Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

The Unsettling of America: Culture and AgricultureThe Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I told my friend that reading a book by Wendell Berry was like your father sitting you down to have a difficult talk. You remember the kind. The kind you dreaded because you knew he was going to be right, you knew he was going to tell you things you didn’t necessarily want to hear, and you knew you were going to have to change. I told my friend this because we’re creating a course for next semester on sustainable agriculture and we’ll be using this as one of our texts. But I told my friend we needed to start with something easier, something to ease the students into considerations of food production, industrial agriculture, and sustainability, because Berry’s going to be difficult.

He’s not difficult to read because he’s a poor writer. He’s a fantastic, lucid, compelling writer. But he’s difficult because what he’s saying is correct and devastating. He says things you don’t want to but need to hear. And you hate it a little bit because you’re embarrassed that you never realized these things for yourself and you’re going to have to do the difficult work of changing.

Berry is the Kentuckian farmer, essayist, and activist who is the patron saint of much of the back-to-the-farm, slow-food, locavore movement. Some might argue he’s the guy who started these movements, though his books are simply about the land and our connection to it and the way this has been lost and abused by industrial agriculture and destructive practices and structures– what Berry calls “agribusiness.” He writes fiction and poetry as well, but from what I’ve read and heard of these works the central theme is the same: fidelity to place.

The Unsettling of America is a collection of some of Berry’s classic and most influential essays. Most were originally published elsewhere, but they all fit together in a structural whole yet independent enough to be read on their own. This makes the work especially useful as a primary text to give readers some introduction to Berry.

Berry’s major claims are that our relationship with the land– primarily through agriculture and animal husbandry– is an essential part of our culture and has been lost through the machinations of agribusiness. In the past, small farmers owned their land and grew a variety of crops with care and attention to the local constraints and conditions of culture and soil. Far from being “quaint” or “rustic,” this represented an integrated, varied system that was robust, culturally-rich, and sustainable. It was, Berry argues, drawing on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, an essential part of the structural fiber of our nation: independent land-holders tied to the land and local communities. Berry takes this analogy even farther, offering a holistic view of health as concentric circles radiating from the marriage bed to the family to the land and local community.

Berry has written a jeremiad. He’s mourning the loss of something most of us don’t even realize is gone or– most frustratingly for him– that we’ve been convinced was a good or inevitable thing to lose. He’s arguing small scale, independent farming was more effective for community stability and more efficient at producing a sustainable, varied, intelligent harvest that respected locality, soil, and climate. Essentially, it preserved culture. We’ve lost all that, Berry says, and we’ve been told it was a good thing to lose, that it was backward and dated and couldn’t feed a hungry world.

Berry’s not buying it. He denies the technological determinism most of us accept without thought. Why should a certain way of doing farming– a way dominated by industrial agriculture– be presented as the only effective way when it so obviously has led to the erosion of soil, the dependence on foreign oil and chemicals, and the erosion of local communities. Why is farming such a mess? Why are small family farms being forced out to make way for ever larger, ever less stable, ever more environmentally degrading farms? We’ve broken connections, Berry argues, and he argues this methodically and relentlessly, giving dozens of examples self-evident in retrospect.

Consider something as simple as the relationship between animals and crops on a small farm. Leaving aside the question of horse-powered agriculture, which is also something Berry says has been dismissed completely for no good reason, raising animals on the farm in the context of raising crops simply made sense. They were linked together. Industrial agriculture separates these and immediately creates problems. The huge concentrations of animal waste, which on smaller farms served as important fertilizer, now become pollutants to be disposed of. And for fertilizers, of which good manure would be ideal, farmers now must purchase chemically-prepared substitutes. With Berry’s characteristic, weary sarcasm, he points out the fact that the “efficiency” of industrial farming had separated two solutions and elegantly created multiple problems.

People could protest. Probably many do. They think Berry is old-fashioned or idealistic or that his offered solutions don’t make economic sense. Some of these people simply haven’t read Berry carefully. He patiently gives argument after argument that I’ve never heard truly refuted, let alone directly responded to. But some of these people are right: Berry’s not offering economic solutions, because they don’t work. That sort of thinking is what got us in this mess to begin with, he maintains. You can’t discuss agriculture– our relationship with the land– solely in economic or business terms. It’s a much deeper question, a question of culture, and that’s what’s been lost.

