Monday, January 31, 2005

Something new every day

Maybe you didn't know — and I sure didn't — but it turns out George W. Bush is a free speech advocate. He says so right here in this article. Oh, sure, he's looking for an FCC chairman who'll call people to account if they go too far, but, you know, other than that. Free speech all the way, that's our George.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A newer world order

Excellent, excellent article here about a new internationalism emerging aorund the world. Highly optimistic and energising, so long as you have no vested stake in American power or in America remaining Top Nation. Go take a look. Interesting that this piece was first published in the Financial Times.

Link found at Matthew Gross' blog, which is also worth a look.

Various comics notes

So here's an interview with Dan DiDio about DC's upcoming plans for their comic lines (DiDio is DC's VP, editorial). Much discussion about various high-impact mini-series coming out, and the general shift in tone following Identity Crisis. DiDio seems to be aiming to give the world of the DC characters more of a sense of danger, a feeling of more at stake. That's good. On the other hand, the way DC went about it in Identity Crisis was not good. But the sales were high, so that's probably all that matters. At any rate, to me the most interesting thing DiDio says is this:

"Part of my job here, and has been since day one is that I always wanted to rebuild the sense of the periodical. I love the idea of getting the issue, reading it, and not being able to wait for the next one to come out the following month. The idea of waiting for the trade is boring to me. We create comic books that are bought on a monthly basis, and my job, and the job of everyone here is to make people go back into the store the next month or next week, and buy the next issue because they can’t wait for something to come six months or a year down the road."

Given the widely-perceived market realities of mainstream comics these days, that's almost a brave thing to say. Again, whether it ends up being supported by reality is as yet an open question, but explicitly favouring the periodical over the trade is a surprising tack to take. Me, I like it, but I'm one of those increasingly rare people who buy their comics each week and don't care to wait for the collection.

In other news, one of the guys running the Shuster awards posted on the thread I linked to below, confirming that there will be no separate awards for French comics. This seems unusual to me. The Governor General's awards have separate categories for French writing, while the Giller prize explicitly states that it's given to works written in English. Can anybody tell me of another Canadian literary award that puts both French and English writing in the same category?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Comics news and links

A group connected with the Toronto Comicon has put together a set of awards for Canadian comics creators. It'll be called the Shusters, after the Canadian-born co-creator of Superman, and the first ceremony takes place April 30 in Toronto. There's more info here, and you may notice I've posed a question in the comments down below the press release, basically asking how these awards are going to deal with French-language comics and the Québec comics industry.

Other interesting stuff: Alan Moore was interviewed on a BBC radio show the other week. You can find a link to the audio from that show here, if you scroll down to "Chain Reaction" on the list of shows. That link should be good until this Thursday. Or you can just go over here and read the transcript of the program.

"It worked for Byron." Heh.

Quests and questions

Now, about the Holy Grail ...

Richard Barber's book The Holy Grail presents the history of a concept. That's a daring thing to do when the concept's origins are hotly disputed. Barber makes a convincing case for the purely Christian origin of the story of the Holy Grail, linking the Grail to debates about the nature of the Eucharist and changes in the ritual's form dating from the end of the twelfth century — in other words, at exactly the same time as the Grail began to appear in the romances of King Arthur. Claims of a Celtic origin for the Grail story are dealt with, but in later chapters.

So Barber begins with Chrétien de Troyes and medieval Arthurian romance; slightly more than half the book is a close reading of the images of the Grail presented in these texts. Barber's essential point is that Chrétien was the first writer to begin a story of the Holy Grail, but that Chrétien left his Grail story uncompleted — which meant that later writers, attracted by the idea, used the Grail as a story element without really knowing what Chrétien would have done with it. In other words, they had to make up their own story and their own meaning for the image of the Grail. Naturally, therefore, stories and meanings proliferated.

Barber traces some of these stories and meanings as he traces the development of the idea of the Holy Grail forward in time from the twelfth century to the edge of the twenty-first. He looks at Wolfram von Eschenbach, at Thomas Malory, and then hits a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries where Grail stories began to fall out of favour. After which Barber finds a gradual rebirth of Arthurian romance; but a rebirth with some curious ideas about its ancestry.

