Saturday, July 28, 2007
Friday, July 27, 2007
|Issue 32 Page 16|
Promethea, by Alan Moore, is a mythological comic book published by Americas Best Comics. The series ran for thirty two issues on an irregular schedule.
Being a work of Alan Moore, I started reading Promethea with some enthusiasm. The first issue was mildly disappointing. The story seemed rushed. Moore seemed too concerned with setting up the storyline and the entire thing was rather artificial. And as I read the subsequent issues, it became worse and worse until I had to give up on it at issue fifteen.
So what went wrong with Promethea?
Promethea becomes so very involved with exotica that it begins to lose any larger perspective and indeed any semblance of a coherent plot. As one reader rightly pointed out in the ‘Imaginary Lines’ readers’ letters section, Promethea becomes plot driven and not character driven. The only problem is, very soon, the plot disappears too. For example, issue 10, Sex, Stars and Serpents deals exclusively with tantric sex (or at least the western version of it) and is a long description of tantric symbolism. Issue 12, Metaphore, is merely turning all the tarot cards in to metaphors for something or the other. And even this creation of the metaphor is rather forced and unnatural. The subsequent issues 14 and 15 go on to give us details of strange kabalistic symbolism and rituals. This glorification of the exotic takes the sap out of the story.
Telly and not Showy
We all know show and tell. Modern fiction stresses the show part where things are not explicitly stated out but it is left to the reader to figure things out. A classic example and an apt comparison would be the ankh, the sigil of Death in Sandman which actually is the Egyptian symbol for life. This lends a beautiful ironic character to Death. However, this fact is never explicitly mentioned in that comic book and comes as a pleasure when you discover it.
Promethea however, is full of telling. There is too much of symbolism, five or six per page, and each symbol is explicitly explained to you in meticulous detail. The overall result is that the comic book becomes something like this – this is the symbol, this is what it means; this is the symbol, this is what it mean; this is the symbol, this is what it means; this is the symbol, this is what it means – you get the picture. A couple of pages of that and you are already going bonkers.
Take a look. Issue 15 page 4.
This is where the sun path from the lunar kingdom terminates. We are in the mercurial realm of language, magic and intellect. Its Hebrew name is Hod. That means splendor.
Why splendor specifically?
Well, I suppose communication is how minds reveal themselves. Language gives shape to the splendors of the intellect.
Moore could as well have given us a scholarly lecture on the interpretation of Hebrew names.
Take another example from the same issue.
You know that expression, straight eight? That ought to be sarcastic. This place is anything but straight.
Well, it’s straight in the sense of ‘truthful’. This place is about communications. Truth is its specific virtue.
And it goes on and on. And not one issue or two. The entire thing seems to be like this. After a while, it gets truly nauseating.
It is not as if the entire thing is bad. In a very Moorish way, Alan is trying to redefine the genre once again. For example, I really loved the issue with tarot cards, just for this reason. Each page features on tarot card, and the symbolism is then explained in verse. This was the first time that I saw any poetry in a comic book and it was lovely. At the bottom on the page you have another character speaking out one line at a time of a joke. The joke completes as the comic finishes. Lends a very beautiful texture to the entire writing.
There is lot of meta-comicalness in the whole series. I really like the part of the Five Swell Guys, who are the only super heroes NYC has, being dressed up in business suits. But apart from these small delights, the comic really has nothing much to offer expect an interesting experiment in style.
No discussion of Promethea would be complete without mentioning the last issue. The last issue has a very different visual style (shown in the screenshot.) Some of the pages have text that can be read in multiple ways, leading to multiple interpretations. And not only that, the individual pages were mean to be pulled out from the actual comic and then pasted together to form a larger poster, whereupon one can see two more pictures of Promethea in the background. And of course, upon having done this remarkable operation, one could go on to read the issue in multiple ways.
