Re: "Heh."


Some smart people seem to be comic book fans, but I have to admit that, before I knew that fact, I would have endorsed the article unreservedly.

No, I wouldn't have read it, because I don't like Alias and don't care about comic books.

So, what's the appeal, smart people who like them?

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 9:43 AM
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Look at the cover stories about the Tsunami.

Now imagine a world where people could do something about it besides send money and feel shock and horror.

Posted by: Jason | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 9:51 AM
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I've never understood the comic book thing either. When I was a kid I listened to KISS instead, which in retrospect isn't so very different, I suppose.

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 10:09 AM
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I can think of a few reasons for why I read graphic novels. First of all, I'm a story junkie; I'll become ensnared in just about anything with a plot and an interesting character. Second, there are some talented guys out there who spend a lot of effort into making these stories, and some of them are rather good. But even for the more cheesy of comic books, the characterization Mrs Heffernan makes is inaccurate. Bad guys can often be sympathetic (Magneto), and the good guys are often tempted to take "the easy way out." Some do switch sides over time as their characters develop and they make philosophical decisions, something the 2D characters Heffernan describes could never do. About the time I stopped reading marvel, mid-90s, when things were real cheezy, even then it seemed most of the (human) bad guys had reasons behind them...child abuse was common. So, it was never just that they were "evil." There were a few Sauron-types who just wanted world domination, but they weren't all there was. And take the example of the popular x-men...the plight of the mutants can be allagorous to many events in history. It's explicitly patterned after racism or sexism - superhero comics are usually fighting conservative mindsets. Some comics are really works of art, either because they are drawn so well and in such an innovative style, or their storytelling, or, the best ones, both.

I can't discount the escapism and the idealism in comic books. If one could count how many superheros are super-ultra-geniuses...but that's also an attractive those comics, brains eventually triumph. Again, this is mostly limited to your Superhero comics, which many are not. I could wax on for pages, but I think you get the idea. To sum up: comic book characters: more complex than you might think; plot lines: often convuluted and complicated; good/evil: not always black and white; Reading time: quick, like watching a movie. A good way to relax? Yes.

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 11:01 AM
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"Virginia Heffernan uses her Super Bitchy Powers to attack Fortress Holbo"

"Her underemployed fanboy ex is grimacing in agony..."


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 11:17 AM
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Comic books are like any other medium; a lot of it's crap. That hardly means that all comic books are crap, or that the superhero genre of comic books (to which Heffernan, and most people who don't read comics, usually refer when they say "comic books") is entirely crap. It means that most people produce crap, in any medium, and that comic books are no exception. Comics tend to be looked down upon as a medium because they're fairly young compared to, say, print or traditional visual art, and thus have no canon of old masters known and generally accepted as great artists outside their field. This is similarly true of films and television, but by dint of their nature, movies and TV draw massive audiences and thus a far greater demand for criticism, which accordingly results in much more lavish and mainstream acceptance of the concept of "Great Film" and "Great Television," complete with fairly masturbatory award shows watched by record audiences.

On Heffernan, the last piece of Heffernan's I read was a "book club" forum in Slate where she gushed over Tom Wolfe's simpering, tongue-clucking pastiche of college life "I Am Charlotte Simmons," but managed to do so in such a faux-bubbly, hipsterish, defensively mock-derisive, and ultimately incoherent fashion that she had to correct her correspondent's misperception that she was ridiculing Wolfe and his novel. She tends to strike me as someone who's doing a rather bad job of being a hack.

Not sure who her "fanboy ex" is. Am I supposed to be keeping up on the life stories of columists?

Posted by: cmas | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 8:51 PM
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I actually like comic books, because I'm a big nerd. I'm one of, like, three mutated girl nerds of a certain type, and my sister Mia's one of the other ones. John's mom and sister tried to convince him he would never find a girl who liked logico-philosophical hair-splittng and knew what 20-sided dice are and so on, but in the end he found me. A girl who used to write ElfQuest fanfic.

Ogged, like cmas says, there are plenty of bad comics, but there are lotsa bad novels too. The best graphic novels combine words and pictures in a satisfying, intoxicating way that has its own unique aesthetic value. Plus, when the Ghost Rider grabs a dude, and burns him with hellfire for all the shit he's done, and then just rides off on his Harley with the ape-hanger handlebars? That's just cool, man. Maybe you could review graphic novels for your cover-story blog, to make your co-workers erroneously think you're a different kind of nerd than you actually are.

