Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ridin' Dirty


There's a song on the radio right now that seems to be following me. I can't stand it, it seems to be wedged into my skull so that I find myself chanting the chorus as I drift off to sleep. It's the kind of song you wish you could just wipe from the memory of mankind, one of those rare pieces of music that makes you feel dumber just for having heard it.

I'm referring, of course, to Chamillionaire's "Ridin'".

I remember back in the hazy days of the late nineties, when stupid rap was still a novelty. Remember Master P? Ah yes, dear sweet Master P, the man who made the world say "Ugggh". His No Limit records was quite popular for a short period of time, but soon faded from the spotlight. You got the idea that his brutally undercooked mix of horrid gangsta clichés, warmed-over Tupac verses and just plain uneducated street" philosophy" was only really popular because it was so damn stupid, and that once people got the joke once, they had no wish to hear it again. Don't think I'm just hatin': I am speaking as someone who actually owns a Talking Master P doll (that screams "Ugggh" when you squeeze it). I love me some Master P - albeit perhaps not in the way Master P intended. There is simply no way anyone could have predicted that this kind of stupid rap would not only thrive, but eventually come to dominate pop music.

But that's essentially what has happened. And make no mistake, a great deal of this stuff is just plain stupid -- and if that makes me a racist or a hopelessly out-of-touch old fogey, pointing out that folks like Chamillionaire, the Yin-Yang Twins and 50 Cent sound like fourth-grade dropouts, so be it. I mean, so many of these rappers don't even seem to rap so much as recite random jumbles of regional street slang. The act of rapping becomes less about writing poetic verses with dramatic or humorous impact, and more merely using nonsense words and empty phrases to sound tough and cool. Where's Kool Moe Dee when you need him?

Examine this chorus:
They see me rollin', they hatin',
Patrollin', they tryin' to catch me ridin' dirty.

Now, what does that even mean? It's repeated ad infinitum throughout the track, so it must mean something. But really, it doesn't: all he's saying is that he's cool, he's so cool as to be untouchable, because all the people who are trying to say he's uncool are merely haters. They -- represented by the police in the context of the song but really, anyone -- are trying to catch him in the act of being uncool, to catch him with his proverbial pants down, but the only reason they're doing this is because they are haters. His coolness is so flagrant and unimpeachable as to be almost tautological in nature -- trying to explain it is useless. He is cool because he is cool.

Is anyone else reminded of the Bush administration? If I didn't know better I'd say they were taking their cues from Chamillionaire. If Bush listened to rap (which of course he does not, because those icky ethnics are involved), he could summarize the sum total of his reaction to outside criticism of his policies with one simple verse:
They see me rollin', they hatin',
Patrollin', they tryin' to catch me ridin' dirty.

It's so simple, it's brilliant. Don't mess with me, it says, because I am not to be messed with. If you have to ask why I am not to be messed with, well, you are merely hating. You will never understand. My coolness is beyond reproach, and the only criticism I can expect is from parties as yet uninformed of my coolness. Because when you see my new bitchin' rims, you will all bow down before my absolute greatness.




Of course, in the world of comics, you could say that Batman is the ultimate in false, unearned bravado. I especially like how despite the fact that Batman was never at any point in his history a super-scientist on the scale of Reed Richards or Will Magnus, he was suddenly able to design, build and implement a super-intelligent self-aware computer satellite that could remotely turn millions of people into cyborg superbeings capable of going tow-to-toe with Superman. And when his invention was sabotaged by bad guys, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people, what was Batman's reaction?
They see me rollin', they hatin',
Patrollin', tryin' to catch me ridin' dirty.

You have been ridin' very dirty, Batman. Very, very dirty. I'd be surprised if, after the current Infinite epilogues peter out, that is an aspect of Batman's history which is never again mentioned or discussed by anyone, sort of like that kid he had a couple decades who everyone forgot about until, apparently, Grant Morrison decided to bring him out of limbo (which, if it is true, is a testament to just how powerful Morrison is, because I'll bet there were a lot of people at DC who were happy to let the idea of Batman as a father die a slow and quiet death). So maybe in another twenty years someone will bring back the whole OMAC idea (not the good Kirby version but the exceedingly lame modern incarnation) and make something cool out of it. But until then, it sucks. It sucks so hard that it makes the comics that have to share its shelfspace less cool by comparison. I hear someone accidentally placed an issue of Love & Rockets next to the OMAC Project, and by the time they picked up the Love & Rockets it had turned into an issue of Strangers in Paradise. Swear to God.




I think it's fair to say that the next time he does one of his interminable Cup Of Joe panels at a convention, Joe Quesada could just use a boombox with the Chamillionaire track on it to answer all questions.




Does anyone remember the issue where Wolverine sired a child? That's another story they don't talk about anymore.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Okie-Dokey


So am I supposed to talk about Alex Toth? On the one hand, being a comics blog it would seem slightly disingenuous to blithely go on without some mention of the man's passing. But on the other, I don't really have anything to say on the subject of his death. There has always seemed something vaguely off about the way deaths and other great events are commemorated by blogs: even if someone doesn't have anything particularly important or profound to say about whatever profound thing is occurring at any given moment, does the blogger have a responsibility to mention it simply so that they don't look like a cold-hearted goober, jabbering on about X-Men 3 while everyone else is commiserating the loss of an industry giant?

I mean, I could probably write something about the man, but I don't know if that would be appropriate. I never really felt much in the way of personal attachment ot Toth's work in the same way I did for many of his contemporaries. The only real sensation I associated with Toth in recent years was a general sense of disappointment, a sensation which was corroborated by an older interview of his printed in the Journal sometime over the last couple years, of Toth as a truly great craftsman inextricably wedded to an absolutely pedestrian view of art. This is much the same feeling I associated with the late John Buscema -- someone with so much sheer talent they made it look easy, and whose comics were a joy to read, but possessed by relatively modest ambitions channeled by the circumstances of their commercial employment into flatly unfulfilling channels (although, obviously, Toth was nowhere near the company man Buscema was, and would probably have quit drawing before becoming the proud hack that Buscema became). I must say, as much as I enjoyed reading Toth's letters -- weren't they published frequently in one of the TwoMorrows' magazines for a while there? I can't recall off the top of my head -- they also radiated the unmistakable aura that accompanies any transmissions from the brain of a truly cranky curmudgeon.

Why do we get so many cranks in comics? I mean, I don't want to call Toth a crank as a means of dismissal, because his skill was beyond dismissal, but his letters and attitude definitely carried something of a "damn kids stay off my lawn!" vibe, a disconnect with the actual state of modern cartooning that placed the man's observations at a slightly askew angle. Much like his immediate contemporary Steve Ditko, as well as Neal Adams and Jim Steranko (who were of the generation immediately following Toth's and who followed in his and Ditko and Kirby and Kubert and Eisner's direct footsteps), there was a sense that since he didn't like what had happened to comics, he was simply not going to play the game anymore, opting instead to take his ball and go home. He worked as he saw fit on piecemeal projects, but not necessarily with any overarching philosophy or career goal other than to produce good work. So while he produced a lot of stories, it's all spread out over half a dozen publishers and countless titles, a short story here and a feature there.

He didn't seem like the kind of artist to really pine for a long-running gig on a feature strip -- I'm sure if he had wanted one he could have opted in with almost any publisher at any point from the 50s on through the 70s, at least. But the fact that his body of work is so widely dispersed and eclectic means that, unlike any of the other masters who I mentioned early in the previous paragraph (I would probably throw Joe Maneely in there but for the fact that he died too soon to be more than a footnote) his influence will probably fade from communal memory in a much shorter period of time. As sad as it may be, people will always remember Ditko because Spider-Man and Dr. Strange will always be in print, and Joe Kubert's work on characters like Hawkman and Sgt. Rock will always be well-remembered. But Toth, because he was identified not so much with a specific character as an attitude towards craftsmanship and professionalism, will probably remain a cartoonists' cartoonist, one of those vague names that becomes dimly remembered by all but a few scholars of the art as the decades roll by.

There are a handful of Toth books in print, and hopefully they will remain so as time wears on. I seem to recall, however, that they are either small-press or self-published - it would be nice if a Toth-related book could find the kind of major push that would land it in more libraries and bookstores, ensuring Toth the same kind of relative longevity that Fantagraphics' B. Krigstein volume has for for that artist - an artist, it should be noted, with a similarly scattered output who has nonetheless managed to remain in the critical eye due to the diligence of a motivated fanbase. I seem to recall that Image had a volume of his Zorro strips in print, but have no idea if the book is still available.

