Monday, 29 September 2014

Introducing Michael Bround

Or a long overdue introduction to Michael Bround

Do you find selfies that contain only yourself the most awkward things in the world?

I do.

Which maybe explains why I've been writing Atoll Comics three times a week for more than 2 years without actually introducing myself.

I have always found the performative aspects of social media super uncomfortable. I mean, I'm a guy who has to psyche himself up to ask sales clerks for assistance or becomes hopelessly tongue tied when my attempts at polite banter with, say, a barista don't go as scripted. This isn't to say I'm completely useless as a human; I love talking about Science in front of large numbers of judgemental strangers and I teach a lab class in biochemistry. Which is reflective of the fact that I am much more comfortable interacting within the context of a professional exchange than a social one. Which is all a long way of saying that I find it easier to keep this website focused on the comics side of things than the personal.

I'm also kind of a believer that criticism shouldn't be about the critic. Too often, I think, comics critics, write things that are more about themselves or their particular tastes than the comics they are working off of. This can be really great when its done with some thought and some self-awareness, but frequently I find that the actual comic that is being reviewed gets lost. And comics are great! Critics really ought to be able to write about them using the source material. So in the spirit of trying to be as invisible as possible I've tried to not emphasize myself.

But this is all kind of malarky! Any art criticism, unless its written by the creators of the media in question, is really just opinion and emotional reaction. As much as I might try to rely on the source material, everything I write is ultimately just some thing some amateur dude has written, and as such it is irrevocably stamped with my perspective, knowledge, and feelings. So it's bullshit to pretend I'm an unbiased, inactive participant. I mean, I have written some deeply, terrifyingly personal things on this website... so yeah.

Uh, hi, I'm Mike.

(Yes, I did make that t shirt)

Here's a better picture of me taken at the top of the volcano astronauts go to when they want to pretend to be on Mars.

So a bit about me. I like comic books, and have been reading them regularly for seven years now? Since the around the end of Marvel's Civil War. I tend to read mostly North American genre comics; more Marvel than DC and as much creator owned, superhero-adjacent comics as I can afford (think Image-like). I find literary comics interesting and I dabble in them sometimes. I would love to read more European comics but find getting English-translations weirdly difficult and I am super intimidated by Manga, mostly because there is SO MUCH of it. I am by no means an expert in any form, format, or genre of comics, but I like some of everything and enjoy trying to talk about comics with strangers on the internet. Welcome to my nonsense!

I am also a big fan of reading novels. I spend 2-3 hours a day commuting on a metro train and bus so I get a lot of reading done. I mostly read Science Fiction, but will occasionally enjoy a Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, or more Literary Fiction book. As long as I am being entertained or interested I do not discriminate. This also shows up on the blog sometimes and may be expanded in the future. 

I'm Canadian and from Vancouver. It's very nice. You should visit.

In my day job I'm a Scientist. Or more accurately, a PhD student working towards a doctorate in the Life Sciences. I work on Heart Science and specifically how heart cells use contraction signalling for other things too, like how they couple the work they do pumping blood to the production of energy to pay for the work. It's pretty cool stuff and I have published papers and everything. 

Believe it or not, Atoll Comics started as a way to practice academic-ish writing for work.

Six months ago I married the best human. This is a fact that makes me happy every day. (The above photo is taken from behind to preserve my spouse's internet privacy and because she finds social media perplexing and distasteful. She is very wise.)

Some other things. I have a tiny dog. His name is Marls and he is ridiculous. (His photo is displayed because he is a little dog and therefore lacks an opinion on social media.) I love hockey for reasons of culture and hometown pride (go Canucks!). I play recreational soccer for health and fun and because jogging is devil-walking. I watch almost exclusively sports on television because it's entertaining and because, unlike critically acclaimed scripted TV (which my wife loves), sports doesn't require continuity or watching the 59 episodes saved on my PVR to enjoy. Most of Atoll Comics is written with some form of sports happening on a screen nearby. Shocking. I have an amateur's enthusiasm for photography which is kind of the new marriage-team hobby. I love cooking, especially new and challenging dishes, and think going to restaurants is just about the best thing in life. I am also balding in the weirdest way.

My name is Michael Bround, and I write Atoll Comics.

So there you have it, a real introduction so you have some idea of the person and biases behind the criticism on the blog.

I am also doing this because there are changes afoot for Atoll Comics. In the coming weeks and months there will be posts by other authors on the site. I'll get into this more later, but the general idea is that I am probably one of the biggest limiting factors of the website: my reading tastes, my perspective, and my time. The solution to all of this is to include other writers. And so you'll start to see posts introducing new bloggers followed by actual posts by other people here. I am really excited, there are some great, smart, articulate comics people who have agreed to write some stuff here.