Posted by: belle waring | Link to this comment | 01- 5-05 11:34 PM
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you all suck

Posted by: tonight | Link to this comment | 01- 6-05 1:44 AM
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The problem with people's perception of comic books might be blamed on certain really bad movies: Judge Dredd, Men in Black, Superman 3 and 4, Batman 3 and 4, Blade, Blade II, Blade III, Daredevil, Elektra, the Punisher, the Hulk, Hellboy. Am I forgetting any? But regardless, so far of the comic book movies, few have been as enjoyable as the comics themselves. The Spiderman movies were good, as were the Tim Burton Batmans, and From Hell. I'm holding out some hope for the upcoming Mirrormask and Sin City, and a little for the Fantastic Four. I gave up on Constantine as soon as I saw Keanu had gotten the part.

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 01- 6-05 2:35 AM
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"So, what's the appeal, smart people who like them?"

"Comic books" are a medium, not a genre. One may dislike some aspect or aspects of a medium sufficiently to declare dislike of a medium -- say, tv screens always give you a headache, or you simply don't like moving pictures, or you simply believe "there is nothing good on tv," so you "don't like tv." Or you don't like books because you're dyslexic and never found books worth the bother, or all the ones you were shown when young bored you. Or you don't like radio because it has no pictures.


People can "not like comic books" for any number of similar reasons, better or worse. It might be because they never learned to "read" what's now called "panelology" by some, which is to say, how to interpret the structure of the visual design to tell a story. It might be simple lack of experience, just as some people finally discover they can find something to enjoy in music, and it's not only hateful ballet/opera/c&w/punk/jazz/hwatever. It might be they don't like interpreting words and pictures together.


But what's to like? What's to like about books, music, painting, photography, plays, sculpture, or any form of art whatsoever?

The stories they tell us, the emotions they cause in us, the thoughts they make us think, the characters they involve us with, and much more, which you well know the answer to. Of course.

That's what to like about a good comic book.

I really don't understand the question, unless you're actually saying something more like "superhero comic are what I'm talking about, and I've sure seen dumb ones; why do people like such dumb stuff?"

If that, or something like that, is what you are really asking than the answer is another simple one: because there's a fair amount of non-dumb stuff.

Same answer as to finding good mystery novels versus bad, good literary novels versus bad, and finding good work versus bad -- meaning that which appeals to you -- in any genre or field.

Of course, what you would find to be a good, or bad, comic book is as unique and personal (or not) as your taste in anything else.

What's your answer to "what's the appeal of books?"

What reason would you have to think the modifier "comic" changes your answer? Exhaustive research into the field? Moderate research but which you feel sufficient? Other?

I highly recommend reading (you can find it at your library) Scott McLeod's Understanding Comics, but likely more worthwhile would having a highly knowledgeable comics fan friend with wide-ranging taste loan you a few dozen samples of various sorts of comic books, and your seeing, after a while, if any appeal, or not.

"Look at the cover stories about the Tsunami.

Now imagine a world where people could do something about it besides send money and feel shock and horror."

This seems to make the tiresomely still common, and incredibly ignorant, equation of "comic book" with "superheros."

Of course, all that "rock music" is also just noise for kids. What's the appeal of the "music" thing, anyway?

Oh, incidentally, like any other medium, it tends to be more productive to discuss the work of an individual, such as do you like, say, much work of Alan Moore, or Neil Gaiman, or Warren Ellis, or Will Eisner, or Art Spiegelman, or Jack Kirby, or Trina Robbins, or "Tom Tomorrow," or whomever, but clearly many folks are content to simply decide an entire medium of storytelling, of writing and art, must hold nothing for them. Some people don't like movies. Some people don't like tv. Some people don't like painted art. Some people don't like music. In some cases they only think they have such a blanket dislike, and are merely unexposed or uneducated; in some cases they are quite correct to assert that, as an overwhelming rule, they dislike an entire medium. It's fair to say that my mother doesn't like music. Period.

It all tends to make me a little sad, though.

Incidentally, Ogged, have you simply always skipped over everything Jim Henley, for instance, has ever written about comics? Because I don't understand how one could read even a smattering of what he writes and still have no clue as to what someone might find appealing in some comics. But I'm guessing that you simply have a MEGO reaction to seeing someone writing about comics -- is that incorrect?

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 2:27 PM
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"John's mom and sister tried to convince him he would never find a girl who liked logico-philosophical hair-splittng and knew what 20-sided dice are and so on, but in the end he found me."