Another way of looking at it is the a question of hidden costs. Agribusiness isn’t interested in the hidden costs to the environment, to the community, and to a culture that values farming as an art and heritage. And neither, unfortunately, are most of us. Berry’s work will remind you why you should be.

More than Meets the Eye, Vol. 7 continued (an interview with James Roberts!)

1James Roberts is without a doubt my favorite writer working in comics right now– not simply because he’s working with the legends of my childhood but because he’s not afraid to use those characters to do new, creative, compelling storytelling in the Transformers universe. I’ve expounded on his work here before, most recently earlier this week, where I explained that I’d posed Roberts and artist Alex Milne some questions on their work on the series and that they’d been gracious enough to respond. Milne’s responses are here, and Roberts’ are below:

Q: What’s it like writing inside a franchise universe? Are there narrative constraints you run up against? You’ve done some incredibly creative things with characters like Ultra Magnus and Megatron, but is there ever a frustration that at the end of the day certain things can’t change?

JR: I can’t speak for other writers working with other licensed characters, but there really are very few restrictions within IDW’s TF universe. Hasbro have the final say as to what goes out, but I’m confident that their vision for the G1 side of things is the same as IDW’s. It helps enormously – certainly in terms of the stories that I want to write – that Michael Kelly (Senior Director of Global Publishing at Hasbro, and the person who, after John [Barber, senior editor at IDW], signs off the scripts) has always been keen to humanise the TFs – to make them characterful. 

It’s true that efforts are being made on both sides to make the comics complement the toys (see ‘Combiner Wars’ for example), but we’re in a good place right now in that the comics are starting to influence the toys. You mention Ultra Magnus. In Season 1 of MTMTE we learned that these days ‘Ultra Magnus’ is a title, inherited – along with a hulking suit of armour – by law enforcers. Currently the armour is worn by Minimus Ambus, someone I created and Alex designed for ‘Remain in Light’, the S1 finale. Now, in the last few months Hasbro have brought out a new version of Magnus and it’s very much the MTMTE version, complete with a Minimus figure. 

And no, I’ve never felt frustrated that certain things can’t change. Quite the opposite: I genuinely believe that the IDW TF universe is one of the most unrestrictive, status-quo-avoiding, open-ended, ever-evolving universes in modern comics. Since John and I started on ‘Phase 2’, as it’s now called, the war has finished (and stayed finished), the Neutrals have returned, Starscream has become ruler of Cybertron, Bumblebee has died etc etc. The clock hasn’t been turned back and we’re not re-setting anything. It’s great. 

Q: For those of us who aren’t following the series each month in the comic book but who get it for the first time in the trades, can you talk a bit about how those are packaged? Is it simply a new one every six issues or so, or is there intention behind how they’re divided?

JR: The latter. John and I structure the ‘seasons’ so that there’s a natural break point every five or six issues. That’s normally not too difficult. At the beginning of MTMTE and Robots in Disguise, he and I said – publicly, too, I think – that we wanted to tell more one- and two-part stories (which you didn’t really get much of, and still don’t get much of, in mainstream comics). Telling shorter tales makes it easier to group the stories into the trades. 

TF_MTMTE_35_cvr1Q: Help someone who’s fairly ignorant of the artistic process understand the relationship between art and narrative. Do the scripts go to Alex fairly finalized, or is it an iterative process? Has the artwork ever transformed the narrative, either in a particular instance or over the course of the series?

JR: I think Alex describes the process well. There are two ways of writing a script, generally speaking: ‘the Marvel method’ and ‘full script’. The former is when the writer breaks down the issue into scenes and describes each one in a few paragraphs; then the artists translates that into layouts and pencils, and the writer adds dialog at the end. With the exception of some Dark Cybertron issues, I’ve always preferred to write ‘full script’, which breaks down each page into panels and describes what’s in the panels, and writes dialog then. The whole package is passed to John, then Alex, and Alex works his magic. As he says, that can involve deviating from the panel descriptions. We trust each other enough that he can interpret moments a different way without prior discussion.

