A comic about Glenn Danzig

Here’s an interview that Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig did about his book collection.  It is glorious:

Here’s a comic I made about it with screen capture and MS Paint (click through for legible size): 

Published in: on November 5, 2011 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

What’s this then?:  Now that’s a good question.  Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a comic written by Grant Morrison with art by Dave McKean.  It is about Batman dealing with a breakout at the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where his foes traditionally go after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Batman’s journey is echoed with the story of how the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham went mad.  The work is filled to bursting with symbols and deeply strange, so the more one tries to describe it the harder it seems to do so — much like a dream.  Between Morrison’s script which owes huge debts to C.G. Jung and (God help me, here he comes again:) Aleister Crowley, and McKean’s surreal art and disorienting panel layouts the effect is something like a fever dream put on paper.  In fact, last night I considered rereading it before bed, but thumbing through it and feeling a bit feverish myself I decided I didn’t have the guts for it (I gave it a quick reread by the light of day instead).   The book was, so the cover tells me, the best selling graphic novel of all time as of 2004.  For a book this weird and creepy that has to a be a fluke (and probably relates to its being a Batman book released shortly after Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s Batman).

Well s’it any good?:  You’re just full of trick questions today, huh?  I certainly loved the book after my first reading, but Grant really plays into the hands of anyone interested in psychoanalysis or the occult (i.e. me).  Stepping back for a moment, do I think it’s that good?  I’m not so sure.  The one word to some it all up might be maximalist.  Morrison’s script (printed in the 2004 edition) contains elements of symbolism that Dave McKean was not even able to include, when so much was already there.  The story is filled fit to burst with reference to the Shadow or the Tarot or Psycho or anything else.  It is, perhaps, a little overwrought.  McKean restrains some of Morrison’s more ham-handed moments but then makes the art more vague, impressionistic, and surreal.  Another artist might have rendered Morrison’s weird story with realist art, to help us understand the weirdness.  Or McKean could have made a normal script spookier by illustrating it his way.  But instead, the team layers weird on weird.  McKean’s panel layouts can be a little chaotic (intentionally so, I think), and Morrison’s script jumps in setting a great deal.  The combination of the two can make things a bit hard to follow sometimes.  I never read the comic without reading the script, so I’m not sure, actually, how it stands on its own.  I tend to think that the struggle to understand enhances the irrational, nightmarish quality of the piece, but I could see how very rational people, or people who like linear narrative would loathe this book.  I will say that as a piece of horror, it succeeds.  It relies a bit on gross-outs and some shocks of a fairly extreme sort (Morrison notes in his script that the 80’s DC Who’s Who book indicated that Amadeus Arkham’s wife and daughter were murdered.  He later went mad when the stock market crashed in ’29.  Morrison tends to think the former would be quite enough and goes to quite great lengths -perhaps more than is necessary- to convince us so), but again the sheer mystical-dreamlike illogic off the piece is what drives the horror.

What’s the best bit?:  Batman plays a word association game with an Arkham psychiatrist, which leads him to have a flashback to his parents’ murder.  The marquee on a theater the Wayne family is leaving reads “Bambi.”  That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this book.

Anything else?:  This is a young Grant Morrison, and try as he might he’s still in the shadow off Alan Moore.  The idea off building up meaning through shifting connection of recurring symbols, the idea that events in one time echo in other times (but mostly in the same place), and the use off one character’s captions to reflect on what’s going on with another character, and of course the interest in magic are all Moore staples that occur in this book.  Morrsion gives at least one direct “take that!” to Watchmen in his script, but also drops a reference to Watchmen‘s use off the phrase “the abyss gazes also.”  I think, despite what Morrison may tell you, he’s got a soft spot for crazy old Moore.  Morrison’s psychologically vulnerable Batman is also an attack on Frank Miller’s hypermasculine, highly violent, ultraconservative Batman.  Morrsion does not contradict himself on this point, I suspect because he genuinely does not like Frank Miller (but then I might just be reading myself into things).

Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quick Hit: On Batman and Politics

Over at io9 they asked some Batman writers what they thought Batman would think about Occupy Wall Street.

