Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This Is Why I Am Probably Not Going To Be
Posting Anything For At Least Another Week

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

About How I Feel Right About Now


Friday, June 22, 2007

Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


I never knew what to do in college. I used to walk around by myself and stare at the baleful moon, shooting rats and staring through the windows of the houses down the street.

You learn a lot about cities while they sleep, and Berkeley is no exception. For one thing, a college town doesn’t really sleep. The closest you get is the gray haze of the last hour before sunrise, when the only folks awake are night owls burning the candle at both ends. That’s the hour I love the most, when you can smell the potential in the air, like the crisp taste of cloves on your tongue.

I loved Berkeley, but I never felt at home there. Somehow, even though I felt a great affection for the city and its inhabitants, I never felt as if I were a part of the organism. There was always something keeping me away, setting me apart from the normal course of events. I often wondered why it seemed as if I was cursed to stand apart, to walk alone . . . but now I have come to understand that it was merely my destiny, if such a word is appropriate. I don’t know if I believe in destiny but I know now that I was set apart for special things. There is no such thing as coincidence: I see that now.

The town is built around the University like a cocoon protecting a soft pulpy mass of flesh. The campus is set into the base of the hillside, with the cyclotron and the defense laboratories resting on the roof of the town, overlooking the entire bay. Because of the research they do up on the hill there are spies everywhere, but most of the students and faculty are unaware of their presence.

I met a spy once. It was during those happy and carefree days when I had managed, against all odds, to forget the constant and unremitting danger I lived with. It was the pills I took, the pills my mother made me take that dulled my senses and were fattening me for the eventual kill.

When I stopped taking them I began to perceive the world as I once had, with all the colors and sounds and shapes that I had forgotten. I had allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security, and as unforgivable as that was I knew I had no one to blame for this turn of events but myself.

There’s something strange in the Berkeley air. I don’t know if I could find it at another school, in another school-town in another state or country. But as you rise up on the gradually sloping eastern hill on which the town as built you also pass up and through and into a different state of mind, as if you are passing through and up and apart from the constraints and conceits of mundane life. College has its own mundane, its own sense of normalcy, but it is far removed from gas stations and pharmacies.

You ride a bus up from the freeway. If you took the freeway through to its terminus you’d either end up in San Francisco or San Jose. If you needed to go to either place you could simply take BART, but BART only stopped at Shattuck, a block west of the campus.

The closer you edge to the campus, the more conventional civilization begins to fall by the wayside. Amazingly, there are no fast food restaurants inside the campus or, in fact, anywhere east of Shattuck. Of course, you can find a Taco Bell, a McDonalds and Burger King all within about a quarter mile radius of each other. I had McDonalds every Wednesday afternoon and it was a treat after the bland and starchy stink of dorm food.

On the last block of University Avenue before you enter the University you pass Comic Relief (although I hear they have since moved) and a decent record store whose name escapes me. But then you reach the streetcorner right before the big gate and there’s an administrative building right there, rather large and clunky and God have mercy on you if you have to go in there.

The entrance to the University is laid out in a large U-shaped courtyard before you reach the actual roads that line the campus. Of course, the roads themselves are closed to most traffic, with the exception of emergency vehicles and groundskeepers and the like. As you head up University drive there’s a beautiful grove of trees to your immediate right, a hidden track of darkened greenery left to quiet and contemplation on warm spring days when the campus fills with the noise of city activity.

After the copse you pass two life sciences buildings. If you keep going due east you’ll pass the huge library complex set at the top of a beautiful northward sloping glade. It’s a straight shot to the stadium and the amphitheater, both set into the hill at the rear of the campus proper, directly under the grade that leads to the cyclotron.

But I usually turn right after the life sciences building, climbing a small hillock between the massive Dwinelle complex and the tiny Durant Hall. That’s one of the most beautiful places on campus, a small glade with green grass and trees with huge spreading leaves perfect for passing an hour or two with a book, watching the people pass. In the fall and the spring, that’s when the girls pass by with their sundresses on. Girls don’t wear slips anymore.

Of course when you pass by Dwinelle you’re almost to Sather Gate and once you pass through those great grand wrought iron archways you’re in Sproul Plaza and you’re in the full press of history and fully in the midst of the assembled student body. There are always people, always people at all times of the day and in all situations.

This is where the riots were held, the famous protests and the chants and the marches. Of course, all that’s in the past now. There are always some token politicos on the scene – it goes without saying – but the overriding emotion on this campus, and I assume on campuses across the country, is apathy. People work hard to get into these universities. They work hard once they’re in the universities. If they don’t work hard, they party. They don’t want to throw away their personal achievements or their equally important personal luxuries on some vague sense of broad responsibilities. There are just too many things to do, and no one cares. I didn’t, and knowing what I know now I can't say that my priorities were entirely misguided.

I’ve been to the campus at Santa Cruz and it’s really amazing how they designed it to be the polar opposite of Berkeley. It was built in the years immediately after the unrest of the nineteen-sixties, so it was planned without any central location, no unifying plaza like Berkeley had with Sproul. All you have is a string of disparate campuses set miles apart in the midst of a primeval forest. It lacks something very vital to the college experience, I think.

Opposite the Sproul building in the plaza is the King Student Union building. The University bookstore sits in the Union’s basement along with a few related retailers, the college memorabilia store and a small convenience outlet that sold cheap candy. There are also a few assembly rooms in the union as well as the ballroom. A large staircase curves down from the ballroom mezzanine.

I’ve been to the top floor of the Union exactly once, on a campus tour during my junior year of high school. It was a good trip. I was still taking my pills during that part of my life and I suppose I was distracted by any number of things. That is maybe why I made the decision to come to Berkeley.

