I tried again

April 16, 2008

You’ll find me sitting by myself/no excuses/then I know…
-Alice in Chains

I played around with some additional filters, trying to get a “screened on canvas” look. Still not quite what I wanted, but closer…


The original Spidey image is by my childhood hero Todd McFarlane.



Tried again…

April 15, 2008

I am just a worthless liar/I am just an imbecile…

This is more the effect I wanted, but it’s still not quite there. I love this Joker image. It’s originally from the cover of The Killing Joke.

I saw something like this on eBay

April 15, 2008

The sort of stuff you’d throw away/I’ll buy it on eBay!
-Weird Al

I saw this Warholish pop-art print of Spiderman’s face on eBay.

I wanted to try copying it.

So far, so… not sure.

I love Aaron McGruder

April 6, 2008

you just mad cuz your @$$ is old/first thing you do is just pick up the phone..

-Thugnificent, Flownominal and Macktastic, featuring Nate Dogg

I haven’t commented much on the Boondocks of late, but the re-run that ran on Cartoon Network this past Monday got me to thinking once again about how clever Aaron McGruder is. He might be the most effective critic we have of the constructions of “black” in America. While nothing he’s done since has made me quite as giddy as his reflections on Jar-Jar Binks, or the “What if MLK hadn’t died” episode, the “dis” rap about Grandad comes pretty close.

Let me give some quick context, just incase some of you don’t know the Boondocks. It started as (and still is) a newspaper comic strip featuring Huey Freeman (a young radical genius) his brother Riley (who longs to be a “gangsta”) and their Grandad (who at different times is actually “Grandad Freeman” and “Jebodiah Freeman,” and on one occasion “B!tches”).  Grandad, in hopes of saving his two grandsons from the strain of urban life, moves them into a house in the stereotypically white suburb of Woodcrest. That’s a REALLY quick summary, but honestly, if you don’t know McGruder’s work, I’d much rather you picked up a trade paperback of his strips or checked your local listings for the cartoon on Cartoon Network– I don’t think my summation can do the comic/show justice.

In this particular episode “The Story of Thugnificent,”a rapper named Thugnificent and his crew “Lethal Interjection” move to Woodcrest, right next to the Freeman family. Thugnificent is a sterotypical “gangsta”rapper, voiced by Carl Jones and drawing visually from acts like Ludacris:

Image linked from Carl Jones' MySpace page. If you happen to see
this on a back-ping,I LOVED the episode and loved your work.
I hope I didn't get my read on the episode all wrong. :)

While I could go on all day about the things I find fascinating from this episode, which sends up “dis rap” and other aspects of rap culture, I want to focus here on one specific instance, the dis rap “Eff Grandad.”

In the cartoon, Thugnificent and his crew throw a party which gets too loud for Grandad’s taste, and Riley– without Grandad knowing– parks a number of the guests’ cars on the Freeman lawn (viewers find out later that Riley also gave Thugnificent a forged letter from Grandad giving him permission to throw the party).  When Grandad calls the police and issues a complaint, Thugnificent and his crew write “the first ever dis rap against an old guy.”

Warning– it’s profane. But here’s a link: http://antfanfare.imeem.com/music/xpiPt8Bp/thugnificent_ft_macktasticflownominaland_nate_dogg_eff/

Grandad, not to be outdone, records his own dis response which he posts to YouTube. But the fallout of the Thugnificent track is that several older gentlemen who look roughly like Grandad are beaten all across the country, presumably due to the lyric “old folks should get their a$$ whipped for getting all crazy,” or any of a host of other taunts in the rap.

This is why I love Aaron McGruder as a social critic:

1. The song is actually good (I’m not as good as I once was with rap, but I can identify Snoop Dogg on the track, and I think one of the others is Xzibit who appears elsewhere in the episide as himself)
2. The fact that it “features” Nate Dogg skewers one aspect of the rap scene, making it highly ironic
3. It functions just like a “real” dis rap (this gets back to point #1). It’s not like someone tried to make a clearly insane example of dis rapping gone too far; it is over-the-top (particularly some aspects of the video) but it’s not surreal
4. It provides a worst-case of one of the greatest criticisms of rap music: as a result of the song, many fans of Lethal Interjection attack old men.
5. True to the idea of being a “comic” and a “cartoon,” it’s pretty funny (if one can step away from academia and take it as funny, anyway) 

What does this tell us, then? Part of the reason that I wanted to write this reflection today, in this set of responses, is that I just posted about people writing about who and what they are. I feel a little exposed writing about African American culture, which in a way feels bizarre to me because I grew up in a “black” neighborhood and have been referred to the same way Grandad is here by my African American friends. But I’m NOT African American. As such, is my commentary here valid? Is it okay? Am I out of bounds? I’d like to think I can research and comment on this, just like I researched Baraka and Hughes as an undergrad or MLK and Malcolm X.