All this of course, if one isn’t already puking at the meaninglessness of the entire thing.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
A fully developed Nagari temple has five distinct chambers. The ardhamandap which is the outermost chamber, the mandap, the mahamandap (which was often with internal pillers), the antaraal and the garbhagraha. Not all of these chambers may necessarily be present. Many temples lack the mahamandap, for example. The garbhagraha is situated inside the antaraal and there may be a pradakshina path provided all around it. The garbhagraha was the sanctum sanctorum that housed the deity and often it was only the priest who could enter it. These chambers are distinctly visible in the following photo (all images can be clicked to enlarge.)
The plan of the temple often used to be in the Latin cross shape with the antaraal and/or the mandap often flaring out into additional chambers that flanked on the sides and then developed into balconies. A schematic of the plan follows.
As can be seen in the figure, the temple axis and hence the deity faced the east. The temples often used to be built in the panchayatana style which comprised of one central temple with four subshrines at four corners. The Lakshamana temple at Khajuraho is one such temple. Unfortunately only two of the original four shrines survive.
The temples have been built from granite or sandstone, the two chief rocks found in this area upon raised platforms. The platforms themselves stand on solid rock masses that are one of the oldest rocks on this earth.
Hindu architecture did not use the arches like Islamic architecture. The spires were constructed simply by placing solid blocks of stone upon four pillars and then adding blocks of stone that reduced in size with height. Also, the art of aligning objects in a straight line had also not been perfected. For example, if one visits the Imambara at Lucknow, one will notice that the outer nakkarkhana, the gate and the Imamabara itself are in a perfect straight line. This however is not the case at Khajuraho. The various spires are clearly seen to be out of alignment in this photo.
It was interesting to compare a standalone Islamic structure at the site with the Hindu structures that surrounded it. I found a lonesome Islamic building at the western temple complex in Khajuraho which had no documentation about it at the site or in the ASI booklet we purchased. Notice the use of dome, arches and the inverted lotus at the top. This building left me wondering what part of history is remaining untold because of the secular hang-ups that this country suffers from.
If you’ve had the patience to read this far, I’m sure you’re wondering where the famous erotic statues have disappeared. Nowhere, dear friend. They are very much the part of the majesty and enigma of these wondrous structures. The outsides and the insides of these temples are profusely decorated with sculptures of all sorts, including the erotic ones. The erotic sculptures are located primarily on the outer wall of the antaraal in the recess that is formed by the two cross arms. This must have some religious significance, though what it may be I cannot guess.
The sculptures are exquisite. They show the daily lives of the kings (hunting etc), the deities in their various forms, the beautiful apsarases in their elegant and enticing postures (these I liked the most) and other royal motifs like lions and elephants. A motif of note is the saradula which is warrior with a sword fighting a lion. The warrior is shown to be under the lions legs or behind his back. The saradula can be seen in these photos in extreme right and left.
One thing that I noted particularly was that only Agni and Bhairav are the deities that are depicted with beards. Rest of them are all clean shaved. Unfortunately I realized this late and clicked only Agni. Here he is.
Very clearly, there is lot to these temples that gets hidden behind the glamour of the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho. Being my first encounter with temples from medieval India I was spellbound when I beheld these world heritage monuments. I admired the beauty and a pang of sadness at a culture that is now lost to us. I tried to imagine people coming to these temples to worship or socialize or maybe just take a peek at a beautiful apsara statue they liked. And then I tried to imagine what they would be wearing and what they would be talking about and what they would feel when they came here. Unfortunately, now we can just sit and wonder …
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Khajuraho is largely known for the temples built by the Chandella kings circa 1000 AD and the erotic connotations that these temples have now acquired. However, very few people know that there are other places of tourist interest in and around Khajuraho.
River Ken (pronounced ‘cane’) is one of the more prominent rivers of central India. About 20 KMs from Khajuraho, an alligator national park has been set up along the banks of this river. The alligators are not native to Ken. Crocodiles are. But since both species require the same kind of environment to flourish, the forest department relocated alligators (ghariyal) from Lucknow into the river Ken. Since the monsoon season is the breeding season for most animals, the national park was closed when we visited. However the Raneh Falls were delight enough.
Raneh falls is located just where the national park starts. It is an exquisite waterfall formed by river Ken running over one of the oldest rocks on earth, the Vindhya basalt. The black and pink basalt rock provide a wondrous landscaping to the gushing monsoon waters.
