Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Mouse That Roared


As someone who is interested in the way people play with corporate-driven mass media, I was looking forward to reading the authors' argument about how Disney affects children's culture. Instead, I ended up having to slog through pages and pages of pedagogy about grass-roots democracy. There actually isn't much in here about Disney media itself. The passages that do cover specific movies and theme parks are very much taken out of context.

I suspect that the authors haven't even watched the cartoons or movies that they write about. They definitely have that old prejudice of all animation being primarily a children's media. Sure, Hannah Montana and more recent creations are carefully targeted to a youthful audience, but this wasn't always the case. And so we get:

“Donald Duck may once have comforted American children by dreaming in stars and stripes, but Mickey Mouse now marches with Chinese youth on the other side of the globe.”

Referring the 1940s propaganda cartoons as “comforting children,” is fairly misleading. Adults watched these along with the news features that ran in theaters before the main feature. One of the early Disney victories was the flocking of crowds of people just to see “The Three Little Pigs,” regardless of what movie was actually playing.

They even get Micky Mouse wrong, in a discussion of the video game “Epic Mickey:”

“One product, the video game Epic Mickey, revamps the character of Mickey Mouse in an alleged effort to make him more appealing to today's generation of youth. With Mickey's popularity in decline in the United States, Disney's market-driven agenda is visible not only in its willingness to transform the hallowed icon upon which its corporate empire was built but also in the very way it has transformed Mickey Mouse's character. The mouse will no longer embody a childlike innocence and generosity but will instead be “cantankerous and cunning” and will exhibit “selfish, destructive behavior.”

Not only is there an assumption here that the video game was marketed primarily to children, but there is a purposeful misleading of the intentions of Mickey's characterization. This Disney product was openly described in reviews and press releases as a returning to the mouse's original cartoon self, a typical mischief character.

This same game is played with adult movies as well. A discussion of Enchanted compares it to Pretty Woman, mentioning that film's female character arc of a prostitute who charms a man by acquiring the “appropriate mannerisms and designer dresses,” without mentioning that the male lead goes through a similar, though inverse learning arc. And, again, the implication is that Enchanted (or Pretty Woman??) is a movie meant for children, rather than typical fluffy adult fare.

There are a lot of interesting discussions about Disney's use of cheap overseas labor, among other problematic economic choices made on the corporate level. But these parts of the book have nothing to do with the actual thesis of how children's education can be affected by Disney media. Plus, I'm highly suspicious of the author's reporting of these events due to their lazy “interpretations” of product that I'm familiar with. It's as if they wanted to write a book about the dangers of an uncontrolled corporate media empire using Disney as the prime example, then decided to throw in some media studies chapters in order to get more textbook sales.

Not only do I not recommend this, I feel very sorry for college students who are assigned to read this mess. If you want an interesting, progressive slant on Disney from people who have actually consumed its products try Inside the Mouse, instead. For a good history of the company's history of conservative business practices I'd recommend Hollywood's Dark Prince. Or, heck, poke around on the web and come up with your own interpretations...

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Mouse on the Moon


Way back in the summer of 1990, I picked up a box of vintage 1950s paperbacks from an elderly couple having a garage sale. Mixed in with the Richard Nixon and Vance Packard was a skinny humor book called The Mouse That Roared. The next school year I would be amused to discover the senior class putting on the play version as a response to the Iraq war. Because that's what English departments do.

Not that I blame them. I think most of us at that age were horrified to watch the U.S. armed forces getting involved in a local dispute over oil prices. It seemed like a plot from a farcical novel.

And so The Mouse That Roared, in which the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the United States over wine exports. Of course, they don't expect to win such a war, but look forward to gaining foreign aid after being defeated in "battle." Hi-jinks ensue, as they will.

Not quite what happened in the 1990s, but still politically valid and funny. The "end" of the cold war was still ongoing, after all. The narrative of competition was still going strong. Perhaps that's why the sequel works for me after all these years, also.

