Archive for Dystopia

A Weaponized Campus Can Be Fun!

Excited about unregulated firearms coming to Kansas State University’s campus?  Well, be sure to thank Representative John Barker and Senator Jacob LaTurner.  They refused to let the university campus-carry exemption bills even come up for a vote in the full House and Senate. So, thanks to them, the citizens who voted for them, and to all the NRA lackeys who create the laws in Kansas, as of July 1st, Kansas State University will be fully weaponized!

What does this mean for those of us who teach and study here?  Well, this morning, the university shared with us its new Weapons Policy Training module.  You see, as the announcement tells us,

On July 1, the university’s exemption from the concealed carry requirements of the Personal and Family Protection Act expires, meaning that the concealed carry of handguns will be allowed in university buildings at Kansas State University and other state universities. K-State continues its commitment to the safety of students, faculty and staff and all members of the K-State community.

The dark irony created by the juxtaposition of these two sentences is genius.  They tell us, first, that “concealed carry of handguns will be allowed” all over K-State campus and, second, that “K-State continues its commitment to the safety of students, faculty and staff.”  Because, you see, these two ideas are in no way incompatible!  Hahahaha. Ha.

But, for more fun, let’s get to that Weapons Policy Training module, shall we?

Weapons Policy Training module: first screen

Yep! “K-State Faculty/Staff.”  That’s me. (For now, anyway.)

Weapons Policy Module: screen 2

Ordinarily, I’d say “don’t repeat the same joke twice.” But I have to admit that the “dedicated to the safety and security” of everyone juxtaposed with WELCOME GUNS! is still pretty funny the second time around. Nicely played.

Weapons Policy Training module: screen 3

We have no choice about having armed and untrained students (to get a weapon, Kansas law requires no training, no background check, no license). But getting a choice of the order in which to complete the training makes me feel so much better. Thank you!

OK, I think I’ll start with “FAQ.”

Weapons Policy Training module: FAQ 1

Right, of course.  It’s much more fun to be surprised by the firearm accidentally going off or by the student using it on a classmate or the instructor.  Also, this policy helps protect the sensitive feelings of those people so cowardly that only being armed at all times makes them feel safe.  Poor little snowflakes.

Dropping a gun into a backpack seems like such an easy way to store it. Why bother to secure the weapon?  I mean, it’s not like someone could easily grab a classmate’s backpack or unzip the backpack and get the gun out.  That’s highly unlikely.  And since a person with no training on how to use a weapon will of course take all appropriate precautions, we can be confident that he (or she, but probably he) will leave the safety on.

Also, the need to keep the backpack “within the immediate reach of the individual” creates a fun new classroom game: Is That a Gun in Your Bag or Do You Suffer from Backpack Separation Anxiety?  The game works like this: Watch your students, and see who keeps the backpack very close at all times.  Is that student carrying?  Could be!  What about that student, over there?  Hmmm.  And why are those two students whispering near that satchel?  Points will be awarded based on the ratio of correct answers to survivors.

Weapons Policy Training module: FAQ 4

So, then: office hours cancelled until further notice.  Great!  I’m learning so much from this module!  Bonus: Not having office hours will save time, as will absenting myself from campus except when I absolutely have to be there.  This Weapons Policy is looking better and better!

Weapons Policy Training module: FAQ 5

Introducing my new policy: A’s for all students!  You are all brilliant, wonderful people!  You all get A’s!

Another part of the genius of concealed carry: by making every student a potentially armed student (and thus an implicit threat), faculty can treat them accordingly.  We can be spared the time of grading, by acknowledging that each and every one of our students is a certified genius!   Also, since campus carry revokes the safety upon which freedom of speech depends, why bother laboring over challenging discussion questions?  Fear inhibits discussion, and, well, we wouldn’t want a student to feel threatened by an intellectual challenge, now would we?  Of course not.  That would be rude.  I mean: the very idea of challenging students to think!  That’s so, I don’t know, pedagogically sound.

Extra credit question: Is there any chance that weaponizing the campus will lead to such egregious grade inflation that a degree from a Kansas university will become meaningless?  Let’s find out!

Well, this has been a fun survey.  I’d really love to take the rest of it, but no time at the moment.  After all, I have an exit strategy to plan — er, I mean, work to do!  I have work to do!  Bye!


To any academics who may be reading this: Is your university in a state or country with (relatively) competent governance? Or is it a private university (and thus not required to weaponize)? Does it seek an expert on children’s literature? Well, seek no further! Here is my curriculum vitae and a page devoted to my books (with selected reviews of same):

Drop me a line. (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)  I’d love to hear from you!


Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

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A Report from Comic-Con 2016

Designated Survivor ad, side of building, downtown San Diego, 20 July 2016[Taps microphone.] Greetings, fellow nerds, fans, and affiliated wanderers! If I may interrupt the daily (hourly?) reports of chaos and pain that saturate your newsfeed, I’ll bring you what I hope is a satisfying report from this year’s Comic-Con. Yes, while the Republican National Convention was busy opening a hellmouth in Cleveland, I was in San Diego, learning and talking about comics. In some wonderful ways, Comic-Con is the opposite of our contemporary dystopian moment.  In other ways, it’s also symptom of that same moment.

Sure, I’m aware that Comic-Con is now an entertainment-industry promotion-palooza (also featuring comics). I know that every available surface entices us to consume (watch the new show, buy the action figure, get the Lego set, etc.). And I’d love it if it comics were more of a central focus than they now are.