Anyway, after a brief meeting with an enrollment executive, we dispersed and were given a few minutes to ourselves in the union building. I found an exterior porch to the side of the main meeting room, a small rooftop alcove facing west over the city of Berkeley and towards the bay. On a perfectly clear afternoon you can see the fifteen odd miles from the top of Berkeley on through to the Golden Gate Bridge, and if you catch the afternoon just right you can see the sun setting through distant gaps in high tension cables drawn and pulled half a century ago. That’s when I knew I wanted to go to Berkeley. I tried to take a picture but – of course – I ran out of film at just the wrong moment, and when I turned around the sun had moved and the image was gone, save for a lingering shiver in memory.

But memory is like that. It creeps and crawls like a chimera, tricking and taunting you from behind a curtain. You think you remember something but you don’t, not really, not really in any meaningful way. Memory can be an illusion, a cruel deception. Of course, this seems overwrought, like something in an adolescent diary. But its hard to feel anything but grim resentment towards the workings of your own mind when you know you’ve been set upon, betrayed and trapped by circumstance. They’ve been lying to me since the day I was born, and sometimes I want so badly to just accept the lies and the illusions, to convince myself that I’m happy because the world says I should be, that I should take my pills because I need to be healthy.

But I don’t want to be “healthy”. If I’m healthy then the men who killed my father, who killed 3,000 people in New York and countless thousands more across the world, will be able to get away with it.

Once I took apart one of those pills they send me in the mail. I cut the membrane open with an exacto knife and there was a small creature living inside it, a small pink worm with minuscule antennae sticking out of its forehead. When I opened the capsule there was a brief whiff of something pungent, like valerian root mixed with sulfur. I surmised that this was the creature’s atmosphere, this was the air it needed to survive in the pill until it could prosper in my innards.

After I saw this I was repulsed. I emptied my stomach in my wastebasket and lay on the hard industrial carpeted floor of my dorm and sweat in the cold for a quarter of an hour. I didn’t eat for two days, rather I flushed my body with the harshest laxatives I could find. I drank castor oil by the bottle. I gave myself repeated enemas, one after another.

Finally, when I was satisfied that I had done everything I could to flush the creatures out of my system I began a regimen of white rice and distilled water, which I kept to for a full month. I dropped twenty superfluous pounds and felt better than I had in ages. The spiritual visions that had almost left me forever returned with a vengeance, and I began once more to understand things which I had imagined forgotten.

Sometimes I tried to see if there were any bugs left in my system. Once I saw small shapes burrowing in the flesh of my forearm, so I took a knife and tried to dig them out. I never found them, however. If they are still there I can’t find them. Maybe they die and rot.

Berkeley is a beautiful city, a wonderful place to live and to learn. But there’s also something unbearably disingenuous here as well, something rotten and sticky and covered in vomit right at the very core. Sometimes when I would walk around in the night I would see things, I would see people doing things I didn’t understand, that couldn’t make sense. But I saw them nonetheless, and I had no choice but to try and reconcile what I had seen with that I desperately wished to believe was true in this world.

There are garbage trucks that run in the night, making their way unobserved through the tight city streets of America’s great cities. The trucks stop at a corner in a major metropolis and men in black leather jumpsuits pour out of the back. These men wear helmets that obscure their faces. They carry high-caliber machine rifles slung over their shoulders.

They pour into the ghettos and barrios and liquidate the homeless and the abandoned on America’s streets. They take the bodies and put them into the back of the truck where the remains are never seen again. People just disappear off the streets. I’ve never seen it but I’ve heard tell.

After Sproul you come up against the southern border of the campus and Bancroft Avenue. Bancroft runs all the way down back to Shattuck, where the movie theaters and the Barnes & Noble are. But right down the way out of the union and by the tree-lined sidewalk you find yourself on Telegraph Avenue, the heart and soul of the campus. When I dream of Berkeley, this is where my sleeping heart brings me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Don't Really Know How To React To This

Monday, June 18, 2007

In Which The Author Complains About Shit - What A Concept!

Inevitably someone asks me in the comments why I bother to go see these horrible movies I end up loathing and tearing apart. Usually the answers are simple: that I don't really have anything better to do; that a trip to see a bad movie is still a trip to the movis; and that I do get a perverse enjoyment out of watching bad comic book movies so that I can tear them to shreds on my blog. It's easy, it's fun, and it's safe, just like baiting Milwaukee fans.

But I did have a reason for going to see the new Fantastic Four movie. Even though I knew full well it would be horrid going in . . . well, basically, I was paying to see the Silver Surfer onscreen for a few minutes. That's all. That's how much I love the Surfer - I'll gladly sit through a horrid film for the chance of seeing him flying around for just a few minutes. But boy - those few minutes where the Surfer is just flying around looking cool . . . yeah, that's the stuff. If you recall, I said earlier this year that Ghost Rider was the most direct translation of a character's visual appeal I'd seen since the original Superman - well, the Surfer in this film is simply phenomenal, a living breathing distillation of Kirby and Buscema and even Mobius's vision of what the character should be. Just as the Spider-Man movies are peppered with some of Spidey's most iconic poses, there are quite a few moments of Surfer action taken directly from the books. Every moment where the Surfer is onscreen and flying is magic.

