Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #25”

I’ve begun to notice a pattern in how Gillen and McKelvie tend to structure issues of The Wicked + The Divine.  Gillen has a penchant for relatively long talking heads sequences (especially during arcs like this one where we’re coming down from a lot of major action), but he tends not to write each issue as just one distinct chapter of the ongoing story.  More often, what we get is an extended bit that builds on something that happened previously before shifting to a new scene that’s following a different thread.  In the last issue it was the switch between Laura’s New Year’s Eve bender to her talking with Cassandra and Woden about what the murder machine in Valhalla does.  There was some thematic connection there as the impulsivity Laura displays in threatening Woden is clearly a symptom of her depression, but as a plot point it’s wholly divorced from her dalliances with the more promiscuous members of the Pantheon.

Minerva gets a cover! It’s a good one, and suggests that she’ll be more central to this issue instead of just… being… a… McGuffin. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

We get to see that dynamic repeated here, although in much stronger relief as the majority of the issue focuses on Laura and Cassandra negotiating how to keep Woden in check (spoiler: it mostly revolves around Laura, who breaks all kinds of divinity rules, terrifying Woden to the point that he decides he has no choice but to cooperate; if Woden weren’t such a jerk you’d feel bad for him falling from one coercive relationship into another).  The second part of the issue is significantly shorter, and serves as a lead in to a new revelation and cliffhanger: the Great Darkness is totes for real, and it’s trying to steal Minerva.

The connective tissues between these two scenes relates to Laura’s curiosity about how Baal is so convinced that some parts of what Ananke told the Pantheon weren’t lies.  The whole thing about the Great Darkness, which we’ve heard rumblings of periodically throughout the series, is one of the big question marks of the explanation that Ananke gave Cassandra back in issue 9 about why she exists to guide each successive Pantheon through their two years on Earth.  It was originally implied to be a metaphorical description of the descent of civilization in the absence of divine inspiration (at least, that’s how I read it based on Ananke’s story about the failure of the first successful Pantheon to preserve their legacy), but here we find out that it manifests as a big honking monster–comics!  This is one of those turns in the story that I still find really perplexing because my impression of The Wicked + The Divine has always been a story that’s certainly superhero inflected in terms of tone and trappings, but the conflict was never so externalized as heroes fighting literal monsters.  Ananke’s the apparent villain of the story, but even her motivations, as far as we understand them, are complex.  The whole purpose of this arc is to explore how the Pantheon will operate without Ananke there coercing and manipulating everyone into getting along.  The sudden emergence of a thing that you punch to death as an antagonist feels like a weird turn.

Well then. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Laura says, “Dying is easy compared to what I can do to you.” This is probably some of the most explicit cruciform imagery used in WicDiv, and here it combines with the coloring and the threat to underscore that Laura’s alignment is murky at best. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What doesn’t feel weird is Laura’s continued spiral into self destructive territory.  Most of this issue revels in the fact that Laura’s power as Persephone is weird and terrifying to the rest of the Pantheon (or at least, it’s weird and terrifying to Cassandra and Woden, who think of themselves as the intelligent ones in the lot).  She doesn’t follow the established of divinity in a few major ways: her powers can affect Cassandra, who has total immunity to the rest of the gods’ miracles (presumably because she believes in nothing just that much), Woden can’t figure out how to replicate her powers or defend against them (remember that Woden is the producer god; his specialty is crafting performances for other people), and she was able to transmit the effects of a performance through a digital medium (the reason Pantheon fans are so enthusiastic about going to live performances is there’s no other way to experience the gods’ miracles besides in person).  Also, there was that whole thing with her mimicking Lucifer’s lighter trick way before Ananke even awoke Laura’s divinity, but that’s a thing that Laura wants to keep under wraps for now (the lighter miracle is a fun plot detail because it happened so early in the series before a lot of the god rules had been explicitly established that it’s easy to forget how unique it was).  In the Pantheon Laura is totally anomalous, and the only person who seemed to have any idea about Persephone’s deal is now in a bunch of ragged bloody pieces.

