Understanding Comics

UnderstandingComics
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

A Book Review

by M. Murphy ©2014

To begin, this was an awesome read. This guidebook served as a wonderful reminder of the foundations behind my life as a working professional artist. I have been blessed with an ability of visualization that has enabled me to view life, so far, with as many eyes as there are souls; for retaining and strengthening intrinsic objectivity to learn by. But, in relating concepts discussed in the book to the world of media artwork around me by means of what my eyes see and my brain records will of course be subjective at best; I am a Media Artwork.

The book also reminded me of my purpose for, and connection with, cultural iconography and all its attachments to exist as second nature embedded in one’s ability to communicate. We are intrinsically linked to iconography and it seems as if our brain functions in part on this level; in shape, color, and sound vibration or frequency. Part of what McCloud may be attempting is to convey the absolute essential primordial drive of humans to achieve greater understanding and awareness. The simplicity of forms used as derivatives (part and parcel) to express language and words is especially intriguing to me as it always piques my instincts with regard to the keys to opening the centers of our brain that allow for more subtle forms of communication; mind to mind sensations and higher yet incomprehensible undiscovered/inactive forms of communication closing the gaps that obviously exist in the human being. This is the future I see as it relates to new media artworks. A current example of this relationship is all the icons for the mobile communication applications. Shape, color, and sound are the catalyst to which we invest, as of late, emotional attachment in the process of enhancing our productivity, or furthering a cause.

To relate this concept of iconography to a media artwork let us examine some aspects of two films; Forrest Gump and Castaway. Several times in Forrest Gump the audience is instantly transported through time and space in their mind; when Gump wipes his muddy face on a yellow tee shirt to reveal the iconic have a nice day happy face, the shit happens bumper sticker scene, and the letterhead logo from some “fruit” company (the Apple logo) Gump invested money in. Great story telling, superb acting, and identifiable imagery make for plausibility of the illusion. The fact that there is added deliberate closure narrated by Gump supports plausibility as it helps to fill in the blanks in our mind with believable outcomes. In the movie Castaway the character assumes the role of an iconoclast to some extent while eventually clinging to a new found iconic symbol (an artists’ logo inscribed on a fed-ex package) to renew and sustain his resolve to survive during his transformation.

Moving forward, one thing I found quite refreshing, useful, and hysterical was the creation and deployment of the various charts, graphs, and statistical comparisons throughout the book. I had never seen with my eyes quite a way of putting relating issues in perspective, like what comics do naturally. It is as if the degrees of separation are no longer a mystery or convoluted. McCloud draws factual historical associations to defining comics. He introduces a timeline on to illustrate how the Mexican Codex is essentially a comic. McCloud removes the “mystery” and breaks down what was seemingly elusive in to an easy to understand translation. He does this for the Bayeux Tapestry, Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the tomb of Menna the scribe, and infers the same by applying his description to 15,000 year old cave art. Just this concept alone is vital as it serves as a tool for teaching most anything. In fact, I’d say we’ve become quite accustomed to pictures, symbols, charts, graphs, timelines, scales, polls, and so on . . . analysis and presentation of data streams that convey some kind of message so one may learn a base of understanding, more so depending on significance or relevance of topic or issue. Transcribed communication is just stylized pictures that over time have become more abstract, adapted for specialization, and simplified for broad understanding (McCloud 10-15, 141).

Furthermore, there is something McCloud expresses that carries enormous weight and should not be overlooked, ever; “. . . cartooning isn’t just a way of drawing; it’s a way of seeing (McCloud 31).” The concept that imagery can impact our focus on an idea is one that leaves huge piles of evidence all over the front yard of human history, and unfortunately much of it stinks; glossed over by more sensational expressions that make us draw from greater emotional resources to process such stimulus, and it is addictive. Millions have perished needlessly over iconography and the ideology they support, just as many more millions have seemingly enriched their lives embracing those idioms.

This leads in to another concept discussed in the book; the concept of closure. As an artist much of my work revolves around this concept of closure. I like producing imagery that amounts to essentially nothing more than cropped views of some particular subject. It is up to the viewer to fill in the gaps, to complete the rest of the story; open borders are for exploration and discovery. There is always more than meets the eye. When we are invited to fill in the blanks it is an invitation to become the creator. What we do with that gift is another story.

