My first experience of what I would call a graphic novel was this strange hardcover book I found when I was a kid on a sleepover. I couldn't sleep because I was allergic to the cats that kept climbing on top of me in the bed, so I went into the living room and started looking at their books. And I found a volume like nothing I had ever seen: an old, hardcover book with no words. It was the 1929 edition of a "novel in woodcuts" called Gods' Man, by Lynd Ward.
At first I thought it was a collection of pictures, until I began at the beginning and realized it was meant to be a story. I don't remember the plot so very well — something about an artist fighting against internal, external, and metaphysical obstacles. But it impacted me in the epic way some other visual work of the early 1900's hit me, such as Metropolis or the big Napoleon movie. Or even some sort of Kurt Weill opera. Or Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
It's a hundred or so prints in thick black and white, and I didn't consider it a comic at the time — just some strange artifact of an art form that no one else pursued. And only now does the graphic novel world seem developed enough to experiment with wordless, operatic narratives like this.
This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. — Mark
The book that most enthralled me — or at least first enthralled me on the level you're talking about — was Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I was in college, on my way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to direct my friend Walter Kirn's play "Soft White Kids in Leather," loosely based on Warhol's Factory. Although I had read up on a lot of the New York scene of that era, it wasn't until I found Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (in the mass-market paperback edition in one of those used book bins) that I realized I had finally found someone who could not only express the experience of the group trip, but could also articulate the dynamics and ideology of the psychedelic commune. (Yes, Kesey and the Dead were the West Coast, tie-dyed counterpart to the black turtleneck culture of Warhol and Leary. But the sense of commitment to higher ideals and convenient forgetting of more day-to-day ethics were common to both scenes.)
Anyway, once I started this one I couldn't stop. This was back when taking a trip to Europe was still a really really big thing, so I had planned to travel from Italy to England to Scotland over a slow week of touring before starting rehearsals in Edinburgh. But I spent most of my time in hotel rooms and cafes just reading this book. Twice.
I don't think anything Wolfe has written really comes close, except maybe some of the essays. The book was my model for Cyberia – a similar foray into a psychedelic culture, where some fictionalizing was required to convey deeper non-fiction truths. I hope there's another psychedelic renaissance of this magnitude in my lifetime, just so I have the chance to write or even just read about it one more time.
This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark
Mind Blowing Movies: Invaders from Mars (1953), by Douglas Rushkoff
[Video Link] The first film that blew my mind was Invaders from Mars — the 1953
version. I was 6 when I saw it, in a motel in Phoenix (my first motel
stay) with my family on the way to the Grand Canyon. There was a metal
box on the nightstand, and if you put a quarter in, the bed would
vibrate for ten minutes.
And on that vibrating bed, with my brother and father, I watched this
movie about a kid whose dad changes into this other guy who looks the
same but is actually a bad man. And no one believes the kid. And I
totally knew what the kid felt like. And he does everything right —
even going to police when the stakes get high enough, but by then the
chief of police has been turned into one of these alien people, too.
It ended with the kid seeing the head alien octopus creature in a
glass bubble, but even though that was supposed to be scary I saw it
as vindication. There really was an alien invasion, and it was
captured on film. (My sense of reality watching TV hadn't been fully
And from then on, whenever my dad was mean I'd check the back of his
neck to see if he had been changed.
Everyone seems to have A.D.D. these days. (In case you've been too distracted by your Twitter feed to remember, A.D.D. stands for Attention Deficit Disorder — the inability to focus on any one thing for too long, the urge to do nine things at once, and the hyper, constantly shifting, unsettled feeling that goes along with it.)
Apparently, it's an epidemic — particularly among boys, and especially among those who love video games. And so video games are now blamed for destroying their brains, and their capacity to become productive members of society.
But, to me anyway, something never felt right about this line of reasoning. Even if playing video games and answering txt messages shortens the attention span, what if it broadens the attention range? What if the downsides of an A.D.D. approach to life were actually offset by some other, still unidentified advantage? Or in computer programmer's parlance, what if A.D.D. weren't a bug, but a feature?
In fact, this whole Attention Deficit craze really only began in the late '90s, a few years after the Internet business magazines unanimously declared we were living in something called an "attention economy." The idea was that the Internet is essentially limitless in its ability to hold content. The only limiting factor on how much money media companies can make off us in an age of infinite bandwidth is human attention itself.