But to accentuate the positive for a moment, Comic-Con is a community of nice people — whether they’re comics people or TV-and-film people, whether they’re immersed in a fandom or not, whether they’re cosplaying or dressed as civilians. (I cosplay as a middle-aged English professor. This is my third Comic-Con, and my, er, costume is getting more convincing every year, if I do say so myself.)

So, read on for G. Willow Wilson, Jeff Smith, Kate Beaton, tips on teaching with comics, random observations from yours truly, and more!


WEDNESDAY

Temperatures Rising

Walking Dead: ID for ComicCon 2016Situated on the coast of southern California, San Diego’s weather is predictably pleasant. Usually. After landing midday on Wednesday, I took the bus to several blocks from my hotel, and walked… getting hotter and hotter. Daily, temperatures edged into the upper 80s Fº (above 30º C), a trend that will become normal as the climate changes. In response to more imminent existential threats, this is the first year that Comic-Con no longer uses paper badges in a plastic sleeve. Each person’s badge has a unique ID card that must be scanned every time she or he enters or leaves the convention center. Conference sponsor The Walking Dead was on this year’s badge. Enjoy that metaphor because it will return.

Teaching with Comics

Teaching With Comics panel

I started my Comic-Con by drawing pictures. From 4 to 6 pm, at the San Diego Central Library, Peter Carlson (Green Dot Public Schools), Antero Garcia (Colorado State University), and Susan Kirtley (Portland State University) led a workshop featuring classroom educators Samantha Diego, James Kelley, and Jenn Anya Prosser.

Susan Kirtley (a 2013 Eisner-winner for her book on Lynda Barry) asked us what comics are, which is always great because there are so many different definitions. After people offered some answers, she highlighted the answers of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Dylan Horrocks, though of course we could bring in others (as I expect she would have, had she more time) such as Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, or Hillary Chute.

Her comments reminded me, also, that some people face resistance to teaching classes on comics.  She told us that if people are skeptical of why you’re teaching comics, to tell them you’re “teaching graphic narratives as a way to promote multimodal literacy.” Resistance to studying comics interests me because it’s one of the most complex narrative media ever invented. There is so much to say about it.

She also took us through a few exercises.  One was this, which is inspired by Ivan Brunetti’s single-panel comic exercise in Cartooning Philosophy and Practice.

Kirtley (inspired by Brunetti) slide

We had 1-2 minutes to do this.  Here’s what I came up with for Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything.

Nel, The Book of Everything, in 4 panels (created in 1-2 mins.)

She then had us all do a one-panel version.  In Cartooning Philosophy and Practice, Brunetti does a single-panel Catcher in the Rye.  It’s brilliant.

Ivan Brunetti, Catcher in the Rye

Mine — done in 1 minute — for The Book of Everything is not brilliant. Obviously.

Nel, The Book of Everything, in 1 panel (created in 1-2 mins.)

But this brings me to another key part of her pedagogy. She does these exercises with her students. “I do it when they do it,” she says, because that levels the critical plain.  She also encourages us teachers to reward students’ risk-taking at moment of assessment: “Make it OK for students to fail — and don’t penalize them for that.” Susan builds in rubrics that take into account the entire process. I like this.

Peter Carlson and Samantha Diego spoke on “Engaging Readers, Empowering Writers, Creating Communities: Civic Superheroes,” via the idea of the superhero.  They asked us:

What superpowers do you want?

Why?

Those questions elicit an array of profound responses. One grade-school student had told them invisibility to prevent the other kids from making fun of her appearance.  In our older crowd, answers included persuasion, and healing.  I and at least one other audience member chose healing as our superpower.  When I talked with Susan afterwards, she said that this superpower — healing — really appealed to her, too.  This makes sense. As we age, mortality looms larger. In the Dallas airport, en route to Comic-Con, I read a 43-year-old friend’s (likely) final column for her local paper. Aided by an unrelenting brain tumor, death will likely claim her before the year is out. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, we all must face the inevitability of our own deaths. I don’t conceive of the healing superpower as an end-run around death, but a way to alleviate suffering on that journey towards the moment when our time finally runs out. For her, perhaps the superpower could buy her more time or at least enable her to retain her cognitive abilities. Even superpowers have limits, I know.

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: No NormalReturning to the exercise, some follow-up questions from Carlson and Diego:

What would you do with those powers?

Where would you go?

Who would you become?

They also suggested that the first issue of a comic — say, Ms. Marvel or Storm — can be a good way into these discussions.

Jenn Anya Prosser had us close-read some panels, but I failed to take notes on that (since it’s something I already do). Antero Garcia and James Kelly addressed why we should teach science and English together, and suggested that comics can be a great way to have these conversations.  Comics ask big questions:

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be mutant?

What does it mean to be other?

What does it mean to be?

Science addresses these questions, too. They can also help students think about genetics, viz:

Garcia & Kelly's slide

Preview Night

Afterwards, it was Preview Night!  Though we could have gone to watch previews of not-yet-released shows, Susan Kirtley and I instead zeroed in on the comics sections of the exhibit hall, where I squandered aimlessly — well, not entirely aimlessly. As usual, I bought more than I should — both that night and on subsequent days. But accumulating books is an occupational affliction.  And, hey, it’s good to give your spine a workout, right?

ComicCon 2016: Phil's books and swag

Also, on Preview Night, the crowds are not as thick as they become on subsequent days.  But the hall is always something of a sensory overload.  I sometimes think that Comic-Con should have strategically placed sensory deprivation chambers where Con-goers could sit and decompress for five-to-ten minutes at a time.  There’s a lot to take in.