It also means that you'll start seeing this:

Post by Michael Bround.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Food Freaks V. 2

Or an on-going tabulation of the various food powers in Chew
by John Layman and Rob Guillory, Image Comics

Part of the fun of Chew is how regosh-darn bizarre a comic it is. The premise of people with strange food powers living in a society with a strictly enforced poultry ban is just delightfully strange and wonderful. The thing is though, Chew, as crazy as it is, is builds in this systemic way where each weird idea builds on the last so the entire nuthouse is has this wonderful internally consistency. It's totally crazy, but it works. It's pretty cool and a sign that we should be wary of John Layman and Rob Guillory ever running for government office. 

Anyway, in celebration of the weird world of Chew and it's intensely well constructed madness... and because I like to make info-graphics, here is my updated chart of all of the wacky food powers in Chew. Specifically in the Chew collections volumes 1-8.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Chew Vol. 1-8, so proceed with all due caution.

(The new stuff is at the bottom.)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

So I Read Chew: Family Recipes

A 250 word (or less) review of Chew Vol. 8
by John Layman and Rob Guillory; Image Comics

This review will contain *SPOILERS*. For a clean review go here.

Chew is a comic about a detective who gets psychic impressions from everything he eats in a crazy universe that involves a poultry ban, a cannibal vampire, a cyborg game cock, and extraterrestrial Armageddons. It's a comic that is gloriously weird, but still compelling and accessible comics. Chew: Family Recipes brings the lens of the series back on Tony as he realises that his dead twin sister Toni had managed to leave him an amputated toe filled with important information. Tony's sister was cibovoyant, able to predict the future of any living thing she ingests. Sensing her own demise, she took steps to leave a fleshy clue for her cibopathic brother so she could equip him with important knowledge about his future from beyond the grave. Of course, this is Chew, so complications and hijinks ensue that are ridiculous and awesome. It's really business as usual for Chew and it's great. Which is actually pretty diverse business. I frequently see my favourite comics spaces try to mathematically quantify how diverse a particular comic is, to figure out whether a particular comic panders to a default audience or tries to represent a more realistic view of society. And Chew is actually pretty great about this: the protagonist of Chew is of Asian decent, his partner is a bisexual cyborg, and a significant portion of key characters are a demographically plausible mix of genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. So, I guess, come for the mad fun, stay for the thoughtful representation.

Word count: 249

Chew Vol. 1-5
Chew Vol. 6
Chew Vol. 7

Monday, 22 September 2014

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #4

Or a look at body language and character design in WicDiv #4
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine continues to be a comic I really enjoy. And while there are a slew of very dramatic or very meta elements that are amazing in the comic, I am maybe most impressed with just how technically great WicDiv is. There are just so many small elements in this comic that are executed perfectly to convey the maximum amount of information or emotion in every panel. This comic is beautifully crafted.

I'm going to highlight some more character design elements and how body language is used in WicDiv #4.

*SPOILERS* beyond this point.

Before I dive into the more technical elements in the comic, I kind of want to point out just how delightfully, and maybe insufferably, clever WicDiv is turning out to be. The idea of having Lucifer languish in prison to suit the purposes of the other gods as a parallel to the story of Satan in hell is endlessly smart. The absurd mural of Baal is a perfect monument directly tying religious devotion to the kind of deeply narcissistic behaviour of certain male popstars who probably helped inspire Baal. And the fan-worshippy behaviour of Laura is so on the nose, so true to the fandom-experience of trying to write criticism about creators and a medium I love, that well, it's EERY.

But I think maybe the most instructive aspect of WicDiv remains the creative teams mastery of using character design, costuming, and body language to rapidly teach us about a collection of new characters. And I'd like to continue unpacking that.

One of the main ways we communicate with each other is body language. As apes, or mammals even, we are wired to be keen observers of postures and gestures when trying to understand the people around us. Since comics are a visual medium, body language is one of the tools creators can use to communicate with us and especially to inform us about characters. WicDiv #4 has a great tour de force example of using body language to help us meet a bunch of new, or relatively new characters.

One of the main scenes in WicDiv #4 has Laura having an audience with a summit of the gods to plead Lucifers case. The summit shows the majority of the gods we've already met and introduces a pair of new gods. By having the various gods arrayed in thrones around the throne room, the scene invites us compare and contrast the body language of the various gods. Which in turn gives us a boatload of information about each of the gods.

Take Baal. Baal sits in his throne with relaxed, hands in lap, legs spread open. It's a posture of ease: Baal is comfortable here, unworried about the proceedings. It is also a posture that is pretty rude. This kind of wide stance is associated with male privilege, with not being worried about how much space you take up on the subway or whether your genitals are obviously visible in your displayed crotch. Baal's posture reflects that he clearly does not give a fuck what you think about him. In combination, this posture reflects Baal's power; Baal is powerful enough not to have to care about how he presents himself. And that kind of dismissive power is kind of sexy.

You get all of this from his posture.

And you can do this for all of the characters.

