Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Peter David's X-Factor: 20 best moments

There are times during the doldrums of summer, when you're having a hard time concentrating on your "serious" writing, that the best way of unclogging the pipes of their lime and gunk is to compose a long, uncritical fanletter to a favorite piece of mass cultural ephemera. It's worked for me before, so let's give it another shot.

I mentioned some time ago how much I've been enjoying Jonathan Hickman's provocative soft reboot of the X-Men books, and I'm happy to see new issues finally trickling out after the COVID-19 outbreak effectively locked down DC and Marvel's release schedules for the better part of three months. This Wednesday will see the release of a new volume of X-Factor, one of my favorite X-titles. I'm very excited for it, and yes, I'm aware I'm behaving like a trained seal clapping and barking at a signal from its trainer. Marvel Comics (parent company Walt Disney Co., NYSE: DIS, market cap $215 billion) is gambling on my having enough strong positive associations with the title X-Factor that I'll buy a new book with that name, sight unseen, regardless of who's on its creative team or what it's about.

This was a bet they've already won.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 2)

Picking up from where we left off...

(III) Admonishing his audience about "truth" and "shadows," Ruskin advises the artist not to let his passion for his creative endeavors and their results displace his interest and love for the subjects his art depicts—which Ruskin hopes to assume will be mountain scenes, meadows, marine vistas, and so on, or at the very least, real things in the world. If he ever countenanced the idea that the beloved objects an artist mirrors in her work might be images produced by other artists, he would have dismissed it toute de suite. Though he disliked Whistler's work enough to pen a scathing review, Ruskin probably wouldn't even condescend to comment on the CalArts style. (The joke's on him, of course: how many millions more people living right now care more about Adventure Time and Steven Universe than the Pre-Raphaelites or J.M.W. Turner?)

I don't suppose there's any feasible way of sifting through all the content uploaded to DeviantArt (it still exists!), Tumblr (ditto), Twitter, Instagram, etc. to determine how much more activity and enthusiasm surrounds "illustration" than, say, charcoal renders of models, studies of landscapes or urban structures, and other such efforts to represent real entities and places—but it's safe to say that an artist is far more likely to earn recognition and praise for producing and sharing She-Ra and the Princesses of Power fan content than pencil sketches of the objects sitting on her desk.

The artist sharing pictures of his in-universe Avatar: The Last Airbender or Sonic the Hedgehog OC is striving to imitate a style: I don't think we malign him in observing that he draws from art, not from life.¹ With a little introspection, we can easily infer the factors implicated in the young artist's being more inspired to draw what he fondly recognizes from a crisp, glowing screen than what he encounters in his day-to-day existence milling back and forth from rented home to alien workplace (or simply remaining at home) in the impersonal tristesse of our rudely mechanical century.

Much of the digital art I see adheres to one of a small number of predominant styles. From my vantage point, the CalArts look and its offshoots remain ubiquitous throughout webcomics, zines, and indie animation. Lately I've been seeing a lot material in a style that I can't put a name to (though its detractors identify it with "SJWs" and Tumblr); some of the concept art for the New Warriors reboot is a pretty good example. The influence of Invader Zim endures here and there, and the fursona avatars I occasionally encounter still have the "Disney's Robin Hood through beer goggles" vibe I remember from two decades ago.

But no contemporary illustration (or animation) style can compete with the distinctive look of anime and manga in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of its influence.

I hardly watch anime anymore; I don't follow any artists, and I'm not subscribed to any hashtags. But I see a lot of anime art by dint of friends' likes and retweets. Here are a few such images I scrolled past while drafting these posts:

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 1)

Decades ago, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in Philadelphia (such simpler times those were, way back then), I went out for a bike ride after staying indoors for several days, and sat around Fairmount Park with a small stack of books. One was the Oxford World Classics volume of John Ruskin's selected writings, which I periodically enjoy leafing through, and is a fine read for a sunny spring day when the magnolias are in bloom. I dogeared a page excerpted from The Eagle's Nest, the text of a series of lectures Ruskin gave at Oxford in 1872, and reread it once or twice since then. Today I'd like to trace some of the contrails from the flight of imagination the passage inspired.

