Amazon: Tops in Racist Fiction (?)

Do you remember a few months back when Amazon pulled a Kindle book called The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct? If not, refresh your memory here.

That was not the only time Amazon played content cop with the titles it sells: it’s also yanked incest and rape fiction, although the diligent fan of both can still find plenty of titles for sale.

This isn’t really a problem. Amazon is a private company, and can decide to sell what it wants, whether via traditional hard copies, the Kindle store, or its CreateSpace print-on-demand service. But when you start deciding that some books aren’t fit for public consumption, you open yourself to questions about why some books get the axe and others don’t.

In an interesting post on its Hatewatch blog, the Southern Poverty Law Center  asks why (inarguably objectionable) titles like the pedophilia guide get yanked, but novels like White Apocalypse, self-published through CreateSpace, are still sold on Amazon. Haven’t heard of White Apocalypse? Here’s the SPLC’s description:

White Apocalypse is centered on the “Solutrean Hypothesis,” a theory that has almost zero support among anthropologists but bravely insists that whites from Europe managed to cross the North Atlantic to North America 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, thus becoming the real “Native Americans.” … The book’s hero is a white man on a mission to give the hypothesis a fair hearing – but in order to do so, he must vanquish his “evil, anti-western” opponents at the Atlanta-based “Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism” —  an organization that bears a striking resemblance to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. It even includes characters clearly based on Mark Potok, the director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, and Heidi Beirich, its director of research. The book contains a graphic description of the Potok character’s assassination at the hands of the hero.

Sounds like quite the page-turner! There are, of course, dozens and dozens of noxious racist titles for sale on Amazon, from old standbys like The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf to lesser known books like the demented race war fantasy novels of prolific author Harold Covington. So why are pedophiles barred from peddling their screeds, but not the night garden of anti-Semites, esoteric Hitlerists, and would-be ethnic cleansers highlighted by the SPLC post?

This is no call for Amazon to pull those books from sale. I don’t really care what the literary-minded neofascist is using to stock his bunker this spring, and I don’t think books do more damage than other forms of media. But the SPLC raises an interesting point that should give pause to other companies that aim to draw a line in the dirt: if you’re willing to start down that road, be prepared to explain why you decide to halt.

(V. Charm)

Where’s Chris Onstad? (UPDATED with answer)

On March 16, the administrator of a Facebook fan community called “Achewood: A Momentary Distraction on the Road to the Grave,” posted a terse update, the first time in over a month anything had been written on the page: “The hiatus is hella lame!” A few dozen people chimed in to agree, with comments like “In limbo, thinking about the back of a van” and “oh uh yeah.” To an outsider, the whole thing would have been incomprehensible, which only added to the tragedy: the best humorist in the country has been essentially AWOL for months, and no one has noticed except Internet people.

When Chris Onstad began the online comic strip “Achewood” in the fall of 2001, it was little more than a hastily illustrated collection of private jokes and surreal punch lines, more a project to share with friends and family than something with the potential to become one of the best works of American fiction since the end of the Cold War. Yet that’s exactly what it became over 10 years, as Onstad’s cast of anthropomorphic, frequently drunk animals evolved into characters so rich and dynamic they’d be the envy of any of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” crowd.

Webcomics have a signal-to-noise ratio roughly equivalent to their in-print cousins: a handful of greats, a significant percentage of perfectly good stuff that you forget about immediately after reading it, and a huge amount of work so bad it routinely makes you regret that the hippies smuggled the First Amendment into the Constitution. This was even truer when “Achewood” began, a time when roughly 80 percent of all webcomics were about elves having sex with each other.

Continue reading

Comic Strip Tropes: The Silent Penultimate Panel

There are few chunks of media real estate more imperiled than space in the print edition of your local newspaper. For over two decades now, the actual physical paper has been shrinking both in page size and number of pages as advertisements and circulation figures drop. As a result, that space has become more precious than ever: fewer stories, fewer photos, fewer graphics mean everyone has to redouble their efforts to justify what they propose to put in between the tire ads. Knowing that, what would you do with a slot in hundreds of newspapers every week? Would you try to cram as much as you can into the shrinking space you occupy, hoping to maximize your limited resource? Or would you regularly devote between a third and a quarter of your alloted space to wordless filler? If you’re like a startling number of American newspaper cartoonists, you already know the answer to this. Behold, the Silent Penultimate Panel:

This phenomenon was first drawn to my attention years ago by a blog, now sadly defunct, dedicated to chronicling its startlingly regular appearance in the comics section of America.

Essentially, the silent penultimate panel functions as a comedic pause for effect in the dialogue of the strip, to further set up a punch line. In a four-panel strip, it works like this: premise, setup, silent panel, punch line. This is done by hack cartoonists and by great ones.

In theory, this is a perfectly valid comedic device, but its sheer regularity suggests a less happy conclusion: the silent penultimate panel is nothing but padding by artists who can’t figure out how to fill even the limited space they’re allotted.