This concept of closure couldn’t be more evident in today’s art media culture, certainly in broadcast media. Although I no longer subscribe to receiving broadcast television it remains unavoidable. One can only remove oneself so much from the onslaught of coercive, negative media execution of information. I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 society of the All Seeing Eye spitting out nonsensical gibberish of an authoritative regime. Today’s media outlets have made it their business to dish out only the tiniest of slivers of what one could equate to an infectious disease. The formula of pairing graphic imagery with sound-bites is at the heart of broadcast media; this is propaganda art at its most seamless. What’s more, this is going to be quite the marriage in the years ahead with advancing technologies and the ability to directly interface our senses with nano-digital platforms by means of bio-organic computer implants. One effect this process may have is the new and improved version of messiahs, belief systems, and a whole host of megalomaniacs existing with all others in a kind of freak show collective polarity. Being able to interface directly with bio-organic nano-technology means individuals will become even more iconographic; to what ends remains undefined. I am Jack’s festering media artwork.

In theory, I suppose most all things work. But societal/cultural structural theory is devoid of real practical testing and good intentions become lost; we learn as we go. Religion is a great example of this condition when theory is put in to action. Subsequently, there exist portrayals of media artwork today that demonize the many religions spawned from the Koran. Indeed, there are plenty of examples being exploited from suicide bombers who commit the ultimate radical expressions, to tribe after tribe of folks whose idioms are expressed through physical action, sometimes extremely violent physical action. Broadcast media has been complicit in the transformation of these ideologies in to iconography, certainly in the case of any interests not aligned with the status quo. One really good example of this transformation is the political hangnail; Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The image of a prisoner standing on a box draped in tarp with arms outstretched represents the fact that America will torture you, period. I am Jack’s horrible irony as a result of ill-deployed non-scientific methods.

Understanding Comics; this book was released in 1994 which makes it twenty years old, but far from obsolete. In fact, media artworks are becoming more immersed in to our lives, causing many to continually reexamine their existence, changing cultural boundaries redrawing the lines that unify and divide; we are Jack’s polarity collective, resistance is futile. Compared to any point in humanity’s timeline the only thing that has changed is the delivery system. Today’s delivery system is pretty much instantaneous, globally. McCloud talks about challenging the status quo a little bit here and there throughout the book, at least which is how I translate part of his work. Something he says really is quite profound:

[The dance of the visible and invisible is at the very heart of comics, through the power of closure! Creator and reader are partners in the invisible creating something out of nothing, time and time again (McCloud 205).]

My interpretation of this statement, at least today, represents a challenge to continue creating artworks that question and challenge the status quo. This statement is inspiration to create an intention surrounding and enveloping my thoughts as I go forward on my path. As an artist, one of my thoughts stems from an observation of the above quote. One can easily substitute the words government for comics, and, leaders and citizens for creator and reader, and from this new statement create a whole lot of something out of nothing which many artists indeed do. In all seriousness, the concept of “partners in the invisible creating something out of nothing” (McCloud 205) means a great deal when technology is quickly closing the gap between just having a dream while asleep in bed of flying faster than the speed of sound ten feet off the ground dressed all in black, and, actually creating an interactive hyper-real holographic digital environment just by thought projection and a bio-organic nano-tech platform interface app. The new app from Apple, the iSoul . . . I am Jack’s Matrix, there is no spoon, and this is not a pipe.

Resources

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994. Print.

Alice to Alice; Svankmajer and Burton

John_Tenniel-_Alice's_mad_tea_party,_colour
Alice in Wonderland, John Tenniel, 1865 (public domain image)

Comparisons Relating How We Judge Animated Film

by M. Murphy ©2014

I was asked: By what standards do we judge animated films? It would seem an industry standard that how one judge animated film is broken in to five categories; artists intentions, cultures subjective values of art/aesthetic, popularity and/or commercial success, innovation and originality, and laugh meter. Of course there are many other facets to consider that ultimately broaden or narrow one’s scope of observation but it seems for now that animated film easily adheres to the aforementioned standards.

I will attempt to compare two very different adaptations of one story; Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first adaptation is by Jan Svankmajer with his 1988 film, Alice, and the second is by Tim Burton with his 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland. I will be applying the five standards by which one judge an animated film, and briefly highlight any similarities, differences, and anything else that may seem interesting or noteworthy.

Something I do find quite interesting is that since Carroll’s Wonderland was first published in 1865; as a book it has never been out of print, and it has been translated in nearly a hundred different languages. There have been numerous adaptations in all types of media and in my mind Wonderland makes an ideal template to measure the standards for how one judge animated film; after all, Carroll’s story is extremely imaginative and fantastical. It lends itself as a perfect foundation in which to build an animated adaptation.

