Thursday, June 25, 2015

Chris Ware, The New Yorker, Minecraft, and Interpretation

What is this Chris Ware cover about? Some feel confident that it’s a ‘trite’ image, unambiguously illustrating its maker’s disapproval of the scene it portrays: “those darn kids today, playing with computers when they should be playing outside.” In this reading, Ware is ‘cranky grandpa,’ and that’s the end of it. But this interpretation, and others like it, seem a little simplistic, taking an image full of things/information/relationships/design choices/etc. and reducing it to a verbal clich√©. Why is our first reading -- our first reaction -- so often a didactic one? (Note 6.26: This post has been revised to eliminate some incorrect material on Minecraft and expanded with new observations.) {Click on images to enlarge them.}

Some things I thought about when reading and writing about the cover:

* What about aesthetics, the relationship between Ware’s geometric approach to cartooning and Minecraft’s somewhat similar visual approach, as seen when comparing the image framed by the window to those on the screens? The way cartoonists and video-games build worlds also parallel each other. These connections seem like clear “themes," at least as intentional as any commentary about kids and play. Style- and design-wise, the cover gives us reasons to think that Ware's attitude toward Minecraft might be positive.

Is Ware judging this scenario, or is he simply setting up a scene/series of ideas for our contemplation and enjoyment? If judgment is involved at all, might he have mixed feeling about the scene?

* The world outside the room is certainly designed to echo what appears on the screens (grass, tree, sky). The cover shows that virtual worlds are pretty compelling, that they may actually be more interesting than the 'natural' world (at least in its manicured suburban form). Maybe Ware, a parent, identifies with the kids. In Minecraft, users are gods, little demi-urges, just as cartoonists like Ware are . . .  So world-building, cartooning, creativity, parental sympathy, and aesthetic sympathy also seem like themes.

* What about the cover’s depiction of three versions of play?:
1. The discarded dolls are an imitative form (users pretend to be a care-giver, mother).
2. The ball near the image’s center (like the swing set) represents a non-imitative, less restrictive kind of play (in other words, it’s not programming kids for adult roles).
3. Minecraft represents both something imitative and more open-ended than what the dolls represent. Is Ware making a statement about a "hierarchy of play?" Maybe, but I doubt it. Ware doesn't seem like a "statement artist."

The yellow ball, which occupies an image's place of prominence (the center), does look a little lonely, though. (Note that the pink/red girl might be stepping on a ball.) Ware's work often communicates 'the pathos of objects': things can carry more emotional weight -- can even seem to 'feel' -- more than people do. At the risk of overstating things, there may be a  'spiritual materialism' at work here. This room is a curated collection -- and careful artistic rendering -- of objects that appear to have the kind of talismanic power that things have for children (and for nostalgic adults.) (Ware's work is kind of like that of the cartoonist Seth in this way; both show a lifelong collector's devotion to things.)

* What about perception and ‘frames of reference,’ or comics form and sequence? All of the frames/panels echo each other -- the screens, the window panes, the odd empty frame on the left. So perhaps the image has something to say about competing forms of seeing, maybe?  Something about enclosed spaces (rooms, screens, fenced in yards, houses) and perception/attention? When a cartoonist  (especially one known for formal innovation) uses so many panels in an image/illustration, there might be something interesting going on; and certainly we can talk about the image in terms of design, even independent of its content.

With all of these panels, the cover reminds us that a single image can be sequential, and that the sequence here (in contrast to one in a comic made of rows) is unstable: it can be read in many different orders; there is no definitive way through the image's 'units' (which seem like an ugly term to use when describing such an attractive image).

* What about gender and technology? Girls leaving dolls behind them to invent worlds? They appear to have just been playing tea and cake while dressing the dolls; cups are knocked over and three of the dolls’ four shoes are off. The girls seem to have left this play-world in a hurry . . . There’s a real sense of chaos toward the bottom of the image that’s replaced by an impression of order as we move up into the space of technology. Maybe Ware endorses their implicit ‘rejection of gender roles’ and the technology gender gap? (The cover is a male-free zone, with girls, girl-surrogates (female dolls), and girl avatars.) Or perhaps he's just documenting, with a kind of objectivity. something he's witnessed.

* Each girl is near a doll whose outfit matches hers. Note how different the poses of the girls’ bodies are when compared to their doll counterpart. The girls, comfortable and creative, seem to be rejecting those more restrictive poses. Lying on the floor, the un-bendable Barbie can never relax: she must forever pose, and even be propped up in order to stay upright.

