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Superhero comics love a good analog. Captain Marvel is Superman, but more boyish, and with magic words instead of Krypton. Moon Knight is Batman but with a mercenary past. Watchmen is just a riff on the Charlton heroes. Marvel has Mister Fantastic, while DC has Plastic Man and the Elongated Man. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

This is all terribly reductive, of course, focusing on the core extrapolation point rather than what is done with the material afterward. Sure, many times these caped correlations show little creativity beyond tired parody, but there are occasions where, as in Watchmen, they blossom into something entirely different and delightful in their own right. More… “Unrestrained Analogs”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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Shannon Downey is a craftivist, community organizer, and as of June, a commencement speaker. She was recruited by Drexel University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry to deliver the commencement address for their Custom Designed Major. Her speech was firm but funny, honest in the “what is yet to come,” and encouraging in regard to their potential to alter the world one small step at a time. Before she inspired the room, we had an opportunity to sit down with Shannon to talk about Badass Cross Stitch, activism, and going viral.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “When Being Bad Does Good”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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The image is a black-and-white, lithographic crayon drawing, and it resides in Harvard’s Fogg Museum of American Art, an image of three men in various stages of dress in what appears to be the corner of a wooden shed or perhaps a barn. In the right background, seated in a darkened corner of the shed is a man, wearing only a shirt, leaning forward and pulling on his left sock. Even more shadowy and obscured are three men on the left of the drawing — one standing and apparently toweling off his face; another, nude and seated on the planked floor with his back to the painter; and a third, a baronial older man in derby and jacket, seated on the bench in the hazy background. You would likely not recognize it as an image of small-town, turn-of-the-century baseball but for its title: Sweeney, the Idol of the Fans, Had Hit a Home Run. More… “George Bellows: America’s Artist on the National Pastime”

Jay Thomas, Ed.D., is a professor of education at Aurora University in Aurora, IL, where he teaches courses on learning, motivation, and research methods. His publications include books and articles on assessment and gifted education, but he is equally proud of his baseball writing, which has appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly and The National Pastime.

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Was there ever a period of time in your life where you took a strange job in a peculiar place, somewhere perhaps far away from your hometown and previous routine? Did you ever return to that place several years later to find that everything had changed significantly? Did you try to track down old friends, only to find they had changed as well somehow, in a way you couldn’t quite describe? Did this make you distrust your memories, as though that period of your life had been little more than a dream? More… “Investigating Mauretania”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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project mayhem
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For some of us, Fight Club is like a dirty bomb going off in the culture. I walk out of David Fincher’s iconic film sometime in the summer of 1999 feeling like I’ve just been touched by mad genius. The film is a hot, filthy, stylish channeling of rage against consumer culture and manufactured masculinity and the failing aspirations of an entire civilization. I love it. All of my male friends love it. We can’t stop talking about the one thing you’re not supposed to talk about.

Six months later, November 30, 1999, thousands of protesters are streaming into Seattle — most of them from student groups, labor organizations, and NGOs — all there to stop a big meeting of the World Trade Organization. Some of these protesters seize control of key intersections by chaining their arms together into “lockdown” formations. Others use newspaper boxes to form barricades. They stage marches and street parties designed to block traffic and prevent the WTO delegates from reaching the convention center. I am watching news footage of someone throwing what looks like a toaster oven out of the smashed window of a Starbucks, and I have an uncanny feeling of recognition. More… “The Project Mayhem Age”

Daniel Vollaro is writer and teacher of writing whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in Boomer Cafe, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Paperplates, and Timber Creek Review.

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When people ask me “Who is one of the best cartoonists working today?”, I always answer “Eleanor Davis.”

OK, nobody ever asks me that question. But if they did, that would be my answer all the same. At the risk of sounding like some back-cover, hyperbole-ridden hack, the intelligence, emotion, and pure, awe-inducing skill she continually exhibits in her comics make her one of the most significant creators to come out of the indie comics scene in the past 15 years. More… “Why Eleanor Davis?”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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Computer code
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Place a horse head from the Paleolithic paintings of Chauvet Cave beside footage from a Netflix show and compare them. Both are art, in the broadest sense, and both are (primarily) visual, but the similarities end there. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin already anticipated most of the differences that you’d be able to find between the two: that the cave paintings were likely made for sacred ceremonial purposes and that the show is an economic product. That each of the cave’s images are fixed in both time and place while the television show’s come to us whenever we want, no pilgrimage required. And most importantly, that while the Netflix show is a counterfeit replicated endlessly in the form of code, the images in the cave are each authentic in their uniqueness. This presence of the singular in art, Benjamin called its “aura,” and the annihilation of aura by technology is the foundation of contemporary art.

It might seem counterintuitive to think so, but the popular dissemination of technology is necessary for the electronic image to function as conceptual art. This isn’t necessarily true with any other medium and has much to do with the value that we as postmodern consumers of images and memes place on a removed and ironic perspective. For example, conceptual video art didn’t reach its proper golden age until the 1960s, with the advent of relatively cheap portable recording equipment. There were, of course, films made before the middle of last century that were art, but it was mostly high art — The Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, etc. — which still retained the heavy grandeur of Benjamin’s aura. The films themselves might have been mechanically reproduced and distributed, but they were experienced as singular events which communicated their own significance as too dense, too substantial, to be seriously considered as simply products for consumption. More… “Conspiracy Theory As Art”

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in the Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Paris Review Daily. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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There’s a scene in Uzumaki, Junji Ito’s much-lauded horror series, that I think best exemplifies his particular style. The overarching story involves a secluded village in Japan whose residents become obsessed with spirals and usually meet grotesque and destructive ends as a result. In the third chapter, a scar on a teen girl’s forehead turns into a spiral black hole of sorts, eventually consuming her entire body. A horrific reveal shows the spiral hole extending back into her head, her right eye sitting gruesomely on the edge of her face. Then, in a series of smaller panels, the eye starts to roll back towards the vanishing point in the back of her skull.

It is, obviously, pretty horrific. It’s also very, very funny: a rimshot as we literally stare into the abyss, acknowledging the absurdity of the image while underscoring the gore. More… “Death by Balloon”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.

Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?

Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”

Paul X. Rutz is an artist and freelance writer. His exhibitions include solo shows at Ford Gallery, the Oregon Military Museum, and a forthcoming residency at Purdue University, as well as group shows at Mark Woolley Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution. A former reporter for the Pentagon’s Press Service, he has contributed to HuffPost, Modern Fiction Studies, and Cincinnati Review, among others, and he is a feature writer for Military History and Vietnam magazines.

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