Unfortunately, the most in-demand work from Toth's career appears to be the adventure strips he produced for DC in the 50s and early 60s. DC has not embraced the type of high-quality artist-specific books that Marvel has been producing the last few years -- as much as Toth fans could definitely use a Complete or Best of Toth at DC, it will probably never happen. The only artist-specific book I can remember at DC was that three volume set of Neal Adams' Batman stories, but even there, the main draw was probably still Batman -- Batman stories by one of the character's definitive creators, but Batman stories nonetheless. I'm looking at my bookshelf right now and I see wonderful volumes in the Marvel Visionaries imprint dedicated to folks like Ditko, John Romita Sr. and Steranko, really essential books that Marvel can be proud to have published -- but I don't see a company like DC doing that. Call it a hunch but I'd be surprised if we ever see it -- not that I wouldn't love to be proven wrong!


Hmmm. I guess I ended up writing something about his passing after all. I'm just full of it, I guess.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Well, That Was Fun


I only ask two things of superhero movies. The first is that they not bore me with pretentious claptrap, and the second is that they not insult my intelligence. These two may sometimes overlap, but not always. Although it might seem easy, so many movies fail at either one or the other, and I end up feeling like I wasted whatever monetary unit I spent in the hopes of a mild diversion. I mean, seriously, Dr. Octopus is the coolest Spider-Man villain and I wouldn't have thought it possible that they could screw up such a simple and brilliant concept - a clinically insane mad scientist with a pot belly and a mad-on for Spider-Man. How in the entire universe is it possible to screw that up? Well, apparently the morons who wrote Spider-Man 2 thought they were fucking Shakespeare over here because they sure loaded on enough backstory baggage to make me loathe Dr. Octopus, and not in the good way that we're supposed to hate villains...

Well, I am happy to report that the new X-Men film succeeds on both counts. Gone - thank the Lord! - are the long and ponderous thematic setpieces that Brian Singer used as a cudgel with which to beat the audience soundly across the head and shoulders with subtext. Here's a clue, it's called subtext for a reason. That's not to say there aren't some themes and such in the movie, but for the most part the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the subtext where it should be in an action story like this: percolating just below the surface but not in an obtrusive manner.

When I was talking about Brokeback Mountain the other day I mentioned the tendency of most American movies to bang on in such a monotonously obvious fashion with the seeming assumption that the average filmgoer has an IQ of about thirty. Well, surprisingly, X-Men 3 scored pretty high in this regard. It gives the audience a lot of credit for being able to figure things out without being hit on the head with repetitive exposition. I've already seen some complaints that there were too many characters introduced with not enough information, which is just silly. The school of storytelling that says that every onscreen character needs a fully-developed backstory and active motivation just bogs the proceedings down. In a movie like this, you don't need to really know who Colossus is or what his family life is like or what his favorite color is: you just need to know that he's a big metal guy who kicks ass. I don't think there was a single audience member at the screening I saw who was confused by Colossus or Kittie Pryde or Callisto or Madrox the Multiple Man - they knew who the characters were by what they did, which may sound simplistic but that's essentially how drama should work. Not that X-Men 3 was a great drama or anything, but I'll be damned if the screenwriters didn't succeed in putting an extremely dense block of information across with quite a deft touch, and I'll give them props for that.

Anyway, it didn't insult my intelligence and it didn't bore me. In fact, the overall effect was kind of like sniffing one of those massive jumbo-sized Pixy Stix and playing dizzy-bat. Which could be taken in a pejorative fashion, but for the purposes of an action movie like this, it's essentially the sensation they should be going for. Let's face it, the X-Men are not Tolstoy. They're cheap melodrama and spastic action in equal measure, and we sure got a fistful of both. For those who have said that the film didn't end with enough of a bang, wait a minute . . .

SPOILER

- didn't you see the part where Magneto destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge? I can't remember ever seeing the comic book Magneto doing anything that cool. Or the part where Jean Grey almost destroyed San Francisco? What more do you want, a tap-dancing dog who sings selections from the Threepenny Opera? Seriously, if you didn't think they had enough show-stopping action in this film, you are probably dead. I mean, seriously, check your pulse. I hate action movies and I was still suitably impressed.

For those who were worried that the Beast would just be Kelsey Grammer covered in blue hair, well, yeah, that's what he was. But you know, that's basically who the Beast is in the comics, so I don't see how there's any ground for complaints. And he even got to use his catchphrase - you know the one - and I'll be damned if even my jaded mug didn't crack a smile at that.

I even liked that the climactic battle took place on Alcatraz - if you remember, the big battle at the end of the first film took place on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. I thought that was a nice bit of symmetry. Again, someone was paying attention to the little things.

So whereas everyone predicted that a Brett Ratner-directed X-Men film would be a horrible ramshackle mess, it actually turns out to be the best of the franchise, quite possibly the best Marvel movie yet (still neck-and-neck in my mind with the first Blade). Am I alone in thinking that the first two movies were lifeless and desiccated where they should have been energized and jam-packed? Finally, we have a comic book movie that actually succeeds in evoking the very best qualities of its source material. If I were Marvel I'd be worried, because in all honesty I enjoyed this movie a lot more than any superhero comic book I've read in ages. If Hollywood has finally figured out how to faithfully replicate the cheap thrills of an X-Men comic book, why even continue to publish the dirty little rags? That's a damn good question . . .

Thursday, May 25, 2006

An Incredibly Good Idea I Can't Believe No One Else Has Ever Had


It's common knowledge that Kirby's Fourth World characters have pretty much languished in mediocrity since Kirby left DC. With a couple notable exceptions - Grant Morrison and Walter Simonson - most of DC's attempts to exploit Kirby's properties have come off flaccid and dull, if not just plain stupid.

Well, I must give props to Neilalien for linking to Robbie Reed's recent three-part Mr. A extravaganza. It's got loads of great Ditko art as well as one of the most succinct explanations of the connections between Ditko's own work and his unique philosophy I've ever seen - complete with Ayn Rand excerpts where appropriate! Endlessly fascinating stuff for a Ditko-phile like myself, and even if you're already familiar with the bulk of the Mr. A material there's still some interesting commentary.

Anyway, in the second part of the feature, about two-thirds of the way down the article, there's a text piece from the beginning of a Mr. A story entitled "Right To Kill", detailing Mr. A's (and I think we can fairly assume Ditko's) attitude towards killing - ideas which fairly put the Punisher to shame (wow, the Punisher as a Randian objectivist? What a concept!) But there's a particular interesting passage right at the beginning of the essay:
A claim to a contradiction - or wanting it both ways at the same time - is a wish for the irrational to come true, the impossible to become possible. It is a confession of a wish to live in a fake, unreal world, and it can only be attempted by holding and acting on an ANTI-LIFE PREMISE! (his capitals)

Some men respect life - theirs and others. Some men abuse life - theirs and others. Most men do both in degrees.

You see where I'm going with this? People have been wrestling with the symbolic weight of Darkseid's infamous Anti-Life Equation for years, since Kirby left it so wonderfully vague. Read these lines and tell me you can't see Ditko drawing Darkseid - the ultimate expression of Anti-Life, the archetypal fascist, the most evil being in the universe. It's common knowledge that Ditko and Kirby didn't see eye to eye politically*, but the Old Testament-influenced thematic foundation of Kirby's heavily metaphorical mythological melodrama seems to overlap with Ditko's conceptual territory in an uncanny manner - what better device to explore the inescapable polarity of Good and Evil than the two worlds of New Genesis and Apokalips? What better character to epitomize the concept of self-determination and the pursuit of justice than Orion, a character literally "born evil" who made the conscious decision to fight on the side of good? Even the very concept of "The Pact" seems tailor-made for a Ditko story - of course the bargain between Highfather and Darkseid fails, because there can be no compromise between Good and Evil - you can either choose black or white, there is no "middle ground" that does not lead to corruption.

Even though Ditko in his later years has taken pains to separate the subjects of his "fantasy" stories from his polemical pieces, his philosophy still informs everything he does. Even Dr. Strange, undoubtedly one of the most far-out and fantastical characters ever created, still carried a strong undercurrent of Ditko's personal philosophy, as Stephen Strange was always able to keep a clear definition of "good" and "evil" despite the psychedelic disorientation of all his myriad cosmic adventures, proving that even under the most far-flung circumstances, it is still possible for a good man to keep his moral sensations intact. And while it's also true that Ditko never quite got the hang of drawing Kirby's other characters - his Fantastic Four must be seen to believed, but not necessarily in a good way - he could probably do some extremely interesting things with the broad palette provided by the war between the two planets of gods.

Of course, Ditko's New Gods would not be Kirby's New Gods. But the only interpretations of the characters that have ever succeeded have been those that tried to do something new instead of merely replaying Kirby's original ideas or, even worse, trying to write the New Gods as merely another superhero melodrama - which it is most definitely not. Ditko seems to be mostly retired these days but he was doing piecework for DC up until very recently on projects like the 80 Page Giants - how hard would it be for Dan Didio to call him up and give him carte blanche to draw a New Gods graphic novel? He's 81 this year - he's not going to be around forever. It would at least be interesting to see what he could do, wouldn't it?




