For most superheroes, fighting for truth and justice means fighting for the status quo. The typical plot: Supervillain(s) attempts to take over the world and/or steal property; superhero(es) stop them.
The journey from disjunction to order is only emphasized by the fact that the heroes are themselves often outsiders in some way. Superman is an immigrant; Batman has a traumatic childhood backstory; the X-Men are policed and persecuted mutants. Yet despite the fact that they are underdogs, the heroes nonetheless fight for the mainstream authorities. Thus superheroes are often fantasies of assimilation—a dream of outsiders being accepted by, or turning into, insiders.
At best, that fantasy offers a promise of acceptance to everyone, making for an inclusive vision of the American dream. At worst, superheroes end up as establishment lackeys, marginalized individuals currying favor with the mainstream by targeting other excluded groups on behalf of the Man.
Twenty-five years ago, though, in 1989 writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case began working on Doom Patrol, a comic that ended up telling a different kind of superhero story. Over four years and 44 issues, Morrison, Case, and a number of other fill-in artists inverted the usual connection between heroes and the law.
Read more. [Image: DC]
Forget the recent spate of books on the Fab Four. The only volume you need was published 20 years ago today.
When I’m introduced to someone as a writer, a now familiar pattern of events often follows.
“Oh, really! How interesting!” the someone—let’s call her Jane—says, sounding quite enthusiastic. “What do you write?”
“Science fiction,” I say.
Jane instantly glazes over. “I’m afraid I never read science fiction.”
In other instances, people who know me have read a book of mine out of curiosity and then told me, in some surprise, that they liked it—“even though I don’t normally like science fiction.” Indeed, when a short story collection of mine won a non-genre prize, it was apparently a surprise to the judges themselves: According to the chair of the judging panel, “none of [them] knew they were science-fiction fans beforehand.”
The assumption seems to be that a book that comes with a genre label like “science fiction” must necessarily be lightweight stuff—not really comparable with “non-genre” works.
This may partly be due to the fact that the word “genre” has two different meanings which are often muddled up. The basic meaning of “genre” is simply kind or category or form of fiction, and in that sense, any work of fiction can be assigned to some genre or another. But “genre” is also used in a different way to make a distinction between “genre” and “non-genre” fiction. “Non-genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed on the “general fiction” or “fiction and literature” shelves in Barnes and Noble. “Genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed in its own designated corners: Crime, Fantasy, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction.
What does it mean to be a tourist inside someone else’s suffering? Sometimes, it means taking a bus ride through Los Angeles’s gang-ridden neighborhoods, or watching a former addict bleed and sweat and grow blisters as he tries to run a hundred miles, or visiting a man in jail.
Leslie Jamison has done all that, and more.
But how does another person’s suffering affect one’s own emotional intelligence? What are you supposed to do with someone else’s pain?
Jamison does not know the answer. But she searches for it by writing about episodes of attempted empathy in her own life—for example, the time she became “obsessed” with her brother’s bout of Bell’s palsy: “I spent large portions of each day imagining how I would feel if my face was paralyzed too. I stole my brother’s trauma and projected it onto myself like a magic-lantern pattern of light.” Was that empathy, Jamison wonders, or was it a kind of emotional theft?
Read more. [Image: Colleen Kinder]
You think Twitter is weird? Look at early print culture and the practice of what book historians call anthropodermic bibliopegy. That would be binding books in human skin.
And while I now find the notion grotesque, the me of the 17th or 19th century would not have, apparently.
“While books bound in human skin are now objects of fascination and revulsion, the practice was once somewhat common,” writes Heather Cole, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library. “Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”
Houghton, where Cole works, has one such books in its collection which is, putatively though not definitively, bound in skin.
Read more. [Image: Houghton Library]
Veronica Roth’s Divergent is not great literature. It is, as plenty of others have pointed out, a derivative revamp of the Hunger Games, which was itself a derivative revamp of any number of other future dystopias from 1984 to Battle Royale. Unsurprisingly given the inspiration thrice removed, “the book’s characters and themes are,” as Michelle Dean put it in the New York Times, “blunt, coarse things, with almost no nuance.”
The movie version is no improvement. Even Shailene Woodley’s considerable charm as the protagonist, Tris, can’t entirely distract from the fact that the dystopian future seems to have been assembled by a video-game designer in a hurry, or that the plot is less a plot than a series of arbitrary challenges, many of which are actually ranked on a scoreboard. Tris undergoes a test/simulation to see which personality-based tribe best suits her (Erudite, Amity, Abnegation, Dauntless, Candor). Tris chooses Dauntless and faces a series of staged fights and trials to see if she’s good enough to remain. Tris experiences more hallucination/simulations in which she must combat her fears. And so on.
The internal hallucination tests and the “real” adventures blur together more or less indifferently; they’re just pasteboard hoops to jump through on the way to the uplifiting alternaballad at the end. All the mind-controlled drones at the denouement seem like a self-parody of the actors themselves, who point their guns here and leap off buildings there, not because they seem to want to but rather because the plot commands them to do so.
Read more. [Image: Summit; Lionsgate]
A new biography reveals a William S. Burroughs both ghastlier and more impressive than many previously thought.
Read more. [Image: Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy]
From Divergent's Tris to The Hunger Games' Katniss, the women of young-adult fiction can be strong, independent, and mature—as long as they're also scrawny.
Read more. [Image: Lionsgate; Summit]
The internet is wonderful and terrible in its volume. It allows us to read anything, but it gives us entirely too much to read. That memo. That email. This article. We are all bailing water out of a leaky info-boat.
Most smartphone apps contribute to this deluge of facts. “Save this to read later,” they offer, as though “later” you won’t have better things to read. Refresh your Twitter feed … or download our magazine app! (Seriously though, do it, if you want to be a thought leader.)
But one app promises to be part of the solution. Spritz, its creators say, will speed up reading time by flashing just one word of an article or book at a time inside a text box. It will center each word around its Optimal Recognition Point (ORP), the point at which most readers recognize its meaning. Users can set the pace at which the words zoom by—currently, the app can go up to 600 words per minute, about double the normal reading speed.
Read more. [Image: Kodomut/Flickr]
Coming to the realization that loving a good book doesn’t make you a good person.