It’s rare for Deutsche Post to dedicate a stamp to a trademarked character, owned by a foreign company at that, with that company’s name prominently placed. But on July 7, they did just that. According to the press release (German), the Spider-Man stamp is part of a new superhero series in which two stamps per year are going to be released, each with a different character.
Last month they also issued a Smurfs stamp, but that seems to belong to a different series called “childhood heroes”. Its design is different too, with neither Peyo’s nor the original publisher’s name visible. (The copyright info at the Deutsche Post website reads: “© Peyo -2022- Lic. I.M.P.S. (Brussels)”.)
Also remarkable about the Spider-Man stamp is the way in which the character is rendered, both the drawing style and the classic blue-and-red costume, which perhaps looks unfamiliar or at least old-fashioned to many comic readers (and moviegoers) today. Then again, the press release says that the stamp is meant to celebrate Spider-Man’s 60th birthday and explicitly mentions Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, so that old-school look may be intentional.
In my last Moon Knight review I said I couldn’t be bothered to read “The Age of Khonshu”, a story arc involving Moon Knight that ran in Avengers in 2020. Eventually I did get around to it though.
Avengers vol. 7: The Age of Khonshu, collecting Avengers #31-38
Authors: Jason Aaron (writer), Javier Garrón (artist), Jason Keith (colourist) and others
Cover dates: April 2020 – January 2021 (= on-sale dates: February – November 2020)
In the life of every superhero, there comes a time when he or she briefly turns evil and fights other superheroes. This is essentially what “The Age of Khonshu” is all about. The explanation given here is threadbare to say the least: Moon Knight and his god Khonshu (allegedly) try to thwart Mephisto’s plans of world domination by stealing the superpowers of several heroes, which in turn makes Moon Knight and Khonshu powerful enough to achieve world domination themselves. Naturally, this does not sit well with the Avengers who take on the resistance against Moon Knight and Khonshu. Who will prevail? Will Moon Knight come to his senses again and realise who his real enemies are? And what will become of Mephisto and his sinister schemes?
Spoiler: we never learn what becomes of Mephisto. Presumably, that is resolved in one of the next Avengers trade paperbacks. And that is one of the major flaws of this TPB. It’s not a self-contained story at all; of the eight issues it collects, the first two and most of the last one have very little to do with Moon Knight and the actual “Age of Khonshu” plot. They might provide a pretext for Khonshu’s actions, but first and foremost, Avengers vol. 7 is meant to be read by people who have already read Avengers vol. 6, not by Moon Knight fans who have not been following Avengers.
That being said, parts of The Age of Khonshu are surprisingly entertaining. Especially the beginning, i.e. #33, when Moon Knight takes on some superheroes one by one. Or the design of Khonshu’s domain (even though once more Khonshu himself is not a very imposing figure for a god), ‘New Thebes City’, his mummies, moon priests and werewolves, the whole faux-Egyptian iconography. However, whenever one aspect of Moon Knight’s character – in this case, the Egyptian theme – is emphasised, his others are likely to fall by the wayside. His mental illness, for instance, is only passingly referred to by other characters. (Once again, the way in which Moon Knight’s mental health issues are handled borders on an insult to people in the real world struggling with such issues, as Connor Christiansen has pointed out in his review at AIPT.)
The Age of Khonshu is a mixed bag on all levels. Javier Garrón’s art has a great clarity to it and makes the action easy to follow, but if we single out individual panels, characters or poses, there is nothing particularly striking or outstanding about the way they are drawn. Likewise, Jason Aaron’s dialogue writing is sometimes genuinely funny, but sometimes all those witty quips are a bit too much and make every character seem like Spider-Man.
Needless to say, in the end the status quo is restored. “So I’m going back where I belong, to keep saving my crappy little corner of the world the only way I know how”, Moon Knight says in his last scene in this comic. There is no need for Moon Knight fans to read The Age of Khonshu to understand and enjoy his current solo series. It adds very little to his character, except maybe that it sheds some new light on his fraught relationship with his god. Then again, as far as Moon Knight comics go, it’s not the worst one either.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
In this year’s Labour Day / Warren Ellis blogpost, we’re going to examine what might be considered his chef d’oeuvre, Transmetropolitan (penciled by Darick Robertson and published in 60 issues from 1997-2002). It’s also probably Ellis’s most overtly political comic, so it comes as no surprise that there are already many texts, even some academic ones, on politics in Transmetropolitan. Most of those focus on the presidential election story arc (with a noticeable spike in 2016, on the occasion of Donald Trump’s candidacy and win), but I’m going to stick to the very first self-contained story which spans issues #1-3, as it already exhibits the main political mechanisms at work here.