People (mainly Frank Miller and people who like Frank Miller) have tended to assume Batman is a conservative, but I was reminded recently that Batman is anti-gun and anti-capital punishment.  Hmm.

Published in: on October 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm  Comments (1)  

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So Zatanna is a magician (both a stage magician and a can-do-supernatural-magic magician) in DC comics.  She casts her spells by speaking her intention backwards.  A fellow named Christopher Knowles wrote a whole book (Our Gods Wear Spandex. Its so-so. I might do it as a Book You’ve Never Heard Of some time), on the thesis that the pulps were heavily influenced by 19th century occultism, and comics were influenced by the pulps, so there remains some occult influence in comics.  Somehow he missed the chance to talk about Zatanna’s backwards speech.

Crowley (whom I can’t help but think you’re getting the wrong impression on my curiosity about, and I’ve been trying to avoid bringing up, but what the hell, it’s his birthday) wrote:

“Let the … Adept first train himself to think backwards by external means, as set forth here following.

(“a”) Let him learn to write backwards, with either hand.
(“b”) Let him learn to walk backwards.
(“c”) Let him constantly watch, if convenient, cinematograph films, and listen to phonograph records, reversed, and let him so accustom himself to these that they appear natural, and appreciable as a whole.
(“d”) Let him practise speaking backwards; thus for “I am He” let him say, “Eh ma I”.
(“e”) Let him learn to read backwards. In this it is difficult to avoid cheating one’s self, as an expert reader sees a sentence at a glance. Let his disciple read aloud to him backwards, slowly at first, then more quickly.
(“f”) Of his own ingenium, let him devise other methods.” [emphasis mine]

So, I suppose the question is, is it that Zatanna is very skilled in item d, or that the secret masters at DC want us to practice item e?

As a side note, point c was used to try to claim that noted Crowley fanatic Jimmy Page intentionally put backwards messages in “Stairway to Heaven.”  Zep Manager Peter Grant told the press “Our turntables spin only one way.”

Published in: on October 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A change in direction, but an old gambit”

I suppose now is as good a time as any to opine on the connection between a certain Neil Gaiman comic book and certain book and movie about a boy wizard.  I, of course, refer to Gaiman’s Sandman and the T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.

In Sandman, Dream engages in a sort of wizard’s duel with the demon Choronzon.  It is one of the great moments in comics, so let’s take a look at it for a moment.

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To me, there are three really “wow” moments in there: “I shall be an anthrax,”  Dream’s relinquishing the offensive, and of course the final line.  I was reminded of two of these when nerd-stuff news-aggregator io9 posted their list of favorite wizard duels from movies.  In Disney’s Sword in the Stone movie Merlin uses Choronzon’s germ gambit.  He also more or less sticks to a defensive strategy.

And in the awesomely hammy final battle from Roger Corman’s The Raven (how do you make a movie of Poe’s most famous poem? simple, make it about dueling wizards) Vincent Price more or less only acts to render harmless Boris Karloff’s evil magic.

Actually, this all reminds me of Crowley’s theory of white magic from Moonchild, which of course takes some inspiration from Taoism.  An old gambit indeed.  Am I driving at a point here?  Well, I think its only natural to adopt ideas from one’s predecessors, its the little tweaks that are important.  “I am hope” seems to be all Gaiman, and it really is the lynchpin of the whole sequence.

If you were looking for a post about Harry Potter and Tim Hunter, there are plenty on other sites that a quick search will turn up, but Gaiman himself thinks the similarities come mostly from their mutual inspiration by T.H. White.

Also:  Look!  I figured out how to embed things!  Oooooh.

Published in: on July 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Cerebus the Aardvark

What’s this then?:
Cerebus the Aardvark is a very long-running comic series by artist and noted crazy person Dave Sim.  It ran for 300 issues from 1977 to 2004.  As you could imagine various phases of the comic differ greatly as the title character becomes Prime Minister, then Pope, then loses it all.  Then there’s a story about Oscar Wilde, and then it gets really crazy.  Here, I’ll discuss only the first volume (which is titled simply Cerebus).  I might return to future volumes in later reviews.  The first volume is more or less a take off on Robert E Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories with the main character being not a mighty thewed barbarian, but an anthropomorphic Aardvark.  Cerebus acts as a mercenary and adventurer, meets a sect that seems to worship Aardvarks, meets a wizard who commands a swamp monster and has a weird head trip.