But more importantly… Aaron McGruder IS African American. And because of that, and because the Boondocks is well received and beloved by the same community he’s socially commenting on (famous rappers are in the episode), the message changes. I think this is both obvious and critically important to think about. I also love Seth McFarland. I adore Family Guy and always will. But if Peter Griffin and Cleveland Brown had written a dis rap about Quagmire, it wouldn’t carry the same impact that this piece does.

After the episode I found myself laughing at the idea that a rapper would ever record a studio track dissing his neighbor over a noise citation, or that the resulting rap would result in grandfathers across the country being attacked. It seems… less than likely. And that, I think, was McGruder’s whole point. Some of these things sound savage in rap (and are probably shameful on some level), but at the same time the thought that someone would carry out some of the outlandish narratives in these songs is a touch off-center in its own right.

I also found myself roaming around my apartment singing the rap, and giggling as I remembered the numerous ways Riley assured Thugnificent he wasn’t trying to “ride” him.

If entertainment can amuse and inform… and critique… it’s doing something special.

Honestly, this whole post is sort of a long version of me saying “please, everyone, watch The Boondocks. It’s the best cartoon I’ve ever seen.”


A second pass at SCALPED or How The Fun was Lost

March 15, 2008

how’s the weather/how’s my father?/am I lonely/heavens, no!

-Tracy Bonham 

Image from flickr, taken from SCALPED writer Jason Aaron's blog 
at: http://jasoneaaron.blogspot.com/2007_03_01_archive.html

About a month ago, give or take, I wrote an entry about the comic book SCALPED from DC. At the time I wanted to reserve full judgment until I’d seen more of the series. Now that I’ve read the first “chapter” in graphic novel form, I feel better talking about it.

At the same time, I’ve recently met a fellow scholar who works for a comic company that attempts to present things in a more positive light. I’m going to keep from naming that group just yet as I don’t want to sound as if I am singling them, or this fellow scholar who I respect a great deal, out in this particular post. I will be talking a bit about this scholar’s work later, though.

I return to the point I was trying to make initially. In fact that point has been galvanized by reading more and seeing that SCALPED actually does get somewhat worse in its depictions of things. The final page of the first graphic novel is of a woman who has been scalped.  I find of late that either what I am trying to argue to some degree is considered highly-counterproductive to people in my field. But I want to restate it, because I feel this is important. I think it might be CRITICAL to ever really making sense of things in this world.

As academics, we walk in a different space. I will not call our space ‘better’ than anyone else’s (that’s been done forever by people who presume there is an Ivory Tower and we live in it), but it is certainly different. We think about things that we seem to assume others don’t (often incorrectly, but sometimes correctly) and we press for meaning in places where meaning isn’t usually saught. When one of us– as I am, as so many are now– tries to go into a more mainstream or “popular” arena, there are things we have to remember.This is rule number one for me: if I’m studying something, I’m studying it. I’m not studying it while figuring out how I can co-opt it, and I’m not studying it reading an agenda onto it. I will read with lenses that reveal agendas (we all do– that’s how the best revelations result), but I won’t come to something and say “because this does X, it is obviously Y.” This is my defense of SCALPED; it’s a story. I have decided that I wish it were just a touch less gritty, but I continue to have nothing but love for the two most commonly associated pieces of contemporary fiction: FX Network’s The Shield and HBO’s The Sopranos. In fact I have posters from each of those two programs (they aren’t currently on my wall– they’re back in my old apartment).

I have no tie to Italian Americans, so I cannot speak from the position of their culture. I have, however, addressed general Italian-Am responses to the Sopranos in this blog before. My father, may he rest in peace, was a cop (in fact my father was a “dirty” cop, though he didn’t go as far as Vic Mackey). As such, I feel that I can fairly say that The Shield isn’t meant to speak for all police officers. The Sopranos specifically screams that it doesn’t wish to speak for all Italian Americans.

These are stories.

Given these are not stories that carry the sacred material or spiritual understanding that the stories of the Cherokee might carry, for example, but these are not meant to be depictions of what is “real.”Fiction is a form of social commentary, but it’s also a form of entertainment and can be seen in a way as the fantasy of the best and worst of us.

I doubt Stephen King was trying to besmirch the name of the automobile industry when he wrote Christine.

I don’t think Clive Barker was trying to ruin the concept of solving puzzles forever when he wrote The Hellbound Heart and spawned the Hellraiser movies.

 I will agree with what many have said about SCALPED; I don’t want anyone  to think my people ALL behave that way. Sadly, however, I know there are bad Cherokee. I’ve seen them, met them, faced their behaviors. As such, I wouldn’t want a comic book about the cliche Noble Savage to try to depict my people, either (or that part of me, anyway– a small portion of my people are Euro).I disagree that SCALPED should be boycotted, though, or that it should be outright defamed.

