BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): D. TenNapel’s (2010) Ghostopolis

31 August 2014

Summary (TLDNR Version)

This book displays the pathologies of patriarchy in a way thoroughly wrapped up in the usual emotional whitewash often invoked to justify it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: D. TenNapel’s (2010)[2] Ghostopolis

I suspect that, had I not also recent read Pedrosa’s (2008)[3] Three Shadows (reply here), I would remain more baffled by how much I found this particular graphic novel so displeasing in many respects. I see several threads that point to this, and to try to bring them together requires getting them all out in the open so you can see them in the first place; so bear with me.

For one, the description repeated above has several misleading parts to it.

A page-turning adventure of a boy’s journey to the land of ghosts and back. Imagine Garth Hale’s surprise when he’s accidentally zapped to the spirit world by Frank Gallows, a washed-out ghost wrangler. Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have, and he’s stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom. When Garth meets Cecil, his grandfather’s ghost, the two search for a way to get Garth back home, and nearly lose hope until Frank Gallows shows up to fix his mistake.

The first part of the book, in fact, involves his mother dealing with the fact that Garth has a terminal illness; we also learn that the mother has virtually erased her father from her consciousness because of his alcoholism. These issues start the book off with some strong, albeit “easy”, emotional resonance—and to pitch the book as merely some variety of “boy adventurer” (for some reason) elects to create a false impression about the book.

Similarly, the detail “Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have” puts an emphasis in the wrong place; everyone mortal who goes to the afterlife has (at least in potential) the ability to use their imagination to do magical things (like fly, alter reality, &c). The book takes the conceit that the laws of physics that govern the living in the real world do not apply to the living in the afterlife, and vice versa for ghosts. Again, the description creates the wrong impression: it sets an expectation that Garth will function like a superhero—and, indeed, for no apparent reason his mortal powers of imagination in the afterlife do exceed that of others—but Frank still emerges as the necessary part of an eventual victory.

I have to pause. I know very well that backs of books exist not to inform people of the contents but to tempt them into buying the book. My objection hinges neither (1) on my own disappointed expectation—I read the book summary only after the fact—nor (2) on some principled objection to the lying (marketing) that book-backs do. Rather, I use the back of the book to sketch in (for you) the sort of narrative discourse that this book positions itself in, especially as it contrasts with claims made (on the back of the book) about that discourse. In other words, how the book back misrepresents TenNapel’s narrative implicates the narrative itself.

So, then again we have that Garth finds himself “stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom.” Clearly, the blurb writer has not read this book; the evil ruler—a usurper, one might add—simply wishes to destroy Garth to avoid the challenge Garth (theoretically) offers to his power. Garth, however, has no aspiration to toppling rulers—and the impression created here seems one where Garth places himself in the middle of some political intrigue (as the most central and important element), when in fact 90% of his motivation involves nothing of the sort. Also, because good and evil remain utterly unambiguous in this fantasy, Garth unquestioningly (and unconsciously) permits himself to get used (politically) by the “good” guy to topple the bad guy.

This description of the book, while generally and merely a piece of ad-text, no doubt aspires to try to summarise something of what the author himself might identify as an intention in his work. Consequently, we can see that intention and work stand in a rather incoherent relation to one another.

This often comes across painfully in the book itself, at both the macro-level of the narrative and in specific moments.

For a macro-level example, having established that Garth has a terminal illness and that his mother never spoke again to her father after a certain point in her life, in part or apparently because of his alcoholism, Garth meets his own son in the afterlife. His son looks very old, because time works strangely in the afterlife; or, more precisely, the book claims that one’s “inner age” provides the form one takes. Thus, he encounters his grandfather as a boy his own age at first. We get no explanation why Garth’s son’s “inner age” clocks in at a hoary 80 or so, but meanwhile, of course, Garth reacts with surprise to learn he has a son at all.

TenNapel did not establish when Garth’s terminal illness would kill him. The matter gets covered in only one page of the book:

DOCTOR: It’s incurable.

MOTHER: Then how long does he have? If you know so much, how long does he have to live.

DOCTOR: Nobody can say. It’s our job to fight it and keep Garth as comfortable as possible.

MOTHER: He’s too young to die. He’s just too young! (13)

So we already have no reason to believe Garth could not live to reproduce. But the far more obnoxious part involves how this plot element gets resolved. Garth sees an old man:

GARTH: Grampa? How did you ever make it back here?

SON: I’m not your grandpa. His ghost is back on Earth.