While there’s certainly more of Laura’s depression on display here (in a text exchange with Cassandra she pointedly describes herself as “no person”), what comes more to the forefront in this issue is the fact of how scary she is as Persephone.  Her mode of persuasion with Woden is to drag him into the Underground for an indeterminate amount of time and terrorize him so badly that when we see her step out of the shadows to explain what he’s going to do, Woden is shivering on the ground curled up in the fetal position.  Given that Woden has been calm and collected in the face of other gods who are much more casually violent, his total disarray after an hour or two alone with Persphone points to the completely different level of threat she poses to him.

Look closely and you can see the motion lines around Woden to indicate that he’s trembling. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Other disparate things of note in this issue: Woden suggests to Cassandra that he’s not white (the question of Woden’s true identity will be a minor subplot in this arc), McKelvie draws some of the best “Cassandra is flustered and outraged when people don’t listen to her” panels in the series so far, Baal uses his powers to cook toast (this is an insignificant but adorable character beat), and Minerva holds a totally justifiable grudge against Amaterasu for that time she bounced without Minerva after Ananke murdered the girl’s parents in front of them (I maintain that Amaterasu is a very sweet, very selfish person who has trouble thinking about the effects of her actions beyond herself).  Next time, we’ll get a monster fight, because that’s definitely what the series needs after the recent unpleasantness.

Never change, Cassandra. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)


With My Headphones On

One of the most strange and satisfying experiences of the recent visit to my in-laws’ new retirement home (which is truly lovely, if a bit removed for my taste) is waking up around five in the morning and watching the sunlight slowly cascade down the side of the mountain that sits just across the river.  I’m spectacularly nearsighted (or perhaps not spectacularly at all, depending on your perspective), so my view of the world without my glasses is largely of amorphous blobs of color, but the mountain is so big and the light so broad that even I got the sense of what was happening.  It was a moment of genuine serenity until my brain started working and I thought, “What’s happening in the world?”

As a transplant to the west coast who hasn’t even had a full year yet to put down roots here, I still marvel at the fact that much of the interesting stuff that happens on a national level occurs back east, and by the time I’m functional so many things have already happened.  I think I saw someone on Twitter describe living on the west coast as waking up after all the news and being able to treat everything after three p.m. as one long afterparty.

Because I am a somewhat neurotic person about the news (I feel extremely guilty when I unplug for significant periods of time despite having precisely nil in the way of ability to influence things that I care about; I am, after all, living in a state with two safely Democratic senators whose names regularly pop up as voices of resistance in the fight regarding our collective national embarrassment), I can’t quite get behind the sentiment about west coast life as mostly an afterparty; when I’m engaging with the news a recurring thought each morning is, “What happened while I was asleep?”

This kind of throws the whole serene, watch the sunlight on the mountain thing off from what it’s meant to do.

Inevitably (because why stop at spoiling an excellent experience when you can grind the remains up into fine dust) after thinking about what else was going on in the world I turned to thinking about the impulse to separate ourselves from all that unpleasantness.  My in-laws are lovely people, but they did vote for the perpetual train wreck that is the current American president, and I can’t help drawing a line between a desire to live away from cities with the willful distrust of all reputable sources of information about what’s happening in America.  Set aside ideological differences (this isn’t about whether a person thinks the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court is a social positive or negative) and there’s still the issue of avoiding unfavorable information in order to maintain preferred positions.

Part of this makes total sense to me; my impulse towards catching up on the news comes with one gargantuan downside: because so much of what’s going on is bad and out of my control, my mood suffers immensely for it.  Shutting off the information flow is partly a defense mechanism against being paralyzed with despair.  It’s the main point in the Jars of Clay song “Headphones” which explores how a survival instinct to shut out disturbing information leads to social isolation.  Like with most sentiments expressed in a five minute song, the idea here is exceedingly simple without offering any major nuance: isolation is bad and leads to an empathy gap.  Obviously, the song implies, we should reach out to one another more in order to form a more comprehensive system of support for people experiencing all the terrible things that happen around us every day.  Connection is the path to salvation.