Artists Intention

Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation is truly remarkable. I absolutely loved this film. From my first viewing I felt as though Svankmajer intended for his film to reflect the fact that the story is about a dream, or daydreaming. Moreover, I think Svankmajer intended for his film to be the result of his ability as an artist; his skills and technique as an animator, and the implementation of what is familiar in Svankmajer’s environment. Most of all I think that Svankmajer’s intent was to tell a story in such a way that reflects the hand-crafted traditions of lore.

Tim Burton’s adaptation is also remarkable, but I like it less so than Svankmajer’s film; Burton combines two of Carroll’s books to make this adaptation, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. I think that underneath everything layered upon Burton his intent was to make an entertaining film; in this aspect he was successful. This adaptation certainly has many of the trademark Burton-like characteristics that have made his previous films successful, but for all its imagination it seems to lack that elusive intangible that would otherwise assist in clarifying intention outside of purposes for entertainment only. This is not necessarily a bad thing either; Burton’s film is extremely well made and exactly what he intended.

Culture’s Subjective Values of Art/Aesthetic

Oddly enough, we are not exposed to examples of art that expand and breach boundaries of our perception as much as I feel we should be, but perhaps there is so much absurdity already in real life that we gloss over such occurrences too frequently for anything to really take hold.

When I compare Svankmajer’s work with the subject value scale of art and aesthetic in today’s culture I see a reflection of the raw primitive grit that makes people what they are. We are driven by base needs and wants, simple constructs and mechanisms, and most of all we love a good story. It doesn’t matter if we’ve heard it a hundred times before. I think Svankmajer is very successful with his artistic execution. One does not expect, nor prepare, to receive such imagery yet in the end one seamlessly accepts the imagery as plausible in context.

Artistically, Svankmajer’s adaptation is executed with live-action combined and interacting with stop motion, small scale personal set-builds, adoringly rich archaic puppets, simplicity and ingenuity, hand-made and produced on a much smaller scale by comparison. Burton’s adaptation is all live-action and green screen capture animation, full digital process, large staff, enormous budget . . . the result of many people working together on common goals to come close to some personal vision; another cog in the great entertainment wheel of fate.

Aesthetically, Burton really made a beautiful film. His adaptation is immensely rich visually, but there were certain expectations already in place and his film comes across as an exercise in new technologies and their use, equally as much as it is a great artistic production.

Culturally, there is somewhat of a stigma that comes with artistic production relative to its business side. Compared to some other Tim Burton films, I feel that this film should have been stop motion because Burton does amazing stop motion, and because fuck expectation.

Popularity and/or Commercial Success

Let’s face it. I never saw any Jan Svankmajer Alice movie memorabilia, clothing line, video game, action figures . . . but I have seen an obscene overload of Disney mass marketing of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp. It’s that type of ram it down your throat approach that really makes it special. Like I mentioned previously, certain expectations were already in place regarding the Disney production.

Fortunately, I did happen to see Svankmajer’s Alice, and many of his other films at animation festivals screened at the Charles Theater in Baltimore and several old theaters in Washington DC from late 80’s through the mid 90’s. The Animation Film Festival circuit was fairly popular and most showings had great turnout. There was always publicity and visibility centered on the event and many of the filmmakers whose works were shown went on to accomplish a great many things, Tim Burton was among them.

Innovation and Originality

Honestly, Svankmajer’s adaptation is much more innovative than Burton’s; the big factor here is budget.    Innovation is bred from having to adapt in environments that are less than ideal while remaining attentive to positive aspects. Svankmajer is more successful in this regard probably because he is beholden to himself, and everything occurred on a much smaller scale.

Burton is successful at achieving technical/digital innovation, and more importantly paving the way to the future of film making through digital animation. Burton is part of the trend that has the means and imagination to realize potential and vision; this innovation helps the animation industry survive and thrive.

Svankmajer is innovative in blending live action with stop motion. Great editing and careful planning can be attributed to this. I also feel that he is innovative in choice of set pieces, puppets, repetition, color palette . . .

As for originality; both Svankmajer and Burton have transcended that label by the sheer virtue of being individuals. Both possess an almost archetypical individuality that elevates what these artist/filmmakers accomplish as benchmarks to aspire to, and they make it seem so easy.

Laugh Meter

A lot of this depends on one’s taste in humor. I find both films to have a great laugh meter ranking.