Belle, if I gave you some yarn, could you knit me one, too?

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 2:29 PM
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I'd be interested to see a review of Persepolis from you, Ogged, by the way. (Though it would be nice if this text didn't describe it as "totally unique.")

How about Ghost World?

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 2:50 PM
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Posted by: [redacted] | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 3:15 PM
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I'm not sure the fact that comic books are a medium, not a genre, explains much. Music videos, arguably, are also a medium, but I'd still be surprised if one were profound or enlightening. But I'd be totally unsurprised if smart people had smart things to say about them. And I assumed, out of an ignorance that I'm not trying to hide, that comic books were similar. (Even though I knew about Satrapi, I assumed again, as the text you link does, that it was anomalous.) But you say that comics are more like books than like music videos, and I believe you--so if you had to name a couple for me to read, which would they be?

(You're right that I just skipped over Henley's comics posts; and what's MEGO?)

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 4:01 PM
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Ah, MEGO = My Eyes Glaze Over. Thanks, Google.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 4:14 PM
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Posted by: [redacted] | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 4:23 PM
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It's rather unfair to compare Comics to music videos. A mv lasts ~ 3min, whereas comics (graphic novels might be a better term) can go on for thousands of pages spanning years of effort. The comparison of comics to books is probably best. Neil Gaiman won a Hugo award for his Sandman series, for example, the first time a non-novel had gotten the aware, I believe. I almost commented here again after watching 10 minutes of a sitcom for the first time in at least a year the other day, (Will & Grace, I think) about the audacity of anyone to question the intellectual value of comic books while we still had television sitcoms. (or christianity, for that matter. I like to think I could do a fair job challenging anyone to successfully enumerate why the bible was either more believable or a better moral authority than your average superhero comic book.)

Anyway, no need to go buy a graphic novel. You could do what I do, go to Barnes and Nobles, grab one, and find one of those comfy armchairs. Look for the authors Gary has already recommended. (I would recommend starting out with Gaiman's Sandman, or even 1602. THe Sandman is in 10 volumes, I think, the majority of which don't need to be picked up in order, and, anyway, the first is the weakest of the bunch.)

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 4:50 PM
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"Gary, you're aware that the post was mine, not ogged's, right?"

Quite. And the question I quoted and responded to was by Ogged. Didn't mean to make you feel ignored and left out, FL.

Michael says: "Neil Gaiman won a Hugo award for his Sandman series, for example, the first time a non-novel had gotten the aware, I believe."

This contains several errors. Gaiman has never won a Hugo Award for anything directly Sandman related; "the first time a non-novel has gotten the [award]" doesn't even make sense, given the many (slightly changing over the years) categories of Hugo, such as novella, novelette, short story, editor, artist, fan writer, fanzine, etc., etc.,, including, at times, categories such as "Related Book" and "Other Forms."

Gaiman has won and been nominated for various other pieces of prose fiction, though, such as the 2002 Novel Hugo for American Gods, which also won the Best Novel Nebula Award. In 2003 Coraline won best novella. In 2004, his short story A Study in Emerald won. Neil's been on a very long roll; you could try one of his prose short story collections, see what you think, and then sample some of his comics writing.

Utilizing my slan-like skills (look that one up), I read Michael's mind and he is thinking of Gaiman's 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction for an issue of Sandman, which sufficiently displeased David Hartwell and a couple of other of the directors of the World Fantasy Convention, which gives the WF Award, to change the rules so that an issue of a comic book was no longer eligible, provoking considerable debate.

Hmf, browser acting up; will try to post this, and possibly come back.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 6:37 PM
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"Music videos, arguably, are also a medium, but I'd still be surprised if one were profound or enlightening."

It's an interesting comparison; I could only directly observe that I'm most definitely sufficiently ignorant of the field of music videos to discuss the topic intelligently.

But I could make a couple of side-bar observations (big surprise!). One would be that "profound" and "enlightening" are scarcely the only aesthetic values worth pursuing from time to time, would you not agree? I'd offer up such alternatives as "stimulating," "exciting," "enthralling," and "moving," and strongly suspect that many people, particularly at certain ages, have found more than one music video to give them such feelings/reactions at times.

I'd also put the burden of proof on anyone who wants to make the case the music videos are inherently incapable, for some structural, or any other, reason, of being profound or enlightening, although I would have no quibble with anyone who argues that there are hindrances to making such music videos, just as I would not quibble with anyone who asserts that there are structural limitations to the genre of American broadcast tv drama, or to making a major motion picture, or to writing a one-person show, or a sestina. Every medium has unique strictures and boundaries-to-push, and so does every genre.