So, getting back to that mountain and the sunlight: it was an amazing experience that I’m glad I got to have.  I just wish it weren’t also tinged by this sense of guilt that it’s such a rarefied thing that diverts attention from other things.  To contrast, I just got back from a road trip to Yellowstone National Park which was very similar in terms of disconnection from the outside world.  The park’s out in Wyoming, which is pretty classical flyover country, and cell reception is about as bad as it was up in northern Washington.  Still the fact of it being a national park where people from literally all over the country came to experience some really cool natural features made it less troublesome to sit back and enjoy what was happening around me.  This was a place for everyone to come and let their troubles about the world go for a little while; it belongs to all of us instead of a privileged few who don’t have to engage if they don’t want to.  We were enjoying a concert, not something piped over tiny earbuds.

Reading Every River Runs to Salt

The necessary disclaimer on this post is that I’m not an unbiased reader; this is a book that my wife, Rachael K Jones, wrote.  I think it’s fantastic, and I’m going to explain why, but I understand if you’re suspicious of my motivations.

Imani gets in so much trouble with that jar. (Image credit: The Book Smugglers)

The South is a place full to the brim with unfortunate truths.  It contains some of the most destitute parts of the country, filled with folks who are ignorant because of a combination of fear and insularity and lack of opportunity.  You get fifty miles outside Atlanta and everything is farms and hills and the old Georgia flag that still bears the Confederate cross.  Towns are mostly just stretches of road with a few (probably closed) businesses and a church; it’s a cause for celebration when a Wal-Mart opens up within driving distance.  The folks you meet are most likely farmers, and there’s a good chance any two given people in a community are distantly related somehow.  Move in toward city centers like our aforementioned metropolis or even the smaller places like Athens, and things shift.  People don’t necessarily know their neighbors, but they know their neighborhoods, and they know who belongs and who doesn’t.  The lines saying where you are supposed to be are old, and they were put there by white hands writing with black ink.

One of the South’s unfortunate truths is that its people know their own, and we don’t believe in naturalization.  Exceptions can be made if you moved in when you were young and had time to develop a local accent and then never left, but for the most part you were either born a Southerner or you weren’t.  Acceptance by the locals is different from being one of the locals, and this fine shade of difference determines whether you can actually understand what the South is.

That’s a load of crap, of course.  Anyone who thinks about how we form identity and connections can quickly intuit that your affinity for a place is built on the people you know and the experiences you have there.  Rachael isn’t originally from the South, but she’s as much a Southerner as I am.  Every River Runs to Salt, like so much of her writing, is built from bits and pieces of her life; this book’s foundation is the ten total years we spent living in Athens.  It’s her love letter to the place that she called home for the longest time after growing up a military kid.  All the places she describes are really there in Athens, and they’re all as weird and delightful as she says (though less explicitly magical).

But this isn’t just a story about Athens and the South; it’s also saturated with the Pacific.  Rachael finished this story as we were getting ready to move across the country, and so much of the longing that you get when you read her descriptions of the Pacific Ocean spring from the anticipation of that event.  Quietly’s journey to get back to Imani is built on that tension between the place you are now and the place you need to go.

There’s so much more to Every River Runs to Salt that feels like it needs to be said: the story’s warmhearted skewering of California, the critique of capitalism, the sheer poetry of the language.  The only problem is that it’s all best experienced firsthand, and any discussion I could carry on here about what happens in the book would only diminish the intended effect.  Better to get it straight from the source.


