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Archive for December, 2009

Blind Columnists

Wyndham Lewis self-portrait, from when he could see

Many columnists are blind, but only metaphorically so. Charles Krauthammer and George Will are as eyeless as Samson, with a similar appetite for inflicting retributive mass slaughter on the residents of Gaza. But Russell Smith, the novelist whose cultural ruminations appear in the Globe and Mail, is actually blind, although thankfully only temporarily so. Smith has written a wry, jaunty column about his current sightless state. I’ve posted excerpts from the column at the end of this posting (The column can be found here; fair warning: the Globe usually yanks its online content after 2 weeks; Smith’s piece deserves e a longer afterlife.)

In his little essay, Smith discusses other writers who were blind or wrote about blindness: Joyce, Henry Green, Borges, and Milton. I was a bit surprised that Smith didn’t mention Wyndham Lewis, the great modernist novelist and painter who also lost his vision in old age; the omission was unexpected because the columnist’s father, the late literary critic Rowland Smith, wrote so well on Lewis.

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Santa’s useless helpers

Chimney reversedThe second in my apparently annual series of Yuletide mullings (last year’s “In the bleak midwinter” discussed the darker seasonal myths of medieval Germany) was triggered by a headline I spotted on my train ride home from work a week ago. “NORAD fighter pilots prepare to escort Santa”, it read; beneath it was a photo of two Canadian air force CF-18s. It’s a yearly tradition, of course — I have a vague memory of listening to “radar updates” on Santa’s progress as a kid in the 1970s — but still, something about it grated on me.

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It is not normally my practice to blog from work (see “mortgage payments”), but having discovered historian Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New via his link to Jeet’s own post on Homer Simpson and Irish stereotypes, I was immediately entranced by both his buoyant writing style and his remarkably eclectic range of historico-cultural interests — so I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and tell you about it. Go check out his site, and for your first mind-expanding sally, read his post Angels and Octopodes.

What are you still doing here? Go!

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Mickey Mouse: guilty of a hate crime?

Brent Bozell is one of those right-wingers who has made a career of being indignant at every hour of the day, always on the lookout for an excuse to whine and complain. One of the things that upsets him is that some comic books feature openly gay characters. “The world of comic books has sure changed a lot since we were young,” Bozell wrote in a 2006 column. “Who would have predicted, 10 years ago, that the comics would become a red-light neighborhood where sexually perverted superheroes would be packaged to elicit from children fascination and sympathy?”

Like most professional moralists, Bozell has no real sense of history: he’s a traditionalist with no grounding in the past. If Bozell knew anything about earlier times, he would realize that gays have been portrayed in comics for decades, not just in comic books but even in comic strips that ran in family newspapers.

What could be more wholesome than Mickey Mouse, the big-eared emblem of the Disney empire? Yet a Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 22, 1931 shows the little rodent meeting a big cat who displays all the markers stereotypically given to gay characters during that period: a lisp, a limp handshake, and a general effeminacy of manner (in this case, batting eyelashes). Revealing himself to be not just homophobic but a violent gay-basher, Mickey attacks the big cat.

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"Blue Experiment", by Marguerita Bornstein (2008)

"Blue Experiment", by Marguerita Bornstein (2008)

Marguerita Bornstein – an artist who has in the past been so well known that her first name sufficed to identify her to millions – is the kind of person whose need to create, and whose talent for it, causes her to work across a range of forms. Illustrator, animator, painter, sculptor, and mixed media artist, she has been lauded for drawings that have graced the covers of major magazines and for her contributions to post-modern art exhibitions. “One of the strongest and most sexual works in the show,” wrote a reviewer of 1997′s Sex/Industry (Stefan Stux Gallery, New York), “the mixed media work by Marguerita uses a metal box, an old gourd, and a coconut to create a piece more honestly sexual and arousing than most of the anatomically correct phalluses and cartoon animal jokes in the main gallery.” Alas, I can offer no pictures to match this intriguing description. (more…)

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Cinderella's Maid Service (Ian G Mason 500px)

Readers of my personal blog (Archipelagoes) will already know that a few months ago I decided to try to teach myself how to draw. It took me several weeks before I started to make satisfying progress, but since then I’ve learned just how pleasurable a hobby it can be. It turns out there’s an effort-to-reward cycle with drawing that is five to ten times faster than writing — in this way it’s like crack cocaine for creative people. I promise to seek help if the monkey gets too heavy.

An example of what I’m doing. I produced the somewhat dark-themed picture above as a submission to Dinotopia illustrator James Gurney’s “Art by Committee” challenge (which he hosts on his fascinating blog, Gurney Journey). This month, Gurney invited his readers to submit works depicting the hypothetical owner of this (actually quite real) business card:

Cinderella business card

As you’ll probably deduce from the drawing, my mind went in directions both sci-fi and seedy — triggered mainly by contemplating the male reaction to the implausibly optimistic marketing promise “A Wish Come True”. In terms of materials, I took a step back from charcoal on this one, using it mainly for the rain-esque backdrop and for a bit of skin tone and shadowing. Most of the drawing is rendered in graphite.

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Benjamen Walker interviewed me for his radio programme Too Much Information. He got me to talk about a favorite topic, Little Orphan Annie. You can listen to the show here.  He also interviews the great social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. As you’ll hear if you give the show some time, Benjamen is an unusually acute and well-informed interlocutor.

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A Doug Wright cartoon

I’m always afraid to tell people that my favourite literary magazine is Canadian Notes and Queries. The name is so off-putting. It sounds like a mimeographed sheet devoted to esoteric bibliographic information about Duncan Scott Campbell and Stephen Leacock. And in fact that’s what the magazine was for most of its history. But for the last decade or so,  it’s been the home to the best essays on Canadian culture, and also some excellent short fiction. (John Metcalf was the editor who re-invented CNQ and he’s been helped by Daniel Wells, Alex Good and others).  Perhaps wisely, the editors have tried to rebrand their journal as CNQ, to hide their embarrassing original name.

The new issue of CNQ, number 77, is chock full of the goodies including a new story by Clark Blaise. And some of these essays are already available online. Here are two goodies:

1. Seth on Doug Wright. The best writing on comics tends to come from cartoonists themselves: Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell.  There are few other art forms in which the critical discourse is so totally dominated by practitioners. Seth belongs to this elite company of cartoonists/critics. His essays on cartoonists like John Stanley and Chris Reynolds are filled with sharp observations grounded in a rare in-depth knowledge of comics history. The latest issue of CNQ reprints Seth’s speech on Doug Wright, delivered 5 years ago to launch the Doug Wright Awards. It can be found here.

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An Irish Simian, drawn by Fredrick Opper for Puck, February 15, 1882

Like radioactive material, an ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering on long after the period of its most deadly potency. We’ve already seen  how the minstrel/blackface image lives on in the guise of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon creations. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which now has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser.

My thoughts on this have been inspired by a reading of a new collection of George McManus’ classic comic strip Bringing Up Father, created in 1913. NBM has released a collection of the first two years of the McManus strip.

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