But every medium and genre with which I feel sufficiently acquaintaned as to offer an opinion has opportunities for brilliance in a multitude of ways.

"Even though I knew about Satrapi, I assumed again, as the text you link does, that it was anomalous.) "

Oh, every mainstream successful "graphic novel" gets touted by various critics, and usually the publisher, as sui generis and wonderful in the way mere plebian childish comic books are not.

Every genre or medium that begins or has begun as "low" art, as popular art, goes or has gone or is still going through this process of being accepted, at one speed or another, by the academy, the maintream, the high art literati. Movies/film/cinema used to be considered only trash. Science fiction is still only fragmentarily accepted. "Romance novels" still pretty much are not at all. And so on. This is an inevitable, but also deeply stupid and tiresome process.

I'd explain why I'm completely the wrong person to make recommendations to you, Ogged, but I gotta go now to watch the remake of Battlestar Galactica, whose original I do happen to think is pretty much all mind-numbingly dumb and bad, but some folks seem to have found some worth in the remake, so I'll check it out. Later.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 7:01 PM
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So, yeah, I also completely agree with cmas's general comments.

"But you say that comics are more like books than like music videos, and I believe you--so if you had to name a couple for me to read, which would they be?"

One: I don't begin to remotely have a sense of your taste, I'm afraid. If you've posted lists of favorite movies, novels, music, other aesthetic preferences, I'm afraid I've missed them or forgotten them. And, of course, taste is individual, unique, personal. Without having a good sense of what someone already or generally likes, I wouldn't begin, say, to recommend a specific science fiction novel/story, or movie, or computer game, or whatever.

Two, I'm really not a comics fan; I only play one on the Interent.

Which is to say that while I do continue to enjoy innumerable comics, or comic books, or graphic novels, as I run across them, the last time I bought a real comic book, they were still twelve cents apiece (except for 25 cent Giants, of course!), and I had just come back from summer camp to find that my father had thrown out the four-foot-or-so-high stack that was my "collection," and the thought of trying to start over again was too disheartening, and I decided to focus on paperback books instead; I'd have to research to recall precisely what year this was, but I was somewhere between 9 and 11, and that was circa 1967-9, if that's not clear.

Since then, I've sporadically lived with comics collectors, or been good friends with some, and borrowed or visited and read many many many comics.

But I've not kept on on the field, which has become fairly large and diverse in the past couple of decades, as well as expensive. My knowledge is far too scattershot, and often second-hand, to make me remotely a good person to offer recommendations.

Ask Jim Henley. And go read some of what he's written, for goodness' sake.

I would, however, when trying to check out the taste of anyone towards a genre or medium they are unfamiliar with, in trying to find something they'd like, suggest that they be at least so fair as to take at least a full five minutes with, say, at least twenty diverse examples of the whatever, to give a reasonable chance of finding some example that works for them. Two hours to start (not all at once, necessarilly, of course, and almost surely attempts should be scattered over some time and moods) isn't too much to ask, I think, if someone is really interested.

But I could ask a few leading questions. Do you think you'd want to entirely avoid the super-hero genre, or just mostly, or what? What does your taste in prose run to, in general? In theater? Movies? TV? Art? How do you feel about various forms of fantasy and fantastic fiction? Are there any sf/fantasy movies you like? Were there any of the superhero movies that you've liked? Felt were most particularly crap?

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 8:00 PM
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Your slan-like skills have served you, Gary, that was indeed what I was thinking. Awards aren't my thing; I should have googled it after pulling it from the dusty corners of my mind.

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 8:04 PM
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Everything I've read by Dan Clowes has been awesome.

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 9:54 PM
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Gary raises a good point when he asks what your tastes are: I would be more direct and ask if you read any scifi/fantasy genre stuff at all. Comics, like movies and TV, tend to be exaggerated. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any that aren't, (my breadth of comic reading isn't really all that broad considering the total of comics out there.) To appreciate a graphic novel, you're going to have to be OK with the exaggeration, if only because the good parts are good enough that the exaggeration doesn't bother you. This is basically why I suggest Gaiman; his exaggerations tend to be minimum, or at least of a (to me) less objectionable variety. Hellblazer, in the hands of its better writers, is also terrific, but tends to break out every now and then into more spectularly exaggerated scenes. But despite some occasional hokiness, the characters in it make it more than worthwhile to me. This seems to be a common feeling among my other comic-reading friends. Watchmen, by Alan Moore, is a classic, and again, relatively light on the exaggeration. I read it years ago, but I really enjoyed Frank Miller's Sin City, which would be a good one to read as the movie is debuting soon. Also worth a perusal is Frank's Batman, which I believe (I should probably google to fact-check, but I'm about to bed) is going to be the inspiration for the upcoming Batman movie.

geez, and I started this comment in order to suggest an Boyz of Unfogged Reading List. Not quite as hot as the the nude calendar, but interesting in it's own way, and it doesn't require renting horses.