You can see how Minerva, small and perched on the edge-of-her-seat is watchful and attentive. The way she leans forward makes her look intense and focused which implies that she is smart and observant. (Her large round spectacles emphasize this further). Amaterasu has a defeated, hunched posture that when combined with her swaddling robes makes her look young, nervous, and powerless. As if she were a child averting her gaze from a scolding adult. Sakhmet sprawls languidly in her chair, clearly bored or uninterested in the proceedings, as if the trappings of earthly power are outside her interest. It is also a pose that reflects her innate sexuality and her feline aspects: even be-throned in a summit of the gods Sakhmet manages to look sexy. Ananke is seated above the other gods, regal and poised, reflecting discipline, power, and control. She looks powerful and queenly. And all of this is conveyed through body language.

Woden is an interesting exception to the rule. And I think there is meaning in this too. Unlike the other gods who are seated in thrones, he is standing, clutching one of his valkyries in a possessive manner. Woden is a craftsmen god (something reflected by the Daft Punk inspired helm and electronica music allusion), and his body language seems to reflect his pride in his accomplishments. He stands in a way that reflects ownership of his valkyrie, (ick btw) as if she were a craft of his that he is especially proud of. Also, by standing apart from the gods in a throne room of his making, his body language seems to be implying pride and ownership of the room. It is as if he is claiming credit for the diorama of the assembled gods in thrones as a thing he created. Also the fact that he is standing and apart from the other gods implies a rhetorical distance between him and the other deities, or at least a distance from the business of the disposition of Lucifer. It'll be interesting to learn more about him going forward.

After reading WicDiv #3 I wrote a thing trying to unpack the character design of The Morrigan. It looked at how the characters three aspects had three radically different designs that rapidly conveyed information about each sub-character and made each of them feel unique. While the characters of The Wicked + The Divine wear clothes instead of outright costumes, the gods of the comic have fashion that very much blurs the line between fashion and stage costuming, and as such, their designs maybe share common DNA with more traditional superhero designs.

But you don't have to have to deal with elaborately costumed characters to have what they are wearing be informative and I feel like the outfit of Laura in WicDiv #4 is a great case in point.

Laura is wearing an outfit that is clearly clothing: she is wearing a white t-shirt under a pear of purple overalls. This is something that an ordinary person would wear. In fact, I think I remember hearing somewhere that overalls are coming back into fashion for women? I mean, I could be wrong, but I have definitely seen some very fashionable young women rocking overalls recently... Regardless, this is reasonable clothing for a realistic person.

Beyond being ordinary clothes, this outfit provides gobs of character information. Now, some of this might just be me having weird opinions about overalls, but I've always sort of associated them with children. My going-on-two toddler nephew has several great overall based outfits, for instance. On adult women, I find that overalls, due to their bagginess and ability to de-emphasize the physical characteristics associated with female sexual maturity, tend to make women look younger than they are. And for me at least, this clothing choice makes Laura look extra-young and extra-naive in the relevant scenes in WicDiv #4. It creates the impression that she is a child at a dinner party of adults when she has her audience with the gods; that Laura is deeply out of her depth when confronted with the maturity and depth of the divine characters.

Or at least I think so.

WicDiv #1 and popart head-splosions
WicDiv #2 and the use of black-space
WicDiv #3 and character design

Friday, 19 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Ubergesehicht

Or a comparative timeline between the true history of WW2 and the fictional WW2 of Uber
by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Keith Williams, and Digikore Studios; Avatar Press

Uber is a comic that posits an alternate history where Nazi Germany unleashes a force of superhumans in the final days of WW2. This prevents German defeat and causes the war to drag on in a way that diverges from actual history. The contrast and relationship between Uber's fictional history and the real history of WW2 is one of my favourite aspects of the comic. It's adroitly done and interesting to puzzle over.

Uber is also interesting because it falls into that category of alternate history that has rigorously reported timestamps. Virtually every major event in Uber Vol. 1 has the date of the event reported to the audience which is a choice I really, really like. I like it because it gives Uber an authority and a granular, material aspect that makes the comic feel more solid and realistic somehow. For me it changes the language of the comic from "World War 2 superhero adventure" to "thoughtful exploration of a given premise". Less Science Fantasy and more Sci-fi. I also like this choice because it means you can make a nifty timeline comparing the events of Uber to actual history on a day-by-day basis!

(And I love making timelines!)

This is a timeline piece, so it, basically by definition, has a ton of *SPOILERS*.

A few quick methodology points. On the Uber side I focused on the kind of major events that would be recorded in history books, there are events that are tied to dates in the comic that do not appear on the Uber timeline. A couple Uber points are approximate, since the relationship between the date stamp and the point in the timeline is a little nebulous. I did my best, but you know, it's still a bit imperfect. On the History timeline I used Wikipedia's date entry articles (Wiki "May 2") and if that failed I got info from "Today in History" from So you know, armchair research as opposed to carefully sourced stuff. Take this as infotainment. I tried to make History timeline entries for every day with an entry on the Uber timeline and also included what I considered salient events on days not appearing in Uber that fall within the time covered in the comic (like VE-Day on May 8th 1945). Also, presumably some of the details on the History side of the timeline also appear on the Uber side (like the death of Roosevelt), but I only included events depicted in the comic. You'll have to use your judgement a bit. I feel like this is an overall reasonable approach to compare and contrast the divergent timelines of Uber and History.