GARTH: But you look just like him.

SON: Your grandpa’s features run in the family, in your grandpa, in you … and in your son.

GARTH: There must be some mistake. You can’t be my son! I have an incurable disease—

SON: –they find a cure (256–).

I don’t know that one could possibly provide a cheaper or more trivial treatment of this issue. Similarly, as far as Garth’s grandfather’s alcoholism, which led Garth’s mother to never speak to him again (a pretty serious degree of alcoholism, one would think), Garth initially raises the question when he meets his grandfather in the afterlife.

GRANDPA: Is your mother still … you know … mad at you?

GARTH: You have no idea, Gramps! I’m not even allowed to bring you up. Something about earrings …

GRANDPA: … oh, the earrings. Your mother came home with pierced ears on her sixteenth birthday, with a pair of these long jingle-jangle earrings hanging down!

GARTH: …and?

GRANDPA: And that’s it. I threw a fit. She ran away and I never saw her again.

GARTH: You didn’t talk to each other for twenty years over a pair of earrings?!

GRANDPA: Over a pair of earrings! Times were different back then.

GARTH: What about the part where you were drunk?

GRANDPA: Oh yeah, and there was that (88–9).

This actually reads as pretty gross to me, and the denouement comes off no less brief and trite. Garth returns the earrings (from the afterlife) to his mother.

MOTHER: Garth, where did you get these?!

GARTH: They’re from Grampa. He says he’s sorry.

MOTHER: From … Dad?! Do you think … do you think he knows that I forgive him? (264).

Not a word about Garth’s terminal illness—the narrative complacently believes it has solved that problem—ore the father’s alcoholism, but instead TenNapel supplies a complacent looking grandfather ghost taking flight off into the night sky, and on that note the book ends.

As such, whatever emotional legitimacy seems invoked by the themes at the beginning of the book get exposed as contrivances not taken seriously by the end of the book. To cite Chekhov, the gun got introduced in the first act, but misfired (or no one tried to fire it at all) in the fifth act.

By itself, this piece of failed promise might not only leave a sour readily taste in one’s mouth, but this problem of gross narrative missteps colours the book from start to finish. I won’t enumerate them all, but will highlight some of the more egregious examples.

Not quite so horribly done, Frank Gallows’ arc of redemption nonetheless wobbles pathetically on the way; more precisely, TenNapel provides nothing like enough narrative grist to “sell” Frank’s redemptive act at the end. He represents, on a much more limited scale and with less aesthetic cuteness, the Donnie Darko type, where an author asks us to accept the sacrifice of one’s life at the end as a redemption for all of the whining, entitlement, and general bad human behaviour committed previously. Dickens’ Sidney Carton in his Tale of Two Cities offers an even older (and definitely far more detailed and complicated) redemption arc, but it shows as well why Frank Gallows (and Donnie Darko) don’t cut the mustard.

The premise of a redemption arc: someone behaves badly and then gives their life in something resembling a noble self-sacrifice. Carton’s final speech makes this explicit, but in the case of Carton and Darko both, their sacrifice remains total: they stay dead. Carton claims he shall go to a better place than he ever has before, and Darko simply smiles with a gratuitously enigmatic peace, but Frank Gallows doesn’t stay dead at all—he simply reappears as a ghost in the afterlife. This “reward” (doled out by the author) comes off just as cheap and unmotivated as “they find a cure” as a solution to Garth’s terminal illness.

But the more obnoxious part of this involves its flouting of the human desire for fairness. IT demonstrates: “good things come to bad people who wait”. Theologically speaking, the death-bed conversion may make entire sense, but it still suggests we needn’t bother with being good people at all, if one can act the shit and get the reward at the end.

So, I suspect we try to make this unpalatable thesis palatable by imagining that the shitty acts (by Frank Gallows, by Donnie Darko, by Sidney Carton) arises really and actually from a true heart of gold that suffers because of heartbreak, disappointed idealism, and so forth. If Frank Gallows (or Donnie Darko or Sidney Carton) at root offer us simply hurt little boys, then we understand their acting out in those terms and believe more readily—so the theory runs—in the whole-hearted goodness of their final sacrifice. Despising the world and treating it accordingly, they simply await the chance to make a gesture worth of their “hidden” goodness.

Sometimes sarcasm doesn’t come across the Interwebs; if not, this stipulates it plainly.

