Archive | March, 2011

Ink Stains and the Brainy Girl

31 Mar

2000irises: Ink Stains and the Brainy Girl — A review of webcomics

In honor of Dilbert creator Scott Adams’s recent coming-out as an asshat (be sure to click through and read Adams’s original post!), I thought it might be therapeutic to take in some truly wonderful, original, creative comics by and featuring brainy women.

If you haven’t spent much time exploring the almost infinite world of web comics, it can be somewhat daunting. In the interest of avoiding another Irene Adler-sized post, I’m only going to tap three examples here, but consider this the first in a series of posts about web comics. The traditional comics publishing world may still be a boys’ club, but online, anything goes.

I credit my first recommendation to my supersmart and oh-so-cutting-edge friend Ifreet, who is a kind of awesome magnet. She always finds the coolest stuff ages before I do. I literally keep a notepad out when she’s around because she’s always pointing me to things I need to see, hear and do. (I still owe her my first-born child to pay off my Sassy Gay Friend debt.)

–Lately, Ifreet has been raving about 2D Goggles or The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua. I cannot second her rave enough.

In 2D Goggles, Actual Real Life friends Ida Lovelace and Charles Babbage – Victorian mathematicians, scientists and engineering vanguards — team up to fight crime (by which they mean street music and poetry.) Some of the best things about this comic:

  1. It’s pretty: Frenetic drawing style paired with keen composition, technical know-how, and an eye for meaningful detail.
  2. It’s funny: Sassy dialogue, pop culture references and bad puns aplenty.
  3. Footnotes: Oh yes girls and boys, Padua is good at research, and she really, really wants us to get her in-jokes. I get smarter with each installment. (I cannot say the same thing for Dilbert. *ahem*)
  4. Hyperlinks: Wanna learn more? Padua hyperlinks like a maniac: primary sources, secondary sources, visual inspirations, tangentially related nonsense, completely unrelated nonsense – it’s all here for the clicking.

The nice thing here is you can begin at the beginning and you don’t have thousands of comics to read through before you get to the newest installments. The episodes run concurrently, and each has its own arc.

–Next up is Bite Me! by Dylan Meconis.

Ifreet may have told me about this little gem, too, but I kind of forgot and later rediscovered it on my own. What’s it about? Glad you asked. It’s about Vampires! and the French Revolution! It’s sophisticated, funny, and has some kick-ass lady vamp types.

I’m a sucker for kick-ass lady anythings, really. Buffy is a personal hero. But, honestly, I’m suffering from vampire burnout. Too much Buffy, perhaps. More likely too much Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Being Human, etc. I’ve always been a fan of the vampire trope, but it’s pretty much circled the drain since Anne Rice. Thankfully, Meconis avoids falling into the current “tortured vampire” cliché – the one that pits the “I’ll eat anything that moves” vampire against the “God I love/resent/desire fragile humanity” vampire. The vampires here are mostly cool with being vampires and are on the run and having fun. Flying heads! Funny Hats! Robespierre! Go vampires go!

Ms. Meconis began this comic in high school, because she had, as she says, “a burning desire to simultaneously make fun of A Tale of Two Cities and Interview With the Vampire.” She actually completed Bite Me! in 2004, and now publishes a newer web comic called Family Man, which I also highly recommend.

–And finally, we have Subnormality.

Subnormality is the kind of comic where you read through all the panels, and then you have to go back and look closely at the art because it’s peppered with funny, sad, lovely details you probably missed the first time. Most of the episodes are one-offs, but Subnormality does have a recurring character in the form of a 3000 year-old sphynx. She wanders around a modern metropolis trying desperately to understand why people live and feel the way they do. She bumps up against contemporary social constructs and wonders why human beings’ priorities are so screwed up. It’s sharp at times, almost cynical even, but mostly Subnormality is poignant and has a very curious, quite gentle approach to talking about human frailty. “Sexier Than” actually made me cry. (Yeah, I’m a sucker.)

The artist/author of Subnormality is Winston Rowntree – the pseudonym for a guy who earned my eternal devotion by plainly declaring, “I’m downright feminist.” Many of the characters in these strips are women, and he writes women well. He writes men well, also. And sphinxes. And monsters. And so on. Mr. Irises introduced me to Subnormality, and it’s only loyal gratitude that keeps me from writing Winston Rowntree daily love letters. Well, that and my pride.

If you’re interested in exploring further, here are just a couple more sites where you can find other female-friendly web comics:


Feministe’s 10 Webcomics You Should Read

If you have more suggestions, I’m all ears.