If you don’t want to read it, don’t read it because it’s only a marginally good story (I sort of like where it was going while simultaneously wishing it wasn’t going there). If you don’t like that Aaron is portraying a tribe as corrupt, write commentaries about it.

But I think it’s wrong to say “WE shouldn’t be presented this way,” which is what I hear many, many people saying.As a kid, I went through a period as an outcast where I identified strongly with the villains in the stories I read. I wanted to be Lex Luthor. I wanted to be Darth Vader. I wanted to be the Joker so much I asked my parents for a big black trench coat (thankfully I was old enough that the stigma that goes with that look now hadn’t hit… imagine that as a faux pas). Why should any group of people be exempt from representation as the villain?

Perhaps it’s just my twisted postmodern view, but I think part of decolonization is saying “sure, we want to appear in this medium the way anyone else does.”

Of course I’d feel better if this were an Indigenous artist creating the evil mafia-like tribe with their corrupt casino, but I think it sets us– all of us– back to claim that something should be off-limits.

The second problem is that when we start twisting things so that they fit a popular genre but they are entirely positive, we ruin the recipe. I see this all the time with educational video games (which are growing exponentially). The reason a game like Grand Theft Auto is fun is because it’s a specific sort of fantasy release for the gamer. It doesn’t mean that gamer will want to go actually commit crimes (there’s research that proves this, btw… I don’t have the citations handy but will gladly fish them up if you email me).

On some levels yes, we can sanitize and reappropriate popular genres. But on another level, we risk rupturing what is appealing about them for the sake of our tinkering.

Use SCALPED as an example of what Native Americans aren’t, but think carefully about the implications of saying “we won’t be depicted like the Sopranos or like the cops on the Shield” is really saying. It’s asking to be removed from a specific conversation.If you’re someone who wants us out of that conversation, I extend to you all the respect in the world. But I feel like *I* am embedded in that discourse. It’s part of the tapestry of my life. And in order to use it, to study it, and to feel a part of it, I see no choice but to allow things like SCALPED to become a part of what we consume and accept.  

There’s a move in the field of rhetoric to attempt to bring about social change. At times I find that sort of a strange call to arms. I love the concept, but we should be bringing about social change every day by virtue of the fact that we’re teaching others to read and write, to look at things critically and to understand how to interact with the world around them. But commenting on something like SCALPED can provide a space for social change. Sure… it’s a negative way to see any tribe, even a fictional one.

But it opens a number of illuminating dialogues:
-What does it mean to leave your land and go back?
-What does it mean to lose respect for your land and your ways?
-What is the brutal history of scalping? How does that sit in comparison to current society?
-If life looks bad on this fictional reservation, what does it look like on a real reservation?
-If a non-NDN is writing this story about a fictional tribe, how would, say, a Cherokee who liked the Sopranos write the same story? What is lost in a cultural translation? What is gained?
and the most important question…

-Why is it out there, why is it selling, and why do people keep reading?

There’s much to be learned. I don’t think we learn that by simply saying “what it says is bad.” Sure, that’s pretty obvious. I doubt anyone will read it and say “I want my people thought of this way.”But it starts a valuable conversation, and more importantly, it shows us in mainstream American culture in a way that isn’t as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, or the X-man with the knives, or the guy in the headdress who gets big as a superpower. It’s an opening to appear in a different way. I consider it empowering. And I know some of you disagree. I love you anyway. 🙂 

53 Card Pick-up

February 6, 2008

I wonder what it’s like to be a rainmaker/I wonder what it’s like to know that I made the rain/I put it in boxes with little yellow tags on every one

-Matchbox 20


I feel a little weird writing about how jazzed I am for the new Joker seeing as Heath Ledger died recently, but I have to show my admiration.

Growing up, I was a huge, huge fan of the Joker. When I was nine or so, Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke was released with stunning art by Brian Bolland. I reproduced the cover as an art class project and as a piece of sidewalk art in downtown Richmond.

The thing that made The Killing Joke so innovative is that the Joker was every bit the menacing killer clown he was originally meant to be. After years and years of campy Batman *pow* *whap* *zoinks* Joker, Moore re-told the story of how the Red Hood fell into toxic waste, bleaching his face and going insane. More importantly (no pun intended), in the story the Joker shoots Batgirl/Barbara Gordon in the stomach. The wound he inflicted—paralyzing Batgirl—is one of the few sadistic acts in comic history that wasn’t later “retconned” (meaning no other writer un-did or otherwise fixed Batgirl, who still works from a wheelchair as “Oracle”).

