Monday, 31 October 2011

Mar-Vell, Warlock and an Infinite Saga: Jim Starlin's Cosmic Marvel Universe

I probably came in contact with some of his work long before I was aware of who Jim Starlin was (e.g. Batman: A Death in the Family), but when I became aware I became an instant fan.

It must have been in 1990 or 1991. I had just a year or so earlier switched to buying and reading US comics in original rather than in Swedish translation, and I was still following the superhero scene (which I would more or less abandon for a very long time within a few years). This naturally meant that DC and Marvel were part of my monthly purchases (the latter for the most part, what with my being something of a Marvel man at the core) and Jim Starlin made his comeback at Marvel with his Infinity trilogy, involving characters he had created or made his mark upon in the 70s, like Adam Warlock, Pip the Troll, Gamora, the most dangerous woman in the universe, and, of course, Thanos of Titan (quite conceivably Starlin's crowning achievement). My love and appreciation for these characters and the cosmic story arcs spun around them had me not only follow their adventures as they were released at the time, but also had me tracking down those glorious stories from the 70s, and much more besides. All in all making me a Starlin fan for life.

So, why do I bring this up now? Well, I found it appropriate, as I have been revisiting some of this material of late — from Starlin's first not-so-tentative steps into the cosmic superhero genre (which he helped shape and define) in the pages of Captain Marvel (nicely collected, for instance, in Marvel Masterworks: Captain Marvel Vol. 3 and The Death of Captain (Marvel Premiere): see reviews here and here), where he introduced Thanos, a nihilist, whose only love proved to be death, and Drax the Destroyer, a being animated only for the purpose of killing the former; through his superb Warlock saga (collected in full in Marvel Masterworks: Warlock Vol. 2: see review here), where he continued his cosmic work and built an even more cosmic mythology; to the Infinity trilogy itself and its preludes (collected in Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos, Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade Vol. 1 and Vol. 2: see reviews here, here, and here and here), in which Starlin showed that he was still unparalleled as a writer in the cosmic superhero genre.

Granted that this is not Starlin's sole contribution to comics in general, or even the cosmic superhero genre in particular, but at this particular instance it seemed appropriate to showcase his importance to the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. He built on the foundation created by the likes of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, to be sure, but he made an unquestionable mark by building a strong mythology upon that foundation.

Was it unique? Well, it would be silly not to acknowledge that Starlin borrowed heavily from various sources, including Kirby's Fourth World and Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné. Nevertheless, Thanos is more than a mere Darkseid clone. His motivation throughout these stories, his love and adoration for Mistress Death, makes him a character in his own right. Similarly, Starlin's transformation of Adam Warlock into an idealistic anarchist bound to his vampire-like Soul Gem appears to have roots in Elric of Melniboné and his soul-sucking black rune blade Stormbringer, but Warlock too transcends the similarities, at least to the degree where it would be possible to think of him as another (cosmic) avatar of Moorcock's fictional archetype, the Eternal Champion.

In short, Starlin's mythology is believable, at least in part, because it is not new; because it is made of the recyclable stuff of myth. Yet also because it was done in a new way and did offer us more than that which Starlin drew upon.

In recent years, two writers have emerged over at Marvel, who shows an understanding of the cosmic superhero genre that, perhaps, equals Starlin's. They are Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and with successful runs on Nova and Guardians Of The Galaxy, culminating in the mini series The Thanos Imperative, they have not only brought back characters associated with Starlin, but have used them in a manner that positions them as natural heirs to Starlin's cosmic narrative tradition.

I am sure I will be discussing both other Starlin material (e.g. his creator-owned series Dreadstar) and the work of Abnett and Lanning in the future, but for now, this will have to do.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Post #100: Really, Honestly, I Did the Maths

"And so we reach a milestone: this is the one-hundredth post on Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem. That is, with this post I have written one-hundred posts since I started posting back in May of 2009, and I am obviously still at it."