The first issue serves mainly to introduce the protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, a journalist writing political columns for a newspaper in an unnamed American city, in a future that seems not too far away (but is apparently supposed to be the 23rd century). In issue #2 he pays the Transient community a visit – humans who, for some reason, chose to have their bodies genetically engineered to gradually take on the shape of aliens. Now these human-alien hybrids “can’t get jobs” and are “forced” to live in the slum quarter Angels 8, according to their leader, Fred Christ. They feel discriminated against by Civic Center (the City government), and their solution is to announce the secession of Angels 8 to the Vilnius Colony, a sovereign alien territory. “The threat of secession will force them to treat us decently”, says Fred.
The Transients erect barricades around Angels 8, but Spider already fears that the police are going to stifle that uprising: “It’s an election year for a law-and-order president. They’ll come in and stamp on your bones, Fred.” And indeed, bombs are thrown at a Transient demonstration, which prompts the police to crack down on the “Transient Riot”. Spider, however, realises what is actually going on in the district. He has witnessed how individual Transients got bribed to incite the riot. Otherwise, “It would never have happened. The Transients were too confused, gutless and dim to start a real confrontation on their own. Until some money changed hands.”
Spider goes to the scene of the crime to report, in a sort of live newsfeed, on the extremely and unnecessarily violent police action, and also to provide his background information on the cause of the riot (“They paid a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration.”) People read his newsfeed, call Civic Center to complain, and the police are withdrawn from Angels 8 at last.
Comparing this story to the other Ellis comics we have covered here before, we find similarities as well as differences. The major commonality is the ‘abusive government’ trope: while we don’t know for sure whether the bribing lawyers who instigated the riot work for the President, we see the City government personified in the policemen who quash the Transient uprising. Not only do they beat unarmed men, women and children to death, they even enjoy doing it. The big difference to Ellis’s more supernatural and fantastical narratives seems to be that the protagonist who stands up to the government is not a superhero – it’s a journalist. Some people have read Spider Jerusalem’s character as an inspiration for ordinary people to do what they can and make a stand against (Trump’s) government. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that such readings are misinterpreting Spider’s character a little.
Spider Jerusalem is not an ordinary journalist but rather, for all intents and purposes, a kind of superhero. He is the only journalist brave (or mad, as he himself puts it) enough to enter the Angels 8 district. His astounding hand-to-hand combat skills allow him to overcome not only the Transient barricade guard but also two Transient bouncers at once, not to mention his proficiency in operating rocket launchers, hand grenades and handguns. And, perhaps his most superheroic trait: when at the end of the story he gets assaulted by a police squad and severely beaten, he is not intimidated at all – “I’m here to stay! Shoot me and I’ll spit your goddamn bullets back in your face!”
Without Spider, the public would never have learned the truth about the orchestrated Transient riot. Instead, the citizens would have been the CPD’s partners in crime, according to Spider: “You earned it. With your silence. […] Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. […] They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.” Without Spider, there would be no critical journalism in the City, only “papers and feedsites that lie to you”.
In Transmetropolitan, there are evil individual politicians, but Ellis makes clear that it’s the complacency of the populace that allows them to thrive. Once more, society on its own is helpless against an oppressive government and needs the ‘strong man’ to protect them.
What do you get when you (re-) launch a comic book series with a relatively obscure title character and an even more obscure creative team? Anything but an ongoing series. At least, an early cancellation would be the usual course of things. However, issue #8 has already been solicited for February (with MacKay and Cappuccio still on board as well), so it looks like we’re in for the long run after all. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, a certain Disney+ series starring Oscar Isaac is scheduled for next year…
Authors: Jed MacKay (writer), Alessandro Cappuccio (artist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colourist)
Cover dates: September – November 2021 (= on-sale dates: July – September 2021)
Pages per issue: 20 [EDIT: #1 is an oversized issue with 30 comic pages]
Price per issue: $3.99 [EDIT: $4.99 for #1]
Website: https://marvel.fandom.com/wiki/Moon_Knight_Vol_9 (embarassingly, these fandom.com links are probably stabler than the marvel.com ones)
Previously in Moon Knight: a succession of rather short-lived reboots culminated in the enjoyable Bemis/Burrows run of 2017-18. Admittedly there was also the Age of Khonshu story arc in Avengers after that, which I didn’t bother reading. But it looks like the status quo hasn’t changed much.