Svankmajer’s humor is a bit more sardonic; reflective of the book as well as Svankmajer’s cultural associations as executed with the material constructs of his immediate environment. The minimalistic interactions between Alice and all the other characters are quite funny to me; perhaps due to my suspension of disbelief.

Burton gets laugh by way of his actors portrayals paired with digital manipulation. His adaptation creates a much more playful attitude with lots of good twisted-ness thrown in, and oh yeah, drama, plenty of drama. Seriously, Crispin Glover is hilarious in this film as the Knave of Hearts.

Resources

Alice. (1988). [film] Directed by J. Švankmajer.

Zanuck, Richard D., et al. Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney Pictures, 2010

Maus and Persepolis

mauspersepolis
Movie Screenshot from Persepolis – digitally manipulated by me

Concept Comparisons as they relate to Understanding Comics

by M. Murphy ©2014

I love graphic novels. They have always been a big part of my life from as early as I can remember; from simple comics produced by Marvel and DC, and EC comics. Underground comics like Zap Comix, created by geniuses Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Harvey Kurtzman, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, and S. Clay Wilson. Groundbreaking efforts from Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal with artists named Enki Bilal, Richard Corben, Jean Giraud aka Moebius, Liberatore’, and Milo Manara just to name a fraction. These are the examples of my art heroes, my art mentors, my guides in helping to understand different points of view not entertained or expanded upon by other media sources for whatever reasons regarding topics that profoundly impact society and individuals from all walks of life.

Two topics in particular that have had an enormous impact on humanity are eloquently conveyed in graphic novel form; The Jewish Holocaust as portrayed in Maus, by Art Spiegelman, and the Islamist Fundamentalist takeover of Iran as portrayed in Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. Ethnic cleansing is not an easy subject to stomach let alone teach without some trepidation. Most media sources gloss over much detail in exchange for visual/emotional sound bites, be they inert and innocuous, or shocking and incomprehensible; either way it seems agenda supersedes teachable moments. That said, the graphic novel, like Maus and Persepolis, seem to be a most excellent form of teaching and conveying information that otherwise might get lost in a world where 30 second sensationalism is pervasive and truth is an afterthought, and other forms of media miss the mark in involving people, and invoking change.

I write this without hesitation and with full confidence for many reasons. The first reason being that graphic novels offer something much more than just data; textbooks lack personality and often lose the interest of the reader. Moreover, graphic novels stand apart from television and other books in that they invite the reader to become a part of the story whereas television although closely related doesn’t quite invite deeper cognitive experiences the way a graphic novel does. The standard printed novel and book convey an abundance of detail when it comes to storytelling but are lacking when it comes to inviting the reader to implement closure as frequently or deep as the graphic novel. But this is not to say that novels don’t invite closure, rather I feel the cognitive connections are different. Another reason I think the graphic novel is a better method is due to the inclusion of highly personal artwork. Textbooks typically use generic illustrations, data charts, and sometimes photographs to support information. Rarely does a standard novel use any form of artwork other than the cover, but this aspect is extremely vital in that many people will choose a book based on that artwork; it helps to complete the sale in the mind for both author and reader.

Another thing about graphic novels is that they seem to be something like a living document; a record of creative expression and unique perspective. Actual documentaries like films, picture books, music, and visual art are quite different than the graphic novel but can be just as successful at dealing with complex issues, but the graphic novel seems best suited for this purpose. The impetus for this particular assertion originates from my experiences and desire to engage in higher learning techniques like transcendental meditation, visualization and affirmation, and learning as play, just to name a few. It is as if a graphic novel is being played in the mind; a transparency overlay embedded in the visual cortex, or something.

When comparing the graphic novels Maus and Persepolis as they relate to concepts found in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics one doesn’t have to look too far as both Maus and Persepolis convey all of the concepts covered by McCloud.

To begin, Maus and Persepolis follow the concept of six steps; idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface. In fact, both graphic novels start out with an integrated preface/intro by each author who states their idea/purpose quite plainly. In Maus, Spiegelman begins the book with a flashback to 1958 highlighting an incident of his childhood where he was the recipient of uncompassionate behavior (Spiegelman 5, 6). It becomes clear in the next few pages that the author wants to move forward with his book, and is urged by his Father and stepmother to complete his book (Spiegelman 11-13). In Persepolis, a young Marjane was motivated by her experiences and reveals her contemplations with God which seem to be the impetus behind her idea/purpose, helping her to understand what is happening to her country, the people, and the future of both; she wanted to be a Prophet, and in a way she is (Satrapi 3-9). Whether these authors know it or not the six steps add up to what amounts as a living document of truly significant historical events. I understand that each author may have intended something completely different and that their idea stage in no way relates to my point of view, but I feel that the beginning of each book, including Understanding Comics, clearly states an intent, or idea.

