Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large – in comics?

Arjun Appadurai’s book Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization was published in 1996 but is based on texts written around 1990. Its core is the chapter, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” (27-47), first published as a journal article in 1990. Thus it can still be seen as a continuation of the discourse on postmodernism/postmodernity from the 1980s (as reflected on this weblog by the series of posts on texts from 1980 to 1985).

The new element that Appadurai brings to the postmodernist discussion is globalisation: his aim is “to construct what John Hinkson calls a ‘social theory of postmodernity’ that is adequately global” (47), although Appadurai usually speaks more often of “modern” when he means the present day. The important point, though, is the rupture or paradigm shift that he suggests to have occurred around 1970: “it is only in the past two decades or so that media and migration have become so massively globalized, that is to say, active across large and irregular transnational terrains” (9).

This leads to the present-day “new global cultural economy” (32) that needs to be analysed by a framework of five “dimensions of global cultural flows” (33):

  • ethnoscapes, i.e. the flow of people,
  • mediascapes, i.e. mass media and the images and information they convey,
  • technoscapes, i.e. the distribution of high-tech knowledge, machinery, and skills,
  • financescapes, i.e. “the disposition of global capital” (34), and
  • ideoscapes, i.e. “meaning-streams” in “the discourse of democracy” (37) and other ideologies and concepts.

It would be easy to apply this framework to comics as commodities, i.e. comic books, TPBs, tankobon etc., the production and reception of which are nowadays almost always transnational processes. But are these global cultural flows also reflected in the content of comic stories? While this is not meant by Appadurai as a characteristic of postmodern cultural works, it is not far-fetched to expect that postmodern works are more likely to reflect a global cultural economy than previous ones.

This also gives me the opportunity to write about a comic that more should be written about (though it surely will be included in many end-of-year lists for 2016) because of its outstanding quality: The Vision (I keep seeing the title given simply as Vision, but on the covers it clearly says The Vision) by writer Tom King, artist Gabriel Hernández Walta and colourist Jordie Bellaire. Across the 12 issues, I found the following traces of Appadurai’s landscapes:

  • page from The Vision #4 by King and Waltaethnoscape: the series is about the ‘synthezoid’ Vision having created an artificial family – wife, daughter and son – and moving into a house in Arlington, Virginia. This, and their difficulties of settling in among humans, are of course metaphors for transnational migration and xenophobia. But there is also proper migration represented or at least implied in The Vision: in #4, the children, Vin and Viv, play with a football that has “Fighting Redskins” and a caricature of a Native American printed on it. It’s the mascot of their high school, they explain to Vision, and only recently has it been changed to the “Fighting Patriot”, a politically correct “colorful bull in a three-corner hat”. This little episode brings to mind that naturally, there are only few Americans whose ancestors were not transnational migrants.
    Then there are characters in this comic who represent, through their name and/or appearance, more recent immigration waves than the Mayflower – Leon Kinzky, the Asian-looking Matt Lin, and Marianella Mancha. Her son Victor Mancha even draws a connection between himself and the Spaniard Don Quijote de la Mancha on the sole basis of their names (in #8).
    Finally, there is a long quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice about being Jewish.
  • panel from The Vision by King and Waltamediascape: specifically, Appadurai means electronic media such as television (3, 35), so the play The Merchant of Venice first shown as a hardcopy book in #5, though written in England, doesn’t count. Although there is some talk of “downloading” and “uploading” things and some smartphones are shown, there are few instances of content being electronically mediated across national boundaries. One example is Vin “downloading Bach’s cello concerto” in #3 – while we are not told where the recording was made, at least the composer is German.
  • technoscape: a series with androids as protagonists is bound to feature lots of high-tech machinery, but the sources of all these gadgets are Ultron, Vision and Tony Stark – so I think it’s all ‘made in USA’. No transnational flow here.
  • financescape: in the beginning of the comic, Vision mentions his difficulties in getting a steady income, and Tony Stark, the embodiment of wealth in the Marvel universe, appears a few times. Apart from that, financial matters don’t play any role in The Vision, let alone transnational financial flows.
  • ideoscape: The Vision is quite a cerebral comic, but few ideas that can be traced back to outside the US are mentioned. In #9, however, Victor Mancha says: “Vin’s reading this book [The Merchant of Venice] over and over. Like he’s obsessed with mercy and justice.” So some ideas have travelled from England to America after all.panel from The Vision by King and Walta

To sum up, applying Appadurai’s framework to the content of a (supposedly postmodern) comic doesn’t yield as many representations of global cultural flows as I had expected. But, again, that’s not what it was intended for. Applying this framework to the para- and extratextual information pertaining to a comic, however, would surely reveal it as a product of Appadurai’s global cultural economy.

