Graphic Novels as Literature: Overcoming a Stereotype

Introduction: The Burial of Previous Conceptions

Way back through my back pages, in those idyllic days of high school, I first encountered graphic novels. A friend of mine (my boss at the time, actually) lent me a copy of Alan Moore’s From Hell, a serial that explores the idea that Jack the Ripper was in fact a product of his times, not simply a one-shot mass-murderer. Until this point, I had thought of the graphic novel medium — illustrated panels and frames, dialogue bubbles, and maybe a few onomatopoeic words — in the same way that I’d thought of all comic books in general: silly, trite works that hack writers produced for little boys and immature men. In short, I viewed the graphic novel medium as though it had never left the Golden Age of comic books — the time from the 1930s through the 1950s when superheroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al, were first introduced. But From Hell proved me wrong, for that work, though written in the same medium as those campy superhero series from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, presents a serious and mature discussion about a complex idea over the course of a wholly engrossing narrative. It wasn’t simply a comic book about a hero beating up a bad guy; it was a comic book that actively examined the human condition.

 

Cover of the 'From Hell' graphic novel; artwork by Eddie Campbell

But to me at that point, From Hell was just a diamond in the rough, a work that stood out amongst its campy peers in the comic book medium. The term “graphic novel” had only glanced off the surface of my understanding of literature, and I still considered comic books in general to be as mundane and predictable as a Danielle Steele romance novel. And then came Watchmen. I found it at Border’s in the comic book section, which I was perusing to see if I could find my own copy of From Hell. I didn’t find that graphic novel, but I did find Moore’s other masterpiece. Its simple cover, with a splotch of blood dripping down a brilliantly yellow smiley face, enticed me to open the book, upon which I could not put it down. From Rorschach’s opening monologue, I was hooked:

Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.

The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”…

…And I”l look down, and whisper “No.”

Who was this Rorschach guy? Clearly, he was a superhero of some sort, but one unlike any Superman or Batman I had heretofore heard of: he was disdainful of his city, and he was refusing to save its citizens! The twist was too much for me to pass over, and the book became mine. I finished it — all 436 pages of it — in two days, and I relished every narrative complexity, every song quote, and every allusion to traditional literary heavy-weights like William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Watchmen effectively buried my previous conceptions of the comic book medium, and it whet my appetite for other works like it.

Cover for the 'Watchmen' graphic novel; artwork by Dave Gibbons

The friend who had lent me From Hell led me to Frank Miller, who, like Alan Moore, wrote “comic books” that defied the genre’s campy stereotype. Curious about how a traditional superhero could be depicted in this darker, more literary-intense comic book medium, I turned to Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively. My suspicions were confirmed: I saw the cheesy Batman from the 1960s Adam West TV show nowhere to be found; this Batman seemed as though he could be real, and he was fighting crime for a reason, not just because he could. These Batman graphic novels were in no way what I had initially perceived as silly, trite comic books that hack writers produced for little boys and immature men. Like From Hell and Watchmen, these two Batman stories showed me that the medium was as capable of exploring interesting, real-life ideas as any poem or piece of prose.

Cover for the 'Batman: Year One' graphic novel; artwork by David Mazzucchelli

From that point on, I read graphic novels — as I now referred to them — as often as I read traditional works of literature. To be sure, I came upon some major misses (e.g., The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller’s silly and pointless sequel to The Dark Knight Returns), but then again, there are consistently many major misses in the traditional literary medium, too. Thus, I came to see that graphic novels are as valid as works of literature as any unillustrated short story, novel, or poem. Sure, I found some excitement in Inspector Abberline’s investigations of the Jack the Ripper murders, in the unraveling of the Watchmen narrative thread, and in Batman’s predictable fisticuffs; but in the end, I found much more enjoyment in these narratives’ depictions of the human condition. Indeed, any reader may count him- or herself lucky if they encounter such complex and satisfying works of literature as these.

Graphic Novels as Literature: An Objective Test

Alas, my anecdotal conclusions are not objective enough to satisfy any serious study of graphic novels as literature, so let’s put my conclusions to a scientific test:

To test my hypothesis that graphic novels can be quantified as “serious” literature, let us first propose a set of fundamental aspects that encompass what is acknowledged as literature in general:

*The work contains some amount of writing, ranging from single lines of poetry or sentences of prose to extensive, voluminous amounts.

*The work is quantifiable within one of the four rhetorical modes: exposition; argumentation; description; or narration. If the work is a narrative, it is quantifiable as either fiction or nonfiction.

*If a narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction), the work contains a logical conflict (or conflicts), a cohesive plot structure, relatable characters, and a variety of effective literary elements, such as foreshadowing, allusion, and symbolism.

*The work transcends the culture and time period in which it was written and enjoys easy application within other cultures and time periods.

Admittedly, the first three aspects are quite vague and encompass many forms of writing that do not count as “serious” literature. Thus, our objective test hinges on the final aspect: the work’s universality.

*The work contains some amount of writing, ranging from single lines of poetry or sentences of prose to extensive, voluminous amounts.

Graphic novels — even the campy superhero comics from the Golden Age — contain writing, be that in boxes meant to encompass a narration, in dialogue bubbles, or in those onomatopoeic “sound effects” like “BAM!”, “POW!”, et al.

*The work is quantifiable within one of the four rhetorical modes: exposition; argumentation; description; or narration. If the work is a narrative, it is quantifiable as either fiction or nonfiction.

In theory, any graphic novel  could be expository, argumentative, or straightforwardly descriptive (in which case we couldn’t truthfully call it a “graphic novel“), but it is safe to say that the majority of graphic novels out there are narratives. Thus, we have “The Adventures of Superman” instead of “How Superman Works,” “Superman’s Credo,” or “The Descriptions of Superman.”

