Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why I Make Comics: Still Exploring Their Potential

 Click to enlarge images.

Perhaps you've figured it out; the art at Bungy Notes skews toward comics and cartoons.  I like creative illustration and caricature; I like the blending of ink-work with digital image manipulation.  But I find most mainstream comics, well, disappointing. I tend to prefer the experimental in comics, from wordless and story-less abstract comics to surreal underground indie comix, from poemics to visualized memoirs.  I promise this is not (just?) hip snobbery.  I have my guilty pleasures in the mainstream (Image being one of my favorite publishers).  But I dive into the margins of comics in part because I am always looking for further evidence of what comics can do.

In David Cronenberg's film Existenz, the topic is not comics but video games, although even this is a metaphor.  He observes, though, that in film and video gaming we've yet to see what these media can really do.  I tend to agree.  As a culture, we get locked into certain preferences for what the conventions of a particular medium should be.  Hell, we even teach them in the pre-professional training components of higher education.  What would it mean to abandon those conventions and see what else the medium can do?

Scott McCloud (among others) has persuasively shown different cultural trends in comics across cultures, contrasting US trends with those in Europe and Asia.  One can certainly argue with these distinctions, or better still, track the on-going cross-pollination of comic forms from culture to culture.  The larger point, however, is that comics may develop particular visual languages, but those languages are not the only way to do comics.

In Reinventing Comics, McCloud suggested that the Internet would revolutionize comics, both at the level of marketing/production and at the level of creative process.  While I think some of his more bizarre predictions have not (yet?) come to pass, it is clearly true that the Internet has been good for comics.  More and more, bloggers and other web-content producers are embracing an imperative in this medium for visual communication.  Rare is the blog that is purely textual anymore (or maybe I just refuse to follow blogs that don't include visual content).  Often, this visual content takes a comics form.

Fascinating explanation of time and culture using a
medium that often emphasizes the various way
time passes and moves in narrative.

As I continue to explore as critic and creator what comics can do, I am inspired by a variety of trends: comics for visualizing data, multi-panel comics for political argument, comics for explaining processes, comics for phenomenological expression, comics for...(fill in the blank).

And yes, comics (my own and others) do make for interesting blog content.  See, for example, this prescient comparison of Aldous Huxley to George Orwell for what comics can do in linking literature to contemporary socio-political concerns.  To me, this is more than simply illustration; the combination of words and line art contribute to the synthesis/contrast of these writers.  And the conclusion is, well, chilling. 

The popular perception is that comics are "simple," that they are reductive and do not offer any depth.  Comics are a sign of a decline in our culture?  I could not disagree more.  Or, at least, I contend that the potential of comics as both art and cultural commentary has not yet been fully explored.  This is not to say that folks aren't exploring comics, but just to assert that there is still undiscovered territory.  Here at Bungy Notes, I'll continue to use comics (and other visual messages and forms) as part of the discourse.  Consider that a promise.

(And yes, the comics on this page -- but not the video or movie poster -- are all my original work.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crazy vs. Crazy

Criminy, this Park51 "debate" is happening everywhere, isn't it? I think the protests against the mosque are doing a pretty good job at proving Osama bin Laden right. He always claimed (as several of our more radical, fundamentalists Christians do) that this is a holy war of Islam vs. the West. The counter argument has always been that the US is a country of freedom where all, including Muslims, are free to practice their religion.

Except, apparently no.

In the end, building the building (whether called a mosque or otherwise) or not building the building won't change what crazy, radical terrorists say. Sure, build it and they will spin it as a "win." Don't build it, and they will spin it as, "see, told ya." Either way, they will use it to recruit. So maybe we shouldn't be quite so worried about what crazy people will say.

Maybe we should be a little more self-reflexive about the ways we in the US are crazy. Is this really who we want to be? Shouting in the streets about the atrocities of others while ignoring or explaining away our bloody actions as always justified, or at least excusable? Do we really think we can suspend the First Amendment just this once out of "sensitivity" that we somehow forget when we yell indiscriminately at fellow citizens, "Go back to your country, towelhead!"?