Monday, July 16, 2007
I went watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix yesterday and as we (my friend and I) were standing in the lounge waiting for the movie to begin, my eyes rested on a poster for the new Bruce Willis movie – Die Hard 4.0. That just those two words, and two digits and a dot were perhaps more entertaining than the entire Harry Potter movie.
I mean, what were they thinking? 4.0? Is it some kind of software they are selling? Are they planning to come out with something like Die Hard 126.96.36.199, with bug fixes and enhanced security features next?
While they are at it, they might as well start releasing beta versions of their movies. Then the public can watch it and make feature requests or even report bugs. The final movie that will come out (no doubt in four different flavors – Die Hard 4.0 Lite, Die Hard 4.0 Pro, Die Hard 4.0 Business and Die Hard 4.0 Ultimate editions) will be perfect and free of all glitches.
And maybe they out to make it open source. Anyone can download and modify and redistribute as long as the original credits are rolled in duplicate. And since it is open source, Bruce Willis should make himself available to anyone who wishes to make modifications to the climax or perhaps make small alterations to that dirty vest that he wears. People may some out with customized Enterprise Editions of the movie which charge you money not for the movie but for the support services.
Die Hard 4.0 is amazing! I’m eagerly waiting for 188.8.131.52!
Sunday, July 15, 2007
The Watchmen universe is rich and complex. The narrative itself is multilayered. Superficially it narrates the take of comic book like superheroes (costumed adventurers) in contemporary America (which, for this comic book becomes America circa 1985.) It narrates a tale of personal and social problems faced by people in power. However, the narrative goes much deeper than that. Like Moore has said, Watchmen was written to be understood fully only after repeated reading.
The first layer of meaning in the story comes from the way superheroes are dealt. In the comic’s alternate universe superheroes are real. The story is about the rise and fall and the rise again of these costumed adventurers and echoes, in a lot of ways how superhero comics market behaved in the US. This lends a very interesting meta-fictional character to the comic. The comic also talks about how superhero comics were marketed (in the form of PR agents for these ‘masks’) and how the franchise grows (some adventurers come out with toy lines based on their character).
A staple narrative technique of comic books is the thought bubble. The thought bubble gives comics a distinctive subjective feel in that the reader gets to know the thoughts of the character. Watchmen does away with the thought bubble almost completely. It also follows the nine panels per page format quite consistently which gives little scope for authorial intervention and adds to the objectivity of the story. The third person viewpoint is used most often in the comic. All this creates an atmosphere of objectivity and cinematic realism which distances the reader from the story.
One technique that the comic uses and that I really liked was multilayered dialog. What Moore does is this. Two or even three simultaneous stories will be narrated together in alternate panels. Each panel will have its own dialog but it will also have dialogs spilling over from the previous frames. And these dialogs make sense in the other frame too. It is as if the same dialog was written for two different stories with two very different meanings. This creates a wonderful effect of complexity which is difficult to describe.
Each Watchmen issue ends with fictional primary documents thrown in the reader’s face. One will get either the extracts from the Nite Owls biography, or newspaper clipping or even police records and personal notes. Not only is the use of different media within comics innovative, it is also adds to the realism and objectivity within the story.
The whole effect of realism and objectivity that is created within the comic adds to the poignancy of the core problem that it is dealing with – cold war and the mechanics of power. It drives the reader to connect far more concretely with the real problems around him than would do a real essay or article about the subject. The horrors of the cold war and the meaninglessness of it all is brought out wonderfully through the character of Dr. Manhattan for who humans are no more significant than termites or ants.
There is of course, loads to write about the book and loads have already been written. Google for stuff if you want to read more.
Friday, July 13, 2007
Only a few shops are operation in the mall right now. One of my friends wanted to buy a few clothes. Since we are men and it is highly unmanly to support fellow men in their shopping, we left him to the mercy of shrewd salespeople and sat down in the atrium. I was in a jolly mood. I that jolly mood I slipped off my chappals (which, mind you, were of a perfectly respectable make) and folded my legs in the lotus position.