I won’t debate here to what extent Darko or Carton genuinely establish the case for their redemptive final sacrifice. In Frank Gallows’ case, his general obnoxiousness reads much more explicitly as mere male license. I found it gratifying in the initial encounter with his ex that she not only resisted his advances but stated bluntly that she would do him a favour only because it happened to coincide with her own interests. (She wanted to head into the afterlife anyway.) Of course, once again, this initial show of female independence collapses utterly in a male-authored fantasy of female goo, when she (of course) takes him back. This image or arc of “female understanding” itself already mirrors the discourse and tenor of the redemption arc in the first place; we find it in a billion examples and it not only fails the Bechdel Test, it also underlines the Trinity Syndrome.

For the record, my objection to this doesn’t involve only the political or feminist, but also the aesthetic; TenNapel simply tells this story cheaply and stupidly, and it makes for a waste of time. It also wholly distorts or obscures the fact that Claire Voyant[4] herself makes sacrifices as well, but apparently they don’t count. Through no action of her own, it seems, she gets elected Queen of Ghostopolis—yet another sloppy, unmotivated, trite, and abrupt resolution that purports to tidily tie up the loose ends. But whose story does this tell? Frank’s arc already hijacks the emotional centre theoretically set around Garth, so that Claire’s ancillary status as a functional nobody in the book (ultimately: “love interest” for the “sad male” constitutes no authentic role any more than “black maid” does) doesn’t even require “tying up”. At this rate, even the “dying boy” narrative becomes a contrivance for telling Gallows’ redemption arc. Especially since Garth’s redemption has nothing to do with his acts in the afterlife; though ostensibly the superhero, “they find a cure” saves him from death in the real world, so his actions bear no relationship to his redemption.[5]

It appears, when TenNapel applies himself, he can draw well. Some of the sketches of Claire Voyant’s uncle, a werewolf, have fine detail in the close-ups. And some of the imagery in the main battle sequence looks good too, but just as he short-shrifts emotional or narrative elements in his book generally, he becomes equally lazy visually. He also allows himself to resort to more-than-cliché attempts at humour. For example, confronted by an ostensibly formidable werewolf who brews tea (for no apparent reason), when Frank says he prefers coffee, the werewolf acts with high dudgeon. TenNapel provides a stand profile “show-down”—the werewolf’s face considerably larger than Frank’s—as the werewolf declares, “You will sits and drinks my tea or I will eats you here and now!” Frank busts up laughing in the next frame, then in the next shows feigned indifference plus sweat drops while the werewolf keeps its glare steady. And then, in the next frame, Frank has disappeared with the word “woosh” to show his cartoon-like skedaddle to go drink some tea, as commanded. And at the end of this whole sequence, having declared, “Okay, this is the best [tea] I’ve ever tasted” (126), he childishly runs away, yelling as he goes, “Oh, and your tea stinks! I loves coffee!”

Note here that he specifically mocks the werewolf’s way of speaking (the wrong conjugation on “I loves coffee”), which itself already represents a bizarre choice on TenNapel’s part. Then this follows:

CLAIR (to the wolf): We do have to get going.

WOLF: Niece.

CLAIRE: Yes?

WOLF: You loves him. Even this blind old wolf can see that.

CLAIR: We already tried, Uncle. He left me. That makes him bad news in my book.

WOLF: He’s afraid. He didn’t want his boss to find you and send you back to Ghostopolis. Love is in the acts, not in the feels.

CLAIR: You can smell all that?

WOLF: That or I tooted (128–9).

Charitably, one might say TenNapel feels awkward trying to get this scene to come off properly and goes for weak humour at the end to try to save it. I have to say, the line “He didn’t want his boss to find you and send you back to Ghostopolis” introduces an element into the book that nowhere else appears. Supposedly it explains why Frank left Clair, but (1) the wolf had no direct access to any of this information in the first place; (2) even if this follows, why do Frank’s fears prevent him from telling Clair why he must leave her?

What really matters here, I’d say, involves the entitlement of the sad male, who because of some fear (generously claimed on the part of the wolf), this makes abandoning Clair without a word utterly acceptable. It intends to make his shitty behaviour into a forgivable offense, which offers simply a poor apologetics—and a narratively unmotivated one at that—for Frank’s dickishness, which in this scene gets put on especially spectacular display.