Links for Purchase

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #24”

I don’t know how long the Western plot diagram has been a standard part of language arts classes (probably a while), but in case any of my readers aren’t familiar, here’s a brief explanation.  In Western stories, the plot structure typically resembles a two dimensional pyramid; things start slow, and tension continues to ratchet up until the point of climax roughly halfway through, and then the remainder of the story explores the consequences of that central inflection point (typically when you teach the plot diagram, you pair it with a Shakespeare play because the ones taught in high school follow this formula extremely closely).  There are variations on the model depending on who’s writing the story, but these are the broad features.  The phase of the plot just before the climax is called the rising action.

Anyone who’s been paying attention up to this point understands why this matters.  Gillen titled the last story arc, where Persephone makes her big debut and rips up the Pantheon’s status quo, “Rising Action” because it culminates with the series’s primary climax; we’ve had a bit of a break from that with the 1831 and magazine issues, but with #24 it’s time to start unpacking the fallout.  Appropriately, the first panel has the infamous four count in reverse as we begin Laura’s second year entangled with the Pantheon.

Countdown to consequences. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Is it bad if I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Karamo wearing a similar bomber jacket on Queer Eye? (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

This issue is all about Laura and where she is following her cannonball into the bloody revenge pool.  Her outsider status presumably explained why there’s hardly any discussion of her in the magazine issue beyond Baal mentioning that the two of them are dating; we’ve been in suspense about what Laura was thinking when she kliked her fingers and tore Ananke to bits.  I mean, there’s the obvious extreme grief and the need to get revenge for Ananke murdering her family (oh man, that bit where Laura reminds us about her sister, whom I think we only saw in one panel previously in the entire series, just kills me), but we have to see what’s left.  We’re looking down the barrel of Hamlet‘s final act here if the Danish prince hadn’t ended up getting himself and everyone else in the court killed along with Polonius.  Laura was driven by one specific goal in the last arc, which she accomplished, and before that she was driven by a different goal, which she also accomplished.  She’s a character who has gotten everything she wants, and now we get to see Gillen play around with what that will do to her.

What we see here is that Laura’s kind of rudderless three months after her big triumph.  She’s partying with the rest of the Pantheon, although it’s absent the joie de vivre that other more carefree characters exhibit (Amaterasu’s tipsy come-on is pretty adorable, even as it contrasts with Laura still being deep in the ennui).  What comes most strongly to mind for me at this point is the bit early on in the series when Laura discusses her lack of a plan for after she finishes school.  She’s all in on burning out on divinity because she’s also coping with chronic depression; there’s so much trauma packed into Laura’s story from issue #1 going forward that it’s easy to forget she had some issues she was working on before Ananke screwed up her life.

Amaterasu is feeling very invincible thanks to those two great intoxicants: alcohol and youth. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What we specifically see Laura doing in this issue (besides being perpetually on point in her fashion choices) is a form of dissociation.  The popular concept of disassociation involves a person acting without being consciously aware of what they’re doing, but more typically it manifests as either derealization, which is when a person is aware of their actions but feel disconnected from them as though they’re in a dream, or depersonalization, where they stop viewing themselves as a person.  I think there’s a bit of derealization going on with Laura’s actions at the New Year’s party (she’s not at all present in the moment when Amaterasu finds her out on the ledge), but the more obvious manifestation is depersonalization.  Twice in the issue Laura embraces her identity as the Destroyer, each time just before she decides to do something potentially self destructive.  The first time is easy to overlook because divinity grants the gods all kinds of superhuman abilities, but she does hop on a motorcycle and speed off through London without a helmet.  The second time comes at the issue’s conclusion, where she decides that despite Woden’s threat to bring the entire Pantheon down with his evidence that they all conspired to cover up Ananke’s murder she’s going to threaten to kill him.  Laura’s actions betray a sense that she’s completely devalued herself in her decision making.  This goes beyond the typical teenage sense of immortality that’s reasserting itself now that the gods don’t have Ananke hanging their imminent demise over them.