Q: Which character has surprised you most over the course of the series? Are there some you wish you could have spent more time with? (I’m thinking, for instance, of the abrupt departures of Red Alert, Fortress Maximus, and Drift.)

JR: I did think I’d do more with Red Alert in Season 1 but found I was struggling to line things up for him after his attempted suicide; that’s not to say I don’t want to ‘work’ with him again. Fort Max was never going to stick around because he was originally going to die at Overlord’s hands in #15, and then he was going to do something so beyond the pale it would have meant taking him off the board for a long, long time. Dropping him off on Luna 1, so to speak, was more about putting him in a holding position so I think more about how to use him. 

Over the course of the series I’ve found myself more invested than I anticipated in the likes of Whirl, Magnus, Tailgate, Brainstorm and Nautica.

Q: I’m not going to ask the forbidden question of how much you had mapped out at the beginning of the series, but how seriously should we be taking the Necrobot’s list? And when are we going to see Misfire’s misfits again? (Free band name suggestion there.)

JR: Ah, well, the Necrobot list mystery has kind of been cleared up… but for the avoidance of doubt: the famous names on the list we saw at the end of #8 relate to the ‘copy’ characters who were killed on the duplicate Lost Light in issues #32 and #33.

The Scavengers return very, very shortly.

3Q: Apart from making good art, telling good stories, and making fans very, very happy, what relevancy do giant transforming robots have today? Do you see your work as having significance outside the comics alone?

JR: We’re using giant transforming robots to tell all sorts of stories about life, love, death, illness, society, the government, faith, friendship and the rest. The best science fiction – the best fiction – holds a mirror up to the reader. It’s like Swerve says in #41: we valorise fiction because it tells us about ourselves. I’m not putting MTMTE up there with the best, but beyond the giant robots – or rather *through* the giant robots – we’re trying to tell the best stories we can; and the best stories touch a chord because you relate to them, or the characters in them.

Alex is right about TF comics – and licensed comics generally – getting a bit of a cold shoulder on the basis that, somehow, they’re not legitimate comics – which is patently absurd. But it’s changing! Attitudes are changing. People are far more open. We’re benefiting from a new generations of readers and critics who are more open and less dismissive, because good stories are good stories. 

And, you know, MTMTE and RiD and Windblade sell well. In print form they’re rock solid, in digital they do VERY well. I can’t speak for the other titles because I only focus obsessively on MTMTE’s ‘rank’, but on Comixology the most recent issue hit #3 in the UK, #8 in the rest of Europe and #9 in the US. People are still checking it and sticking around.

More than Meets the Eye, vol. 7

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 7Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 7 by James Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I reviewed earlier volumes of More than Meets the Eye, I said it was like all your childhood friends getting on a spaceship and going off to have adventures. But it’s actually quite a lot better than that, because the imaginary adventures I had with my childhood friends seldom made much sense or had any sort of narrative cohesion. Another analogy I’ve used for this series is that it’s like the best of Transformers meets the best of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That’s a bit of a better analogy, as it gets at what makes both of these series tick: a great crew exploring some amazing science fiction scenarios. But it’s not a perfect analogy either, as The Next Generation had no extended narrative arch. There was nothing in later seasons or episodes that suddenly made earlier clues fall into place, which is one of the most satisfying (and challenging) aspects of the type of story-telling that television has been doing since Babylon 5 and comics have been doing forever. MTMTE knows this game, revels in it, and plays it to the hilt.

Volume 7 has everything you’ve come to know and love about MTMTE, now with extra time travel. We pick up with a few second-string characters in a stand-alone at the volume’s beginning that effectively reminds us (as if we needed a reminder in the wake of what has come before) to fear and dread– to keep checking under our beds for– the Decepticon Justice Division and dangles some clues about the past of Megatron’s ever-deepening character. Then we launch into a time-travel arch that lets Roberts give us more Cybertronian history without feeling as much of a tangent as some initial forays like this did earlier in the series. It’s clear Roberts want to firmly tie events in this series into Cybertron’s past. The result is character development that takes place in both directions, which is no mean feat if you think about it. (Megatron is a prime example of this. Pun only 65% intended.)