So there we are, three friends, deep in meditative conversation, oblivious of even the pretty young girls around us, when a meek little security guard (those private ones, whose sole purpose is to start running at the slightest sign of danger so that others can get the cue and save themselves) approached us. And he asked me to put my legs down.
Yes, he asked me to put my legs down. Apparently, one cannot sit in the lotus position in a mall. However, on second thoughts it does seem quite reasonable, isn’t it?
After all, it is village idiots and uneducated dolts who sit that way. What right do mall visitors have to display that kind of behavior?
That wasn’t the only funny thing that happened that day. After having surveyed the mall to their hearts content, my friends were very disappointed with the crowd. As they came to the conclusion that our visit had been pointless, one of them said (translated into English as faithfully as possible) – “What yaar, opened the mall they have, but the crowd is still all those UPites and Biharis!”
As it turns out, one of my friends is from Allahabad and the other is from Patna!
Saturday, July 07, 2007
I also disagree with the statement that Internet and LAN is not put to any effective use in the first year. Again I have a few points on this.
1. Computer familiarity: I have seen first years students who did not even know how the backspace key works (this is NOT an exaggeration, I have seen such a person). Almost every course in every engg. dept. of IITK requires use of computers. Having a comp at room really helps such people become familiar with an important engineering tool. And yes, DC and gaming and Internet also help!! It is all about knowing what the machine is capable of and what the possibilities are.
2. I have seen this trend of defining 'interaction' in a certain way. You are interacting only when you hanging out in the wing or playing fatta with your dept. buddies. Wake up! The Internet is here and it is here to stay. It has redefined interaction forever. People are surprised when I tell them that I keep in touch with my school mates to the extent to having lengthy intellectual discussions with them. It is enabled by the net. I blog. I get a global audience for my writing. Only through the net. I find myself spending a lot of time on wikipedia which has brought knowledge to my fingertips in a way that was never possible before.
This is not to say that the net is not addictive. Far from it. It is addictive. Wikipedia is addictive like hell. But it is here and I have to learn to deal with it, not shun it. And there is nothing special about this addiction. It is like any other. I distinctly remember one my seniors telling us in a GBM that beware of both LAN and phatta. Both can spoil your acads.
The idea being that LAN and Internet are double edged swords. The best solution is not to get rid of them but to learn how to use them.
I personally feel that as a student, what I would really like is to be told what is good and what is bad. If internet is addictive, tell me that. Even after that if I choose to screw up my life then I demand the right to do it. Yes, this may sound a little harsh and paranoid but I do demand the right to decide for myself and screw up my life if I want to. I don't want others to go on dictating what I should or should not do. And this has nothing to do with LAN or anything. This ban is immaterial. It is the ideology of it all that I disagree with.
It is precisely in /principle/ that I don't agree with this proposal. If you read my post carefully, not even once do I say that LAN is my right. What I'm saying is that this decision is in the wrong spirit and hampers the culture of freedom on campus.
LAN is not my birthright. It is certainly an institute facility and it is up to the institute to decide whether they can provide me with Internet and LAN. Yet, the institute goes to the trouble of setting up LAN infrastructure in all hostels and acquiring 34 MBPS of bandwidth - to the extent of buying it from Reliance when VSNL could not give them more. So the taxpayers have already paid for it. And will continue to pay for it irrespective of whether first years use it or not.
However, bringing in this point is confusing the whole issue. This is not the point at all. Like I said, I have issues of principle with this proposal.
1. It is setting a very /wrong/ trend. Like I said in my previous post, this proposal is sending the message that students cannot handle freedom until it is regulated. What I'm saying is one cannot learn to handle freedom if one gets used to 'implicit systems' that 'help' one handle freedom. Such implicit systems are not found in real life. Apart from imparting domain knowledge, the institute also aims to prepare leaders in all fields. How does one hope to prepare leaders when students are expected to use an external system to regulate simple things like their personal net usage?