*If a narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction), the work contains a logical conflict (or conflicts), a cohesive plot structure, relatable characters, and a variety of effective literary elements, such as foreshadowing, allusion, and symbolism.

As I mentioned earlier, the first graphic novels I read — From Hell, Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns — all function as complex narratives, rich with intricate plot structures, engaging characterization, and a wide usage of literary elements, particularly symbolism. But — as with traditional narratives — not all graphic novels successfully achieve a cohesive plot structure, for instance, or provide relatable characters. Thus, with this aspect (and with the following one), one has to judge whether graphic novels individually encompass this descriptor. Certainly, the four I mention above do. (See the Appendix for a list of other graphic novels that I judge to meet all four of these criteria.)

*The work transcends the culture and time period in which it was written and enjoys easy application within other cultures and time periods.

And we come at last to the most difficult — and yet most vital — aspect for a work of literature to attain in order to be quantified as “serious.”

Literary critic Harold Bloom spends the entirety of his literature study, The Western Canon, arguing that certain works are great because they transcend their cultures and time periods and elicit universal responses in readers. For example, the majority of Shakespeare’s body of work is universal because anyone from any culture or time periods can read (or view) a play like Hamlet and feel a variety of feelings for the different characters. Works that engender certain political beliefs — even narratives — are not ultimately universal because they reflect beliefs of the time periods in which they were written. (Take, for instance, much of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, which in a few hundred years will tell us a great deal about the political roles of women and African-Americans in the 20th Century, but will tell us little about the universal human condition.)

Can graphic novels transcend their time periods? Or do they simply remain exemplars of the cultures and time periods that produce them? As with the previous aspect in our criteria, I would argue that one has to judge whether graphic novels individually encompass this descriptor. The majority of comic books from the Golden Age would seem to be straightforward “time pieces” that describe the culture of America in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, particularly the creation of superheroes who could save America from the overwhelming threats of the Axis powers in World War II and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The four graphic novels I mention above, however — From Hell, Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns — all seem to be universal. To the lay reader — that is, the reader who has not seriously attempted to read a graphic novel — this may sound incredulous. But the truth is that these four titles deal with serious issues concerning the human condition that would engage anyone from any culture or time period. As a matter of fact, I just re-read these four graphic novels, and sure enough — the narratives still hold up, despite the fact they were all written during or shortly after the years of the Reagan administration. (See the Appendix for a list of other graphic novels that I judge to meet all four of these criteria.)

Cover to the 'Batman: The Dark Knight' graphic novel; artwork by Lynn Varney

Conclusion: Overcoming the Stereotype

I can say first-hand that it is a weird feeling reading a graphic novel as a serious work of literature. When you come from the mindset that all graphic novels have the same consistency of those trite early comic books, an encounter with a text like Watchmen will be simultaneously bewildering and enlightening. The uncanny feeling that arises from the clash of this bewilderment and enlightenment I think represents your mind’s grappling with the comic book stereotype: part of your mind still wants to view the text in the same light as a cheesy early Superman comic, but another part of your mind is determined to view the text in a more serious and mature light. Once you overcome this uncanny feeling — and thus overcome your stereotypical view of graphic novels — you will find yourself reveling in a medium that presents a combination of excitement and philosophical depth. Certainly, you should not read only graphic novels, but their addition to your reading repertoire will assuredly make your ongoing literary study — whether this study is conscious or not — happily richer and more comprehensive.

Appendix: High-Quality Graphic Novels

The following list contains titles of graphic novels that I have recently surveyed and judged to meet all of our four criteria for quantifiability as “serious” literature. (Note: I realize I’m leaving many major graphic novel titles off this list, including many titles that have received major critical acclaim [e.g., Alan Moore’s Batman novella, The Killing Joke, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books, and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde], but I leave them off only because I have not had a chance to read and study them yet. When I have, you will hear about it.]

*300, by Frank Miller: (For a more in-depth discussion of this text, click here.) Underneath all the muscles and hype, this graphic novella (for it is not really “novel-length”) is an unflinching study of the steadfast human will. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans match up against an army that seems to be as large as the Mediterranean, but they don’t care and march tenaciously into battle, knowing fully that they will all die; but, as the narrative reveals, to die defending your home, your loved ones, and the ideals your people hold dear is one of the greatest honors a person can earn. Or is it? By its conclusion, 300 has posed many questions regarding military ethics and the concept of honor. Note: the film adaptation of the graphic novella is fine, but like the Watchmen adaptation, it lacks the depth of the original text.

*Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller: This 1987 reboot of the Batman franchise demonstrates what a good action story should like: sure, there’s plenty of fist-fights and thousands of dodged bullets, but there are also keen questions hovering like gargoyles above the narrative that cause the reader to ponder concepts like vengeance, vigilantism, and heroism. Is Batman a hero? Or is he a disturbed vigilante? Read the text, and you decide.

*The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller: Frank Miller’s other famous Batman work depicts a 55-year-old Batman coming out of retirement to return to cleaning up the streets of Gotham. Like Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns poses intriguing questions about violence and heroism, and ultimately whether or not fighting crime is even worth it, since it always exists — even in a universe protected by the likes of heroes like Batman and Superman.

*From Hell, by Alan Moore: Moore’s story about Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders presents us with a slew of intriguing conspiracy theories, metaphysical ponderings, and the overriding question of whether or not a culture itself is responsible for creating its monsters. Definitely not light reading, but ultimately an immensely rewarding reading experience that will leave you thinking long after you finish it. But beware: there are a plethora of scenes depicting grotesque violence and explicit sexual situations (though not without reason).