Moon Knight’s devotion to his god Khonshu has waned somewhat, but he still considers himself the “Fist of Khonshu” and goes about his usual street-level superhero business, protecting the innocent in his neighbourhood from (minor) supernatural threats. Then, however, he is challenged by a more devout doppelganger – a classic superhero trope – who reminds him that, like most people, Khonshu has more than one “Fist”. Naturally, fighting ensues.
Wedged in between this two-Fisted tale is a sort of self-contained story in issue #2 in which Moon Knight fights some throwaway supervillain, but it is implied that a more powerful enemy, whose identity hasn’t yet been revealed, is pulling the strings. Interspersed with these events are scenes of dialogue between Moon Knight and his psychotherapist (yet another one, Andrea Sterman, who despite her youthful appearance apparently goes all the way back to 1990). We’ve seen this technique before, of course, but such dialogue is always a convenient way to recap Moon Knight’s biography, especially at the start of a new series.
So, what aspect of Moon Knight’s character, which is to say, his mental illness, does writer Jed MacKay focus on? Multiple personalities? Delusions of communicating with a god? Sadly, our protagonist’s condition is only shown to us by way of his therapy sessions. None of the intriguing techniques of MacKay’s predecessors to visualise Moon Knight’s twisted view of things are employed here, except for a scene in issue #2 in which we get a glimpse inside Moon Knight’s mind and learn why he’s not a suitable target for mind control.
What makes this Moon Knight still a worthwhile read, then, is not so much the plot, the dialogue, or the narrative technique (which are all on a high level, though not spectacular), but the artwork. Particularly colourist Rachelle Rosenberg’s contribution needs to be mentioned. Areas of pink, purple, green and orange hues are contrasted against each other, reminiscent of Dean White’s palette. Glowing light effects are everywhere, on street lights, the crescent moon, even Moon Knight’s menacing eyes. All of this leaves Moon Knight’s pristine white costume unaffected. When he’s leaping and gliding and falling, his cowl is often left with little or no shading as a large white area, a flowing canvas that once more resembles Batman’s iconic cape.
60 70 pages into this series, there is little hope left that it will turn into a masterpiece of the proportions of the Lemire/Smallwood Moon Knight run. For those readers who have been following the title character anyway, it is certainly a satisfying read, but it might not be the best introduction to Moon Knight for people yet unfamiliar with him – which, ironically, must have been Marvel’s intention with this relaunch in the light of the upcoming tv show.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
On the surface, Alois Riegl’s 1902 book The Group Portraiture of Holland (German full text here) is about a quite specific kind of artwork – Dutch portrait paintings from the 16th and 17th century. However, it also provides some concepts and terms applicable to any group portrait. Among those, the following three oppositional pairs are arguably the most intriguing:
- subjectivism vs. objectivism: in a subjective mode of depiction, the figures in the portrait present themselves as they would to a spectator present at the same site. They are embedded in the landscape and affected by their surroundings, so that e.g. their outlines may “evaporate”. In the objective mode, in contrast, figures appear in a sort of ideal or neutral view and are detached from their surroundings, resulting e.g. in clear outlines.
- subordination vs. coordination: in many groups there is a hierarchy, e.g. different ranks in a military unit. When such a hierarchy is clearly visible in a portrait, for instance by gestures, dress, symbolic objects, or placement of figures, Riegl speaks of subordination.
- symbolism vs. genre*: in 1902 the Symbolist art movement was in full swing, but that’s not what Riegl means by this term. Figures in a group portrait often perform actions and/or hold objects, and when those actions seem believable, i.e. when it looks as if the sitter actually performed that action, the action itself threatens to overshadow the individuality of the figure and the painting is in danger, so to speak, of becoming a genre painting instead of a portrait. Symbolic actions and objects, however, are metonymic signifiers of something else, most often character traits of the respective sitter. A telltale sign by which symbolism and genre can be told apart is how much attention the figure is paying to the action it performs or the object it is holding: if the figure is looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the picture), the action/object is probably symbolic.
Does it make sense to look at comics the same way Riegl looks at paintings? It is not unusual to compare individual comic panels to paintings, and many panels feature three or more figures. It can be argued that such panels sometimes resemble portraits – for instance, superhero comics books often contain a splash panel that introduces the main characters.
