15 July 2017
42 Nipple Options, Alex + Ada, Artificial Intelligence, body objectification, commodifying the female body, Essay, Feminism, graphic novel, Harmony, Harmony the Sex Robot, Honda P2 Robot, Human Body, Human Developement, Human/Robot Love Story, Jenny Kleeman, Jonathan Luna, Literature, Long Read, Love, Love isn't about ALWAYS agreeing, Mutual Identification, Philosophy, Pornography, rape-culture, RealDolls, Robots, Sarah Vaughn, Science, science fiction, Sex Dolls, Sex Robots, Sex Trade, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solipsism, suggestions, The Gaurdian, The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot
I really didn’t see the book coming.
I’ve told my regular reader that I’ve gotten a job at the Tyler Public Library and this job has largely been a saving grace, but what I haven’t conveyed as clearly as I should have is that the job is also really fun. The people I work with are funny and are like a small family, the patrons that I help are fascinating for the fact that everyday they come up with some new request, the questions for info range from the obvious to the most esoteric (Do you know how much a 1969 Eagle Trailer is worth?), my supervisors are wonderful people, and best of all I’m surrounded by books. It’s this last part that makes me the most happy because there isn’t a day that’s gone by where I don’t wind up checking out a book. My wife’s greeting to me when I come home now has largely
become, “More books?” I have a problem, but I just don’t care because “look a collection of short stories by Woody Allen!”
I close at the Library, meaning my work days are usually in the afternoon and evening and my responsibility is to close up the library and shut the computer catalogs on the second floor down for the night. While I was walking around shutting them down I passed the graphic novel section. It’s a small area, nowhere near as large as I would want it to be, and in front of it there is a wooden table where patrons can leave books for staff to shelve. There was a large stack of religious book like there always is, but laid out beside the large pile was a book I recognized. Alex + Ada is a book that’s difficult to miss given the fact that the book is enormous (about 1 foot in length at least) with a white and blue cover with Alex and Ada staring at each other, a small blue dot on either of their heads.
Part of the reason I picked it up was the compulsion I spoke of before. A fair number of the books I check out in the last twenty minutes before work ends are either books of poetry or graphic novels. They read quickly and give me space between Lolita and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked the book out though because my friend Aleya had recently added it to her GoodReads account and had given it a pretty high rating. That’s it. Just these two connections allowed for a moment of serendipity which lead me to checking the book out.
Alex + Ada, like I said at the very beginning, was a book that I didn’t see coming. Once I read about what the story was about, a young man receiving an android for a birthday present, I figured it would be the standard Sci-fi trope. Boy receives a robot, Boy is unnerved by her docility so he finds a way to activate her sentience which is illegal, Girl robot wakes up and begins to discover life and reality, Boy starts to fall for robot and robot falls for Boy, somebody finds out and blabs to the cops, the police come and either kill the Boy or the robot, the end. And to be fair this is technically exactly what happens, however rather than end on the tragedy of the finale Johnathan Luna manages to tell a story about love that, apart from having a happy ending, recreates the narrative of the Human-Robot Love story into something that feels both relevant and important.
And the reason it feels so relevant is because of a recent article in The Gaurdian titled The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot.
The article is part of the British website’s “Long Read” series, a weekly article published which explores some facet, development, philosophy, or notable event in society. A friend of mine introduced me to The Guardian, and after reading just a couple of the “Long Read’s” segments I’ve become hooked onto them. The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot was one of these articles and it managed to appear right as I was finishing Alex + Ada in a level of serendipity that could almost be maudlin. Both stories center around one female robot (if you can label robots with something as tenuous as genetic based sex). In the Gaurdian article the robot’s name is Harmony. She’s modeled with the standard approach to human beauty, big boobs, slim waist, young features, and represents years of the sex-industry’s manufacturing of the female form. However Jenny Kleeman, the author of the article, manages to convey that Harmony is not just a humping post, she has by design, a larger goal.
The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.
Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.
“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”
“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesized cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.
“What is your dream?”
“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”
McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.
What’s revealed in this passage is the fact that capitalism is what’s behind this sex robot industry; a simple case of supply and demand. The sex industry has poured billions of dollars into realistic sex dolls, and a quick Google search to see the results can be both informative and at times frightening. The women dressed up in white panties and bras are enough to make one double-take or else follow links to determine whether or not it is a hoax. But beyond the realistic quality of these “women” is the fact that the major force behind the industry is not a concern to create robots that will revolutionize the robotics industry; it is to provide erotic satisfaction for many men.
Looking further into the article this becomes painfully clear:
RealDolls are fully customizable[sic], with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.
And then just a few passages later:
But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould[sic] her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.
It’s usually at this point that I’m supposed to stand up and argue that this is a step too far and that it’s just a slippery slope until Terminator robots will be slaying human beings in the killing fields and the end of mankind will come about. The largest reason I won’t make that argument is because The Terminator film did a far better job of doing that for me, and also because it seems hyperbolic and unnecessary. Unlike some doomsday theorists who argue that the rise of AI will bring about the violent death of man I foresee a far more gloomier vision: the irrelevance of mankind.
The increase of AI systems has really demonstrated itself to be more of a capitalistic view of the future than one of science. Machines increasingly are coded to observe human behavior and, rather than offer solutions for complex problems in society, tend to be made to recommend me products based on my online shopping habits. If I liked reading Lolita perhaps I would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Café. If I enjoyed eating at Fuzzy’s Taco perhaps I may enjoy TGI Fridays. If I enjoyed watching Dear White People perhaps I would enjoy 13th. These day to day suggestions have become increasingly blasé to me because they’re just part of life. Rather than violently trying to control me AI systems are in fact slowly and quietly removing my freewill through actions and suggestions that leave me comfortable and content.
This domesticity and familiarity with robotics and technology is a far more realistic suggestion of what the future is going to be like.
My reader may object now and argue that, is this really so bad? Technology is supposed to simplify the lives of human beings and help us overcome challenges and burdens in our life. Would having a robot that observes our behavior and adapts its own to make us happy really be so bad?
This is a complicated question because I honestly don’t know if there’s a clear answer. People should be happy, but there is a hidden conflict beneath this familiarity because it could bring about a negative change in the way human beings interact. When one interacts with a machine that conforms to your tastes and preferences it removes the human element of a relationship because other people disagree or hold different attitudes about what is right, wrong, pretty, ugly, grotesque, or beautiful. It’s the differences of opinions and the regular challenges by other people that a healthy personal self is able to develop. I grind my teeth every time somebody posts an alternative opinion on my Facebook page, or when someone close to me defends President Trump, but I recognize that that difference of opinion is what helps me keep myself grounded in reality.
