Holes in maps look through to nowhere: Games as criticism

Australian arts journal The Lifted Brow has just published my review of Nick Sousanis’ doctoral-thesis-as-comic-book, Unflattening.

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

The review is a little different – it’s an online choose your own adventure, which sees the reader trapped in a mysterious library, trying to locate Nick’s book and escape in one piece.

I built the adventure using Twine, the same piece of free software which we used at Auckland Libraries to create our online zombie game City of Souls.

The game marks the culmination of a long period I’ve spent exploring what it means to write criticism of other people’s work.

In recent months, I’ve reviewed comics for academic journal The Comics Grid and New York art paper Brooklyn Rail; I’ve written about Hasbro’s Transformers for The Cultural Gutter, a Canadian site devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”, and I’ve explored the world of fan criticism together with James David Patrick from The James Bond Social Media Project. 

The Lifted Brow piece is something special to me, though. It comes from being persuaded of Nick Sousanis’ case, in Unflattening, that the traditional priority of words over illustrations is wrong: words and images cannot be explored separately from one another.

Reading the book, it becomes difficult to feel satisfied with comics criticism that deals in words alone. Alternatives like Terry Elliot’s experiments with digital annotation of Unflattening look increasingly appealing; therefore I decided to create my response to Unflattening in the form of a game: a set of sequential incidents which the reader can navigate at will – rather like the panels of a comic book.

See my review of Unflattening over at the Lifted Brow website.

Celebrate All Monsters! Emmet O’Cuana, Carol Borden, Frank Collins

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Parkes, and life is grand, so I thought it might be a good day to share three great writers with you. These are all pop-culture pundits whose essays make excellent weekend reading.

Emmet O’Cuana – Challenger of the Unknown

From "The Suburbs" by Emmet O'Cuana, Sean Rinehart, and Tim Switalski, in Outre 3: Xenophobia
“The Suburbs” by O’Cuana, Rinehart, and Switalski

Emmet is a Melbourne-based comics writer, critic, and occasional radio host who has interviewed me on a couple of occasions. Each time he forced me to question my opinions and raise my thinking to a new level. The first time our chat ranged from Star Crash to Kierkegaard; the second he asked smart and challenging questions about the live-action zombie games I’d been running in Australia and New Zealand.

My favourite pieces by Emmet are still forthcoming – he wrote an insightful chapter on comics creator Grant Morrison in Darragh Greene and Kate Roddy’s Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance, plus a great essay for the comics site Sequart which made me re-evaluate James Robinson’s Starman, a comic which I love and thought I knew everything about. Watch out for them next year.

In the meantime, you can read Emmet’s work and find links to all he’s published and recorded over at his own site.

Carol Borden – Nothing Ape Is Strange To Her 

Planet of the Apes image from Monstrous Industry

Carol has featured on my site a few times before. She quietly produces meticulous, poetic criticism, taking apart icons from the past and present to examine what it means to be human. I’ve previously raved about her writing on Mario Bava’s Danger:Diabolik (“If we had a lesbian cinema that took Danger: Diabolik as its starting point, I, for one, would be much happier”) and on Superman as a positive burlesque of masculinity:

I’ve come to see Superman’s greatest powers as not his strength or heat vision, but his restraint and his theatricality both in restraining that power while pretending to fight as hard as he can and in passing as Clark Kent. As I see him now, Superman is always performing one way or another.

Carol is an editor at The Cultural Gutter, a website devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”. In pulp fiction, old movies, cartoons, and comic-books, she excavates nuances of gender, identity, and cultural power. She compares Adventure Time’s hapless Lemongrab with Frankenstein’s monster; to discuss Planet of the Apes, she paraphrases the Roman playwright Terence: “I am Ape. Nothing Ape is strange to me.” Her latest piece in this vein looks at Dracula and even finds something new to say about the near-exhausted topic of vampires…

Frank Collins – May Not Be Used Where There Is Life

Sapphire and Steel - from Frank Collin's MovieMail column

Frank writes on classic television for British site MovieMail, and at his own site Cathode Ray Tube. I’ve long had a fondness for old television shows, but through Frank’s chronicle of twentieth century telly I discovered obscure gems like the fourth-wall-breaking Strange World of Gurney Slade.

Frank’s current MovieMail series tracing the history of British TV sci-fi showcases his critical strengths: erudition, insight, and elegance. Frank can capture the essence and wider resonance of a TV show in a single descriptive paragraph, as he does here for the wildly different Red DwarfSpace:1999, and Sapphire and Steel:

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That’s all for today: three clever souls thinking out loud about the stories we tell ourselves on the page and screen. Go check them out, if you’re looking for a Sunday read. And have a great weekend!