Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Dear DC Comics,
Thank you so much! All I've ever wanted was a comic-book where a psychotic Superman doppelganger slowly tortures Mr. Mxyzptlk to death and then brands a crooked Superman s-shield logo on the mischievious imp's face with his heat vision. Just in time for Christmas, too.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
So, yes, the error in question was indeed the failure of Spider-Man's spider-sense to warn him of Kraven's drugged dart. As was pointed out in the comments, this is rather ironic considering that of all the characters in Spider-Man's rogues' gallery, Kraven (or rather, all the permutations of Kraven) actually has a way to circumvent the spider-sense. Kraven made use of various potions and concoctions throughout the years to stymie Spider-Man's danger sense, and even after the death of the original Kraven members of his family retained the secrets. In one of the most egregiously bad stories in the history of Spider-Man ("Torment"), Kraven's former lover Calypso used voodoo sorcery to screw with Spider-Man's mind. (DOOM DOOM DOOM DOOM) But Spider-Man was eventually able to rise above it all.*
Anyway - all that would have been necessary to make the incident jibe would be to have Kraven saying something along the lines of - "With my father's formulas, I have recreated the same gas which rendered your vaunted spider-sense useless, in an undetectable odorless form!" It may seem like such a small thing, but they used to give away No-Prizes to explain these kind of discrepancies. The writers and editors back then were no more perfect then they are today, but the illusion of interactivity helped shore up what could otherwise have seemed like a pretty shaky foundation. Now things have changed, and mistakes by necessity go ignored. Things seem brittle to long-time readers, and even pointing out mistakes like these make a fellow seem old-fashioned - recherche, even.
Which brings us to the other error I mentioned. This error has the virtue of being doubly superfluous: you don't need to show Spider-Man's spider-sense reacting to the danger off-panel, because he obviously hears the explosions. The spider-sense isn't just a generic danger detector; otherwise, Spider-Man would be nigh omniscient. The way the spider-sense has traditionally been used, the spider-sense warns Spider-Man of specific, imminent dangers to his person: if someone fires a gun, he can dodge the bullet because he knows about it just soon enough to move in the opposite direction. This is why the spider-sense is useless in close-quarters: he needs to have room to dodge. Similarly, multiple sources of danger make his spider-sense go haywire and result in him not knowing which way to dodge. Nowhere is it indicated that he possesses the ability to know what's going on a couple blocks away, unless it's a guided missile heading straight for him. Since that's not the case, well...
I guess it's just another thing for old-timers to gripe about for no apparent reason.
* If you get that joke, consider your life officially wasted. I know I do.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Who can tell me what is wrong in this two-panel sequence from Punisher War Journal #13? It's not a hard question. Winner gets a Kewpie Doll.
Along these lines there's another, not quite so obvious but still glaring error involving the same general idea a few pages earlier (extra credit if you can figure out what that error is). Once you figure out the problem (or see it in the comments) you may think one of two things: one, you may think it's not an important error at all; or two, you may think it's rather important and impacts your enjoyment of the story. Considering this is a book written not by some stereotypical committee hack but Matt Fraction, thought by many to be one of the most promising talents in mainstream adventure comics, it's rather interesting that this kind of error would sneak through. He's got a reputation for writing smart action-adventure stories. It seems, from my perspective, a very basic error of the kind that brings a long-time reader out of the story almost immediately. Does the fact that I see this error and it immediately takes me out of the story make me one of those old doddering fanboys who sit around their basement apartments in Cheeto-stained sweatpants theorizing about the taste of women, like magical pomegranates in Greek myth? Or can I make a genuine criticism based on the fact that this was a rather elementary error that seems to imply a shaky grasp of the fundamentals required to write a superhero story in this context?