Let’s look at two examples from a fairly standard current superhero series, Batman/Superman by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis. In issue #17, our protagonists encounter a supervillain team on a parallel world. This is the panel that introduces the villains:
Is the subjective or objective mode of depiction at work here? On the one hand, all four characters are bathed in the same turquoise light, which suggests subjectivism. On the other hand, the composition ensures that most of the figures is clearly visible, especially their faces, and there is no interaction between them – the Penguin is pointing upwards, but the other three are looking elsewhere – so that each is shown in isolation, as it were.
The composition also emphasises subordination: the foremost figure, and also the one who seems tallest (i.e. who is drawn to the largest vertical extent), is that of Warden Luthor, the leader of the quartet. The quality that definitely allows us to speak of this panel as a portrait, though, is its symbolism. As mentioned before, the only real action of the Penguin pointing to the sky is unrealistic because the others are not able to perceive it. Joker, Warden and Jones appear to be engaged in conversation with Batman and Robin, but their gestures have little to do with that conversation. Instead, the gestures tell us something about those characters: Jones is holding a bauble because that’s the weapon he throws at his opponents, Warden Luthor is depicted adjusting his tie and having a hand in his pocket to show how conceited and overconfident he is, and the Joker is laughing because that’s what he always does.
A few issues later (#20), the arrival of our protagonists on another parallel world is shown in this double page spread:
Despite the orange reflections of the fire on the figures’ clothes and skin, the subjectivism of this image is doubtful: while the threatening demons are situated next to and behind the heroes, the latter don’t interact with them (nor with each other really) and look towards the picture surface, as if they are posing for us, each on his or her own in empty space.
Again there is a clear subordination, with Superman – normally Batman’s equal, but temporarily the leader here on his home turf in the Metropolis of the “World of Tomorrow” – depicted much more prominently than the others, especially the diminutive figures of Alanna and El Diablo (throwaway sidekicks introduced in #19 who now tag along with Batman and Superman on their inter-dimensional journey).
As for symbolism, this is again the dominant mode in which the figures’ gestures are depicted. Everyone has this mildly concerned look on his or her face and isn’t really interacting with anyone or anything. Even Alanna, who carries El Diablo with her jetpack, isn’t all too focused on her task. With the exception of Superman and his wide-open mouth, one could cut each figure out and stick it on a poster against a neutral background, each character a model of typical superhero stoicism.
Just to show that not all comic panels serve as portraits, here is another panel from earlier in the same issue that features the same five characters (who are wearing cowboy hats now because they’re in yet another parallel world):
Here the figures are very much absorbed in their respective actions – firing grapple guns, swinging a whip, flying to escape the quicksand – and we don’t get a clear view of all of them; poor Alanna in particular is mostly concealed. In this panel, the focus is on what happens, and not so much on who the characters are. This only shows that in typical superhero comics like Batman/Superman, creators purposefully insert panels resembling group portraits only every now and then.
* ^ More precisely, Riegl presents a multi-tiered model of the development of Dutch group portraiture in which symbolism and genre are only two of the stages, the other two (sometimes combined into one) being ‘novella’ and ‘drama’. Genre, novella and drama are all in opposition to symbolism and the status of the painting as a portrait.
The latest issue of Closure. Kieler e-Journal für Comicforschung contains a special section on “Eco-comics” to which I contributed one of its four articles. According to the issue introduction,
Martin de la Iglesia’s »Formal Characteristics of Animal Liberation in Comics«, which closes the special section, shares with the preceding articles a concern with the comics form. Particularly, de la Iglesia investigates if comics associate the specific scenario of animal liberation with a formal correlative – and if the comics form is geared towards a presentation of »animal communication and perception« (91) at all. And indeed: some commonalities emerge from the analysis of open cages, sudden flight, and abject suffering in Animal Man, Daredevil, We3, and Pride of Baghdad. In its detailed close readings and search for an overarching graphic rhetoric of liberation, the article pays particular attention to the ›expressive‹ potential of comics devices and the degree to which observers alternately share and are distanced from animal minds.
Homi K. Bhabha’s 1984 journal article “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” is often cited, even though (or perhaps because?) it is a rather opaque, difficult text. In it, he outlines the concept of mimicry, “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.” Mimicry is a kind of “colonial imitation”: colonised subjects imitating the manners of their colonisers. One of the few examples given by Bhabha, quoting a 19th century text, is the “mimic representation of the British Constitution” in British colonies with its “fancied importance of speakers and maces, and all the paraphernalia and ceremonies of the imperial legislature”. Another is the adoption of the Christian faith and rites.