The concept of pagan and Celtic origins for the Grail are considered as Barber's story moves through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His argument here is, essentially, that real scholarship on the Grail was corrupted during much of this time by various ahistorical ideas — including nationalism, occultism, a cod-Jungian insistence on the power of archetypes, and a generally hazy sense of the context of many of the original texts. Barber goes some distance to proving his point by ably deconstructing some very fuzzy thinking from older writers.

In a sense, then, this book is part of an ongoing historiographical process in which a complex of ideas surrounding the oral transmission of religious or folkloric ideas in Europe is coming into question; one thinks of Ronald Hutton's works, such as Seasons of the Sun and Triumph of the Moon. It's interesting work, digging not only into resonant ideas (like the Holy Grail), but also into the odd shapes that imagination and twists these ideas. It's work that is by its nature part of a dialogue, analysing and revising preceding interpretations — therefore implying that the current interpretation itself will one day be analysed and perhaps altered.

This is the real problem with conspiracy theories like Holy Blood, Holy Grail (and Barber considers these in his survey of Grail-related notions, as well). Conspiracy theories live by faith. Once a few vaguely-connected notions are put together in an ill-fitting jigsaw, then questioning any part of the overall construction becomes a heretical attack on the whole. Unless the questioning can be seen as an expansion, extrapolating from the original revelation out to ever-weirder areas. Actual examination of source documents or historical context is frowned on. Barber, whose book largely consists of a careful examination of source documents and historical contexts, does a decent job of pointing out some of the obvious problems with these more fantastical ideas of the Grail, but wisely refrains from growing too involved.

Having said that, I did find that the original Grail idea, as Barber describes it, was less intriguing than the developments and mutations it went through in succeeding centuries. That's not because of claims for the historical actions of the Grail or of some order of Grail knights, though; it's because, as Barber himself points out, the Grail has been the subject of some fascinating literary treatments. Barber's survey of these writings may not be thorough — simply too many tales have been told about the Grail for that — but he has a fine eye for which works to mention. I give him special credit for his excellent discussions of John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance and of the work of Charles Williams. Barber's own work recalls Williams' prose writings on the development of the Grail and Arthur myths; like Barber, Williams argued strongly for a purely Christian origin to the Grail, discounting notions of Celtic influence.

Barber notes that he's an agnostic, and expected to spend more time dealing with Celtic stories and mythological precursors for the Grail. But his research led him to reconsider his old ideas. This is history as it should be written, then; history as science, where the historian's opinion changes as the facts come to light. I don't think this book is the final word in the history of the Grail. But it is a remarkable step forward.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Had a meeting today about a play I'm writing, or co-writing, for an actors' workshop. The discussion, with the actors and with the director/co-writer, went well. Momentum has been slowly picking up on this project; it's as though I can see the development of the play now curving ahead of me through time, reaching upward to the point of final performance. But far to go yet before reaching that point. The remarkable thing to note, then, is this: there is a power in collective enthusiasm that can make an imagined thing real.

Also today I finished a book of essays by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is a truly individual writer, great in his narrow and eccentric way. He overuses a certain rhetorical trick which may be paraphrased thusly: 'this thing which all the world knows to be true is in fact not true; rather, the very opposite is in fact true.' But if he overuses this trope, it's because it's a good one. More than good; a very useful habit of thought to get into. Everybody ought to overturn the world from time to time, and see if it works as well standing on its head. What you learn from this is that the world is a stranger and wilder place than you think, because what you think you know turns out to be merely what you have learned. And what you have learned, in the end, is just what you have been told.