But every other moment is pure grade A bullshit. Why does the Fantastic Four franchise look so low-rent? I mean, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk and even Ghost Rider all looked pretty great (regardless of whether or not the movies were worth watching) - but both Fantastic Four movies (or at least, this one and what I saw of the first in passing) have this sort of BBC live action vibe that undercuts every attempt at approximating the grandeur of the source material. This is supremely ironic considering just how grandiose the original books are: when I see Reed's lab in the film it looks like something out of a Disney TV Movie of the Week, not the lair of the world's greatest mad scientist. It's sad to see, considering that if they wanted too they could probably make the films every bit as splendid as the source material: if they applied so much as a hint of the visual panache it took to make the Lord of the Rings films to the Fantastic Four franchise, they could really create something special.

But no, the movies remain stubbornly rooted in a disappointingly literal iteration of reality. Instead of trusting the integrity of the source material, they have to undercut the wild science fantasy with intimations of plausibility. It's not about producing the best Fantastic Four film possible, it's about introducing the saleable concepts to the audience in the most painless and approachable matter possible. So instead of a twenty-five foot tall bald man appearing on the roof of the Baxter Building in the midst of seeming Armageddon to warn the Fantastic Four of the coming of Galactus, you've got Andre Braugher slumming as a generic army general, leading a platoon of central casting soldiers as the Silver Surfer digs giant holes in the earth's crust (...why?) The filmmakers are obviously afraid of their audience's ability to absorb too much in the way of bizarre imagery, so little details liek a fifty-foot tall spaceman in purple britches get swept under the rug in favor of, um, a cloud of rocks. (And how the hell does the Surfer take down Galactus single-handedly? That undercuts the entire logic of the character in one fell swoop.)

There is a way out of this bind, if the folks at the movie studio are paying attention. The success of the new film almost guarantees not only another Fantastic Four sequel but a Silver Surfer spin-off as well. (The fact that the character need not be played by an A-list actor - he's basically silver CGI - probably makes the potential franchise quite attractive for Hollywood.) The Fantastic Four films have intentionally skewed younger than any of the other Marvel movie franchises. In order to give the films license to be as fully amazing as they could be, the studios need to follow this logic to its natural conclusion: make the movies kids movies. Kids don't really have such a problem with sui generis weirdness as adult moviegoers supposedly do. Unlike most of the main Marvel properties, there is really very little in the way of adult situations in either the Fantastic Four or Silver Surfer mythos. I can even see them getting away with something like Mephisto in a G film - Disney's done the devil or some variation thereof a number of times. If you put it in the context of a kids' film, a character like Galactus is not a potential stumbling block for credulous adult audiences, but an extremely toyetic bad guy. The purely cosmic milieu would seem to be uniquely suited for CGI. The studios have done just about everything with CGI, from dinosaurs to insects to underwater to mainstream superheroes, but never aliens - not yet.

Of course, it's all academic - a quick glance at Wikipedia even tells me that they're getting J. Michael Straczynski to write the first draft of the Surfer film. So, you know, it'll probably be pretty horrid as well. But we can dream, right?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Activity Book
by Lynda Barry
(An excerpt from What It Is, to be published
by Drawn & Quarterly in the Spring of 2008)

Writing is a mysterious process leavened by concrete exasperation. In my experience it's not particularly fun and it's not even particularly pleasant, but for those who make a habit of writing, it is necessary and fundamental to the way we live our lives and way we see ourselves. Just how it happens is, honestly, not something that can be easily explained. The breakdown of rational processes ultimately leads to highly irrational conceptualizations of random and inexplicable phenomenon. I don't know: I cannot necessarily explain the process by which words are conceived and born across the medium of fingertips through this keyboard and laptop. To a degree, any attempts at explication seem futile, borne from the basic frustration of having such a large sector of conscience activity thought so summarily blanketed by perfect opacity.

In this regard, teaching someone how to write has always struck me as a uniquely fatuous endeavor. Once you escape the mechanical elements of syntax and diction, sentence structure and paragraph organization (the bare minimum of which must consequentially become instinctual in terms of minute-by-minute production), the actual generative process remains inherently unknown. Where do you get your ideas? Damn good question, I'll be sure to let you know as soon as I find out. Anyone who has been following the novel I've been serializing on this site for a few months now can probably attest that in terms of my own personal inspiration, the resulting ideas are often dark and famished creatures - I don't know why these things always end badly. It's just the way my mind seems to work. These are the ideas that come to me, and the way these stories end (invariably unhappily, for those keeping track) is simply a consequence of the way my logical mind perceives the world.

Those who write regularly are, I suspect, used to the somewhat murky nature of our innermost thoughts: unless you develop some kind of magic formula, it's all an inexact science. (And writers who work by formula are probably by definition formulaic writers.) These processes are no less mysterious to Lynda Barry, and her stream-of-consciousness advice is - while primarily composed of common-sense writing exercises that will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book on writing or took a creative writing workshop - tinted with enough mysterious intimation and personal revelation to make the journey no less fascinating than the supposed goal. That's the secret, inasmuch as there is a secret: the voyage is the goal, and the most interesting, the most inexplicably essential aspects of fiction or memoir writing occur on the margins, the result of serendipitous occlusions that can neither be accounted for or planned. There's a Magic Cephalopod hanging over each of us, waving its tentacles in the breeze as we try desperately to make forward progress in a frustratingly lateral field.

Activity Book is an excerpt from a forthcoming volume (What It Is) composed of tutorials culled from Barry's experience teaching a writing course called "Writing the Unthinkable". It's a very apt title for a course - as much as I tend to distrust writing instruction, I can respect the honesty of any class that admits up-front that insight is quite literally an unthinkable advancement. Time, error and trust (in the strength of your own ideas and your ability to follow through on them) are the essential ingredients. Time is patience - there are numerous points throughout the book where Barry cautions her students to be patient, and to resist fighting against a lack of ideas - "block" - by keeping your mind occupied elsewhere, be it on doodles or formal exercises. The idea (and this is something that unfortunately eludes us habitual typists) is to keep your pen moving, to keep the pen connected to the paper by whatever means necessary, giving inspiration the optimum environment to flourish whenever it does happen to arrive (taking its own sweet time.)