2. It sends out a very wrong signal to the administration. In short we are just saying that we are toddlers and please spoon feed us. We are also saying that we are afraid to take responsibility for ourselves (even in our personal lives) and please handle affairs for us. How long will it take people to take cue and start regulating other aspects of my life? The first thing I was told when I came to campus is that this place treats me like an adult. I found that to be true in many respects. And when they treated me like an adult, I tried to become on. It was not easy. I myself have faltered many times. But I have learnt.
The next argument is going to be that the regulation is coming from the student body so it is the same as self regulation. Just like you sit in your home and regulate yourself, you make a law in the senate and regulate yourself. In each case it is self regulation and a step towards developing maturity.
I would like to point out that that is hardly the case. An institutionalized regulation is not the same as self regulations. One knows how bureaucracies and democracies work. If tomorrow the student body comes to realize that they NEED Internet in first year, how easy do you think it is going to be?
As far as computers spoiling academics are concerned I agree whole heartedly. Although I would not say that they are the sole reason, I would agree to the fact that they contribute negatively to academics. However, one must not make the mistake of assuming that Internet and LAN are somehow unique. They are like any other excuse. There have been other excuses in the past - alcohol, phatta, bulla. Once net is gone, people will find other ways to screw themselves up. What all and to what extent will you regulate things?
To this the answer will be -- at least do as much. The situation, as I see it, is like this. Some people use fire to cook and some people burn themselves. What is being proposed here is -- put off the fire so no one gets burnt. But lo! No one can cook either! Isn't educating a person that fire can burn your hand a better solution?
What makes you think that this kind of system will help people become mature? Will they not remain immature until they actually have a computer and experience computer obsession (I detest the word addiction, computers are not narcotics) firsthand?
Do we wish to produce graduates that need 'implicit systems' (An amusing term! What is implicit about a regulation?) and regulations to guide their lives? What kind of leaders and professionals can we hope to give this world?
I believe that IITians are have earned their reputations by taking up challenges and responsibilities in all fields. If as students they cannot learn to take up responsibility for their own behavior then how will they learn to take up greater responsibilities in life? The only way to learn is to do it.
The next thing the Students' Senate will propose is that the students are not 'mature' enough to handle HEC responsibilities and then, perhaps, to 'govern' themselves through the Students' Senate.
Freedom has been the mainstay of IIT Kanpur student culture since the beginning. We believe in learning by taking responsibilities. The idea is embodied in the whole concept of student governance and by proposing such retrograde moves, the Students' Senate is contradicting the very ideology with which it was constituted.
It has only been through this environment of freedom that IITs have produced leaders in the past. Please let us preserve the culture of freedom.
Counseling and interaction with seniors has worked in the past. I distinctly remember my seniors telling us time and again to be vary of computer obsession and gaming. If I was really concerned about my life then I would listen to them. If I was not, then regulations of this sort cannot really prevent me from spoiling my life. Internet is not the only vice that the world has to offer! As seniors out only responsibility should be to educate our junior and then we should have trust and faith enough in their sensibility to make an informed decision. If you treat people like children, then they will remain children.
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Sandman is perhaps the most famous of Gaiman’s works. It was Sandman which really made him famous. But it was not just that. It was Sandman that made him grow as a writer and creator. This is something that Neil understands and something that becomes clear as you read the book. Genius is not necessarily a quality that one is born with. It can be acquired. Going through the body of Neil’s work, this becomes clearer than ever.
The book is about collaborations – artistic and personal. It also deals with the Creative Process. It deals with what goes on in the artists mind as he is writing or drawing. Thus, it becomes an amazing read.
The first thing that Gaiman talks about is collaborations. Artistic collaborations are difficult to pull through. Writing and drawing are essentially solitary activities. However, in mediums like film or comic books, where different art forms come together and have to merge into a harmony, collaboration is essential. What Neil says is – within collaborations, it is essential to know when to give the center stage to the other performer. You cannot guide and direct everything. For example, Neil admits that he looks at an artist’s artwork, his strengths and shortcomings before he writes a script for them. He says that you have to play on their strength and hide their shortcomings – make them look good – because as a writer that will make you look good.
