Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Minis: Kaczynski/Jetsmark, Turbitt

Some minicomics, fresh out of the oven...

Cartoon Dialectics 3, by Tom Kaczynski & Clara Jetsmark. This is a grab-bag of Tom K. stories from various places. "Skyway Sleepless" was originally published in a book of Minneapolis-related noir stories, and Kaczynski's take on the genre was at once clever, funny and part of his overall project of critiquing the effects of capitalism. It also incorporated a part of downtown Minneapolis that I found fascinating: the skyways between buildings, offering a walking path that's an alternative to traversing the winter hellscape. Of course, Kaczynski couldn't help but notice the ways in which they resemble the sort of pathways that gerbils might use in what is really a closed environment that cannot be escaped. This was dressed up as an art exhibit of the future, and a security guard (our protagonist) found chalk outlines that were part of an art exhibit titled "Future Crime Scene". 

From there, the story becomes a whodunnit: what's putting people to sleep? Is the professor who imagines a future based on skyways complicit? What about his femme fatale assistant? Is the whole thing a put-on, and how does life imitate art? While the story winds up being a series of gags and playful engagement with detective tropes, there's something clever about the way Kaczynski repeatedly pulls the rug from under the detective (and the reader), even as he satirizes the cold utopian nightmare of the skyway empire. It's an artificial (r)evolution, one predicated on the idea of One Great Man, technology over humanity, and a reliance on the kind of consumption of resources that capitalism is predicated upon.

The other stories are more directly political. A story he did for The Nib prior to Trump's election made a number of predictions that have all come true. "Trump And Nostalgia" (drawn with scratchy warmth by Jetsmark) is a typical bit of critical thinking on his part, as he positions the phrase "Make America Great Again" as a piece of Reagan-era nostalgia. Quoting the writer Svetlana Boym, he breaks down personal nostalgia vs political nostalgia. The latter is a feeling of rejection of everything that is new, couched in the language of law and order so as to obliterate the threat to the steady-state of nationalist identity. Kaczysnki doesn't take the next step, but this kind of nostalgia is often explicitly racist, xenophobic and homophobic. Nostalgia is a zero-sum game in the eyes of those who embrace it; if the Other's life is getting better, it automatically means that their own life is going to get worse. Othering the opponents is the key piece of weaponizing this feeling that then privileges law and order over the humanity of the othered class. 

In "Nostalgic", Kaczynski picks up those ideas again and explores personal nostalgia. There is a trigger we feel for old pieces of culture and product (and often, culture and product are one and the same) that is a longing for an earlier (and as we always perceive, simpler) portion of our personal narrative. It's a pacifier that creates a false sense of accomplishment in acquiring old things, old memories; the act of wanting these objects starts to supplant any joy that the objects themselves might bring. There is no critical element in our relationship to these things or bits of old culture; the endorphin rush is that of connecting it to fragments of memory. In other words, shows like Happy Days or old comic books provide a kind of comfort because they made a younger, simpler version of yourself happy for a moment. 

Kaczynski quotes the pulpy but prescient Alvin Toffler book Future Shock in its observance that the faster that technology develops and directs our lives, the more that nostalgia becomes a powerful force. It's the triumph of feeling over reason (witness the increasing hostility toward science), or even worse, the triumph of "alternative facts". Feelings become facts, and actual facts that cause cognitive dissonance become fake news. As with everything else in life, always follow the money. When there's a national feeling toward embracing nostalgia, there will be people ready to sell it to you, further creating a nostalgia feedback loop. 

Kaczysnki does offer an interesting corrective to personal nostalgia. Given the future shock we are experiencing (propelled by new technology being pushed just as hard as nostalgia), it's only natural to feel that tug of nostalgia when we see an old toy that brought us joy. He suggests that rather than buy that toy in an effort to chase the past, we should instead think about our feelings surrounding the experience of playing with the toy. Play is an essential and very serious element of childhood that incorporates objects and breathes life into them as part of expanding and exercising imagination. Tapping into that feeling of experiencing the joy of imagination is what we should be aspiring to, using it to create something new. In a world where everyone is creating something, the need for relentless consumption is greatly reduced.

Galactic Friends, by Meghan Turbitt. On the surface, this comic about experiencing the Star Wars movies for the first time as an adult seems to have little to do with Kaczynski's comic. In fact, Turbitt's hilarious examination of Star Wars is a hilarious but incisive critique of a set of nostalgic tropes that hardened in the imaginations of several generations of children. Star Wars is a kind of perpetual motion nostalgia-generating machine, drawing on pulpy sci-fi serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and telling a story that's a wish-fulfilling (space) fantasy. It marked a hard turn away from the kind of science-fiction that had dominated film for over a decade: grim takes on how the events of these frequently dystopian futures were really just reflections of the present. Star Wars even fits into Future Shock in the sense that trusting your feelings is more important than science or reason--another key element of nostalgia. 

The back cover features Turbitt's face replacing those of the Star Wars characters, which is both a funny visual (especially Darth Turbitt) and an interesting piece of commentary. Star Wars at its essence is wish fulfillment: it wants the viewer to identify with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia AND Han Solo. Turbitt then spends much of the mini asking perfectly reasonable questions that prick that fantasy balloon. It starts off by wondering if a variety of characters (including C-3PO) have a penis, which is both an infantile reaction and a sensible reaction to the ways in which the movies neuter sexuality so thoroughly. In depicting the Slave Leia scene in Return Of The Jedi, where Carrie Fisher is in a metallic bikini surrounded by puppets, she simply remarks "It is my understanding that some people jerk off to this scene?" It's a strangely incongruous scene in the film that was a burst of sexuality (entirely in the province of the male gaze) in a narrative that's otherwise devoid of sex; no wonder it launched a thousand fetishes. 

Turbitt calls out Luke for being boring, Han for being a dick to Leia, the privileging of human-looking beings as the protagonists, and the fact that Darth Vader and Kylo Ren are angsty teens who never had to grow up. She actually likes that aspect of the films, that the villains are just big overgrown babies who shop at Hot Topic. Turbitt's drawings capture a lot of the fun of the films, and it's clear that she enjoyed watching them. She simply enjoyed them for what they were: silly pulp with actors who chewed the scenery, and not products with so much nostalgic power that they create cultlike devotion. Tubitt's whole project seems to be reacting to cultural phenomenon in a raw, direct way, stripping them of their identity as product and reveling in their absurdity. 

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