SDCC exhibit hall floor 21 July 2016

Wonder Woman at 75

From the MAD magazine booth:

MAD: Make America Dumb Again

I chatted with some of my Fantagraphics pals, as well as folks I didn’t know at other booths. Susan and I also met Snoopy — who, to my delight and surprise, did not attempt to sell us any insurance. Then we went off to dinner & had a great chat! (By “we,” I mean Susan and me. Snoopy declined our invitation. Presumably, that round-headed kid had already fed him.)

Kirtley, Snoopy, & Nel


THURSDAY

The Jogging Dead

Balboa Park is a few blocks east of the Holiday Inn Express I stayed in. So, first thing Thursday morning, I thought: great, I’ll just jog east, find my way into the park, and have a good run! A helpful person at the hotel’s front desk assured me that there were many ways into the park, and pointed me in the right direction.

However, and unlike New York City, San Diego’s streets and signs offer guidance to cars, not pedestrians or runners.  Though Park Boulevard runs along the edge of the park, it offers few points of access to the park itself, and then (when you finally get in) the park has signs promising trails that turn out to dissipate suddenly. As a result, for part of my journey back, I ended up running in the bike lane along Route 5. Like all places in downtown San Diego, I was never far from the city’s robust homeless population — encamped at the edges of city sidewalks, against a fence in the shade of trees on Park Boulevard, and just off the edge of the highway. Luckily for me, they (and other walkers) had beaten a path from Route 5 back to the city streets I sought.

Part of the Comic-Con experience is always the contrast between the shiny abundance promised within the event and the privation of those who live on the streets outside. Whether silently holding a sign asking for help or sound asleep on the ground, San Diego’s homeless are both politely invisible and a vivid reminder of how America actively neglects its most vulnerable.

At first, I thought our Walking Dead ID cards an apt metaphor for the homeless among us, but now I think them a better metaphor for the conference-goer — walking past suffering, declining to admit that we are seeing what we know we’re seeing. I gave one sign-bearing man $5. I think, in future, I should carry small denominations and just give them to each person begging. I honestly don’t know. But I do know that we do need investment in mental health facilities, affordable housing, and job retraining for those down on their luck.  OK, getting off my soapbox and back to the con….

G. Willow Wilson; or, Ms. Marvel Fans Embiggen

G. Willow Wilson panel

To a full room that included at least nine people dressed as Ms. Marvel, Ms. Wilson introduced herself: “I’m Willow Wilson. I tell people: ‘the G is silent.’” Interviewed by her friend Josh (I didn’t get his last name), she told us about herself — which was great because, though I know her Ms. Marvel comics, I did not otherwise know much about her.

Wilson was born in New Jersey, but grew up in Colorado. As for religion, she said, “I was raised an atheist, but I was never very good at it. When I was a teenager, I realized that I was a particular kind of monotheist, but I was embarrassed about it.”  Indeed, when she did convert to Islam, she did so in secret — not telling anyone until later.

She studied Arabic for two years at university, and then at the age of 19 left for Cairo, where she would live for the next five years. Upon arriving, she realized that the Arabic she had learned was classical Arabic, which, she says, “would be like learning how Shakespeare speaks.” So, she had to learn modern Arabic. Which she did. While working there as a journalist, she met her future husband Omar.  They and their two children now live in Seattle.

G. Willow Wilson, Air #1She and Sherman Alexie share a publisher, and live about 12 blocks from each other. When she was starting out (having published, I think, Air, and Cairo), she was headed to a conference. Her publicist advised her: when you get on the plane, look for Sherman Alexie and share a cab after you get there. So, she’s walking through First Class on her way to coach, and Alexie spots her.

Alexie: Are you G. Willow Wilson?

Wilson: Yes.

Alexie: I loved Air!

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: Generation WhyOf all that she said during her conversation, this struck me as the most profound: “You are sometimes able to get to people through fiction what you cannot get through to them through the nightly news.”  Her Ms. Marvel is, I think, the embodiment of this very idea.

When Marvel asked her to do Ms. Marvel, Wilson says her “first thought was ‘no’ because there’ll be all kinds of blowback.” She figured she would get lots of hate mail, just as she had gotten for previous work. But, she said, “when Marvel comes to you and says they’ll put their weight behind a project like this, you have to say ‘yes.’ I said ‘yes.’”  Writing the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel comics were “a cool opportunity to shed positive light on a community that does not get a lot of positive attention.”  When the first one was published, she thought: “Brace for impact!” But the impact she expected never really materialized. Sure, there was a little hate mail, but response was mostly positive. She concludes, “It was one of the most life-affirming things I have ever done.”

She concluded her session by reading Chapter One of The Bird King, a new novel set in 1491. As she said before she began, “You guys will be the very first people to hear it who are not paid to like it”

There was only time for two questions at the end.  Here they are.

First question was: Advice for women creators who want to get into the industry? Wilson: “The good news is this is now a discussion we can have without people losing their jobs. People are now taking subjects like harassment, equal access to corridors of power more seriously. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Second questioner referenced the fact that there are no black women comics writers (at Marvel or DC), and asked “How does that make you feel when you’re writing one of the most nuanced and awesome [characters of color]”?  Wilson replied, “We need to be in the business of recruiting more people.  I love Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Sitting in the Marvel writers’ room, with him across from me, was one of the highlights of my career. But you shouldn’t need to have a MacArthur Genius grant to get hired to write comics.”