Apparently my criteria for liking a character is snark, a sense of superiority, and having good raised eyebrow game. I think this might be a problem. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In the midst of all this wanton self destruction we have Minerva (some two years into the series, she’s finally displaying a little bit more personality than simply “the sardonic wise kid”) serving as author surrogate to inform us of relationship dynamics like the fact that Baal still isn’t over Inanna (big surprise) and to explicitly point out Laura’s self destructive streak, just in case we couldn’t pick up on it through other things.  It’s nice to see Minerva taking on a distinct role in the story that’s not just “macguffin moppet,” although she leans a little heavily on the wisdom god thing here.  It feels like a believable character beat though, what with Minerva being so young in comparison to everyone else; she’s more likely to fall back on prefabricated roles to model how she should act around all the grown ups (if you can call anyone in the Pantheon a grown up).

The issue ends on a cliffhanger where Cassandra is totally making that face that people on reality television make in response to something that the producers really want to be shocking but it just isn’t.  Laura’s pointing her clicky finger at Woden menacingly with the implication that she might just kill him on a whim, complicating things ever further for everyone in the Pantheon, but the fact that it’s Woden sort of ruins the effect.  I’ve tried to imagine what the reaction to this issue would have been when it first came out, but even with the prospect of waiting a month to find out if Woden’s going to lose his head, I have a hard time seeing anyone really biting their nails about the suspense here.  Oh well, I guess we’ll find out next time (spoiler: Woden totally doesn’t lose his head).

Catchy Title Goes Here: Five Years In

In one of my reflective moments I realized that despite my extreme introversion I am someone who actually quite enjoys performing for other people when I feel competent.  Although I frequently feel that I am not especially talented in any particular thing, I will be more than happy to demonstrate what I can do when I know I can do it; this means that while I usually avoid karaoke because I can’t carry a tune, I will jump in if we’re talking about doing songs from Hamilton because I know the soundtrack inside out and I can rap all the parts (just for one example).  More generally, the thing that I feel especially competent at is spinning my thoughts out in writing in a way that’s fun and engaging.

This is why I started my blog five years ago.  I had an excess of free time during one summer, and I needed to do something creative for my own satisfaction.  I had tried my hand at writing fiction for a few years, but I never really had the knack (or the patience to keep practicing) for combining compelling prose with engaging plots and characters; keeping a blog where I could order my thoughts and leave them for other people to find and engage if they liked was a good, low pressure outlet for that frustrated creative energy.  I spent that summer obsessing over what kind of content I should generate because I had thoughts about so many things, and I wanted to play the game of building a readership.  Everything in the blog’s original conception was about this sense of possibility: Catchy Title Goes Here was an off-the-cuff joke about that lovely filler text that descends from the pages of Mad Libs; the site’s original tagline was something related to my general indecision about what sort of topics to focus on in this space.  After my introductory post (which I accidentally published after I finished writing it when I was trying to save up some posts; I have always preferred having a backlog of content to producing it on the fly), the first thing I wrote was a review of Avatar because movie reviews seemed like a good source of ideas.

I dabbled in essays on topics in theology for years (this was pretty fertile ground for me to explore how my faith was changing as I realized white evangelicalism breeds a profound moral apathy) before my anger at the faith I had adopted in college subsided into weariness.  White evangelicalism is still a monstrous instrument of white supremacy, patriarchy, and the eternal gnashing maw of capitalism, but I don’t have the energy to rail against it anymore.  That all got spent up here.

It was through this blog that I landed on the pastime of critically reading comics and trying to say intelligent things about them.  I question the quality of my efforts pretty frequently, but I love doing it because it’s fostered in me a deeper love of comics as an art form and made me more curious about the craft and process of their creation.  I’m more of a comics nerd now than I think I would have been if I hadn’t started Catchy Title Goes Here.