Mimicry is thus similar to two other postcolonial concepts, transculturation and the contact zone, both of which I have written about elsewhere. Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation is a general framework of cultural exchange, whereas Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone, developed after Bhabha’s article, focuses on those instances of cultural exchange that take place “in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”. This is also true for mimicry, but in contrast to transculturation and the contact zone, which both stress reciprocity, mimicry only takes in to account one direction of acculturation: from the colonising culture to the colonised.
At first glance, the act of mimicry seems to be something rather objectionable, as if it was fake – a poorly understood but not truly internalised behaviour, worn like a fancy dress which conceals, or is at odds with, the true nature of the colonised. Bhabha’s point, however, is a different one. It is the ambivalence of being “almost the same, but not quite” that “poses an immanent threat” to, “disrupts” and has a “profound and disturbing effect” on colonial authority so that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”. At least part of the subversive power of mimicry is due to its effect to point to the colonisers’ hypocrisy when the colonised are e.g. granted a parliament but no actual political participation, or baptism but no equality as Christian brethren.
Is mimicry actually a “strategy”? If so, who actively employs it, the colonisers or the colonised? And why would they want to do it? Bhabha implies that mimicry is voluntarily performed by the colonised as well as encouraged by the colonisers, both parties seeking to benefit from it while being unaware of its drawbacks. If we follow Ortiz, transculturation is inevitable when two cultures meet, which would thus include the process of mimicry in the case of colonial encounters.
Are there any traces of the phenomenon of mimicry to be found in comics, or specifically in manga? Of course, Japan has never been a colony; quite the contrary: for decades, Japan ruled over colonial territories such as Korea and Taiwan, and one could also regard the Japanese settlement of the island of Hokkaidō as a kind of colonisation. Then again, there were times when the relations between the United States and Japan resembled something not unlike a subtle form of colonisation: in the 1850s, the U.S. Navy forcefully “opened” Japan. Unsurprisingly, the first embassy to be established in Japan was the American. From the Meiji period onward, Japan turned to several Western powers, including the U.S., as models for the reform of many aspects of society – e.g. baseball was introduced in Japan at that time. In 1939, Friedrich Sieburg summed up this trend of industrialisation, modernisation, and, ultimately, Westernisation, in his book Die Stählerne Blume: “Whatever its [Japan’s] world politics are going to be, it will always depend on contact with the ‘West’ – and by that, one can by all means understand ‘America’.” (On the other hand, Sieburg also wrote that this modernisation process was what enabled Japan to resist being colonised.) At that time, the Japanese economy relied heavily on oil imported from the United States. Then, of course, after WWII, Japan was under American occupation for almost seven years. (As I show in the aforementioned paper, some of these events, especially the latter, have had a lasting impact on the image of Japan in the Western world which amounts to a kind of Orientalism.) In addition to these influences, throughout the 20th century, the same American cultural influence – some call it ‘cultural imperialism’ – had been at work in Japan as everywhere else in the world. Again, this is not to say that Japan has ever been an American colony, but these look like historical circumstances from which some form of mimicry might well have emerged.
Besides, if the concept of mimicry was only applicable to colonies in the strict political or legal sense, its usefulness would be rather limited. The popularity of Bhabha’s concept, which is invoked in all kinds of contexts, suggests otherwise. Perhaps Bhabha intended to describe a specific historical situation, but as with any methodological concept, I’d like to find out whether it is universally applicable.
So what about manga? Are manga mimicry? It is generally believed that foreigners working in Japan, such as the Englishman Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) and the Frenchman Georges Bigot (1860-1927), have significantly contributed to their formation. ‘Modern’-looking manga with speech bubbles reached maturity in the 1930s, most likely influenced by imported and translated American comic strips such as the wildly popular Bringing Up Father by George McManus.
Our example for today, however, shall be a later manga: the classic Devilman by Gō Nagai from 1972. Looking at its page layouts, we recognise a level of sophistication on par with contemporaneous European and American comics. Instead of earlier layouts in which the usual page was merely a stack of strips with strictly rectangular panels, Nagai uses a vast variety of layouts with different panel shapes, bleeds, splashes, and overlapping speech balloons and sound effects.
However, to explain the formal properties of Devilman with Western influences would be unnecessary and far-fetched. By the year 1972, 25 years had passed since Osamu Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) revolutionised long-form manga – a lot of time for manga to evolve, with each new wave of mangaka building on the accomplishments of the previous one and adding their own innovations. Occasionally, mangaka would turn to Western comics for inspiration, but by and large, manga was (and still is) a self-contained, autonomous system.