Milne continues to draw the contours of my imagination. His work is at once exceedingly detailed and exceedingly crisp. His backgrounds never seem secondary, which is remarkable when you consider that every vista or wide-angle in this series is a mechanical landscape. There’s no room for organic laziness. Everything has to show signs of exactness and engineering. This is a universe of clean lines and details– even in the midst of chaos and battle. There’s no way around it: Milne’s work is perfect for the series.

And Roberts’ writing continues to impress. He strikes an ideal balance in this volume of appearing to wrap things up (or at least give a satisfying measure of narrative closure) while creating new plot points to follow up later. Indeed, it was only on a second reading (and you know a comic has narrative heft if you need to read it at least twice to catch everything) that I realized how many new nooks and crannies to the story had been presented. Leaving aside the time loop and splinter universe, some of these included things like the identity, fate, and machinations of Terminus, Megatron’s early mentor; the disappearance of Roller; and just who exactly was experimenting on sparks in Cybertron’s past. My single complaint in this installment was Brainstorm’s explanation of his motivations. For all the talk of him being a genius, I wanted more. Apparently he’s the tinkering-with-devices kind of genius, not the nefarious schemes genius.

Since I’ve already waxed eloquent about this series (and now about this volume), I thought I’d go further and pike the collective brain of the team behind it, posing artist Alex Milne and writer James Roberts a few questions on Facebook. To my delight, they were good enough to oblige. Posting them both together was a bit lengthy, so Alex’s responses are below, and Roberts’ will appear on the blog on Saturday.

tf_mtmte_38_cover_lineart_by_markerguru-d87cjdkQ: You have a distinctive style representing Transformers as a lot more than blocky robots. They have expressions, get sick, and even bleed, sort of. They have gruesome deaths. How much of your designs or way of visualizing the Transformers came from previous iterations or from influences outside the franchise?

AM: I guess my style for drawing Transformers is a ever evolving thing. I do absorb a lot of different visual elements from other media and artist I like and try and to incorporate that into my own work. I see what works for me and what doesn’t and I keep playing around and changing how I do things. I’m never quite satisfied with my work. I’m always seeing if I can do better and push myself more. I always look to the past Transformer series and comics and see what I can take from there that will integrate well with what I’m doing. Right now I’ve been trying out more traditional inking techniques to use on the pages. A big inspiration for this is the works of Sean Gordan Murphy who does amazing black and white work. It might make Joana’s [Joana LaFuente, the series’ outstanding colorist] job a lot harder, but I’ve been playing around with using just a brush at times to create interesting inking effects. Hopefully I will continue to be inspired and find new ways of doing things with my art for the book.

Q: Help someone who’s fairly ignorant of the artistic process understand the relationship between art and narrative. Do the scripts come to you fairly finalized, or is it an iterative process? Has the artwork ever transformed the narrative, either in a particular instance or over the course of the series?

AM: I don’t want to speak for James, but I do get very detailed scripts for each issue. Some of them have had more detail than others and I think we’ve gotten to the point where he can describe the basics of what he wants and he knows I will be able to pull it off. There are times when James will write a series of panels where he wants the same image over and an easy way to do that is to copy the one image over again. Well I don’t like doing that and I don’t think I’ve ever done that for MTMTE. I like to think that I can re-draw those panels but have slight changes to them that helps add to the mood of what James is trying to convey with the story. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to save some time, I just come up with an idea in my head and I have to roll with it. Usually I think it works out pretty well.

Q: Did you put together Gundam models as a kid? (I’m thinking of Prowl’s autopsy scene early in the series.)

AM: Yes, yes I did have Gundam model kits as a kid and I still do buy them and put them together. In fact a have a lot of different Anime and giant robot kits and toys that eat up a lot of space in my room, but I would never get rid of them since I think they are so cool looking and fun to build and display. I guess that was a big factor in the autopsy scene. It definitely help come up with how piece of that bot should be laid out on the ground.