Barry's work carries a unique flavor that seems well suited to such an amorphous topic. Rather than merely producing a didactic sequence, she seems to have produced a narrative out of the very act of creation: charting a specific, tangible course through unnavigable waters, drawing arrows to empty spaces that only the reader can fill. The constant questioning throughout the book, the drawing out of information and revelation on the part of the reader, serves a dual purpose of both introducing the prospective writer to the dramatic and imagistic possibility of their own familiar and supposedly banal experiences, and also making the passive reader aware of the vast areas of mysterious territory lying between their experiences and their ability to communicate these experiences. It is there that inspiration lurks, waiting in shadows to accost the unwary traveler.

And it is to Barry's credit that she makes no attempt to minimize or trivialize the forbidding nature of this process. Reading and rereading the sample pages presented in Activity Book, I kept stumbling across the same sense of ominous dislocation, reinforced throughout by Barry's willingness to expose her reader to the drafty currents of vast and tractless ideas unmoored in our minds. This may well be a useful volume for aspiring writers, but more importantly it is also something unique: an approach to blank autobiography, a uniquely formatted comic that uses the sequential possibilities of collage and the didactic possibilities of narrative to create a pretty much sui generis hybrid of all the above. Based merely on the excerpt presented here, What It Is may very well become the most interesting comic release of the coming year.

(Available for purchase or free with your order here.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Odds and Ends

Because I am a Sucker I purchased the first issue of J. Michael Straczynski's new Silver Surfer book. I won't be buying another. I mean, it's not necessarily a bad story, unless by chance you've ever read another Silver Surfer comic book. The plot hinges on the kind of revelation that seems dramatic until you realize that it flies in the face of forty years of established history. I mean, sure, the Surfer can get sick under his skin, yeah, that makes sense, except that, no, it doesn't, not in the least. The Surfer can't get sick under his skin. He is his skin. He can change his skin or alter his body as he sees fit, as he's done any number of times. He can even remove the skin so that it looks like he's flesh-and-blood (he's done that a few times over the years). He's even been chopped up into little bitty bits and pieces, only to be put back together again, a la Humpty Dumpty. I mean, the whole concept hinges on the idea that there is something ineffably mortal underneath the Surfers silver exterior - and it's been established time and again that there just isn't, not unless he chooses there to be. The whole business makes about as much as sense as, say, revealing that Spider-Man got his powers from an eons-old Spider-Spirit or that the Fantastic Fours powers were not the result of a random accident but deliberate extraterrestrial interference or that Doctor Strange is really just Neo from The Matrix...

Oh, wait.

How about telling a story that doesn't involve directly contradicting essential elements of characters' origins? Maybe have, I don't know, the Silver Surfer fight Mephisto, or Spider-Man foil Kraven the Hunter's latest scheme. I know, what a concept.

I had the chance this weekend to spend some time toying with one of the new Apple TV devices at a friend's house. I have to say that it is probably the least competent computer peripheral I have ever seen in my entire life. As much as my iPod and my five-year-old iMac laptop are streamlined, accessable and well-conceived, the Apple TV is not... It's hard to start, hard to use, incapable of doing a number of tasks which the device is probably expected to do, it doesn't have an off switch, it only plays iTunes friendly media (unless you want to crack the case and solder some shit). Yeah, it's a pitiful piece of crap wrapped in an attractive iCase. Makes me wonder if the iPhone will live up to the hype, or whether it too will be dogged by poor design and ill-functioning applications.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Friday Night Fights Nookie

Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


I dreamt about a bug my dad used to tell me about when I was a kid. When my dad was in the bush he saw something called a Buju Buju which he later says was one of the most unsettling experiences of his entire military career. He said the Buju Buju was about the size of a normal tick, except it was quite a bit nastier. Instead of merely biting you it would use its teeth to burrow into the flesh on your arm, and work its way into your body like a mole. There it would lay eggs that would hatch and grow into larvae that would eat their way out of your body and destroy you as they did so.

He saw a man with a Buju Buju infection once. They woke up in the bush and the man had the telltale divot on his arm that told him he had been infected. The man could feel the bug burrowing up his arm, slowly, and they could see a deep purple bruise up the side of his arm where the bug had made his path. They had to cut him open right there in the camp, wrapping a length of rope around his arm for a tourniquet and digging into his shoulder with a Bowie knife.

I’ve always had nightmares about the Buju Buju and I woke from one of those dreams that afternoon, shivering and shaking in the back of a flatbed pickup truck, nestled between a bale of hay and a cooler filled with beer and sandwiches. I had been picked up on the freeway by a farmer and his son heading towards Sacramento, and after hopping aboard the back of their truck I fell asleep for the remainder of the trip.

They stopped for lunch at a Denny’s in Woodland and I thanked them for the ride. The sun was high in the west, it was late in the afternoon. Perhaps the car had been discovered by now, perhaps not. I was far enough away that I felt relatively safe for the time being.

I set out from Denny’s with my thumb stretched towards the west. A late model minivan stopped and the back door slid open to let me in.

The driver was ten years older than me, maybe fifteen. He was remarkably well-preserved, however old he was. There was a young girl in the passenger seat of the car and a dog in the back.