Solipsism, the idea that one’s own mind is the only real thing in the universe, as a mode of being is corrosive because it’s a fueled narcissism that makes it impossible to connect and therefore sympathize or empathize with other people. And I suppose if my argument isn’t clear enough, the problem with turning sex robots into intelligent partners that are obedient and compliant with your every wish and preference, it stands to reason that the individual who lives and acts with one is going to be left completely disconnected to real humanity.
Kleeman is right then in making sure to post the alternative viewpoint that is growing against the sex robot industry:
Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
The implications then for the sex robotic industry become messy and worrisome because, at least as far as I can tell, these are all serious charges that have a great amount to merit to them. Artificially intelligent sex robots blur the line of consent because they are programmed not to say no, but at the same time they are being marketed as a realistic human alternative to a real human relationship.
In the face of all of this my reader is probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Alex + Ada. Well in fact it has everything to do with the graphic novel, because as I noted at the start this review came about because I was left so tremendously star-struck by the book when I finished it. Unlike Kleeman’s article which left me troubled and disturbed Alex + Ada offered a far more optimistic vision of human/robot relations by hoping for love rather than just sex.
At the start of the graphic novel Alex doesn’t even want a robot, his grandmother buys one for him because he’s been mopey since his fiancé left him, and over time Alex observes that the dynamic of the relationship is troublesome. He sees in Ada a companion that has an absence of choice and so desperate to see if there’s a way to change her he finds an online group dedicated to helping robots attain a freedom and sentience. During one exchange between two members of the group Alex offers a line that reveals everything about his humanity:
And what makes you think you’ll want her if she’s sentient? A lot of our members were abandoned by their owners when they still didn’t turn out how they wanted.
I just…I see more in her. I want to know who she can really be.
There’s so many passages in Alex + Ada I could offer my reader to demonstrate its significance but this small quote seems enough to demonstrate the humanity offered in this book. Alex doesn’t look upon Ada as just a product, he sees in her the potential to become something real, something human which he could learn to love or appreciate. And it’s this vision of humanity that gives me hope for the future.
Love and real connections between people are built upon the ability to reconcile differences of personality. My wife and I have strong relationship, but that doesn’t free us from differences. Her love, really obsession, with cats tends to be regularly occurring issue between us, and I can never start reading or writing before she interrupts me to complain about something he read on an article or comment section online. We disagree regularly about politics, and I’ve been known to drive her up a wall with my frequent moodiness, and let’s be fair I own a LOT of books. But it’s these differences that foster a real relationship because human interaction is built upon complexity.
Alex + Ada offers up a relationship that becomes healthier over time because once Ada’s sentience is activated she becomes a person with her own ideas, opinions, concerns, and sexual preferences (the line “again” left me both laughing and groaning from familiarity). This essay has largely explored The Guardian’s article about the sex robot industry, but hopefully the reader can observe in just this small passage how the graphic novel offers up a hopeful vision and reality that contrasts with the concerning developments in this new industry.
The sex trade will always push technology forward, that has been demonstrated since human beings began developing technology period. When humans created writing we used it to write about fornicating, the printing press allowed for the easy mass production of pornography, video cassettes allowed the porn industry to flourish, and the internet’s development was pushed forward largely because of the ease of access to porn. The sexual robotics industry is just another in a long line of technologies that satisfies the ancient biological urge to fornicate. But where some are looking to AI to find a corrupt kind of solipsism, Alex + Ada offers up the idea that technology is going to change even this dynamic because at some point people, hopefully, will look into the eyes of their sex dolls and probably ask the question: Could there be more?
The story of human beings and robots interacting can be an endless cliché as creator and creation look upon each other with a different perspective, but as society is approaching a reality where this is no longer just the speculative visions of science fiction the questions about the morality of sexual robotics and whether or not humans and robots can empathize with each other is becoming more and more relevant.
Rather than offering a judgement it seems far more appropriate to ask the reader a question: Which of the two stories offers up a healthier view of humanity? The one where a man controls an intelligent female object to blow him and offer him jokes, or one where a man risks his very life just so that his female robot can think for herself?
All quotes from Alex + Ada were taken from the Hardback Image edition. All quotes from Jenny Kleeman’s The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot were taken directly from The Gaurdian’s website. If the reader would like to read the full article for themselves they can do so by following the link below:
Just for the record, while Alex + Ada is an incredibly hopeful vision of the future of love between individuals, I think it’s important to remind the reader that the best human/Robot love story remains Bender and Lucy Liu from Futurama. I mean you have a talented, charismatic, sexy beast, and then there’s also Lucy Liu.
abuse of authority, All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee, chaos, Essay, film review, graphic novel, Happy Birthday, Humor, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, journalism, Libraries, Literature, metacognition, police brutality, science fiction, Spider Jerusalem, The Left Hand of Darkness, Transmetropolitan, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, Ursula K. Le Guin, White Tower Musings, Writer's Social Role, Writing
So much can happen and change over the course of a year. That’s the stuff of sentimental platitudes, but I’m writing my yearly reflection essay since the anniversary of this shitty-blog is today. And, as always, when I write about White Tower Musings and writings, I tend to get either mopey or maudlin. But in this case so much has actually happened over the course of a year and so I wanted to take a moment and really reflect on what has happened.
My regular reader will have determined at this point that I’ve graduated college and started working at the Tyler Public Library. I say this with no hyperbole, this job has saved my life. Part of the life changes that have occurred since last year was graduated from college with my master’s degree and then figuring out what was next. I flourished in graduate school because, I say this without any ego here, I was one of the good students who gave a shit and so I managed to succeed. What I didn’t realize was happening was that I was making myself, in my head, into something I wasn’t. Instead preparing myself for life after college I clung to school never wanting to leave. This in turn created the idea in my head that I was going to be a college professor, teaching English and writing and hopefully literature to freshmen and sophomore students. But that didn’t happen, or at least, not right away, and so for a period of about five of six months I sat in my house, living off the money I had saved from work, occasionally going out and having coffee with friends, desperate for work. When an offer finally came from a local community college I snapped it up imagining that teaching would make me happy, or, to be honest, that I would find a group of people like the one I had in graduate school or the writing center at UT Tyler. This was anything but and I realized quickly that I had sold the idea of teaching college to myself because I was an egoist. I thought that teaching would make me happy because it would be a chance for me to flex my intellectual muscle and that I would change people’s lives. I might have succeeded in the latter, but it became observable fairly quickly that I wasn’t a great teacher, I was, at best, passable.