This whole scene, drawn in red and black and one of the more visually striking sequences, also represents one of the lamest passages in the book narratively—the pathetic exit line “that or I tooted” (not even “farted”) serving as a fine emblem for how off the rails TenNapel permits himself to go here. It matters as well that here Clair makes her most resolute declaration that it won’t work with Frank, not because of affect or whatnot, but because they’d already tried that. Of course, not only will this resolve not pan out, this profession also gets buried in the most puerile scene in the book—or the most narratively spastic. Frank behaves in certainly his most childish way, but TenNapel also resorts to no shortage cocky and complacent looks on Frank’s part (he really can’t take any of this seriously) and the werewolf too wobbles between legitimately ominous looking and exaggeratedly goofy, with goo-goo eyes and ridiculously exaggerated fingers.

But most of all how he speaks. Maybe TenNapel deploys some pun in making the werewolf a teashop owner, but with his rings and nose ring and shawl, he not only seems more like a stereotypical crystal-ball reading gypsy, he also seems (for that reason) less masculine. The transcription of his accent as well exoticizes him in a Slavic sort of way, and perhaps some of the tea paraphernalia TenNapel supplies should invoke a samovar and the Russia habit of drinking tea.

So the figure comes across as a narrative mess. Although a werewolf (for no apparent reason), he himself refers to himself as a wolf, and the obvious connection to the big bad wolf can hardly get missed. But that big bad wolf had transvestite tendencies (disguising himself as granny), and maybe TenNapel gets this werewolf’s gender ambiguity from there. Meanwhile, the ready contempt for the werewolf Frank permits himself to assume resonates with heteronormative arrogance, in fact, and TenNapel’s resort to potty jokes and childishness contextualises (if it does not inform) both this werewolf figure as well as the most serious expression of relationship resolution that Clair makes.

This represents the most extended sequence of such puerility on TenNapel’s part, i.e., not just puerility on the part of the characters but in the narrative choices he makes. As simply one other example, during the battle with the “evil ruler” the ruler declares, “I have one thing you don’t have that gives me the advantage” (228) and Garth replies, “Diarrhea?”

Besides the stupidity of this, TenNapel seems to believe (by making this choice) that it enhances the epic quality of the scene he attempts to portray (the battle between good and evil). And this choice does not simply hinge on Garth’s childishness, because later he compliments himself by having Frank tell Garth, “Diarrhea. That was a good one!” (253). This reminds me specifically of the moment in Donnie Darko when his love interest declares she has to write an essay about the most important invention ever, and Donnie answers with complacent certainty, which serving with obvious transparency as the mouthpiece of the screenplay writer’s own opinion. An equally obnoxious moment occurs in this book when Garth talks to his son. In a sequence where TenNapel draws Garth with all of the cheap patheticness he can must to make him look “stricken” or “sad,” Garth asks his son, “Was I … was I a good dad?” And his son (as an old man) answers, with a Rasputin-like look of earnestness, “You’re the greatest man I ever knew” (258).

Ugh.

This makes for literally shitty narrative (I mean more the “diarrhea”), but TenNapel shits on his own book in a more macro way as well. Just as one finds no good reason for the bizarre nexus of transvestism, contempt, and othering of the werewolf or the random fart jokes, TenNapel pushes out random fight sequences, probably on the basis of some formula in a book about how to write a comic that might turn into a movie. But even these fight sequences can’t make sense because, as occurs at the end of the book, Garth has always had access to above-normal powers in Ghostopolis. With a smug smarminess, after Garth gets told to use his imagination to find a way back home, TenNapel can’t even gracefully handle this, and has Garth say, “Oh, sure! I could have made my own way home using my power of imagination?! Fine, I’ll just create … a doorway back home” (257).

It appears we should accept Garth could not have previously realised this, which seems untenable given how blatantly obviously the point reads for a reader. But also, unless we presuppose some unique level of imagination (superior even to the Tuskegee airman who built the place in the first place), then we have no reason to think that only Garth (as a mortal) can do this sort of thing.

However, I don’t want to dignify the narrative with more than it warrants. Consistency of world-building in works of fantasy represent a baseline requirement of the genre. Not to meet that bar excuses us from trying to explain narrative events in world-terms. The attempt to do so amounts exactly to the same kind of effort by children to explain their alcoholic parent’s behaviour. It shifts blame for the chaos to the child, and the same occurs here as well—the unaddressed issue of alcoholism in the text helping to point to this fact.