Most absurdly of all, the practice of producing a thousand words on some topic on demand three times a week for five years (and even more frequently at first) has fostered in me a sense that I have a pretty good handle on this whole essay writing thing.  My work on the blog is extremely informal, and almost everything posted is first draft, but there are moments when I write a sentence or wrap up a point in a paragraph and think, “This is pretty good; I should try to get someone to pay me to do this.”  A healthy sense of caution about the pitfalls of the white cishet male ego reminds me that I’m probably not as good as I think, but I still want to try to follow that impulse.  I’ve spent a little time in the past six months or so working on drafting and revising something a little more formal than what goes on the blog.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it (I’m honestly still unsure how to go about finding markets for nonfiction), but I’m taking joy in the trying.

Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that I’m expressing my frustration with a panel of a Ms. Marvel villain whose whole schtick is toxic male entitlement; he’s basically all the worst parts of Killmonger without any of the interesting ideology or legitimate grievances. (Artwork by Takeshi Miyazawa, colors by Ian Herring, letters by Joe Caramagna)

What’s prompted all of this sudden reflection on the history of the blog and its impact on me comes from a relatively innocuous thing: I got an email from WordPress the other day saying that Facebook is changing their algorithm to block automatic posts from third party apps like the one that WordPress uses to publish my blog posts to my Facebook profile.  In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a huge deal; it means that whenever I publish something, I’ll have to manually share the post on my profile instead of letting WordPress take care of that functionality for me.  This is an inconvenience after five years of being able to fire and forget on blog posts.  On a more existential level, it feels like a move to further discourage people from actually leaving Facebook’s ecosystem, of which my blog and the larger WordPress platform are not a part.  If I had a decently large readership located on other platforms, then this would be sort of a blip, but because I run a small operation and most of my regular readers are people connected to me via Facebook it feels a lot more harrowing.  Although I try to only discuss traffic numbers on my end of year summaries, a frequent concern for me is the fact that I don’t get much attention on new content outside of Facebook clicks.

I realize this sounds like a lot of whinging.  Social media is largely stupid and actively harmful towards the ways that we interact with one another, but it’s also become an integral part of existing in society over the last fifteen years.  As someone who tends to feel intensely uncomfortable in interpersonal interactions with people I don’t know well, I see a lot of value in the mediation that online interactions with folks afford.  The Facebook thing feels like I’m being silenced in one of the few expressive modes I have where I feel totally comfortable.  I want to feel heard, and there’s a part of me that feels like that will happen less with this policy change.

I could probably spin my wheels longer on this topic, but ultimately it’s not something that will be productive.  Facebook’s going to Facebook, and I’m going to do my thing, and there will be a period where I’ll adapt to a slightly worse social media experience than what I’ve been enjoying.  I expect within a month this won’t even register as a major event; but for now I needed to scream into the void a little bit.

I Go to the Zoo with Werner Herzog

Rachael and I spent the weekend in Tacoma because she got invited to teach at a writing workshop that was being held there, and because I’m the writing spouse, I had a fair amount of time to myself while she was doing her shiny author stuff, so I was free to go explore the town on my own a little bit.  Because I am a natural homebody I stuck around the hotel for the majority of our stay, but I did spend an afternoon at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium where I saw all the animals.

In order to pass the time, because I was at the zoo by myself on a Friday afternoon, I decided to livetweet the experience.  This naturally had a very limited reach, and because Twitter is an ephemeral medium, so I have the thread archived for anyone who wants to see my bad jokes.  Gotta preserve that quality content, after all.

Takeaways from reviewing this thread are that I get less verbose the longer I have to use my phone to compose anything, and my selfie game is severely lacking.  The Herzog riffs are fun, though I’m not sure how well I hit the mix of nihilism and mundanity that the genre typically demands.

So I Just Saw Nanette

When I was a kid I had a bit of a fascination with stand up comedy.  This wasn’t something that had the same kind of intensity as my love for anthropomorphic adolescent turtles or robots in disguise or plumbers from Brooklyn; I just thought that standing in front of an audience and telling them jokes was a cool thing.  To me, as a child, it was comedy in a pure form: someone is going to tell you funny things for at least a few minutes, and you’ll be invited to laugh about it.  I remember that I had my own aspirations to be a stand up comic for a little while when I was in elementary school.  I even had an act that I did in one of those school talent shows where no one gets turned away.