“Come on in, buddy,” the man said. “Where you heading?”

“Berkeley,” I answered.

“Well, that’s perfect, we’re heading to San Jose. Throw your bag in the back and climb in with Rufus.”

Rufus lay sprawled across the back seat of the van, his outstretched reaching from window to window. He was a rottweiler, and a large one at that.

“Come on, Rufus,” the man exclaimed. “Make room.”

I wasn’t afraid of the dog but I was slightly intimidated. He cocked his eyebrows at me, as if to tell me that he didn’t have any desire to move on my account. But move he did, as the man continued to cajole him up from his sedentary position.

Finally I was able to settle myself on the edge of the bench. After a moment he ascertained that I was no danger, placed his head on my lap and returned to sleep.

The van pulled out of the breakdown lane and rejoined the freeway traffic.

“So,” the man began, “what’s a young fellow like yourself doing hitchhiking in this day and age?”

“Heh,” I replied, slightly nervous, “Don’t have much of a choice, really. My car broke down in Redding and I didn’t have the money for a bus ticket.”

“I can certainly understand that. I just wanted to ask because, well, most hitchhikers these days are kind of surly fellows, older . . . I haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in years, and certainly not with Princess in the car. But you looked like a regular stand-up kinda guy, and we got Rufus back there in case you try any kind of funny stuff.” He chuckled at this.

“Thank you Sir,” I said.

“So, you in college?”

“Actually, I just graduated last month.”


“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “You didn’t look like a Berkeley man to me! If I’d have known that I wouldn’t have picked you up. I bleed Cardinal Red, myself.”

I smirked. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me. I was never very much of a partisan.”

“You weren’t, eh? I can see that.”

“I mostly just got frustrated by the traffic on the Big Game weekend.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet it was something else.”

We drove in silence for a few minutes. I was curious as to why the girl in the front seat was so quiet. She didn’t seem old enough to be very quiet for very long. Maybe she was shy. I put my hand on Rufus’ muzzle and scratched his chin. He seemed appreciative.

“Rufus likes you,” the man said. “Sometimes he doesn’t like people.”

“I’m glad he likes me,” I said. “I would hate to be on his bad list.”

He laughed again at that one. “Oh, his bark is definitely worse than his bite. That’s the thing with rottweilers that no one really knows . . . they have this reputation as big toughies but really they’re all just babies. I mean, you’ve never seen a gentler dog than Rufus, have you, Princess?”

“No, daddy, I haven’t,” the girl said with a very quiet voice.

“That’s right. And even among rottweilers Rufus there is the king of slugs, you know?”

“I can tell.”

“So, buddy,” the man said after another moment, “I’ve heard great things about you.”

“Um, what?”

“Don’t play dumb. There are a lot of people watching your career with great interest. I’m one of them . . . or, should I say, I represent their interests.”

Immediately I felt the cold sweat on my backbone and a ball of molten ingot in my belly. The car wasn’t slowing down. I was trapped. I remembered suddenly that my mother's boyfriend was a Stanford graduate as well.

“Don’t look so scared,” he said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He adjusted his rear view mirror in order to get a better look at me.

“But,” I said slowly, gulping for air, “but – but who are you?”

“A friend. Maybe a friend of a friend would be better to say. You know how these things work, I know someone who knows someone.”

“I see,” I said, trying to regain my cool.

“I knew your father.”

“You did?” I didn’t believe him.

“I fought with him in the Congo. We were both Thompson gunners working for the colonials. I remember he used to talk about this stash of diamonds he had supposedly stolen, a huge cache.”

This didn’t make any sense. My dad didn’t have a huge cache of diamonds. He certainly wouldn’t have talked about it if he did.

“I wonder where those rocks got to, all those years ago,” he said absent-mindedly, trying to act coy.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

“Oh, I think maybe you do,” he replied. I caught a glimpse of him in the rear view mirror he had trained on me. His teeth were glinting in the sunlight. He was grimacing.

“I don’t. I don’t know anything about my dad. I don’t think you do either.”

“Don’t be petulant. No one likes a brat.”

“No, I’m serious. I don’t think you knew my dad. You’ve told me as much about my dad as you’d pick up from a pop song.”

“Ah, perhaps, perhaps. You are very astute.”

He reached to the dash and turned the radio dial. The cabin was filled with static for a moment until he found the right channel.

“Frequency 109.9,” he said clearly into the air, “this is Operator 8 calling from Interstate 80 between Vacaville and Vallejo. Over.”

There was a voice on the other end of the radio, speaking back at him. “Yes, we read you, Operator 8. Please report. Over.”

“I have the Prodigal and am en-route to Berkeley as per his request. Subject is docile. Over.”

“Very good, 8. Proceed according to plan. Over and out.”

The radio went dead. The man – whose name I began to realize I had never been given – turned the radio off and began to smile.

“I’m so very glad I was able to be here, to see you and help you on your way. You’re going to do some very important things, my friend. Very important.”

I didn’t know what to say, how to reply. I looked to my side and there was a large white eighteen-wheeler passing us on the left. The driver was large and hairy, and was staring at us very intently.

“That’s Jerry,” the driver said, “he’s Operator 11. He’s here to insure nothing goes wrong. Whenever you see a white truck like that, unmarked, with no bumper stickers and a government license plate, you can assume it’s us, doing our best to keep our eyes on you, keep you out of trouble.”

He waved the truck past us, passing the thumbs-up sign to the driver. The truck sped up and was soon passed us.

“That went well. I’m glad you’re taking this in good spirits. Really, we just want to help you. We know where you’re going and we know why you’re going there, we just don’t know how. That’s what you’re going to show us.”