*Maus, by Art Spiegelman: Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Maus is at first an odd narrative for a graphic novel, because it doesn’t contain any superheroes; but then again, when you look past the comic book stereotype, this is hardly a problem. Spiegelman’s book tells the story of his parents’ struggles as Jews during the Holocaust, which makes it a biography of sorts. But the truly intriguing aspect of this narrative is that the characters are all illustrated as various types of animals: Jews, for instance, are portrayed as mice, while the Nazis are portrayed as predatory cats. This might sound as though it would be distracting and a bit disrespectful towards those who lost their lives during the atrocities, but once you begin reading the text, you see the reverse is true: a more engaging and respectful narrative device you will not find in any tale of the Holocaust — in fact, I’d argue that this text is as important an entry of Holocaust literature as Elie Wiesel’s Night.

*Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi: Satrapi’s Persepolis ranks up there with Spiegelman’s Maus as being a “new” type of graphic novel — that is, a “graphic biography” (or in this case, a “graphic autobiography”). Satrapi’s book, which comprises two volumes (one that details her childhood and another that details her early adulthood), tells of her life under the oppressive regime that has run Iran since the cultural revolution there in the early 1980s, and her later life choices as a result of the regime. Humorous and sad moments are spread equally throughout the story, but Satrapi never loses her focus or her sincerity in her beliefs. I find this book to be such an honest study of the human condition that I heartily believe that it should be required reading in high school English or Social Studies courses.

*V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore: One of Moore’s first graphic novels, this narrative depicts a theoretical 1997-1998 England (from the viewpoint of 1983, when Moore wrote the series) in which most of the world has been devastated by nuclear war and in which a fascist regime has taken control of England, promising safety but not freedom. This is a highly philosophical narrative that ponders the extremes of fascism and anarchy and the effects of these institutions on countries in general and, more specifically, the human mind. Warning: avoid the film adaptation of this film, which sidesteps any mention of either “fascism” or “anarchy” and instead gives us a time-piece about the woes of administrations like George W. Bush’s.

*Watchmen, by Alan Moore: This graphic novel has been praised more highly than any other graphic novel to date, and TIME even listed it as one of the 100 best novels of all time. Set in the 1985 of an alternate universe, America’s superheroes — long since forced into retirement by the U.S. government — are being murdered. A few of the heroes from the old days band together to unravel the problem, which involves (among other things) an imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Ethical discussions abound. The film adaptation is okay, but like the 300 adaptation, it lacks the depth of the graphic novel. Nevertheless, watch the introduction to the film to get a feel for this alternate universe. Notice particularly that one of the superheroes is eventually dragged off to a mental institution, while another is openly homosexual, while yet another is responsible for the Kennedy assassination. These elements cannot be processed without recognizing that Moore is saying something about our superheroes and — by extension — us, the culture that produces them.

Reflection: ‘Lost on Planet China,’ by J. Maarten Troost

In his first two books, Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages, J. Maarten Troost wrote about his life living with his diplomat wife in the far reaches of the Equatorial Pacific. Strangely, these books earned Troost the moniker, “travel writer,” despite the fact they are more memoir than guidebook to traveling through those places. After all, it’s hard to imagine someone actually planning a vacation to remote islands where the U.S. government tested loads of A-bombs during the Cold War. In his third book, Lost on Planet China, Troost officially earns his “travel writer” status, for he details his journeys throughout the gargantuan country.

Early in the book, Troost begins discussing the extent of the pollution running rampant throughout China: it is everywhere, in the air, in the water, on the streets. Apparently, so polluted is China that its pollution reaches destinations as far away as the Great Lakes. Troost cannot even climb Tai Shan, a massive and sacred mountain, without experiencing the pollution-induced overcast weather. Sadly, Coleridge’s Xanadu this is not. Troost does, however, quickly adjust to the poisonous atmosphere — his coughing fits decrease, his eyes water less, and he is able to study and document China’s other aspects.

Troost and Smog

Also early in the book, Troost describes what he calls the different “lenses” he needs in order to view certain aspects of China in its “truthful” sense, as opposed to the imagined sense the government sells to whoever cares enough to pay attention; he calls this the “Chinese context.” View a China-produced Nestlé water bottle label through your ordinary eyes, and you see that it is purified water as unpolluted as that which flows from the Adirondaks; but view the same label through your “Chinese context” lenses, and you see that the water might be from some ultra-polluted, parasite-ridden tap in Beijing. Why the facade? Because the Chinese government knows that the key to success is a pristine image, even if that image is laughably transparent. And apparently, this is working, for despite the many horror stories that continue to surface about Chinese-manufactured products (lead-ridden toys, poisonous dry wall, etc.), the U.S. and other leading world powers continue to buy Chinese goods. A transparent facade is easy to believe, it seems, when the price tags are cheap. Troost exploits this facade as often as possible, and often ironically: for instance, he describes a train car compartment filled with government suits, who are all smoking despite the large “No Smoking” signs posted everywhere on the train. A timid stewardess attempts to remind the suits of this; Troost notes that the suits say something to her in reply, and moments later she returns with ashtrays. The facade is that China is a country devoted to “The People,” but the reality is that the government does essentially whatever it wants. Such is the way with republics these days!

Troost and Mao

But Lost on Planet China is hardly a political diatribe. Though Troost never passes up a chance to ridicule the hypocritical Chinese government, and though he spends some time lamenting the loss of Tibetan culture, he remains faithful to his “travel writer” status and focuses mainly on the experience of journeying through the country.