Perhaps the best punchline, in hindsight, is that I only had one joke to tell.

While I vaguely remember it having multiple beats about a chicken and a dentist, it was pretty thin material.  I resorted to a form of prop comedy as I performed in overalls and a straw hat.  I don’t remember why this particular costume was appropriate for the bit, but then again, my parents had a penchant for using school activities to put me in all kinds of strange costumes (I still remember the sock hop party my school threw which my mom insisted I attend wearing a cardigan and with a pack of candy cigarettes rolled up in my shirt sleeve); I want to say this is a weird quirk of my family, but now the internet exists and I realize that children serve the same function as domesticated animals: to provide existential salve to human adults as unsuspecting conduits for cuteness.

My love for stand up continued long after that failed one minute set, although it was more as a spectator than as a performer (though that didn’t stop me from listening to a couple of comedy albums ad nauseum in middle school so that I could recite them rote).  I went through a Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall phase (the horror with which I recall my choices in humor and choices in music being circumscribed by my parents’ tastes is an ongoing source of consternation) before graduating to the likes of late George Carlin material (Carlin was probably the most subversive comic that I ever found myself enjoying, most directly because he was an avowed atheist, and I felt the same in high school even though I was scared to admit as much).  Broadly speaking, stand up comedy has done a lot to inform the kinds of things I value at different stages in my life.

During college I stopped following stand up so much; it wasn’t something that any of my friends enjoyed that much, and I had other things to spend my time on.  It wasn’t really until a couple months ago when I started thinking about stand up again because I happened to have some free time while being home alone, and I got the itch to watch some of the comedy specials that Netflix is always advertising.  I watched stuff by Fred Armisen, Hari Kondabolu, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Ali Wong, John Mulaney, Tig Notaro, and some other comics who didn’t leave as much of an impression on me.  I liked some of the sets better than others (Kondabolu’s material is particularly memorable, and Notaro’s style of deadpan delivery feels familiar and worthy of imitation; Rock and Wayans’s age as comics show in their trans- and homophobic material, and Mulaney’s schtick as the white guy from the northeast is inoffensive but unremarkable), but I found them all interesting in different ways.  Stand up is this strange fusion of theater performance and long form essay, and each comedian has their own particular quirks in the way they construct and deliver their sets.  Rock sort of announces his different bits by calling back to a specific line from earlier in a set that serves as his anchor point when he goes off on digressions; if you were to write up a transcript of his set, these lines would function sort of like subject headers.  Wong and Mulaney rely on extremely stylized deliveries that define the show’s parameters as existing in a specific context; these are affected versions of the real people writing the material.  Notaro does something similar with her deadpan, but she’s aiming for an affect that doesn’t read as affected; the way she plays with her audience gives a sense that she’s having fun instead of just giving a performance.  Each comic has their own particular style that extends beyond just the experiences they discuss.

What they all have in common is the way they mine personal experience for their comedy.  Besides Mulaney, who I already feel like I’ve discussed too much, all of the comics I’ve been interested in come from marginalized groups.  A major part of their comedy is rooted in the experiences that come from that marginalization; it’s what makes them interesting to watch if you’re looking at stand up comedy as a form of performed personal essay.  This marginal identity is what drew me to watch their specials in the first place; it’s important to listen to what people who have lived in the margins have to say about our society.