On the topic of matching colors: in a balancing design gesture, the partially-shown lamp on the left shares the two-color scheme of the outfit on the girl on the right, just as the colors of the partially-shown doll on the right -- atop the bookshelf -- resemble the outfit of the girl on the left. There's what appears to a skirt at the bottom/center of the image; it's blue and red, with the blue part 'gesturing' toward the blue girl and the red part toward the red girl. Some of this mirroring seems to be related to how Minecraft can be played.

Another odd detail: a shrub visible through the window is blue (you can have blue trees in Minecraft.)

* The blue girl sits in a full-size chair, her doll’s play-chair almost fully hidden under the desk. This feels like some kind of ‘moving away from childish things’ -- or at least Ware sets up a relationship between these things. Like the dolls, a few books are strewn about, perhaps tossed aside for the more engaging Minecraft. Is Ware, a lover and maker of books, OK with this? In 2015, are books and dolls becoming more and more like artifacts of some dying world? Or, again, is this just something that happens in homes around the whole that Ware finds visually interesting, socially relevant, and/or 'relatable'?

Etc. Etc.

If you don’t like the  cover, fair enough. All such opinions are valid. But I think there’s a lot going on in it, more than can be expressed by a few words. It's a pretty dense image. (Sorry about the sloppiness -- I wrote it kind of fast, internet style.) here to read the rest of this post...

Monday, April 13, 2015

On Comics Criticism, Comic Books, and Nostalgia

[Eight Excerpts from “Fear of Comics: Understanding the Comic-book Critic,” by Franz Moerike and Angela Schmidt. (From the journal M√§nnlichkeit (34) II, 2009. pp. 167-196. Crowd-translated by The BF Critical Consortium and reprinted here with permission.)]

1. The so-called “Rise of the Graphic Novel” has led to the emergence of a specialized class of readers: comic-book critics. This legitimation of a once-reviled “art form” has spawned a troubled personality formation, a subset of “comic-book critic” that we designate here, for the first time in the psychiatric literature, as “The Anti-Nostalgic” (AN). He (and it is almost always a male) needs to be distinguished from his peers, who, though they may be invested in reading and writing about children’s comic-strips and picture novels, exhibit no deviant traits. The AN, however, displays the following: a mania for “high standards”; an irrational suspicion of memory; an obsessive interest, not in art, but in competing with other critics to establish mastery; and most importantly, for our purposes, a fear of their own childhood selves. (Though relatively small in number as of this date [2009 - ed.], the AN needs to be added to future editions of the Uniform Catalogue of Personality Abnormalities so that, when encountered within a clinical setting, it can be properly identified, assessed, and treated. Indeed, Arno (1999) has shown success with disorders of this type, treating males who are over-invested in writing about toy culture in online fora. . . .)

2. The AN’s key dysfunction is this: he is suffering from what we designate as “pathological anti-nostalgia.” The AN is cognizant, almost paralyzing so, that comic books have long been associated with a nexus of subjects that inevitably evoke childhood: superheroes (and other forms of power-phantasies), collecting, fandom, and nostalgia. So, when writing about comics, the AN feels that he must do “all in his power” to “show the world” that he is by no means part of the fan community; indeed, he is the self-described “Foe of All Comicdom.” (He seems unaware that his language/ideology is comic-book inspired in its good vs. evil Manichean dualism.) Fans, he will often say, like what they like because they are blinded by nostalgia, whereas he, the AN, can see the object as it is, free from the physiological elation that the memory-driven fan experiences as he warmly recalls a simpler past in which comics ordered his life, providing a psychic escape from his developmental issues and current social problems. . . .

3. In his criticism and in the clinical setting, the AN displays a verbal repetition-compulsion syndrome (King 1957) when confronting self-identity issues. He will say, for example, “The comics world is driven by fan-boy insularity” and similar phrases dozens of times over the course of a year (and even in one particularly troubled client’s case, at least three times per week). His need to repeatedly define himself as “not a fan,” “not a nostalgic,” “not a collector,” and perhaps most puzzling as “not one who likes comics, but only the occasional graphic novel” suggests what C. Johnson has called a “personality void” (1987) that can be “filled” only by negative identities: “I am not a fan,” “not a collector,” etc. The AN displays a “reactionary formation” (Johnson and Addams 1992), and is capable only of seeing himself as, in essence, the phenomenological result of competition with the individuals he reacts against. What he is, he knows not, but he knows for certain that he’s “a lot fucking smarter than that fannish” Critic X. At the subconscious level, he fears that he is nothing in himself, but comforts himself with the fact that he is, at least, superior when assessed in relation to others. . . .