TenNapel has literally and thoughtlessly cobbled together a narrative, perhaps responding to his own childish impulses along the way rather than working like an adult to do the (hard) work of actually crafting a serious story about series issues. He grabs snippet from some sad biography (involving dying children and/or mothers estranged from their alcoholic and grossly negligent father) and then makes fart jokes, treats those themes trivially, acts like any problem can be solved with a magic wave of a wand (or usually literally only one page of dialogue) and, along the way, permits himself some casual racism or homophobia. I won’t even go into any detail about the fact that of the several sub-rulers of Ghostopolis, all of whom have been manipulated by the “evil ruler”, only the bone king from the Northern Kingdom offers any resistance to that misrule.

In all of this, we see how the emotionally manipulative tropes of dying (white) boy and sad (white) male structurally arrange the elements of narrative into the sort of story that has nothing narratively unexpected in it. The trivialization this affects, ultimately if not by design then simply for the sake of entertainment, shows (in an admittedly clunky way) the ruinous effects of patriarchy. Who wants to have to live the pathetic life of Frank Gallows, only in order to sacrifice oneself in order to obtain the vagina of one’s dreams—I say vagina of one’s dreams, because to arrive at the point of reclaiming Clair Voyant, Clair had to first cease being herself. She makes therefore a sacrifice but one not, properly speaking, valorised by culture, but rather merely one demanded of women by patriarchy. For Frank, the sacrifice demanded earns him the reward he wants; the sacrifice demanded of Clair gets her only the reward patriarchy permits her, not the one she wants.

We tell ourselves myths not simply to explain the world but also to orient ourselves within a confusing world. Just as Pedrosa (as an author) confronted the death of a close friend’s child when he wrote Three Shadows, we don’t have to assume that TenNapel similarly processes any autobiographically specific occurrence, but dying children (dying boys anyway) can motivate people to try to “find answers” to that tragedy. In this respect, it probably matters that no “god figure” appears here—unless we count the Tuskegee airman who built all of Ghostopolis. Hard to tell if this amounts to a historically cognizant or merely insensitive acknowledgment that “reality” (i.e., Ghostopolis or the United States) got built on the backs of kidnapped human beings. In which case, do we get to blame Africans for making the US?

In any case, TenNapel seems to want to leave “culpability” out of the picture. It remains enough for him to posit a fantasyland where one may readily thwart the laws of physics (and disease, one assumes) with the force of imagination. I don’t lack sympathy for such an urge to find peace or solace—I disagree with “pragmatic” activists who scorn analytical or creative reflection, seeing it as unnecessary. Not only may we often need to better strategize in advance how to proceed, simply to find ways to have peace of mind prior to proceeding seems often necessary, since people who suffer greatly have a tendency to act like fuck-heads to others—as Zionist Israel makes obvious.

What I object to, rather: in articulating the consoling fantasy, TenNapel merely reproduces the grossest faults of patriarchy as if they offer solutions. We simply need to reward bad men for being bad (like Clair’s grandfather) and need to construe our future course of action by suffering the shittiness of the Frank Gallows of the world, up to the point where they finally decide to kill themselves for a noble cause—a fantasy that (as a solution) offers one no less childish than making poop jokes.

But the deeply level of injustice at work in this involves the roles for the Other in all of this. Clair must sacrifice her independence—and patriarchy promises her a throne as a result. Nothing ever gets said about what shall happen to the Tuskegee Airman, now that the evil overlord has gotten overthrown; perhaps he will still have to labour in obscurity, the unacknowledged economic base of the kingdom. Similarly, this androcentric solution, that requires male suicide and dying son’s, requires also the denigration of the most Other other in the book: the curious half-man, half-wolf, cross-dressing, not-quite-white Slav.

In brief, the back of the book gets it unfortunately right when it describes Garth’s narrative as a “boy’s adventure”. What TenNapel gives us amounts to adolescent pap. It wheels out, in a pejoratively childish way, everything the book starts to reach for but then backs away from with off-hand (poorly placed) jokes, &c. Taken as a personal statement, the book may (1) bring TenNapel some mental peace or (2) some money, but taken as a framing of social reality (much less a serious one), the “solution” it offers requires—presents factually, I would even say—the denigration of the Other as a necessary precondition for the (mental) well-being of (white) people.

Awful, with some nice pictures sometimes.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve given up on this project for reason stated here.

[2] TenNapel, D. (2010). Ghostopolis. New York: Graphix/Scholastic., pp. 1–266.

[3] Pedrosa, C. (2008). Three shadows. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–268.

[4] For the record, no other character gets such a silly or transparent name.

[5] Unless we want to invoke some karma or justice mechanism the book does not. No divine wisdom (except TenNapel narrativizing) rationalizes Garth’s rescue from terminal illness in terms of his good deeds.

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