While I’m sure that I will be conflicted watching Heath Ledger’s final performance, I am overjoyed that his Joker is gritty and sadistic. From the look (the butchered smile, the wild eyes) to the awesome viral marketing campaign started with www.thegothamtimes.com, it’s nice as a life-long fan to see a Joker with teeth.

Look for more Joker related content in the not-too-distant future. And maybe a little Lex Luthor.



SCALPED– I bet Italians sorta hate the Sopranos, too

January 30, 2008
 <-- from http://www.bluecorncomics.com/scalped.htm 

   Some of those who want forces/are the same that burn crosses...

-Rage Against the Machine

I’ve been thinking seriously about extending my small nugget of comic book scholarship (see long, rambling Soviet Superman paper…) into the ever growing circle of my Native studies scholarship. My first instinct was to write about the Marvel comics character Warpath (a hyper-violent Native warrior with mutant strength and a pair of almost “magical” knives who is currently carving up people in a story called “The Mesiah Complex”), but as I looked over some of the things out there to analyze, I came across the Vertigo title SCALPED.

If you follow the link above, you’ll see a rather scathing review of the title (the image is a piece of art from the series). I cannot, currently, launch a direct counterargument because I have only read one issue (I’m going to order the trade paperbacks from Amazon, so look for more on this). I can attest to seeing exactly what the creators claim is in the first issue, though: it looks like the Sopranos on a reservation. It’s gritty, and sadistic, and quite frankly gripping.

My commentary here is a response to the general idea expressed by the commentary from the critic at Bluecorncomics.com. I don’t particularly disagree with his interpretation/response; the whole idea of reviewing and critiquing is to say what you feel. But I think, based on the exchange depicted on the page, there is a problem that I sort of fear as I move into Native/Indigenous studies: why should ANY depiction of Native peoples be considered a reflection on ALL Native peoples?

I have twice (or maybe thrice) made the comparison to the Sopranos here. I think that’s apt. I personally LOVED the Sopranos (even the ending that bothered so many fans that the complaints crashed HBO’s website three times the night it aired). I found most of the characters compelling, and while the situations were gritty, sometimes way-over-the-top, and certainly less-than-positive depictions of Italian Americans, the show pushed artistic bounds and entertained while making an intricate, engaging argument.

Other than within the program (through the Italian American character who plays the otherwise forgettable therapist who sees Dr. Melphi, Tony Soprano’s therapist), there is very little backlash from the Italian American community about the Sopranos. It is, after all, a mafia TV show, following the same sort of genre fiction as Puzo’s Godfather or movies like Goodfellas. It is quite obvious that Tony Soprano isn’t meant to be “every Italian-American man,” though at times it seems like he’s the American everyman (in fact the last episode’s title “Made in America” makes perhaps the most clever wordplay of the series, pointing out that Tony and his crew are a decidedly American development as “made” men).  The stories that David Chase and his crew of writers crafted for the Sopranos draw from a specific community, and raise visibility of that community, but they are not meant to stand in as an ubersignifier, as it were.

And I am sure that someone, somewhere, would lodge the complaint that I am misrepresenting the complaints lodged against the Sopranos; there were no doubt small scale things. But the initial fervor that was anticipated when the show was first discussed (before it had ever aired) didn’t result in the wide-scale criticism. And to be fair, the complaint I linked here is one of the few entirely anti-SCALPED commentaries I’ve seen. If one were doing something other than a thought exercise (as I reveal my own research ethics) she’d want to do this sort of research. If I’m misrepresenting either situation, my apologies.

But my concern is that as a Native creator, the reviewer from BlueCorn was just too hard on SCALPED early on. I’ve done extensive research on Leonard Peltier, and as such I know that there has, indeed, been a spotlight on violence involving reservation land and policies. I also know, as a fan of both comic books and crime dramas that the genre demands a certain handling of violence and “grit” as I’m going to call it right now. In that sense, what *I* saw in the first issue of SCALPED was a cabal of tribal criminals acting like criminals.


I would argue that to craft SCALPED any other way would be wrong. There’s no reason to make a Native criminal somehow noble, and in fact I think that would do harm to popular understanding of what life on the reservation is like. So if the other argument, I assume, would be to NOT write about criminals on a reservation, corrupt casino owners in a violent, violent world. And I guess, in some ways, as a mixed-blood Cherokee, I can see that. But I don’t “get” it as a scholar.

I don’t think we should ever treat some segment of the population as “off limits” as fodder for popular culture just because we’re afraid that trying to depict something stylized but realistic using elements of that culture. If we do that, we essentially say “popular culture has to be about white people,” and that’s one of the biggest criticisms of the status quo on TV, in comic books, in movies, etc. 

Until we can accept that any of us can be good or bad, and as such any of us can be depicted as good or bad, I don’t know if we’re really making progress or just playing “nice” with each other.