In The Mouse On The Moon, the prime minister puts in a request for a loan to the United States, couched in a language to insinuate that the Duchy of Fenwick wants to take up the U.S.'s spirit of international corporation and start a space program. Really, the goal is to modernize the small country over the head of the opposition leadership. And buy the Duchess a fur coat.
"Mr. Bentner, representing, as has been noted, the workingmen of Grand Fenwick, was by the curious alchemy of politics a radical conservative. Although the word 'conservative' to him was an expression close to poisonous, and although he regarded himself as a progressive socialist, the fact was that in the interests of the workingman, he opposed all change in the Duchy."
Wibberley's spot-on parody of dialectic politics is probably even more relevant today, in our time of having a "liberal" yet fiscally conservative President opposed by "conservatives" who want to do away with long-existing government programs.

Anyway, the U.S. decides to give the small country $50 million dollars in aid, not expecting any actual rockets to appear, but to embarrass the Soviet Union in front of the world. Not that the rest of the world actually cares:
"Prior to the announcement there had been an open discussion of the problem of internationalizing space exploration -- to the utter befuddlement of some of the representatives of some of the younger nations. These, sent at enormous expense to New York from remote parts of Equatorial Africa, each nursing some acute problem concerning its claim to a gold mine or a section of a muddy river, or a thousand square miles of jungle into which few but pygmies had ever penetrated, found the great nations of the world at loggerheads over who should own the moon."
 Needless to say, Fenwick actually succeeds in coming up with a ship that can travel to the moon. The technology is based on a mythical radio-active element that occurs within certain types of the native Pinot Noir.  The idea of cheap, wine-based rocket fuel is a bit of silliness, but the author actually has done a lot of research into space travel and manages to justify some of the ridiculous aspects. And make fun of the U.S./Russia competition for getting to the moon using as much speed and power as possible.
"'We're in no hurry and a great increase in speed brings a huge number of problems...heat, for instance. The outer shell of the rocket would get heated up to such a degree that it might vaporize. Then there are meteorites which are microscopic in size...We'll just chug along at a nice, steady thousand miles an hour..'."
This is a quick, one-day read; a good plane trip book, perhaps. Because of it's shortness, there is a bit of jumping around. Rather than having segues, the reader is expected to keep up with little jumps in the plot as each chapter tends to concentrate on one pair of characters at a time. But this is more of a stylistic tic of 1960s humor writing than a failure of the writer. Also, if you are a fan of vintage paperback covers, this series features some art by illustrator Robert Bugg. So, go ahead, take a break and laugh at the world for a bit. While we still have it.
As they stood looking toward this appalling horizon which, though so distant, seemed near enough to touch, earth raised herself over the lunar desolation -- a lovely huge blue liquid jewel, hung in a sky of sable. The sight was so entrancing that neither of them could speak. It was magnificent beyond anything they had ever seen, and the light which earth now gave to the moon was not the harsh, blinding light of the burning sun, but a gentle bluish light, consoling as a benediction, taking the savagery out of the terrible craters and fissures and mountains of the moon and investing them with a softness that made them almost lovely in turn.
 'I never knew it was so beautiful, said Vincent at last. 'It is lovely beyond everything else in all the heavens.'
 'It is our home,' said Dr. Kokintz simply and sadly.'

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Batgirl and high expectations

Off and on I wrestle with the idea of blogging about recently released comics. I enjoy going through older issues, sharing the weird foibles that they have, the occasional brilliant artwork, and the usual awful world-view. But these stories from the last 30 years or so are specifically targeted to 12-year old boys with spending money. It's obvious that I'm reading these as an outsider socially, as well as being slightly dis-placed in time. Reviewing contemporary titles leads to a different problem of context.

Within the last ten years a remarkable consumer shift has taken place, particularly in the loss of a gender-specific readership. Comic-books have always been an odd part of American culture, portraying fantasy male characters to an assumed male readership. Other mass media outlets such as pop music developed sex fantasies for young women that doubled as consumable images for young men to emulate. Until recently, the female fantasy characters in mainstream comics held appeal for the hormones of young men, but weren't expected to be emulated by women.