But these birthday essays are always about metacognition, or, thinking about thinking. While I was teaching I was also still writing for White Tower Musings, and these essays tended to be my lifeboat. They kept me happy, or, at least, they gave me an outlet from which I could focus away from the frustrations of day to day reality. I wasn’t always thinking about the students, and if I was thinking about them it usually wasn’t positive thoughts. And then the suicidal feelings kicked in.
All of these thoughts, all of these feelings are still with me (it’s only been a about seven months since I quit my job at the college and started working for the library) but as I continue to wake up everyday and try to get in my 300 words I realize what this site has really meant for me. But I still think about the students in that class, specifically what I failed to convey and instill in them which is that writing and writers really can enact change.
About a year or two back the graphic novel book club that I’m a part of got around to reading a book entitled Transmetropolitan. It was a science fiction “dystopian” story about a reporter named Spider Jerusalem who has retreated to the mountains where’s he disappeared from society. His publisher tracks him down and informs him that he owes them two books or else they will track him down and sue him into a state of emotional, physical, and psychological poverty. Jerusalem comes down from the mountain and returns to “The City.” This nameless urban territory is impossible to describe largely because Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson manage to assault the reader with near constant bombardments. In “The City” there are advertisements for the President, family cannibal restaurants, the famous kids cartoon show “Sex Puppets,” religious organizations with titles like “fuck the Holy Gut Wound of St. Marc” and “Thor Needs Virgins,” hostels for de-frozen cryogenic patrons, and I could literally fill pages with all the back-ground that Spider Jerusalem encounters.
The book is broken up into a ten part series and, apart from its eerie similarity to the 2016 United States Presidential election, I’ve started reading the books one by one and am currently working through number 7, and while
I would love to sit down and write reviews of every book I’ve come to recognize that such impulses are largely fools errands. These essays come about because of whatever I’m feeling or thinking about at a certain time, and as my “third birthday” comes around Transmetropolitan has reminded me about the power of writing because of one small scene in the first book.
Spider Jerusalem is writing a column about a Police Riot that is attacking a group of people known as Transients, human beings that have blended their DNA with that of aliens. Jerusalem manages to sneak into the riot, get to the roof of a strip-club, and there, surrounded by strippers, he starts to write.
There’s a jungle rhythm beating out below me; the sound of truncheons hammering on riot shields, police tradition when the streets get nasty. I’m in Angels 8, above what will doubtless be called the Transient Riot. History’s only written by the winners, after all, and if the cops want it called the Transient Riot, then that’s how it’ll be.
Because there’s going to be Transient blood all over the place. And you know something? It’s not their fault.
The Transients couldn’t have managed this on their own. They’re just big kids who thought it’d be fun to live inside an alien body. A sane society would’ve tagged them for the waterheads they are and bought them a big playground. But no one even checked to see if their silly claim for succession was feasible. Civic Center just decided to stamp on them instead. They payed a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration. Spontaneous violence, the only excuse Civic Center would have to send in the riot cops. These people are bleeding down there for a scam.
It’s a show of power. How dare anybody ignore the authority of Civic Center? How dare a bunch of freaks try and think for themselves. So let’s go out and stomp on children, lunatics and incompetent, because by damn it makes out balls feel big. I can see a blatantly unarmed Transient unarmed man with half his face hanging off, and three cops working him over anyway.
One of them is groping his own erection.
I’m sorry is that too harsh an observation for you. Does that sound too much like the Truth? If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog’s cock about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t be seeing a Transient woman with blood on her face huddled in a porn-store doorway, clutching her belly. I wouldn’t be looking down at a dead boy, thirteen, he’s a day, draped over the hood of a police wagon. No one’s eyes would be bleeding from incapacity sprays of the nerve bomblets the cops are launching from Cranberry. I wouldn’t be surrounded up here by the people who have to live and work here, weeping openly.
Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence. You see, here’s how it works; Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. Your boss does what he likes. The asshole at the tollbooth, the bouncer at your local bar, the security guy who frisks you ate the clinic, the papers and feedsites that lie to you for the hell of it. They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.
This “riot” here, this terrible shit-rain visited upon a bunch of naïve and uppity fetishists; you paid for it. Lap it up. You must like it when people in authority they never earned lie to you. (62-7).
This was a rather long passage and partly because it was so long my contester will interrupt. What relevance does this passage have to anything or anyone? It just sounds like a bunch of sci-fi bullshit that doesn’t have any real connection to real life. Why should I give a damn about Spider Jerusalem or a bunch of alien-human hybrids?
My reader has a good point, and while I could answer it directly I’d prefer to let another writer do most of the work for me. Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I’ve only recently discovered but already she’s secured a place in my heart for her essays about the craft of writing and the importance of science fiction. In the introduction of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness she explores the idea of science fiction and what it can do:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
Transmetropolitan is a science fiction story because it predicts a future where technology has led to opportunity and comfort, but by and large Warren Ellis writes the world in such a way that capitalism and urbanization has led to a kind of cultural explosion where every conceivable taboo is relinquished and human beings are a mass of apathetic sensualists who are either dead inside or else completely oblivious to the suffering of other people.
And where does metacognition come into it?
In the last three years I’ve watched my country change into something odd. Protests are becoming far more common, and tragically so is police action against such protests. In the last three years the social role of journalists seems to have improved, but by that same token the populace is splintered by their “news preferences” which has led to some institutions being labeled “fake news.” In the last three years the issue of race has become something that has invigorated social rights activists, and by the same measure “white-lashing” has increased as bigots have warped and twisted political slogans and mantras into something that benefits their own ideologies. In the last three years there have been enormous political and social strides for queer people, and at the same time political actions hellbent on labeling queer people as perverts and cretins has never been stronger.
Absorbing my culture I think back to the image of Spider Jerusalem perched on the roof writing his column. It’s a simple image, but one that has become iconic. The writer and their typewriter, or laptop if you prefer something more contemporary, represents intellectual activity, but it also tends to become synonymous with change and power. Writers observe and absorb their cultures before writing their take which can often translate exactly what people are thinking or feeling and inspire change.
Looking at the last lines in the film All the President’s Men you get a sense for what’s possible when writer’s do their job right:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
But what does any of that have to do with my shitty blog?
I don’t enact change, real change anyway. Most of my stats demonstrate that most the people who find this site are people looking for pornography or else help writing papers for their English 1301 course. I’ve said this all before in previous Happy Birthday essays, but it warrants repeating because after three years I realize I fucked up tremendously with those students because of my selfishness. I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a great writer, and while I do have some talent, the reality is what I’ve said it is: I’m just another nobody with a shitty blog.