He goes on to say that collaborations work best within comedy. That is because if you are working alone, there is no way to tell whether a joke is funny or not. If you work in a group or in a pair, if you can make the other person laugh, you know that the joke works. Therefore, collaborations are more successful in comedy. However, looking at the sheer number of people Neil has collaborated with, that certainly is not a rule.
The book then moves on to interview various Sandman artists – both pencilers and inkers. Most people might not be aware of those terms. The way comic books are produced, some writer will first write the story. This story may be in the format of any other short story that you may have read, or it may be like a play with the dialogues of each of the ‘actors’ and stage directions, or, and this is the way Neil does it, extremely detailed instructions of how each panel is to be placed, what goes in where, what ‘camera angle’ the frame is drawn in and perhaps even suggestion on the coloring and lettering. Once the story gets written, a guy called the penciller will draw the comic out on paper. The inker will then take it and rework the entire drawing in ink, mostly drawing over what the penciller has done. Occasionally, the inker may even improve or modify the pencillers work. This is crucial to the look of a comic. The inker may enhance or mar the art of the penciller. After inking, the letterer draws in the bubbles and letters the text into the artwork. The colorist then fills in the color.
Each of these steps is crucial to the final look of the comic book. Synergy between the various artists is essential. Often, pencillers like to work with particular inkers and so on. The books gives interesting insight into how these things work and how important it is for various artists on a project to be comfortable with each other.
As a writer, it was interesting for me to note that visual artists also take inspiration from real life while designing characters. On second thought, that should be so very unusual. Mike Dringenberg, Sandman co-creator, says “Death is based on, primarily, Cinnamon – who was a ballet dancer – but also a couple of other people I knew. My girlfriend, at that time, posed as the character on a number of occasions. She was also like Cinnamon, bone thin.” Thus, the artists own experience becomes part of the creation. When this happens it is hard not to feel deep emotional attachment to your work. Mike goes on to say “My friends were in [Sandman], the various locations where things happened were in it, and so on. In that regard, it occupied a very fair-sized place in my life, more so because I was young and gave myself over to it whole heartedly.”
Artists also take inspiration from other art forms. Another Sandman artist Colleen Doran says, “I am solid on body language. The acting of the characters is a vital and largely ignored, element of the storytelling process in comics.” Not surprisingly, Colleen had tried to act at one point of time in her life but gave up because she was only given little blonde woman roles as she was a little blonde woman. “But cartooning means no role is beyond me”, says Doran, “It is exciting because I can be any character.”
That Artistic Process also comes out to be very different from the Critical Process. Thus, writing and reading are two very different activities. While academics will split even the hair already in shreds over why a particular author did a particular thing, most artists know that it was most probably nothing of consequence. Charles Vess who drew Sandman 19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the only comic to have won the world fantasy award, recalls discussing books about Shakespeare with Neil. “We both had a bunch of different biographies, most of them were from academic viewpoints that had no idea what the creative impulse could possibly be. And they were making these bizarre assumptions about why Shakespeare would have done something. We kept saying, ‘Because he felt like it? Because it was a good day?’ They just didn’t know what happened.”
The book is a storehouse of gems like this. It gives a beautiful insight into the world of comic book makers. The tensions and trifles that fill their lives. But in the end it also tells you that besides being a great artist, one truly gets appreciated if one is a good person. There are numerous incidents narrated where Neil helped someone get a job that he deserved or apologized for some wrong that he had inadvertently done. Perhaps all that is there because this is a book about Neil and all this is supposed to be there, but even then, if so many people said that, there must be some ring of truth to it.
Neil Gaiman has been working for over two decades now. He has numerous comic books to his credit, movies, novels and song lyrics. He is a truly versatile artist. Linked below is a wonderful talk that he gave at the Google headquarters. He is an amazing speaker too. As one of his associates say, Neil is one of those fellows who can speak in perfect prose. The talk is full of humor, insights and is very entertaining. Do watch it. To give you an incentive, watch out for the blond girl in the end. She is hot and she works for Google! Neil also maintains a journal that he has been updating everyday (almost) since its inception in February 2001