning aimed at girls. Shojo manga is Deborah’s specialty: She wrote a book called Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan. We discuss The Heart of Thomas, Sailor Moon, and how Tezuka actually copied that big-eye style from Hideko Mizuno’s Silver Petals. Do you need to get a handle on these old classics to appreciate the newer stuff that’s made such a dent in America like Death Note? Probably not, though some Akira wouldn’t hurt you.
It’s oft-cited advice for writers both beginning and established.
Thus, Jules, the teenage boy at the center of Christian Cooper’s It’s a Bird, the first entry in DC Comics’ digital-first anthology series Represent!, is a birdwatcher, like the author.
And the binoculars that were a 50th birthday gift from Cooper’s father, a Korean War vet and Civil Rights activist, serve as models for the ones Jules is none too thrilled to receive, despite his grandpa’s belief that they possess special powers.
Although the location has shifted from New York City’s Central Park to a suburban green space bordered with large, well-kept homes, including Jules’, the young man’s encounter with an indignant white woman and her off-leash dog should ring any number of bells.
In late May, Cooper became the subject of national news, when he confronted Amy Cooper (no relation) over her violation of park rules, tired of the havoc uncontrolled dogs wreak on birds who call the park home. Ms. Cooper escalated things quickly by calling 911, claiming she was being threatened by an African-American man. Cooper recorded the incident as a matter of protocol, and his sister shared the video on social media later that day.
The same day that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
What Jules sees through the lenses of his grandfather’s binoculars contains an element of fantasy, but is also deeply rooted in reality—the faces of Amidou Diallo, Breonna Taylor, Floyd, and other Black people who have died as a result of excessive, unwarranted police force.
When DC first approached him about tapping his experience for his first comic in over two decades, Cooper was reluctant:
I thought, “I don’t know, DC Comics? Superheroes? Not sure how that’s going to work.” We kicked around a couple of ideas. They said they had gotten the title, I’m not sure exactly from who, but somebody pretty high up in the DC food chain: “It’s a Bird.” It took me half a beat. “Oh…I get what you did there.” Once I had the title, the story wrote itself.
It’s a Bird artist Aletha E. Martinez, a pioneer whose 20-year career has included inking such superhero heavy hitters as the Black Panther, Iron Man, Batgirl, and X-Men, also pulled from personal experience when rendering Jules’ expression after the binoculars reveal the circumstances of George Floyd’s death:
I saw that look on my son’s face three years ago after we left North Carolina, and we were coming home to New York. We were stopped going into the airport. We travel so often—cons, in and out of the country. These two security guards started to harass us. They wanted to take my purse. “Where are you from?” You hear my voice, there’s no accent in my voice. It ended up with them saying, “You should travel with your passport.” This is after backing us up in the corner, and why? I’m an American citizen born on this soil, so is my son. I don’t need a passport to travel within my country. This is our day and age.
I watched my son’s face change, and he never quite walked up again looking happy going to the airport. Now he has on armor. That face you see? That’s my kid.
It’s a Bird can be read for free on participating digital platforms (see links below), and Cooper is hopeful that it will inspire young people to find out more about some of the real life characters Jules spies through his binoculars. To that end, an appendix touches on some biographical details:
We not only give the bare bones details of how they died, but also a little bit about them, because they were people. They weren’t just want happened to them. I hope young people (are) inspired to keep the focus where it needs to be, which is on those we have lost and how we keep from losing more. There are people who are invested in distracting us right now, and there are people who want to distract us from their failures on so many other things. That’s not what this moment is about. This moment is about the ones we’ve lost, and how we’re going to keep from losing any more. And if you’re not talking about that, I don’t want to hear it.
If you’re fascinated by certain artists and thinkers, you can learn about them from books. Anyone who has a significant cultural or intellectual influence on humanity sooner or later gets a biography written about them, and usually more than one. But how many get their own graphic novels? The versatility of the “comic book,” long unsuspected by many Western readers, has been more and more widely discussed in recent decades. Some of those readers, however, won’t believe what can be done with the form until they see what can be done with it. So why not show them the graphic novel on the life of David Bowie published not long ago — and if they remain unconvinced, why not show them the other one?
Few subjects demand a visual form as much as Bowie, because of the centrality of his ever-changing appearance to his artistic project as well as the need to evoke the effervescent cultural periods he lived through and did more than his part to define.
You can also read a graphic-novel adaptation of a source work never completed in the first place — but never completed, one must note, by Salvador Dalí and the Marx Brothers. A collaboration between pop-culture scholar Josh Frank, artist Manuela Pertega, and comedian Tim Heidecker, Giraffes on Horseback Salad realizes on the page a film that not only was never, but quite possibly could never have been made. For readers closer to worldly reality, there’s Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s Feynman: A Biography, which tells and shows the life of world-famous theoretical physicist, teacher, and bon vivant Richard Feynman. Never before, surely, has a comic book had to legibly and convincingly depict quantum electrodynamics, safe-cracking, and bongo-paying — to name just three of Feynman’s pursuits.