And how do we conveniently not recognize the timing of this -- an issue that nearly a year ago had no real opposition and even the support of local religious leaders (Jews and Christians!), but now in the rundown to the midterm elections the masses are whipped into a lathering, street thug frenzy? Ring a bell, froth at the mouth. Now get your treat. Snausage or thorazine?

It's crazy vs. crazy, but at least in all this madness the folks on the extremes are finding some common ground.  Too bad it is a psychotic delusion.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sharing a Find

In my recent frustrations over the kind of public discourse the Park51 project "debate" is producing, I've been finding new blogs to read.  I have to share with those of you who follow here a true gem:  Black Magpie Theory.  It is everything I could want in a multiply-authored blog; it's arty, snarky, funny, and insightful.  It offers the right mix of politics, popular culture, environmental news, rants, poetry, visual art.  As I continue to contemplate the re-design of this blog, I could do a lot worse than to emulate BMT.  Seriously, check it out!

If I seem to be writing Bungy Notes with greater frequency lately, that is equal parts commitment to blogging and work avoidance.  I admit: I am in denial about the work piling up on my desk.  Which is simply to say, don't get used to this frequency of output.  I doubt I can keep it up.  But I will be trying to make my posts here at least more regularly, more predictably.  Do they make the blog equivalent of roughage for that?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Update on a Divided Left

The national "debate" over the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero continues. Howard Dean has joined the "perhaps they should move" camp. Wrong of me to call that a "camp," of course. He is not the shrill advocate of religious intolerance that Newt Gingrich appears to be. His position is more nuanced. We need a conversation about this topic, he tells us, that recognizes the wisdom of building this center somewhere else. I agree with him that we need a more civil and reasoned conversation. And if that were all he were calling for, I would be in complete agreement. But when that conversation has to begin with moving the project, I think Dean is at worst disingenuous about having a conversation and at best (but still pretty bad) further demonstrating the Obama administration's problematic preference for "preemptive compromise."

On the closer-to-home front, I did ultimately comment on Chris di Spirito's "From the Left" blog about the stoning in Afghanistan (see last post). I also commented there in response to Chris's blog post about Obama clearly being on the wrong side of the Park51 controversy. My comment was deleted and I have now been blocked from the site. I will copy below this post my comment that offended; you can decide for yourself if you think I violated the comments policy Chris has articulated for his site.

Lest anyone think I am just using my blog to wage a discourse war with another blogger, I want to clarify. I have a pretty firm stance of support for the Park51 project. It saddens me that some others on the Left don't share my views, but at least I am not alone in having these views. I worry that an even more divided Left does not bode well for the future of this nation. But I also think disagreement and diversity of opinion are important -- something the Left usually embraces, in fact. And we need that space for civil discussion that Dean says he is calling for. Certainly we need to discourage uncivil discourse, but what happens when we start blocking and censoring reasonably well-articulated and civil disagreement?

Yes, I can conceive a number of interpretations for Chris's actions. Maybe he doesn't like long-winded rebuttal. Maybe he is young and youthful enthusiasm trumps wisdom. Maybe he has personal experiences that motivate his firm stance on this issue. Maybe he is right and I am an evil person for disagreeing. In the end, none of this really matters. It's Chris's blog and he can do with it as he pleases. Unlike Dr. Laura, I will not confuse access to a private venue as a violation of my First Amendment rights.

But really, this isn't about who's right and who's wrong. It's about the failure to communicate across difference. Perhaps it is about the failure to negotiate difference, especially among folks who otherwise seem to share an ideological position. But is is a failure, and one that I fear threatens our future. A dispute in the blogosphere surely doesn't warrant such concern, but it does if it is yet another symptom of a deeper divide in the nation...and perhaps the world.

Chris, I welcome your comments here if you are still following my blog.  And of course, I welcome others' views on this issue, whether or not they agree with mine.  My offending comment from Chris's blog follows:
I am having a difficult time tracking your point with this. If this is a continuation of your August 14th criticism of Obama that he would step up for NYC Muslims despite public opinion against them but not for Marriage Equality (which has been gaining popularity in the polls but is still not exactly favored in the polls), I get it. Yes, I want the President to show the same (well, actually clearer) support for the LGBT/Q community and the 14th Amendment as he does off-the-cuff for Muslims and the 1st Amendment.