After describing life in the megalopolises, where crossing the street is hazardous to your health (if the speeding cars don’t kill you, the smog will), Troost moves on to describe the countryside, such as the stripmallish sections of the Great Wall and the afore-mentioned smoggishly hazy Tai Shan. He eventually discusses his travels in parts of the country where the pollution only slightly affects one’s experience. He climbs another mountain, for example, and embarks upon a trail above what is called Tiger Leaping Gorge: he details a natural experience so sublime that he becomes almost Romantic — this is as close to “Kubla Khan” as we will apparently ever get. And so, despite his snarky descriptions of the government and rampant pollution, Troost does leave us with many positive images of China, such as the sublimity of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Ultimately, however, Troost leaves a sour taste in our mouths; for despite the friendly people he meets (including two helpful Chinese women named Meow Meow and Cinderella — yep) and the beautiful vistas he takes in, he gives us unpleasant images that sadly trump all the pleasant things he tells us about. Most lasting is the image of the boy he finds while walking with an immense crowd along the pier jutting out into Quingdao Bay:

Then, suddenly, the crowd parted as if it had stumbled upon a lane divider. There before me sat a boy, not more than seven years old, though it was impossible to tell with any certainty. He was an albino with skin that was nearly translucent. He had no arms, and his ragged shirt had been pulled down to reveal the rough scars from where he arms should have been. His skin had been burned raw by the sun, and he sat there rocking and moaning with a plastic bowl before him that contained a scattering of coins.

Who was this boy? Who had done this to him? The scars on his stumps suggested that he wasn’t born armless. Who was sending him forth to beg on a pier? It would be far from the last time that I’d find myself pondering a display of mind-boggling cruelty in China, and it was why, despite the whiz-bang, China-is-the-future vibe I felt in this coastal city, I’d likely never have warm and fuzzy feelings for the country. (112-113)

How could he have warm and fuzzy feelings for China with images such as these always haunting his memories of the country?

Suffice to say, the content of Lost on Planet China is engaging, whether it pushes your political buttons, entices you to go backpacking through China’s remoter regions, or just plain tugs on your heart-strings. You will not become bored reading this book. Troost’s writing style helps this, for he is witty and immediately likeable. Though the books is close to 400 pages, you will zip right along as though it were a hundred pages shorter.

Troost reads Michael Palin’s description of the mountain he’s about to climb, and becomes a little anxious…

A book that documents one’s travels throughout modern-day China could be burdensome and overwhelming, but Troost pulls a Michael Palin on us and gives us a travel narrative that is at once humorous, informative, and insightful. Though I still question whether Troost’s earlier books should have earned him the “travel writer” moniker, Lost on Planet China unquestionably raises him to this status, and deservedly so. I eagerly anticipate any and all forthcoming Troost narratives.

Reflection: ‘Defiance’

Written and directed by Edward Zwick

Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008) is a companion piece of sorts to Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) in that both films ask whether violent retribution is the answer to initial violence. Certainly, violence seems much more necessary in Defiance than in Munich, for the Jewish refugees are at many points literally fighting for their lives, whereas the Israeli operatives in Munich commit violence against those who have caused them no personal physical harm. Had the Bielski partisans not applied violence against the Nazis, literally tens of thousands of lives would not exist today.

Daniel Craig, still carrying his license to kill, adopts a Belarusian accent here and proves to us once again that he is a masterful actor to watch and admire. Not once in the film is he unconvincing as Tuvia Bielski, and there are many areas where he could have fumbled and come off looking silly. Take, for instance, the scene in which the people in the forest camp descend into a chaotic argument: Tuvia screams over the rest and manages to draw their attention. This is typical Hollywood — the main character having the uncanny ability to scream just a little bit louder than the rest, which allows him to take center stage when everyone quiets — but Craig doesn’t flinch, and instead drives right on through and then delivers a wonderful little admonishment to the camp. But credibility is a necessity, not just a nicety, in a film about the Holocaust, for even a slightly silly performance would insult those who suffered through those evil times.

Equally impressive in this film is Liev Schreiber as Zus, one of Tuvia’s brothers. We see him carrying a hatchet around in the first scenes of the movie, which seems to emphasize the axe he has to grind. Indeed, while Tuvia kills Nazis out of necessity, Zus takes pleasure in it, and even goes so far as to leave his brothers and join the Russian partisans just to get some extra shots in. Like Craig, Schreiber sidesteps the potential silliness and delivers an engrossing performance that makes us feel for him — not once do we blame Zus for his Nazi blood-lust. The character could have easily been a caricature, but Schreiber thankfully doesn’t allow this to happen.

Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Tuvia (Daniel Craig)

But to return to that question: is violent retribution in the face of initial violence justifiable? Tuvia says early in the film, “We cannot lose anyone…Our revenge is to live.” That sounds simple enough, but to be sure, the frequent Nazi raids make this difficult. Thus, Tuvia soon concedes that in order to live, they will need to kill their attackers. I contend, therefore, that Defiance demonstrates that violent retribution is justifiable — but only as a last resort. Thoughtless and heated vengeance only leads to pain and suffering, as an early bungled raid on the Nazis shows: the Bielskis stop and kill a Nazi soldier on a motorcycle and several Nazi officers in a car. But they get too cocky and soon find themselves under attack by another carload of Nazis. Some of the partisans are killed, and the Bielskis’ brother, Asael, just barely escapes with his life. Thus, Defiance tells us, we should think to be more like Tuvia and less like Zus: willing to enact violent retribution only when all other options have failed. This seems to be a favorite theme for Zwick, whose previous films — especially The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond — show us people like Tuvia who end up with no choice but to be violent. Indeed, Defiance concludes with the statement that the Bielskis eventually saved over 1,200 Jewish lives, and that the grand- and great-grandchildren of these survivors today number well over 10,000 — all because the Bielskis employed violence against their Nazi oppressors. Those are numbers potent enough to make even the staunchest pacifist question his beliefs.