They came up with a new metric, "eyeball hours," to describe the amount of time they could keep someone's attention glued to the screen. Media companies arose to make websites more "sticky" so that people — especially kids — would end up spending more of their eyeball hours stuck on their web pages.
Over the next decade, prescriptions for Ritalin — the leading A.D.D. drug, otherwise known as "speed" — went up by about 5000%. Were real cases of the formerly rare sensory disorder multiplying at this rate? Were they simply being diagnosed more easily? Or was something other than A.D.D. now getting labeled this way?
That's when I started to believe that at least this new breed of Attention Deficit Disorder may not be a sickness but a defense mechanism: an adaptation to a world where someone — usually some corporation — is trying to program us everywhere we look. Fast channel surfing and short attention spans are not deficits but strengths — weapons, really — in the battle for human consciousness.
When I think about kids being diagnosed by public school guidance counselors and then drugged to pay better attention, I can't help but suspect we are no longer treating a child but repressing the messenger.
So I decided I wanted to tell a story in which A.D.D. was quite literally a bug that was being turned into a feature. Following the what-if structure of science fiction, all I needed to do was ask who would do such a thing to kids, and why? And what would happen if it worked? What would American, videogame-playing "new type" mutations look like, and how would they relate to the world in which we are living?
The story in A.D.D. may be fiction, but the war on our minds and against our resistance is as real as the mediaspace in which we live. They mean to occupy our reality before we occupy theirs.
I'm done with my guest posting this weekend, and very happy for the opportunity to engage with everyone from this side of the blog. I'm still a concerned that too many people here have gotten the wrong idea about what I'm hoping to accomplish with my new book. Something about being told to "Program or Be Programmed" has come off as alarmist or negative, which is not my intent.
I do think most people in a digital age would be better off with some knowledge of programming, or at least some awareness that it exists: that there are many ways of doing things, and that the systems we use have been created by people and institutions with their own agendas. Money and banking are great examples of systems that look like they're just here, but were actually carefully devised long ago to serve the agendas of people other than most of us. (There used to be many other forms of money that lived alongside central currency – just as we might someday be able to say there were other kinds of operating systems that lived right alongside Google's iPad.)
So as a parting and aggregating effort to make the positive and ultimately Boingish point about the possibilities for mutation offered by a digital technology to the kind of smart and open society BoingBoing explicitly supports, here's a link to another excerpt from the book, posted over at Reality Sandwich this morning.
It has been a pleasure and challenge to write for and engage with you. Thanks. And special thanks to Mark for hosting me, David, and Xeni for fixing my posts, and Cory for fixing my brain. As always,
Our screens are the windows through which we are experiencing, organizing, and interpreting the world in which we live. They are also the interfaces through which we express who we are and what we believe to everyone else. They are fast becoming the boundaries of our perceptual and conceptual apparatus; the edge between our nervous systems and everyone else's, our understanding of the world and the world itself. And they have been created entirely by us.
But — just as we do with religion, law, and almost every other human invention — we tend to relate to digital technology as a pre-existing condition of the universe. We think of our technologies in terms of the applications they offer right out of the box instead of how we might change them or even write new ones. We are content to learn what our computers already do instead of what we can make them do.
This particularly hideous website is nonetheless a gold mine for designers and old TV heads, claiming to have every television logo ever made. Scrolling through is at once an education in the evolution of screen logo design, a non-linear tour through television history, and a strangely satisfying stimulation of visual memory circuits.
If we are to believe the latest conclusions of Tony Wright (speaking above in a National Geographic documentary) the left brain hemisphere has not simply dominated a more passive right; rather, over time, it has changed our neurochemistry and neural structures to support its own ascent. In his new book, Left in the Dark, Wright argues that "humanity is suffering from species-wide brain damage" and this damage is the "root cause of our obvious insanity."
According to current thinking cerebral dominance is the product of adaptive selection and has resulted in one side of our brain (the left) acquiring specialist abilities such as speech and rational or conceptual thinking. With these 'advanced' skills the left hemisphere has come to dominate our thinking, behaviour and psychology. In effect our mind and sense of self or who we think we are is primarily a product of the left side of our brain. Of course the conclusion that our left hemisphere has specialised and advanced abilities is, by definition, a conclusion reached by our left hemisphere!
Lets suppose just for a minute that our left hemisphere is a hormonally retarded, structurally damaged, perceptually limited and psychologically deluded version of our right hemisphere and its rise to dominance was driven by fear and the need to maintain a sense of control due to its increasing damage. In effect cerebral dominance is a symptom of a neurodegenerative condition rather than an advanced adaptive trait.