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My ideal (and somewhat random) X-Men team

On his weblog Kevin Reviews Uncanny X-Men, Kevin O’Leary had an interesting post last month in which he picked the six members of his “ideal X-Men team”. I liked the idea and thought I’d post my own version, albeit with a twist: instead of choosing from all X-Men comics ever published or which I’ve ever read, I just browsed through whatever comics I had currently at hand on my shelf and in my longbox, and from these I selected the characters that I found interesting for some reason or other. Here they are, in order of publication:

Morph

  • Morph from Scott Lobdell’s and Joe Madureira’s Astonishing X-Men v1, 1995 (“Age of Apocalypse” storyline): no idea why I own a copy of this comic book, which is mediocre at best. But Lobdell and Madureira employ Morph’s shapeshifting abilities for comedic purposes, which makes him the most memorable character here.

Bishop

  • Bishop from David Hine’s and Yanick Paquette’s Civil War: X-Men, 2007: while I find Bishop’s mutant power (“energy absorption and redirection” – Wikipedia) rather boring and himself as a character not very likeable, his backstory – coming from a dystopian future – makes for interesting storytelling material. In Civil War: X-Men, Bishop feels compelled to side with the government and turn against Cyclops and the other X-Men.

detail from Wolverine #306

  • Wolverine from Cullen Bunn’s and Paul Pelletier’s run on Wolverine v4, 2012: while Wolverine certainly isn’t an underexposed character, Bunn and Pelletier showed that his backstory still has some new plot devices in it. Plus, his regenerating abilities can be stunningly visualised, e.g. when half his face is blown off by a shotgun, and he regrows his eye during the same fight scene (in #306).

Warbird

  • Warbird from Marjorie Liu’s and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s run on Astonishing X-Men, 2013: Warbird is a member of the Shi’ar alien race and not a mutated human, but her ‘otherness’ (which Liu frequently emphasised) matches that of the other X-Men misfits nicely.

detail from X-Treme X-Men #12

  • Nazi Xavier from Greg Pak’s and Andre Araujo’s X-Treme X-Men v2, 2013: it’s Charles Xavier, the popular telepath. Only he’s a nazi. X-Treme X-Men introduced many alternate versions of well-known characters from parallel worlds, one weirder than the other. Technically Nazi Xavier is a villain, not an X-Man, but Marvel never had much problems with changing a villain into a hero and vice versa. Such a ‘deal with the devil’ would create those tensions that seem to be all-important in any superhero team.

Magneto

  • Magneto from Cullen Bunn’s and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s Magneto, 2014: Magneto has already undergone the treatment from villain to X-Man (and back again, probably several times), so it shouldn’t be a problem to have him on the team too. It would be interesting to have Holocaust survivor Magneto (don’t ask me how old he is supposed to be) on the same team as Nazi Xavier, but the reason I want Magneto on my ideal X-Men team is that it’s just so much fun to see him twisting and twirling pieces of metal around.

Reading my first crossover: X-Termination

Two different Nightcrawlers by three different artists: Age of Apocalypse Nightcrawler by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Kurt Waggoner by André Araújo, and Age of Apocalypse Nightcrawler by Matteo Buffagni

Three times Nightcrawler by the three best X-Termination artists: Age of Apocalypse Nightcrawler by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Kurt Waggoner by André Araújo, and Age of Apocalypse Nightcrawler by Matteo Buffagni.

It’s not that I’ve never read a crossover story before, but when I did, it was always after it had been collected into trade paperbacks. This allowed me to make a conscious decision to buy the TPBs. However, it’s quite a different thing when a comic book series you’ve subscribed to becomes part of a crossover. Do you really want to purchase additional comic books, from series you don’t care about, by creators you’re not interested in, just to be able to grasp the story in “your” series? In the past, my answer was no – for instance, I dropped Swamp Thing when the “Rotworld” crossover started.

This time, though, I decided to play along. I had been reading Astonishing X-Men (AXM) for some time (see my review of #48-51 and my previous blog post on #57) when the crossover event X-Termination was announced, spanning the books AXM, Age of Apocalypse, X-Treme X-Men and an eponymous mini-series. Here’s what I think of each issue.

Although not listed as part of X-Termination, the story actually starts in AXM #59.

Language: English
Authors: Marjorie Liu (writer), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (artist), Cris Peter (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 2013-02-27
Pages: 19 (yes, that’s not a lot of pages for $3.99…)
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/744/astonishing_x-men_2004_-_2010 (yes, that’s the correct link to the current series…)

Previously in AXM: after the gay marriage storyline, the book focused on the character Karma and two other, virtually indistinguishable Asian women. I must say I had grown tired of Mike Perkins’s art, when Gabriel Hernandez Walta came to the rescue. Issue #58 was a filler one-shot, but in #59 we’re heading straight towards X-Termination. The X-Men are hunting an alternate universe version of Nightcrawler, who apparently has committed murder, off-panel. Not much happens in this issue, but the nice art makes it a worthwhile, atmospheric read.