*Despite the fact that Kirby was a lefty and Ditko was a righty, they apparently still had tremendous respect for each other's skill - I remember reading an anecdote once that Ditko made a point of defacing or destroying copies of Kirby's Thor in front of Stan Lee because he, like every other person in the history of the world, thought that Vince Colletta's inks over Kirby's pencils was a mockery.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

WOMAN IS THE NIGGER OF THE WORLD


It's more than just a John Lennon song. I once asked my mother what she would want her tombstone to read -- one of those silly questions that you ask people in the hopes of getting an interesting answer. That was her reply.

Whenever I encounter men who label themselves as "feminists", I just have to laugh and hope they never encounter my mother. I don't know for certain but unless I'm mistaken, if she ever met a man who called themselves a "feminist", she'd probably laugh in their face.

When I consider how hardcore a feminist my mother is, it's amazing I was born. It's common knowledge that my father only managed to make an "honest woman" out of her through sneaky devious subterfuge. I was raised in a house where pronouncements about the endless, unceasing perfidy of the male race in all its incarnations were as numerous as raindrops falling on the roof. I grew up, to a large degree, profoundly apologetic for having been born to such a wretched gender.

My mom was born in a time when she had to wear skirts to school. She grew up with the constant awareness that she simply could not become what she wanted to be when she grew up -- and if she ever wondered, well, there was an authority figure around the corner to discourage her. She was discouraged to further her education. She had to fight hard for everything she ever wanted, and there is no doubt what she was fighting against: society, history and tradition, all of which carry distinctly masculine features.

So am I a "feminist"? No. Unless I was born a woman, with all the girly parts intact, and had to fight against the apathy and objectification and outright hostility that greets women from the day they are born to this very day, I could not say that I was a "feminist". The best I could say is that I was a carpetbagger trying to hijack something that women had fought and bled for for generations, and that I, as a privileged white American male, Master of the Universe, could never in my wildest dreams hope to understand. If I called myself a feminist in front of my mother I think she'd probably smack me, and then fall on the floor laughing.

How does a right-thinking male come to grips with being a man in a man's world? The same way my mother taught me: apologize to every woman you meet for being a man. Because, as she points out at every opportunity, and has done so since I was a small child, the species can get along just fine without males now that we've got sperm banks and science.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's a feminist. Your twee-sensitive white college punk who read bell hooks and thinks he's so insightful is not a feminist, he just wants to get laid by seeming "with it" to all the hot feminist studies majors. And I guess the movement is degraded enough that they can get away with it and not get their testicles forcibly removed for their troubles. Because that's what my mom would do. And that, folks, is a real feminist.

Monday, May 22, 2006

In Which The Author Entertains Various Notions


Well, if I was disappointed by Good Night, and Good Luck (which I most definitely was), my faith in modern American cinema was restored by Brokeback Mountain. While nowhere near a "perfect" film, it is perhaps as close as I've seen to be produced in this country for quite some time. Given the extravagant praise I was prepared to be underwhelmed, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a movie that, for once, matched if not exceeded the hype which preceded it.

What faults there were were, it seemed, faults of the source material which could not readily be laid at the filmmakers' feet. For instance, movies that take place over the course of many years have a tendency to feel flabby and aimless in the second and third acts despite what may very well be bravura filmmaking. It's much easier to tell a more expansive story in the context of a novel or a short story. Probably the best example of this is Scorcese's Goodfellas, quite possibly one of the most accomplished examples of mainstream American filmmaking in the last thirty years, but still an imperfect movie that seems to lose a great deal of steam in the second half (about the time Ray Liotta's character goes to prison and the glamour of the organized crime lifestyle begins to recede into something rank and spoiled, so to does a great deal of the momentum built by Scorcese's lusciously controlled camera work fade). But still even given the awkwardness of telling such an expansive story, Brokeback never falls off the rails. Thankfully, they eschewed the use of any kind of captioning to indicate the passage of time -- the "One Year Late" or "May 1974" labels instantly instill a kind of choppy, episodic feel to even the most tightly-coiled narrative. I've also got to give credit to all the filmmakers for using a modicum of subtlety in their storytelling decisions. They choose not to hammer the viewer over the head with repetitive signifiers for selected plot points, choosing instead to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions at many critical junctures. This freedom is not usually a sensation I associate with domestic films, accustomed as they are to the extremely blatant storytelling rhythms of films like Good Night, and Good Luck and, most egregiously, Crash, wherein every single element of plot, character construction and theme is painstakingly laid out with the assumption that every member of the audience is developmentally disabled, and won't understand anything unless it's repeated at least five times. Storytelling (in most instances) is not primarily about plot construction and the establishment of theme, both of these considerations are secondary to characterization: if plot and theme do not arise organically out of characterization, the results are painful to behold. I'm hardly the first person to point this out but it's amazing how many people ostensibly in the business of telling stories (on any given day roughly 95% of the screenwriters working in Hollywood) forget the most essential rules of their craft.

But in any event, one of the questions that stuck in my mind after Brokeback finished was the question of authenticity. Although Brokeback Mountain was very explicitly a movie about gay men and the "gay experience" (whatever that is), it was also made by a primarily non-gay group of filmmakers and actors and intended for a (relatively) mainstream audience, of which it must be assumed by dint of statistics that a majority of the audience is, like myself, decidedly heterosexual. So despite the film's unquestioned quality, I've also come across complaints from the gay community -- muted but still significant -- about the relative authenticity of a so-called "gay movie" produced outside the auspices of the actual gay community (such as that is). Not being a member of said community, I can't comment one way or another on such a conflict, but it is interesting to me, nonetheless.

Obviously, a white actor cannot impersonate a black character (Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain notwithstanding -- and boy, wasn't that a disappointing adaptation?). Since this is no longer the sixteenth century, a man cannot play a woman with a straight face (Dame Edna doesn't count). And although ethnic boundaries are still somewhat elastic in Hollywood, we're mostly past the days when Native Americans and Mexicans were played by anglos in makeup and dark wigs. But being gay is a much more interior aspect of identity than gender (a solid biological distinction in most instances) and race (a flimsy, biologically superfluous concept that is nevertheless quite explicitly labeled for most individuals). However, any actor can pretend to be gay simply by acting. Is it wrong for a straight actor to pretend to be gay? I'm specifically asking the sizable proportion of gay comics fans who I know frequent this blog: in another fifty years, are we going to look back at the gay performances in movies like Brokeback Mountain with the same mixture of disgust and bafflement that we regard white performers from the turn of the previous century who wore blackface?

All of this crosses into the dicey area of "mainstreaming". I've seen many articulate and reasoned complaints on the part of gay figures over the mainstream acceptance of gay culture that we've had in the last few years -- the objections (to my unquestionably limited understanding) being twofold, that programs like Will & Grace and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy will be regarded in the future on the same par as minstrel shows and Amos & Andy; and that any mainstream acceptance of gay culture comes with the cost of diluting or discarding the most important and exclusive attributes of gay culture. Both of these are, I think, perfectly reasonable objections, because to a greater or lesser degree you can see the same forces at work in the history of black and feminist assimilations.

The great strides made in both the black and feminist movements of the twentieth centuries came as a result of far-sighted and courageous pioneers who risked life and limb to embrace notions of social and intellectual equality. But then after a series of initial gains over the course of decades, both movements slowed down and were eventually marginalized by the same culture in which they had more or less successfully assimilated. And, it goes without saying, neither racism or sexism have disappeared from America. True, some of the most egregious examples of prejudice were destroyed, and the greater culture learned to accommodate a great many things that would have seemed unthinkable just a hundred years ago. But at what cost? Martin Luther King Jr. gave way to Louis Farrakhan, Betty Frieden was replaced by Andrea Dworkin -- the ideological core of the movements were polarized after a certain level of societal success, and the political potency of said movements were essentially negated. There are more black faces on television and professional women are no longer completely ostracized, but then you've got gangsta rappers on BET reaffirming white America's worst prejudices about aggressively ignorant urban youth and women of all colors routinely and enthusiastically reduced to the status of meat in the popular culture. Educated, articulate black youths are often stigmatized by the black mainstream (as Chris Rock said, "a book is like kryptonite to a nigga"), and feminists are still caricatured as man-hating militant dykes on network television, the same network television that somehow passes off Sex In The City and the Spice Girls as "feminist statements".

Now, obviously, I'm neither gay nor black nor a woman. (There's a special place in hell reserved for those obnoxiously obsequious men who label themselves "feminists" -- like a white dude giving daps and wearing a kofia, it just doesn't work like that.) My observations on these issues are merely that -- observations -- made by an interested outsider. But it's fascinating to me, because while I do not for a moment adopt the foolish liberal pretense of inclusion in regards to cultural movements in which I cannot by definition participate, I do try to understand that which is mysterious to me. So I'd like to ask -- what's the deal with Brokeback Mountain? Should I feel guilty for liking it? Is it just another product of white-liberal-heterosexual guilt (directed by an Asian expatriate, no less), trying to modify and massage an authentically alien experience into something bowdlerized and non-threatening? In trying to break down social barriers, are we just erecting a new, subtler but no less noxious status quo in regards to the treatment of a supposedly assimilated minority group? And, most delicately, can the desire on the part of some members of said minority group to remain a separate entity create a self-fulfilling prophecy of continued persecution and prejudice -- the desire to retain the unique elements of gay culture contributing to the perpetuation of a "separate but unequal" ghettoization?