Apologies in advance for any mistakes!

So I Read Uber

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

So I Read Uber: Volume 1

A 250 word (or less) review of the first Uber tradepaperback
by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Keith Williams, and Digikore Studios; Avatar Press

Inherent in the DNA of Superheroic comics is World War II and the concept of superhumans participating in that grand, glorious conflict. Mainstream comic forays into this subject tend to be nostalgia driven celebrations of triumph and heroism and more or less fail to account for the fact that war is fucking horrifying. Uber is a comic that takes the fantastical idea of superheroes fighting in WW2 and cements it to history and realism in a really dark and smart way. The basic premise sees the Nazis, in the final hours of the Reich, release an army of superhumans, the unstoppable Battleships and the lesser, but still deadly, Panzermensch. This prevents German defeat, extends the war, and starts a super-powers arms race. Uber is dark and bloody and horrific and a really nuanced treatment of the concept. If you know a bit about WW2 this is a really thoughtful and interesting comic. If you don't know anything about WW2 history, Uber might be hard to get into. I feel like the pace and complexity of the comic and the fact that many characters, based on real life people, are middle aged army officers in uniforms made early chapters a bit inscrutable. I managed to keep up, but I dabbled in 20th century history during my education. That said, as the comic continues, things settle out and simplify, and it becomes a ghastly and exciting read. It is very much a case of a comic improving upon the appearance of Hitler.

Word count: 250

Aside: This has nothing to do with the actual quality of the comic, but it was kind of frustrating and daft that the jumbo-sized hardcover edition came out before the tradepaperback of Uber Vol. 1. The hardcover edition is certainly a nice object, but people like me who tradewait are keen to try the comic in an affordable format as soon as possible. Making us wait longer seems either a calculated attempt to make us buy in at the higher price, or just poor publishing logistics. It seems to me that it behooves Avatar to get as much Uber into the hands of readers as possible.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Eye On Hawkeye #20

Or a look at the complicated timeline of Hawkeye #20 
by Matt Fraction, Annie Wu, Matt Hollingsworth, & Chris Eliopoulus; Marvel Comics

One of the aspects of Hawkeye that I continue to find interesting is just how complicated the narrative often is. In most superhero comics I read, the order of events tends to be pretty straightforward: the narrative starts and then follows a linear chronology to the end of the issue. Frequently there are multiple, divergent story threads, or maybe a flashback, but the main thrust of the story has a very clear, easy to follow timeline. Hawkeye bucks this convention with issues that fit together in an overlapping chonological jigsaw and individual issues that sometimes provide narratives in dramatically non-linear fashions. Hawkeye #20 is a great, non-linear narrative comic, and because I like timelines, I thought I'd take a stab at making one for the issue.

Since this is a timeline, it is inherently *SPOILERS* intensive. That said, I did take steps to avoid the most blatant spoilers of the issue.

Beyond just being an interesting way to deliver a comic, this non-linear approach to storytelling provides some novel tools to Team Hawkguy. For instance, the ability to frontload the comic with later events allows the creative team to setup, in a weird inverted way, some of the key reveals of the issue which helps make them feel significant and earned. This comic is one of very few where I feel like giving away some of the ending early actually made for a better comic.

Actually, I think it goes beyond foreshadowing: the suspense engine of the entire issue might rely on knowing that Kate is going to discover a big secret and that Kate is going to have the futz beat out of her. This puts the entire story in the lens of "how did we get here?", which makes every situation potentially where Kate finds her secret (which is exciting) or where Kate gets Clint-levels of contused (which is suspenseful). Knowing that big reveals and big hurts are coming massively increases the tension throughout the comic. It's a really effective engine that I think emerges directly from the structure of the comic.

Also, Annie Wu is a goddamn comics wizard. Hawkeye was better for her participation, and I'm excited to see what her next thing is.

Eye on Hawkeye #19 pt. 2: Structural wayfinding.
Eye on Hawkeye #19 pt.1: Empathy Machine
Eye on Hawkeye #18: Colours and setting.
Eye on Hawkeye #15: Composition, Layout, and colours.
Eye on Hawkeye #16: Smart layouts and chilling moods.
Eye on Hawkeye #14: Repetitive panels as a device.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Space Lighthouses and Dramatic Turths

Or a look at how fiction captures truth in Saga Volume 3
by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Image Comics

There is this idea of dramatic truth. The idea is that through fiction, which at its core is effectively entertaining lies, we can learn some true, transcendental thing about ourselves or the world. Regardless of whether this is accomplished through emulation or metaphor, fiction has the potential to exemplify aspects of our reality that we can see and feel and learn from. Even though the fiction in question might be completely, absurdly unrealistic, it can still be closer to some idealistic truth than a statement based on reality. In some ways the entertaining lies of our stories might be the best way to learn about ourselves, our relationships, or our world.