Note: The very next day, Roxane Gay tweeted that she has been hired by Marvel to co-write a comic with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But the greatest thing about this panel were all the people who dressed as the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. After the panel was over, they all gathered with Wilson to embiggen!

Ms. Marvels Embiggen!

Cushlamochree! Or, The Kindness of Strangers

GhirardelliAfter lunch, I stopped into the Ghirardelli shop because, well, chocolate.  I had a chocolate ice cream, and reviewed the notes I’d made that morning. In a few hours, I would be appearing on a panel devoted to Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (1942-1952), which I’m co-editing and Fantagraphics is publishing. (The third volume just came out.)  Typically, I tend to perform a script, or to at least consider the possible questions in advance. But this panel was mostly unscripted, and so I was a little anxious.

A young couple walked past my table, and then walked back, and the young man asked if he could use the plug next to me. I said of course! And I moved over so that he could sit where I had been sitting, and his girlfriend could sit opposite him. He asked what I was doing. I told him. He said: OK, pitch it to me. And… I did. This person who I have never met before listened, offered a little feedback, and helped me talk through the presentation.

I learned a little about him, too. He said, “Not to brag, but I’m the nerdier of us two.” I love that “nerd” is now a term of approbation. When I was his age (a phrase I never used while talking with him), one would not brag about being a nerd! He and his girlfriend are both seniors at San Diego State University: he’s a music major (jazz drummer, in particular). She’s a graphic design major. They were both working for Comic-Con because it grants them a free pass to the conference, and it’s fun to go to Comic-Con. I think her name is Morgan; his name has, unfortunately wandered away from me. If you two happen upon this blog post, thank you!

Encounters like this are what make Comic-Con a welcome respite from the news. There is kindness and generosity in the world. Not enough, but it is out there. It’s our job to make more of it. To quote Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

After that, it was back to the exhibit hall, a quick coffee and a chat with Eric Reynolds, and then…

Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby: What Makes a Great Comic Strip.

Barnaby panel: Tom Spurgeon, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel, Jeff Smith

This was why I came to Comic Con — to be on this panel!  In the photo, from left to right, that’s The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds (my pal, and co-editor on the Barnaby books), yours truly, and… Jeff Smith!

Whatever anxiety I’d had vanished instantly. The panel was a delight. As you may already know, Smith is as nice a guy as you would expect the creator of Bone to be. I’m also grateful to him for lending his celebrity to our quixotic endeavor. I’m sure that half of the small audience appeared simply to see him. (There were only about 25 people in a room that seats more like 300.) I hope our conversation — led by Tom Spurgeon — helped move a few copies of Barnaby.

Johnson, Barnaby Vol. 1: Chris Ware blurbYou see, Barnaby is the last great comic strip that has never been collected in full. Its admirers include Charles Schulz, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Jules Feiffer, Seth, and Daniel Clowes (who designed the books, and would have been on the panel if he’d been on an earlier flight). Told in Johnson’s elegant clear line, Barnaby tells the adventures of its five-year-old title character and Mr. O’Malley, his loquacious, bumbling, endearing con-artist of a fairy godfather. O’Malley is a great character of possibility, allowing Johnson many opportunities to satirize politics, business, or (coming in volume 4) the emerging medium of television. The strip is both topical and a Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque fantasy. Just as only Calvin sees the reality of Hobbes, the children of Barnaby all see the fairy-world characters, but — also like Calvin and HobbesBarnaby’s adults fail to perceive the reality of fantasy. We readers, however, know that O’Malley and friends are real. Barnaby is a beautiful and influential strip, but — like Krazy Kat — it was never a popular strip. At its height, Barnaby was syndicated in a mere 52 papers. By contrast, at the same time, Chic Young’s Blondie was running in 850 newspapers.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016)

Fantagraphics is committed to bringing out all five volumes of Barnaby, and I love them for that. I also wish we could help find a larger audience. So, if you’re reading this, why not pick up a copy? Encourage your local or college library to pick up these, too, along with Fantagraphics’ many beautiful editions of classic comics (notably Krazy Kat and Peanuts).


FRIDAY

Breakfast with Ebony

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas & Philip Nel at the Broken Yolk, in San Diego, 22 July 2016Friday began at the Broken Yolk, where I had breakfast with Ebony Thomas — whose book The Dark Fantastic should see print in (I am hoping) the next year or two. It’s a really smart way of thinking about how the dark other functions in fantasy. (Make a note of it now, and pick it up when it comes out!)

I actually met Ebony at my very first fan conference — Nimbus 2003, in Florida, thirteen years ago.  I’d written a small book on the Harry Potter series, and they invited me to give a keynote. In this respect, I think our aca-fan (Henry Jenkins’ term for “academic fan”) trajectories are opposite. I went to academic conferences before ever appearing at a fan one, whereas my sense is that she had more fan conference experience prior to becoming an academic.

Part of the fun of conferences — whether academic or fan — is seeing friends, and making new ones.  So, good to see you, Ebony!  Hope you enjoyed the rest of the con!

Keeping It Short

Keeping It Short panel: Abraham Riesman, Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, Emily Carroll

Moderated by Abraham Riesman, this panel featured Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Emily Carroll.  Though the panel was on short comics, my notes are actually, um, a bit longer than expected.

Abraham Riesman: What short form comics did you read growing up?