But even if I haven’t accomplished something of great merit, I can rest on the fact that I’ve written and brought attention to other great writers whose work has and will continue to inspire the next generation of young thinkers and skeptics and journalists and novelist who will look at the world and see something wrong or beautiful and want to write about it.
I’ve thought more and more that I would love to publish the essays here as a book and title it The Work Thus Far. It seems fitting. No matter how many books I read, no matter how many essays I write, it never feels like there’s a real end. The writer, the Great Man, sits at his keyboard typing words out and throwing them into the great sea of the internet hoping somebody out there will care. The writer writes, and in the end that’s all I could ever really ask for.
Thanks for three years dear reader.
All quotes from Transmetropolitan Vol 1 were taken from the Vertigo paperback edition. The quote from All the President’s Men was provided by IMBD. The quote from Ursula Le Guin’s Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness can be found by following the link below:
Batman, Benedict Cumberbatch naked sunbathing, Bisexuality, Book Review, Comics, Essay, Evil Bear Man, Gay, Gay Batman Sex Fantasy, Gay Men Comics, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, I Like It Like That, I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, Justin Hall, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Michael Fassbender, Naked, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Sex, Queer Theory, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Space, The "Fairy", Writing
I’ll admit that I wanted it both ways. And yes, that is a bisexuality pun.
My regular reader will remember, because I won’t shut up about it, that I’m bisexual. My graphic novel memoir I Like Dick, I Like Vagina, I Like Me is still several years away at this point but that’s only because the publishers fail to see my brilliance and so I languish in obscurity. Because I’m married however, and because my wife and I hold to a “No Sharing” policy, exploring my sexuality is often limited to the wonderfully perverted world of Tumblr or else my traditional outlets, books. There’s a problem on this second front because as I said before I want it both ways, and this time it’s not a pun. I have been, since I started reading works about Queer theory, looking for a book which would explore queer male sexuality while also not being ungodly academic.
Surprise surprise this has been difficult.
Most writing about sexuality between men remains rigidly fixed in academic analysis in which case your spending most of your time reading about Freud or Marxian realities inherent to Postmodern identity politics. The other alternative is pornography, and as I stated before, Tumblr exists and seems to do a far better job at it then most erotic male writers I have read. What has always been missing in book after book of male-male erotica is some level of intellectual exercise. Reading about X putting his dick in Y’s mouth and or anus can be fun, but after a while the characters become archetypal nobodies and I wanted to explore sexuality not just scratch an itch. It seemed then that there wasn’t any book out there where I could really get another person’s perspective on their sexuality in a way that was physically and psychological satisfying.
Until Half Price Books. This chain has largely been responsible for whatever emotional development I’ve had with my sexuality because unlike the bookstores in my home town of Tyler, Texas, they carry (unashamedly I might add) an entire section dedicated to gender, sex, and sexuality books. On yet another of my family’s recent pilgrimage to Dallas I headed for the LGBTQ Studies after cleaning up in the dollar section, and my cart filled up within a space of five minutes. Most of my books were studies of queer male sexuality or their history and so when I spotted I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire it was just one of the many books in the pile. It was a few minutes later when I was vetting my pile that I took the time to figure out what I was buying, and after reading just the back cover I knew I had to own this book.
I Like It Like That is not just a collection of testimonials for I’ve read and still own several books like that. Most books about queer men tend either to be outright pornography, or else testimonials about their first time or about their coming out. Books like that are valuable and should be read and studied, but again there was always something missing for me whenever I read them. The way my own mind works I always prefer a work that takes the time to introspect or analyze a condition or situation. The men writing their personal essays are not just describing their sex life, they’re offering assessments and deeper understandings of what sex has meant to them, or how it has changed their life, or shown in what way they have explored or expressed their sexuality. Each essay acts alone and independently from the other, but while reading this book each essay feels like it’s is arranged in reaction to others so at times the book is like reading a group of men talking together about their sexuality. The best part about the collection however is the actual range of sexual expressions that are understood and discussed. One article titles Tom Selleck’s Mustache is one man’s realization that he possesses a fetish for mustache’s in general and therefore kissing men with mustache’s is his favorite erotic act. Another essay, which is in fact a comic strip, titled Amanuensis is a short story about a top who helps two husbands who are both bottoms. Big Black Daddy-Dick, or The Joys of Being Fetishized is really everything the title suggests as a middle aged black man explores the pleasure derived from others who look at him and his dick in a kind of worship. Bathhouse Desires covers the territory of a man visiting a bath house for the first time and feeling lost in lust and desire. Straight Guy Fetish explores a personal essay of a man caught in a one sided relationship with a straight man. And finally Evil Bear Man is a comic strip about a man who works as a fetish escort and has sex with his boyfriend in front of his client dressed up as Batman and Robin.
This last one, for the record, is my favorite only because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading it.
This basic list serves to demonstrate what an odd and wonderful book I Like it Like That really is for the reader interested in exploring libidos. Reading these essays feels so personal because too often the subject of sex is something that is hushed up or hidden. But something powerful happens when a writer opens their secret heart and shows you something. To wit, observe just one passage from the essay The Weight of My Desire:
I like men. And I like that I like men. But more than that, I like that you like them too. […] Sometimes, I think, the only thing greater than my desire for a man is my desire for his hunger. Do you know what I mean? His yearning to touch, or be touched by, another man. His willingness. His lust. His lack of inhibition. The thought that maybe just the book of another man’s smile is enough to get him hard. That perhaps even you might think of me and quiver. That I might hold the power to do that to you. Then I could pull you close, press your forehead into mine, and gaze into your eyes as we fuck. And in your eyes I will see that you like it. I will hear it on your warm breath and in the wet sound of your tongue on my skin. We are not that different, you and I. Your balls ache the way mine do. (207-8).
It’s incredibly painful to me how long it took for me to be able to read the first two sentences and agree with them. For the longest time I hid behind the random imitation of the “fairy” whenever the issue of same-sex intimacy between two men was brought up. Whenever I would discuss Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Fassbender I would become fay and limp-wristed and raise my voice to sigh dreamily. I still sigh dreamily after Michael Fassbender for the record because…because…Ahem
Ahem. And Jason Moma is…
…well…yeah. The point is though while reading this passage I recognized the similar physical sentiment, “your balls ache the way mine do,” but I also recognized how much I had grown into my own comfort of my sexuality. Being attracted to another man wasn’t funny, or at least wasn’t just funny. It could also be real, and it could also be something to enjoy about myself.
Having said that though humor is important especially when dealing with sex. That’s why Evil Bear Man is without doubt my favorite essay in the collection. The fact that it’s also nothing but comics doesn’t hurt either.