4. Fearing above all being labelled as “childish,” the AN has at his disposal a ready set of terms for attacking the tastes and arguments of those with whom he disagrees, especially when these critics are generally acknowledged as authorities (the AN’s rage-driven Oedipal anti-authoritarianism will be addressed subsequently in this essay’s treatment plan section [see excerpt 8 below - ed.]). These concepts reveal profound anxieties towards his childhood and the very idea of childhood itself:

“They only like that comic because they read it (or something like it) as a child. I have no such baggage and therefore can freely condemn it on objective grounds.”

“They are blinded by a fannish love of the comics medium. I have no such baggage.”

“No one can really like the work of _______ or _______; they just collect their pamphlets as a symbolic hedge against adulthood and its burdens. Children and stunted adults collect. I Critique.”

“They fetishize picture-stories: I formulate treatises.”

The AN fails to acknowledge that he fetishizes his own intellect and abstract concepts. He, it must be noted, is also a collector, amassing the quotations of authorities in order to demonstrate his erudition, just as a fan amasses consecutively-numbered pamphlets. “Note that I cited Benjamin and Foucault,” an AN repeatedly said to me while in therapy. He thinks that his collection, because somewhat abstract (and validated by the Western patriarchal notion of “Intellectual History”), is therefore better than the fan’s collection, which it is not.

5. As J. Lint has observed (1998), many of the AN’s self-expressive metaphors — the figurative language that broadcasts his neurosis— come from arenas of the male body and male violence, such as wrestling: “That was a powerful take-down of that comic!” His language shows the importance placed upon the phallus and/or the testes: “I’m glad you had the balls to go against the Comics Cognoscenti!”

6. The AN yearns for a phallocentric stability, a totalizing fictional narrative about himself that defeats temporality, which is the essential mechanism of nostalgia. In some instances, psychoanalysis reveals that he was mistreated by a stern authority he admired. This trauma, which happened during early childhood, has generated in him a revulsion toward things he considers childish. As a child, the inchoate AN believed that, by engaging in what his father scorned as “childish” activities, he brought shame to the family; he wounded the father, who expected the child to “man-up” and spurn childhood, even though he was only yet a boy! A complete identification with the condemnatory and rejecting father (McManus 1956) takes place within the AN’s super-ego. It is no surprise, then, that this critic’s most crucial target, the object of his greatest venom, vitriol, and vituperation is the established male critic (G. Roth 1978, 1998, 2003), who stands in for the AN’s father. Ironically, when attacking these male critics, the AN will regress into name calling, a prominent tactic of the wounded child.

The AN seeks an ahistorical absolute (i.e., a critical standard true for all time) that he can use as a rhetorical cudgel against those who disagree with him, those whom he thinks are blinded by nostalgia. The Platonistic AN seeks the permanent, the timeless, searching relentlessly for a concept not inflected or infected by childhood. He finds this rhetorically, when he defines himself as an Adult – mature, discriminating, somehow miraculously free from “the stain” of nostalgia. The past, and memory itself, are nothing to him!, so he says. Yet he fails to integrate his present and past selves and accept a healthy nostalgia, which, as King (2000) argues, is an affective function that emerges from the inescapable time-bound, material embodiment of all persons. Fearing matter itself (and by extension his own body) — he especially hates the matter that is collectible paper ephemera — the AN adopts the anti-materialist stance of the puritanical religionist. Even though he rails against experts, he sees himself as a kind of priest, “a truth-teller reviled by all the fan-boys.” The more that comic readers attack him, the more he feels that his status as a non-conformist seer is affirmed and bolstered. . . .

7. In many instances, sometimes after several years of analysis, the AN will admit that he is interested in comics (in part or exclusively) precisely because it comes with the very “childish” history he pretends to repudiate!: this “history of childishness” makes it easy for him to assert his Adult Mastery, his superiority to, and refutation of, all things Comic Book. Given comic books’ relatively low standing in academic and fine art circles, he can position himself as a kind of demi-god who stands above and outside of “the comics industry,” like an adult who looks at a group of children playing and shouts: “Look at the babies playing with their baby toys! I reject baby toys!” He always talks of the comic’s community’s low standards because this rhetoric proves he embodies high standards, that he is the mature anti-nostalgic. In psycho-sexual-physiological terms, he views his rhetorical phallus as the standard by which all others must be judged (Partch 1967). His criticism is, as A. Peters noted, his “phallus in the world.”

Though nostalgia is a normal affect, it, above all else, is the AN’s foe.

8. What follows is our clinical treatment plan […]. here to read the rest of this post...