So a useful intellectual exercise, reading Chesterton. Sometimes also a useful moral exercise, a useful imaginative exercise, even a useful emotional exercise as one reaches into the outrage and purpose that drove him at his best. But Chesterton, I suspect, would hate to be thought of as useful. So we'll say that he's worth reading, that you get certain things out of him which you don't get from other writers, and that with him as with most writers it is better to read him with eyes wide open. He is puzzling, at times, though never enigmatic; he can be paradoxical; occasionally he is flat-out wrong. But he is typically entertaining, and consistently unpredictable — for both good and ill.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


A few days ago I took Richard Barber's book The Holy Grail out from the library. Barber's book is an examination of the origin of the Grail legend, and I intend to say more about it in a future post. It's already had the immediate effect of leading me to finally read through Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th century romance Parzival (translated into English prose by A.T. Hatto). What I found somewhat surprised me.

There's not much of the 'Arthurian twilight' feel you get from Le Morte d'Arthur, much less from Tennyson or Charles Williams. Wolfram writes in a bright, bold style; he has a kind of jolly irony that sweeps his story along, dealing more with details of court and dress than the religious mysteries of the Grail. He's epigrammatic and sometimes enigmatic, chatty and tongue-in-cheek. It's the sort of work that reminds you of the brightness of the Middle Ages, the visual flair of heraldry and inconography, the surprisingly sophisticated awareness of human psychology.

All of which said, I still prefer Le Morte d'Arthur. Each to their own.

Iranian ambitions

Seymour Hersh, one of the few genuine bright lights in American journalism, is at it again.

The man who broke the news of the My Lai massacre and the torture at Abu Ghraib has a major article in this week's issue of the New Yorker. It's about the Bush administration's plan for military operations against Iran. You can read the piece online here, and it's chilling. Parts of it have apparently already been officially denied by both the U.S. and Iranian governments — or at least the Pentagon has attacked Hersh personally, which with this administration is about as close as you get to a reasoned counterargument. Any way you slice it, the article's mandatory reading. And check out this piece by always-entertaining Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer ruminating on American media response to Hersh's piece.

Hersh is going to be on The Daily Show tomorrow (technically, I suppose, later today). TV worth watching, I suspect.

(Oh, and on another note, apparently handing sovereignty over to Iraqi authorities means that now torture in Iraqi jails is being conducted by Iraqis. Now the Americans just wink and nod rather than doing anything themselves.)

Monday, January 24, 2005

Next up: Contest of Eternal Champions

Here's an interesting rumour for those interested by these sorts of rumours. Scroll down past the naked cartoons and Grant Morrison screaming. Down to "Crisis on Infinite Moorcocks". Note the red traffic light, which means the rumour is probably false. It's still interesting.

According to the story, veteran fantasy writer Michael Moorcock has done a bible for DC comics, explaining how magic works in the DC mythology. Maybe that's less of a 'bible' and more of a 'book of shadows', but you know what I mean. The rumour goes on to suggest thatMoorcock may end up involved in DC's plans to relaunch its universe, which has been (here's that word again) rumoured to involve a mini-series currently called 'Crisis II'.

Moorcock's currently publishing a four-issue comics serial through DC (art by Walt Simonson, possibly the best of all current mainstream comics artists). It's an Elric story, set in the character's youth. Elric, of course, is one aspect of Moorcock's Eternal Champion; which is to say that he's one of a number of Moorcock characters — along with Corum, Hawkmoon, Jerry Cornelius, and a ton of others — who all adventure through different realities, but who are all reflections of one greater hero.

The irony here is that DC's original Crisis On Infinite Earths had as its main goal the simplifying of the DC universe by wiping out an infinity of parallel Earths. If this rumour is true, and it probably isn't, DC's gone out and hired themselves a writer best known for writing a series of books (or a series of series of books) all about a wide variety of parallel Earths.

Oh, and Ain't It Cool News has a couple of interesting links today. This one goes to a site which lists the titles of the trading cards for Star Wars, Episode III — basically giving away the entire plot of the movie. This one goes to the trailer for the Neil Gaiman-Dave McKean film Mirrormask. Or at least it's supposed to; all I get is a few seconds of a repetitive song.

Good book watch #1

One of my gifts on the Christmas before last was a copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided. Owing to various other commitments, I only finished reading the book today. It’s an impressive accomplishment, and it’s been very widely praised — including on the excellent Talking Points Memo web site. MacCulloch’s book also appeared on a ton of year-end best lists in both 2003 and 2004, and it’s well worth the recognition.