There is a scene in Saga Volume 3 that rings true to me in such a complete way that I want to share it with you.

Of course, this moment is built of considerable *SPOILERS* so proceed with that understanding.

I think I've mentioned it on the site a few times, but I've recently gotten married to the best person. Aside from calling her the best person, I have trouble articulating exactly what it is that makes her so special, why she is the person out of everyone I've met that I feel compelled to create a life with. I mean she is smart and hilarious and good looking and fun to be around and responsible in a way that I worry I will never be and patient in a way that I know that I am completely incapable of. She is an unbelievable dork and unpretentious in a way that is super attractive and which is constantly a mystery to me. But this really doesn't capture it: my spouse is so much more than a bunch of favourable check marks on a list, and really fails to catch that special spark that explains why I love her the way I do.

I just don't have the language to articulate it.

Saga, for the uninitiated, is about a pair of young lovers from opposite sides of an interplanetary war falling in love and starting a family. Alana is flightless, winged person from the planet Landfall while Mark is a magic horned person from the moon Wreath, which according to the politics of the galaxy is really not okay. As a result the pair are fugitives fleeing from monstrous forces sent by either side of the conflict: a robot royal prince, an amoral bounty hunter, and a jilted ex-fiancee. In Saga Vol. 3 our heroes Alana and Marko find a kind of home in the lighthouse of a famous writer, which is where the forces pursuing them eventually catch up to them. 

Chaos ensues! 

Bad things happen! 

And our pair of lovers and their infant daughter are cornered on the balcony of the lighthouse with no means of escape!

So Marko shoves his Alana and his daughter off the lighthouse balcony to their apparent demise!

And instead of falling to her death, Alana, who we had been told was flightless, manages to fly on her tiny wings saving herself, her daughter, and rescuing her husband Marko from his villainous Ex. 

It's a pretty badass, fist pumping moment! 

But it's what comes next that absolutely speaks to me:

When Alana lands and asks Marko how he knew she'd somehow manage to fly after he maybe threw her and their daughter to their deaths, he simply says that it's obvious that his wife can do anything.

And that perfectly encapsulates how I feel about my own wife; that is the magic, dramatic truth about what makes her so special, why I love her so much.

If I were to push her off the balcony of a space lighthouse with a hypothetical infant in her arms, she would find a way to fly. Because she is completely fucking unstoppable.

Saga is a great comic and I love my wife.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

So I Read Saga Volume 3

A 250 word (or less) review of Saga Vol. 3
By Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Image Comics.

Saga is a comic about lovers, from opposite sides of a Space War, who fell in love, had a kid, and try to build a family while on the run from bounty hunters and soldiers and ex-fiancees. While there is a lot of pretty cool lasers and swords space action, the comic is really about the construction of families: how two potentially very different people come together in love, drag in others, maybe make a new person, and build this special, de novo community. And then, against the ridiculously long odds of life, fight to maintain this delicate, most important thing. I fucking love this comic. I mean, with Brian K Vaughan's wizardry for story and Fiona Staples endlessly beautiful and emotive and funky art, Saga is amongst the most well crafted comics I read. But that's not why Saga Volume 3 fucking destroyed me. The reason why this comic, more so than earlier chapters, absolutely gutted me, is that I just got my butt married and have spent the months around reading this comic pondering about the construction of family-things and my own little community. And so, I think, I was perfectly primed for this beast to gore me. Which speaks to both the quality of the comic, of course, but also the deeply personal experience of fiction. But yeah, Jesus fucking wept guys, give Saga a try. I guarantee you'll enjoy it, and if you’re living in the same headspace as me, it might just kill you dead.

Word count: 250


Monday, 8 September 2014

The Man In The High Castle Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick

The Man In The High Castle posits a present (well, past at this point) where the Nazis and Japanese won the Second World War and have conquered the world. The triumphant Axis Powers have split the globe into realms of governance. Nazi rule is characterized by industrial and scientific prosperity, ethnic cleansing, and space exploration, while the Japanese seem more interested in good governance of their new subjects. The novel takes place mainly in occupied San Francisco, part of the Japanese controlled Pacific region of the United States, and follows several Americans trying to get by and deal with the various complications of cultural collision. The unifying narrative of the novel is the Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel within the novel, that depicts yet another reality where the Allies won the war. 

The Man In The High Castle is a pretty amazing conceptual machine. The alternate history that dick creates is nuanced and clever, seeming just as valid as true history. But the real kernel of the novel is a thematic discussion about the mutable nature of truth and reality. By showing us a variety of plausible alternate histories and the way characters within each story believe their relevant narratives, the novel suggests that our own reality is being shaped and defined by our own common historical narrative. And in doing so, The Man In The High Castle injects doubt into our own fundamental understanding of reality: if our perception is shaped by a story, than reality is somewhat subjective, and if it's subjective, is it even really real? The Man In The High Castle is nothing if not a bit of a mind fuck.