Q: Apart from making good art, telling good stories, and making fans very, very happy, what relevancy do giant transforming robots have today? Do you see your work as having significance outside the comics alone?

AM: For myself, it’s hard to see if my work is having a significance outside or even inside comics. I mean, there are a lot of people who can’t get over the stigma of a Transformers comic being anything more then a comic to sell toys. I know from past experience in the comic industry that other comic companies don’t take Transformers comic art as serious and feel its less worthy of looking at over mainstream comics. Recently I have seen that more people are getting into the TF comics and that makes me very happy, but I don’t know if it’s making any significance. I guess it’s just disappointing to me that all the hard work that we put into the comics can just be waved off by some people because they think we’re just selling toys and how can you get a great story from toys? I guess MTMTE is bringing new reader to Transformers so I guess small steps.

Feast of Laughter vol. 2

feast-frontFeast of Laughter 2 by Kevin Cheek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fanzines are a new thing for me. But when I was approached about one of the reviews I published here about Lafferty’s collection Strange Doings appearing in the Lafferty fanzine Feast of Laughter, I was happy to oblige. And then when the editor asked whether I had any Laffertesque pieces of fiction that might fit its remit as well, I was even happier. Which is how a contributor’s copy of volume 2 of Feast, “An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty,” appeared in my mailbox.

And what a fanzine! Feast, which I read from cover to cover is indeed just that: a veritable feast for anyone interested in Lafferty or his works. The table is set equisitely: the magazine is well put together, with a gorgeous cover (which I’ve admired but only just realized the creepy details from the story it illustrates depicted), perfect-bound, nearly 300 pages. As lovely as the front cover is, the back is even cooler: an office cameo of everyone’s hero himself. The only way this magazine could physically be better would be if it came with a tiny duplicate of the legendary Lafferty office door itself.

feast-backAnd then there’s the occasion for the meal itself. What other obscure Catholic science fiction writer could generate three hundred pages of prose (and a bit of poetry) simply because people like him so much? One who inspires a great deal of interest and loyalty among erudite fans and even a bit of emulation. A writer whose work is hard to find, difficult yet rewarding to digest, and almost entirely untouched by the popular press. (But you probably know all that already if you’re someone considered a work like this.)

So what are the courses of the feast? First we have essays. Besides Daniel Otto Jack Peterson, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors. Some of the essays were compelling, especially those that dove into the allegory and Catholic context of Lafferty’s work. A few were as obscure as some of Lafferty’s own difficult work. In particular, I found Persaud’s “Question: Why? Excuse: Because Monsters” montage a bit inscrutable.

The second course consists of articles regarding Lafferty fandom around the world, particularly in Japan and Russia. The Japanese article was especially useful, as it opened a door into a world of Japanese science fiction with a list of recommended works by Japanese readers who love Lafferty. With Lafferty as a common denominator, this could be a powerful window into exploring the speculative literature of another culture, something that’s always daunting to know how to begin.

Then we get an interview with an early and important Lafferty fan, followed by a section of reprinted essays by greats such as Michael Swanwick. I was a bit lost in the contributions by Knight and Sirignano, which attempted to explain the labyrinth that is Lafferty’s Melchizedek saga, but this will likely be an important resource for someone who has read that work and is interested in deciphering its puzzles.Then come the reviews, and I was by this time so immersed in the meal that I had the simultaneously pleasant and disconcerting experience of turning a page and being surprised to see my own name, having forgotten for a moment that the whole reason I had been invited to this feast was because I had prepared a small dish.

The penultimate course is the Lafferty-inspired pieces, which consist primarily of poetry, though I have a story sandwiched pleasantly between a cozily-gruesome little piece by Daniel Peterson and a haunting story by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley (yes, that Howard Waldrop, the one who wrote “The Ugly Chickens”). My piece is “What I Wrote for Andronicus,” which was originally published in Ideomancer in 2010. The meal ends with dessert: a reprinted interview with Lafferty himself and a reprint of one of his best known stories, “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas,” which is illustrated by the fantastic artwork on the volume’s cover.

Then the plates are cleared away. The feast is over. But we’ll gather here again soon. Roll on, volume three.