On the one hand, this feels a bit like a rehashing of decades-old complaints about left-brain, dominator culture memes wiping out the goddess herself. But at least these are grounded in accepted science. If anything, it's a left-brain-argued case against the left brain.
Remember the recently degraded Texas textbook standards? The ones requiring the removal of left-leaning historical figures like Thurgood Marshall, while inserting important institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association. Or that America be referred to as a "republic" rather than a "democracy" – lest kids learn to like the word democrat?
Well, Thomas Gokey of Syracuse University wants to fight back against this top-down dismantling of education with some bottom-up restoration of the historical record. He's organizing a wikibook called A Supplement to the Texas U.S. History Textbook in the hope of developing "a textbook written from a different perspective" (like, what really happened, without blacks and Jews and lefties removed). From our email exchange:
It is meant to be used in the classroom and written by people all over the world, including Texas middle and high school students themselves. An 11th grade social studies class in Ohio is already writing their own textbook, and I think this is a great way to avoid be written out of history.
I think that our wiki textbook can be more faithful and be a better read and be a much better educational tool because it involves the students themselves in the messy task of historical research. If students can create their own textbook and in the process enter into debates in real time with historians and amateur history buffs it will demystify the process of historical research. I want to get students to really confront critically the way a history gets produced. How exactly do historical facts and cultural values entangle themselves in the production of history? Instead of writing term papers I would like to see teachers have their students research a particular historical event and write an article for inclusion in the textbook.
Life Inc is being made into a series for the NBC Today show called Life Inc: The Economy and You. Unfortunately for me, it's not based on my book Life Inc, about the rise of corporatism and the way corporate logic replaces human and community values, but on their own idea for a series on the rise of corporatism and the way people can learn to play the game, too. (Thus, the banner ads for sponsor and personal finance guru Suze Ormond). Oh well. Serves me right for employing such a standard (and overused) construction for the title of a book.
Luckily for me, however, the Life Inc. series will still be running for the January 1, 2011 paperback release of Life Inc: How corporatism conquered the world and how to take it back – which has been expanded by a third to include a resource guide on how to take back our world. In there, I've got essays from people and organizations who are modeling some great post-corporate strategies for creating and exchanging value. They include Freecycle, LocalHarvest, Streetsblog, CableCar Cinema of Providence, Kiva, Metacurrency, Four Corners Exchange, a babysitting co-op, a biodiesel collective, and more.
With any luck, a few people looking for a get-rich scheme will buy my book by mistake, and get a some good ideas for getting rich slowly and sustainably, instead.
Robert Anton Wilson and his crew set up an online academy for him to teach James Joyce and other subjects to those of us who thrived off his learning and insights. Before he died, he began to invite others to teach courses through the Maybe Logic Academy, and the site has lived on.
Ten weeks of study and dialogue, ten commands for a digital age. We continue to accept new technologies into our lives with little or no understanding of how these devices work and work on us. We do not know how to program our computers, nor do we care. We spend much more time and energy trying to figure out how to use them to program one another, instead. And this is a potentially grave mistake.
Just as the invention of text utterly transformed human society, disconnecting us from much of what we held sacred, our migration to the digital realm will also require a new template for maintaining our humanity. In this course, Rushkoff shares the biases of digital media, and what that means for how we should use them.
The course will be organized along the ten main biases of digital media – time, distance, scale, choice, complexity, identity, social, fact, sharing, and purpose – exploring how digital media is tilted towards one or the other end of each spectrum. We will then discuss how to maintain agency in the face of each of these biases.
Dan Goldman, who hit the comics scene running with a debut graphic novel hit Shooting Wars, has blossomed into one of the industry's most innovative artists and self-publishers. Somehow, he got Tor Books to pay him for the work, and then release the entirety of his new graphic novel, Red Light Properties, on their website for free to all. If this is where publishing is going, count me in.
It's a fine and fun connected series of horror stories that utilize both traditional panels and 3D architectural rendering. While the interface might still benefit from some additional iterations, it does put control over the timing of the reading experience in the user's hands – something print comics do naturally, but digital ones have been slow to recreate or improve upon.
Relocated from New York to Brazil where he wrote and drew this series, Goldman has also had the time and headspace to work out a narrative that functions on more than a few levels at once. This book represents an emerging comics talent coming into full possession of his storytelling powers.