In Brief: On the American Dream

In retrospect, I realize that my last entry, a brief reflection of There Will Be Blood (2007), was a little hard on the American Dream. Well, it was meant to be. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film came out at a good time, just when the corporate greed on Wall Street was coming to a head (which the majority of Americans were completely ignorant of). We now live in a time when honesty and hard work are not all that you need to succeed in America. This is due to many reasons, including the previously-mentioned rampant greed on Wall Street, the overpricing of college education, and the exporting of jobs across American borders, just to name a few. Thus, as Daniel Plainview demonstrates, the pursuit of the American Dream is futile, and such a pursuit will in fact leave you isolated and lonely. Why? Again, let’s turn to Plainview: he alienates everyone who might get close to him because to him, wealth is more important than relationships. Unfortunately, I see this to be true in the age we’re living in: people are willing to screw over their friends and acquaintances in order to gain hold of a fortune. (Bernie Madoff is an extreme example, but one that easily comes to mind.) Whatever value we used to place in the American Dream has been displaced by greed. I count myself lucky to never have embarked upon that rat race.

But what There Will Be Blood — and the culture that produced it — tells us is that we need to redefine the American Dream. Perhaps instead of dreaming about being wealthy and influential, we should dream about being — I don’t know — happy and well-adjusted. The scramble for wealth in these times is a dead-end; I’m 100% convinced that unless you are particularly lucky, you won’t find financial success short of inheriting it. Thus, don’t focus on becoming wealthy; rather, focus on the steps you need to take to find happiness. (Hint: those steps should not include trips to the mall to buy stuff.) For example, I did not become a teacher because I thought it would lead me to wealth (HA!) but instead because I knew it was something I would find fulfillment doing. Now I have a wife I love, a son I adore, and a new baby on the way who I will also have a boundless adoration for. These are the things that make me happy — no amount of wealth or material possessions could replace that gratification.

Thus, instead of focusing on fattening your bank account, focus on developing relationships with the people in your life that make you happy. Daniel Plainview doesn’t do this in There Will Be Blood, and thus we see him at the end alone and crumpled up on the floor, declaring, “I am finished.” When I am finished, I hope to look back on my life and see memories of the people whose lives I’ve touched and benefited in some way, of the people who I have loved and was loved by. How tragic it would be to be on your death-bed and realize that all you’ve accomplished in life is the pursuit of material wealth — a pursuit you may not have even been able to complete. Thus, as the great thinkers and artists have been telling us for millennia, in the end it is the people in your life that matter, not your “stuff.”

Now, go hug somebody.

Reflection: ‘There Will Be Blood’

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

There Will Be Blood (2007), loosely based on Upton Sinclair‘s novel, Oil!,  paints a more devastating portrait of a man destroyed by the prospect of the American Dream than even The Great Gatsby. At the start of the film, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose name would seem to signify the way he sees the world, is a filthy silver miner who accidentally strikes oil. He quickly switches from silver prospecting to oil drilling, and in the process becomes an oil tycoon. Our national pride would tell us that this is the American Dream — finding wealth through a combination of your own ingenuity and hard work. But Plainview is first and foremost an outright liar: he delivers the same stump speech to every community he wants to buy (blindly ensuring that his oil drilling will bring money, education, and prosperity), and when he travels to the Sunday farm in the area of Little Boston, CA, to see if his tip about oil on the land is correct, he tells the family that he is hunting quail with his son, H.W. (who is, not surprisingly, not really his son). And though Plainview does do a great deal of hard work in the film, his nobility is overshadowed by his greed: take, for instance, the scene in which H.W. loses his hearing in a drilling explosion, in which Plainview, having set the injured boy down in a nearby cabin, watches the blaze and proclaims how lucky he is to be sitting on an ocean of oil.

H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Despite his hateful personality, Plainview is an absorbing character. He is mysterious in many ways — we never learn, for example, if he ever actually had a wife, and if so, what happened to her — and he is incredibly sensitive about his family. Indeed, when a businessman from Standard Oil proposes to buy Plainview’s oil fields so that the tycoon can retire and focus on raising his son, Plainview responds by saying that he will go to the businessman’s house at night and cut his throat, adding, “You don’t tell me how to raise my family!” When Henry, a man who claims to be Plainview’s half-brother, is revealed to be no relation after all, Plainview kills him and buries him in an unmarked grave. There are too many demons in this man’s psyche for him to be admired as a champion of the American Dream. By the end of the film, he is a 20th-Century King Lear: crazed, too powerful for his own good, and closed off from his loyal loved ones.

Plainview (right), grizzled and snarling like a 20th-Century King Lear

Day-Lewis, whose Plainview is at times more frightening than even his Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York, executes his role uncannily, as usual. He leaves us unsettled, which means that he draws us in and does not allow us to view him objectively. He changes his performance fluidly and believably as Plainview becomes older and more consumed by his oil-lust. There comes in the last scene a moment when the corrupt and broken preacher from Little Boston, Eli (Paul Dano), comes to broker a deal with Plainview for the last lot of land in that area. Plainview leads Eli on for a while, but ultimately pulls the rug from under him by explaining that his company has already taken the oil under that land by way of seepage, and using a childlike metaphor exclaims, “I drink your milkshake!” In the hands of any other actor, that line would come off shamefully risible; but in Day-Lewis’s masterful grip, the line is utterly debilitating. His delivery of those words is the film’s final — and fatal — shot at the American Dream, for it is at that point that we see how greedy and self-absorbed Plainview’s pursuit of wealth and happiness has left him. We see a man who has risen from a meager silver prospector to a power-mad oil tycoon, a man who lost his soul in pursuit of his wealth and happiness. Like Gatsby, Plainview at the end of the film is an American who at once has it all and has nothing; and like Lear, he fails to emerge from his madness and truly atone for his sins.  Thus, There Will Be Blood cautions us against pursuing any notion of “the American Dream,” for as Plainview demonstrates, such a pursuit only leads to isolation and loneliness.