“I’m not going to show you anything.”

“Yes, yes, we kind of figured you’d say that. Hey, you want a magazine?”

“A magazine?”

“Yeah. Reach into the back and there should be a big cardboard box. Grab a handful, however many you want.”

I reached behind me and there was indeed a cardboard box filled with magazines. I grabbed one and pulled it out apprehensively.

It was a thick magazine, with slick brightly-printed covers. A large neon ink logo announced the name of this magazine to be "YOUNG MEAT". There was a girl on the cover, a young girl no older than nine or ten. She was licking a lollipop, feigning a seductive pose but failing badly, in the disgusting way of small children who pretend to be sexual creatures.

I flipped through the pages and there were children everywhere – preteen boys and girls playing with themselves, playing with older men and women. Some of them were tied up, some of them were being brutalized and raped, covered in purple bruises. Some of them were dressed like sailors and shepherds.

“Do you like it?” the man asked eagerly. “That’s my little Princess on the cover. She’s going to be a star, you know? She’s got that quality to her. It’s magical when she gets in front of the camera.”

I took a closer look at the picture on the front of the magazine.

“Flip to the middle spread, that’s where her pictures are . . .”

I did. There were pictures of her being tied up on a wooden table and sodomized, just the worst filth you could imagine. There was blood.

“This is sick,” I said.

“No, it’s business. We all got to pay the rent. You want it? You can have it, I’ve got boxes and boxes full.”

I placed the magazine back in the box. I felt ill, physically sick and dizzy. I didn’t have a clue where I was and I felt vaguely ashamed. I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight, wherever I was.

“Don’t worry, we’ll set you down safe and sound in Berkeley, just like you said. Just relax and rest, and leave the driving to us.”

I didn’t say anything for the rest of the trip. Rufus slept with his head in my lap, blissfully unaware of anything that went on around him. I felt bad for the dog, in that life, but he seemed well fed and taken care of.

He took the off-ramp in Berkeley and stopped at a gas station to let me out. I grabbed my duffel bag and jumped out the door as fast as I could.

“Hey,” he said, calling out to me, “you be careful now. There’s some bad people out there, and they don’t all have your best interests at heart like we do.”

“Thanks,” I said weakly, still quite confused. I looked once again at the girl in the front passenger seat. Her face was blank, unresponsive, uninterested in me or in her father or anything. I wondered, for as long as I could stand, just what horrors she had seen in her short life to inspire such awestruck silence.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Rejected Titles for Harry Potter 7

Harry Potter riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay,
brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Harry Potter and the Secret of O
Harry Potter and the Missing Seventeen Minutes
Harry Potter Grows Dope in the Basement but It's OK Because He's Got A Prescription
Harry Potter Gets A Job At Arby's
Harry Potter Gets Salmonella
Harry Potter Eats A Madeleine
Harry Potter Gets Baptized in the Old Church
Harry Potter Goes To Yuma
Harry Potter Hides Things in Strange Places
Harry Potter Beats the Lorax With A Folding Chair
harry potter and? emily. dickinson -
Harry Potter Reconditions A 1962 Ford Mustang
Harry Potter and the Million Man March
Harry Potter: Flava of Love
Harry Potter and the Guy Who Has Had Sex With, Like, Twenty Dudes
Harry Potter Returns to Snowy River
Harry Potter Embraces His Chicano Heritage
Harry Potter and the Hamburger
Harry Potter Does Your Lawn
Harry Potter Gets a BB Gun Goes Hunting For Those Raccoons Who Knocked Over the Trash
Harry Potter and the Soggy Buffet Prime Rib
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 3 3/4
Harry Potter, Mary Hartman
Harry Potter Hates Reggaeton
Harry Potter Gets Called A Racist Because He Doesn't Like 50 Cent
Harry Potter Really Is A Racist, I Saw Him Kick A Chinese Baby in the Face
Opening Harry Potter
Behind the Green Harry Potter
Debbie Does Harry Potter
Dr. Zhivago 2: The Reckoning
Harry Potter Gets A Funny Feeling When He Looks Through that Tom of Finland Book Amazon Sent Him By Accident When He Ordered
Tom Jones' Greatest Hits
Harry Potter Comes Alive
Harry Potter Isn't Gay, And That Joke Really Isn't Funny
Harry Potter Tops From the Bottom
Harry Potter and the Fortysomething-Year-Old Woman with Six Cats Who Collects Harry Potter Memorabilia to Fill the Gaping Hole in Her Life From Never Having Children
Harry Potter Totally Is a Racist, I Watched
Schindler's List With Him Once and He Was All Talking About How Much the Nazis Got A Raw Deal
Harry Potter Peels Grapes For 700 Pages
Harry Potter Defends Jamiriquoi When His Hipster Friends Come Over
Harry Potter Finally Beats
Mario 64, After, Like, 10 Years
Harry Potter Meats Stabbo the Clown
Harry Potter Has Sex With Jesus On the Floor of the Democratic Convention
Harry Potter Drinks A Mojito On His Porch
Harry Potter Builds A Better Mousetrap, But Screws Up the Patent Paperwork and Some Guy From Finland Beats Him To It
Harry Potter Discovers What That Stuff Tastes Like
Harry Potter Kills A Man, Discovers He Likes It
Turns Out Harry Potter Was Just A Victim of Childhood Sexual Abuse who Escaped Into A Rich Fantasy Life to Avoid the Horrors of Everyday Life
Harry Potter Forgot His Stop and Shop Card So He Has to Borrow One From the Guy Behind Him in Line
Harry Potter Declares War on Stains
Harry Potter Declares War on Staind
Harry Potter Gets His Ass Kicked By the Guy from Staind
Harry Potter Goes to Ozzfest 2007 For Free Even Though He Hates the Lineup
Harry Potter Asks Why the Fuck perry Farrell Still Has A Record Contract, And On A Major No Less
Harry Potter Spends At Least An Hour A Day Looking At LOLCat Pictures
Harry Potter Gets Vaccinated AGainst Smallpox
Harry Potter Is, Like, Really Super Gay, I Saw Him Doing A Dude Once
Harry Potter Grows Up and Graduates to Laurell K. Hamilton
Harry Potter Finally Finishes
The Faerie Queene, Over A Decade After He Started It In College
Harry Potter Steps In Dog Shit, Wonders What the Hell the Dog Ate If It's Shit Is That Color
Harry Potter Really Likes Tin Machine, And Wants You To Shut Up About It
Harry Potter A way a lone a last a loved a long the