It’s a 700-page history of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, covering the years from 1490 to 1700. That’s a lot of material to pack into such a short space, and MacCulloch does a fine job keeping things organised. There’s no fat in the book at all. That said, he does act as a responsible historian and has no hesitation about short-changing drama for the sake of brevity. It’s not a very anecdotal book, nor does it spend much time on defining individual personalities. So it can feel somewhat formal, somewhat distanced from events. Ultimately, this is a necessary price to pay in order for MacCulloch to accomplish his task.

The first 300 or so pages chronicles the advent and growth of Protestantism through to about 1570. The next 300 carry the story of Protestant and Catholic tensions to the end of the 30 Years’ War. The War itself gets surprisingly short shrift; I’d have liked to have seen more about it. The last hundred pages of the book provide a sort of social overview of Europe through these crucial two hundred years, examining how attitudes changed or stayed the same with respect to magic and science, sex and death, and, ultimately, toleration and doubt.

There’s a lot of information in this book; in that sense, it’s extremely dense. Major trends and individuals often can’t be spared more than a page, or even a paragraph, of detailed description. Sometimes less. Keeping all the factions and sects and splinter groups straight is a challenge to your concentration, and constant cross-references are a great help even if you’re reading it straight through.

In the end I think a greater focus on narrative, at least on an overall scale, might have helped unify the book. The outlines of a narrative are certainly there in the structure of the book overall, and I find it too bad MacCulloch wasn’t able to bring to that organising principle through to the level of the page and the paragraph as well as to the level of the chapter. But then it is difficult to tell a coherent story over such a vast stretch of time and space; especially a story of ideas, since ideas by their nature drift over wide areas and pop up where you least expect to find them. Still, I would have liked a greater chronological sense, and especially a stronger sense of the apocalyptic feel of the times — MacCulloch mentions that this was an age when much of the population lived in expectation of the apocalypse, but that doesn’t come out in his retelling of their history. That said, it must be admitted that MacColluch writes with a keen grasp of religious psychology, both in the mass and in the case of specific individuals.

I find myself with only one question after having read the book (other than wondering why MacCulloch finds Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms “not entirely helpful”). That is this: MacCulloch makes a convincing case for the idea that American religious identity derives from the fervent Evangelical identity of the Reformation period. In other words, the heat of contemporary American fundamentalism descends from Reformation-era conviction and intensity. That’s fair enough. But why then does the English Canadian religious identity differ so much from the American? Much of English Canada comes, or used to come, from United Empire Loyalist stock — Americans turned refugees after the Revolution. Why do they, and we in Canada nowadays, not share the American taste for steaming-hot religion? One of the most obvious of the many cultural and political differences between the US and Canada is the fact that Canadians don’t like seeing politicians mixing their politics with their religion, while Americans practically demand it. MacCulloch doesn’t mention this division, which, to be fair, must have developed sometime after his period of study.

Still, it’s something to think about.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

History, and not-History

A couple interesting articles in the January issue of History Today.

Firstly, there's a look at the whole Rennes-le-Chateau myth, the story which underlies the historical conspiracy-theories found in the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail and which has since gone on to be featured in The Da Vinci Code and the truly witless comic book Preacher. It's a complicated tale involving a mysterious church, a hidden treasure, a possibly-allegorical painting, and an alleged secret society based on the bloodline of Jesus Christ and the Merovingian Kings.

Apparently the whole thing began when a hotel operator wanted to drum up business.

This is actually a lot easier to believe than anything in Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

The other interesting article is about a book I remember fondly from my youth: 1066 and All That, a spoof of English history based on what you were likely to misremember if you'd been taught English history in the years just before the First World War. It was funny, in its way. If you already knew the subject enough to appreciate the gags. The article tries to figure out, basically, what to make of the book nowadays. Is it still relevant to current ideas of history? Who still knows enough general English history to get all the jokes?

