Friday, August 24, 2007


First, before anyone asks, I had nothing to do with this. However, as you may imagine, I am sympathetic towards their stated goal. If in the course of human events you made the decision to aid their Quixotic crusade, I would not lift a finger to stop you.

Looking over some recent comics I was skimming, something jumped out at me that I believe I had been aware of on an unconscious level but hadn't really given the thought necessary to properly articulate. In general: there's a lot of boring shit in DC comics. Specifically: gratuitous martial arts hi-jinks.

Martial arts are really hard to pull off in comic form. Frankly, you need a really good artist to even think about doing it justice - or, failing that, an artist whose particular stylistic tics are well-served by depictions of intimately physical combat grounded at least partially in "real world" physics (a la Paul Gulacy - I defy anyone to call him a particularly good artist, but he's great at drawing kung-fu shit). Barring that, kung-fu in comics becomes just another type of generic super-power, and a particularly boring one at that, because 90% of all martial arts face-offs seem to boil down to people talking about how dangerous a certain character is instead of actually doing anything to prove it to the reader.

But nowadays it seems like every other damn DC book I see is obsessed with martial-arts, in particular the martial-arts acumen of folks like Black Canary, both Green Arrows, Batman and his brood, Nightwing, the whole cast of Birds of Prey, and a boatload of faceless schmucks whose names I couldn't be bothered to remember. It's like these characters and a boatload of their villains are walking around at all times with a bracket scorecard in their pockets with who has beat whom written in with one of those little golf pencils. Marvel has martial arts dudes too, but for the most part ninjas at Marvel are faceless cannon fodder who exist merely to pad out stories. Those few name-brand characters who depend on the martial arts usually either stay clear of the "mainstream" universe, wisely avoiding super-powered shenanigans - Shang-Chi until very recently - or they have some kind of gimmick, like Iron Fist and his, um, iron fist, which allows them to go toe-to-toe with killer robots and the like without totally breaking the suspension of disbelief.

Where exactly did this preoccupation with kung-fu shenanigans begin? My gut says Ostrander's Suicide Squad, although I may be wrong. What began as an occasional feature evolved into a motif, until a whole corner of the universe calcified around the concept that the reader cares which characters are better at fake karate. Honestly, I could not care less whether Lady Shiva is better than Cassie Cain or Bronze Tiger or Black Canary - I say, just call Metamorpho and have him turn their lungs into cyanide or something, or have Superman put them in jail at super-speed so they can move on to fighting someone interesting. I seem to recall Chuck Dixon was particularly enamored with the sub-Bruce Lee action, and he grafted these preoccupations onto the characters and titles he wrote during his tenure at DC. He never wrote much at Marvel, which probably explains why people in the Marvel Universe have better things to do than keep track of fake kung-fu shit.

Because, really, you have to be a special type of nerd pervert to get off on a static four-color representation of something film does so much better, and which very few artists can draw as anything other than generic fighting. It takes a lot of skill to make martial arts sing on the comics page, and most of the folks who draw kung-fu battles in the pages of DC Comics can't really pull it off above the level of people blandly punching and kicking each other. Just seems particularly silly to me, and betrays an almost criminal misunderstanding about what works and what doesn't work on the printed page.

I've been thinking about Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for a while now, since it hit shelves about a month ago. It's inevitable that our reaction to this album would be influenced by their previous release, 2005's Gimme Fiction. This is not necessarily a flattering comparison, considering that Gimme Fiction was released to universal (and deserved) critical acclaim. That it has managed to hold onto this estimable reputation long after the first blush of hype is all the more precious in this contentious day and age. I resisted it at first myself, but after a handful of listenings it was obvious that Gimme Fiction was as close to a stone-cold masterpiece as is humanly possible. Despite the ostensibly smooth post-punk indie rock exterior, they somehow managed to work just enough of a Sticky Fingers-era Stones feel to conjure a magnificent tension - sort of like tiny drops of machine oil and grease dirtying up the gleaming finish of some massive retro-futuristic machine.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga seems to be a conscious attempt to scale back, even considering the fact that Spoon was already a stridently minimalist combo. There are a couple pieces of pure pop scattered throughout - "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "The Underdog", both in the mold of Fiction's "Sister Jack" - but the boisterous nature of these tracks only sets the contemplative mood of the rest of the album into sharper contrast. This is a mood piece, filled with malingering grooves and half-time Motown rhythms. The hooks are still here, but they've gone from being merely subtle to practically subliminal. This is almost the definition of a "grower": it may take a while to ingratiate itself fully, but you'll find yourself returning time after time regardless. It's not Gimme Fiction II, I'll say that, and I'm almost glad it isn't. I can definitely respect a band that chooses to follow-up their commercial and critical breakthrough with a slightly abstruse exercise in sustained mood. They're probably already making as much money on an indie label as they would be with a major, given the current climate - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is prominently displayed at Target, which is definitely a sign of the changing times. I'd say at this point they really don't need to prove anything to anybody, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is as quietly defiant a piece of work as you're likely to hear this year.

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