Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sketchbook Scans: Origins of Klexmur

First sketch of "Alien Reporter."  Does not have name yet.

I am about twelve strips into a weekly comic I publish over at Black Magpie Theory called, "Klexmur, Alien Reporter."  It's been a life-long fantasy of mine to create and publish a regular comicstrip.  If you've paid attention here, you know I have more than a passing interest in comics.  I also approach my work from a performance studies background, which holds (at least in some versions) that the best way to understand something is by doing it.  So, several months ago I weaseled my way onto the collaborative blog Black Magpie Theory with a promise to write regular commentary and try my hand at political cartoons.

1st Klexmur cartoon as envisioned in my sketchbook.
About a month into that gig (can you call it a "gig" if you are providing the content for free?), I hit on a concept for a regular strip: What if a reporter were an alien, providing an "alienated" perspective on both current events and our journalistic practices?  It's not exactly an original idea.  As I note in the accompanying commentary for that first strip, Strange Horizons lists "An alien observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect" as number 16 in its ever growing list of cliches it doesn't want to see in submitted S/F stories.  Meh.  But this was a collaborative blog focusing on Left-leaning political commentary.  And did I mention that we don't get paid for the content?

Klexmur has an earlier ancestor in my web presence.  Back in the 90s I used to be active on Vampyres, a listserve (remember those?) devoted to academic and popular interests in vampires.  The postings there were pretty evenly split between academic discussions of the vampire in films and literature, announcements and reviews of new publications, and the creation of "fluff" (on-line vampire fiction).  Whether a critic or a fluff writer (most participants did both), the norm on the site was to take on a suitable vampire-themed posting persona.  I chose the mysterious persona of "The Gray Adept," who overtime was revealed to be an alien ethnographer studying subaltern vampire (and other supernatural) communities on Earth.  I pay homage to this origin in the Klexmur series with this comic; at Vampyres we actually produced a long collaborative fluff  saga about the dire consequences of what happened to a vampire who made the mistake of trying to drink alien blood. 

My original plan for his name.
Klexmur owes much to The Gray Adept, although in the absurd world of comics, Klex can be "out" as an alien without raising eyebrows (although he did once get arrested in the Nevada desert).  Originally, his name had one less vowel.  Something happened in my first post, and I accidentally added the "e."  I originally left it out in a rather oblique reference to Superman:  "Mr. Mxyzptlk" is one of Supe's oldest nemeses, a visitor from the 5th dimension who's vowel-less name is a bit of a pronunciation mystery.  I wanted Klex to have a similarly alien name.  However, when I made that first posting error, I was amused with the other Superman reference in his name -- "Clex" is "slash" fanfiction in the Smallville Superman mythos that imagines explicit sexual encounters between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor.  Klexmur already resonated with fan-produced web fiction.  I haven't played around much with queer themes in Klexmur (yet!), but they are always potentially there, lurking in the name.  Klexmur, by the way, has already interviewed Clark Kent (or, at least as close as he can within copyright infringement).

Sneak Peek: Klex does Palin drag!
As of this posting, I am at about #12 in the Klexmur series.  Who can say if I will be able to keep it up?  I have a deepening appreciation for the time it takes to do a weekly comicstrip.  And of course, BMT seems to be at a bit of a crossroads, either encountering a seasonal slump or sputtering towards oblivion.  The Klexmur images here are scans from my sketchbooks.  For the strip, I tend to write out script ideas and loosely plot them out in rough panels in a notebook.  The comics themselves are produced digitally, working back and forth between Manga Studio and Photoshop.  It takes about 2 hours (sometimes more) for me to produce a strip.  Given the other demands on my time, this is sometimes a luxury I can ill-afford.

But I like this little guy.  Creating Klexmur comics is truly a labor of love.  I remain convinced that we need to constantly remind ourselves to take a step back and consider what we are doing...and how we are doing it.  Darko Suvin famously announced the defining attribute of S/F as "cognitive estrangement," a particular kind of "alienation" (Suvin directly references Bertolt Brecht's "A-Effect" with this idea) that encourages us to consider present conditions through a distanced lens.  I think comics provide a similar function, although with a different stroke.  And Klexmur?  He lands his saucer right where these two forms meet. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Evolution: Biological and Political

Digital Art Piece I made for SIUC's Darwin Week art competition.