It reads:

That is Shakespeare’s judgment of his own art. And by strange coincidence, he has put the words into the mouth of the hero whose shadow, or semblance in marble, is admittedly the most ideal and heroic we possess, of man; yet, I need not ask you, whether of the two, if it were granted you to see the statue by Phidias, or the hero Theseus himself, you would choose rather to see the carved stone, or the living King. Do you recollect how Shakespeare’s Theseus concludes his sentence, spoken of the poor tradesmen’s kindly offered art, in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

“The best in this kind are but shadows: and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.”

It will not burden your memories painfully, I hope, though it may not advance you materially in the class list, if you will learn this entire sentence by heart, being, as it is, a faultless and complete epitome of the laws of mimetic art.

“But Shadows!” Make them as beautiful as you can; use them only to enable you to remember and love what they are cast by. If ever you prefer the skill of them to the simplicity of the truth, or the pleasure of them to the power of the truth, you have fallen into that vice of folly, (whether you call her κακία or μωρία,) which concludes the subtle description of her given by Prodicus, that she might be seen continually εἰς τὴν ἑαυτης σκιὰν ἀποβλέπειν
—to look with love, and exclusive wonder, at her own shadow.
There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe—nothing with wider ground in my experience for requiring you to believe, than this, that you never will love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.
It is the widest, as the clearest experience I have to give you; for the beginning of all my own right art work in life, (and it may not be unprofitable that I should tell you this,) depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea. All boys with any good in them are fond of boats, and of course I liked the mountains best when they had lakes at the bottom; and I used to walk always in the middle of the loosest gravel I could find in the roads of the midland counties, that I might hear, as I trod on it, something like the sound of the pebbles on sea-beach. No chance occurred for some time to develop what gift of drawing I had; but I would pass entire days in rambling on the Cumberland hill-sides, or staring at the lines of surf on a low sand; and when I was taken annually to the Water-colour Exhibition, I used to get hold of a catalogue before-hand, mark all the Robsons, which I knew would be of purple mountains, and all the Copley Fieldings, which I knew would be of lakes or sea; and then go deliberately round the room to these, for the sake, observe, not of the pictures, in any wise, but only of the things painted.

And through the whole of following life, whatever power of judgment I have obtained, in art, which I am now confident and happy in using, or communicating, has depended on my steady habit of always looking for the subject principally, and for the art, only as the means of expressing it.
Well: what do we think of this?

(I) Though Ruskin's prose evinces his erudition and passion, his ideas about art are so old-fashioned as to seem rather quaint to the modern aesthete. He was a traditionalist, of course: given his reaction to Whistler's Nocturne paintings ("[I] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face"), we don't even have to guess how he'd have reacted to cubism or geometric abstraction had he lived another fifteen years to see it.

John Ruskin, Stone Pines at Sestri (1845)

Let's assume Ruskin intuits an actual fact in his remark that one "can never love art well" until she better loves the objects represented in/by it. To be a first-rate artist then (according to Ruskin), one must be more invested in and enamored of the subject she views than in the object she produces as the result of her study and scrutiny.

Where would that leave somebody like Kandinsky? Could anyone today seriously accuse him of not loving art well, or of being a second-rate painter? Doubtful.

Monday, May 25, 2020

mass culture appendix

I almost want to apologize in advance for this one.

This is what happens when I don't have the nine-to-five limiting the amount of time I can reasonably engage in dirtbag-intellectual snipe hunts, and when I've got a little too accustomed to talking to myself all day.

The context: a friend of mine read the previous post and emailed me some thoughts about it. My efforts to organize my ideas and answer her went completely off the rails. I've arranged some of my more coherent notes below, lubricated for your comfort with some pretty (but not remotely relevant) images from my camera. The sick thing is, this accounts for only sixty to seventy percent of the notes I took. I need a change of scenery.