The First Lull

21 Mar

It was inevitable. Writing work kicked up, I was asked to organize a poetry reading, and I missed a blog week. Sigh. I had such good intentions. Anyway, this is me checking in, rather informally, to give an update on my current projects and send out feelers, without a fully-fashioned post. I hope to be back next week with something more ambitious.

As I said, I spent a bunch of time last week organizing and publicizing a Poetry Reading/Open Mic I’m planning for South Shore Arts. It’s at the Crown Point Community Arts Center {Map} on March 25th, 6-9 pm. This event coincides with the final days of the (M)others exhibit, on display until March 26th. I’m still interested in hearing from poets who would like to be added to the reading list before the open mic sign-up starts. Everyone is invited. Everyone.

I’m also compiling an email mailing list for anyone who’d like to stay up to date on literary events in Northwest Indiana, so if that’s you, drop me a line.

Two other events occupied my attention last week. On Wednesday, I heard Jill Alexander Essbaum read her poetry at Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum. She writes beautiful, lyrical poems with sometimes shocking, definitely evocative themes: sex, death and religion — often all at once. She’s warm, down-to-earth, funny, self-effacing and clearly proud of her work. If her name is new to you, I recommend her to your attention.

The other wonderful, wonderful, wonderful event I enjoyed last week was Thursday’s live broadcast of the National Theater’s production of Frankenstein.

Click Here for the Trailer

I’d read a few reviews, but I always take reviews with a mountain of salt. I rarely agree with them. (Brainy women like to make up their own minds.) None of the reviews prepared me for how much I’d love this show. It’s disturbing, harrowing, and uncomfortable. The murderous creature is the hero of this production, and we cannot help but sympathize with him even as he commits horrible crimes. (For perhaps the first time?) we hear his voice, experience his agony and loneliness, and feel his suffering. If we cannot excuse his actions, at least we understand he acts out of despair and rage.

This show could easily have been a ridiculous melodrama, and in the hands of lesser lead actors or a more timid director, it would have been. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are amazing, though. I can’t overstate this. They make this production possible. Watching a man thrash about and screech for ten minutes should be mind-numbing, but instead it is engrossing. The newborn creature’s tension and discomfort enters your body and chest right in those first moments of the play, and there it stays for the next two hours.

Visually, the play is remarkable. The lighting is of course really, really cool, but I also loved the rotating stage floor, the brilliant colors, the use of scrims and the slanted floor of the Frankenstein mansion. I did have some reservations about the plotting which is odd at times, even while it makes narrative sense. (We just don’t get enough of Victor’s point of view to appreciate his struggles and motivations.) The dialogue is a bit heavy-handed in places, too, double-emphasizing the play’s themes verbally when subtlety would work better. Some of the supporting cast seemed a bit off as well. But overall Frankenstein rocked. The play is being re-broadcast soon (the dates vary,) with the lead actors switching roles. Find out when it plays near you on the National Theater Live US Venues site. If you get a chance to see it, absolutely do.

So, that’s it until next week when I write something pithy and deep. Possibly. Or maybe not.

Born Inbetween

9 Mar

2000irises: Born Inbetween — Lady Gaga and Born This Way

I’ve always admired Lady Gaga’s particular strain of brilliance. She’s barking mad and utterly fearless. Part pop-goddess, part freak show, Gaga does glamour and sex, but she also does nasty, ugly, and gross. She sings, she dances, she bleeds all over the stage. She wears raw meat. She travels by egg. For Lady Gaga, sex is lace and glitter, muck and filth. She wriggles about half-naked, and once she has your attention, she dives into slime and gore, as if to say “Call me sexy now. I dare you.” It’s a confusing sucker-punch, a bit taboo, but somehow annoying and delightful at the same time. No other mega-star can pull off the bait and switch like Gaga. She’s not Katy Perry and she’s not Ke$ha – she’s Cindy fucking Sherman with a microphone.

With that in mind, let’s think about the new “Born This Way” video. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link to fix that problem right now. Don’t come back until you’ve watched all 7 minutes and 20 seconds.

Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" on YouTube

This video pulses with cultural references, some you probably recognize, others maybe not. Aylin Zafar identifies many of them in her article for The Atlantic, “Deconstructing Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ Video.” Zafar deftly combs the video scene by scene, but her analysis is limited. She seems far more interested in cataloging the possible references than in considering why Lady Gaga would group these seemingly unrelated concepts together in a video.

If you’ll allow me an English professor moment: “deconstruction” is only useful when we examine the details in order to gain greater insight into the whole. If we want to understand what Gaga is really trying to achieve with “Born This Way,” it’s not enough to simply point out the religious iconography or note the use of Bernard Hermann’s “Vertigo Theme.” Yes, there are visual references to Dali’s work (particularly his “In Voluptate Mors,”) the RKO logo, and Metropolis. The ending sequence nods to Michael Jackson and Madonna and Blade Runner. But why? What do all these references have to do with “Born This Way’s” ham-fisted message of self-love and universal acceptance?

