Comics and Having Heroes

I love comics, especially the literary variety known as graphic novels. I was ecstatic when I heard that the art school was going to host a talk by none other than Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comics artist, as part of the Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. He solidified the genre of the graphic novel with his work “Maus”, a gripping account of his father’s survival during the Holocaust with Jews depicted as mice and Nazis depicted as cats.

Spiegelman’s presentation was titled “Comics is the Yiddish of Art”, the thesis that drove his roughly 90-minute talk. He described his inspiration from the greats, starting with Superman creator Jack Kirby, a Jewish American like himself. As the talk went on, Spiegelman argued how comics were not just a home for Jewish American artists, but for outsiders in general. He compared the  localized nature of Yiddish with the fluid grammar of comics as a visual medium. The unusual comparison felt justified and of personal interest to Spiegelman.

But his talk fell flat when he addressed the sexism and racism that has fueled comics for decades. After discussing how comics were condemned by authorities and even burned due to their provacotive content, he showed an example of how comics (by men) hid images of women’s groins and breasts in the background. This was followed by an anecdote of how he loved to draw women’s breasts and groins in junior high that he would then morph into the faces of dogs to avoid repercussion. This got a laugh out of the audience, but I was unsettled. The art professor who had introduced Spiegelman to the audience, the incredibly talented Phoebe Gloeckner of “Diary of a Teenage Girl” fame, had said she was interested in hearing the connection between Jewish identity and comics as she had always felt as an outsider due to being a woman cartoonist. The way Spiegelman showed comics’ history of objectifying   women made it feel inevitable, as “boys will be boys”. I wondered if male cartoonists ever considered how their crass attitude to portraying women alienated their peers like Gloeckner.

His discussion on racism had a similar problem of perpetuating the stereotypes that keep diverse artists out of comics. While calling out the racist caricatures that became a foundation for comics, he showed how he made a cover full of racist caricatures for “Harper’s Bazaar” after Danish newspapers went under fire for depicting the prophet Muhammad, which is prohibited by Islam.

Cover for “Harper’s Bazaar” that Spiegelman made in light of the “Jyllands-Posten” Muhammad cartoons controversy.

I was disappointed. Spiegelman spoke of his frustration with identity politics and his disillusionment in becoming a spokesperson of sorts for the Jewish community when he considers himself an artist first and foremost, leading me to believe he is against having art shoehorned due to the identity of its author. And yet he was continuing comics’ tradition of not being sensitive to the disrespect faced by people with marginalized identities in the art world.

I am cognizant that Spiegelman used coarse language with all social identities depicted in the art he included in his talk. He shared stories of being considered anti-Semitic for not portraying Jews or the Holocaust in a traditional way, a discussion best left to his own community. But as a Latina who is always striving to find representation in the media, I was not amused by his lack of interest in making comics a more inclusive medium. After his talk I was inspired to send an op-ed comic of my own to the Michigan Daily, and I finish this article with my head held high and hopeful of the future of diverse artists.

When Art Horror Isn’t Scary

This October I enthusiastically got into the spirit of the holidays by catching up on highly-acclaimed art horror films that have been released within the last decade. These included “The Babadook” (2014), “It Follows” (2015) and “The Witch” (2015). But there was one problem: these scary movies weren’t really that scary. Disappointed by this revelation, I looked up movie reviews of these films and was surprised to find out they were all belittled as “not scary” by people on the Internet when they first came out. It made me wonder what  I expected from scary movies in the first place that made these otherwise excellent films disappoint me.

The main issue was jump scares. I had always considered myself a refined movie goer who could stand the lengthy plot development that puts my parents to sleep. But the 90 minutes that these three films clock in at don’t live up to the anticipation I had when I started watching them. In all three cases, we are given a horrific illustration of the antagonist’s evil powers right at the beginning that captures your attention immediately. But little information about these supernatural creatures is then given. The main characters are then left to debate about whether or not these monsters even exist as they confront fate and encounter these evil forces. This puts the viewer in an awkward position. We see the witch use baby Samuel for his blood. We see the Babadook worm his way inside the mother’s body. We see “it”, in a shocking turn of events, follow.

And yet the movie suffers from not letting the monster at the center breathe life into the plot by rearing their ugly head. You cannot deny how real and scary the threat posed by the antagonists in these films are. You know that the main characters are wrong to shake it off. And yet their false hopes that nothing is out of the ordinary carries weight. They have not yet encountered their demons head on, and since we see what they see we can understand why they would not consider the possibility they are being haunting by the supernatural. By not including jump scares to make the antagonists’ constant threat palpable, these movies force you to focus on the character development as the conflict fueling the plot comes to a climax.