I would recommend The Man In The High Castle to basically anyone. It's short and accessible enough that any bookish person should be able to read it wile being a general enough work of fiction that you don't have to be a fan of a specific genre to get invested in it. It's also, I think, a book with an important message in these days of media saturation about the importance of questioning reality narratives. 

Friday, 5 September 2014

Stuff I Like: Podcasts

Or here are some podcasts you might enjoy (or here are things everyone already knows about).

So, in my day job I'm a Science Graduate student who studies how heart cells link how much energy they are using to how much energy they produce. Overall I think it is pretty wicked cool stuff. As a day-to-day thing, though, Biology is mostly doing a lot of meticulous, repetitive tasks carefully, then waiting five minutes while a machine takes a picture or spins really fast, doing more vaguely dull tasks, and then staring at excel spreadsheets for hours to decipher some facts. The minutiae of the job can be a little boring. I mean, it's kind of the Best Job, but it's also one that lends itself to listening to a lot of podcasts while the magic happens.

These are some of my favourite.

Planet Money: I think economics is interesting. I mean, at it's most base it's kind of disgusting since it tries to break down everything to a transaction, but, for better or worse, our world is driven by people wanting and needing stuff and doing things to satisfy those needs and wants. Having some idea of how the systems that govern the production, distribution, and wanting of stuff work seems like a really good idea to me. Because really, the systems and behaviour that economics tries to understand effects everything from how we get our food to what geek media is made. It's such a big deal! So I kind of love Planet Money since it's a journalistic enterprise that uses story-forward approaches to facilitate substantiative, approachable discussions of how econonmic-things work. And it's totally not boring, I swear! It listens as amusing stories about interesting events and stuff and then explains the economics of it in a way that is informative but doesn't really feel like a lecture. (Entertaining podcasts that are also somehow informative will be a theme here.)

99% Invisible: In the same way I find economics interesting, I am deeply fascinated by architecture and design. The fact that pretty much every constructed thing had someone agonize over every aspect of it boggles my mind. And once you accept everything manufactured has been designed than it follows that everything about manufactured stuff is a choice and that most of those choices speak directly to function. Like, the QWERTY keyboard I'm typing this on was laid out in this arrangement so that the mechanical moving arms of ye olde typewriters wouldn't jam as often. And then there are all of the aesthetics that go into the design: it isn't enough for a thing to work perfectly it has to be pleasing to the senses as well. And all of that is human brain hours and talent at work. Everywhere. In everything! MIND BLOWING!! 99% Invisible is a podcast that tells stories about design and architecture and engineering. It focuses more on telling an emotionally effective narrative than education, but like Planet Money, manages to be super charming and effortlessly informative. It's "let's talk about this cool building or this historic mad inventor and while we're having fun or whatever, we've learned something". It's ace.

(Note: 99% Invisible usually runs a tight ~30min.)

Radiolab: This is to Science what the previous two podcasts are to architecture and economics: thought provoking, narrative driven stories about interesting Science stuff. It's also just about the only Science podcast I can stand. I have a pretty fraught relationship with Science podcasts despite being passionate about Science. I find most of the professional Science-casts for Scientists too dry and too focussed on particular papers to enjoy. (While I find a summary of most research pretty cool, the nitty-gritty of individual studies that aren't in a field I'm interested in can be super dull!) These podcasts also have the problem of Scientists banging on about how great there research is and wildly over-selling their results without the all-important data that in a written format let's me tell if they are full of shit or not. It's like all of the worst parts of a Scientific journal article without any of the substance. On the other end of the spectrum, I find most Science podcasts for civilians too light on substance or focused on buzzwordy meme stuff to really get me interested. There is also the fact that Science Journalism tends to be kind of wrong about a lot of stuff, either out of lack of expertise or an attempt to be better understood, and it bugs me. Like how when someone leaves three seconds on a microwave and doesn't hit the RESET button bugs me: irrationally and deeply. Radiolab is the goldilocks of these situations: it presents stories that are genuinely interesting in an engaging way and provides a very scientifically literate discussion that is also really clear and easy to follow. (Being both accurate and understandable to a general audience when talking about Science is really hard to do well, and Radiolab absolutely nails it. It's something I think about constantly when trying to explain my own research.) Radiolab also beautifully demonstrates the discovery and question generating aspects of Science which really speaks to why I do this for a living in the first place. It's fantastic!

The Bugle: John Oliver, of HBO by way of The Daily Show, and his once-BBC comedy partner Andy Zaltzman have a long running world news satire podcast. I really enjoy well made satire of current events because holy fuck the world with all of its horror and corruption and madness. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the madness of it and sometimes you have to tell it to fuck right off and The Bugle does both with a lot of intelligence and comedic skill. The Bugle runs in the same vein as The Daily Show, with Oliver once-upon-a-time workshopping some stuff that ended up on the show, but with the deranged, slightly goofy antics of Zaltzman thrown in. The Bugle also casts a wider net for news, covering a lot more British and world topics than North American equivalent programs. Also, if there is someone in the world doing something amusing involving the drawing of a giant dick, they're going to cover it in detail. (It's a bit.. delightfully immature at times.) So if you like mixing your current events fury with biting comedy, uncouth humour, and dick jokes you ought to check it out.

Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men: I really can't stand most comics podcasts. Most of the ones I've tried either fall into the trap of people talking over each other, follow an interview format which I'm not crazy about unless I'm really into the guest, or spends huge amounts of time talking about non-comics related things which I don't really care anything about. There is also a really toxic amount of snark in a lot of comics media that bums me out. Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men solves all of these things. The podcast seeks to explain the long convoluted, and frequently insane story of the X-men in all of it's flawed, glorious detail. The shows hosts, Rachel Edidin, who is maybe one of my favourite voices in comics journalism/criticism, and her partner Miles Stokes are both super charming and have a really great repartee which is immanently listenable. (I also 'ship them so hard. Squee!) The hosts don't stray too far off topic and have a pleasantly quick and dense delivery style which helps keep things interesting. Rachel and Miles also hit this perfect tone. While they poke fun at the comics and point out the aspects of the X-Men that are justifiably fucked up, they are clearly operating from a place of deep affection for the material which makes things feel like a pleasant experience and not grossly snarky. I really wish more comics podcasts could manage this level of production and just straight up welcoming atmosphere.

DECOMPRESSED: Is an almost-never updating podcast by Kieron Gillen who is easily one of my favourite comic book personalities. Basically Gillen interviews some other comics professionals and they talk about the craft and decision making that go into a particular comic or series of comics. Which if you are at all familiar with this blog, is kind of my jam. While the podcast almost never updates and my interest in it wavers depending on the guest and comic being discussed, the best episodes of DECOMPRESSED are essential listening. Hearing top talents go through why they decided to do what they did is endlessly fascinating and a great way to learn about how comics work and how to read them more critically. DECOMPRESSED also gets points because one of the first posts I made about comics story structure, which is one of the earliest things I'm actually pretty proud of even if I did it in kind of a dumb way (I was learning), was directly inspired by an episode.

Welcome to Night Vale: Yes, I am a geek on the internet who likes podcasts, so obviously I'm listening to Night Vale. If somehow you haven't heard of this, Night Vale is the radio news from a fictional small town in a desert that operates by a variety of occult, Lovecraftian rules. Like, Night Vale's most recent mayoral election featured a literal five-headed dragon and the faceless old woman who lives in your house as candidates. Or that the town's dog park is forbidden to all but the hooded figures who congregate there. Or that the librarian's of the Night Vale public library are not be trusted and possibly the most fearsome creatures imaginable. It's a little creepy, a little whimsical, a little silly, and endlessly charming and well made. I don't usually enjoy fictional radio plays, but Night Vale is the spectacular exception to the rule. I feel like it's the kind of thing you will either adore or kind of hate, but if somehow you haven't tested the waters, you ought to give it a try.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

So I Read Blacksad

A 250 word (or less) review of the Blacksad and Blacksad: A Silent Hell collections
By Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido; English translations from Dark Horse Books

One of the worst things about being an obligate anglophone is that I can't really enjoy many amazing looking comics in their native form. Fortunately, a select few French, Spanish, and Italian language comics do eventually get released into the North American market as English translations. Blacksad is an absolute gem of a French comic made by Spanish creators that is now also available in English. The comic follows hardboiled, anthropomorphic Cat-person detective John Blacksad as he solves a variety of cases. From a story perspective the comic is very much a loving, tongue in cheek, tribute to pulp detective stories with a style that celebrates the conventions and wallows in the excesses of the genre. It's great and sometimes pleasantly silly. This style is wedded to some well constructed and exciting mystery plots, all of which are set in a very 1950s animal-people-America and examine some aspect of the period American society (racism, jazz, the Red Scare). But the thing about Blacksad that absolutely sweeps me off my feet is the art: Blacksad is a visual smorgasbord of character work, realized settings, and glorious colouring. Every panel of the comic is like a museum quality Americana painting of an alternate universe populated by Animal-people. It's gorgeous. That said, Blacksad isn’t perfect: there’s some dubious race stuff, women are very sexualized and abused, and the whole thing is vaguely yiffy. But despite this, Blacksad is such a technically good and enjoyable comic that you should read it anyway.

Word count: 248

Monday, 1 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Interdimensional Evil Twin

Or The Imposter Syndrome and Casanova: Luxuria
by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba; Icon/Image Comics

A quick googling of "Impostor Syndrome" will teach you that some people have a hard time "internalizing their accomplishments", essentially owning the good things in their lives. Instead of accepting that great things happen to them because they are good people or that they have are particularly talented or hard working, they are convinced that they are horrible frauds who have just gotten lucky or have tricked everyone into thinking they are better than they are. And as a huge fraud, these people are convinced that it's only a matter of time until everyone figures out the truth and it all falls apart. 