The essay is about a fetish escort who gets paid by one of his clients to dress up as Robin and “break in” to his apartment so his client can pretend to be a villain by the name of Evil Bear Man. Evil Bear Man’s evil scheme? To force Batman and Robin to fuck.
With the help of his boyfriend, who plays the role of Batman, the pair of them eventually play out the fantasy for the client who enjoys a nice, quick wank. The description is enough to make even the most patient and open-minded reader to stop and ask the question: why should I be giving a damn about this. With the incorporation of images this moment sounds like nothing but pornography? But looking back over the essay again I can counter this immediately. Pornography is designed to titillate and arouse the viewer and/or reader of the work. Evil Bear Man works to occasionally arouse the reader, but often Justin Hall, the writer and illustrator who’s work I have appreciated in other books such as Boy Trouble and True Porn, breaks the serious erotic’s to show small moments of humility. His boyfriend complains about the utility belt, on the way over a kid tells him that the Robin outfit looks gay, after the client has paid he hopes the pair of them don’t laugh too hard and of course they do, and at the end the pair of them eventually continue to fuck in the outfits while the onomatopoeias of BLAM, WHAM, and KER-POW pop up between the phrases “Take it.” Anyone who watched the old Adam West Batman like I did surely remembers this and having them subverted, or perverted if you prefer, was funny and charming.
The point is while the reader observes this small tale they explore the fantasy of the client and observe how the escort and his boyfriend eventually perpetuate it, both together, and also to the reader. The individual reading the book I Like It Like That, is most likely someone who will derive some kind of erotic interests from the essays being presented and so there’s an invitation to not only observe the little distractions that can take place during sex (you always wind up placing your weight on their hair for some reason), but also to see if maybe some part of you isn’t also slightly turned on by watching Batman and Robin fuck.
I’ve never had a Batman fetish myself, and I still don’t. However, studies of tumblr have demonstrated that even without my participation this fantasy will continue into the future.
I’ve probably said more than I need to in order to the pique the interest of the reader who’s willing to sink $20 into a nice slim little book of erotic essays, but as always my point in these writings isn’t just to review books. Anyone who wants a quick review should try Goodreads. These essays are about my own exploration and so I prepare for my contester who interrupts me to ask, “Why should I bother picking this book up? I’m not gay, I’ve never had any gay feelings. Why should I waste my time reading about a bunch of gay men having sex?”
To this criticism I really don’t have much of a defense. If you’re a straight guy this book probably doesn’t offer much for you. I’m sorry but that’s where it stands. Though it should be noted that there is a small populace that call themselves straight who engage in same-sex activity, but that’s for a later essay.
Buying the book, and taking the time to write this out I wasn’t really writing for straight men. I wasn’t writing for gay men either. And in fact I wasn’t writing to any men at all, simply myself. As I noted before, my bisexuality is an odd creature because it can only exist in an odd erotic space. Because I don’t want to cheat on my wife, but because I also am unwilling to hide my, what Alison Bechdel calls in her brilliant graphic novel Fun Home “Erotic Truth,” this books is a real gift. It affords me the space to explore my sexual feelings towards other men without violating my marriage or without making me feel guilty.
And, along with helping me find my sexual self, it also affords me a few opportunities to think. Such as the following passage from the essay The Truth of His Nakedness:
It wasn’t about sex. Until it was. But it took me years to realize that nothing had really changed. These days, my nakedness is usually reserved for sexual situations, but that only reinforces the point—the erotic space is the same. The erotic space is the space of unavoidable truth. The erotic space is who I am.
In the end, all there is nakedness: two bodies coming together, sharing their common humanity, their naked vulnerability, the ultimate truth that we are not alone. (184-5).
The essays in I Like it Like That, much like this review/reflection of the entire book, finds its heart in the preceding passage because everything about these essays is about nakedness. “Naked” as a word always suggests vulnerability and by exposing your body, and by extension your desire to another person there is always a risk. Writing these words, and publishing them on the internet for all the world to see is a risk because there will always come those who will reject my desire, and by extension my person in general. I’ve listened to horror stories from some of my friends in the queer community and so I do not write and publish this essay without some reservation. It would be a mistake though to suggest that this was purely about the actual act of sex, because these essays prove sex is not only about the act of inserting something up an anus, into a mouth, or into a vagina. Sex is about a space in which desire is allowed to breath and be and the only way for a person to figure out what they “like” is to find some kind of space in which to work with.
Queer men exist in a wonderful space in which to explore their desire, and I’m happy to contribute to it in any way I can, even if it’s just suggesting a book through this shitty blog.
Looking over these words I’ve reminded myself that the reason I’m able to be and exist is because of the agency and space I possess. Others aren’t nearly so lucky. I’ll probably never have sex with another man, and while there is some sadness in this declaration there is still a happiness in recognizing I have enough “space” to openly acknowledge it’s still something I would like.
And if that “space” should ever include Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch, well, I mean, I wouldn’t complain. Would you?
Art, Catching the Big Fish, Comics, David Lynch, graphic novel, honey, Joshua Jammer Smith, Neil Gaiman, original photograph, Philosophy, Reese's, still life, tea, The New Yorker, The Sandman, The Wake, Transcendental Meditation
American Gods, Ananssi Boys, Art, Book Review, Daytripper, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, graphic novel, How To Talk to Girls At Parties, masculinity, myth, Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman's Guide to Getting Girls to Like You, Novel, Sandman, Science, science fiction, Sexuality, Short Story, speculative fiction, Take a chance and ask that girl to dance you won't regret it, teenage boys, The Doll's House, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s a lesson I’m not sure if I’ve learned yet, which might explain why I bought the book. It’s not that I have problems talking to women, I’m married so obviously I have some skill (though my wife might say otherwise to spite me) it’s just that I never really learned how you actually talk to girls when you’re at a party. Because of this I figured I would learn from Neil Gaiman how exactly you do this, and instead I got a rather odd, wonderful, beautiful book about a boy who meets goddesses, suns, and universes.
Amazon is the ultimate temptation for me, and minutes, sometimes hours, that should be spent reading or writing are instead spent following the trails of recommendations of books I was just looking at. The Sandman: The Doll’s House leads to the graphic novelization of The Graveyard Book which leads to American Gods which leads to Anansi Boys which leads to Coraline which leads to Endless Nights which leads eventually to an odd book with three beautiful women on the cover (more about them later) beneath the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties. As I said, wrote, before, I wasn’t a social creature growing up, and the only reason I acquired any confidence was because I had to get out of my shell for a job, also I got a girlfriend that tends to help. Still despite when I was looking at the cover I had an odd moment of reincarnation when I began to recognize I had become a teenage boy again. Not only that, one of my favorite authors had written a guide for me so that, should it occur, if I was invited to a party I could now just follow a guide.