I'm using the framework of ghost stories set in a sunny climate and a depressed economy to speak about the membrane between the world of the living and the dead, the memories of places after we've gone, and the roots of family during difficult times. The firm's owners, Jude Tobin and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Cecilia, struggle to keep their own mortgage paid, their electricity on and their young son provided for while the remains of the real estate market smolders around them. And while the company's exorcisms rely on Jude's frequent intake of 'entheogenic substances' to enter the spirit realm to deal with the dead, it's that same hallucinogen intake that's pushing him further away from his marriage, his kid, society at large… and the world of the living.
The best part about watching documentaries in a movie theater is who you get to see them with. Docs, especially about esoteric subjects, bring together the greatest and weirdest people – people who should know each other, anyway. I mean, remember the people you met at that Theremin documentary? Or at anything about Tesla?
My guess is that the following move theater screenings of the new Grant Morrison documentary DVD, Talking with Gods, will be nights to remember. Morrison is considerably weirder than the vast majority of his comics readers probably know – and yes, even weirder than most of the minority know. And filmmaker Patrick Meaney (who interviewed me for the film, too) has just the temperament to engage with a multi-dimensional entity like Morrison.
TALKING WITH GODS examines Morrison's 30-year career and the real-life events that inspired his stories. Featuring extensive interviews with Morrison himself, the film delves into his early days growing up in Scotland, the start of his career in comics, the crazy years of the '90s as his life and his comics became enmeshed, and his recent attempts to turn social darkness and personal troubles into compelling comics. The film also gives insight into his creative process, including a look into his vaunted idea notebooks. Complementing Morrison's own words are interviews with many of his collaborators and colleagues, including Frank Quitely, Warren Ellis, Geoff Johns, Phil Jimenez, Mark Waid, Cameron Stewart, Douglas Rushkoff, Frazer Irving, Jill Thompson, Dan DiDio, and more.
Morrison is a storyteller, chaos magician, and kung fu practitioner – but most of all he is a True Believer. As a true unbeliever, I don't get along with most true believers. But Grant is an exception, and when the things a true believer is believing in involve machine elves and Superman, I find it easier to accept the possibility of their existence. If anyone is having conversations with the gods, I'd think Morrison is one of the few who could emerge from the encounter still able to say what happened. Or to speak at all.
Oh – the screenings:
San Francisco – October 8th through October 13th at the Roxie
NYC – October 9th at Cinema Village (scroll down) with Director / Producer Q&A
Philadelphia – October 15th at the Johnsville Centrifuge with Director / Producer Q&A
Boston – October 17th at the Magic Room with Director / Producer Q&A
LA – October 21st at Meltdown Comics with Director / Producer / Special Guest Q&A
The new biography, Al Jaffee's Mad Life by Mary Lou Weisman has just been released by HarperCollins. The book is embedded with new art by Jaffee himself, turning the whole thing into something like a pictorial, annotated graphic novel. Above, a Boing Boing exclusive preview of a page of art from the book.
Jaffee, 89, is best known for his fold-ins for Mad Magazine and his ongoing series of "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions." The book chronicles one of the most compellingly bizarre and burdensome childhood's imaginable in a shtetl in Lithuania – which probably explains the brilliance of his escapism as well as the sense of alienation embedded in his cultural satire. (Whatever doesn't kill us makes us more delightfully mutant.
My daughter's first video game obsession? Nimblestrong, an iPhone game that teaches you how to bartend as you select, drag, and time your pours of various drink recipes into appropriate glasses – complete with garnish. All the while, you are encountering strange and exotic patrons as you train to become a hero master bartender.
It's actually one of the better examples of a video game being used to teach a specific skill that I've come across, with a good balance between twitch, recall, and narrative. There's just something deeply compelling – and rewarding – about successfully completing a complex drink and getting high scores from that anime vixen who thought you would screw it up.
The best part is the sound effects, and the particularly retro vidgame score. That, and the fact that my five-year-old now knows how to make 57 drinks.
Astra Taylor and Laura Hanna, the filmmakers behind the fabulous documentary Zizek! have just released a short promotional video that shares the core concepts of my new book Program or Be Programmed.
It was a strange and wonderful experience to be poked and prodded for a couple of weeks as they distilled and then re-distilled what I was saying down to increasingly essential – and visualizable – points. And most gratifying, they did it as a labor of love to promote the ideas – which is about the best complement an author can get.