Kate Beaton: Sherman’s Lagoon

Lisa Hanawalt: Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, adult cartoonist B. Kliban

ArchieEmily Carroll: All newspaper strips. I read every one every morning, even if I didn’t like it — I read Rex Morgan every morning. I read a lot of Archie comics, which at the time had no continuity.

AR: What spoke to you about Archie?

Emily: The only comic that had really pretty girls in it.

Lisa: Me, too.  Did you like Betty or Veronica?

A discussion ensued on who preferred Betty, and who Veronica, but I didn’t note it all down.

AR: What does an average workday look like?

Kate: Some cartoonists work 9-5 with lunch breaks, but…

Lisa: I fuck around until 3 every day at least. But usually until 7.

Kate: It might take all day to get into that, until something is actually working.  [Kate then recalled 2 aunts coming to visit at around lunchtime, thinking she’d have a lunch break. That led her to imagine herself saying the following sentence to her aunts.] I just stare at the wall all day until something comes and you ruin my flow?

Emily [adding to Kate’s imagined comment]: Now I have to start wasting time all over again?  I try to start before the afternoon or else I feel bad. But early afternoon is when I start.

AR: How much planning before you draw the finished product?

Emily: I start drawing right away.  Whether it’s the beginning or end — just because I need to see it materializing.

Lisa: For me, it depends. If there’s a narrative, then I have to plan that out. But I also do improv comics. I did some corporate slogans, and the first draft is what got published because it was funniest. Because if I try to make it neater, it’ll be less so.

AR: I love “just fucking do it”

Kate: I write a lot in my head. So, especially, if it’s a three or four panel gag, I have it all in my head.  So, you get a nugget — that’s the angle I’m going to use. And you sort of tumble it around, until you get the right combination of things. If you work too hard on the drawing, it ruins it. I try to go for the energy that comes in the first few lines.

AR: How do you keep the emotion in the artwork?

Emily: My first thought is I only have a few emotions anyway. I either feel angry or guilty or I’m Ok.  …But my general thought is what [I failed to note the rest of her answer]

Kate: You’re not telling people how to feel. You’re showing them how you feel.

AR, to Kate: Any jokes you had to abandon?

Kate: Sure. Not all history is hilarious. You try to bring in a topic that isn’t funny, but should be shared.

AR, to Lisa: what’s funny about birds?

Lisa: What isn’t funny about birds? I just like looking at them — they’re hilarious.

AR: What’s the funniest thing about birds?

Lisa: When a toucan eats a bunch of fruit it [Lisa mimes action of toucan eating fruit, throwing it up into the air, gulping it down. Everyone laughs. She then adds an additional funny bird behavior:] When they sit on their nests.

Lisa Hanawalt, from Hot Dog Taste Test

Kate then offered a short discourse on fecal sacks. The young birds, who cannot yet leave the nest, poop in sacks. This allows the adults to throw their young’s waste out of the nest.  She recalled a grackle who lived near her, and used to decorate her car with these fecal sacks. Her car was blue, the grackles assumed that since it was blue, it must also be water.  Lisa found this story fascinating.  (I did, too.)

AR to Emily [re: earlier question on emotions]: You didn’t mention fear?

Emily: Oh yeah, that’s true.

AR: ‘Cause you write horror. How often are you afraid?

Emily: All the time. Every day.

AR: How much of Anne Herron is true?

Frontier #6: Anne by the Bed

Emily: Anne by the bed?

AR: Yes.

Emily: None of it.  I made it all up.  But it turns out there is an unsolved mystery of an Anne Heron (with one r).

AR: When I interviewed you a few months ago, Kate, you said that cartoonists are horrible to be significant others with at a party because they’re always there drawing.  Is that true for the two of you?

Lisa: I hardly do it anymore. But I used to because I was shy, and I thought it would be an ice breaker.

Emily: I don’t really go to social gatherings. [Laughter from audience.] So, that’s not an issue. I draw less now than I did before.

AR: How much does doodling influence your work?

Kate: Less and less.  Now, you’re like: I really need a different hobby.

All panelists agree that they now do less drawing for fun.

AR: How do you know how to represent time?

Led by Emily’s response, all panelists agree that they go by instinct, and then go back and edit — if it reads too fast, they’ll go back and put in something else to slow it down (says Emily).

All panelists addressed unpublished or unfinished work. All have work that they’ve decided not to publish, nor to continue.

AR: How often to you look at your finished old work?

Lisa: I look at it every couple of years. I go back, and think oh, hey, this is actually pretty funny.

At this point, Kate mentioned she wasn’t feeling well.  She apologized, and left for the washroom.

AR: Is your work ever misunderstood?

The answer to this question (which I failed to record) led to the next one.

AR: How often do you check Twitter, look at comments, or avoid them?

Lisa: I look at everything.  I really should stop.  I even read the Goodreads reviews.

AR: Oh, you shouldn’t do that.

Emily: Oh, I can’t look at those. I do, sometimes.

Did you ever read that Guardian essay about the person who gave bad reviews?

Lisa: Totally obsessed with that. Totally understand. Once I was at a convention, and a lady picked up one of my books, and threw it back down on the desk and ran away. I think about that all the time.

Emily: A few months ago, I just deleted all of my follows except for my wife and the library. So, that way, I couldn’t go and check all my follows. I’m becoming increasingly reclusive, I guess.

Lisa: That [not being on Twitter] sounds nice.

Emily: I realize that even the nice comments didn’t make me feel good!

At this point, Kate returns!