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Feeble Attempts
by Jeffrey Brown

The element of Jeffrey Brown's work that impresses me the most is without a doubt his prolific output. As I think I've mentioned a number of times, there are a number of cartoonists working now who make a fetish out of perfectionism, and for whom this admirable attention to detail exerts a strangulating effect on their work. While it goes without saying that it is the artists' prerogative to release as much or as little work as they see fit, I think that in practice this kind of constipated creativity can't help but exert a deleterious influence on the work itself. Without going into specific details: from my own vantage, the more I work, the happier I am with the work I produce and the easier it is to do more work. It's an issue of momentum. Now, I don't know how much work someone like, say, Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes or Seth does on a daily basis (or how much time is spent on outside projects not directly related to making comics), but the glacial schedule with which they release work seems in my view to be reflected in the work itself, in terms of a frigid remove and borderline prissy grasping at an unattainable formal "purity".

Jeffrey Brown doesn't have that problem. Perhaps purely as a matter of coincidence, Brown also seems to be generally happier and more fulfilled by his work (if only to judge by the numerous flinty, gnomic pronouncements which the latter creators regularly fill their public statements). If anything, Brown produces too much work. Since Feeble Attempts saw print, he's released a book on cats for Chronicle Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations), and solicited a new book through Top Shelf - and his first in color - Amazing Change-Bots. Feeble Attempts itself is something of a stopgap in both form and execution, a thin periodical filled with odds-and-ends strips compiled from anthologies and his own sketchbooks. From this description you can probably guess that the results are understandably mixed, but the overall result is still quite gratifying.

There are few cartoonists working today whose work I enjoy as much as Brown, and I think a great deal of that has to do with the energy and enthusiasm Brown applies to his work. Even his silliest single page throwaway gags carry more in the way of inspirational cartooning than some graphic novels. The volume opens up with "Construction", a strip which could not have taken much more time to produce than to read, six panels on the subject of a construction crew filling a pothole. This is not a recipe for compelling drama, but it's probably one of my favorite pieces in the entire book: it's hard to imagine another cartoonist investing such a goofy scenario with such earnest conviction. If it had been any longer than six panels, it'd be comically weird, but as it is it's just about perfect, a compact exercise in misplaced comedic emphasis.

Not every strip is quite so sketchy, but even the more relatively "normal" pieces still carry something of Brown's seemingly spontaneous energy. For all I know he spent as much time laboring over all of these pieces as Ware spends on any of his, but in any event the results infer a tremendous amount of storytelling enthusiasm which is nowhere lost in the transition from cartoonist's head to page. I'd be lying if I said that every strip herein was similarly strong - a few of them, particularly the ones touching on the relationship issues of his earlier books, seem slightly limpid in context alongside the exuberant experimental pieces. Brown has an excellent feel for pacing, and the more restrained pieces, while certainly fine strips, seem slightly out-of-place. It is unfair to criticize an odd-and-sods book of feeling patchy, I realize, but the more sedate pieces would read much more comfortably sitting next to a selection of his more sustained work.

First person to send me their address by e-mail gets a free copy

A lot of supposedly more "seasoned" cartoonists' work seems positively dead next to Brown. This is why people like Ware and James Jochalka trip over themselves in heaping praise on Brown's work: his instinct for spontaneous, seemingly casual and yet surpassingly well-conceived storytelling is practically unrivaled in the current field. If anyone in contemporary cartooning deserves the seemingly disparate comparison to Jack Kirby - with his preternatural sense of natural composition and crackling focus, not to mention prolific output - it's Jeffrey Brown.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Friday, June 01, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part Five

"I don't hate it," Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; "I don't hate it," he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom

But we wouldn't be sitting here today if Star Wars wasn't, somehow, above these kind of trivialities. There is a certain amount of futility in explicating the Star Wars films as anything other than what they are - an essentially acritical phenomenon. Certainly, there is no doubt that the modern movie industry lives on another planet entirely from the critical establishment (such as there is), but no other film or franchise in history has ever been so blissfully indifferent to the outrageous fortunes of critical appraisal as Star Wars.

Just a few paragraphs ago in this series I wrote:
Art and nostalgia are warring impulses, and if you are to allow Star Wars to retain even its limited dignity as a work of art, you must suppress the tendency towards nostalgic inertia.