If I had written those two lines today, all would have been well. Unfortunately they were written at the end of March this year in the erroneous faux "Post #100: Or, When Is a Q a 9?"; the content of which I am still rather pleased with, despite its flawed basic numerical premise. While I did not notice the error until May, when I dutifully reported it in my summary of my second year as a blogger, I will say in my defence that I had already managed to, quite unintentionally, and most certainly ironically, include the line "I am neither turning into a mathematician nor a numerologist," in the post itself. Obviously, I knew what I was talking about.

Nevertheless, here we are. Again. For the first time.

It would seem appropriate to talk about numerical things yet again, but racking my brain seems to yield no fruitful results. Titles fly past my mind's eye: Gabriel García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I am sad to say I have yet to read (although, am simultaneously happy that I have yet to read; go figure!); Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets, a Vertigo series I have not read either (although I am thinking of picking up now as the whole series is starting to be collected in nice hardcover editions); Numb3rs, a TV series of which I have seen and enjoyed at least the first two seasons (although not to the degree that I really feel I want to write about it at any greater length here). So... what then?

Well, while I have not yet had a chance to read it, I did recently pick up a book that not only seems very interesting, but also fits the criteria to be mentioned here: Alex Bellos' Alex's Adventures in Numberland. This is a book about mathematics, (at the very least seemingly) written to gain the discipline more fans; or perhaps it is more of a love letter for us non-mathematicians to better understand the beauty of numbers. I guess I will know for sure when I get the time to read the book.

And while we are at it... I would also like to recommend a very good film that also seems appropriate (and which I incidentally have not seen in a day and an age myself): Darren Aronofsky's early and weird b&w gem Pi. This film is all about mathematics and numerology, and the greater mysteries of the universe hidden in the endless string of post-decimal-point numbers in the mathematical constant that the Greek letter π (i.e. pi) symbolises. Well worth watching, albeit certainly not for everyone's pallet.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Five Seminars, Four Mini-Seminars, Nine Signed Books, One Piece of Original Comicbook Art and Four Days: The Göteborg Book Fair 2011

So, this year's theme at the Göteborg Book Fair was German language literature (i.e. a focus on German, Austrian and Swiss literature in practice) and I managed to catch at least two seminars related to it.

The first one was the seminar "Bra och dåliga böcker" (Eng. trans: Good and bad books) in which German critic Kristina Maidt-Zinke discussed the role of literary criticism with Swedish critics Jens Christian Brundt and Ingrid Elam (the latter moderating the discussion), comparing cultural differences between Germany and Sweden. The seminar was interesting and pointed to the fact that German criticism is given greater space in the papers than in Sweden, but also indicated that this fact in and of itself need not necessarily indicate that this criticism is more well-read or important outside of the same circles as its Swedish equivalent. However, the space does allow for more in-depth reviews and a different approach to the subject of criticism in any given instance.

The second German-related seminar I attended was on Friday: "Gillar alla barn Pippi" (Eng. trans. Does All Children Like Pippi?), in which moderator Janina Orlov spoke with Rachel van Kooij (Holland, Austria), Cecilia Östlund (Sweden), Gabrielle Alioth (Switzerland), Nadia Budde (Germany), and Cornelia Funke (Germany) about Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking as a cultural icon and the importance of myths in children's literature. Funke interestingly noted the inherent problems of using myth in German literature, as a cultural fallout of the Nazis appropriation of that kind of symbolically charged material. After hearing her talk, I was really sad that I had skipped her own seminar the previous day; something I had done simply because she had been paired up with an historically proven bad moderator/interviewer (which I have quite frankly no desire ever seeing in action again). However, I have heard that the seminar went really well, mostly because Funke refused to submit to this bad interviewers premises, told her off and went ahead to present a brilliant seminar under her own control (yes, I really, really regret missing that, I confess).

The discussion on the seminar I did attend also covered question about fashion and trends in children's literature, and who decides what is fashionable or trendy: readers, bookshops, publishers, or writers? While no real answer was provided, I think it's safe to say that all of these (to different degrees) act upon the stage of the literary market to set up the conditions for that. And that, I would argue, holds true for all publishing (and quite likely other cultural production like film, comics and music as well).

Outside of the German language theme, I visited a few more seminars this year (albeit fewer than usual, for various reasons). Friday was clearly my busiest day and included two more dips into the field of children's literature.