These are questions to which I have not the answers.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers



Web of Spider-Man #129

Time Bomb Part 2: By My Hand, Mary Jane Must Die!


Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Ozymandius, Percy Bysshe Shelley


There were many ugly covers in the dark days of the 1990s. This sort of goes without saying. But more than merely looking ugly, which is nothing special in and of itself, covers of the period seemed to have forgotten everything they knew about design, so that if a cover was ugly it wasn't just ugly, it was downright incompetent in a way that covers of previous eras never were. Because, you know, there were people like John Romita and Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino who knew the fundamentals of composition, the use of complementary and contrasting colors, and the meaning of negative space. From the evidence on display in the mid-90s, artists and editors were pretty much on their own when it came to cover design, with predictably horrid results.

Steven Butler knows how to draw in the same roughly competent way that a number of second-and-third tier mainstream pencillers -- i.e., he's probably not a very good artist but he's internalized enough of the shortcuts of his predecessors to make a decent looking action comic. But he doesn't know the first thing about design. Look at how crowded the composition is. There's not a single square centimeter of negative space on the entire cover, no place for the eye to rest. With no less than five heavily delineated figures against a highly-detailed background, there's no real sense of a foreground or background - everything has roughly the same weight, so it's hard for the eye to discern what's actually happening. To make matters worse, the coloring is simply a nightmare. All the brightly-colored costumes and flaming energy auras sort of blend into a puke-colored haze, and the red-and-brown brick of the cityscape in the background make everything blend into a shit-colored mess (with a few streaks of crimson blood to really make things pleasant).

Add the extraneous captions and a corner triangle advertising a free playing card inside, and you've got a fine send off for Web of Spider-Man. This was the series' last issue (not counting a four-issue denouement as Web of Scarlet-Spider). It was never a great series, really one of those books designed solely to keep another company's title from taking up valuable shelf space more tha anything else. But still -- 129 issues adds up to over ten years. Any series that lasts past the double digits in today's marketplace is practically an institution, so the triple-digits for such an obvious welterweight like Web might seem odd. But, you know, that's life. Nerds need their Spider-Man like fiends need their crack.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Put Down The Candy And Let The Little Boy Go


Being on the cusp of cultural relevancy, I just recently got around to watching George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. Working nights means never having time to go to the movies but lots of time to catch up on Netflix.

Anyway. I was sort of looking forward to the movie and also sort of dreading it. The former because, well, I think Clooney's a smart guy (when he's not being inane), who's also incredibly underrated as an actor (despite the fact that he frequently works with Steven Soderbergh, who, Sex, Lies and Videotape notwithstanding, is well nigh a living black hole of suck). Based on his first feature, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, he's also a pretty good director as well (to say that Confessions is the worst movie to be made from a Charlie Kaufman script is not exactly an insult when you realize the competition -- it's no Adaptation but I quite enjoyed it, despite the gratuitous Julia Roberts-fu). But I was also dreading it because I hate liberal feel-good claptrap.

Keep in mind: I am a Liberal with a capital "L". But I also hate propaganda. And a movie like Good Night, and Good Luck seemed like it had the potential to be, well, a steaming pile of liberal warm and fuzzies. It's not like there's not an interesting story to found in the fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Army hearings, the Milo Radulovich case, and the growing pains of broadcast news in the middle of the twentieth century, but said story isn't here. Instead, what we've got is a hagiography.

Which is not to say that the movie gets its fact wrong, necessarily, simply that it plays fairly fast and loose with which facts to present and how it presents them. Film and history have a horrible track record together. For every film that gets the facts straight, there's five that play fast and loose and another ten that don't even spell the names right. The fact is that presenting data-heavy historical recitations is just not something that plays to film's strengths. Movies work best when they stick to a more free-form expressionist take on history, because the medium itself is hopelessly subjective. Trying to tell a larger semi-fictionalized story with anywhere near the narrative authority of a book or even a documentary film is a recipe for disaster.

Which is one of the reasons I like Oliver Stone's American history films so much -- JFK and Nixon are both excellent.The difference between Stone's history, which arguably plays a lot more fast-and-loose with the facts that Clooney does, and Good Night, and Good Luck is that Stone is pretty obviously presenting an extremely subjective view of events. If anyone watches JFK and expects an objective view of that era in American history, they're a moron: you need to know something about history before you can really appreciate the movie, to understand that Stone is trying to enter into a dialogue with his audience about history. Besides, you don't have to believe any of the various speculations that form the backbone of JFK to think that Jim Garrison's story is interesting and compelling. Most of Garrison's pet theories about the assassination have been proven to be flat-out wrong, but the movie holds up because it's not really about trying to hit you over the head with an ideology so much as telling a story about the way history and politics warp each other and the subjectivity of "truth".

But Good Night, and Good Luck doesn't seem to me like much of an attempt at a dialogue. It seems more like a lecture. Furthermore, it's a pretty cowardly lecture, because the filmmakers don't really seem to be interested in proving a point about Joseph McCarthy. They really want to talk about George W. Bush and Fox News, but are stuck fitting historical events into an ill-disguised allegorical mode. McCarthy, for all his rancor, is a dead issue: no one except the most clueless examples of the far radical right (i.e. Anne Coulter) remembers "Tailgunner" Joe as anything but a national embarrassment. It's not very brave to pick on a man who's been dead for fifty years: if you want to say something about the abuse of power in politics, the pandering of fearmongering conservatives and the spinelessness of the modern broadcast media, just come out and say so, for God's sake. Don't be coy. The Republicans sure aren't coy when they attack Michael Moore, but they're at least picking on someone who is, you know, still relevant to the cultural discourse as something other than a symbolic totem.

And make no mistake: the filmmakers' minds are very much on our present situation. They leave little indicators throughout the film that we should be watching the movie less as an actual story in and of itself than as a matrix of pseudo-ironic indicators. Sure, everyone smoked back then (Murrow even died of lung cancer), but why go to such lengths to fetishize the act of smoking, going so far as to make the trailing wisps of cigarette smoke downright erotic? If you're going to show an example of one of Murrow's famous Person to Person interviews, why pick the one with Liberace? Why spotlight an exchange with Murrow wherein Liberace discusses getting married and settling down? Sure, it's not like these events didn't happen. But all of these elements have been carefully chosen as indicators, clues to key the audience in on the fact that the events unfolding on the screen are supposed to viewed in the context of what the audience knows now, not simply in the context of the movie itself.

I knew what I was in for at the very beginning of the movie, when the events leading up to the beginning of the film were recapped in a slow text crawl after the opening credits. That's how Star Wars opens. What they were trying to create with Good Night, and Good Luck was nothing less than a heroic fantasy for limousine liberals across the nation, a fable from a "simpler" time, when liberals were muscular and authoritative and had the guts to stand up to power instead of merely towing the line and mumbling under their breath. Which is essentially what Clooney and Co. are doing here. It makes me wonder if in another fifty years, when we've got another authoritative right-wing fear monger in power, some "brave" liberal filmmaker will produce an oh-so current tribute to Stephen Colbert and his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.

The conflicts at the heart of the movie are, more crucially, completely misrepresented. The potential and actual conflict between Murrow and CBS was hopelessly muddled. Network head William Paley was President Eisenhower's golfing buddy, and he certainly wasn't worried about any sort of vague repercussions from Washington: he was worried about the very real possibility of being disciplined by the FCC for violating the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine and its enormous importance to the evolution of broadcast journalism and Murrow's career in particular isn't even mentioned anywhere in the entire film, to my recollection. The Army never tried to strong-arm CBS into not investigating the Radulovich case: they weren't happy about it but they remained on civil terms with CBS throughout the course of the investigation. But most importantly, anyone watching Good Night, And Good Luck with an incomplete grasp of American history might walk away thinking that Murrow was overwhelmingly instrumental in McCarthy's downfall, which is just plain untrue. As is mentioned in passing in the film (but nowhere near with the emphasis it deserves), McCarthy had been facing tough criticism for some time before the first of Murrow's See It Now broadcasts aired. He had already overplayed his hand. His support in congress was waning. He was bleeding from multiple self-inflicted wounds. Murrow's attacks weren't insignificant but they were merely the loudest volley in a battle that had already been underway for quite some time.

But the movie gets one thing right: Murrow was, by all accounts, even to those who knew him well, a hectoring stick-in-the-mud. Which isn't to downplay his contributions, but really, beginning and ending the movie with his comments before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago in 1958 is just laying it on too thick for words: if there was any doubt that the movie was a lawn-dart aimed right at the heart of the modern journalistic establishment, these sequences seal the deal. Which is just too bad. The facts, in Murrow's case, speak for themselves and hardly need adornment. This isn't so much a movie as a jeremiad.