Thus, if there is mimicry in Devilman, it is not to be found in its form, but perhaps in its content. In the early 1970s, Japanese attitudes towards the United States were ambiguous: on the one hand, resistance to the American-Japanese Security Treaty coincided with opposition against the Vietnam War to erupt in massive anti-American student protests. On the other hand, American pop- and counter-culture continued to be popular among young Japanese. Which brings us to the most famous scene in Devilman: the “Sabbath”.
In what must be the longest superhero origin story ever, by pages 178-179, Ryo has led his friend Akira to a secret party where people are indulging in frantic dancing, drinking and drug-taking. There is a band playing, which includes two dark-skinned musicians, surely meant to be African Americans. The line-up consists of two electric guitars, drums, electric organ, and an upright bass; there doesn’t seem to be a vocalist. As for the genre of music they are playing, we can only speculate (disregarding the soundtrack of the Devilman anime adaptations, which differ from the manga in the depiction of the band), but this line-up, and the intense, fierce way of playing their instruments, perhaps points to some kind of jazz rock. This genre was quite popular in 70s Japan and spawned several notable Japanese musicians, but for them, America was still the epicentre and point of reference of their music. They aspired to tour the United States and play with American musicians; Ryō Kawasaki even emigrated to New York in 1973.
This is the decisive difference between Japanese comics in 1972 and Japanese jazz rock in 1972: the former has become something completely domestic, while the latter is essentially still something American. Perhaps the entire band in Devilman is meant to be from the U.S. and merely visiting Japan, but then the act of mimicry could be located in the Japanese audience attending the gathering – some of them even wearing typical hippie clothes such as fringed vests. In the spirit of Bhabha, Nagai’s depiction of such mimicry is delightfully ambiguous: unknowingly and in combination with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, the dancers enter a state of mind that allows demons to possess them, thus bringing about the Black Sabbath. Nagai’s America – as well as the whole Devilman manga – is cool and hip, and at the same time twisted and evil.
As ever so often, Bhabha’s mimicry turns out not to be a radically new concept for something that couldn’t be described otherwise. However, when we look at transculturation processes through the lens of mimicry, we might reach a deeper understanding of them.
Welcome to the fifth instalment of this little Labour Day series. Initially I wanted to write about a more recent Warren Ellis comic, but now that Freakangels (or FreakAngels) is going to be adapted as an anime, let’s return to its first volume from 2008, illustrated by Paul Duffield. The story is loosely based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos from 1957: a couple of children (twelve in Freakangels) are born in an English village on the same day with strangely colored eyes and telepathic abilities that allow them to control other people’s minds and to communicate mind-to-mind. Ellis then deviates from Wyndham in that the children, at the age of 17, somehow trigger a cataclysmic event that leaves London half in ruins and partially submerged, and probably kills quite a few of its inhabitants. The story begins six years later when the children are 23.
A few people try to get by in post-apocalyptic London, organised in different antagonised factions. Those living in Whitechapel are led by the aforementioned children, who are called Freakangels. Due to their supernatural powers, the Freakangels are able to protect and care for the ordinary inhabitants: Kirk, for instance, keeps watch on a tower for days without having to eat; Caz distributes fresh water with a steam-powered cart built by another Freakangel, KK; Jack is always out on a boat scavenging; and Sirkka operates a machine gun to defend them against invaders. It is not only the Freakangels’ proverbial great power, though, that makes them take on this great responsibility. They also feel guilty about bringing on the “end of the world” (unbeknownst to the ordinary people) and want to make up for it.
Not all Freakangels accept this role as leaders and guardians. Karl likes to keep to himself and shields his mind against the other Freakangels’ telepathic communication; Luke manipulates and exploits others for his own gain; and Mark has left London and the Freakangels altogether. Still, by and large, the Freakangels appear to be popular among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. On his way to the market, Kirk is offered milk and cheese by a farmer. “Anytime you need anything, you just let me know. It’s the least we can do for you watching over us.” Kirk replies: “Nice of you to say so. But, really, it’s the least we can do for you, all things considered.”
Note how they use plural pronouns, which tells us that their statements not only hold true on a personal level but also on a political: the society of Whitechapel is a typical oligarchy in which few people – the Freakangels – have power over many. Regardless of their popularity, the Freakangels were certainly not elected, but simply assumed the role of leaders because they could.