The antagonist always returns at the end of the film, proving the dread that I felt the entire time I was watching these movies was valid. This confrontation at the end allows for the protagonist to unlock their true power, concluding with the main characters overcoming obstacles in making peace with their flaws that sparked the antagonists’ haunting in the first place. Thomasin in “The Witch” dives in to her lack of faith, only to become capable of supporting herself when her struggling family is unable to. The mother and son in “The Babadook” learn to coexist with the grief manifested in the Babadook. Jaime brazenly ignores “it” following her at the end of “It Follows” when she walks with her arms linked with Paul, demonstrating a sense of strength that comes from feeling supported by people who care about you. These endings may have left me unsatisfied as a horror fan. What’s the point of spending the entire movie with the protagonists defending themselves from the monsters if they are unsuccessful anyway? And yet by making the plots of these horror movies more nuanced, it allows film to depict deeply human emotions in a creative way.

I support the trend of these art horror films resisting cheap scares to further develop their characters and their struggles instead. While it may take away from the visceral roller coaster of emotions you have while watching a horror movie, the quieter, more intimate moments of human emotion that are being tapped into make it worth it.

Finding Inspiration Over the Internet: Ode to a YouTuber

I’ve turned to YouTube for funny videos that brighten my day since sixth grade. YouTube is incredibly portable and accessible, making it one of my social media platforms of choice. Once connected to wifi, I can watch a video by myself or share it with friends and bond over it at any time of the day. I still use YouTube for the same reasons today. Yet my taste in YouTubers has notably changed over time. I am no longer satisfied with the crude humor of YouTubers like Shane Dawson. As I begin to understand how complex the world is, I am interested in content that makes me question my perception of society like the work of Dylan Marron.  But a YouTuber who has stayed consistent in my subscriptions is Daniel Howell, formerly known as danisnotonfire.

Source: PlayBuzz

Dan is known for his self-deprecating and depressed humor in his videos, where he philosophizes on his awkward social interactions and life’s greater meaning. He is one of the most well-known vloggers on the site at more than 6.5 million subscribers, and has kept a growing fan base as he and his close friend and collaborator AmazingPhil have expanded their platform by hosting a radio show, going on tour with a theatrical production, and authoring two books.

Over time, it became known that a fair share of Dan and Phil’s fans are young girls who are emo or depressed. I was shocked, as I didn’t consider myself any sadder than the next girl. And yet there was a way that Dan’s heavier jokes connected with me that was unusual for a comedian. I started to question why I found Dan so easy to relate to one day when I discussed his sense of humor with a friend my senior year of high school. This friend has anxiety, and one day during lunch she shared how she appreciated how another YouTuber, the makeup artist Zoella, was open about her struggles with panic disorder in a way that felt natural to her content. I let her know I agree that representation is important and brought up Dan’s dark jokes as another example of a YouTuber who recognizes it is okay to not be okay. My friend stopped me, saying it is clear Dan had depression and that his jokes were serious. I had never thought something was wrong with Dan’s line of thinking and was troubled by what that said about my own mental state.

Three years later, I am diagnosed with major depression and prescribed medication. The day after I went through the stressful ordeal of getting professional help for my worsening mood, Dan uploaded a video for World Mental Health Day titled “Daniel and Depression“.

Dan explaining how antidepressants work and sharing his experience taking them. Source: YouTube

Not only was I inspired by Dan’s courage in sharing his story about a topic that is still stigmatized today, but I was moved by how he was able to do it while maintaining his signature comedy and tone. I felt less alone in my journey to overcome my own depression by hearing Dan’s story, and this was in no small part due to the fact he presented his experience as another part of his life that did not deserve to be treated differently than any other part of his life that he feels comfortable sharing online. The video made me feel like I was getting to know a distant friend better, and not like I was watching a lecture presented by someone who feels self-righteous for bringing up an issue that is known to be hard to talk about.

In light of the criticism YouTube has been receiving for its new policies on video monetization and restriction, I am aware now more than ever of how easy it is for platforms that are made to give a voice to people can be limited and taken away. I hope the Internet continues to be an increasingly interactive medium that brings the world closer. It’s the only way some people may see themselves represented in an environment that sees their struggles as taboo.