Which is not to say that it isn't a beautifully shot and superbly acted jeremiad, but it remains shrill and unpleasant nonetheless. Murrow is certainly a unique and important character in American history, but this movie isn't going to hold up well at all once the immediate circumstances of its release fade. It is much more a product of George W. Bush's America than Eisenhower's 1950s, and by refusing to accept history on its own terms it fails. Apparently both sides of the political spectrum can selectively reference history for the purposes of their partisan propaganda.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Thots, Etc.


If Marvel made a cigarette lighter shaped like the Ultimate Nullifier, I'd be tempted to take up smoking.




So the television is clogged with ads for this new X-Men movie that's coming out at the end of the month. I know the nerd CW is that this one is going to suck, but I think it looks fun. As much as I can judge a film from the preview, it looks like they might have actually come fairly close to the superhero comic ideal hybrid of bathtub-methamphetamine action sections and shotgun melodrama. So what if it's a shambling mess? I'd much prefer a fun movie that makes no sense than a portentous, self-serious exercise in adolescent angst with a few perfunctory fights sprinkled throughout. I've heard people complaining that the new characters look lame and blah blah blah, but really, they don't have to bend over backwards to make me believe that the wings strapped to some pretty-boy actor's back are real. Just have everyone running around and hitting each other, throw in some explosions and a minimum of Claremontian exposition, and they'll do OK.

X-Men comics are pretty much the definition of "guilty pleasure" superhero comics, and at their best they represent the principle of cheap, fast and out of control at its zenith. At their worst they are about as fun as a sack of soggy raccoon corpses. If they can just put some zip into it, X-Men 3 will be better than either of its predecessors, as well as the Spider-Man movies, with their laughable Spider-Man / Christ metaphors.

It's not hard, people!




I'll bet you Warner Herzog could make a great X-Men movie.




To this day the only Marvel comics movie that I have any desire to see twice is the first Blade. Now that's a fun movie. Minimum of pretension. Quite a bit of action movie silliness, but it works. Blade had such low expectations to begin with that it wasn't hard to redefine the character for the screen, and the result was pretty fun. The sequels? Sadly, can't say the same . . .

Thursday, May 11, 2006

You Can Hate Me Now /
But I Wont' Stop Now



This is me, swimming against the current.


Address all your complaints to yousuck@bitemybutt.com.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers



What If? #14

What if Sgt. Fury Had Fought World War Two in Outer Space?


What If? remains one of my very favorite series of all time. Because when it was good, it had the potential to be very good. And when it was bad . . . oh boy, did it redifine bad. Every month (or every other month) was a brand new adventure into the weird.

And this issue was no exception, because boy oh boy is it weird. But you know, it also isn't very good, either. Which is why pretty much everything about this comic can be summed up by the cover. On the one hand, the cover is sheer brilliance. On the other, you can pretty much tell that the cover is so weird and wacky that the inside of the comic will probably be something of a let down. And sure enough, it's pretty unememorable.

But holy shit, what a cover. Let's just start with the very premise itself. Usually
What If? stories branched out from specific point of departure in recognizable continuity -- such as, What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four? (springing out of the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man) or What If Elektra Had Lived (from Daredevil #181, but also the premise of every Elektra story since, oh, Daredevil #181). But sometimes the series took a further turn into leftfield. Everyone knows about issue #11, What if the Original Marvel Bullpen had Become the Fantastic Four?, one of the oddest oddball comics of all time. But this one is just about as bad - because, seriously, in case you don't remember your history, no-one fought World War Two in space. By definition, if the war had been fought in space against red-skinned lizards, it would have been more than a World War, right? A Space War? The level of coincidence necessary to believe that in a world so different from our own as to have achieved interplanetary travel by 1942, a band of space commandos that bore an unmistakable resemblence to the mainstream Marvel Universe's Sgt Fury and his Howlers would fight an analog to World War Two is breathtaking. Are we to believe that if the dominant species on Earth had been giant radioactive weasels than a Sgt. Furious Weasel would have fought Nazi weasels and Baron Weasel Strucker in Weasel War Two?

But such questions are besides the point. As Fury himself says on the cover, in what must be, by default, the greatest word balloon in comics history: "Keep movin', you lunkheads! Nobody lives forever! So get the lead out and follow me! We got us a space war to win!"

Truer words were never spoken.

I love the fact that Dum Dum Dugan has his trademark bowler hat on beneath his space helmet. And that Gabe Jones has, instead of his trademark trumpet, a fancy space trumpet. The only thing I don't like is the fact that my memory seems to have played a trick on me in regards to the fact that I could have sworn Nick was smoking a cigar in his space helmet, but I guess, looking at the cover now, that I was mistaken. Memory is a strange thing.

In any event, this is surely one of the greatest covers of all time, and if you don't agree, you're undoubtedly a freedom-hating Ratzi bastard in disguise.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Frankly Cranky Bemused Digressions


I've got a confession to make which may seem unusual to some who read this blog. It may come as a shock, but I have never been to a Free Comic Book Day.
To explain why I have uniformly abstained throughout this event's five-year history, I should probably go back in time a bit, to the event's initial conception and announcement. Back in the dark days of the late 90s and early 00s, the industry -- all corners of the industry -- were in the doldrums. Manga was still a blip. The alt-comics revolution that would eventually land comics in the pages of The New York Times was still nascent. The "new mainstream" had not, I don't believe, even been coined. Now, things are better for a number of reasons which don't directly impact on actual circumstances in the direct market. The manga explosion, the beachhead of alt-comics within the mainstream book world (and the concomitant critical acceptance), as well as the consistent success (despite some underperforming flops) of big superhero blockbusters have provided reasons for fans of all kinds of comics to be happy. There's still a lot of crap out there (as much crap, if not more, as there has ever been), the direct market mechanism is as creaky and one-sided as ever, and the runaway success of the Spider-Man movies have hardly translated into a proportionate increase in sales of Spider-Man comics . . . but people in all fields of comicdom have legitimate reasons to be happy for the present and optimistic for the future.
But when FCBD was first announced, it looked, to me, like the silliest idea to come along in quite some time. I mean, on paper, it had all the makings of a fiasco: an industry-wide initiative to get free comics into the hands of new readers, with the hopes of turning those new readers into recurring readers and, the idea goes, recurring customers. These things never work as planned. People love free stuff, but giving away free stuff for which there is not already a predetermined audience didn't seem like a fertile idea. For instance, people give away candy every year at Halloween, but it doesn't encourage people to buy more or less candy than they otherwise would, because candy is something everyone knows exists, which is available in convenient retail outlets in every urban center in America. Giving away free comics with the hopes of attracting new business sounded, to me, a bit like giving away free model trains in the hope of creating new train fetishists: most people, if pressed, are loathe to turn down anything free, but one plastic caboose will not turn someone into a lifelong trainspotter, anymore than a free issue of Ultimate Spider-Man is going to inspire them to open up a subscription at the local neighborhood comic shop and start dropping $50 a week every Wednesday. Given the depressing state of the industry in the years leading up to the first FCBD, it seemed like the kind of exercise in which it would be difficult to tell waving from drowning.

So, the reasoning went, I figured FCBD would have an inauspicious debut and fade into the ether from whence it came, to be filed alongside Valiant Vision staple-less comics and Crossgen as yet another idea that seemed a lot better on paper than in practice. And then a funny thing happened: not only did the event not crash & burn, but it survived into the next year, and the next and the next after that. Whereas it was initially tied to the release of a massive comic-oriented blockbuster release (a smart cross-promotion, actually) it eventually outgrew the connection to become an industry event in its own right. All of which made me scratch my head in wonder.

Because, ultimately, I can't really understand why people who already know comics get so excited about FCBD. When the date was first announced I resolved to stay away from comic shops for the very simple reason that I knew I would be superfluous to the day's stated goals. I'm a lifelong comics fans. Even if I don't spend as much money on comics as I used to (which is really an understatement), I still know way more about the industry and artform than your average fan. Hell, I'm considered enough of an expert to have successfully tricked the Journal into letting me write a column -- imagine that! I'm the last person your average comic book store should want bumming around on a day supposedly dedicated to enticing new costumers. I'm an old costumer with established buying habits. Just about anyone in the position to be reading this comics-oriented blog is a known quantity in the minds of retailers: someone who knows what they like, what to buy and where to buy it. Giving your or I a free comic in the name of industry outreach seems like the definition of a wasted initiative.

And yet, it works. Or rather, it continues. I don't really think we can judge whether or not it "works", because there's no way to judge the success of a program like this without the kind of rigorous industry-wide tracking system that the industry is simply unable to organize. So we've got anecdotal evidence and a few informal industry surveys, all of which add up to the fact that comic book stores across the nation haven't seen their sales double or triple as a result of a massive influx of new customers. But the initiative continues, and seems to have found its focus less as a specific industry outreach program than a general day of celebration for comics fans across the country. At this point, the way people act and make plans to celebrate the day, the planning committee could probably get away with dropping "Free" from the title. People in the industry get excited about it in a way I don't quite understand. Larger and medium-size shops throw signing events with local talent -- some even fly talent in from out of the area. People make plans with friends to visit the shop on FCBD. None of which makes sense to me.