That’s because the silent penultimate panel is often identical, in art, to the panels that surround it, except devoid of any dialogue or narration. It’s the printed version of dead air. In an age of newspaper austerity, it is the ultimate extravagant gesture: “I could put in more words or different art here,” it says, “but instead, I just cut and pasted the image from panel two and took out the dialogue box.”

The silent penultimate panel is an indicator of badly paced jokes. I say “jokes” because the silent penultimate panel never appears in the soap opera strips; because those strips have to advance a narrative (at what is often a glacial-seeming pace, especially in the tedious world of Rex Morgan, M.D.), they can’t afford to waste space on a blank panel that contains no new information.

Gag-a-day strips, though, lean on the silent penultimate panel all the time. The essential structure of a gag-a-day strip is simple: setup followed by punchline. This is so simple that, incredibly, sometimes artists can’t even figure out a way to stretch it to three panels.

There are structural ways to overcome this problem without regular recourse to the silent penultimate panel: “Shoe” has become a two-panel strip, with the setup appearing in the first panel and the punch line following in the second panel. “Mallard Fillmore,” a strip I loathe, has nevertheless accommodated its paucity of narrative direction by becoming a one-panel strip that contains a word balloon or two along with a credibly-executed drawing of a duck watching television. Take a look at the three examples above: all would work just as well with two panels, but for some reason (pride? habit?) they were stretched out to three.

I’m not suggesting some kind of “rule” against the silent penultimate panel. Used sparingly, it’s fine as a placeholder in a larger storyline, and there are times when it can even advance the story or provide information without dialogue in an effective way. A good recent example of this comes to us, not surprisingly, from the bleak mind of Tom Batiuk, who used a silent penultimate panel in “Crankshaft” (the “funny” strip in the “Funky Winkerbean” universe) to establish the “humorous” premise of a week’s worth of strips: an old woman falls on some ice and waits vainly for anyone to rescue her. That Batiuk always cracks me up!

Once you’ve thought about the silent penultimate panel, you start noticing it everywhere. The comics in this entry were taken from a two-week period, and I could have included more. There are, although it may be hard to believe, artists all over the country bursting at the seams with ideas for comic strips, who would vomit in a bag and mail it to their grandparents for a chance at the exposure most of these comics have. It must be profoundly irritating for them to open the paper in the morning and see the haves of the newspaper comic world phone it in so frequently.

(V. Charm)

Remaindered: Books that don’t belong

Another in an occasional series about books that disorient, perplex, or cause us to question our decision-making abilities. Today, we look at poorly produced literature for police on what to do when battling satanists.

At least it tells you when Imbolc is

Ritualistic Crime Scene Investigation, by Dawn Perlmutter. The Institute for the Research of Symbolic & Ritual Violence, LLC (Pennsylvania, 2007).

The professional literature intended for law enforcement audiences is a subject of enduring fascination for me. Police departments around the country contain small libraries of books on how to pass sergeants’ exams, community outreach strategies, Spanish for police officers, and field guides to gang graffiti. Like college chemistry textbooks and fetish porn, though, these books are intended for small, specialist audiences, and therefore carry hefty price tags, largely keeping them away from the general public.

The volume under consideration is intended as a guide for police officers confronting crimes committed by members of little-understood religious and cultural groups, ranging from followers of Santeria to teenage satanists. This kind of thing is actually very helpful in theory: a police officer responding to a call who finds a yard full of people in white standing around a goat whose throat is about to be cut might not understand that they are carrying out  ceremonies explicitly included under the First Amendment’s protection of religious practice. As more people emigrate to the U.S. from countries where belief in magic and witchcraft are robust, this will become a larger issue: I have Google alerts that tell me animal mutilations and spell-castings are a daily affair in much of the country.

That said, I hate to think of any police officers investigating crimes with this handbook as a guide. Little more than a pamphlet, it has context-free sections on various religious groups that are notable for being devoid of things police officers might want to know: who practices Palo Mayombe? How many of them are there? Where do they live?

This reads like a high school report grudgingly padded out with arbitrarily-selected information designed to meet a page count. Full 15 of its 54 pages are lists of symbols supposedly common in ritualistic crime, but it’s hard to imagine how often most cops will encounter “the inverted cross of Satanic justice,” let alone the “Cimaruta.”

It’s rounded out by some truly grisly crime scene photos, along with a tip sheet on how to conduct an occult-related investigation. The latter is promising in theory, until you read such tips as “Document all evidence as soon as it is received,” and “Execute search warrants as soon as needed, but not short of probable cause.” This is a little like saying your top secret strategy for winning the Super Bowl is to have some players carry the ball and others catch passes until one of them gets to the end zone.

A corrections officer of my acquaintance who’s shown me his personally-compiled book of gang tattoos has pointed me in the direction of what he says is a much better occult crime investigation guide, but it’s $75 (there’s that textbook pricing strategy for you). I’m thinking about it, but in the meantime, if I ever start a teenage death metal band, this guide at least provides a wealth of potential logos.

(V. Charm)