Chasing At Shadows–Series Conspectus
Join us for the first in a series of close studies of popular culture viewed through an academic lens, showcasing just how deep and diverse these texts, often unfairly dismissed as simple kid’s stuff, can be when it comes to the serious issues of today.
Hello, and welcome to Chasing At Shadows, my academic in-depth study on comic books, movies, and television and related topics. I’m your host, Katherine Nohle, self-proclaimed nerd-of-all-trades.
My foray into geek and fandom subcultures all started, innocently enough, by reading comics with my brothers on the back porch on sunny afternoons, and also watching the stellar after-school cartoon line up of the early ’90s (Fox Kids’ X-Men, Batman: the Animated Series, Spider-Man). In the Nohle household, there was no “playing house.”
This one little girl and her two brothers played “Batman,” read comics, or drew heroes of their own design on big sheets of paper scattered around the living room floor. When I finally grew up, I got my English degree by writing academic papers on comic books. I specialized in the gritty, groundbreaking comic book stories (across mediums) of the ’80s and ’90s, which are replete with political, historical, societal, and psychological meanings that stretch well beyond their respective decades.
My thesis piece addressed comics as a looking glass of American history’s cultural/societal mythos, focusing primarily on Alan Moore’s Watchmen [ 1 ]. I was hooked on the haunting themes of living in the threat of oblivion, isolation, moral ambiguity, deconstruction of institutions, and modern distractions (like the “idiot box”). I admire these works for looking into the face of terrible fears with full lighting and no veneer. They provide a laboratory to explore nightmares and broken heroes with a safe distance of brilliant writing, gallery quality art, and satirical wit to save our souls. In my opinion, such comics were a turning point; an era when the bar of comics as an art form was permanently raised. Series like Art Spiegelman’s Maus had taken us to new heights (and tragic lows) before, but titles that used the focus of superheroes saw more exposure to a culture of nerdity. The great literary world was now in a paneled form that every fan of Superman and Spider-Man had access to.
For The Unconventional, I’ll be writing these same academic studies, attending to forums that don’t normally get the full scholastic limelight. I wholeheartedly believe that comics, movies, and TV shows can have all the power and meaning of those classic works we read in university classrooms and, as such, deserve to have critical writing that ties into the pillars of literary theory.
It’s been a few years since graphic novels began trickling into the collegiate halls, thanks to the hard work of many academics who are set on making sure quality storytelling of all mediums get due recognition, turning that trickle into a flood. I am overwhelmingly excited about bringing scholarly writing not only to college classrooms, but now to the greater public eye thanks to The Unconventional.
A Multitude of Mediums
In addition to comics and TV, I have the same fond sentiment for film as literary text. I first became hooked on quirky “mind-bender” films as a teenager, watching Waking Life, What Dreams May Come, The Elephant Man, and Perfect Blue until the VHS tapes wore out. For obvious reasons, I also keep a keen academic eye on those movies that connect to comic books and graphic novels. I’ll never forget practically drooling with amazement when I saw what Christopher Nolan did with Batman [ 2 ], how deftly Unbreakable unraveled the superhero tapestry [ 3 ], or how the latest run of Marvel cinema awesomeness makes my nerdy heart practically combust with joy. Comics media has come a long way in the world. Or maybe the cinematic world came a long way and finally decided to take comics with it? Whichever it’s been, I love this new world of nerd cinema.
Not to be forgotten, the horror and mystery genres also have a chunk of my heart. I see scary movies and murder mysteries as another way of satisfying our human fascination with moving towards what frightens us. These works are proof that we are creatures who are curious enough to need answers, even as they’re served up with suspense, terror, violence, and the proximity of death. More importantly, we crave the thrill of them. For this reason, I’ll never pass up the chance to re-watch Rear Window and The Shining or to reread Richard Matheson’s Hell House. I’m also admittedly guilty of watching The Woman in Black with all the lights out and scaring the crap out of myself.
I believe that these (like the gritty comics of the ’80s and ’90s) allow us to face our fears, armed with the hazmat suit that only art can provide, and get that shock that humans crave in the hungry maw and stomach of their souls. Maybe down the line, I’ll live through this same thing with video games in that same vein. That certainly sounds like the sort of exploration I crave. Or maybe I’ll just watch the Twin Peaks revival to reach peak trippy confusion. After all, David Lynch is another great mindbender.
I’m a junkie for great things in any media. As an avid reader of the contemporary art magazine Hi Fructose [ 4 ], I revel in contemporary art, especially when I really should be working on something else. As a linguistics nerd, I feel fascination for the modern, semiotic, squishy ground between visual and verbal forms of communication and literacy, and I am therefore as much a consumer of the optical as the lexical. When the two forms shake hands (and they do so, all around us, all the time), it’s really something to see.
It is, in fact, changing our minds, in some cases biologically, and molding our entire global culture. The world now speaks a language consisting equally of letters and symbols, and it’s evolving at a breakneck pace. Culture blends, the Roman, Korean, Cyrillic, and other alphabets meet through the meetings of nerds and geeks from around the world. As the Kanji found in Chinese and Japanese come to the foreground through gaming and anime, common interests result in cultural exchange.
Again, in homage to the visual and verbal, I view TV series of the past and present as worthy of the academic spotlight. I’m as likely to binge watch Star Trek, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Hannibal, and American Horror Story as I am to watch Archer, The Golden Girls, and Bob’s Burgers. As a former English teacher, I see Hamlet in the Bruce Wayne of Batman: The Animated Series and King Lear in Breaking Bad’s Walter White.
The themes, story structures, and the empathetic human experiences have no expiration date. Just as the great modern philosopher Joseph Campbell observed decades ago, we see the universal themes repeatedly and will for the remainder of our species’ existence [ 5 ].
I’m hoping to show you all what I see. I don’t want you all to look at it as mindless repetition throughout the ages. I’m really hoping you all see the mediums that connect us all in the human experience. We read Shakespeare (even if it’s just in English literature class), and maybe we see a bit of ourselves in the protagonists, warts and all. The modern pages of Marvel and DC are filled with similarly flawed heroes. Sometimes we may relate more to the villain or, against our own egos, the sidekick.
Clearly, I’m a big ol’ casserole of influences. Hand me a good horror, mystery, or sci-fi book (or a cookie) and I will be your buddy. Then I’ll sit you down with some damn fine coffee and make you listen to how I think Twin Peaks should have ended. Right now, I’m deeply hooked on Rory O’Brien’s modern murder mystery, Gallows Hill [ 6 ]. The other books on my nightstand are the sci-fi writings of Jennifer Pelland and William Gibson, which I find delightfully unable to put down.
My Not-So-Mundane Life
When I’m not wrapped up with all that creepy stuff, I’m a Lebanese-American belly dancer under the stage name “Kouri,” proud to be the student of Providence’s own Ameena and Neylan. I am now very busy performing, teaching, and taking belly dance classes in Vejle, Fredericia, and Aarhus, Denmark. My favorite audience is still the metal bar crowd. I suppose metalheads are lovely humans, no matter the country or language. I continue in the tradition of my grandmother, Catherine, who was also a dancer. I have been learning a variety of dance styles for nearly two decades. My blend of Middle Eastern dances, jazz, and ballet creates my own unique style.
Kouri has graced the floorboards of dozens of hafla venues, showcases, and a beautiful old vaudeville theater on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. I dearly love the circus performers, poi spinners, dancers, burlesque darlings, drag queens, magicians, and snake charmers of New England and miss my fellow weirdos terribly. I’m a big fan of “Raqs Nerdy” (nerdy belly dance) and was a third-year performer in the TempleCon showcase. While the usual performance opportunities are fun, nothing compares to dancing as Baby Groot to the Jackson Five, Chell from Portal, or even a bio-punk creepy nurse out to steal your soul (and probably your internal organs).
I occasionally still tap dance to perform my favorite routine to Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, a homage to Mr. Christopher Walken. You’ll know it by the movements that Walken himself made classic so long ago [ 7 ]. Well, at least my take on them. I haven’t really practiced tap dancing on a wall or ceiling.
A bona fide globetrotter, I’ve done my fair share of relocating. Born and raised in Cincinnati, OH (Skyline Chili is the best; if you don’t think so, you are wrong), I’ve lived in Providence, R.I. (stuffies and coffee milk and cussing like a sailor, oh my!). I’ve hiked the stunning mountainous regions of Vermont, Maine, New York, and New Hampshire. I’ve visited A-Kon in Dallas to play grown-up-dress-up as a sweet roll from Skyrim and saw Ray Bradbury speak at San Diego Comic-Con International the summer before his death. I even managed to get myself lost wandering around Tokyo, visiting temples and ending up at a creepy old doll museum that still gives me nightmares.
I currently reside in Vejle, Denmark, with my husband, an avalanche of books and comics, a living room full of scattered LEGO bricks, every album by The National, all the craft supplies, many odd perfumes, and a plushie-manatee named Cincinnati Jake. I own more weird, cheap, vintage costume jewelry and clothes than any one human (even a belly dancer) can wear in a lifetime, but craves more, like some kind of bling zombie. Side note: If you try to steal my lawn flamingo earrings, I will cut you. Maybe we’ll meet on the road, possibly in Europe, possibly in the United States or another part of North America. I do love the convention circuit, after all.
In my life as a normal person (my secret identity), I went to a Danish school where I enjoyed feeding my classmates homemade cookies while teaching them all the bad words they can say in English. Outside of class, as I’ve since graduated from several Danish language programs, I inflict my terrible grammar and pronunciation on the Danes who interact with me throughout the day. So many of these people are beautiful, inside and out, that I often feel like an awkward stocky hobbit in a land of elves. Sometimes I walk around for long periods of time, exploring my new country, and getting lost on purpose just to see what will happen.
Really, my entire life consists of doing just that, exploring the little-known parts of the world, just to see what will happen. I hope you’ll take that stroll into the unknown with me through my writing. By reading The Unconventional, you get a seat at a table of academic discourse which is open to anyone. That’s a rare and beautiful thing. Sit down, look upon the world we live in where the Time of the Nerd is celebrated. We are living in a realm where the media, the culture, and the pastimes of humanity embrace the creativity that our fandom provides. You don’t have to pay tuition to have deep thoughts and go to marvelous mental places—just enjoy the journey, and the conversation along the way.
- “Very much in tune with its inspirational sources such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade has always been a haven for queer representation, for decades.”
Source: Steam-Funk Studios, Custom Composite.
- “The Noir genre is typically known for its cynical heroes, stark lighting, intricate plots featuring flashbacks, and underlying existential philosophy showcasing dystopia.” Source: https://stock.adobe.com/images/collage-of-photos-in-noir-style-with-a-man-in-raincoat-and-hat-in-the-rain-with-an-umbrella-with-a-cigarette-in-night-city/513694619?prev_url=detail (Adobe Stock: “Collage of photos in noir style with a man in raincoat and hat in the rain with an umbrella with a cigarette in night city,” By alexkoral).
A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.
- Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 2019.
- Nolan, Christopher, director. Batman Begins. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.
- Shyamalan, M Night, director. Unbreakable. Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
- “Hi-Fructose Magazine: The New Contemporary Art Magazine.” Fructose Magazine, Fructose Magazine, hifructose.com/. Accessed 2 March, 2020.
- About Joseph Campbell. (n.d.). Joseph Campbell Foundation, Joseph Campbell Foundation, jcf.org/about-joseph-campbell/. Accessed 11 September, 2020.
- O’Brien, Rory. Gallows Hills. Merry Blacksmith Press, 2014.
- Skint Records. “Fatboy Slim—Weapon Of Choice [Official Video].” YouTube, YouTube, 21 May 2010, youtube.com/watch?v=wCDIYvFmgW8.