Well, is it any good?:
Yes.  This hits the mark that any good parody should hit — it is a good example of what it is parodying.  These are good Sword and Sorcery stories.  The sense of a realized world is there as Cerebus shifts his geographical place and alliances among different tribes and factions, and that sense of mystery is there when Cerebus meets the aardvark-worshipping Pigts or the constantly chanting and ever violent Conniptins.  The plots themselves are fairly standard sword and sorcery fair: Cerebus leads an army against a walled city which turns out to be ruled by a cult leader.  There’s nothing really to dig into here, just a good fun romp, which is really quite enough.

The humor ranges from clever to groan-worthy (although I must admit I have a soft spot for groan-worthy humor).  There are some good jabs at Sword and Sorcery tropes, like Red Sophia, a Red Sonja take-off who emphasizes the S&M fantasy elements of the woman who will only give herself to the man who can defeat her in combat (which happens to be Cerebus, who unlike Conan has no interest in sex.  and also is an aardvark).  Most of the humor is very broad consisting of jabs at comics contemporary to the series (Cerebus as a series actually constitutes an interesting historical document in terms of what the popular trends in comics were).  A short plot arc at the end of this volume spoofs DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man Thing with Sim’s delightfully cheesy Sump Thing and Woman Thing.  This free wheeling, highly referential, and ultimately silly humor actually makes me think of Tiny Toon Adventures more than anything else.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I think most Cerebus fans are in it for the art.  Sim’s drawing is extremely polished.  Human characters are drawn in a detailed realistic style, which marks a broad contrast with Cerebus who is drawn fairly cartoonishly.  Interestingly, for the first couple of issues, Cerebus looks pretty wonky, for lack of a better word even though Sim is already solid at drawing human characters.  As Sim begins drawing Cerebus more confidently and with just slightly higher detail he becomes a strangely charismatic character.  The amount and variety of emotion carried by changes of his eyebrows snout and left and right mouths (its a long story best left to another time), compells one to empathize with Cerbus even though he’s a right bastard.  The panel layout is where Sim really gets to show off.  Throughout the series, Sim pushes the comics medium as far as it will go, with odd-shaped panels, big blocks of text, splash pages, sections that force the reader to physically turn the book around and so on.

What’s the best bit?:
I was just getting to that.  I’m going to take the obvious answer and say “Mind Games.”  In this issue, Cerebus has a weird head trip where he floats through a black and grey panel-less space.  One page is puts the view nearly up Cerebus’ snout, while another sees him sinking into blackness of the page.  Decades later this remains one of the strangest pieces of comic art produced (although that list could be rather long, as comics artists love to play with stuff like that).  This is the harbringer of all the weirdness to come.  This is where, to borrow a term from LSD users (which Sim briefly was), Cerebus starts to come up.

Any closing thoughts?:
Well. You’re not really allowed to talk about Dave Sim without addressing the little matter of a screed he wrote in issue 186 (sometime in the nineties, I believe) where he claimed that men are creative lights whose energy is sapped by female voids (Sim has, by his own admission, been diagnosed as schizophrenic, if that softens the blow any).  In the seventies and eighties, though, Cerebus was one of very few comics whose female readership was equal to or greater than its male readership.  Knowing what we know now, Sim’s treatment of female characters can seem suspect in light of his professed views, but then again, there is no character I can think of in Cerebus (or what I’ve read of it anyway) who is not completely stupid, totally amoral, or actually evil.  If you are uncomfortable in giving money to Sim, then don’t buy the book.  On the other hand if you’re willing to seperate the author and the work and are interested in the visual possibilities of comics as an art form, then I highly recommend checking out Cerebus.