‘300’: How to Act Like a Hypermasculine Ancient Greek

300, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Lynn Varley

(This essay considers the graphic novel and film version of 300 to be one and the same since the latter is a near frame-by-frame reproduction of the former.)

To those who know little or nothing about ancient Greek society (read: pretty much everyone), Frank Miller’s 300 seems like a senseless, gory hack-fest, a tale tailored to nerdy boys who in real life make up about 3% of the body mass of the Spartan heroes they are admiring; and so it is. But to those of us who have spent some time getting to know other Greeks besides King Leonidas and his 300 men, the story — while clearly exaggerated, and not without reason — is astonishingly accurate in terms of the culture. (Were there really so many Persian arrows in the sky that the sun was blotted out? Probably not, though that notion does come down to us from Herodotus, VII.226.) There is, for instance, the accuracy of the Persian messenger’s fearful warning that to threaten a messenger is “blasphemy,” which was something the Greeks believed whole-heartedly. Also take note of how the Spartan guards greet the Persian messenger indifferently, but decide to let him in when they realize they could garner a reputation as being bad hosts: being a good host — even to your ostensible enemies — was a sacred responsibility, not just something one did to play nice. Mistreat your guests, the Greeks believed, and you’d find yourself with one of Zeus’ lightning bolts in your face. Well the Spartans, it seems, ultimately prefer killing Persians to honoring the gods, so they push the messengers down into a bottomless chasm. (Of course! Don’t you have a bottomless chasm in your front yard?) Frankly, I don’t think many of these Spartans would be fazed by Zeus’ lightning bolts.

The Persian Messenger warns the Spartans not to mistreat a messenger -- in vain.

But the most accurate cultural detail in 300 is the hypermasculine cockiness espoused by the various Spartans. The Greeks –particularly the pre-Alexandrian Greeks, those who had not yet been “weakened” by Persian influence — held in high regard the notion of kleos, which essentially translates to “stuff.” This holy stuff could be something material, like riches, or something intangible, like glory. To be a hypermasculine Spartan soldier meant to want kleos, lots and lots of kleos. Since these Spartans are threatened with utter extermination at the hands of the Persians, they are not too concerned with riches; thus, the only kleos worth earning in battle against Xerxes’ “thousand nations” is glory. If Sparta is going down, the Spartan soldiers might as well go down in battle fighting like wild wolves — well, wild wolves capable of maneuvering into a phalanx formation, anyway.  But this explains the Spartans’ outrageous, seemingly improbable cockiness: when you are looking forward to being killed in battle, the enemy can do little to shatter your self-esteem. Thus, we have this lovely exchange between Leonidas and Xerxes:

Xerxes: Leonidas. Let us reason together. It would be a regrettable waste — it would be nothing short of madness — were you and your valiant troops to perish, all because of a simple, avoidable misunderstanding.

Leonidas: Don’t lose sleeping worrying over us. We’re having the time of our lives.

Xerxes: Brave words. Spartan words. Yours is a fascinating tribe. There is much our cultures could share.

Leonidas: We’ve been sharing out culture with you all morning.

You don’t talk like that to a gilded eight-foot-tall demigod without a certain sense that your death at his hands with bring you great glory — albeit in Hades. Leonidas is so sure of his impending glory that, when Xerxes threatens that he will wipe the memory of Sparta from the history books so no one will remember them, the Spartan king simply replies, “They’ll know.”

Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, complains that the characters “talk like professional wrestlers plugging their next feud.” Well, yeah. Where do you think the professional wrestlers gleaned their plugging skills from? This plugging, you see, is a hypermasculine tradition that extends even before the Battle of Thermopylae. Thus, Ebert fails to see that this — again, exaggerated at times to the extreme, and with good reason — is wholly fitting.

The Spartans plugging their next feud: "Come and get it."

Thus, if you want to act like a hypermasculine ancient Greek, you need only fight an enemy and convince them you’re anxiously waiting to be killed so that you can reap loads of kleos. And also yell and promote your viciousness on the battlefield. A lot. Miller’s Spartans are a far cry from those in Rudolph Maté’s 1962 The 300 Spartans, but I sincerely believe these 300 are more faithful to the authentic Spartan spirit by leaps and bounds.

[A quick note on 300‘s exaggerations: They can be a little extreme at times — where does that sea of Persians end, anyway? — but that’s the point. For Leonidas and his 300 men, the currently-estimated 70,000 – 300,000-man Persian army might as well have been 3,000,000. (Indeed, Herodotus, being the resident Michael Bay/incredulous storyteller of his day, writes that the Persian forces numbered over 2.6 million, not including servants.) These exaggerations put us into the mindset of the Spartans — they give us an idea of how Leonidas and his men might have perceived the situation. The numbers didn’t matter, of course, for the Spartans — being hypermasculine ancient Greeks — were only too happy to die defending their country. Thus, in this narrative, bring on the exaggerations! Show us armies the size of New Jersey! Show us elephants the size of mack trucks! Show us deformed giants with muscles the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ego! It is not, I assure you, simple comic-book silliness, but rather a clever way to draw us psychologically into the characters. In this one instance, I guess, Herodotus actually comes through! Good work, old boy — it only took you 2,400 years.]

