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  1. The Business of Art: Stan Lee and Marvel Comics
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  3. Cave Paintings: Art and Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic
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Friday, November 14, 2003

The Business of Art: Stan Lee and Marvel Comics
Michael: Thanks for shipping me Jordan Raphael’s and Tom Spurgeon’s bio of the comic book legend, “Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.” As a long time fan of Marvel comics from the 1960s it was quite intriguing to get an inside look “behind the curtain,” so to speak. The comics industry offers many, many analogies to the industry I work in, so I was irresistibly drawn to the business aspect of Stan Lee’s story. Anyway, it’s not as if you can avoid it. In pop culture, more than half the action is always on the business side—a rule that the comic industry illustrates nicely. According to Raphael and Spurgeon, the comic book industry was actually—and tellingly—dreamed up by two employees of a printing company, who licensed old Sunday color comics from newspapers and put them into a comic-book format. Although the original business model was to have these “funny books” underwritten by corporate sponsors as giveaways, in 1934 they took a chance and printed up some for sale at newsstands. When the trial issue of 35,000 copies quickly sold out, a new industry was born. A year later the firm of Wheeler-Nicholson produced the first comic book featuring original material. (Wheeler-Nicholson soon evolved into DC Comics.) Intriguingly, Max C. Gaines, one of the printing company employees who invented the “comic book,” also served as mid-wife on the industry’s breakthrough project. He put two young creative types who were shopping around an idea for a new type of book in touch with the editor of DC comics. The result, of course, was first Action Comics and then Superman, which had sales of a million copies a month within a few years. Naturally, the Superman phenomenon created a gold rush atmosphere, and many entrepreneurs promptly entered the market. By 1941, there were 168 comic book titles jostling for space on the newsstands of America. One of these market entrants was a pulp magazine publisher, Martin Goodman. It seems fair to characterize his interest in comics as purely financial; he was an acute observer of industry trends and was a big believer in jumping on any apparently profitable bandwagons—and abandoning any areas that cooled off, no looking back. He was strictly a numbers man, a trend spotter, and had no interest in any aspect of comic book content, although he did possess a fanatical interest in comic book covers, since they were his sole and only marketing medium. Being a big believer in nepotism, Martin Goodman was willing to hire an unemployed 17-year-old relative of his wife, Stanley Martin Lieber, soon to be known as Stan Lee. The boy was originally intended to be a gofer for his editor, Joe Simon, and his art director, Jack Kirby. Since these two were also the creators of his new hit comic, Captain America, which was moving to monthly status, they needed help with routine matters. However, when Simon and Kirby discovered that the firm’s accountant (tellingly, Goodman’s brother) was... posted by Friedrich at November 14, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Cave Art Redux
Friedrich -- Apologies for the light blogging. I've been out of town attending to a hospitalized relative. Everything's going well, but available computer time has been minimal. I'll be back in the usual saddle early next week. I was fascinated by your cave art posting, though. By happy coincidence, I just finished reading (in the hospital waiting room) a paper you'll probably find provoctive. It's by one of my current cognitive/anthro/neuro/evo/arty thinkers, Nicholas Humphrey. It's entitled "Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind," and it can be read here. Humphrey compares cave art to the drawings of a young, nonverbal, retarded autistic girl and comes to some surprising conclusions, which may or may not jibe with the thesis of the book you read. I thought he was especially good on the question of why the animals cave artists drew were often realistically outlined and modeled, while the human figures they drew were almost always mere stick-figure icons. Amazing stuff, in any case. I see that Humphrey has written another paper, available online here, that may be of equal interest. This one's entitled "Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution" -- promising! But I haven't gotten around to it yet. Eager to hear what you make of Humphrey's take on cave art. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 13, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Cave Paintings: Art and Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic
Michael: Are you fascinated by the cave paintings of Western Europe? As someone whose own tastes run towards animal art, I must admit I have always loved this stuff. But I always just looked at the pictures, so to speak, without giving much thought to the whys and wherefores of this art. Dig That Draftsmanship: Mammoth from Rouffignac This may have been the course of wisdom, because as soon as you turn to the whole question of the meaning and purpose of cave paintings, the questions start piling up faster than the answers. To give only a few examples: · Why did Upper Palaeolithic people start making images at all, and, once having started, continue to do so for tens of thousands of years? · Why does cave art primarily depict animals? Why are pictures of people—and plants—so rare? Why does cave art over a very long period of time depict such a narrow range of species, primarily bison, horses, aurochs, woolly mammoths, deer and big cats? · What were upper Palaeolithic people doing drawing, painting and sculpting images in caves at all? What was the deal with caves, anyway? · We tend to assume that “art” is meant to be looked at. Why did Upper Palaeolithic people bother to make images in extremely inaccessible portions of caves where the possibility of a significant “audience” was essentially nil —like at the end of passages reachable only by extensive crawling on your belly through mud while trying to keep your tiny animal-fat lamp lit? · What is the meaning of the multiplicity of geometric forms such as grids, dots and chevrons that appear in conjunction with many cave images? As I understand it, after a century of explanations—including art for art’s sake, totemism, hunting magic, Marxist class struggle (I kid you not), Structuralism, etc.—so little agreement has been reached about the answers to these questions that most archaeologists have sworn off even trying to develop theories and are sticking to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Well, I picked up a book recently by David Lewis-Williams, “The Mind in the Cave” that bravely attempts to answer these and other questions. (Lewis-Williams, who is Professor Emeritus at the Rock Art Research Institute of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is obviously made of sterner stuff than your average archaeologist, or else, being retired, he no longer cares what anyone thinks.) While I am in no way qualified to assess his arguments based on the “evidence”—I’ve never visited one such cave, let alone all of them, as he appears to have—I must say his explanation seems somewhat reasonable to me. Perhaps more to the point, his theory got me thinking about relationships that may be true for all art, including that made today, as well as for the cave paintings at Lascaux. Professor Lewis-Williams’ thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that Upper Palaeolithic art-making has strong analogies to the shamanistic religious practices of the modern-day hunter-gatherer societies. He is painfully aware that... posted by Friedrich at November 12, 2003 | perma-link | (29) comments