Published in: on June 28, 2011 at 5:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Fear, Loathing and Inherent Vice or: Doc Sportello’s Holistic Detective Agency

Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in addition to being a damn fine detective novel is also a snap shot of Los Angeles in the late 1960’s.  The portrait is as raucous and day-glo as we expect any picture of the sixties to be (literally, Pynchon spends a lot of words on letting us know what psychedelic color schemes rooms and outfits are in), but through detective Doc Sportello’s marijuana haze we sense the paranoia that we expect from Pynchon.

This calls to mind that other great sixties hangover, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Hunter S. Thompson, being Hunter S. Thompson, can’t help but rip the whole summer of love mythos a new asshole.  For Thompson, the sixties ended up being just like Vegas, a veneer of flourescent colors and family-friendly fun painted over a selfish, drug-fueled, sex-crazed mess.   Of course, Thompson exaggerates.  Everything about the book is over the top.  The drug collection is impossibly large, the trips impossibly vivid, the various criminal activities of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo probably just impossible.  Everything is out of proportion — this is the grotesque (or to those who love the book, the sublime).  Ralph Steadman (or whoever chose Steadman to illustrate the book) clearly understood that.  And the end of the day, this is a horror story .  We can’t stand the thought of Dr. Gonzo electrocuted in the tub to the goofy-triumphant (grotesque/sublime) strains of “White Rabbit,” we tolerate even less the idea of looking away.  J.J. Cohen wrote in Monster Theory “fear of the monster is a kind of desire,” which is probably why Thompson quotes adorn so many posters and t-shirts.  Thompson forces us (although we only pretend its against our will) to see how fucked up we are even under some kind of hippie horseshit (as Thompson may have put it were he less eloquent).  This is what is entailed by “a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.”  Consider this a strung-out, bad crazy Heart of Darkness.

Thompson uses his famed lack of subtelty to get across his (perhaps equally unsubtle) point, but this is far from Pynchon’s style.  Pynchon is far more ambivalent, leaving the reader some room to breathe.  If Thompson’s novel is a horror story, then Pynchon’s is a detective story, which should surprise no one.  But in particular, it is a holistic detective story.  Alan Moore, upon seeing the title of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Angency thought that to solve a crime holistically, one would have to solve the society in which that crime took place.  This was the operating principle behind Moore’s Jack the Ripper comic From HellFrom Hell proposes that London society at roughly the time of the Whitechapel murders is the starting point of Anglophone society as it stands today.  That time period saw among other things:the beginnings of Zionism, woman’s suffrage, new developments in medicine and physics, and of course, the first modern serial killer.

We might similarly see the late sixties as the birth of the twenty-first century.  ARPAnet, a precursor to the internet is mentioned frequently throughout the novel.  Use of soft drugs is becoming prominent among otherwise law-abiding citizens (Doc’s parents even smoke a joint).  New organized crime syndicates, and street gangs rise to power even as the mafia loses its hold over Las Vegas.  The most significant element of Doc’s world, though is popular culture.  It is simultaneously monolithic and infinitely fragmentary.  Doc watches The Love Boat in full knowledge that his parents are watching it at that same moment, and watches Adam-12 even though he hates cops.  But his musical obsessions are local bands and obscure acts that today are record store curiosities (where Thompson’s soundtrack is so mainstream that I have to imagine its supposed to make us a little uneasy about the crazy man grooving in the tub to Jefferson Airplane).  In the 21st century, billions of people watch American Idol, but anyone can be a minor celebrity on youtube.  For us and Doc, pop culture is the language we speak.  The narration (which is close third person, giving us Doc’s thoughts) mostly frequently crafts simile and metaphor by registering comparison to tv shows.  If nothing else, we seem to share with the sixties an all pervasive sense of pop-culture.  At the time of the novel, the Manson killings have just occured, wherein a cult leader killed a minor celebrity over what he thought some major celebrities were communicating to him.  Unlike Thompson, (or Moore for that matter), Pynchon doesn’t tell us what these sixties resonances tell us about our own society.  I suppose, then, that Doc doesn’t holistically solve the crime he’s investigating.   That is left as an exercise for the readers, the holistic detectives of the present.