(But then, at this point, I'm so bitter and jaded the best "industry outreach" possible in my mind would probably be to raze every comic store to the ground and build "Nerd Memorials" with twenty-foot tall bronze statues of morbidly obese twenty-somethings with bad grooming and Cheeto-fingers, clutching a can of store-brand grape soda and dedicated to the continuing plight of those stricken with early-onset diabetes. But I digress.)

I guess, at the end of the day, FCBD is a rallying point, one day of the year for people who read comics to come out of their holes, be sociable, celebrate their hobby and invite outsiders to join them. Which is all well and good but it still doesn't do much for me, sorry -- boosterism is still boosterism, regardless of the cause. I shrink from public displays of enthusiasm for the very simple reason that I am not generally an enthusiastic person. My likes and dislikes are, for the most part, private likes and dislikes, and I see little profit in inviting the general public to enjoy them with me. There's a difference between making your field open and accessible to outsiders and novices, something the comics field has never excelled at, and acting like an overeager puppy-dog desperate for affection, or, in this case, public affirmation that they are not social outcasts and that their hobby has great intrinsic value to the world at large. Has an influx of new readers, inspired by free comic books to become more regular customers, prompted once-lackadaisical retailers to make their businesses more accessible to novices? Anecdotal evidence (the only kind we can really depend on in this instance) tells us that the retailers who profit from FCBD are those retailers who are already situated well ahead of the curve in these regards. The real beneficiaries of FCBD might very well be the smaller publishers who use the opportunity to get samples of their product into the hands of customers who might otherwise be hesitant to try books from an off-brand publisher like Oni or Top Shelf or Fantagraphics, but again, without any solid evidence I couldn't say one way or another. The best way to turn a friend into a comics fan is still the same as it's always been: give them a comic book you think they might like. Don't just give them a pile of free crap and ask them to wade through them all in hopes of finding a gem that will inspire life-long devotion.

So, yeah, I guess I'm still indifferent. I don't begrudge anyone their right to have a good time, but I have to wonder if the general purpose of FCBD hasn't evolved into something less coherent than it was initially proposed, as more of an all-purpose Up With Comics! day than any concentrated industry outreach. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but giving free comics to people who would probably buy them anyway seems slightly . . . useless? But then, that brings to mind a pithy aphorism I once gave my father: I don't necessarily think that the glass is half-empty or half-full so much as filled with rotting dog shit. So, if I seem surly and disgruntled, don't mind me and go about your business.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Son of Because I'm Bored

And can't think of anything better to post. And there's at least three people who might be intersted.

Random Shuffle Playlist for 05-04-06
(Driving to work and around Worcester)

Cheesy beans was feeling melancholy this morning.


1. Meat Puppets - Swimming Ground
2. Mogwai - We're No Here
3. Spoon - Sunday Morning, Wednesday Night
4. The Ramones - 53rd & 3rd (Live)
5. New Order - The Village
6. The Velvet Underground - Satellite of Love (Alternate Demo)
7. PJ Harvey - Joy
8. The Chemical Brothers - Enjoyed
9. R.E.M. - Mandolin Strum
10. LCD Soundsystem - Movement
11. Plastikman - Ekko
12. Joy Division - Incubation
13. Meat Puppets - Meat Puppets
14. Stephen Malkmus - Church on White
15. Joy Division - Isolation (Live)
16. David Bowie - Sons of the Silent Age
17. Daft Punk - WDPK 83.7 FM
18. The Strokes - Heart In A Cage
19. Interpol - Evil (Zane Lowe BBC Session)
20. Pavement - Instrumental
21. Cat Power - Lived In Bars
22. Ladytron - He Took Her To A Movie (Live in Sofia)
23. PJ Harvey - Legs
24. Gang of Four - Return the Gift
25. Spoon - Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now
26. The New Pornographers - Mystery Hours
27. Neko Case - Stinging Velvet
28. Autechre - IV Vv IV Vv VIII

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Holy Wow


Those who have followed this blog for any amount of time probably remember me mentioning The New Yorker every once in a while, in particular the fact that I have followed the magazine religiously for many years. Well, that remains true despite the occasional bit of bloated self-mythologizing or rancid upper-class scrambling. They may not be anywhere near as hip as they pretend to be, but that is mostly irrelevant to the magazine's real strength, which is the quality of its writing. So if you're going to take it seriously you need to learn to ignore the holier-than-thou mewlings of the petit-bohemian classes and focus in on the writing, which remains, despite the occasional clunker, stronger across the boards than either of its immediate peers, Harpers and The Atlantic. Both of these magazines are filled to the brim with interesting writing on current affairs, history, the arts and any number of smaller but no less interesting fields, in addition to the occasional piece of personal memoir and fiction (sadly absent from The Atlantic's now, exiled to a summer annual which is not sent to subscribers such as myself). But neither of them can manage more than a monthly or every-six-weeks schedule, whereas The New Yorker comes to my mailbox every week of the year, with the exceptions of a few double issues strategically dispatched across the calender to cover staff vacations.

While it is sometimes true that not every article in the magazine is equally interesting (Tuscan butchers? Really, seven pages on how to slaughter a God-damned pig is a bit of overkill), the boring articles are almost always outweighed by the genuinely interesting. In the most recent issue, for instance, the oddly placed Tuscan butcher feature was offset with an engrossing twelve-page narrative feature on the recent trial of two Mafia-affiliated cops in New York City, as well as a masterful overview of the new Philip Roth novel -- in the latter case, something I am definitely interested in, and in the former, something I did not know to be interested in, but which I was very glad to have learned about.

But every once in a great while they sneak in a piece of writing that manages to be not simply entertaining or informative, but legitimately stunning. Every few months or so they run a piece that distinguishes itself not merely in the context of the magazine but as something larger and more significant -- one of those rare essays that manages to stick in your head as more than merely the sum of the information imparted, as a piece of genuinely beautiful writing. The magazine's frequent personal memoirs are not usually highlights -- often they are merely the rather fatuous mumblings of retired staff members going through their metaphysical back pages, part of the self-mythology that calcifies around the magazine's worst impulses. Even a good writer, when given carte blanche to communicate his innermost secrets, usually flounders on anecdote and self-congratulation -- Calvin Trillan's recent extended obituary for his dead wife is a great example of a good writer unmoored by sentiment. The current vogue for memoir notwithstanding, writing about your own life and the people you have known is hard work, usually as much so for the reader as the writer.

Which is why the recent issue (dated May 1, 2006), contained a genuine surprise. Tucked quietly into the middle of the magazine there was a memoir written by a young Chicago-based essayist, on the subject of him and his wife's inability to conceive, punctuated by both an early-term miscarriage and a harrowing, almost unbelievable stillborn birth, the child delivered four days after its death. Usually a story like this would be -- either despite or because of the overwhelming subject matter -- unbearable to read, either maudlin and sentimental or a Hemingway-esque exercise in stoic detachment. Neither approach would have worked.

Writing about personal tragedy, as I have discovered, is one of the most difficult challenges a writer can face. Anyone can list a catalog of tragedies and create a sympathetic effect in a reader -- readers are human, they understand tragedy because they can relate to the sensation of loss and grief in their own lives. But that's cheap. To wring literary meaning out of tragedy (the phrase seems slightly obscene, as if you're capitalizing on grief in order to produce a marketable effect) requires more than merely inviting the reader to remember their own grief through a numbing reiteration of memory and ceremony, it requires the writer to invite the audience into their own heads, not merely to experience sorrow vicariously but to fully inhabit their distinctive personal sadness. That is the difference, in a nutshell, between so much good writing and bad: a bad writer presents the facts (or fictions) and lazily allows the reader to bridge the mental and emotional gaps with their own experience, while a good writer can invite the reader to experience these sensations fully and completely in the context of the page.

Such it is with the essay in question from last week's New Yorker, plainly entitled "Vessels". While presenting the chronology of events in a fairly straightforward manner, the author also manages to fill a deceptively full history of his relationship with his wife, from their first date through to the present. Little gestures that can mean so little in the context of everyday life are offered up with full metaphorical fullness, not as dry Jamesian symbols but authentic mementoes of life and living, the kind of small hooks on which the memories and emotions of reminiscence are hung. The tone is conversational, almost intimate. Over the course of the essay themes are not developed and tone is not established, they are merely there, presented in an almost invisible manner that makes the process seem effortless. This is the type of brilliant essay that would be impossible to use in a composition class, because there is absolutely nothing teachable in the way the author manages to pack so much information into such a seemingly threadbare structure. This isn't exactly minimalism, it more resembles a magic act. As a writer myself I almost despair, seeing something done so masterfully and with such seeming lack of effort or pretense (of course, I at least know that the "seeming" lack of effort is a ruse, so there is some small satisfaction in that). You know you are in the presence of a master when the author manages to work in a reference to what is undoubtedly my favorite William Carlos Williams poem -- without seeming forced or trite he uses the allusion to build on previously established emotional terrain in just such a way that those who remember the poem are immediately shocked into sudden reminiscence, once-mysterious implications revealing themselves with matter-of-fact confidence. Those who have never read the poem (Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow", incidentally), will pass over the reference with little consequence for the essay, but those who remember will feel a slight and sudden twinge of vertiginous recognition.

