Friday, February 11, 2005

Twisting My Arm

Let it be known by all and sundry that I hate memes. As you may have noticed, I go out of my way not to participate... I don't know why, really. It just seems slightly uncomfortable to me... kind of like a party where the hostess passes out cards with witty conversation topics on it.

"So, Helen tells me you're an engineer . . . what do you think about the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa?"


I seem to have been put into a corner. I was called out about this whole music meme thing that's going around... and really, as much as I wish I could just maintain my standard curmudgeonly remove, I would be a churl not to answer the challenge. If even Warren Ellis answers the siren call of the meme... who am I to balk at destiny?

1. Total amount of music files on your computer:

Only about one and a half gigs. I got out of the habit of downloading music a long time ago... I am a hoarder by nature, and its hard to hoard digital files.

2. The last CD you bought was:

Hmmm. I think technically the last CD I bought was the new Death in Vegas, Satan's Circus, on import from here (because they had the cheapest price I found). But that was on the Internet - the last CD I bought in a brick & mortar store was probably the new Ludacris, The Red Light District, which was actually a birthday present for my better half.

3. What is the song you last listened to before reading this message?

"Archives Of Pain" by the Manic Street Preachers. I'm supposed to be interviewing Nicky Wire next Friday so I'm boning up on my Holy Bible.

4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.

Just off the top of my head:

1. "Hey Boy Hey Girl" - The Chemical Brothers
2. "Harmony" - Elton John (One of maybe fifty or so tracks from his early material that I could have picked but didn't)
3. "Camera" - REM
4. "The End of the Tour" - They Might Be Giants
5. "Let Me Ride" - Dr. Dre (Perhaps I'm dating myself here...)

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to? (3 persons) and why?

No one. I usually wear a condom when I have sex with strangers, for the express purpose of not passing noxious memes around.

What Harold Ross Saw, Part One

Is there any publication with more of a self-satisfied sense of exaggerated importance than The New Yorker? I ask not out of pique but of honest curiosity.

I haven't been to the comic book store on Wednesday for a long time, and my household only sporadically observes Christmas, but the weekly coming of The New Yorker remains a ritual of fierce priority. Every Tuesday it appears in our mailbox, placed there by the loving hands of the postman -- it's a tragedy, as my long-suffering wife will attest, if the magazine turns up late a day. I've read it for long enough to get a strong feel for its rhythms and bents, its prejudices and pretenses. I can say that while it remains a highlight of my week it is also a singularly exasperating habit.

Every year they produce an anniversary issue -- a big, fat self-congratulatory present, celebrating another year's existence. Certainly, it goes without saying that publishing a magazine for 80 years running is no mean feat, especially considering the fact that The New Yorker did not often make a habit of running in the black for much of its storied history. But for God's sake, how many issues does Time devote in the space of a year to the ostensible subject of how great Time is? You can be forgiven for celebrating anniversaries at five- or ten-year intervals, but publications and institutions are not individuals, and their specific birthdays are dates of middling significance.

In any event, every year brings another hulking squarebound New Yorker anniversary edition to my house, and every one of these brings with it another idiotic Eustace Tilley cover. This year's Tilley was illustrated by none other than Chris Ware -- a sequential diagram of the archetypal Tilley/butterfly meeting. Ware's almost invisible linework is, of course, beautiful and almost preternaturally assured, but the subject matter could not be more fatuous.

Whether you regard The New Yorker as one of the last great bastions of highbrow rectitude, or merely an enduring monument to the precocity of the middlebrow American intellect, the magazine is perpetually enjoyable in direct inverse to the monotony of its self-mythology. And certainly there are few publications in the history of publishing that have made as great a contribution to the history of cartooning: certainly Punch and arguably Mad have made greater contributions, but I can think of no more. It should also be noted that in an era when magazine cartooning has almost died out, The New Yorker is one of only two major mainstream publications (the other being Playboy, founded by a struggling cartoonist) to continue publishing cartoons on a consistent basis. But even if you give them credit for their contributions to cartooning history, you are still left with the unavoidable conclusion that the magazine is nowhere near close to fulfilling its self-appointed historic prerogatives in regard to the artform.

Oh, they publish some of the best cartoonists in the business -- very occasionally. Robert Crumb and Chris Ware have both contributed features, and many of the biggest names in alternative comics and cartooning have contributed spot illustrations and portraits for the magazine. But these sporadic appearances appear alongside the regular weekly contributions of the magazine's usual gag cartoonists -- and the comparison is not flattering.

James Thurber, William Steig and Charles Addams are all dead. Nowadays, the appearance of a good cartoon in the magazine's assortment of regular gags and illustrations seems to be a matter blind luck. Alongside the perpetually wonderful contributions of Gahan Wilson and the perpetually amusing work of Gerald Scarfe, you have work by tyros such as Bruce Erik Kaplan and Matthew Diffee. Kaplan makes Ted Rall look like the spiritual reincarnation of Gil Kane. Embarrassingly amateur work appears every week alongside work by competent but unexceptional draftsmen such as Edward Koren and Roz Chast and the brilliant work of Gahan Wilson, but in such a way that no discerning aesthetic continuum is detected. Sure, the New Yorker may at least still print the cartoons, but the fact that they seem to regard cartooning skill as an interchangeable commodity reduces the whole of comics past and present to an acritical mush in the minds of anyone who pays the magazine her due respect in all other realms of art.

Certainly, I trust the magazine to be able to give me a fairly comprehensive and knowledgeable assessment of modern dance, classical composition, "fine" art, cinema, literature and photography (a relatively recent development). They have even, over the past year, made incredible strides in the once-taboo field of pop music critique. But considering how large a part cartooning has played in the evolution of the magazine's style, history and mythology, isn't their casual treatment of cartooning something of a joke?

Next: Eustace Tilley vs. Alfred E. Neuman

No comments :