The most recent comedy special that I watched was Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.  I saw a couple friends recommend it and a smattering of articles explain that it was a very different sort of set, and it was well worth watching for the way it examines and deconstructs the nature of comedy.  It was probably the first time I’ve ever seen anyone discuss a comedian’s work with the same kind of respect for narrative surprise that fiction usually elicits in the form of spoiler warnings.  It would be possible to explain why the set is so worthwhile to someone who hasn’t seen it, but the way the thing is designed to rely on the gradual building up of repeated themes and interconnected anecdotes leaves me feeling like this is a thing that’s best discussed in its entirety with someone who has already seen it.  If you know what Gadsby will do with her set ahead of time, the impact seems like it might be lessened (I feel at this point that it’s worth saying that there should be content notes in place; there’s extensive discussion of both sexual and nonsexual assault, so if those are difficult subjects to broach in your entertainment, then it’s best to be forewarned about that before viewing Nanette).  Given all that, I’ll be discussing spoilers for Nanette beyond this point.

What I find most fascinating about Gadsby’s set is the way that she builds this intricate structure that calls back and recontextualizes the early material in Nanette.  The first ten to fifteen minutes are just relatively staid jokes about how hard it was for Gadsby to be a lesbian living in Tasmania, where homosexuality was outlawed until 1997.  She tells multiple stories about casual homophobia that people she does and doesn’t know engaged in towards her.  There’s the story about a man almost beating her up because he thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, thinking she was gay, and then stopping after he realized she was a woman; she also recounts coming out to her mom and her mother’s darkly comic reaction of wishing she didn’t know because it’s like telling someone you’re a murderer.  She plays the fact that she hadn’t come out to her grandmother at all for laughs.  In between all these anecdotes are bits about how her early material when she started doing stand up was very immersed in the subject matter of “gay comic 101.”  Gadsby accompanies her explanations of the jokes she used to tell with direct samplings of those jokes, all while wryly intimating to the audience that while it may be funny it was also ineffective at combating homophobia.

About twenty minutes into the set, Gadsby introduces the core assertion of her show: she needs to quit comedy.  It’s first placed in the context of receiving criticism from others that she’s not appealing enough to what they want from her comedy, but it quickly turns towards a meditation on the nature of stand up in general.  Gadsby explains that so much of her humor as a queer woman relies on self deprecation, and she finds that self deprecation coming from someone already marginalized has a bad effect.  It’s further humiliating someone with low social status as they try to make themselves heard, and she can’t continue with it any longer.  From there she proceeds into material regarding art history focused around Vincent van Gogh (he was a functional artist, she asserts, because he received treatment and support from therapists and family despite his difficult behavior) and Pablo Picasso (he was a misogynist who had sex with an underage girl claiming she was “in her prime”).  By the set’s end, the jokes all subside as Gadsby launches into an impassioned polemic about the ways comedy has become conflated with the hard work of discourse and the culpability of straight white men in pretty much everyone’s suffering.

The ending stretch of the show is particularly brilliant as Gadsby calls back all three of the stories that she used as examples of the sorts of jokes she used to tell when she started.  We’re informed in rapid succession that Gadsby’s mother has reflected on the way she reacted to her daughter’s coming out, and she regrets her decisions in handling that (she suspected long before Gadsby told her, and she wanted to protect her daughter from the trouble that being gay in Tasmania would entail); that the man who caught her hitting on his girlfriend but got confused about what a lesbian was came back after he figured it out and did beat her up; that the failure to come out to her grandmother is an extension of the internalized homophobia Gadsby struggles with after growing up in an environment that is so toxic.  These jokes occlude the realities of Gadsby’s experiences, and in the telling and the hearing they overwrite those lived traumas, lessen their perceived impact.  Gadsby’s introspection about the way she’s been doing comedy is paired with an implicit accusation aimed at the audience for being complicit with this erasure and commodification of a marginalized person’s suffering.  It recontextualizes all of those other comedy shows where the comics mine their lives for material, leaving you wondering what parts were cut in service of a laugh.

It seems silly to heap effusive praise on a thing that’s already receiving so much, but in this case it feels distinctly warranted.  Nanette is more than an excellent piece of comedy; it’s a careful and precise examination of the way we interact with comedy and allow it to shape our social narratives.  It is absolutely worth the time to watch.


Further reading:

Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette is powerful anti-comedy.

Hannah Gadsby Knows Why Nanette Is a Sensation