Kate: I’m doing much better.  I had my hair tied back, all ready to rumble.  But it was just poop.

Kate apologizes for including those bodily details.

AR: You’re sitting next to Lisa.

Lisa: I’m like in love with you right now.

Kate [explaining]: I’ve moved to the country, recently, and I don’t drink much any more….

Kate Beaton, Wuthering Heights 1

Kate Beaton, Wuthering Heights 2

AR: How often do you think about Wuthering Heights?

Branwell Brontë's painting of his three sisters, after he painted himself outKate: A lot. I never finished that comic.  I need to.  Anyone ever been to the Bronte parsonage?  I feel like haunted by Branwell [brother of Charlotte, Emily, Anne].  In a family portrait, there’s a weird person-shaped hole because he painted himself out.

AR: Don’t we all feel like a person-shaped hole?

Kate: I did just a few minutes ago.  [Kate then comments on Branwell, who was alcoholic…]  In these [Bronte] books, characters like these brooding frustrated men — like Heathcliff — make me think of Branwell.

In the Q+A, I asked Kate how her process of her picture book The Princess and Pony was different than comics.

Kate said that working closely with an editor was a big difference.  The book is much more polished than her cartoons.  Also, she said, it’s not just a gag. It has a story, and that had to make sense.

In response to a question about (I think) favorite horror narratives, Emily responded, “I like horror that’s really long and boring and nothing happens, and then something maybe happens and then it’s done.”

Questioner asked if they had a reader they trusted who they could turn to for feedback.

Lisa: For me, it’s my partner Adam. But also guys like these — I have a lot. Of cartoonist friends.

Emily: My wife will read over my work. She’ll say it’s too fast or too slow, and I’ll say you don’t understand my process and vision! And then I fix it.

Kate: Don’t read Amazon or Goodreads. [Quoting reviews] “I think there are secret gay people in the book.”  Or “I don’t want to expose my children to farts.”

30 Minutes to Go; brief conversations with Beaton & Sousanis

Kate Beaton's inscribed & illustrated title page for my copy of Step Aside, PopsAfter the panel, I had only 30 minutes before I had to leave. So, I dashed down stairs to the convention hall, where I hoped to meet up with Eisner nominee Nick Sousanis — who’d just arrived earlier that morning — and to say goodbye to the Fantagraphics gang.  Said my farewells to all but Eric (who was moderating a panel), texted back-and-forth with Nick, and decided, well, yes, I could buy just one more book. So, over at the Drawn & Quarterly I bought Kate Beaton’s latest, Step Aside, Pops, which she inscribed and decorated.

I also thanked her for The Princess and the Pony because it’s great to be able to give my princess-obsessed niece a book about a warrior princess. Kate recommended Cherie Priest’s I Am Princess X (2015) and Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless (2012-). I said “Emily’s 5. Would these…?” She said that they’d be for when she’s a bit older. Looking at them on-line, now, I see that I Am Princess X is a YA hybrid comics/text, and that Princeless is marketed to kids from ages nine to 12, which (I think) means that Princeless could be something she’s interested in sooner than that.

Nick arrived when only had about 5 minutes left. I stayed for 10, we chatted, parted, and — along the way back — I realized that, yeah, I really did need the full half hour to walk back to my hotel. Jogging a bit of the way, I narrowly made noon check-out and the shuttle to the airport.  (I had to leave because I’m scheduled to give a keynote at a picture books conference at Kent State on Monday. I’m leaving for that first thing tomorrow morning. Update: American Airlines cancelled my flight. So, I’m now scheduled to leave first thing tomorrow afternoon. Fingers crossed!)

The End?

So, I still worry that America is slouching towards fascism, that state-sanctioned murder threatens people of color every day, that extremism festers and erupts here (Make America White Again!) and abroad (most recently: Nice, Turkey, Munich, Kabul).  But, for a few days in San Diego, glimpses of a different possible future emerged — a future where people do not fear each other, but care for each other. A future where our interests bring us together. Yes, despair lingered at the edges of the Comic-Con experience, as it always does. However, the con was mostly a respite from the violence and hopelessness that afflicts us. And I’m grateful for that.

My previous years’ reports from Comic-Con:

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Posters for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Remain Vigilant (small version)Under the Kansas Board of Regents‘ brave new social media policy, the faculty and staff of Kansas universities must make sure that their speech is harmonious, loyal, and conducive to discipline.  So, the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty and Discipline is here to help you monitor speech. Our staff artist, Comrade Warner, has created these four handy visual aids — all designed to be printed as 24″ x 36″ posters. These come to you under Creative Commons: so, please print, make posters, put on t-shirts, remix, distribute.

Remember: Report speech that may promote disloyalty. Report suspect faculty immediately. Surveillance is freedom!

Stamp Out Fires: Report Suspect Faculty Immediately


Report Speech That Could Promote Disharmony


Report Speech That Could Promote Disloyalty


Remain Vigilant for Speech That Could Impair Discipline by Superiors


For more information, here’s

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The object of power is power: a report from today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting

“The object of power is power.”

— O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984

Some of the KSU contingent: (back row) Todd Gabbard, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Abby Knoblauch, Philip Nel; (front row) Elizabeth Dodd, Sierra Hale, and Lexiyee SmithTo support the basic right to freedom of speech and to stand up for academic freedom, faculty, staff, and students from Kansas universities attended today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting in Topeka, Kansas. The room was packed: standing room only.  The Board of Regents were cheerful, chummy, and completely indifferent to the rights of those whom they allegedly represent. They rescinded our rights to freedom of speech, but they did it with a smile. Fred Logan told us that the Regents respect us, and passed a policy that does not respect academic freedom.