It's not a bad piece, but to me it misses the main appeal of the book: you read it, you pick up on half the jokes, and the rest of it is so perplexing you start looking into history so that you can make sense of what's going on. In this way humour combines with curiosity to become a tremendously effective educational technique.

At least, that was my experience.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Things said and unsaid

So the idea for Hochelaga Depicta is to have a place where I can talk about anything which seems interesting. This is a somewhat vague category that could include any number of books, comics, or political issues. All manner of bright shiny things which capture my attention, however briefly, and move me to write.

One thing which I apparently will not be writing about is the 2005 NHL season. This is because it appears that there will be no such thing. This is too bad.

I'm a Montréaler, and therefore a fan of the Montréal Canadiens. The Canadiens are, in objective historical terms, the greatest hockey team to grace the planet. They're tremendously popular in this city, and more perhaps than simply popular. The city's relationship with the team is something that goes beyond the sport itself; it's something woven into the fabric of the community.

In twenty-first century North America, communal identity is often a tenuous thing. Montréal has always been different in that respect. People here are proud of their home, proud to live here, proud to be a part of a city with a distinctive identity and a distinctive culture; which is to say, a city which mixes identities and cultures of all kinds in any number of distinctive ways.

The Canadiens, for their part, are the oldest franchise in the National Hockey League, just a few years shy of a hundred. In their history has been death, riots, drama, language controversy, hard-forged team accomplishment, and victory; constant, recurring victory. In this, they reflect the city around them. And out of this they have helped shape the city, and the city's image of itself.

Thousands of stories are told about the team and the players, some of them true, some of them false, many of them debatable. Did Howie Morenz, the greatest hockey player of the first half of the twentieth century and the man who popularised the sport in Canada, die of a broken heart after snapping a leg-bone on the ice of the old Montréal Forum? Or did the liquor his teammates smuggled in to him in the hospital have something to do with it?

Stories are told, lessons are drawn. Here is maybe the most significant of these stories, told breifly, with an interpretation:

Almost exactly fifty years ago, following a stick-swinging incident in Boston on March 13, 1955, NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard for the remainder of the 1954-55 regular season and the entirety of the playoffs. Richard, arguably the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game, at the time the only man to have scored 50 goals in 50 games, was idolised by Canadiens fans. The city was outraged. Nevertheless, Campbell insisted on attending the next Canadiens home game, despite public pleas from the Mayor. The result was a massive riot which left St. Catherine Street filled with broken glass for more than a mile.

Some have seen the Richard Riot as the first dawning of a modern Québecois nationalism; some have called it the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, the moment in Québec's history when the tyrannical government of Maurice Duplessis was exorcised and a new spirit of reform began to dominate the province. If either of these things are true — and there are those who argue strongly against them — then it means that the modern political history of Québec began with the riot. By extension, since much of the Canadian experience of the past several decades has been shaped by the ongoing dialogue with Québec, one may say that the whol history of the northern half of North America was determined by what happened on the ice of the Montréal Forum.

None of this may be the case. It is, after all, only a story. But, true or not, stories have meaning.

It's highly unlikely that anything like the Richard Riot would have happened this season, which is probably just as well. But it's a fair bet that something surprising would have ocurred. Something which would never have been predicted. Other stories would have emerged over the course of the season. Any number of stories. Instead of the one imperious meta-narrative we're left with, of fruitless negotiations between intractable owners and frustrated players.

The absence of the NHL leaves a hole not only in Montréal but across the country where tales that ought to have played out over the course of the year are left untold. It's not a great tragedy, though it's affected the livelihood of many people who are neither hockey players nor team owners. But it means that certain things which once might have been can now only be imagined. And certain things which might have been imagined will now not be thought of.

Granted that, in the great scheme of things, what we lose with the 1994-95 NHL season is not likely to be terribly major.

It's still too damn bad.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Post Number Zero

Hello and welcome to post zero of Hochelaga Depicta.

The title comes from an 1839 book about the city of Montreal, and the odd and intriguing stories that had developed therein. This blog isn't going to focus on Montreal as such, but I do aim to use it as a forum for telling and talking about interesting stories.

We shall see how it develops.

Next up, post one.