In Brief: On Mel Gibson

After having watched the “making-of” documentary on the Apocalypto DVD, I’ve finally allowed myself the following [hardly] groundbreaking revelation: Mel Gibson is crazy. He was wide-eyed, fidgety, and — especially amidst the jungles in which Apocalypto was shot — a bit too close to Conrad’s Kurtz for comfort. This saddens me, because I have always liked his acting and his movies. But, too, we live in a culture where we have to look at our movie stars through two different lenses: a “professional” lens and a “personal-life” lens. If we only look at Mel through the professional lens, we see a brilliant artist, an actor and a director who always has a clear vision for his characters and films in general. But the media is always forcing the personal-life lens before our eyes, and so we must also confront the drunk, belligerent, loud-mouthed, anti-Semetic Mel. In much the same way that I view T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, I will cast aside the personal-life lens and try to view his work solely through the professional lens. (Mel’s drunken anti-Semitic remarks pale in comparison to what Eliot and especially Poud touted whilst sober; Uncle Leo, beware.)

Mel is one of those directors who doesn’t use audience screen tests to influence his films; like a true artist, he makes his films for himself first and “the audience” second. And really, this has worked just fine for him until now: in addition to Apocalypto, Braveheart and — dare I say it?! — The Passion of the Christ are works of art to watch and discuss. Even Passion, which is debatably anti-Semetic (“debatably” because we can, after all, have a discussion of just how anti-Semetic the Gospels Passion is based on are), is clearly a work that inspires some and riles others — just what a piece of art should do! It will be interesting to see what films he produces as a director in the future, for at least with parts of Passion and all of Braveheart and Apocalypto, he presents us with human beings on the brink of collapse, and requires us to study them alongside him; hopefully his future works will require us to do the same.

(P.S. If we’re hoping for things, let’s hope he doesn’t make a complete and utter fool of himself again in the future — oops, he just did. Okay, starting now, let’s hope he doesn’t make a complete and utter fool of himself…)

‘Valkyrie’: The Thriller-less Thriller

I was fairly excited about Valkyrie when I first heard about it a couple of years ago — perhaps, in retrospect, this was only because I heard about it roughly the same time that I heard about Inglourious Basterds, a less probable but wholly more enjoyable film. The problem, I’m happy to say, is not Tom Cruise. He may have been leaping all over Oprah’s chairs while making this film, but none of that comes out in the film. The real problem is the fact that the suspense is not built up appropriately enough. Let’s face it: this film is about the attempt to assassinate Hitler from within the German High Command, which we know never eventuated. Thus, there should be a palpable amount of tension and suspense to make us forget history. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of any suspense — just lots of talking about what should happen. I do recall a relatively suspenseful scene involving a misplaced briefcase, but really, there is not enough intrigue here to hold our attention. So little, in fact, that I honestly fell asleep halfway through the film and had to finish it — grudgingly — after I woke up. And guess what? It ends exactly as we expect.

Though he doesn’t ruin the film, Cruise’s acting isn’t a highlight, either. The best actors are either subdued (Bill Nighy in particular) or underused (especially Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson). Branagh looks nothing like the real-life Henning von Tresckow, but his convictions and quiet determination are so obvious on-screen that we don’t even care. (The opposite is true of Cruise, by the way: he looks scarily close to the real-life Claus von Stauffenberg, but he does nothing in his scenes but glare and growl at the other actors.) The most uncanny performance, however, is David Bamber as Hitler. I know this actor as Cicero from HBO’s Rome, and I can say that he looks nothing like Hitler in real life. In this film, though, the makeup is so effective, and Bamber’s postures so authentic, that watching him on the screen was for me the most stirring moment in the film. But we only see him a few times, and anyway, I don’t how I’d feel about appreciating Hitler in a film. Overall, the acting has its admirable moments, but it is ultimately too unbalanced to save the film.

Though he looks like the real-life person he portrays, Cruise (right) does not present us with a believable von Stauffenberg (left)

In the end, Valkyrie is a thrill-less thriller, which is disappointing considering the director is Bryan Singer, who made the very thrilling Usual Suspects. Had Singer gotten inside the minds of the conspirators and developed the psychological implications of their actions, Valkyrie could have been an exciting film. Instead, we have a boring, rambling movie that chugs dutifully along to its conclusion. Now that I think about it, I kind of wish that Cruise had done some chair-leaping in this movie, because then, at least, something remotely thrilling would have happened.

Reflection: ‘The English Patient’ (1996)

The painting of the swimming figures in the Cave of Swimmers

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, suggests that inter-cultural romantic relationships will ultimately not last due to too many inherent, subconscious differences. Anthony Minghella’s 1996 film adaption strays away from this theme, however, and instead presents us with a narrative that straightforwardly demonstrates the devastating effects of war and politics upon the individuals involved in these institutions. In theory, this film could have gone badly: we could have ended up with just another “war-is-bad” story to throw upon the heaping pile. But what makes this film unique — what ultimately makes it one of the moist poignant films ever made — is a combination of Minghella’s thoughtfully-adapted screenplay, the lucid acting, and the sweeping cinematography. This is filmmaking at its finest.

Like Ondaatje’s novel, memory is central to Minghella’s screenplay. The film opens with the painting of the swimming figures from the Cave of Swimmers. The intriguing aspect of these cave paintings — which are real, by the way — is that they depict a time thousands of years ago when much of the Sahara was at the bottom of a massive lake. Thus, despite the fact that they are in the middle of the desert today, these paintings are truthful in that they do in fact depict people swimming. This makes them mementos of sorts, memories of a wetter, more lively time. Minghella utilizes this opposition — past happiness and vivaciousness as oppossed to present grief and sadness — as the backbone of the film’s plot structure, for we are often thrown backwards and forwards in time: back to a time of love and possibility, forward to a time of death and acceptance. Memory is also occasionally jogged by sounds in the present: take, for instance, the scene in which the burned patient hears his nurse playing hopscotch outside, and the soft slapping of her feet against the ground take him (and us) back to his previous life before the war. It sounds like a trite, haphazard technique, but it is effective, and makes for fluid transitions from the present to the past.