He is a canny politician, and I could see him going places. I mean that both as a compliment to him and as a caution to the people of Kansas. In other words, I am being both sarcastic and completely sincere. Not only does Mr. Logan have the ability to say (with apparent sincerity) words like “respect” without actually meaning them, but the very first thing he did upon entering the room was come up and introduce himself to me. (I was seated in the front row.)

Fred Logan [smiling]: Philip Nel?  Fred Logan.

I stand up. We shake hands.

Logan: It’s nice to meet you.

Me: It’s interesting to meet you.

Logan: I’ve read what you’ve written about me, and I’ve looked at your website.  Don DeLillo?

Me: Yes.

Logan: I read Falling Man, and I was thinking about reading White Noise next. Good choice?

Me: Yes. White Noise is a great choice. That’s the one to read.  [Pause.]  So, are you really going to go through with this policy? Or —

Logan: [Smiling, makes non-committal sound, walks away, waves, and takes his place at the Regents’ Desk of Governance.]

Hence, my first tweet:

And then, the meeting got underway.  

Kansas Board of Regents, at start of meeting, 14 May 2014 Regents’ Chair Fred Logan said of the revised social media policy, “I want to thank the members of the workgroup who worked on this. I in particular want to recognize the co-chairs of the group. They did spectacular work.” He added, “I also want to welcome and thank all the members of the faculty for coming.”

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineThat was just one of many examples where Mr. Logan said one thing, but the actions of the Regents conveyed a rather different message. The revised policy retains all punitive parts. You can still be fired for a broad array of vaguely defined speech, such as uttering something “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”  Presumably, a blog post (like this one) that is critical of the Kansas Board of Regents might be included in this restriction.  You can also be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”  This particular language, of course, inspired our “Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline” t-shirts. How would one go about measuring the harmonious content of speech? How might we determine whether speech is disloyal?  And as for impairing discipline, if I were to write that the Kansas Board of Regents have brought shame to the state of Kansas, and that all of them should resign effective immediately, is that a fireable offense?

Because they have done precisely that. In addition to all the negative national publicity this has already received, here’s a story from National Public Radio, this evening. National Public Radio: "In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet" Kansas is already known for being anti-science (evolution? just a theory!). Now, Kansas is known for its opposition to freedom of speech. If you’re trying to attract top faculty to Kansas universities, you have your work cut out for you. When Fred Logan got to the social media policy, Emporia State University’s Sheryl Lidzy read — on behalf of the Kansas Council of Faculty Senate Presidents — a great defense of freedom of speech. It included such gems as this:

we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the disciplinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

As Prof. Lidzy read, Regents looked on, with — as my colleague Christina Hauck observed — expressions of “boredom and distaste” for the Faculty Senate Presidents. Kansas Board of Regents, bored, as they listen (or don't) to Council of Faculty Senate Presidents. Photo by Christina Hauck. Lidzy continued:

there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy.

The Kansas Board of Regents were unmoved. And yet Fred Logan said, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.”

I found these sort of responses fascinating. Throughout this process, the Board’s attitude towards faculty has been condescending, patronizing, even hostile. The policy itself establishes new ways to fire people, based on very broadly defined objectionable speech. However, Regent Logan says, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.” The vast gap between word and deed is truly breathtaking. This is why I think that Mr. Logan may have a bright future in Kansas politics. Directly after Professor Lidzy’s statement, Logan got up, and rushed over to give her an award for her service, which — he said — the Board very much appreciated.  Again, he is thanking her, even while he completely disregards what she has said.

At the meeting we also learned that the Moody’s downgrade of Kansas’s credit rating (thanks to Governor Brownback and the legislature’s fiscal recklessness) will result in higher borrowing rates for Kansas universities. As my colleague Don Hedrick pointed out after the meeting, the Kansas Board of Regents’ actions also downgrades the rating of Kansas universities.

The Regents passed their punitive social media policy. Of the policy, Fred Logan said, “This will be the strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual.” While it is true that the Regents did adopt the workgroup’s recommendations on language affirming academic freedom, it is also true that the Regents retained the original language eviscerating academic freedom. So, if this is their “strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom,” that’s hardly a cause for rejoicing.

With smiles, conviviality, and bland affirmations of freedom of speech, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that tells faculty and staff: watch what you say. Of course, Kansas is merely part of a trend of cracking down on freedom of speech. South Carolina’s legislature has punished the College of Charleston for assigning a book, and installed a white supremacist as their new president. A dean at the University of Saskatchewan was just fired for speaking his mind. So, the Kansas Board of Regents are not unusual. They are normal. And they are the future. Indeed, to paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine sensible shoes stamping on a human face—forever.1

——

1. The actual line from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But the Kansas Board of Regents tends to wear sensible shoes, and not boots.


Update, 10:30 pm, 15 May 2014

in response to Nena Beckley’s comment below, I’ve added (in the comments) a link to the revised policy.  I’m also adding that information here:

Here’s some media coverage (updated 9:00 am, 16 May 2014):

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

The Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy will require vigilant enforcement.  How will we determine when speech is “contrary to the best interests of the employer”?  How will we recognize speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers”?  How can we prevent speech that has a “detrimental impact on close working relationships”?  Given that academics work at all hours of the day and night, what constitutes “during the employee’s working hours”?