If you poke around on the internets, it's easy to see that a new generation of female fans have taken to the perceived power and heroism in super-hero stories. And with this expansion of comic books to a new gender, there appears to be an expectation of higher quality. And of getting away from older stereotypes and simpler characterization. The current discussion over Batgirl is a great example of this.

In large part, this is probably due to the rise of a better educated generation. The combination of more students getting a college education mixed with the ability to look up any older form of media in online archives has led to a greater awareness of how writers and artists for mass media have inherited characters that express archaic hopes and fears. Batgirl is a trademarked variation on the idea that a superior man needs to perform vigilante actions to combat a weak-willed and corrupt society.

And this leads to a problem that seems to be more inherent to the industry than lack of representation. The dominant storyline is one in which Batgirl has to dress up in a costume and beat up someone else in a costume. No matter what the intentions of the writer or artist, every month a way must be contrived to allow this event to occur. Thirty years after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns supposedly changed the industry by showing this un-ending aspect of comic book heroism, theatrical battle is still the order of the day.

There is a place for using the graphic format to explore modern ideas, but I don't see how there can be any future in attempting to use genre characters grounded in a 1940s philosophy to do that. Most attempts, such as the 1970s Green Lantern/Green Arrow run, end up being embarrassingly bad and impossible to read on a serious level. And the best examples of the genre don't measure up against "real" books, or even non-genre titles such as Fun Home, in terms of their ability to delve into human nature.

And that's not what their function is. I would place titles such as Batgirl in the same category as wrestling or football. It's something that people read in order to feel a sympathetic victory with one "side" over another. And that may be where the conflict arises. No one expects to "agree" philosophically with a quarterback, but fictional characters seem to attract a higher degree of identification. And when that identity clashes with the readers' sense of self, the disconnect is felt as a betrayal by the writer or artist.

Perhaps my point of view reveals more about my being a jaded, cranky old man than anything else. I don't expect Disney or Warner Brothers to think of me, or any "outsider" as a target audience. I'm enjoying some of the new voices, and slight attempts at parodying the form that pop up in titles such as Ms Marvel or Secret Avengers, but in the end all protected trademarks will revert back to their original forms. Instead of "making" ethnic or gender-based variations on Captain America or Thor, I'd rather see new characters, owned by creators who feel secure enough in their jobs to honestly express their view of the world.

Then, at least, if they still put out books about scantily-clad people fighting other scantily-clad people, it would be more out of love for the weird genre than out of commerce. And criticisms of the text would actually apply to the author, instead of having to add the context of corporate editorial control. Otherwise, we might as well be trying to apply literary criticism to our toasters.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Man In The High Castle

Back to books:


In the spirit of this novel, before writing this week's blog I decided to throw the I Ching. I got Hexagram 48, which is "The Well."
"Deep waters penetrated and brought to the surface: The Superior Person refreshes the people with constant encouragement to help one another." 

That's fairly optimistic...

As for the surface, well that's this "alternative" 1960s America, which has been split by the conquering German and Japanese empires. Dick doesn't really project a thought experiment here; the two competing cultures are pretty much the same as they were in the "real" 1940s. Neither technology nor the rise of a new generation seem to have changed either society at all.

What the novel presents instead, is a balance between Japan and Germany, partly to reflect the Soviet/U.S. cold war dichotomy, but also presenting the idea of the Tao.


For this is the modern state of endless wartime. Agents belonging to one side need to infiltrate the other in order to keep the balance. Rudolf Wegener, pretending to be Swedish travels to California to provide the Japanese with the intel necessary to keep Germany from having too much power. Joe Cinnadella, a fake Italian, is attempting to assassinate the author of an influential novel. Frank Frink hides his Jewish identity and sells jewelry that starts the process of adding an American influence to the Japanese-dominated west coast culture.
"For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.' One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However in those cases the wu is within the viewer."
Which leads us to the old problem of interpretation. Dick claimed to have written this book by throwing the I Ching and working the answers into the text, which resulted in the end structure and abrupt ending. Like any good prophecy system, the verses are written in a vague and metaphoric fashion, leading the reader to fill in the spaces with his or her own story. Many of the passages within the novel seem to be written in a similar fashion.
"'An accurate guess,' the girl said. 'We are starting to decorate. A bit undecided. Do you think you could inform us?'"
Or this is just the author displaying a bit of orientalism. Much of the dialog, internal and external, seems to mimic the old Hollywood idea of how Japanese or Chinese people talk. This may be Dick's way of showing that everyone is speaking Japanese. It also resembles Joycean stream-of-consciousness, but given that the style carries over into dialogue, that's probably not the influence here.