Moving forward, in terms of graphic style, line use, symbolism and use of iconography, archetypal utilization, closure, timing, and flow, both graphic novels utilize these concepts with plenty of differences but each work stands alone quite strongly, and, both works relate.

First, let’s look at graphic style. Maus is very masculine and rife with background details whereas Persepolis is more feminine and delicate with minimal background detail yet still conveys as much power and strength through the use of black. The graphic style of Maus is reminiscent of works by artist Robert Crumb and the underground comic art of the 1960’s; each drawing utilizes a type of hatching and shakiness adding life to each page. The graphic style of Persepolis has the boldness and smooth intimate delicacy of art nouveau yet is rendered completely in solid black and white, and like Maus, adds life to each page.

With graphic style comes the use of line. The use of line in Maus has great movement and energy, and, is very heavy handed for all characters and subject matter while background details are penned with a bit finer line and executed with consistency throughout the whole book. The use of line in Persepolis is consistent throughout but is flowing, smooth, and more refined, and, with lots of negative space used as white outlining when all solid black is being used. Each graphic novel uses line in a way that lends support to the intense subject matter and who it is written by and for. If the line use styles were switched I don’t know if the graphic novels would be as successful in being effective teaching tools.

Next comparison is the flow of the panels and how each story progresses. Both graphic novels follow a fairly conventional flow of panels for storytelling, and this is just fine. Each book could have easily integrated some really wild placement of panels because each story has such intensity but simplicity always trumps sensationalism. This simplistic convention really helps to move each story forward with ease as opposed to using other forms to emphasize climactic moments; this simple flow really showcases the merit and strength of each story.

The use of time is really wonderful in both graphic novels, and both utilize time quite differently. In Maus, time jumps back and forth as the story unfolds, it is seamless and expected because Maus is being narrated by the author’s father Vladek, in present day while taking us back in time so we may experience what he experienced. In Persepolis, time progresses naturally as Marjane grows from chapter to chapter. There are also flashback time jumps inserted to accommodate the stories of other characters, but Marjane narrates and tells her story much like Vladek; it is as if the story is taking place while we are reading it as opposed to a mere re-telling. This use of timeline really helps to connect emotions to the subject matter and provides even greater context for closure.

Regarding closure, both graphic novels utilize this concept quite effectively. We really don’t need to see violence and gore when we can imagine it beyond any comprehension. Using lots and lots of artwork specific to these graphic novels to show violence just wouldn’t work, but it does work in how it is minimally conveyed, and, when showing the aftermath of such events; our mind can easily fill in the blanks. Moreover, closure is attained not just between the frames but during the frames as well because of what is being said; we are invited to imagine everything as each story unfolds just through storytelling.

The final comparisons have to deal with symbolism, iconography, and archetypical utilization, and both graphic novels display many of these elements throughout each work respectively. Maus begins with its cover art, the perversion of an ancient iconic symbol that originally represented transcendence through the cycle of life in many cultures long before Hitler’s derangement and perversion in to a hated icon. The cover art of Persepolis harkens more archetypical imagery blended with symbolism indicative of Middle Eastern culture; the inclusion of a sad girl adorned in a veil conveys a new symbolism when paired with the stylized motifs. In fact, Persepolis conveys much more symbolism throughout compared to Maus. Moreover, Persepolis blends its symbolism together with archetypes to create new symbols, icons, and identifiers in juxtaposition to tradition. Furthermore, the use of repetition in Persepolis really enhances the underlying messages in this respect (Satrapi 5, 11, 18, 28, 40, 89, 95, and 103). Maus relies upon archetypical utilization by portraying Mice as Jews and Cats and Nazis. This convention makes the symbolism much stronger, especially when iconography is paired with imagery in some of the panels, particularly the chapter title pages (Spiegelman 9, 25, 41, 71, 95, and 129).

I have read Maus dozens of times since its first release in Raw Magazine but this is my first reading of Persepolis. Admittedly, I always passed it by for some reason or another when selecting graphic novels for purchase; I am thankful that I now have a copy to hand down to my son when he gets older. Both stories are living documents and deserve much more attention.