I bought the book and read it mystified by the experience because it was nothing of what I thought it was.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a story about a young teenage boy named Enn who is dragged to a party by his friend Vic. Enn is the kind of boy that is obviously just the younger avatar version of the writer, or else the every-man nerd that eventually grows up and becomes an accomplished author who writes about every-man nerds growing up to become accomplished authors. I recognize that that sounds like I’m being bitter and that the work is good but you misunderstand me, I write out of hope. If Neil Gaiman was the nerdy loser who got lucky there’s still a chance for me. Enn and Vic arrive at a house that isn’t the party they’re going to, but when the door opens a beautiful girl answers the door, and when she invites them inside the party is nothing but beautiful women. Vic is the go-to suave, confident jock who immediately hits it off with one of the girls and Enn is left to himself wandering through the house where he meets and “talks” to three women who, while they talk, speak as if they aren’t really women, or human for that matter. The exact word one of the girls uses is “tourist.” As the book goes on it’s clear that these women are either aliens, goddesses, or even universes made manifest into human form. Enn eventually talks to one and begins to kiss her, realizing that the girl is using him as a conduit so that her “story” will live on when Vic grabs him and tells him they have to leave. The girl he was going to sleep with glares after them, her head become an exploding sun, and as soon as they’re out of the house it’s clear that Vic became terrified once it was clear that the girl was using him and not the other way around. As for Enn, he forgets the “poem” almost as soon as they leave the house, and as they walk away it disappears slowly becoming as fleeting as music.
This plot description is important because anyone who buys the book thinking what I thought originally should know what they’re really buying, and while this isn’t just a lecture series by Gaiman (“Neil Gaiman’s Guide to Scoring Babes” is currently in development as a Great Courses series by the way) by the end the book had taught me exactly how to talk to girls.
You don’t talk, you just listen.
In hindsight I wish someone had just told me that when I was thirteen that this is the way you talk to girls, it would have made high school a far easier experience than it was, but we all must fight through the slough of despond that is puberty and emerge victorious. Part of that struggle is finding your own path through it.**
Most, if not all, of Gaiman’s books on some level tackle the nature of stories and narratives, and you could make the argument that his entire creative ethos is simply an effort to tell one really long story about stories period. Whether it’s the stories of myth in American Gods, the stories of old houses and children who find themselves caught in them in Coraline, or whether it’s the very story of the narrative existence in his Sandman series, Gaiman’s creative writing, and even his non-fiction, all seem dedicated to telling, unravelling, and then recreating the structure of narratives period while telling amazing stories.
At this point my reader will interrupt and ask what’s so damn special about How to Talk to Girls at Parties then? If Gaiman isn’t bringing anything new to the table, why bother with the book at all? And what if I already know how to talk to girls at parties, what then smarty-pants?
To begin with let’s avoid the name calling. Greg.
Second there are at least two significant reasons for reading this slim graphic novel and the first is Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. My regular reader may recognize those names, and if you have never read any of my work you still might have heard about them. Moon and Ba are the creative team behind the book Daytripper, a graphic novel which has won several Eisner awards (basically the Oscars of graphic novels) and a wonderful story about a man who wants to be a writer. Apart from the spectacular writing of Daytripper the lingering impression of the book is art which, and I know I’ve used this word several times already but it’s the best word that works, is simply beautiful. Daytripper is illustrated and colored with the stuff of dreams, and while reading that book I was struck by the thought that such work couldn’t possibly be replicated, I found myself fortunately corrected in How To Talk to Girls at Parties.
Gaiman’s words make the Moon and Ba’s colors, lines, and girls become some of the most radiant images collected into one small book. As Enn travels from room to room listening to the three women tell their story I felt as if I had left the world I knew, and as the women told their story I carried their words, and beings, long after I had closed the book. Ba and Moon are what helps make the book what it is, because their colors make each woman unique, and quite possibly the most beautiful women in comics I have ever seen.
As for my second response to my contester I would remind my reader that even if Gaiman is continuing his process of anthropomorphizing stories, gods, feelings, emotions, or non-living beings like stars or the internet, this is no reason not to read his work. In fact, given the fact that it’s Neil Gaiman this should only provide more impetus to actually read it. Gaiman is a writer who does not half-ass his reader, and even in his most esoteric (Sandman Overture was about something, I’m still working on not drooling while staring at the art) he manages to write characters and settings, and events into being that feel true. Normal human beings with their own lives, who are trying to figure out the oddity of mundane reality become swept up by supernatural events or creatures. Ultimately his characters are forever impacted by these experiences, and while most forget the sights and wonders the way a person might immediately lose a dream when they awake, they still feel the experience long after. His prose is where this wonder takes place, and as he wraps his reader in their dream he leaves the lasting impression.
Looking at the exchange between Enn and the last girl, a Grecian red-head named Triolet, the reader hears her story and is carried away to a different realm:
“We knew that it would be soon over. We knew…so we put it all into a poem…to tell the universe who we were and why we were here and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun systems distant, the pattern could be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again.” (43-45)
If I can break the fourth wall for a moment, while transcribing this passage I have a video playing titled “underwater whale songs.” Humpbacks and the sound of the ever roaring waves echoing through the infinite abyss of the ocean just seemed to make the words feel real.
Aside aside, moving on.
This small exchange, rendered magnificently by Moon and Ba, is the typical anthropomorphizing that Gaiman fans are used to, but looking deeper into the passage I realized at this moment that Gaiman had achieved a miracle for blending science fiction with myth. Myth as a term has fallen on hard times, and shows like Mythbusters have only perpetuated this tragedy (and it is a tragedy because the show is great and a wonderful way for people to become interested in science), but at its core myth is about explaining reality through narrative rather than empirical means. Triolet may be a goddess, or a star, or an alien, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because at this moment what matters is that she’s telling the story of her people, what they used to be and were and what they believed. The act of speaking to Enn, and having him listen, is in essence recording her culture. And while the reader may immediately question why that is so important I would remind them of the necessity of recording history, myth, culture, philosophy, history, science, and stories. It’s a romantic thought, but crucial to remember, that nothing in this world ever really matters until someone has written it down.
Record seals memory and so Gaiman achieves something really interesting by not only telling a story about an alien race keeping themselves alive by telling their stories to young men looking to get laid, there’s also a fascinating possibility for the future.