 Outside of the concept, there isn't much else in the novel to recommend it. The brief foray into presenting the I Ching as some sort of self-aware intelligence powered by billions of human souls, and the usage of slavery as part of a caste system are both expanded and used to better effect in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (One could almost view Electric Sheep as a presentation of the Nazi world barely touched upon in High Castle.) The characters (presented with a bit of Freudian psychology) are all brought up short at the end of the novel, leaving many of them with unfinished arcs. We are given a tantalizing view of our reality through the eyes of one of Dick's proper Japanese men, but this is also not followed up on. Perhaps it's best to read this skinny book as it's own religious text, and read between the lines.
"He could not believe that. Even if all life on our planet is destroyed, there must be other life somewhere which we know nothing of. It is impossible that ours is the only world; there must be world after world unseen by us, in some region or dimension that we simply do no perceive."
Given the choice to travel to (to us) fictional worlds, would we pick the best possible one? Or just the one where the home tribe is the one in power?  Or is this the best possible one, where the balance is kept by constant conflict?

(ymajik on Youtube)

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Ten P.M. Cook Book!

Getting away from the heavy stuff today, it's time for a trip to 1958.

This is a nice little series that I like to pick up for collage work. I don't know how many were finally issued over the years, but this is #18. The drawings are by Tye Gibson, who seems to have specialized in cookbook spot illustrations. He or she had work published in many Good Housekeeping and McCall's publications through the 1960s.

This entry is all about "refreshments designed with guests in mind." The chapters are divided into fun categories, such as the typical "Holiday Fare" and "Refrigerator Readies." Especially amusing are the male/female divisions. Apparently when the "girls" get together, they like to munch on Ham Gala with some Crunchy Prune Cream on the side. As a "Hot Perk-Up," it's recommended to make a Butter-Cup, which consists of canned vegetable-juice cocktail with a pat of butter floating on top and a stalk of celery for stirring.

The guys prefer to munch on Chicken 'n' Olive Pin Wheels and Tuna Burgers. No drinks are recommended. By that point, they may have all just run away to the local bar.

If you find yourself assailed by unannounced visitors, then a culinary revenge can be had by serving Toasted Olive Rolls and Rainbow Coconut Balls. Really, one has to wonder at the ingredients in some of these recipes. War-time rationing was long over, so the excitement of being able to use olives or tuna fish should have worn off by now. I can only visualize a room-ful of cook-book editors wondering how far they can push the house-wives of America this time. "Hey guys, how about Tuna-Pineapple Dip? WAAAHAAAHAA."

For those of you that are curious, yes there are photos. And yes they are mostly disgusting. The above is probably the least offensive, showing Mock Pink Champagne, Green-Dragon Dip, Bacon Biscuits, Chinese Savory Chunks and Hawaiian Kabobs. It's good to have photo reference to make sure that your own Hawaiian Kabobs (Spam and pineapples) look as unappetizing as the ones in the recipe.

Beyond the recipes, these mini-books are interesting for portraying the housewife as a triumphant woman. The husband may have been off at his crappy desk job, bucking politics for promotions, but the Good Housekeeping wife was the one spending the money on carefully selected items. And choosing how to impress the neighbors and guests. Day or night, the American house goddess was ready to astound her family with Tiny Fish Balls or Bacon Pizzas. Hey, wait, that last one actually sounds good....

All hail the 1950s housewife! (Wine not pictured)