I don't think a comic called Punisher War Journal ever had the chance to be high art, but given that it's a corporate superhero book there are certain expectations of how things will work. You don't order a Big Mac and expect to receive just any old thing in return -- you get two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun, with that weird pseudo-bun thing in the middle. Similarly, you expect that someone writing a Spider-Man comic (or a comic with Spider-Man in it) will have, if not an encyclopedic mastery, at least a firm grasp of what Spider-Man does and doesn't do. Is it wrong to think that something like this implies a level of contempt for the audience, or is that simply fanboy entitlement in another guise? U decide.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Sunday, November 18, 2007
(Spoilers for World War Hulk #5 ahead*)
Over the last few days I've seen some surprisingly underwhelmed reactions to the final issue of World War Hulk across the blogosphere. I have to admit I don't quite know where from these negative reactions are coming. World War Hulk succeeded at every stage because it knew exactly what it wanted to be and cherished no aspirations to be something it wasn't. Simply on those terms, it was the most purely satisfying superhero book I'd seen in quite a long time. The last issue could hardly be termed a disappointment.
Why is it so hard to make good superhero books? It shouldn't be, since so damn many of the things are produced on a monthly basis, and yet here we are. Many of the most popular creators working in mainstream comics don't really do old-school superhero books - so much of Marvel's output, for instance, is hybridized in some way that manages to dilute the superhero elements while also delegitimizing whatever other genre conventions are at play; ie, crime, horror, fantasy, political soap-opera. More of DC's mainline could be said to be "proper" superheroes than Marvel's, but most of DC's mainline is incompetent gibberish. We've had a weird experiment in superhero books these past few years, wherein the texture and tone of the stories has been almost completely overturned. While the mainline continues to be popular, longtime, returning or semi-involved readers can be forgiven for thinking that at some point these wonderful fantasy playgrounds they remember from their misspent youths have become adulterated in some indefinable yet irreconcilable fashion.
If you are going to ask the basic question, "if there must be superhero comics, what kind of superhero comics should there be?" I think the answer is something along the lines of World War Hulk: the kind of massive, slobberknocker of a spectacle, the emotional resonance of which (such that it is) is dependent on long-term investment in the kind of shared-universe soap-opera content that can't really exist in any other medium. If you have to make Hulk stories, don't make Hulk stories that could live a double life as Sci-Fi Channel original movies (like, say, the majority of Bruce Jones' run on the book): make Hulk stories that couldn't exist anywhere but the printed page. I think the folks involved have succeeded quite nicely at just that.
World War Hulk got as strong a reaction as it did among a number of previously disinterested observers by virtue of the fact that it presented a handful of extremely old-fashioned -- some might even say terminally familiar -- tropes in the context of this new, subliminally alienating status quo. To put it another way: there is nothing more basic to the historical appeal of the Marvel Universe than a story where everybody teams up to fight the Hulk. They've been doing it since Fantastic Four #12, and subsequently every few years since then. It's a well-established tradition. It just so happened that by the time World War Hulk shipped enough people has been seriously disenchanted with the direction of the Marvel Universe -- and Marvel in general -- that they were actually rooting for the Hulk to do some serious damage. People who had been disappointed with Marvel throughout Joe Quesada's tenure were looking forward to something that promised a return to the storytelling values of their idealized youth (whenever that actually was), when Iron Man and Mister Fantastic weren't neoconservative warlords with Negative Zone prison camps. People who didn't know their Civil War from their Secret War were just thrilled that Marvel might actually put out something worth reading again. Something with broader appeal than limp political allegory.