Ondaatje’s novel does not focus solely on the story of how the patient came to be a burned man, but it instead focuses on a group of people — all of the people, anyway, who end up at the villa: in addition to the patient, we see Hana, the nurse; Caravaggio, the thief; and Kip, the young Sikh sapper. But Minghella’s screenplay pushes Hana, Caravaggio, and Kip off into supporting roles, which is probably just as well since doing otherwise would have detracted from the film’s focus. Still, Juliette Binoche wins our affection as the traumatized nurse who believes that everyone who loves her will end up dying, and though the casting initially seems a bit odd, Willem Dafoe makes the vengeful, thumbless Caravaggio suspicious but sympathetic. Naveen Andrews, better known these days as Sayid from Lost, is not given much screen-time in the film — at least not nearly as much as Kip’s role in the novel would otherwise call for — but we are still able to see him as a compassionate if ultimately bewildered young man. Also of note is Colin Firth as the cuckolded Geoffrey Clifton: his role is small, but Firth acts so believably that we truly feel sorry for his character as the narrative’s tragic events unfold.

Above: Naveen Andrews as Kip and Juliette Binoche as Hana; Below: Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio

On center-stage in the film is Ralph Fiennes as Almasy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine. Were this a different type of romance film, they would not have worked as the leading characters, for they do not have the right chemistry — not from what they show us here, anyway. But in this story, they are not supposed to have chemistry: Almasy is a man who has for several years been surrounded only by men in the arid wastes of the desert, while Katharine is a spunky socialite from the much moister British climate. They are not meant to go well together, and indeed in the film they do not. Almasy is cold and rigid towards Katharine, and when they finally become romantically entangled, Katharine spends a good deal of time hitting him. So what draws them together? I would argue that — just as in the novel — Almasy sees in Katharine a new land upon which to embark and map out while Katharine sees in Almasy an oasis amidst the dryness of the desert — not to mention the dryness of her dopey if well-meaning husband, Geoffrey. The love between these two is genuine, though like all doomed romances, far too passionate for its own good (cf. Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume” [II.vi.9-11]). In the hands of a lesser director and lesser actors, this relationship would be impossible to bring to the screen; but Fiennes and Thomas execute their roles brilliantly: they do not once waver in their credibility or authenticity.

Ralph Fiennes as Almasy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine

But I have forgotten a character — one of the most important characters in both the novel and the film: the sprawling desert. As I alluded to earlier, this narrative uses the human body as a symbol for land. Notice, for example, how Almasy wants to claim Katharine’s shoulder-blade, and then later her supersternal notch. The cinematography strongly supports this analogy, for the many wide, sweeping shots of the desert — recalling not unconsciously the same types of wide, sweeping shots in Lawrence of Arabia — reveal how much like a woman’s body the endless march of sand-dunes can appear. In fact, near the beginning of the film while sketching a map, Almasy is talking with a Bedouin who describes a particular landscape as looking like a woman’s back. This body-land imagery evokes one of the film’s (and the novel’s) strongest themes: just as humans cannot own another body, nations cannot own another nation’s land. The struggle to make this a reality — that is, in this case, war — will ultimately only result in tragedy for all parties involved. Imagine, for instance, if the British and the Germans were not fighting their war in the desert (i.e., someone else’s land): perhaps Almasy would have an easier time finding the help he needs at the narrative’s tragic climax.

The wide, sweeping Sahara

Both the novel and the film seem to circle around this quote, which appears in both:

There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in new light. This is done with nervous and tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.

“Betrayal” is a strong but sadly fitting term to accompany the love story of Almasy and Katharine: first, lovers are betrayed, but ultimately, human beings are betrayed. Consider as you watch the credits of this film roll who exactly has truly betrayed Almasy. The answer might just add heretofore-unrealized dimensions to your understanding of the phrase “all’s fair in love and war.”

New Read: ‘Justine,’ by Lawrence Durrell

Am I the only English teacher out there who hasn’t heard of Lawrence Durrell? Was there a Lawrence Durrell course in college that I missed? Apparently, when he was alive, he was a critically-acclaimed novelist. Upon the release of his first novel, The Black Book, T.S. Eliot remarked that Durrell was one of the great hopes for modern English fiction. The back-matter of Justine, the novel I picked up at the library today, claims that “with this gemlike work of dangerous eroticism and treacherous  perception, Lawrence Durrell reinvented the modern novel.” So why haven’t I heard of him before? I guess this is hopeful, if anything, for it goes to show that good novelists — even ones that have been dead for decades — can surface and surprise you with their brilliance.

Justine is the first novel in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a series of novels that take place in the exotic Egyptian coastal city. When I pulled the book off the shelf, I wasn’t expecting much — I rarely do when I pull books at random from the shelf — but a quick glance at the first page left me stunned. Just take a look at the lyricism of the first few paragraphs:

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes….

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child — Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word “escape”. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way….

At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and limp about, thinking of my friends — of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora — precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!

I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! Living on this bare promontory, snatched every night from darkness by Arcturus, far from the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons, I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must may the price.

I find myself swept away by those last two paragraphs in particular: “the iron chains of memory” — “the city which used us as its flora” — such intriguing diction! Brilliant, really. And notice, too, the painful truth soldered into the end of that section: “I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must may the price.” This is not the simple, cut-and-dry prose of your average writer, or even your moderately-good writer; Durrell’s style is complex and wholly satisfying, rich and savory. I read these words out loud and they feel in my mouth like a succulent Pinot Noir. I don’t usually read novels out loud, but the lyric qualities of this prose are such that for Durrell, I might make an exception. The novel is rather short, too, but given the complexity of the prose, I’m sure I will finish feeling quite drunk on Durrell.