Resources

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994. Print.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

About Pancakes

ptg 1 Ant
“Ant” M. Murphy 2003. 18×24 acrylic on canvas panel

by M. Murphy ©2009

Well, to tell you the truth, I sit here feeling just a wee bit melancholy. Not gloomy, rather, a small amount of pensive sadness which leads me to reflect upon a moment in which I am compelled to measure a pervasive lust and desire for pancakes.

The moment of which I speak came about in a small town in Florida known as De Leon Springs. De Leon Springs has the distinction of acquiring its namesake from the legend of “Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Youth”.

As history goes, Native Americans visited and used these springs as early as 6,000 years ago. In the early 1800s, settlers built sugar and cotton plantations that were sacked by Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War. By the 1880s the springs had become a winter resort, and tourists were promised “a fountain of youth impregnated with a deliciously healthy combination of soda and sulphur.”

The history is really quite interesting, here is a link to a quick, easy to read and digest, bulleted history synopsis just for you – http://www.floridastateparks.org/deleonsprings/History.cfm

Now, back to pancakes.

I was in De Leon Springs back 1996 visiting my Father, whom I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. I was in Florida by way of New Orleans; it was my first time experiencing Mardi-Gras, and I recommend being there during Mardi-Gras at least once in a lifetime – along with experiencing Las Vegas, watching any Top Fuel Quarter Mile Dragster Race, swimming with a dolphin, or paragliding. Sorry to drift off topic but pancakes will do that to you.

In De Leon Springs, the State Park to be exact, there is this little place affectionately known as the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant. Now here’s the thing, at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, guests can make their own pancakes right at the table.

I am not just talking some kind of packaged powder pancake to feed a modest stream of tourists, oh no! I’m talking about a thick, smooth, home-made batter. A pancake batter that transcends time and space to bring you back to the mornings sitting at your Grandmother’s porcelain topped kitchen table, shining ever so brightly under the diamond etched, opaque, banded, round milk glass light fixture that emits an ever so soft hum while the whole ceiling seems to vibrate from the fluorescent bulb … It’s that kind of pancake batter.

In their own words;

“Each of our tables are equipped with a griddle and we bring you pitchers of homemade pancake batters (both a stone ground mixture of five different flours and an unbleached white) and you pour them on and flip them over right at the table. You may order blueberries, bananas, peanut butter, pecans, chocolate chips, apples or apple sauce to create whatever sort of pancakes you choose. We have sausage, bacon, ham, eggs, homemade breads and an assortment of other treats to accompany your pancakes”. http://www.planetdeland.com/sugarmill/sugarpage2.htm

So, today as I write this, I am sad I couldn’t get pancakes, but I’m happy I did eat here once. I drove from Annapolis, Maryland in a Toyota Tercel nonstop to New Orleans; down through the valley spine of the Appalachians in a torrential downpour all through the night and in to the early morning hours; through the red dust of an Alabama dawn where the median was scarred repeatedly with the checkerboard patterns of tire tracks which were undoubtedly horrible car crashes; then on through Mississippi to New Orleans for a 3 day visit. I departed New Orleans, again in the middle of the night.

I drove through the coastal towns not yet ravaged by hurricanes many years off and no way for me to know about it in advance and warn them. But then again, people choose to live where they want to sometimes, and sometimes life chooses for them.

I drove through the Florida Panhandle in the wee hours of the morning. The now accursed Tercel, which made my legs go numb after so many hours of subjecting myself to factory seating, was running on fumes and it was one of those moments when you find yourself praying out loud “come on little car I love you I know you can make it don’t run out of gas now”.

Well, I didn’t run out of gas, and I didn’t beat the car with a hammer or a tree limb either. I made it to my destination, Deland FL, although I wasn’t sure of the time; perhaps sometime around noon.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I experienced what my Dad had talked about the whole night; pancakes at the Sugar Mill. It was fantastic, or course. Everything one dreams as the prefect pancake, and pancake experience; ambiance has a lot to do with it. But, I couldn’t help think about some of the other places I have eaten, especially over the past few days in New Orleans. I had eaten so much food, things I never knew was food!

Decades before, I had been on a family trip to Florida. We ate at a place in St. Augustine that sits out on a pier, a restaurant that markets itself as “Feed the Fish While You Dine”. It was such a metaphor. The huge, fat, overfed ocean catfish that probably spend their entire life living around the piers of that restaurant, never meeting other fish to hang out with and go fishing, or something, and, the sea birds that circle the place and snatch food right outta your hand before you can even toss it to the fish in the water; greedy opportunistic bastards.