What a curious week this is, beginning with the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan (today) and ending with the 202nd birthday of Charles Darwin (this coming Saturday).  Two potent figures in the theory of evolution.

Darwin gets credit for "inventing" the theory.  Others deserve some credit in there, but Darwin's observations and conclusions are as good as any to give originary credit to.  His was an elegantly simple claim, really: that species change to adapt to their environments.  This change happens over long period of times and is driven by forces of natural selection.

The concept of "survival of the fittest" was subsequently bastardized and taken up by many as scientific evidence of might-makes-right and only-the-strongest-survive social policy.  Call this Social Darwinism.  Borrowing from Puritanical views that Nature is "red in tooth and claw," here were images of competition where greed and brute force drives the success and failure of species.  And if species, why not groups of people?

More recent thinking in evolution finds compelling evidence for altruism in species development -- that life in its drive toward ever increasing complexity experiments with, among other things, interspecies cooperation.  Survival of the fittest depends as much on cunning and scavenging as it does on brute force.  Find a niche and occupy it.  Evolution is driven as much by genes being creative as by some desperate need to survive.

Odd to think of Reagan as a champion of evolution; in truth, he is anything but.  He famously participated in a failed 1972 law suit as Governor of California to force public schools to teach creationism alongside the scientific theory of evolution.  In the White House, he made similar proclamations that evolution is only a theory and that creationism deserved at least equal time if not greater attention for its moral, religious value.  Reagan's Creationism would evolve into "Intelligent Design," a bastardization of scientifically nuanced speculation in service of manufacturing support for the Biblical explanation of life on the planet. 

And yet, many of Reagan's own policies showed a certain preference for survival of the fittest and withdrawal of any assistance for the weak.  As Governor of California, he decreased funds to state mental facilities, turning the mentally ill out onto the streets to fend for themselves.  For five years as President, he failed to mention publicly AIDS or provide any Federal assistance for AIDS research.  When in 1986 he was finally forced to address the issue, he haggled with Congress to keep AIDS funding low.  Perhaps like others on the Religious Right, he saw AIDS as divine retribution or a "natural" cleansing of an unwanted biological trait (whether intravenous drug use or unprotected gay sex or blood transfusions or...).  His Tickle-Down Economics embraced a model that suggested the poor and middle class should make do with the leftovers of the rich or get rich themselves -- a kind of economic Darwinism, that.

If Darwin's evolution is primarily about the passing of traits (or genes, in the common parlance) from one generation to the next, the modern political scene shows a much more accelerated evolutionary cycle with memes.  A meme is an informational pattern that travels culturally; some evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins posit memetic transfer of information as the true evolutionary advantage humans have over other species that depend mostly on generational genetic tansfer of information.

But memes are tricky.  Consider that Reagan raised taxes 11 times during his Presidency, nearly tripled the national debit, and grew the size of the Federal government [cite].  Consider that he was the first President to make the US a debtor nation [cite].  Consider that he advocated for abolishing nuclear weapons and chided Israel for preemptive military attacks [cite].  Consider that while he arguably ended the Cold War with Russia, his backdoor funding of foreign wars (Iran/Contra) and future terrorists (the Mujahideen that would become, in part, Al Qaeda) planted the seeds of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And yet somehow he has evolved into the darling of the neoconservatives and the Tea Party -- an image of Conservative values, a deficit hawk, a no-compromise champion of small government, a symbol of US might-makes-right foreign policy.

But then, that's the difference between a gene and a meme.  A gene is biological information at the molecular level that transforms slowly across eons and generations.  Those changes are tested in the environment.  A meme transforms more quickly and shows incredible capabilities of developing rapidly into myth, an organizing narrative whose fidelity to reality is not important.  So today, many will celebrate St. Reagan as they call for magical deficit reduction and smaller government and US exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, all while ignoring the benefits they reap from the government they so want to destroy or Reagan's much more questionable political record.

Let us hope genes win out over memes in the end and evolution provides an answer to self-destructive, congenital stupidity.  Or perhaps, from a systems perspective, that is what the global ecological collapse we seem to be entering is all about...