And lo, it was good. Five issues of the Hulk kicking peoples' asses? Sign me up. It actually made me not see the Sentry as an embarrassing pseudo-idea that should never have been resurrected from it's original mini-series -- get that, it actually made me not hate the Sentry. Everyone at Marvel talks about how cool a concept the Sentry is, but in practice he's been a walking deus ex machina who never does anything for fear of totally derailing whatever story he's in. Back in the Golden Age nobody seemed to care that the Spectre was accorded equal status in the Justice Society alongside the Atom and Wildcat, but nowadays it's hard to write a plausible story with such a monstrously overpowered plot device in a team setting. To his credit, Greg Pak actually used the character's awkwardness to the benefit of the story. The Sentry may have seemed like a peripheral character throughout the book, but he actually had a pretty nice arc when all was said and done - which is more than I can say for just about any other book I'd ever read with the Sentry in it. The fact that, when all was said and done, a wild-card like the Sentry had to come in and play clean-up for the ineffective "heroes" who started the problem in the first place was also a nice bit. I saw some complaints that the Illuminati were essentially sidelined by the final battle, but that doesn't bother me, on either a structural or story basis: the book had nothing to do with their redemption, and their actions in regards to the Hulk, the whole reason the Hulk was mad in the first place (his forced exile from Earth), are never really expiated. The Hulk gets more in the way of absolution than Iron Man and Mister Fantastic, which makes a lot of sense.
As for that conclusion? Well, what were people expecting? It certainly didn't end on a "To Be Continued" like Amazons Attack. The last couple pages of foreshadowing for future stories were essentially superfluous -- I don't know if I care in the least about Son of Hulk or whomever that is, and my interest in reading about the Red Hulk is pretty much nil considering he's being "written" by Jeph Loeb**. But that's neither here nor there: the story actually had a pretty good conclusion. It will read pretty well between two covers***, which is more than I can say for Civil War, House of M, Infinity Crisis or 52 which, for all their specific virtues or vices, are all definitively inaccessible to untrained readers. World War Hulk may still be fairly dense, but Pak does a good job of establishing the book's plot and each characters' motivations at multiple points throughout. Plus, you know, things actually happen, and not just isolated plot points lurching around in a vacuum of forced characterization.
Of course, we all knew that the book would end with the Hulk being both defeated and at least partially redeemed. Most of us even had a pretty good idea how that was going to work, considering that the betrayal of one or more of Hulk's warbound allies had been foreshadowed in the last issues of Planet Hulk. But familiarity is really no great sin in the context of serial superhero comics, and it's in this context the reader needs to recognize that a character like the Hulk had to be rehabilitated, eventually. Pak pulled off everything he needed to pull off with enough alacrity that you barely even noticed the creak of plot necessity putting all the pieces back into place, or mostly back in place. There's really no other way the book could have ended, and in all honesty I don't know how people were thinking it was going to end, if not like this -- with a big fight, a "shocking" twist to prove the Hulk was being manipulated by events, and another shocking twist**** to cause the Hulk to turn against his betrayers, all aimed at rehabilitating the Hulk by partially reorienting the moral responsibility for the previous carnage. He's still to blame -- even if the actual casus belli was an act of betrayal on the part of one of his Warbound and not actually the Illuminati's responsibility, well, he still declared war on Earth and demolished Manhattan in the process. Whomever next writes the Hulk will have an interesting status quo on their hands*****.
So was I satisfied? Yes. I got everything advertised, and don't feel like a schmuck for caring, which is what has inevitably happened the last few dozen times I bothered to care about anything like this. I honestly don't know why some of you sound so disappointed -- pretty much everything laid out in the first issue is finished, or has reached some semblance of a conclusion. True -- there is the small matter of the Black Bolt who got his ass kicked back in issue #1 being a Skrull: but those who didn't think there was any way the Hulk could ever defeat Black Bolt will probably be pleased by that development. There was a bit at the end with Tony Stark's weird satellites that seemed a bit hard to follow, but then I have generally not been a fan of Iron Man's generalized "control all machinery" powers.****** These are only qualms, and the fact is that I was pleased by this story every step of the way. Not fine art, but a damn fine superhero story -- for those of us who still enjoy such things, the pleasures are as rare as hens' teeth these days.
* I think "Spoiler Alerts" are silly, but I'll meet you halfway since the comic hasn't even been out for a week yet. Incidentally, Ozymandius is the evil mastermind at the end of Watchmen.