But if you are criticizing him for unwisely jumping into a Constitutional issue because recent polls show it is unpopular, well, that seems more than a little contradictory to me. Just because the majority of Americans think it is a bad idea and distrust an ethnic/religious group doesn't mean that it justifies re-zoning (gerrymandering?) based on a particular religion. And I don't think it is that surprising that public opinion against Muslims is rising in the US given the foolishness of Birthers and a radically empowered shrill Right that continues to cast all Islam (not just radical Islam) as the enemy of the West. A country in economic meltdown usually seeks a scapegoat. Remember?

As for your final criticism of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's 2001 "60 Minutes" quote, I have a real problem with the way (a) you are taking that quote out of context and (b) seem willing to overlook the US's role in creating conditions in Afghanistan that made members of the Mujahideen (our covert and abandoned allies during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan) transform into Al Qaeda. Keith Olbermann's recent special comment on this issue notes how folks like Glenn Beck have similarly taken this quote out of context to cast Rauf as an anti-American terrorist-sympathizer when nothing could be further from the truth.

I can understand why we would read these sorts of comments as "blame the victim" in the post-9/11 shock of 2001, even going so far as to end Bill Mahr's "Politically Incorrect" TV show because he said something similar. But nearly a decade later it seems highly irresponsible to continue to erase or dismiss that history of the US's involvement in the Middle East (particularly Afghanistan and the Mujahideen); involvement that Rauf is clearly NOT saying justifies 9/11 but did play an important role in motivating the 9/11 terrorists.

Chris Hayes of "The Nation" [actually, he's reporting an article from on "The Rachel Maddow Show"] has recently tracked how this non-mosque not at Ground Zero eclipsed all other political discussion. The building has been planned, publicized, and talked about since nearly mid-2009. But in early May, Birther conspiracy theorist Pamela Geller started blogging about the "mega-mosque" at Ground Zero, subsequently finding her way easily into interviews on Fox News and other elements of the conservative spin machine. Big surprise that the Right (many of whom previously supported the project) saw this as an opportunity to develop a wedge issue for the midterm elections.

In 2009, the folks planning 51 Park Place described the project as a concerted effort not only to meet the needs of the local Muslim community in the neighborhood but also to send a clear message to radical Islam that when they attack the US they are attacking a country that supports and protects its considerable Muslim population. In other words, as material evidence that bin Laden's "Islam vs. the West" rallying cry is wrong. This is a country of religious freedom where minority groups are protected from the tyranny of the majority by a Constitution that is ultimately (if rarely immediately) upheld.

I guess, if we are to believe the recent polling data and the rhetoric from the Right (and some "From the Left"), bin Laden was right after all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rethinking This Blog

I know, it's been a while since I've posted here.  Sometimes it is easier to read than to write.  Reallly, though, I am struggling with what I want this blog to be: Outlet for my political views?  Resource for sharing art?  Professional musings of an academic?  A public version of a personal diary?  Maybe.

I guess I am finding it difficult to keep my focus on the purpose of this sort of project.  After spending much of the month of July "off the grid" and almost entirely away from electronic communication in McCarthy, Alaska, I return to a more mediated homeplace intimately aware of the different mindset all this connectivity allows.  Hell, psychologists are even studying the effect of so much electronic communication  -- I know because somebody linked this NYT piece about it to my Facebook page.  Ain't irony cool?

I think I also liked the self-imposed news vacuum while I was away.  Sure, I came back to Judge Walker's 136 page rebuke of the Prop H8ers.  But even that moment of celebration was followed all too quickly by the 9th Circuit's decision to keep a stay on same sex marriage in California until the legal appeals process has a chance to work itself out, no doubt years from now.

Mostly, it is the latest furor over the Islamic Cultural Center at 51 Park Place that has me shaking my head these days.  To me it is such a no-brainer; this is what freedom of religion is for.  I would actually support a mosque at Ground Zero if one were seriously being proposed, but that is not what this non-issue is about.  It's really about pundits and political operatives taking advantage of a hot button issue.  It doesn't help when President Obama wades into the fray (exacerbating it) with a confusing for-the-First-Amendment-but-cautious-about-the-wisdom-of-the-location stance.  It also doesn't help that Sen. Harry Reid decides it is better for his campaign to agree with his Tea Party opponent that it is a bad idea.  These folks (Reid and Obama and even the Anti-Defamation League in NYC) trouble me more on this issue than the screaming heads on the Right, so ready to whip their base into a lather with the usual tactics of xenophobia and fear and scapegoats.