But, Florida being so full of attractions, I had expected no less by way of pancakes, I was skeptical, at first. After all, Florida was/is a kind of marketing experiment, given all those glamorous billboards advertising fairy princess castles in the middle of a swamp …

Well the point is this; Best pancakes I’ve ever had. And, if you have a story about a favorite food and the journey you undertook to create the synchronicity between your taste buds and some kind of harmony with the universe, then the world needs to hear about it. It may be about the tastiest Blintz, or finest slice of pie, or perhaps even the best fish fry from somewhere in upstate New York. Let’s hear of it.

Effects of Religious Affectation

sinner
“Sinner” M. Murphy 2012. Digital composite collage.

by M. Murphy ©2010

I remember when I was a young child (late 1960’s & early 1970’s), and my Mother insisted on sending me  to catechism school on Saturday mornings.  I did not like this for a number of reasons, one of which being I would miss out on the fabulous cartoons being aired on television. Back then, television was a bit more innocent, and the choices for wasting time through televised entertainment were slim to none but momentous nonetheless. Unlike today, where ten thousand channels show nothing but crap. Oh sure there are educational programs, but I’m not going to pay any amount of money to receive pointless broadcasts along with educational materials that should be given for free. The infectious disease that is television is a whole different monster altogether and not really part of this little story.

With regard to being sent to catechism school, and attending church, Catholic Church, I felt early on that it was nothing more than a sham, a tool of control, a means to persuade individuals into a certain belief system that was fundamentally opposed to attaining spiritual freedom – It just didn’t feel right!. So, I skipped pretty much all those classes and hid out in the tract of woods at the end of our street where I grew up. Being close to nature was my church, and I spent my time observing all I could in that environment.

Now going to church on Sunday was another chore in and of itself. And, I would have to be extremely inventive with my reasons for not going. Nothing was sacred in terms of an excuse – from stomach aches to smallpox, and bee stings to snake bites. I utilized all my skills to avoid sitting in a huge, sterile room with some guy uttering nonsensical, deeply ominous babble. Whenever I did end up going, I just wanted it to end. So, I amused myself observing and admiring the Stations of the Cross sculpture reliefs hanging on the wall. I would pretend to know all the words in the hymnals by humming loudly while mouthing out words; I lip-synced. Sometimes I would fart, and since the church pews, no pun intended, were made of wood the sound would resonate, and the pew would vibrate. Many are guilty of this.

One thing my Mother was successful in was getting me to attend classes that prepared me to receive my first Holy Communion and Confession. I remember that quite well, and to this day for the life of me can’t find any relevance to the natural spiritual grounding within my being, other than the practice of affirmation of belief. We practiced with corn flakes and tea or cherry soda for hours, weekend after weekend, listening to the instructions on what to say, and when to say it, how far to stick out our tongues, to crunch and chew or not to crunch and chew – all of the things that were deemed appropriate in receiving the Eucharist, seriously. We were told that the very last thing we would want to happen is to slip up in our little ceremony and commit a mortal sin right there in front of the whole Catholic Church. Indeed, if we said the wrong line at the wrong time or whatever, we would be committing a sin. Yeah, no pressure there.

Needless to say, the ceremony went off without a hitch. Everyone said a proper Amen, and instead of cherry soda the chalice was filled with grape juice (not sacrament wine). When it was all over the adults herded all the kids outside in their little white robes and satin sashes for a group photo. It was hot; the kids were miserable, sweating, and ready to go home. The one thing that really stood out for me as the most endearing part of the whole ceremony was that the priest presiding over the ceremony looked exactly like Jonathan Winters; I kept waiting for him to do some shtick, like the ones I had seen the real Jonathan Winters do on Laugh-In. This guy was like a stand-up priest, not part of the regular rotation of rectory fathers.

The second part of this ceremony was first Confession. No kidding, you had to be there to experience the hypocrisy first hand, because I’m sure I won’t eloquently convey to you just how ridiculous it really was. I was totally prepared though with a long list of lies and general bad behavior I had committed, quite ready to spill my guts to the priest when my turn came to be ushered into the dark confessional booth. For weeks I was told how my mortal soul would be tormented in hell, or worse, limbo and purgatory if I didn’t come clean with the truth regarding all my sins to date. I feared being secluded in some dark confessional chamber booth with some old man whose face was all wrinkled and contorted. I never knew exactly what went down once a child was sequestered behind the wooden paneled door of a closet sized box without windows, and, was it sound-proof? I always saw people going in, but never coming out. Maybe I just never noticed that part? The group of kids I was with all sat in the church pews waiting for our turn, but I was surprised to see each child being led not into the confessional booth, but into a different door altogether. My fear doubled upon seeing this.