First I attended the mini-seminar "Att skriva och illustrera för barn" (Eng. trans. Writing and Illustrating for Children), in which the moderator, Swedish publisher Birgitta Westin, talked with children's book creators Emma Adbåge and Pija Lindenbaum. Both author-illustrators showed samples of both old and new work. I am a fan of Lindenbaum's work since before, but was not familiar with Adbåge's. It too is impressive, and I will probably check it out down the line, but what really struck me was how more or less directly autobiographical her work seemed, and the lack of distance she had to her working process. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Being a good literary scholar does not necessarily make a good writer, or vice versa, but it does become somewhat annoying when there is an attempt at a more theoretical and analytical discussion that sadly seems off-key as it were. Lindenbaum by contrast presented herself as sharp and more theoretically aware. For instance, when posed with the core question of the seminar, she defined the difference in writing for children very acutely as "writing without grown-ups' frame of reference," and also discussed children's as-of-yet unfixed view of the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

Secondly I attended the seminar "Den politiskt (in)korrekta barnboken" (Eng. trans. The Politically (In)correct Children's Book), in which Janina Orlov lead a discussion with illustrator Anna Höglund, (Sweden), writer Ulf Stark (Sweden), critic Ulla Rhedin (Sweden), children's book creator Timo Parvela (Finland), and poet and controversial maker of children's books Oskar K (Denmark). While the topic sounded more than promising on paper, this was one of the lowest points of this year's seminars. The time was very unevenly distributed between the participants, which is not necessarily in and of itself a problem, but in this case was disastrous.

The two most dominating voices in the room were Oskar K and Ulla Rhedin. The former spoke a very thick Danish that I was not alone in having a hard time following (e.g. Anna Höglund, when responding to something, politely pointed out that she was not quite certain what he had said, at all), and after a while in most of his monologues, it became impossible to tune out. Rhedin on the other hand, a scholar with a doctorate in children's literature, kept throwing around very abstract academic theory and terminology of the kind that quite frankly makes this particular literary scholar ashamed. As a consequence, most of her contribution had no real roots anywhere in the discussion or the subject of the discussion. By comparison, Höglund's contributions (sadly far too few and too short) were insightful, as were those of Timo Parvela (who impressed me the most of the people on the panel). Unfortunately, Parvela spoke in Finnish, with Orlov acting as interpreter, which meant that he did not get quite as much time, and that what he did get was all the more limited by having to be told twice.

The worst failing of the seminar, however, was how swift the stated topic was abandoned. Instead of looking at possible tendencies of censorship by publishers and the market for fear of controversial decisions (and these do exist, as a seminar from a few years ago had markedly informed me about), the debate quickly pointed out that "political correctness" isn't a good or selling term, but rather a derogatory one, and therefore it would seem strange that anyone would want to create such children's literature. The problem with this assessment (while true to a point), to my mind at least, is that is fails to account for the more insidious nature of political correctness as it has come to develop. While it is true that no one, in any field, would really want to market themselves or their product as politically correct, this obviously does not mean that the politically incorrect is applauded or embraced. Rather we are in actuality faced with edited material. Jan Lööf has for example spoken about how publishers have asked him to redraw parts of illustration for children's books, even ones previously published, because of content being deemed as possibly offensive. As such an important subject to cover, one which was basically advertised in the seminar program, and one which was very quickly swept under the rug by the panel. For shame, say I.

A more rewarding seminar was "Kolonialismens ansikte" (Eng. trans. The Face of Colonialism) in which Swedish writer Ola Larsmo spoke with Nobel Prize Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa about his latest novel The Dream of the Celt. The book is a fictional account of the life of Roger Casement, an Irishman who spent his life in service of the British Empire until his experiences in the Belgian Congo and South America led him to adapt a more radical idea about his native country: Ireland. Casement, who met Joseph Conrad in the Congo and was a great diplomat, was discredited towards the end of his life. Secret diaries depicting brutal homosexual orgies were confiscated and since homosexuality was a crime in Britain at the time, he was consequently prosecuted and found guilty. However, there is a controversy here as historians disagree as to whether or not the diaries were not written by Casement but rather used to frame him. In the interview, Vargas Llosa offered a third interpretation: that Casement may well have written the diaries, without having committed the acts. As a note (and without having read the full accounts of the diaries), one might of course question whether the controversy should matter at all, and if the more telling point is that it in and of itself shows a rather nasty cultural (and legal) view of homosexuality.