Anyway, Claire writes:
I think the thought that I jump to after this is the question of whether "globalization" inherently means a cultural watering down. I know this isn't exactly the same thing that you're writing about, but there's that idea with "diversity" too that it essentially just means assimilation and whitewashing—that we think "inclusion" will lead to a more vibrant integrating of cultures when what it often means is that one culture drowns out the others and any "variety" is minimal or superficial. So, in order for us to live a connected existence (in the way the internet allows us to), will there also be a pull towards a single, dominant, location-less but probably "western"-influenced/dominated "universal culture" that people will come to see as their own more so than any location-based identity? (I guess we already have some language built for this with concepts like "digital native"...)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The American background: from active strain to estrangement

Edward Hopper, Intermission (1963)

Two months in, it might be measurable in petabytes: the internet traffic to newspaper articles, thinkpieces, and short YouTube about the ways in which COVID-19 has unraveled the fabric of day-to-day life in the United States. To be sure, sickness and death, a six-month freeze in public education, and the frightful economic costs (which undoubtedly are being and will be borne most by wage-earners) are nothing to be dismissed. But the parts of our day-to-day repertoires that stay-at-home orders and social distancing have left unaffected also deserve some attention.

A joke circulated on Twitter in mid- or late March; I won't pretend to remember where it originated or in what form (it might have been a comic strip), but the gist of it was:

"What did you do yesterday?"

"Oh, you know, I stayed at home, bingewatched Tiger King all afternoon and then stayed up until two in the morning playing Doom Eternal."

"Well, it's good to give yourself a break from worrying about the pandemic."


"Americans are," runs the headline of a Forbes piece from early April, "Excessively eating, drinking, smoking pot, playing video games and watching porn while quarantined." So—what we've already been up to, but a bit more of it. Businesses have closed their doors and self-isolation guidelines preclude public gatherings or events, but American cultural life doesn't look that much different from before—especially if you're in a sub-middling income bracket and are not yourself a Highly Effective Person or keep such people in your company.

The museums, concert halls, and community theaters have closed—but let's be honest, most of us weren't visiting them more than once a year, if that. Ditto libraries and bookstores. Those of us upset about the closure of our favorite little coffee shops are probably less disappointed about missing out conversations with other regulars or open mic night than having nowhere else but our own homes to hunch over and punch at our laptops. The average sports enthusiast is more likely mourning the national leagues' hiatus than disheartened at having to miss out on attending or playing games on an amateur team. If we go out to see local bands play in small venues more often than never, odds are we're in our twenties and personally know at least one person taking the stage that night.

Subcultures and small arts scenes do exist, but to most of the population of a given city, these strains are irrelevant.1 Those who are not directly involved in them pay them no mind (possibly while deriding its participants as "hipsters") while they watch Netflix, follow strangers on Instagram, read middlebrow thinkpieces by people living in Brooklyn or San Diego, pantomime congregation on Reddit, play video games, or watch remote strangers playing video games—like everyone else does everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mardi: Devil Fish, Bone Sharks, Killers & Thrashers

some inexplicable impulse recently led me to pull my copy of Herman Melville's Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849) off the shelf and leaf through it a while. As you may remember, Mardi was the young Melville's first "true" novel (as opposed to a roman à clef), and it's a goopy hot mess.

However awkwardly Mardi's individual pieces fit together, there's a lot to like about it. Revisiting the early "open boat" chapters was an especial delight, and today I'd like to share one of them with you. The book's thirteenth chapter is a brief introduction to marine life for the nineteenth-century landlubber, and I've supplemented it with visual aids. Enjoy!

A contextual note: at this point in the novel, our as-yet-unnamed narrator and his Scandinavian companion Jarl have absconded from the whaling vessel on which they were employed, and are floating on the South Pacific current on a small boat. In an earlier chapter, our narrator likened the craft rising on and descending the swells to a mountain goat—hence the "Chamois" appellation.

A paratextual note: I consulted Richard J. King's Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (2019) for help matching the nineteenth-century critter names to their modern-day equivalents. All the photographs but one are from Wikipedia, and the exception is noted in the caption.

CHAPTER XIII — Of The Chondropterygii, And Other Uncouth Hordes Infesting The South Seas

At intervals in our lonely voyage, there were sights which diversified the scene; especially when the constellation Pisces was in the ascendant.

It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seen their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists.

Though America be discovered, the Cathays of the deep are unknown. And whoso crosses the Pacific might have read lessons to Buffon. The sea-serpent is not a fable; and in the sea, that snake is but a garden worm. There are more wonders than the wonders rejected, and more sights unrevealed than you or I ever ever dreamt of. Moles and bats alone should be skeptics; and the only true infidelity is for a live man to vote himself dead. Be Sir Thomas Brown our ensample; who, while exploding "Vulgar Errors," heartily hugged all the mysteries in the Pentateuch.