When I read Casanova: Luxuria, the first chapter of the series, I see thematic signs of the Imposture Syndrome everywhere.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Casanova: Luxuria in this post.

Now, I think it might be instructive to explain why when I look at Luxuria I see Impostor Syndrome before I go about heaving evidence because this all might be in my head.

First of all, it occurs to me that Matt Faction may have some experience with Imposter Syndrome. As someone who has apparently rollercoasted into finding himself an Eisner winning comics writer married to a super talented and generous woman who has two pretty cute kids, I could fathom a situation where Fraction might feel like an inter-dimensional interloper living someone else's fantastic life. (I mean, I think that's malarky since Fraction is clearly a super talented and seems like a pretty cool guy, but I could fathom that train of thought.) Of course this is all conjecture based on super incomplete information from tumblr about a man I don't really know. 

And it is probably entirely me projecting my own anxieties onto someone else.

Because I have a nagging case of impostor syndrome.

I have a nagging case of impostor syndrome because I'm sometimes convinced that my life is better than I deserve. I just got married to my favourite human who happens to be smart and funny and generous and pretty and responsible and trustworthy and who is absolutely my best friend and who I love so much it actually feels dangerous. We live in my favourite part of a city that is regularly ranked the best place to live in North America in a bunch of liveability surveys. We own a modest but cute apartment in one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the world. We have an adorable little dog and everyone in our immediate family is healthy. I have a job I love and my research project is awesome and I have had some solid success professionally with a bunch of peer-reviewed publications in solid journals and a pretty prestigious scholarship. Hell, even this blog is shaping up to be okay. By any reasonable metric, things are coming up Millhouse. And yet I can't completely shake that little anxiety voice that says I don't deserve this much good stuff and that it's all a series of happy accidents and that sooner or later my luck is going to run out and it's all going to evaporate. And then everyone will know that I am a fraud and an impostor living the stolen life of a better person.

And this is maybe why I see the impostor syndrome all over Casanova.

Luxuria opens with an introduction to Casanova Quinn, the groovy, sexy secret agent who is also the screw-up, black sheep son of Cornelius Quinn, the director of the international espionage organization E.M.P.I.R.E. While Cass' twin sister Zephyr is a dynamo secret agent and the apple of their father's eye, Casanova is a pain in the ass who makes a living breaking the law and doing spy-stuff for whoever will pay. He operates alone, botches his opening mission, sees his sister get killed, seduces and uses a nice young woman, and is just kind of a selfish shithead. If twins operate by a good and evil dichotomy, then Cassanova Quinn in his native universe is the evil twin.

But because Casanova is a comic book with a deeply meta villain with sexy spy plans, Casanova finds himself transported to another dimension. A dimension that is very similar to his own except that the native Cass of this dimension was the good twin and the native Zephyr is very much the evil twin. Newman Xeno, the mastermind villain of Casanova, plans to insert interloper-Cass into the life of the murdered native-Cass to be a double agent for his nefarious plans. Which leaves Casanova in a precarious and exciting plot position.

It also leaves morally dubious interloper-Cass in the position of being an impostor Cass and living the attractive life of the displaced native-Cass. Suddenly he is a rockstar E.M.P.I.R.E. agent instead of a rogue criminal. Suddenly he is liked and surrounded by colleagues and friends. Suddenly his father loves him. Casanova has fallen transdimensionally-ass-backwards into the fantastic life he has always wanted but never been able to build for himself.

But of course, it's all a fiction. Interloper-Cass is an impostor: he is an evil (or at least amoral) twin from another dimension literally living the stolen life of his good counterpart. Worse, Cass is beholden to the villainous Xeno, who, along with evil-Zephyr, are completely aware that Cass is an impostor and are forcing him to behave in ways that risk outing his impostor status. And if he is found out, interloper-Cass was will be exposed as a fraud and implicated in the conspiracy which killed the beloved native-Cass who he has been impersonating. Which not only risks severe disciplinary repercussions but will also destroy the beautiful fiction, the ideal life that Cass is now enjoying. It might just be me, but this feels like the impostor syndrome anxiety made literary in a big sexy, crazy comic book espionage story.

Luxuria even ends in a way that I think speaks to the experience of impostor syndrome paranoia. Casanova, by acting in ways consistent with the expectations of others, by playing the role of his stolen life, manages to win the respect of his ill-gotten friends and allies and manages to defeat Xeno's plans. Interloper-Cass lives up to being the good version of Casanova and reaps the deserved benefits of talent and bravery and moral behaviour. In this moment he earns the attractive life and friends he has stumbled into.

And yet...

And yet he is still ultimately an imposter. Still the interloper-Cass who has stolen the life of another, better person and who will lose everything if anyone ever finds out the truth. And so while Cass is triumphant in the moment, the comic closes with that little voice that his fraudulent nature will always be there and because of that this perfect situation can't possibly last.

That little voice that I can't quite shake.

So I Read Casanova: Luxuria
So I Read Casanova: Gula

So I Read Casanova: Avaritia