In the introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes about science fiction as a genre and what is the ultimate creative goal. She also tries to clarify the idea that science fiction is a genre trying to “see into the future.” She writes:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to shwo that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
My reader may be getting impatient at this point, but hopefully this quote will explain one of my lasting impressions of reading How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Science fiction isn’t about predicting future technology, or predicting how the world will eventually die. As Le Guin says, the entire genre is built upon the concept of the “thought-experiment.” Imagine a set of conditions and let it just go. Explore an idea through imagination. And so listening to Triolet’s story I see a beautiful science fiction possibility. Already humanity is moving more and more towards a paperless system of record keeping, in which every action, thought, belief, and art product is contained in formless data streamed through wires and eventually through waves. Ba and Moon’s art shows the species collecting their culture into a “poem” before containing it in a sun and sending the signal out to be discovered by some new race that might study their species and carry their memory on.
How to talk to Girl’s at Parties isn’t just about learning how to speak to that girl across the room who keeps smiling at you, it offers a deeper understand of what such an interaction actually is. Walking across the room, feeling your tongue swell up and your palm getting sweaty as you think of something to say to the girl you’ve seen everyday in Algebra I for the last year is like encountering a new world. You’ll never be the same after you ask her a question, and you’ll never be the person you were when you see her smile and listen to her talk about finding her blouse at Goodwill. The small act of listening to a girl tell you about her clothes or day may not be the grand thought experiments of writers like Le Guin, Clarke, Dick, Adams, Asimov, or even Gaiman but in its own way it does forever leave what you knew behind.
So long story short, take the chance, talk to the girl, and just listen carefully. You’ll find yourself in a different world.
The quote from Le Guin’s introduction can be found ACE Science Fiction paperback copy, as well as by following the link below:
Upon finishing the essay I remembered that my father had actually taught me this lesson, but like most young men receiving advice from their dad’s I didn’t listen to it. So thanks dads, and sorry I didn’t pay attention.
All Star Superman, Book Review, Calvin and Hobbes, Comics, Daytripper, death, Fabio Moon, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, From Hell, Fun Home, Gabriel Ba, graphic novel, Jammer Talks About, Joshua Jammer Smith, King, Life, MAUS, mortality, Reading, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, The Plot: The Secret history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Sandman: The Doll's House, Watchmen, Writers
In this video I provide a brief review of the graphic novel Daytripper. This is a book that, in my estimation, is one of the most underappreciated graphic novels in the ever growing canon of what Scott McCloud refers to as Graphic Art. Books like Watchmen, The Sandman, and MAUS consistently appear on lists of truly great and wonderful graphic novels yet Daytripper is left from such lists for some mysterious reason. The reader doesn’t need my validation however, nor does the book and so in this video I try to just discuss a few of the themes addressed in the book.
The graphic novel is about the life of the writer Bras de Olivas Domingo who, before he publishes his first novel to great success, works as an obituary writer. His father is a world famous novelist and throughout the book Bras mourns the fact that he and his father do not always have the best working relationship, however beneath this I believe as a fascinating glimpse into father-son relationships. Every son in his own way tries to live up to what he believes to be the supposed expectations his father establishes during his life. Looking at Bras part of that standard is creating something out of his life, and so his novel, and then eventually his life, becomes that very means.
Daytripper is a book that explores life in all of its absurdity and mundane reality, and while each chapter ends in death, the larger creative goal seems to be to demonstrate that life is not purely beautiful or purely meaningless. Instead Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon try to show the odd magic that makes up life without resorting to clichés. This last word is important because when you say “the book is about life” the reader may summon up images of Once-A-Day-Faith Calendars or else platitude ridden Valedictorian speeches. There are many works which try to tell readers that life is wonderful and strange, but Daytripper is unique amongst this bunch because it actually shows them this through Bras’s first kiss, meeting the woman who would become his wife, being a spectator in a home invasion, writing close to a hundred obituaries for a Plane Crash, discovering he has terminal cancer, and losing his friend to madness.
Daytripper doeesn’t take the life of a superhero or a mythic being as its protagonist. Instead it finds an individual man who is trying to find some sense of meaning or purpose in his life. That should be a universal appeal enough to convince the reader that this book is made of magic. But if it isn’t hopefully this video, and the two essays I’ve written about it will.
The books used in this video are:
Daytripper by Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon (Vertigo)
All Star Superman Vol. 1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (DC Comics)
Death the Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman (Vertigo)
The Plot: The Secret History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner (W.W. Norton & Company)
King by Ho Che Anderson (Fantagraphic Books)
The House of Secrets by Various (DC Comics)
The Sandman: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman (Vertigo)
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf Productions)
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics)
A Contract With God by Will Eisner (W.W. Norton & Company)
The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon Books)
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin)
The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic)
Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC)
If you have any questions, suggestions, or requests for books you would like to see me review, please feel free to comment below.
Thank you for watching.
Joshua Jammer Smith
TO WATCH THE VIDEO FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW:
Alison Bechdel, Bechdel Test, Book Review, Comics, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Faith, Fan Culture, Fans, Feminism, Ghostbusters, graphic novel, Harbinger Vol. 1, Kate McKinnon, Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Narratives, Sandman, story, Stranger Things, Valiant, Watchmen, Zephyr
The other day a friend of mine wanted to know my feelings about the new Ghostbusters film, specifically if I wanted to see it because I was a feminist. I explained in my first response that the reason I wanted to see the film was not solely because I was a feminist, but because I love the Ghostbusters franchise period. Anything that mixes working-class mentalities with science fiction have always fascinated me, and while the characters in the original film were mostly college professors their work ethic, coupled with a desire to make a little bit of money along the way, reminded me a lot of my mom and dad who operated their own business. The film was one of a handful of Robin Williams and Bill Murry VHS tapes my parents seemed to have an unlimited supply of, and Ghostbusters was fun to watch because both Mom and Dad had memories connected to the film, and when I was younger I wanted to be like them. The film was also, let’s be fair, really fun to watch(except for the scene where Sigourney Weaver gets groped by the hands in the chair before the dog pops up, that scene freaked me out).
Looking at the new Ghostbusters movie I was compelled to see the film because, the awful looking CGI aside, the film was a Ghostbusters movie and it also sported four actresses who’s work I appreciated immensely: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and best of all Leslie Jones. My friend understood my qualms, but argued, at length, that the film wasn’t really helping feminism. There were still other issues like wage inequality and workplace harassment, and having a lousy movie with an all-woman cast wasn’t going to actually contribute any real solutions to the problems women face.