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 10:43 PM
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I'm going to bed before my writing gets any worse.

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 01- 8-05 10:45 PM
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Labs--I don't read a lot of superhero comics, so I may be the person you want to answer the question--Ware is very good. The full-length book I've read is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, which is amazing. Always makes me tear up. And it comes with a blurb from Ted Rall along the lines of, "Jimmy Corrigan is like Ulysses--no one's read it, and everyone who's read it knows it sucks, but it sure looks good on your shelf." How could you lose with a recommendation like that? (Disclaimer: I still haven't finished Ulysses.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 9:21 AM
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I started Jimmy Corrigan. Very depressing. You should read Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron instead.

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 9:35 AM
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Yeah, if you don't want "very depressing" stay away from Jimmy Corrigan. But if you've liked Ware's work in the New Yorker you probably won't find that a problem.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 10:49 AM
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Didn't everyone read "Tintin" growing up? Or "Asterix"? Those are examples of comic books every bit as entertaining as a good novel.

As Gary Farber points out, there's a medium vs. genre issue here. The standard super-hero comic just occupose the same genre as an inferior penny-dreadful: gee-whiz concepts mixed with empowerment fantasy. There's something to be said for inferior penny-dreadfuls, but if you don't like the genre, you likely won't like them in any medium.

[[Of course, there are plenty of comic books (like Tintin, for example) that are great genre products, and others (Maus, most famously, but there are others) that try to escape genre lit entirely.]]

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 2:09 PM
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Baa is Fre-ench, nyah-nyah-nya-nyah-nyah....

Seriously, I'm going to go megapretentious here and say that if you know any French at all it's worth reading Asterix in French. There's lots of cool wordplay that doesn't get translated. And it's easy to follow because of the pictures.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 2:26 PM
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Thanks for the comment you left on my blog, Ogged (and for making it non-anonymous).

I trust you'll understand my taking a break from this conversation; I'll be happy to return to it at another time, another thread.

Off-hand observation: if you've not seen it, I'll take the risk of recommending the movie of Ghost World -- which, of course, you may absolutely hate, though it's no Mil Millington -- and then note that it is a movie closely made from a "comic book," and ask how that intersects with your impression of what a "comic book" is.

Though to be clear on the record, I'm not in the least embarassed to say that I'm very fond of (well-done, well-written, interesting) superhero comics and movies, for my (risking tautology) own values of "well-done" and "interesting," and also get cranky with some who hit certain levels of snobbyness about distinguishing "graphic novels," "comix" and other sorts of "I'm above junk."

I'm not above all junk. (But, then, some of that is connected to nostalgia, and I'd never maintain otherwise.)

I had intended to pick up on a remark earlier, and attempt to briefly write about what I liked about Alias, but another time. One line: one thing I like is precisely that it is so insanely, massively, over-the-top, absurd, and with such bravado and lack of fear at twisting up yet-another-insane plot development.

But I've never had the delusion that my tastes are or should be universal, or shared by anyone else at all, for that matter.

But I'd add to my other queries about your aesthetic tastes: what do you think of spy fiction/caper fiction/thriller prose/movies/tv, as a rule, in likes/dislikes?

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 4:39 PM
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I always thought "Cuthburt Calculus" was objectively better than "Tryphon Tournesol."

And check out this listing of how Thompson and Thomson ("with a P, as in psychology") are translated across languages. Dutch: Janssen and Jansen.

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 01- 9-05 6:56 PM
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Great thread. I have just one little thing to add: I LOATH THE NYT FOR ITS INANE, PRETENTIOUS PAP LIKE THIS REVIEW.

There. Feeling much better now.

Posted by: Giles | Link to this comment | 01-21-05 6:50 PM
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Cripes, baa. Did you age 20 years just as you typed "penny-dreadful?"

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 01-21-05 7:26 PM
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