But look! fathoms down in the sea; where ever saw you a phantom like that? An enormous crescent with antlers like a reindeer, and a Delta of mouths. Slowly it sinks, and is seen no more.

Doctor Faust saw the devil; but you have seen the "Devil Fish."

Manta ray ("Devil Fish")

Look again! Here comes another. Jarl calls it a Bone Shark. Full as large as a whale, it is spotted like a leopard; and tusk-like teeth overlap its jaws like those of the walrus. To seamen, nothing strikes more terror than the near vicinity of a creature like this. Great ships steer out of its path. And well they may; since the good craft Essex, and others, have been sunk by sea-monsters, as the alligator thrusts his horny snout through a Caribbean canoe.

Monday, March 30, 2020

more math, more games: lumines, abstraction, operators

Lumines Remastered (via The Verge

I've had a lot of time on my hands lately.

During the first week of social distancing, I was hitting the calculus textbook pretty hard; a thirty-six-hour moratorium has been placed on the calculation of antiderivatives in my household. It wouldn't surprise me to learn the standard calculus course's "strategies for integration" unit is the pons asinorum of the college-level math student. It's been kicking my ass. So I'm gonna collect my wits, maybe develop a flowchart (for the sake of testing the elasticity of last session's "game is math" metaphor, we could liken this to drafting a map for an NES- or DOS-era RPG), and come back to it in a few days.

So when I haven't been editing the n-v-l, making myself go on bike rides, or informing myself into a low-key panic attack, I've been playing Lumines Remastered on Steam. I love the game as much as I did its PlayStation 2 iteration, Lumines Plus (in 2008–9, it was my go-to after coming back from smoking spliffs in the woods on hot summer nights), though even now I couldn't clear the board to save my life.

As perhaps you know, Lumines is a brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and like his cult-hit rail shooter Rez, Lumines evinces  Mizuguchi's fascination with synaesthesic experience. Its exogenous marriage of block-puzzling and input-synched audiovisual sparklepop make Lumines a rare bird in an expansive aviary of Tetris clones.

Comparing Lumines to Tetris—as I heard myself doing when trying to convince my roommates to stop playing Animal Crossing and get the Switch version—is almost unavoidable. Tetris is the fountainhead of geometry-puzzle video games; without it, Lumines wouldn't exist. Dr. Mario, Puyo PuyoPuzzle Bobble, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and the rest can each be conveniently summed up as "Tetris, but with [blank]." In light of this ubiquity, it's tempting to attribute a universality to the Tetris experience. There's something almost primordial about its format and function: simple forms composed of four unit-squares in seven different spatial configurations, an evolving problem of optimization, and a time limit imposed by simulated gravity.

In truly excellent instances of minimalist design, the object imparts a sense of inevitability, as though it could not have taken any other form without violating an irrefragable principle of its conception. Tetris is so elegant, so elemental, that it might not be entirely crazy to conjecture a timeline without Alexey Pajitnov eventually producing something a lot like it.

Since its 1984 debut, Tetris has been playable on more platforms than I care to look up and list, many of which were quite basic by modern standards. If the endurance of the tune to "Korobeiniki" in the ears of American millennials is any indication, the lime-and-grey, blooping and crunching Game Boy version was for many years the title's most popular iteration. I first played Tetris on the NES, and an MS-DOS version snuck onto the family PC at one point. Every now and then, I used to see a coin-op version in a diner vestibule or a lonely corner in an arcade. My roommate is currently playing Tetris 99 on the Switch. But no matter what format, Tetris always recognizably performs as Tetris, and can be enjoyed as Tetris.

But it's difficult to imagine Mizuguchi signing off on a version of Lumines with four colors, four sound channels, no stage skins, and two songs on the soundtrack. The project was predicated on the availability of a platform that could interweave spatial reasoning imperatives with vivid, high-definition splashes of color and sound—the intent being, as Mizuguchi puts it, to braid left-brain logic with the emotional content that buzzes the right hemisphere. Tetris, on the other hand, was initially developed and ran on a Soviet-era IBM desktop computer, and most of the changes that came afterward were more aesthetic than functional.