To this I didn’t have any objections because there wasn’t anything to object to. The only argument I could make in favor of the film having an all-female cast was not so much about economic feminism, but rather cultural feminism.
The reader at some point may have heard, or come across in something they read, of something called “The Bechdel Test.” I could write out the explanation of the test, but since I adore Alison Bechdel (obsession is probably a different and far more applicable term) and relish every opportunity to show off her work I thought I would just cite the actual comic that created the test in the first place. It’s a panel from her comic series Dykes to Watch Out For:
This ten panel comic has had a tremendous impact upon film criticism, much to the annoyance of some film experts and fan boys online. The usual attack against the Bechdel Test is that it is designed to create a gynocentric film industry that seeks to eliminate men from film, and the other is that several great films fail this test while other lousy films win it. Looking at the first criticism of the test I can only laugh due to the sheer absurdity of the premise. Looking at the second complaint I’m a little more sympathetic. The problem with the Bechdel Test is that it can quickly create an eschewed perspective that if a film fails the test that it is faulty, but looking at a few films this becomes absurd: The King’s Speech, All the President’s Men, Pulp Fiction, Duck Soup, Reservoir Dogs. All of these films share the common characteristics of having largely all male or mostly male casts, but looking at the first film it won best picture in 2010. A film like Planet Terror in direct contrast, a film which involves zombies and a Go-Go dancer with a machine gun for a leg, actually passes the Bechdel test and this is the point.
I offered up an assessment to a friend of mine who works at the library and who was helping me find some books, that the Bechdel Test is not designed, or should not be designed, to shame films or suggest certain films are crap. The test is designed to challenge the individual who tries the test against most of the films they watch to see how well women are represented in said films. The test tries to help show that often the largest problem with women in cinema is not a lack of presence, it’s a lack of real representation.
Looking back to my friend and Ghostbusters this was the argument I offered up to her as to why a film like Ghostbusters did offer a vital feminist statement. It doesn’t matter if the cast is all women, what matters is that this all women cast offers up the chance to widen the representation of women in film which is often lacking. Thinking of this I thought of a book I’ve been reading lately that offers up a similar avenue of discussion, for like film, the medium of comics sometimes lacks in accurate and honest representation of female characters, particularly in the form of real body types.
I became aware of the character of Faith when my friend Michael lobbied for a Valiant book to be the book of the week of the Graphic Novel Appreciation Society. This would eventually become a joke in the group since every week his “Happy Thing” usually has something to do with Valiant, and whenever we do a Valiant book he wears a t-shirt of one of the characters from the universe. Faith appeared in Harbinger Vol 1., a book that I enjoyed but didn’t love, and it’s a testament to her character and the writing that she remains the brightest part of that graphic novel. Valiant recently got around to giving her her own book and so I finally bought it actually exited to dig into the material.
Faith is a psiot, an individual capable to manipulated the space and natural laws around her with her mind. In the case of Faith, superhero name Zephyr, secret identity name Summer, she is able to fly, create psionic shield barriers and even push people as if manipulating the wind. Think sort of a Mrs. Fantastic from Fantastic 4, only, well, interesting and interested in Dr. Who, STAR WARS, and Star Trek. The book Faith is about her settling into a journalism job in Los Angeles, where she actually works on Click Bait reviewing reality shows and celebrity scandals, where she uncovers a plot by an ancient race of aliens who despise humanity for their bland and wanton destruction of the natural environment. Did I mention the aliens were plants? Because that’s kind of important, but not really.
Much like the graphic novel Flashpoint, which I reviewed for my own site a while back, my ultimate assessment of Faith is that, while it may not be an artistic effort in the same caliber as Watchmen or The Sandman series, it is a good story that doesn’t feel weak after reading it. The metaphor a few of my friends will use is “popcorn movie” in honor of films like Star Wars and Jaws, both films that, while they may not be in the same vein as their contemporary periods greats (Taxi Driver, Deliverance, Network, Easy Rider, etc.) they do a damn good job of entertaining the audience and occasionally giving the viewer something to think about. Faith is about being a superhero, but throughout her book her love of nerd culture is the central defining character trait she possesses.
Faith is not Batman in terms of genius, Flash in terms of super speed, or even Wonder Woman in terms of making you wish there was more of Wonder Woman in Batman Vs. Superman, instead she’s just a woman who enjoys watching science fiction shows on television and trying to be a good person. Best of all the fact that she doesn’t look like Wonder Woman or Scarlet Witch or Catwoman or Harley Quinn isn’t even discussed.
There’s one page however that offers a beautiful moment, not just for Faith personally, but for the reader experiencing her story:
Faith lost both of her parents as a child, so perhaps she’s not that different from Batman, but before they passed they shared with her their love of comics, science fiction, and general nerdity, and as the last panel demonstrates that love of stories kept their memory alive in her. Growing up my parents watched Ghost Busters and Star Wars with me, and while I would watch the movies (and memorize them to impress friends and family later) I would ask my parents what a movie was like in theatres, or if they enjoyed the movie when it came out, and so these stories would assume surrounding or satellite stories that connected more emotion and meaning to me personally.
With that in hand I look back to Ghostbusters and my friend’s comments. I didn’t get a chance to see Ghostbusters in theatres (my wife adopted a puppy and my best friend started up a YouTube channel he wanted me to help him develop) but even after the film comes out and I’m disappointed or pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll stand by my argument. A lot of young men grew up watching the Ghostbuster’s movie with their mom and dads and created nostalgia around it, but so did plenty of young women who have grown up now and would like to share the film franchise with their own little girls.
A book like Faith doesn’t solve the nuanced problems facing millions of women in the workplace, nor does it resolve the amount of sexual assault that takes place in the United States Armed Services, nor does it provide a blueprint for fixing the fact that only around 50 women in the United States congress have to represent half of the nation’s population, but begin your pardon no book could do that. What Faith does is present a real woman, without gimmick or hype, who is in fact one of us: a nerd, a dork, a geek. For girls who grew up and weren’t cheerleaders, or beauty queens, or star athletes, for girls who simply wanted to hang out, play some D&D or watch Star Trek, Faith is a real hero because she does something more important than trying to solve all the problems in the world: she just tries to be a good person and have a little fun watching Stranger Things with her boyfriend.
A hero can’t save everything or everyone, but they can, in their own way, represent us in ways so that we realize we may not need heroes. We may find out we’re the hero we always wanted to be already.
While Stranger Things isn’t actually brought up in the graphic novel, in fact Faith was written at least a year before that show came out, I could still see Faith watching it because how could you not that show is amazing. Seriously. Watch it….Why aren’t you watching it? Stephen King likes it and he’s freaking Stephen King!