And then this: today I perused a blog that I generally like, Christopher di Spirito's From the Left.  His queer and progressive news blog is a constant source of information and useful discussion.  Sure, he's a bit more critical of the Obama Administration than I think I am, but it's not like they haven't given him a reason.  Still, it is today's post that hit me like a gut punch, where Chris criticizes Obama's Afghanistan policy by reporting on the Taliban's stoning of an adulterous couple.  He writes:

I don’t understand President Obama’s arrogant thinking that a surge of U.S. combat troops will somehow reverse the tide of radical Islam in Afghanistan? This is a deeply theocratic nation, mired in the 9th century, with absolutely no interest in joining the greater community of modern nations.

I share his doubts about the effectiveness of our military actions in Afghanistan, despite General Petraeus's recent junket to support the idea that there is a way to "win" there.  But it is the totalizing sweep of Chris's anti-Islamic analysis, replete with the following header image for the post that so bothers me: 

Really?  Chris too?  Even the Left is now joining in the Al Qaeda and Christian Right meme that this has always been about the West vs. Islam.  Even if we get the hell out of Afghanistan, how is that meme going to help us negotiate the volatile global politics of the 21st Century?  Do we "win" if we're only stuck in a 1950s mindset while "they" (all of 'em!) are trapped in the 9th Century?  A bevy of polls over the last few years shows that Chris is hardly in the minority in the US in being suspicious of Muslims.  Nor is he alone in equating Islam with anti-American ideology, despite considerable evidence of Muslim support of the US and firm criticism of terrorism. But then, as most queer folk are painfully aware, there is a huge disconnect between popular opinion and what is right, between polls and justice.

I considered writing a comment expressing my concern on his blog, and I still might.  But I think the issue for me is bigger than just a comment.  I considered dropping his blog from my reader.  But what does that really accomplish?  Better to hide from the Internet as a whole, I suppose.  And besides, I still find From the Left to be a pretty good blog, perhaps all the moreso because I sometimes disagree with it.

In the end, I think I share Chris's frustration (rage?), but I am cautious about where to direct it.  Does that caution make me, like Obama, "spineless"?  Maybe.  If, in our frustration with Obama's (liberals'?  Democrats'?) spinelessness, we turn to sweeping generalizations and graphics more frequently found on the vitriolic Right, aren't we compromising our message and ideals?  Is it really gaining a spine just to start sounding like your opposition, to start using their tactics? 

Which is why I find myself reconsidering what a blog is for or if I should even be blogging in the first place.  It was a conservative blog, after all, that fanned the flames of the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy.  It is blogs that fuel the Birthers and the Oath Takers and a host of radical groups from across the political spectrum.  And it is in blogs where self-proclaimed (professional?) Leftists rehearse rhetoric that can compete with (i.e. out shout?) the screaming "dittoheads" on the Right.  But to give up on blogging in general is, well, like dissing all of Islam because of the behaviors of the Taliban. Or, if you prefer, it is like ignoring the inevitable; it's like trying to "take your country back" by selectively deciding what the founding patriarchs wanted it to be.

So I take this all into consideration as I consider what is to become of Bungy Notes.  I don't want (or plan) to give up blogging just yet.  I want to do my best to exemplify the discourse and practice I want this electronically interconnected world to be.  I don't want to whine or just bash on other people's sites.  I want it to be a place for art, politics, and the personal.  And yes, I want it to be an open place for disagreement, by all means.  I share much with Chris, from sexual orientation to political leanings, but for all of that similarity we are still very different people.  Let us celebrate that difference, and let us look for such diversity in others even when they seem to be part of a group, particularly a reviled group.

(Anticipate a redesign of the site with maybe a little more clarification of my focus here.  Or maybe it will just have a different color scheme.)