In a way, Freakangels is classic Warren Ellis: democracy has failed, and superpowered, self-empowered individuals wield great power. The only question is, in what light does he portray this oligarchy? While the majority of the Freakangels appear as benevolent or at least likeable characters, their interactions consist mostly of infighting – ranging from harmless bickering over fisticuffs between Kirk and Luke to outright hostility that almost turns lethal (between Mark and the others). Luke in particular is a threat to the status quo and is about to get either expelled or killed by the other Freakangels.
Thus the power structure in Freakangels is a fragile one that can only be maintained with much effort – and maybe only as long as the Freakangels’ terrible secret about their involvement in the “end of the world” is kept. But who could replace the Freakangels as leaders? It looks like the ordinary populace will always be at the mercy of greater powers. In this Warren Ellis comic, the core principle is once more: might makes right.
The Flesch reading-ease score (FRES, also called FRE – ‘Flesch Reading Ease’) is still a popular measurement for the readability of texts, despite some criticism and suggestions for improvement since it was first proposed by Rudolf Flesch in 1948. (I’ve never read his original paper, though; all my information is taken from Wikipedia.) On a scale from 0 to 100, it indicates how difficult it is to understand a given text based on sentence length and word length, with a low score meaning difficult to read and a high score meaning easy to read.
Sentence length and word length are also popular factors in stylometry, the idea here being that some authors (or, generally speaking, kinds of text) prefer longer sentences and/or words while others prefer shorter ones. Thus such scores based on sentence length and word length might serve as an indicator of how similar two given texts are. In fact, FRES is used in actual stylometry, albeit only as one factor among many (e.g. in Brennan, Afroz and Greenstadt 2012 (PDF)). Over other stylometric indicators, FRES would have the added benefit that it actually says something in itself about the text, rather than being merely a number that only means something in relation to another.
The original FRES formula was developed for English and has been modified for other languages. In the last few stylometry blogposts here, the examples were taken from Japanese manga, but FRES is not well suited for Japanese. The main reason is that syllables don’t play much of a role in Japanese readability. More important factors are the number of characters and the ratio of kanji, as the number of syllables per character varies. A two-kanji compound, for instance, can have fewer syllables than a single-kanji word (e.g. 部長 bu‧chō ‘head of department’ vs. 力 chi‧ka‧ra ‘power’). Therefore, we’re going to use our old English-language X-Men examples from 2017 again.
The comics in question are: Astonishing X-Men #1 (1995) written by Scott Lobdell, Ultimate X-Men #1 (2001) written by Mark Millar, and Civil War: X-Men #1 (2006) written by David Hine. Looking at just the opening sequence of each comic (see the previous X-Men post for some images), we get the following sentence / word / syllable counts:
- AXM: 3 sentences, 68 words, 100 syllables.
- UXM: 6 sentences, 82 words, 148 syllables.
- CW:XM: 7 sentences, 79 words, 114 syllables.
We don’t even need to use Flesch’s formula to get an idea of the readability differences: the sentences in AXM are really long and those in CW:XM are much shorter. As for word length, UXM stands out with rather long words such as “unconstitutional”, which is reflected in the high ratio of syllables per word.
Applying the formula (cf. Wikipedia), we get the following FRESs:
- AXM: 59.4
- UXM: 40.3
- CW:XM: 73.3
Who would have thought that! It looks like UXM (or at least the selected portion) is harder to read than AXM – a FRES of 40.3 is already ‘College’ level according to Flesch’s table.
But how do these numbers help us if we’re interested in stylometric similarity? All three texts are written by different writers. So far we could only say (again – based on a insufficiently sized sample) that Hine’s writing style is closer to Lobdell’s than to Millar’s. The ultimate test for a stylometric indicator would be to take an additional example text that is written by one of the three authors, and see if its FRES is close to the one from the same author’s X-Men text.
Our 4th example will be the rather randomly selected Nemesis by Millar (2010, art by Steve McNiven) from which we’ll also take all text from the first few panels.
These are the numbers for the selected text fragment from Nemesis:
- 8 sentences, 68 words, 88 syllables.
- This translates to a FRES of 88.7!
In other words, Nemesis and UXM, the two comics written by Millar, appear to be the most dissimilar of the four! However, that was to be expected. Millar would be a poor writer if he always applied the same style to each character in each scene. And the two selected scenes are very different: a TV news report in UXM in contrast to a dialogue (or perhaps more like the typical villain’s monologue) in Nemesis.