The Interim Executive Producer of The Second City joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the scope of black nerd-dom: what nerdy properties provide to those who feel “othered,” using sci-fi to talk about race, Black Panther and other heroes, afrofuturism, black anime fans, Star Trek, Key & Peele, Get Out vs. Us, and more.
Unlike his devotee Stephen King, whose novels and stories have spawned more Lovecraftian film and television projects than any writer in the genre, H.P. Lovecraft himself has little cinema credit to his name. Given the abject terror evoked by Cthulhu and other terrifying “primal Great Ones”—as the author called his monsters in the story of the octopus-headed god—we might expect it to be otherwise.
But Lovecraft was not a cinematic writer, nor a fan of any such modern storytelling devices. He preferred the Victorian mode of indirect narration, his prose full of hearsay, reportage, bibliography, and lengthy description of experiences once or twice removed from the teller of the tale.
These qualities (and his extreme racism) make him a poor choice for the plot-driven medium of feature film. Lovecraft’s expansive imagination, like his buried, dreaming monsters, was subterranean and submarine, revealing only the barest glimpse of nightmares we are grateful never to see fully revealed.
The endlessly suggestive psychological terror of Lovecraft has instead become the source of an extended universe that includes fan fiction—written by professionals and amateurs alike—fantasy art, comic books, and RPGs (role-playing games) like the Call of Cthulhu series made by Chaosium, Inc. for over 35 years: “the foremost game of mystery and horror,” the company touts. “For those brave enough to uncover its secrets, the rewards are beyond comprehension!” If this sounds just like the thing to pass the time during these days of social distancing, look over all of the Chaosium Cthulhu offerings here.
For those who prefer Lovecraftian immersions of a more solitary, meditative nature, allow us to present Call of Cthulhu: The Coloring Book, the first of many “fun and engaging diversions,” the company promises “we can enjoy while staying in, working-from-home, in quarantine, or in self-isolation….. While away the hours in lockdown coloring an amazing array of scenes, with striking images from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories—and the Call of Cthulhu RPG his imagination inspired (Horror on the Orient Express, Masks of Nyarlathotep, The Fungi from Yuggoth and more).”
While these many Lovecraft spin-offs may be unfamiliar, hints of their harrowing scenes always lay in the murky depths of Lovecraft’s fiction. See how award-winning artist Andrey Fetisov has imagined these encounters with ancient terrors. Then color his Moebius-like drawings in, and enter your work in a Call of Cthulhu coloring competition by sharing it with the hashtag #homewithchaosium. There will be prizes, sure to be surprises, though we hope the ruthless Elder Gods don’t have a hand in choosing them. Download all 28 eldritch sceneshere.
The huge emotions of these songs suit the oversized feelings of the comic’s characters, who were, all of them, variations of Schulz himself. As Jeff Kinney writes in his introduction to Chip Kidd’s book, Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts, the strip and its many animated spin-offs constitute “perhaps the most richly layered autobiography of all time.”
It’s fitting then that one of Lazar’s earlier Peanuts mashups involved another such richly autobiographical work, Pink Floyd’s rock opera The Wall, an album full of personal and collective pain, deep fear, alienation, insecurity, and observations about just how oppressive childhood can be. Just like… well, just like Peanuts.
Schulz’s work has always transcended the expectations of his form, becoming what might even be called comic strip opera. His fifty years of drawing and writing Peanuts make it “the longest story ever told by one human being,” says cultural historian Robert Thompson.
The creator himself had great ambitions for his collections of “little incidents,” as he called the strips. He hated the name Peanuts, which was forced upon him by United Feature Syndicate in the 50s. Schulz preferred his original title Li’l Folks, which he said imbued the strip “with dignity and significance. ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.”
This was essential human drama, writ small, and it amounted to a whole lot more than “peanuts.” Claire Catterall, curator of a Schulz exhibit in London, insists she’s “not being ironic” in calling the strip “Great Art.” Schulz “introduced children—and adults alike—to some of the biggest philosophical ideas.” His “influence on culture and society is nothing short of seismic.”
Nor does Schulz escape comparisons to writers of great literature—including several whose names may have popped up as references in the strip, likely in the word bubbles of the precociously erudite Schroeder or Linus. Kinney compares Peanuts to Shakespeare, Laux compares it to Sartre and Beckett, and Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian writes, “Certainly, Ibsen and Strindberg made a lot of sense to me as an adult because I was raised on Peanuts.”
If Schulz’s comic strip and cartoons can evoke these august literary names, then why not the names Roger Waters and David Gilmour? If anyone has ever felt like just another brick in the wall, it’s Charlie Brown. Marvel at Lazar’s editing skills in “Charlie Brown vs. The Wall.” The Peanuts gang, and Schulz, may have preferred jazz, but one can see in their existential angst and frequent bouts of despair the same kind of disillusionment Roger Waters hammers home in his masterpiece. Only, the former “Li’l Folks” and their creator had a much better sense of humor about it all.
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