Who, you may ask, is the author of this piece, the writer with such skill? Surely it must be some established figure, a recognized genius of letters, to be able to achieve such sophisticated and devastating effects with such seemingly simple tools. It is, in fact, a name that might be familiar to readers of this blog -- Mr. Daniel Raeburn.

Wha huh? Did I catch that right?

I did a double take myself. Sure enough, it is the same Daniel Raeburn who has long been a mainstay of the comics cogniscenti, publishing the irregularly-scheduled Imp, less a periodical than a series of captivating monographs on some of the most interesting cartoonists currently working, as well as Jack T. Chick, and, uh, Mexican pornographic comics. The Imp ceased publishing a while back after Raeburn reportedly lost his shirt printing his lovingly-researched but vaguely Quixotic tribute to the aforementioned Mexican porn books. His name showed up on the credits for a recent Chris Ware monograph produced by the Yale, the second full-length study Raeburn has devoted to Ware (following an issue of The Imp). Those who follow these things knew that he had been working on a book-length treatment of Ivan Brunetti's work that was eventually abandoned in the wake of the Mexican porn comics affair, and there were distant rumblings of some kind of book deal in the offing. (The name of the forthcoming book is, according to The New Yorker's contributors page, The Imp of the Perverse.)

It's not that I'm surprised to see that Raeburn is a good writer. The Imp was always well-done, and he remained probably the best comics writer (as in, writer on comics) to have escaped the orbit of either The Comics Journal or the nascent blogosphere. And let's be frank: up until very recently, calling someone a good comics' critic has been the equivalent of labelling them the world's tallest midget. It's a small field. We are lucky enough to have some very good writers working in and around the field -- Tom Spurgeon is probably the best right now, although he's said he has no pressing interest in pursuing another book-length treatment similar to his recent Stan Lee book with Jordan Raphael, which is a damn shame. Mark Evanier deserves to be mentioned as well, in the same breath as other infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely wise raconteurs such as R.C. Harvey and R. Fiore (although, obviously, Fiore is a bit more of a smartass than the first two). I personally have learned a great deal from reading Ng Suat Tong, and I regret that his work is not currently featured more regularly in the Journal. The blogosphere has also produced a few interesting voices, with Jog (AKA Joe McCulloch) being probably the most interesting writer on the subject of superheroes currently working. But still -- even if you're generous, even if you include mostly retired commentators such as Gary Groth and dilettante critics such as Eddie Campbell -- this is an incredibly small pond.

And it looks as if Raeburn has raised the stakes. The comics intelligentsia (chortle, snort) has always been a small clubhouse, not so much on the basis of any exclusivity but by the fact that there are only so many smart people writing and caring about comics at any given time. It's kind of like a club where the members get to take turns giving each other Tabasco sauce enemas, for all the prestige and acclaim we get (yes, I say "we" probably by default, with full awareness of the meager nature of my own contributions). And yet, maybe this strange isolated subculture has managed to produce some talent of note. It's long been accepted as conventional wisdom that if we want good writing about comics we need to produce it ourselves -- no one is going to do it for us. For better or for worse, those of us who write about comics on either a semi-pro or amateur basis (is there such a thing as a fully professional comics critic? do they live in a refrigerator box?) have the responsibility of presenting the medium in as full a light as possible. If Daniel Raeburn is producing work of this quality (even if this essay isn't related to comics, it speaks well for his future endeavors), then every single one of us needs to take a hard look at our game. It's intimidating to read a piece like "Vessels" and realize, "hey, this guy is one of us . . . he may be ten times the writer I am on my best day, but dammit, he got his start writing about Dan Clowes in a self-published zine." Maybe there's hope for us all.

Or, at the very least, if Raeburn can get in The New Yorker, maybe one day Swank* will publish one of my letters. I'd even settle for Club International. I'm not picky.




* Swank is the Black Tail of caucasian porn mags. You just knew I was going to end it on a classy note, right?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Wars and Rumors of War


I recently had occasion to order from the Discount Comic Book Service. I had never used the service before and was wondering how they compared with similar retailers. Well, I placed an order back in February (not an advance order, I ordered two books which had been out for months and which they listed as in stock) and it just arrived yesterday. All this after numerous e-mails to costumer service went unanswered. So yeah, I don't think I'll be using these guys again. I don't expect much in the way of costumer service from online retailers, and they failed to meet the minimum requirement for competence.

The best online retailer I've found is Buy.com, which guarantees ten percent off of Amazon's listed price, as well as free shipping on orders over $25. The free shipping usually makes up for any price difference between the site and deeper discounters like AllDirect.com (although AllDirect is still my first choice for buying music online -- the discount is usually significant enough that as long as you buy two or more CDs you're saving a fair amount of money). Plus, I have never received a dented or scuffed book from Buy.com, which is something I cannot say for Amazon. Every once in a while I will encounter something I can't find on Buy.com, and in those instances I might actually (gasp!) buy something at the store. But the internet usually does a good job of serving my retail needs.

I guess I should mumble some sort of half-hearted apology to all the comics retailers in the audience, but I don't think their feelings are much hurt. Most good comic book stores offer subscription discounts that can alleviate the pain of buying massive amounts of comics. The last store I frequented (the wonderful Comic Empire of Tulsa) offered a 20% discount, but I understand that's rare. (Perhaps he was unusual, although I can't say for certain, in that by far the lion's share of his business was through subscriptions, and he also had a handful of costumers who regularly ponied up for the obscenely expensive items -- statue collections and limited edition hardcovers -- that you and I usually make fun of when we see them in the catalog [not to mention the small but lucrative trickle of significantly old books that be managed to place in the hands of willing buyers]. He could afford to be generous, because he made a mint. A small business with low overhead and a pathologically devoted costumer base willing to pony up insane chunks of money for useless tchochkes ordered by phone from a single primary distributer -- it's the American dream.) I've seen anywhere from 5%-15% offered as the "industry standard". But I don't buy very many comics anymore, and most of what I do buy comes in book form. My discretionary income is small enough that I can't afford to pay full price when I can go cheaper, and even if I did have the money it would be stupid to do so unless a local retailer went out of their way to provide me with reason to patronize them.

There's a really good comic book store about a mile from my house (That's Entertainment), but honestly, I don't go in there often. I buy comics so rarely these days that I value the ones I do all the more, and I want to get the most "bang" for my buck. I know that's just a variation on the same old shuck and jive that is generally considered to be killing small businesses across the country, but there you go. People wouldn't be shopping at Wal-Mart if they didn't need the goods at the prices offered -- it's hardly a status symbol. For me, also, the retail experience is greatly improved by the privacy of my own living room, which is something that most small business won't be able to counter unless they bring back door-to-door salespeople.

So where is this going? I don't really know, to be honest, I just sat down with the idea of putting up a post about something or other and ended up typing a lot. Anyway, I don't doubt that there are numerous good comic stores out there -- That's Entertainment is definitely one, which is probably why I don't go there much so I don't feel guilty for not spending more money -- and ultimately they can't really feel bad about losing me as a costumer. I respect what they do, but right now I'm just too poor to pay a premium for good service. And ultimately, that's what it comes down to. If you own a comic book store, you best provide good costumer service, or you've already lost the only advantage you have against places like Buy.com.

Monday, May 01, 2006





Travels With Larry

Demo

by Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan


The cover for the collected edition of Demo (also the cover for the first issue of the twelve-issue limited series which the book compiles) is probably as accurate and representative a depiction of the series' thematic preoccupations as could be expected. It tells a story in and of itself, totally separate from any knowledge of the book's interior: two people, a boy and a girl, clad in the counter-cultural mufti of our time -- jeans and t-shirts -- with distinctive haircuts and jewelry, set against a backdrop of expressionless, almost-identical drones in colorless corporate attire. The boy and the girl -- is there any doubt that they are lovers? -- spring out from the gray and black background by virtue of their colorful individuality. They are interesting and vibrant and alive, and the people around them are demonstrably not.

To be young is to perceive oneself as special and unique. Demo is, above all else, a paean to the idea of youth, to the notion that being young and opinionated and vibrant makes one important, and that being emotionally aware and expressive and articulate is the casus belli that justifies any degree of self-indulgence. Although that description might sound contentious, perhaps even reductive, it is also correct, albeit from the perspective of an outsider. With a book like Demo, you're either "in" or you're "out", you either get it or you don't -- and despite everything I've said in the preceding two paragraphs, this is hardly a bad thing.

