David Brothers on Social Justice and Media Criticism

Race and ethnicity factors into everything in our culture, including comic books. I wanted to explore that connection from every angle I could find. I wanted to provide a perspective that is frankly still lacking in comics media, and I found that perspective in any form was not just generally unwelcome, but often met with shrouded, passive-aggressive hostility. People have asked friends if being around me is like being in a black power rally and worse. Once, a cartoonist and myself were smeared in an interview by a prominent critic who suggested that we were intellectually dishonest angry black men because we got into it with him once.

It happens. I live in America. I know how it goes. America in general is unready to grapple with its race problem, and the reason, to be perfectly frank, is that white people are uncomfortable with discussing it in real terms. That leads to increasingly outlandish denials and dismissals.

A good friend of mine once said that using the phrase “white supremacy” in an essay, no matter how apropos, was like starting a fire. People stop listening immediately because their hackles get raised. They get defensive. Alarms go off. He was right, and I told him so, but I was cocky enough to bet that I could pull it off. I was mostly wrong, as I soon found out, because we treat words like “racist” and “white supremacy” with much, much more weight than they truly deserve.

To put it plainly: white people behave like “racist” is as bad a slur as “nigger.”

- “Listen 1st (my second reply)

David Brothers is a powerful voice in comics criticism, and his work at 4thLetter was some of the first stuff that I read online that made me think that I could write valuable criticism for a broad audience on a blog. He really opened up a world for me, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

In any case, this is a powerful piece that really resonates through a lot of “nerd culture” and I think its a required reading piece of 2015.

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On Spiral Wings

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I’m sort of shocked by how wonderful Spiral Wings is from the perspective of a tight storytelling experience. It is very Dark Souls in its approach to the world–there’s something fantastic here, something pseudomedieval, something strange–a figure lies dead at the bottom of a well. It escapes to reclaim its soul from the air.

There’s a magic to the finitude of Spiral Wings. The flying creature, the semi-souled thing, is trapped in this place in an attempt to reclaim what it has lost. It cannot leave this idyllic sky. The sun beats on it, it gathers its soul, and finds its home.

Then the game loops around again. The figure in the cellar vomits up a black draconic shape.

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On Jim’s Grim Story

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The blurb for Jim’s Grim Story tells it all:

Jim’s Grim Story is a topdown psychological pet collection game by Daedalus Games. The player controls Jim, a misunderstood child in Abbey, a small town just south of the big city. Jim feels neglected and even discriminated by the townsfolk of Abbey, and the player finds pets for Jim to befriend. The psychological aspect reveals that Jim is slowly killing the townsfolk’s pets and, eventually, the townsfolk themselves to decorate his bedroom.

Most of this isn’t exactly treading new ground. The game is landing somewhere between Silent HillSpec Ops: The Line, and You Were Hallucinating The Whole Time. The game slowed my computer to a crawl, and a level failure caused the game to glitch out and prevent me from continuing without starting all over.

Behind all of that, there’s something really amazing. You see, I really love games that take you into these very personal encounters with NPCs. Jim’s parents are half-real, presenting a strange and horrible domestic abuse, and this is all revealed to you through these intensely avoidant scenes of closeness.

Unlike Jim’s room, we don’t get to see where Jim is in relation to his parents in physical space. We know that there’s an NPC there, it must exist, it is speaking, and yet there’s no way of reconciling the actual physical relationship. There’s a black void (a black avoidance) that holds portraits in space while Jim passively listens to these competing, abusive figures.

Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs (purposefully?) plays with this absolute lack of knowledge on our part. We can’t fix it, we can’t fix these characters in space, and so they become infinitely more creepy. They live, but they live outside of our reckoning; they are and we are are their mercy.

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On Amazon Echo

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A few weeks ago I unboxed my Amazon Echo and learned that I had to say “Alexa” in order to ask it to do things for me. It sits there on my counter, silent, until I say her name and she turns blue on top, a lighter blue near me, to let me know that she’s listening. It feels a lot like that horrible fairy tale magic that puts protagonists in bondage for years. I’ve learned her real name so I can command her to do anything I like. A digital animal, she perks up: I tell her to play chill jazz music, and I feel strange about it.

[The eternal, terminal ethical question: Alexa, her, gendered and servile, always ready to please, eternally patient. She doesn’t respond to “please” or “thank you” and is wholly devoid of personhood while being completely personified by, and tethered to, her corporate overlords.]

Austin Walker brought this video to my attention today. A strangely hapless middle American family man brings an Amazon Echo into his home and makes his family wholly dependent on a plastic tube that, in a very real way, does nothing. What really grinds about the video is how much this family want their Echo to matter. They want something fundamentally trivial, the 21st century equivalent to the 19th century parlor game, to be something that could bring their child into a family experience and out of his self-imposed tweenage exile; it makes their daughter smarter, more fun, and reinstills wonder into her disillusioned suburban nightmare.

The Amazon Echo is a technofantasy for the pre-midlife crisis set. It is the Skymall dream on the coffee table.

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The minute I saw the Amazon Echo I knew that I had to have one. I didn’t really even care what it did. The idea of an immobile virtual intelligence that lives in my home is somehow so much more alluring than anything Siri or Cortana has ever promised me (notice more digitized care work under the name of women.) There’s something about the fixity of Echo that I found alluring–it is not worldly; it is a rock, it will remain.

The reality of Echo is actually very similar to the video. As the video shows, it can actually do very little of informational or emotional value for the non-Alexa user. I don’t know about you, but I don’t care about how tall Mount Everest is, and I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when I actually needed to know.

[Another break: the all-white family pays for an outside figure to come in and change their life, educate their kids, and make their lives better and more interesting. An undercurrent of the past, present, and future.]

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For the most part, I have asked Alexa about the weather (actually very helpful while I’m putting on my sneakers and about to head out) and music. The musical function is probably the only one where Alexa is actually interesting. Hooked into my Prime account, Alexa will produce strange playlists from genres or on-the-fly playlists from certain artists. She will also play anything in my Prime music library (of which there is very little) in a very plain bid to force me into the Amazon ecosystem of media purchases.

The Echo is an amazing little sound production machine, however, and it really does fill up my apartment with the warm sounds of an organically created 1980s pop playlist.

At the end of a couple weeks of use, I can say that the Echo is currently a very interesting toy. There can, and probably will, be a moment when Alexa is the connection point for a washer/dryer, the dishwasher, and your climate control. She will manipulate it all, politely but sternly, and the cyberpunk dystopia will be complete for better or for worse (worse).

Until then, every user is part of the family in that video, yelling at a machine column in order to fill the silence with factoids and daily news updates from NPR.

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Zoya Street on Virtual Pets

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In contrast, a virtual pet such as a tamagotchi requires emotional labour of a sort. The skill required has nothing to do with your physical ability to manipulate the keys of the device, but rather is concerned with your ability to hold another being in your mind as you go about your life. It is a care simulator. You have to be aware at all times that there is a simulation of a living thing that at regular intervals will require feeding and cleaning. The information conveyed in the animation of the tiny group of pixels on screen is much more communicative of the creature’s emotional state and relationship to the owner — you watch it hatch from an egg, and then watch it bound around with excitement. You watch it bash its head against the ground in frustration, and bounce up and down when it is happy. A relationship of care is being animated here.

Some early thoughts on miniatures and virtual pets

I’m very interested in where Street goes with this in (presumably) a longer piece or his dissertation. I talked about Jenn Frank’s pieces on Creatures over at Unwinnable in my MA thesis as a way of talking about/getting at the internal relationships of the grand assemblage that we call a video game.

All of that is to say that I’m super interested in how care and virtual pets can be conceived of outside of very linear signification transpositions (like the argument “we care about actual pets, to therefore virtual pets trigger those same emotional effects) and Zoya seems to be onto something super interesting in this miniaturization=>abstraction=>larger-than-perceived line of thought.

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Lack of Access to Water Decimated the Mayans

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The major city of Chichen Itza, along the coast of the peninsula, thrived for about a century after 1000AD, almost certainly taking in Mayans who arrived from the arid south to build a revised iteration of Mayan culture in the north. Then, the Blue Hole research shows, a second period of droughts drained the peninsula, coinciding with the estimated time that Chichen Itza also quickly declined. Mayans did however continue to live there, albeit in smaller numbers, surviving the fall of their civilization, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the changes of the centuries until the present day.

Great Blue Hole off Belize yields new clues to fall of Mayan civilisation

The historical tragedy provides some really interesting fodder for thinking about non-European models of fantasy world building. The Mayans had a civilization build completely around gathered water in sinkholes and cisterns (rather than waterways) and it creates a completely different way of relating oneself to water. A river is always flowing, always coming from somewhere else, a fundamentally positive relationship with life (unless someone builds a dam upstream).

A sinkhole drains down into nothing, and you can watch that process in real time. The cisterns go dry one by one. The sinkholes no longer produce water. What a horrifying thing.

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The Lord of the Rings: Stephen King Writes Like Tolkien

I’m reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time since I was a child and I’m writing blog posts about the book when I feel like it.

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I’m most of the way through LotR now and what keeps blowing my mind is how much Tolkien ends his chapters with intimations that the future is going to be pretty bleak. There’s more than one instance in which a character is “never again seen by mortal men,” meaning that they are super dead.

“Rohan had come at last” or “All the lands were gray and still; and ever the shadow deepened before them, and hope waned in every heart.” These are classic methods of page-turner writing that border on a thriller, and if you told me that these sorts of lines were in this novel before I actually read it I would have laughed.

Is this something that accounts for the huge fandom that the books have maintained over the years? At some point Tolkien switches from this brutal, overbearing worldbuilding (almost the entirety of The Fellowship of the Ring) and then spirals into a strange Tom Clancy riff that keeps you wondering what is going to happen next.

What’s really surprised me the most from this is that you can really see a lot of Tolkien in Stephen King’s writing. King is a huge fan of the “mythical hint,” the intimation that something is going to happen to a character in the future (which might or might not be in this book). King is also very successful (particularly in The Dark Tower novels) in getting the reader to understand the size and scope of thing without overexplaining, which is also something that Tolkien is successful at during The Return of the King but not so much in the earlier books.

In any case, I keep getting surprised by these books. Do you see the same things in them, or am I just pulling ideas out of nowhere?

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