Fear not!

We are pleased to announce the formation of the Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline.

Fellow patriots are invited to join our Committee, assisting employees of Kansas universities in promoting harmony, loyalty, and discipline, as per the policy’s prohibition against speech that

3.ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interests of the university;

3.iv. … impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.

How can you join?

  1. Adopt our uniform!  If you’d like to get one of these shirts, you could go down to Thread in Aggieville (here in Manhttan, KS): they have the design on file. Just walk in and ask for this: “committee for harmony” design, in the May 8 folder. They’ll be able to access it and print you off one more or less immediately.  If you are not in Manhattan, KS, Comrade Todd Gabbard would be happy to send you the file for the shirt so you can have it printed wherever you are. Alternatively, we might be able to make arrangements to get a shirt printed for you here and bring it to Wednesday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: t-shirt
  2. Come to the Kansas Board of Regents meetingWednesday May 14th at 1:30 pm, Board Office, Suite 520, Curtis State Office Building, 100 SW Jackson, Topeka, KS.  If you have one of these t-shirts, wear it to the meeting. We’d like to get as many faculty, students, and staff out to Topeka as we can. The Board of Regents’s new policy will govern the network of public institutions here in Kansas, and will affect us all for years to come.
  3. George Orwell, 1984Recommended reading: George Orwell’s 1984Animal Farm, and “Politics and the English Language.”

Should you have any questions or suggestions, please contact Comrade Todd Gabbard. Remember: Ignorance is strength! Freedom is slavery!

Yours for harmony, loyalty, and discipline,

Comrades Todd Gabbard and Philip Nel

Kansas State University Subcommittee of the

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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Google’s Brave New World: The Feed Is Here

M.T. Anderson, FeedBut the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them, and help you make buying decisions that are hard. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and OnFeed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you, and then they give it to their branch companies, or other companies buy them, and they can get to know what it is we need, so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.

— M.T. Anderson, Feed (2002), p. 48

Presumably, the people at Google have not read M.T. Anderson‘s Feed.  Or, if they have, they misread his dystopia as a utopia.  Either way, Google’s new “Project Glass” is eerily familiar.

Nearly all of the comments on Project Glass’s Google Plus page are enthusiastic.  “Count me in for a beta test group!”   “Future can’t get here fast enough!”  And, of course, “Glasses are nice, but how soon can I just plug them straight into my brain?”

Google's Project Glass (photo from Google)As in the imagined future of Anderson’s novel, this earliest incarnation of the feed is external — but, as technology improves (in the book), people have it implanted.  And, as Anderson’s novel suggests, being plugged into the feed all the time exacerbates the effects of, say, being on Facebook or Twitter all the time — remarkably prescient, given that his novel came out two years before Facebook, and four years prior to Twitter.  Dramatizing the experience of always being bombarded by the feed, the novel’s main characters lack an attention span, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to use language with any sophistication.  These deficits make them easy targets for advertisers and politicians.  As Violet says,  “They’re also making you want things. Everything we’ve grown up with — the stories on the feed, the games, all of that — it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to” (97).  And: “No one with feeds thinks about it, she said. When you have the feed all your life, you’re brought up not to think about thingsBecause of the feed, we’re raising a nation of idiots” (113).

So, Google, before you lead us further into this brave new world, consider for a moment.  Read Anderson’s novel.  Are you sure this is such a great idea?

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The Trauma Games

Suzanne Collins, MockingjayWar is hell.  If General Sherman (and, I expect, many others) hadn’t said it first, I suspect Suzanne Collins might have chosen those three words as a subtitle for her Hunger Games trilogy.  As its predecessors did, Mockingjay dramatizes the physical and emotional consequences of war.  It’s especially adept at displaying the scars invisible to those of us who either have not been in a war or do not know people who have. The victors of the Hunger Games cannot sleep — as Finnick says, “I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking” (156).  They are haunted by what they’ve done, and by what they haven’t done.  Even if the physical wounds heal, the emotional ones linger.  Early in the novel, after Gale admits that he’d use a bow and arrow on people if it would keep Katniss safe, she thinks, “I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you” (68). Like the first two books in series, the third is about trauma.

It is also about torture, which — no matter what your government tells you — is not merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  It’s torture.  Characters in Mockingjay have been tortured by the agents of Panem, the totalitarian regime against which the Rebels (including our heroine Katniss) fight.  Appropriately, Collins does not invite us into the scenes of torture.  She shows us what happens later, how torture’s survivors cope.  The tortures of Panem are a sophisticated cruelty, a more subtle and more damaging type of the aversion therapy scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).  One character has been soaked in water, and then given electric shocks; now, rain, the shower, water of any kind triggers a flashback to that experience.  Another has been drugged with venom, conditioned not just to doubt but to kill a loved one.  Damage inflicted on the mind, the novel suggests, is the hardest pain to bear.  As Katniss says late in the novel, “I can’t believe how normal they’ve made me look on the outside when inwardly I’m such a wasteland” (366).

Though Collins understands why people would feel the need to fight a war, Mockingjay offers a more eloquent defense of pacifism than of, say, a “just war.”  There’s a line in the book that made me think of the lists of dead troops from America’s current wars, names of people who are almost always younger than I am — people in their 20s, and sometimes as young as 17 or 18.  To say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children killed in those wars.  This is the line.  Considering the “creature” that is a human being, Katniss observes, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences” (377).

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