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

"Love Actually"
Dear Friedrich -- How do you respond to chickflicks? The way I react seems to parallel the way I react to musical comedies; there are about a dozen I enjoy a whole lot while almost all the rest make me squirmy and sullen. Watching them, I feel like I've reverted; once again I'm a small boy dragged against his will to see a movie when he'd much rather be out playing ball. I wonder why this should be so: is there something in the chickflick form that's akin to the musical comedy form? Or is it simply that neither form's really meant for hetero boys? I admit that, chickflickwise, there's a bit of a gray zone. Cary Grant movies, for instance. I'm almost always happy watching a Cary Grant movie; I think "Cary Grant" is one of the primo high-low creations of the 20th century, right up there with the Chrysler Building, swing music and the Cord automobile -- swanky but slangy, godlike yet approachable, sleek but goofy. But when I enjoy a Cary Grant romantic comedy, can I really be said to be enjoying a "chickflick"? There's a difference between a romantic comedy from the '30s and the contempo chickflick, even though I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. I do have a hunch: it's that contempo chickflicks and chicklit are like extensions of contempo magazine articles. They're meant to be about you, and your concerns, and the predicaments you might have. Women go to a chickflick, as they read chicklit and as they buy Allure or Cosmo, in order to see themselves reflected -- glamorized, exalted, and satirized, but definitely reflected. Even so, this is a a rather small gray zone. Most of the time, at a chickflick I'm in filmgoing agony. Yesterday, for instance. I went with The Wife to see the new "Love Actually" -- not my choice, the showtimes were convenient -- and I'm considering nominating it as the Biggest Cringefest I’ve ever sat all the way through. I haven't riffled through enough of my experiences to feel completely confident about conferring such an award quite yet. But my off-the-cuff feeling is that "Love Actually" is certainly well in the running. Sitting through it reminded me of what it was like to sit through such '60s misery-makers as "The Sound of Music." Have you noticed the ads for the movie? It’s the new Hugh Grant thing, written by Richard Curtis -- he wrote "4 Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill" -- and it was directed by Curtis as well. I ran out of good will towards the film amazingly fast, maybe 10 minutes in, and from then on I got perversely fascinated by the challenge of sitting all the way through it. For some reason, I had to see it all; I wasn't going to let the film outlast me. For one thing, I could sense in my bones that the film wouldn't just be worse than most romantic trifles, it... posted by Michael at November 11, 2003 | perma-link | (20) comments