Published in: on June 27, 2011 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thor Vs. Two Cunts in a Kitchen

Let’s continue on a theme from the last post.  Thor might be the most progressive Marvel movie yet in terms of gender politics.  Yes, I think a movie about a viking warrior god who smashes things with a hammer might be more feminist than the rest of the Marvel lot.

Let’s start with a fairly well established litmus test, the Bechdel Test.  Alison Bechdel, writer and artists of a comic called Dykes to Watch Out For, wrote a comic strip in which an unnamed character states she won’t see a movie unless 1) It has two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.  In Thor, Jane Foster and Darcy talk about Jane’s research on wormholes (and a missing ipod).  Now, it may be debatable how well this actually passes the rule — does it count, for example, if their discussion is largely technobabble and therefore meaningless in a literal sense?

I think the rule is not to be interpreted as a strict algorithm for choosing movies (even though it is stated as one).  Consider the tv commercial type known as “Two Cunts in a Kitchen.”    An ad of this sort will, by definition, contain two women, who talk to each other, about a product (which is not a man).  Of course the characters are, in the eyes of the ad execs, literally consumer whores.  One can of course also imagine a film about one woman, say, which managed to be a fine feminist film.

So what’s the point of a rule that doesn’t work?  Well, it gives us something to think about, and I think its point number three which is important.  Female characters should have their own driving wants and desires.  Even though the whole wormhole discussion in Thor might be nonsense from a literal perspective it has character meaning.  Jane’s driving want is to complete her research and this is abundantly clear.  Through the middle section of the movie Jane tries to retrieve her research while Thor tries to retrieve his hammer.  When it comes right down to it, they’re essentially the same.  Now, think of Lois Lane in Superman: the Movie, she may be a hard-nosed tough as nails reporter but everything she does has to do with Superman, she doesn’t really have any driving force of her own.

There is one unfortunate matter about Thor, in that by  the end of the movie Jane is explicitly searching for a way to get back in contact with Thor.  He’s more or less hijacked her through-action.  This happens because every Hollywood movie must have a romance subplot.  Now, even though the romance subplot ruins Jane’s character and is one of the cheesiest ever on film, it has its charms.  It’s main charm being, actually, its cheesiness.  Thor and Jane more or less fall in love at first sight and from then on its all rainbow( bridge)s and unicorns.  They spend all night just talking under the stars.  There’s something very adolescent about it.  But, somehow, it’s a lot more mature than the program of stalking and psychological reconditioning that most romantic comedies seem to advocate.  The grand romantic gesture of Thor  is that Thor steals back Jane’s notebook.  If you look to movies for romantic advice (and please don’t), you could do worse than “if you like someone (like, like them like them), you should do something that you know is important to them.”

The final thing which must be adressed is Chris Hemsworth’s hawt bod.  There is only one character in Thor that the camera points a voyeuristic eye toward and that’s Thor himself.  Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings are only eye candy to the extent that you were attracted to them coming in to the film (which admittedly for a large segment of the audience was very, very much).

There’s no doubt in my mind that all the people involved in making the film considered it a “boys’ night” kind of a movie.  Again, the main character’s schtick is to smash things with a hammer.  And the overarching plot is about two brothers’ rivalry for a father’s attention.  So its a credit to Kenneth Brannagh that it didn’t come out totally meatheaded, but if this is the most feminist superhero movie we can get, then there’s a lot of work to do.

Next time: The American Gods tv show and why The Hobbit is a better book than The Lord of the Rings.

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 3:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Six Ways of Looking at a Batgirl

DC has recently announced that it is relaunching its major superhero titles under new creative teams.  This kind of thing is always a cause for mass griping among comics fans.  The gripe which seems most expressed — and perhaps most well founded — is the complaint that Barbara Gordon will no longer be Oracle, but Batgirl.

For non-comics nerds: From 1967 until 1988, Barbara Gordon, daughter of Police Commisioner James Gordon, was Batgirl.  In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker shoots Barbara, piercing her spine and leaving her paralyzed in one of the most definitive moments of the Batman mythos.  Since that time, Gordon has acted as Oracle, the supreme hacker and information master of the DC Universe.