One common theme explored by all of the films, artworks, artists and religious figures referenced in “Born This Way” is the danger of classifying the world into neatly defined polar opposites. Let me explain:

We open with the “Vertigo Theme.” Okay. Why? How is Queer Pride linked to Vertigo? One key source of tension in the film comes from the question of whether Judy or Madeline is the real woman to Scottie. He tries to turn each woman into a version of herself more like the other, but could there be a third option where they both exist? A real woman not at all subject to Scottie’s fantasies?

Next we see Gaga as the “good” Mother Monster: an ethereal goddess tricked out with a transcendent, insightful third eye.

Here, she’s the feminine ideal: intuitive, unattainable, pristine. Yet this goddess is bound in chains – even her birthing stirrups are chains. While there’s nothing remotely realistic about the birth itself – it’s shiny, glittery, glossy – it still manages to be somehow more honest than the clean, ascetic depictions of childbirth we often get. Lady Gaga may mimic the exalted image of the Blessed Virgin, but this is no immaculate birth. It’s sloppy and gooey. (Nota bene: real childbirth involves goo. You have been warned.) Cauls cover the heads of her children: disembodied androgynous robots. This goddess is both divine and bound to earth. She’s otherworldly, yet physical, fertile yet inhuman.

Then our lovely Mother Monster transitions into her “evil” counterpart. The camera climbs over writhing red figures (arranged into the image of a skull á la Dali) to find Lady Gaga all sexed-up, birthing automatic weapons and Dia de los Muertos figures.

She is evil because she brings death. But as we see, birthing death isn’t any less complicated than birthing life. Those skeletons can still dance, after all.

The Dali work referenced here is just one of his many pieces that explored the boundary between life and death summarily rejected it. He depicted otherworldly places where logic melts into fantasy and decay bumps against eternal youth. Consider “In Voluptate Mors” – the image of a skull composed of the healthy bodies of nubile women. Which is the most relevant concept in this work: the skull of death, the vigor of life, or the image itself that incorporates both while embodying neither?

“Born This Way” also repeatedly borrows imagery from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, which asks us to consider which is more dangerous to society: a sexualized robot-woman who inspires lust and violence, or a pure-hearted flesh-and-blood woman who inspires love and hope among the repressed? For Lang, the two blend wickedly together, and the resulting monster must be burned at the stake, releasing the pure before destroying the wicked.

Then at last we have Gaga herself, pumping away in a sexy bikini. She’s not a goddess here, she’s not a robot, she’s not divine, she’s not evil. She’s just Lady Gaga doing what she does best: singing and dancing.

Some have suggested that her mostly-naked get-up contradicts her message of self-love and empowerment. But Gaga’s not telling anyone “don’t be sexy.” She’s not suggesting we find a cozy sweater and take up knitting. “Born This Way” is all about sex for heaven’s sake. She’s saying go ahead and be yourself, be sexy, sexy is fantastic. For Lady Gaga (and hopefully for us all,) ANY brand of sexy is just fine, even if it means stripping to your Underoos and writhing about with dozens of other people. She’s wearing a teeny-bikini, yes, but significantly, nothing else. Gaga’s stripped relatively bare here – no shoes, no elaborate wigs or headpieces, minimal (for Lady Gaga) makeup. She even has her hair in a ponytail at one point. Contrast that with the elaborate costumes of “Paparazzi,” “Telephone” or “Bad Romance.” Hell, contrast it with “Born This Way’s” goddess and robot costumes (can you imagine how long it took to get into those outfits?)

Other references in “Born This Way” take up the same themes. Is “Billy Jean’s” Michael Jackson a god-like Magic Man or a vulnerable human being capable of fathering a child? Which is the “real” Madonna: the flushed pseudo-bride of “Like a Virgin” or the dominatrix of “Human Nature?” Is Harrison Ford’s Deckard character in Blade Runner a human or a Replicant? The answer to all these questions is “somewhere in the middle.”

“Born This Way” may not be very subtle, but its labyrinthine video is. While the song plainly urges self-acceptance and kindness, the video reminds us why that’s so essential. By referencing works of art which question the tyranny of dualism, Lady Gaga reinforces that even our most primal, seemingly universal experiences never fit into neatly organized, labeled boxes. When we try to force ourselves into those boxes, we do harm. Lady Gaga’s futuristic utopia is a place where good and evil, life and death, male and female don’t really exist – everything here lies in between.

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