My stomach was in knots as I sat waiting. I just wanted it to be over with, as I sat there thinking of the items on my list and which things I would omit; I would lie in order to guarantee my salvation. This is what they taught me! And, when my turn came, I was led through a door, down a hall, and to my surprise I was led into a regular classroom, told to sit in a chair, and wait. It was one of those older, polished plywood school chairs. And, there were at least 30 of those chairs piled up like a mountain in the corner of the room. There were other chairs arranged in a messy half-circle, and a few desks. I sat down. After a minute or two, the priest came in, pulled up one of the chairs and sat down directly across from me. It was a different priest, not the stand-up priest from before. This priest was older, pale white, and shiny from sweating. I started to reach into my pocket for the list of lies I had prepared for this occasion, but before I could even get them out of my pocket the priest said a few words, and then pronounced that all my mortal sins were absolved. Then I was told to leave. Just like that. No Hail Mary’s or whatever else I had imagined I had to do to be cleansed of the black spots on my mortal soul. Indeed, I had envisioned my soul as one big black circle, especially because of all the previous smack-talk I had heard from the nuns, the priests, my Brother and Sister, and my family. I said nothing as I left, and nothing more did I speak concerning this matter of confession. I felt duped and relieved at the same time, but I still did not understand why I had to compile a list of transgressions against an omniscient being. I had spent days and days making that list, adding to it, all the time becoming more and more afraid.

So, what does all this mean? This is what I experienced. Moreover, was my innate spirit informing me that all this ceremony and performance was completely unnecessary, and that the whole religion thing was not real? At the time, it seemed they all just made it up. I will freely admit, I was fascinated by the stories being told of the magical Jesus who defied the odds and cheated death; disappearing after three days, leaving a warning that one day his return would be imminent, and judgment would be dealt out like grades at school, or cards in a high-stakes poker game.

Now that I am an adult, little has changed in how I perceive religion, dogma, the ceremony, and the circumstances surrounding all of it. Indeed, many stories have surfaced as of late detailing sexual abuses in the Catholic Church, and as I make attempts not to judge, I can’t help but feel so very unclean to have had any association with this hypocrisy. What seems worse is how the mainstream religions around the planet continually vie for top honors; who has the best God, and who will offer the best deals in salvation and redemption? This kind of seems like a giant pissing contest. But, I am no different than anyone else on the planet, right? I need salvation and redemption, right? Yet, I made the choice to reject all notions of resting my faith upon the shoulders of an invention just so I can pass blame on to some construct when I sin.

So then, what is faith? Faith is that which is believed as truth and fact, but can never be proven by any means, like the scientific method, for example. Heck, it seems anyone can claim to have had some sort of revelation, visitation, or communication with God these days, and then invent some dogmatic structure of morality to dress it up, like fancy ribbons on a birthday present. With all of this mass confusion, it would make sense that a messiah, prophet, or divine holy person would exert their will and manifest as living proof for all people to see. But, this is not the case. It is all a matter of faith. Religions have existed for some very specific purposes, constructed and invented by humans to answer many of life’s unexplained or unanswered questions, like: Why are we here? What happens when we die? How shall I live my life? And so on. Only you can answer those questions, and that’s your responsibility and not some construct’s burden.

If you need religion in your life to give you balance or a sense of purpose, community, belonging? Then, yes! By all means. Regardless of what construct or method gets you there; regular re-affirmation of that which gives you meaning in your life is essential for survival.

The Journey Begins Now

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.

car1
“Valiant Effort” B&W photo 1998. Digital compositing 2011. M. Murphy

Welcome to my Blog: The Spiral Saint


It really doesn’t matter where you start, just as long as you begin.

I created this blog to present my writings about art, artists, and the critical analysis of human creative expression. Also, I created this blog to document my journey becoming a certified teacher in the state of Maryland, and beyond into the classroom.

Even more, I provided convenient links for you to explore my other art media; animations, paintings, and graphic arts, stained glass, and poetry.

So, just hang on and enjoy the ride. Peace to you.

Marty Murphy