Reversing such a major moment of character history is certainly grounds for debate amongst comics fans.  Rather than opine in any one direction, I’d like to provide Six Ways of Looking at a Batgirl. In no particular order:

1. This is a Slap in the Face to People with Disabilities

Name three superheroes with physical disabilities.   If you’ve been reading the article this far, you got one.  If you thought a while, you probably got two (Daredevil is blind).  I, for one, can not think of a third.  The DC (and Marvel) superhero universes are ones in which, essentially, (physical) might makes right.  This rather uncomfortable state of affairs is, however, undermined if someone in that universe can be just as powerful as someone who can lift a tank, even if she requires the use of a wheelchair.  This is more like our own world where many sorts of abilities are necessary.

2.  Alan Moore is a Bad Feminist (and should feel bad)

The Joker’s shooting Barbara Gordon is an iconic moment in comics, but it’s also a clear Women in Refrigerators moment.   The Women in Refrigerators website collects a number of examples of female comics characters being “depowered, raped, or cut up and put in the refrigerator.”  Fridging has since become a verb for the process of imperiling a female secondary character to drive forward the plot of the typically male hero.  Barabara’s paralysis is the emotional fuel that stokes the fires of The Killing Joke and most readers, I think, will agree that the story is quite good, in part due to this emotional drive.  This does not change the fact that Moore fell back on the old cliche of the Damsel in Distress to craft this story.  Undoing this event undoes the damage done by Moore.

3.  Gail Simone is a Bad Feminist

Are you even allowed to say that?  Regardless, changing Oracle back to Batgirl changes her from an interesting character in her own right to a girl version of Batman.  Oracle was a character with her own personality and M.O., but now she’ll just be a second rate, female version of Batman.  This only reinforces the notion of maleness as primary and femaleness as “other.”  Not to mention it’s fucking boring to have a character who’s schtick is being exactly like another character.  Not to mention that having Batman, but Batgirl is pretty sexist, too.  Gail Simone should know better.

4.  Simone Just Wants to See Barbara Succeed

In an interview with Newsrama, Simone said :

“The most persuasive argument to put Babs back in the boots has always been one that I would argue against vehemently for story reasons, but that was impossible to argue with ethically. And I have heard this question a million times…why is it that virtually every single hero with a grievous injury, or even a death, gets to come back whole, except Barbara Gordon? Why? Why was Batman’s back broken, and he was barely in the chair long enough to keep the seat warm, and now it’s never even mentioned?”

This, first of all, relates back to Barbara’s getting fridged.  Is it sexist to cure Batman and not Batgirl?  Also, if the purpose of superheroes is to do the impossible, then why should one not defeat paralysis, is this, in the end, not a hopeful message?  Simone points out “There has always been a vocal minority of PWD [people with disabilities] who wanted to see Babs healed and out of the chair, always.”  Finally, if we feel connected to Oracle as though she is a person, then don’t we want to see her “get better”?

5.  Oracle is More Timely Now than Ever

I think Wikileaks (among other things) has demonstrated that information is both a very potent and an increasingly proliferated weapon.  A character whose purpose is to be the ultimate information broker is a character concept which is pregnant for stories right now.  Or there could be more stories where superheroes punch each other.   DC appears to have made their choice.

6.  This is a Battle of Some Fans’ Status Quo versus Gail’s

For Gail Simone, Barbara was primarily Batgirl.  Again from the Newsrama interview:

“we all have our spirit guide characters into comics, and Barbara Gordon was mine. When I was bullied at school for being the only redhead in my class, Barbara Gordon on the syndicated reruns of the Batman show was like pure crack.”

For a comics fan my age, Barbara has been Oracle for literally all of our lives.  For Simone, the change from Batgirl to Oracle was a major deviation from the norm.  For us, the change from Oracle to Batgirl will be a major deviation.  Of course, this sort of change is inevitable in an episodic narrative lasting for several decades, but every so often it might be useful to stop and examine exactly what such change signifies.

Published in: on June 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment