Monday, June 14, 2004

Bullpin Bulletins

Face Front, True Believers!!! That’s right, friends and compatriots, after an extended hiatus the Hurting is once again back and broadcasting from a secret undisclosed location somewhere near the center of the Earth. I’m sure the naysayers over at our Distinguished Competition didn’t think we’d be back – that we’d be joining the ranks of Dashing Dirk Deppey and Singing Alan David Doane on the Island of Esteemed Ex-Bloggers. Well, effendi, you’re not gettin’ rid of us that easy. Who says this ain’t the age of peerless self-puffery? Pas je, croyants vrais!!!

So, as a wise man once said, don’t take any wooden buffalo nickels, and, oh yeah . . .



So, Ronald Reagan is dead. Hmmm. Maybe the Bullpen will refrain from any overtly political statements on account of the still-grieving family . . . but then again, it would behoove any patriot to remember, even as we honor the office of the Presidency, that Reagan himself was an absolutely abysmal President, and responsible for a great many of the problems which our nation and our world still face to this day! Food for thought, effendi!


The Bullpen’s recent trip to California went off uneventfully, which, considering the nature of this trips, is quite the blessing. There was one question raised, however, during a brief stopover in Las Vegas, and that question was a simple one: why the hell would anyone live in Las Vegas to being with?

As seen from the air, you can definitely ascertain from a glance why Vegas is the fastest growing city in America (or at least one of them). Everything is under construction. There are empty tracts of sun bleached sand juxtaposed against budding housing developments in a checkerboard pattern throughout the area. It seems, from the air, almost a construction site in search of a community.

I grew up in Northern California and spent quite a bit of time in Nevada during my formative years. There’s an ethos in the state that I remember quite clearly from my early travels, an almost willful parochialism that sits at odds with the constantly expanding population of the region. Reno calls itself the “Biggest Little City in the World,” and I think it fair to say that that’s an accurate description of the entire state.

Wanting an answer to this urgent, burning question, I went straight to the horse’s mouth – yes, the world’s most famous Las Vegan, Mr. Steven Grant:

“I don't live in Las Vegas proper, but in one of the communities outside of it. But I like the dry heat, (and) I like the lack of winter. The people are friendly without being cloying about it. It's relatively close to Los Angeles, so I can get in there for meetings without too much cost and effort and without having to live in California. There are no state income taxes. I can get to the airport in seven minutes. Lots of people I know travel through Las Vegas, so I get to see far more people here than I ever saw in Los Angeles or Seattle. I could afford a home here, at the time I moved in. (I wouldn't be able to afford one now.) The library system's pretty good. I like the view of the mountains wherever you look, and I like the view of the Strip from pretty much anywhere in my area, including my office window. I don't spend a lot of time on the Strip but I like going there once in awhile, and I like being able to get there without much effort. I like the comics shops here. I like that pretty much anything happening culturally in America now comes through Las Vegas sooner or later. I like the sudden flood of art museums here. I like all the free movies. I like the underlying outlaw attitude that still pervades here; you can still get a whiff of the old west when you want to. The emptiness is deceptive; there are actually a ton of things to do within an hour's drive of the place. I like casino culture and I like the way casinos and the various things in them (like buffets, and the aforementioned art museums and other attractions) discount for locals to lure them in. I like the National Rodeo Finals every year. I like that, where I am, the roads are very passable, except where they're doing construction. I like the vaguely ‘evil’ air the rest of the country thinks the place has. I like that I can go get a meal at 2:30 in the morning if I want to (not that I ever have). I like seeing the world's biggest flashlight every night. I like the way the air feels in my backyard after dark. I like watching the airplanes cruise in 24 hours a day. I like the easy access to all kinds of conventions like computer shows, and TV conferences. I like that on one level it's just another American city like pretty much any of them (I like that it isn't huge) and on another there's no other place even remotely like it on Earth. I like the Bugsy Siegel myth of the place, even though that's a convenient lie.

“I'm sure there's more; that's just what popped into my head. Short version: what's not to like?

“Having grown up in the Midwest and lived in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle areas, I've run out of other places to move to.

“I can understand what it might look like from on high; it's not what I'd call a planned community. But it doesn't look that way from street level.

“I remember a line from a Dylan song. Flip it into the reverse and it pretty much sums up my attitude:

“And you ask why I don't live there? Man, how come you don't move?”

Question asked and answered! Check out Mr. Grant’s weekly Comic Book Resources column, Permanent Damage. It’s pretty much the only comic book column I never miss.


Larry Young vs. A Grizzly Bear – coming this October from AiT/Planet Lar!

Checklist For Items Shipping The Month of June

Collect ‘Em All!

The Doofus Omnibus

Toons For A New Medium

Kaskade – In The Moment

Greyboy – Soul Mosaic

Sofa Surfers – See The Light

Squarepusher - Ultravisitor

Various Artists – Om reMixed

Chickenlips – DJ Kicks

Travels With Larry Part IX

Planet of the Capes

One of the last things I did before I got on the plane to California was to sit down and read “Planet of the Capes” in its’ entirety. It would be specious to say that I’ve been thinking about the book non-stop for the last six weeks, but it has been on my mind. At the very least, a great deal of thought has gone into the creation of this book, and it demands a great deal of thought in reciprocation.

As has already been covered all across the internet, “Planet” is a satirical allegory of the comics industry in the guise of a boilerplate superhero story. There’s a great deal of subtle criticism leveled against the mainstream publishers just in the way the story is told. The reader is dropped into the middle of the story, with strange characters doing strange things for no apparent reason and with no apparent motivation.

It’s a clever device, but I’d be willing to bet it backfires with at least half of the people who pick the book up. By replicating the experience of the prospective new reader of any superhero comic, Larry Young risks alienating the very audience he’s depending on to buy the book in the first place. There’s probably a few readers who finished the book (or at least flipped through it in the store) and asked their retailer: “I don’t read independents, where did Justice Hall first appear?” Which is, of course, one of the risks you run when your audience is also your target.

Or at least, part of the target. The fact is, the comic book consumer is only a small part, almost only by implication, of Young’s real target. There are huge letters across the back cover that read: “Nobody Learns Anything. Everybody Dies.” It’s a pretty succinct encapsulation of the story inside but it’s also Larry Young’s personal forecast for the next ten years in the mainstream American comics industry.

If you think about it, its pretty hard not to make money in comics these days. Manga sells like the proverbial hotcakes, and Shonen Jump is sold in every supermarket and gas station across the country. Collections of strips such as Get Fuzzy and Boondocks fly off the shelves, to say nothing about the The Complete Peanuts’enormous success. Even internet comics make money (Chris Onstad of Achewood fame makes enough money to live a comfortable middle-class life simply based on proceeds from Achewood merchandise). Larry Young, one dude working out of his house with his wife, is able to make a comfortable living selling black and white graphic novels. How the hell is it that everyone in the comics industry seems flush and prosperous except those companies who have put all their eggs into the direct market basket? Based on this evidence, I have to conclude that neither Marvel or DC have learned much from the success all around them, and they are in perilous danger of imminent demise – perhaps Young feels similarly.

All of which points to one of “Capes” weaknesses, which would be the very concept of allegory. Ever since I had to read “Gulliver’s Travels” in high school, I’ve had a deep distrust of works that present allegory as their primary purpose. Allegory can be a useful tool but I believe that it ultimately limits the impact of any narrative to have the entirety of its meaning be dependant on extra-textual insight. For instance, and to use the example of the aforementioned “Gulliver,” most filmmakers who have adapted the book have focused primarily on the fantastic elements of that story: the big people, the small people, the talking horses and the time travelers. But if you actually read the book, you will find that most copies come supplied with profuse foot- and end-notes, detailing what every piece of the story refers to on an allegorical basis. The meaning of the story is worlds removed from the fun fantasy story most kids know from the cartoon or the Ted Danson TV movie, but a series of very specific political and social critiques of 18th century England. The fact that we’re still reading the book three hundred years later is amazing, because without at least a layman’s knowledge of the events being lampooned, the book is almost meaningless.

Larry Young at least partially recognizes these weaknesses. One of his strategies is complication: I don’t think, in any event, that any of the allegorical representations are strictly 1:1. There’s a lot of wiggle room, and a lot of food for thought throughout. Again, the success of the book lies primarily in the fact that it does inspire great thought on the part of anyone who reads it. You have to do so in order to make any sense, because otherwise it makes about as much sense as your average mid-70’s issue of “The Avengers” taken out of context and read by someone whose been stuck in a sensory depravation chamber since 1938.

Worrying about the details, in any event, is unimportant. The brief alternate-history bit at the beginning of the book is ultimately as important to “Capes” as the origin of Forbush Man is to your enjoyment of the average issue of “Not Brand Ecch.” As I said earlier, “Capes” depends a lot on the multiple interpretations that a reader can bring to the ambiguous situations therein, and focusing on the actual story details is an easy way to miss the entire point of the book.

But regardless of all the smaller issues at work in “Capes,” there’s really no mistaking the book’s brutal ending. DC and Marvel are locked in a death struggle. Marvel has the same strategy it’s employed successfully for over fifty years: overwhelming force, filling up every nook of shelf space with sub-par product in order to defeat the competition through attrition. DC, while nowhere near as powerful as Marvel, is slightly smarter – just smart enough to ensure that if one of them dies, they both perish.

If there’s anything wrong with this forecast, on the face of it, it’s that it’s a bit tardy. The fact is, Manga has so totally reoriented the economies of the comics industry in just a few short years that the life and death struggle between the “Big Two” just isn’t that important. The Manga publishers have flooded the market with supreme efficiency – with more efficiency, truth be told, than Marvel could ever have hoped to muster. Perhaps “Capes”’ ending really is appropriate, then, because the “Big Two” are ultimately fighting over the bragging rights to King of the Ash-Heap. They’ve exerted every iota of their power in order to make sure that the other one can’t get a leg up, and they both suffer for their intransigence.

There’s a lot more here, and it’s a testament to Young’s skill as a writer that the book rewards so many different allegorical examinations. On the other hand, the very fact that it is so dependant on specific allegorical interpretation in order to make sense limits its appeal and, ultimately, stunts its effect. There is the feeling here that “Capes” is essentially a formal exercise on Young’s part, a challenge to himself and to his readers.

I hope that Young can find enough time in his busy schedule as publisher and raconteur to continue writing, because the evidence of “Capes,” in addition to the various “Astronauts in Trouble” volumes, reveals the outlines of a startlingly bright and perceptive writer. But in twenty years’ time, I doubt that “Capes” will be more than a footnote in Young’s career, an odd artifact dependant on too much specific historical knowledge for a meaningful interpretation when removed from its immediate context.

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