The first official “prologue to X-Termination” is Age of Apocalypse #13.

Authors: David Lapham (writer), Renato Arlem & Valentine de Landro (artists), Lee Loughridge (colourist)
Released: 2013-03-06
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/17278/age_of_apocalypse_2012_-_present (for some reason they split the series into two websites, “2011 – present” (#1-12) and “2012 – present” (#13-14))

Most of the story here takes place in an alternate reality – the “Age of Apocalypse” – and is (yet) unconnected to the events in AXM. The aim of this issue, it seems, is to recap the previous events in this series, and maybe even to introduce new readers to this post-apocalyptic setting with all its alternate versions of the X-Men. But I don’t find all these little episodes very enlightening. Then again, most of what happens here is of no importance to the crossover story anyway. It would just have been nice to get to know all the obscure characters which do play a role in X-Termination later. What really repels me, though, is the art: I can only guess that Renato Arlem and Lee Loughridge (I’m not sure what Valentine de Landro’s contribution to this book was) wanted to make the artwork suit the dark and grim atmosphere of the setting, but the result looks just murky at best.

The second prologue, according to an advertisement flyer, is X-Treme X-Men #12, even though it doesn’t say so anywhere in the issue.

Authors: Greg Pak (writer), Andre Araujo (artist), Jessica Kholinne & Gloria Caeli (colourists)
Released: 2013-03-13
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/16308/x-treme_x-men_2012_-_present

In contrast to Age of Apocalype, X-Treme X-Men is a beauty to behold. André Araújo’s style of drawing is more cartoonish, almost manga-esque, yet in combination with the unobtrusive colouring reminiscent of European comics. Greg Pak tells the story of yet another alternate reality X-Men team, who witness the opening of a transdimensional rift and the arrival of the three supervillains of X-Termination. But he tells that story with lots of humour, it seems. Suffice to say that there are three evil versions of Professor Xavier: “Nazi Xavier”, “Witch King Xavier”, and “the Floating Head”. It’s a pity that X-Treme X-Men was cancelled after X-Termination, as this issue makes me want to read more of this series.

The first official part of X-Termination is X-Termination #1 (of 2).

Authors: David Lapham (writer), Lapham/Liu/Pak (story), David Lopez (penciller), Alvaro Lopez & Allen Martinez (inkers), Andres Mossa (colourist)
Released: 2013-03-20
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/17743/x-termination_2013_-_present (again, the Marvel website lists several links…)

Meanwhile, another portal is opened from the “real” earth to the Age of Apocalypse, where the three X-Men teams meet, plus a fourth party, the aforementioned villainous trio. The art is the weak point of this book again; I find the way Lopez handles anatomies and facial expressions not very convincing.

For the next installment of X-Termination, we return to AXM (#60).

Authors: Marjorie Liu (writer), Lapham/Liu/Pak (story), Matteo Buffagni & Renato Arlem (artists), Christopher Sotomayor & Lee Loughridge (colourists)
Released: 2013-03-27
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/744/astonishing_x-men_2004_-_2010

What a disappointment: while this issue is written by regular AXM writer Marjorie Liu, the art is not by Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Instead, the first half is drawn by Matteo Buffagni and coloured by Christopher Sotomayor, and the second half is drawn by Renato Arlem and coloured by Lee Loughridge. Buffagni and Sotomayor seem to go for a 90s vibe, with unnervingly bright colours. Arlem’s and Loughridge’s art is just as off-putting as in Age of Apocalypse #13. Story-wise, it’s mainly fighty-fighty here.

X-Termination continues in Age of Apocalypse #14.

Authors: David Lapham (writer), Lapham/Liu/Pak (story), Andre Araujo & Renato Arlem (artists), Cris Peter & Lee Loughridge (colourist)
Released: 2013-04-03
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/17278/age_of_apocalypse_2012_-_present

Again there are two art teams in this comic book, but this time there is a system to the shifts: there’s beautiful art by André Araújo and Cris Peter in the “real world” scenes, and ugly art by Renato Arlem and Lee Loughridge in the “Age of Apocalypse” scenes. The fighting against the alien villains continues.

X-Termination part four is told in X-Treme X-Men #13.