I've been putting off reviewing Demo as whole entity for a while now. The book has been bouncing around my head since I had the opportunity to read it in entirety, a strange and diffuse piece of storytelling that, despite a number of individual flaws, somehow manages to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It is an intimidating piece of work not because of any specific virtues, but because it seems to focus a number of disparate ideas that have percolated across comics (and the greater media) for many years. Demo is credited to Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, but it carries the imprimatur of an entire generation of young comics creators. It is important less for what it is than for what it represents. Those of us who don't "get" it in the same visceral manner can appreciate the series, but we can't inhabit it in the same way as the intended audience.

It first began to dawn on me that something distinctive and different was happening in the world of comics when a copy of Rick Spears & Rob G.'s Teenagers From Mars crossed my desk. It struck me at the time as an ineffably alien artifact, the product of a wondrously strange and inescapably modern mixture of confidence and vulnerability. As I said in my review of the book for the Poopsheet:
... [This] is perhaps the most intensely juvenile book I've read in ages. I don't mean that in a pejorative way - not necessarily - but this book captures the rhythms and preoccupations of teenage life so unnerringly that the pages practically sweat surplus testosterone. If there is an emotion worth feeling, it's worth feeling to incredible extremes. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing as violently as possible. Reading this book made me realize how completely I have become an adult, with all the stodgy quietude that implies. I realize we're supposed to root for young punks out to buck "the system" and get one over on "the man", but seriously, this is so incredibly over-the-top that you can't help but occasionally roll your eyes.

Now, Demo is a much more quiet book than Teenagers From Mars, but the same level of emotional urgency is common throughout both works. There are any number of books on the stands right now that seem to benefit from a similar degree of emotional authority. Although it's a word that has fallen into disrepair, I daresay Demo definitely qualifies as "emo" (just subtract the "D") - that is, overwhelmingly emotional, sometimes to the detriment of the art itself, aimed squarely at creating an emotional bond between art and audience that supersedes the kind of critical discernment that might create a natural sense of distance.

The authors' intentions in this matter are easy to discern. Although "emo" is considered by most to be a pejorative - and yeah, I would definitely group the word with a host of negative associations - it's also, like any label, occasionally useful in a general sense. In her brief introduction to the Demo collection, Cloonan states that:
It's so surreal, when I look back on each story I can remember where I was and what I was feeling when I drew each page. I hope this collection brings back memories for everyone; the store that you bought a particular issue at, where you were when you read it, the people you lent your copies to and never got back . . . [Emphasis mine]

And so without even reading a single story the tone is set. These are the kind of emotional artifacts that the reader is supposed to appreciate not on any kind of passive, critical level but on a fully immersive and completely interactive manner. You should identify so fully with the characters and situations on display that any gap between the creator and audience is essentially nullified. Just like the most plaintive pop music, Demo (which is itself a musical term) should be accepted on purely visceral terms or not at all.

I'm not even that much older than the creators in this particular instance here, but it strikes me that there is a peculiar lack of humility in this kind of presentation. An emotion does not become automatically interesting merely by virtue of the fact that it is strongly felt. This notion has, obviously, fell out of favor in pop culture in recent years, due to a number of reasons. The gap between artifice and authentic emotion has never been wider. Society has created a kind of fevered, unstable pseudo-authenticity to dominate the same corners of the public sphere where restraint and modesty used to hold sway. Is it any wonder that those artists and musicians who profess to feel real, unabashed and uncontrollable emotion have become the objects of such incredible devotion? Everything is either put forward with a built-in ironic detachment or unimpeachable, hyper-real sincerity. To merely accept the pretense of being an entertainer or an artist or a writer is to be hopelessly old-fashioned: you have to bleed for your art.

So to ask whether or not I like Demo is rather besides the point. Those who love Demo will really love it, to distraction and beyond any rational sense of perspective. That's OK. In fact, that's more than OK - that's great. Non-"mainstream" comics have been accused of pandering to bargain-basement intellectuals for long enough, it's about time the "New Mainstream" lived up to its promise and produced something equally as passionate as the most heartfelt and pulse-pounding contemporary examples of genre work. I have a strong feeling that Demo is going to be around for a long time, and given the positive word of mouth that books like these thrive upon it could become a mainstay of comic shops and trendy bookstores across the country. Five and ten and twenty years from now there's a good chance Demo will be one of those books that future creators cite as a touchstone, the kind of "Wow" moment that makes a person want to be a cartoonist, in much the same way as creators now talk about Love & Rockets or Watchmen or (if they're older) Cerebus or Howard the Duck of Zap.

Although it would be, perhaps, futile to try and grade Wood and Cloonan against each other, I think it's plain that Cloonan made the stronger showing. Although Wood definitely has an eye for a certain type of character, he flounders at some important points. In the context of a single-issue story, it's hard to build all the requisite elements - mood, tone, setting - all while establishing your characters and letting the plot grow naturally from their interactions and conflicts. Writing a short story is one of the most difficult things for any writer to master. So if a few of the stories rely more on the reader's presumed familiarity with a character type than on the honest-to-goodness business of building a distinctive character, that's probably to be expected. But it hurts the work in the eyes of those who don't necessarily recognize themselves in the guise of the modern hipster, or who don't necessarily see a distinctive band T-shirt as appropriate short-hand characterization. Character is not fashion, and while the way characters dress and what they do with their hair may imply a certain character type, it is no substitute for the hard, brick & mortar work of building a compelling character. This is a problem that Adrian Tomine occasionally flounders with as well.

Cloonan's art steals the show. It's no real surprise that, immediately following the completion of Demo, Cloonan found herself with high-profile assignments from DC / Vertigo, Tokyopop and even the Graphic Novel Classics interpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. She's got the chops, and the kind of questing, elastic style that usually bodes well for an artist's long term growth and presence. If anything, having all twelve issues of Demo between two covers draws attention to how far Cloonan still has to go in terms of exploring her style. I remember, reading each issue individually, how different they seemed, and how apt some of Cloonan's artistic choices seemed for the different stories on display. But when seen together, the similarities stick out as well.

Seeing a generation of American creators come up with manga as a dominant influence on their storytelling draws attention, in an odd way, to unique facets of American comics. Although Cloonan displays a remarkable facility for changing her style to suit her subject, she still uses the kind of subjective dramatic style common for manga - keeping an intense focus on telling a story through emotional perspective as opposed to a more European or American distance, the more "objective" separation of audience and subject that you would find in a Tin Tin novel, a Chester Brown story or a 60s Marvel comic, where the characters are constrained by the panel and their visual relationship to the reader is far more circumscribed. If Cloonan ever steps away from the manga modes and puts as much attention to the underlying storytelling modes of her books as the surface style, she could yet become even more of an essential talent than she already is.

I am notoriously skeptical of passion. Passion has been responsible for so much bad art, so much misguided exertion on the behalf of well-meaning expression, that it's almost impossible for me to take it seriously anymore - give me good old-fashioned curmudgeonly professionalism any day of the week. The current state of hyperbole-saturated dialogue on the medium is simply too much at times - reading through many blogs, even those written by intelligent people whose opinions I may respect, the level of exaggeration and hyperbole is positively noxious. I realize I've been occasionally guilty of this as well, but lately I've been trying to put some distance between this kind of casually ironic hype and myself. Usually, if you notice, I try to modify any pronouncements I make - not because I'm necessary a mealy-mouthed wish-washy type, but because I strive for an accurate representation of my thoughts - no, "Kicksplode! That's all you need!!!" or "Best. Comic. Evar." These kind of pronouncements used to be fun in an ironic way but now that almost everyone talks like this as a matter of course it's almost impossible to gain any perspective. So, as you can imagine, I've become almost systematically disinclined towards those books which have become the mainstays of our blogosphere -- no Scott Pilgrim, thanks, and I'll pass on Seven Soldiers. But I confess to having enjoyed Demo far more than perhaps I should admit - despite the fact that I'm very obviously not the target audience, there is an energy and an enthusiasm that is almost impossible to resist. Whatever individual criticisms the book may elicit, it is apparent that Wood and Cloonan have succeeded in creating something that, moreso than merely presenting the appearance of importance, is actually important. Anyone in the future who wants to understand what was going on in comics at this particular point in time will look back at Demo, because it says a lot in an extremely succinct manner. It's flaws are, in many respects, the flaws of youth and passion - and right now we've got a lot of people in comics going through these exact same growing pains. Eventually, given time, these flaws will be tempered by age and experience - and that's as it should be. No one, except for Chris Ware, is born old, most of us have to work for it.

So I'd like to lay down a particular challenge for Wood, Cloonan and publisher Larry Young. Whatever happens in the intervening decades, in twenty years you should come back and give us a sequel - Demo 2.0, or whatever you want to call it. Give us another twelve issues of different characters and individual stories, but give us the benefit of another two decade's living. That would be something worth getting excited about.