The problem is that this isn't strictly true, it's actually blatantly false, and I knew it as I wrote it. The true appeal of these movies, for those who hold them dear, surpasses the critical faculty almost entirely. There are people who can rationally dissect the films in their proper context, who can give them their proper due as well-crafted pieces of cinematic cotton-candy while acknowledging the obvious fact that in terms of most of the common measures we use for any other kind of cinematic art - writing, acting and directing - they are uniquely abysmal examples of the form. And yet, many of these same people, as soon as those ten magic words ("A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .", in case you forgot.) appear on the screen in that nauseating green font, lose their ability to form credible aesthetic judgments and become, for the duration of the feature, ten years old again. I know this because for all intents and purposes I'm one of them.

Because of the alien nature of the films, everything onscreen is pregnant with revelation. There are few movies which seem to imply so much with so little actually on display - every passing extra, every alien in split-second cameo carries their own imaginary backstory, worlds of fantastic make-believe that can easily find refuge in the mind of an over-imaginative child. Why else have they always manufactured toys for even the most obscure characters? Darth Vader and Yoda may be the icons but even Ponda Baba and Dengar have captured the imagination of millions by virtue of their mystery. (Why do we even know these characters names? Do we know the names of every Klingon on display in Star Trek 3? Someone might, but those Klingons hardly have their own action figures available for sale in every Target and Wal-Mart.)

It's not, as some have posited, merely a generational phenomenon. Certainly, the people most devoted to Star Wars are those who grew up with the original trilogy, who formed a life-long attachment to the series from its inception. But there are a lot of people who love Star Wars who don't fit into the neat "generation x" category - I've met Star Wars fans old enough to be my parents (and yes, my parents are Star Wars fans, too, albeit hardly rabid). And of course, most children in their turn become, to some degree, Star Wars fans as well. However many who grew up with the prequels will cling to them as their thirty-something forebears continue to cling to the original trilogy remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a comparable ratio.

There is nothing more infuriating than to have someone else's nostalgia foisted upon you. People who don't "get" Star Wars just see a series of increasingly bad movies which have attracted an inexplicable devotion. If you're not already under quarantine, every new outbreak of Star Wars fever must be akin to an outbreak of a gruesome infectious disease. It's easy to ignore Spider-Man or The Lord of the Rings if those types of movies aren't your cup of tea - but the fervor with which Star Wars is embraced cannot be compared to anything else, and for anyone stuck on the outside looking in, the devotion must seem deeply disturbing.

I would understand if you dismissed the first parts of this essay as meaningless, masturbatory rationalization - essentially useless ratiocination for the express purpose of legitimizing an illicit desire, like a smack addict waxing poetic on the imaginary health benefits of heroin addiction. In a lot of ways, that's exactly what it was.

I wish I could let go of Star Wars, but it clings to the undercarriage of my brain like dog shit on the bottom of a boot. It's hardly obsession, but it's impossible to push it away, to banish it from my already infrequent dreams, to excise these reams of trivial crap from my consciousness. Like a virus, it's in there, and as much as I may wish I could jettison this useless, counterproductive ballast it simply can't be extricated. It's hardwired.

It's impossible to separate the films from their status as cult objects. They demand blind obeisance to work their magic, or their spell is broken. There is no way to rationally examine the films and not see them fall to pieces in the process - everything that is truly enjoyable about them surpasses the process of deductive reasoning. Somehow, Lucas figured out how to craft something that would plug itself directly into our collective unconsciousness without any kind of intermediary, creating an instant nostalgia in a certain kind of moviegoer.

Nostalgia used to be a bittersweet emotion, but somehow it has became identified with a more immediate, cozy sensation. To remain suspended in an artificial womb composed of the pop culture of one's youth would have been inconceivable to earlier generations, who not only regarded the onset of maturity as a necessary rite of passage but who also regarded the passage of time as an immalleable phenomenon which, once left, could never be truly regained. But we don't take either of these things for granted anymore. Consumer pop culture requires that people remain insensate to the passage of time by refusing to cultivate any kind of impulse-control behavior. The evolution from immaturity to adulthood is no longer necessarily a process wherein the virtues of delayed gratification and prudence are inculcated. Now many see adulthood merely as a time where they have earned the right to achieve the perpetual instant gratification that their parents may (or may not) have denied them as children - an "earned" immaturity. Those who don't fully participate in the trials and tribulations of consumerist society are alienated from the mainstream.

As such, it's hard not to see how Star Wars, with its appeal to the irresistible subliminal language of nostalgia, is so incredibly and enduringly popular. It is that rarest of artifacts, a surpassingly ephemeral object which has achieved lasting permanence. In many ways, the malleability of Star Wars' translucent ideology is vital to its appeal. Anyone can look on the forbidding visage of Darth Vader and come to their own perfectly valid conclusions about what it all means, or doesn't mean (for an example, see the first sections of this article). It's important not by virtue of what it says, because it doesn't really say anything, but by who's listening: everyone.

The ideal - as represented by the onrush of fantasy and science-fiction adventure movies in the past decade - would be a world where an audience could be trained to feel nostalgia for movies that haven't even been made yet. To a limited degree, this is exactly what the people who made The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man were banking on. In a much more concrete way, however, this is exactly how the prequel trilogy became so insanely popular: the familiar horn vanguard of John Williams' epic score acts like a dinner bell for an appropriately trained audience of Pavlovian hounds. Those of us who hear the call know better (or at least some of us do), but we just can't help ourselves.

I'm not going to get over Star Wars anytime soon. This is one aspect of pop culture for which (in the interests of sanity and against the creeping impulses of self-loathing) I have given myself a dispensation, the right to uncritically enjoy the films in the guilt-free context of pure infantile nostalgia. I know it's wrong, and I know I'm wallowing in my own baser instincts, but that's OK. In other words, I damn well know better.
I don't hate it! I don't hate it!