My Friday ended, seminar-wise, with a mini-seminar about Cirkeln (Eng. trans. The Circle) by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren. Swedish writer Nene Ormes has spoken very favourably of this book, so I could not resist attending a seminar where both its authors talked about the book, and I certainly did not regret that decision. After a very interesting discussion on everything from how to write as a team to what the underlying ideas to their story about witches in a small, fictional Swedish community, I simply could not resist buying a copy of the book and getting it signed. It now resides in the ever-expanding to-be-read section, but is definitely something I look forward to reading.

Saturday started with another mini-seminar, which somehow seemed to be a bit beside the point. In "Att vara politiskt eller historiskt korrekt" (Eng. trans. To Be Politically or Historically Correct) historian and novelist Dick Harrison talked to novelist Maria Gustavsdotter about anachronisms in fiction, and more specifically about how they themselves avoided them and to what results. Granted that it is interesting to look at anachronisms, but unlike its title, the seminar never really delved into issues relating to political correctness so much as, perhaps, sloppy historical research (or maybe even a certain attitude of not giving a damn with some writers). In short, the "issue" was really settled from the start and therefore the seminar was slightly inconsistent with the stated topic. And somewhat boring as a result. A case in point would be when Harrison spoke of the old film The Lion in Winter, declaring that what he remembered of it was that each scene was littered with anachronisms and that they had lovely dresses, only to later question why anyone would want to use a historical setting if they do not adhere to proper historical detail. The given answer seemed to me at least to be that maybe, just maybe, the writer or film maker wants to use the lovely dresses. And maybe, just maybe, that element does have an intrinsic value, in terms purely of storytelling.

A much more interesting seminar was "Drömmar och verklighet" (Eng. trans. Dreams and Reality), in which moderator par excellence, Peter Whitebrook interviewed American writer Lionel Shriver. The discussion focused on Shriver latest novel So Much for That and the US healthcare system that it criticises, but also brought up her award-winning book We Need To Talk About Kevin. Shriver presented herself as a keen intellect with a somewhat harsh and cynical perspective on life. On the whole, I enjoyed the seminar a lot and is very interested in picking up either of the two mentioned books.

The final mini-seminar I attended on Saturday (and, in fact, on the fair as a whole) was "Årets deckare" (Eng. trans. This Year's Crime Fiction) in which the Swedish Academy of Crime Fiction's Johan Wopenka introduced Lillian Fredriksson and Karl G. Fredriksson, who presented the translated and the original Swedish crime fiction of the past year respectively. It was a quick 20 minutes, as several book titles flew by, with very brief descriptions, but it was illuminating in terms of showing certain trends and both Fredrikssons were a good deal of fun in their respective performances.

Sunday, as has been hinted, was left without any seminars attended. I intended to catch a few, but queues on the first one made me lose my interest and I spent the day on the floor instead.

All in all, time spent on the floor on all days yielded good results as well: including, among other things, a signed copy of Erik Magntorn and Lisa Sjöblom's beautiful little children's book, Hitta barnen! (Eng. trans. Find the Children!), which kicks Waldo's butt quite severely in artistic terms, some nicely signed volumes of the collected edition of Peter Madsen's Valhalla in Swedish, with great original artwork now adorning the first page in each, and a piece of original comic book art by Ola Skogäng, whom I also had sign (with some added drawings) my copies of the first three volumes of his brilliant comic Theos ockulta kuriositeter (Eng. trans. Theos Occult Curios) – Mumiens blod (Eng. trans. Blood of the Mummy), De förlorade sidornas bok (Eng. trans. The Book of Lost Pages), and I dödsskuggans dal (Eng. trans. In the Valley of the Shadow of Death).

And on that particular note, I think I will leave you with a view of page 56 of De förlorade sidornas bok.