Authors: Greg Pak (writer), Lapham/Liu/Pak (story), Guillermo Mogorron & Raul Valdes (artists), Ed Tadeo, Carlos Cuevas, Don Ho and Walden Wong (inkers), Lee Loughridge (colourists)
Released: 2013-04-10
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/16308/x-treme_x-men_2012_-_present

More artists are introduced, while the story continues to leave me cold (despite referencing the Dark Phoenix saga). Mogorron’s and Valdes’s respective art styles are simplifying and cartoonish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here it just looks sloppy.

The penultimate X-Termination installment is AXM #61.

Authors: Marjorie Liu (writer), Lapham/Liu/Pak (story), Renato Arlem, Klebs deMoura, Matteo Buffagni, Raul Valdes, and Carlos Cuevas  (artists), Lee Loughridge & Christopher Sotomayor with Andres Mossa (colourists)
Released: 2013-04-17
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/744/astonishing_x-men_2004_-_2010

Visually it gets even more confusing with not only two but three art teams in one issue, none of which I’m particularly fond of. Which is a shame, because the story finally seems to go somewhere, when the alternate universe version of Jean Grey is threatened to be corrupted by the power of the “Apocalypse Seed”.

The crossover story concludes in X-Termination #2.

Authors: David Lapham (writer), Lapham/Liu/Pak (story), David Lopez, Guillermo Mogorron, Raul Valdes, and Matteo Lolli (pencillers), Don Ho, Lorenzo Ruggiero, Carlos Cuevas, and Allen Martinez (inkers), Andres Mossa (colourist)
Released: 2013-04-24
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/17744/x-termination_2013_-_present

Again there are just too many artists, some of which have produced here what might be among the worst art I’ve ever seen in a Marvel comic. The conclusion of the story doesn’t feel very epic, even though the three page epilogue adds a nice touch.

Overall, the X-Termination crossover feels like a waste of $ 27.92 and an unwelcome interruption of AXM, which in fact continues with #62 to be a strong series, well written and well drawn (by Hernandez Walta again). The only positive outcome for me was to discover André Araújo‘s art, of which I hope to see more in the future. Still, my personal reservations against crossover events have been confirmed, and I can’t help wondering why such marketing tricks, more often than not, achieve to boost the sales of all tie-in issues. Then again, the commercial success of X-Termination seems to have been moderate – after all, this isn’t exactly Marvel’s big summer event.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○ (only due to AXM #59 and X-Treme X-Men #12 raising the average)


Erwin Panofsky’s perspective as symbolic form – in comics?

In his essay “Perspective as Symbolic Form” (“Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form'”, 1927), Erwin Panofsky dispels the myth that artists didn’t know anything about perspectival construction before the Renaissance. He shows that the Ancient Greeks and Romans just employed a different system than the vanishing point system we are used to today, and neither can be said to be more “correct” than the other. For Panofsky, the transition from the old to the new system was a paradigm shift. As long as a perspectival paradigm is upheld, artists will construct their pictures in that system. Once a paradigm shift occurs, there is no turning back to the old system – artists don’t choose between different systems.

If we follow Panofsky so far, one question remains: is the vanishing point system still the uncontested paradigm today, or has another shift occurred in the last 85 years? Let’s look at a random comic book to see how perspective is handled there. It’s been a while since I last reviewed Astonishing X-Men, and I’m going to properly review the current issues in a later post, but for today I pick issue #57 from December 2012 (cover dated February 2013). With this issue, Gabriel Hernandez Walta took over as the regular artist from Mike Perkins. It is a harsh transition, as their art styles are so different: none of the lines in Hernandez Walta’s art are exactly straight; they are all slighty irregular and seem nervous, vibrant and sketchy. And yet, see how he constructs perspective in the first panel on the second page:

Astonishing X-Men #57If we trace the lines indicated by rows of windows or sidewalk seams (traced in red by myself here), which would be parallel to each other in real three-dimensional space, they converge in a single vanishing point when Hernandez Walta projects them onto the two-dimensional space of his panel. Furthermore, this vanishing point is at the same location in the picture as the head of the character Warbird, the protagonist of this story.

This comic book is full of such obtrusively constructed vanishing point perspectives, often including floor tiles or other grid patterns that help to convey a feeling of depth. However, this is not the only perspectival system employed by Hernandez Walta. In several panels, he switches to isometric projection. For instance, in the third panel on p. 3:

Astonishing X-Men #57, p. 3Parallel lines formed by the furniture in the depicted room (assuming the furniture is meant to be rectangular and arranged in parallel) stay parallel in the projection – they never converge even if we extend them beyond the panel borders.

Overall, the predominant perspectival construction system in Astonishing X-Men #57 is still the vanishing point system. But maybe Hernandez Walta’s little isometric deviations are a sign that the vanishing point paradigm isn’t quite as uncontested nowadays as it used to be.