Interestingly, there is a TV news report scene in Nemesis too (Part 3, p. 3). Wouldn’t that make for a more suitable comparison?
Here are the numbers for this TV scene which I’ll call N2:
- 4 sentences, 81 words, 146 syllables.
- FRES: 33.8
Now this looks more like Millar’s writing from UXM: the difference between the two scores is so small (6.5) that they can be said to be almost identical.
Still, we haven’t really proven anything yet. One possible interpretation of the scores is that the ~30-40 range is simply the usual range for this type of text, i.e. TV news reports. So perhaps these scores are not specific to Millar (or even to comics). One would have to look at similar scenes by Lobdell, Hine and/or other writers to verify that, and ideally also at real-world news transcripts.
On the other hand, one thing has worked well: two texts that we had intuitively identified as similar – UXM and N2 – indeed showed similar Flesch scores. That means FRES is not only a measurement of readability but also of stylometric similarity – albeit a rather crude one which is, as always, best used in combination with other metrics.
On this year’s Labour Day we’re going to look at a comic that was published at around the same time as Planetary but which is not nearly as well-known: Dark Blue (Avatar Press, first collected edition 2001; apparently originally published in 2000 as part of an anthology series called Threshold, the cover images of which are definitely ‘not safe for work’…). The black-and-white artwork is by a young Jacen Burrows, with relatively elaborate screentones for which no less than three people are credited, Terry Staats, Jason Crager, and Mark Seifert.
About halfway into this 60-page story there is a major plot twist that has some relevance here, so just this once I’m giving a spoiler warning: if you haven’t read Dark Blue but intend to, you might want to stop reading now.
The story starts out as a violent cop tale. Protagonist Detective Frank Christchurch is introduced beating up a suspect in custody in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of a serial killer, Trent Wayman. Frank’s partner Debbie stops him before he kills the suspect and Frank is told off by his boss, Lieutenant Abbey, but in the end Frank gets away with it. Abbey has problems of his own: he is a heroin addict who even shoots up in his office. The whole police department is morally depraved, to say the least. According to Frank, one police officer is “trying to sell me pills when I come in for my shift”, another “was raping a whore in the holding cell” while a third one looked on, “jerking off into a firebucket”.
So far, this seems to be the typical Warren Ellis motif of a failed democratic government with a law enforcement that not only is ineffectual at fighting crime but commits crimes itself. However, then the aforementioned twist happens when the entire city in which the police department is located turns out to be a drug-induced consensual hallucination shared by three hundred people. “Every person who takes the drug goes to that city and believes it to be utterly real”, explains Debbie, who in reality is a doctor at the hospital in which the drugged people are actually located.
Furthermore, Frank isn’t a police officer either, but a CIA agent who was “gathering intel in the former Yugoslavia”, as Debbie reminds him. “You got caught outside when shelling started and you ran into the nearest big building. It was a schoolhouse. And some fucker shelled it anyway.”
The story continues with Frank returning to “narcospace” and continuing to chase the murderer, Trent Wayman, but the really interesting questions are left unexplored. What kind of hospital treats traumatised intelligence agents by administering experimental “shamanic” drugs for several months on end? What kind of government operates such hospitals? Is it morally justifiable for a government to lie to its citizens and entrap them in an illusory world, even if this is intended as mental health treatment? Is the risk acceptable that they end up permanently confusing their real life with their illusory one (as happens to Frank)?
One could also ask what exactly a CIA agent was doing in Yugoslavia in the first place. What are the interests of the CIA (or of the American government, or of the American people) in the Yugoslav Wars? As Debbie tells the story, it seems to be clear who the good and the bad guys are: Frank was only peacefully “gathering intel” and becomes the victim of an attack, whereas the attacker is a “fucker” who stops at nothing, not even killing schoolchildren. Debbie doesn’t say which of the factions of the Yugoslav Wars the attacker belonged to, or where the school was located. Ellis’s vagueness concerning Frank’s backstory is particularly regrettable in the light of a certain conspiracy theory according to which a “Former CIA Agent claims: They gave us Millions to split up Yugoslavia”.
In any case, in contrast to what it seemed like in the beginning of the comic, Ellis presents a vision of a government that is very much in control and doesn’t need any help from superheroes: apart from minor problems with individuals such as Frank Christchurch and Trent Wayman, the United States have total control domestically (as exemplified by the hospital) and a strong influence abroad. Civil rights and democratic legitimization, however, fall by the wayside once more. Thus Ellis’s view on democracy in Dark Blue is yet another cynical criticism.