** "Written" is in scare-quotes to denote how little I care for Loeb's attempts at "writing".
*** Assuming they put in Pak's Incredible Hulk tie-in issues, which had some pretty essential information / foreshadowing concering the characters of Rick Jones and Miek. That's a big "if", but you really get the feeling that it's stuff that probably would have made it into the main series if they had the room; as opposed to, say, World War Hulk: Frontline, which reads more like stuff they thought up at the bar between mojitos.
**** In terms of Rick Jones -- he's about as dead as I am. He survived getting his spine cracked by the Hulk back in the 90s, he can survive getting gutted by Miek. Note that Pak didn't even waste a panel of an incidental character saying "Rick . . . can't be dead . . . he just can't be!" Why bother?
***** But since we know this person will be Jeph Loeb, we also know that nothing interesting will be done with said status quo.
****** Were those a result of Warren Ellis' run? I have to admit I think the whole of idea of having some kind of empathic control of electronic gadgets does a lot to strip the character's appeal -- less "cool exec with a heart of steel" and more "godlike cyberpunk messiah". In many ways the current incarnation of Iron Man seems a lot more like a member of the Authority than the Avengers -- and not merely in terms of his peremptory attitude towards geopolitics, but his new ill-defined deus ex machina set of powers. Iron Man shouldn't even have powers, for fucks' sake. That's as close to a central tenet of the character as you're likely to get.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Friday, November 16, 2007
"Fitzgerald had clearly been an alcoholic since his college days, and he became notorious during the 1920s for his extraordinarily heavy drinking. This left him in poor health by the late 1930s. According to Zelda's biographer, Nancy Milford, Scott claimed that he had contracted tuberculosis, but she states that this was usually a pretext to cover his drinking problems. However, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli contends that Fitzgerald did in fact have recurring tuberculosis, and Nancy Milford reports that Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener said that Scott suffered a mild attack of tuberculosis in 1919, and in 1929 he had "what proved to be a tubercular hemorrhage". It may be pure coincidence but two of Fitzgerald's least likeable characters have the initials "TB" (an acronym for tuberculosis) - Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night. Given the extent of Scott's alcoholism, however, it is possible that the hemorrhage was caused by bleeding from esophageal varices—enlarged veins in the esophagus that result from advanced liver disease. Fitzgerald's lifelong smoking habit undoubtedly also damaged his health and brought on the heart problems that eventually killed him.
"Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in late 1940. After the first, in Schwab's Drug Store, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion and to obtain a first floor apartment, which he did by moving in with Sheilah Graham. On the night of December 20, 1940, he had his second heart attack, and the next day, December 21, while awaiting a visit from his doctor, Fitzgerald collapsed in Graham's apartment and died. He was 44." (Plink.)
"Hemingway was upset by the photographs in his The Dangerous Summer article. He was receiving treatment in Ketchum, Idaho for high blood pressure and liver problems—and also electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression and continued paranoia, although this may in fact have helped to precipitate his suicide, since he reportedly suffered significant memory loss as a result of the shock treatments. He also lost weight, his 6-foot (183 cm) frame appearing gaunt at 170 pounds (77 kg, 12st 2lb).
"Hemingway attempted suicide in the spring of 1961, and received ECT treatment again. Some three weeks short of his 62nd birthday, he took his own life on the morning of July 2, 1961 at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, with a shotgun blast to the head. Judged not mentally responsible for his final act, he was buried in a Roman Catholic service. Hemingway himself blamed the ECT treatments for "putting him out of business" by destroying his memory; some medical and scholarly opinion has been receptive to this view, although others, including one of the physicians who prescribed the electroshock regimen, dispute that opinion.
"Hemingway is believed to have purchased the weapon he used to commit suicide at Abercrombie & Fitch, which was then an elite excursion goods retailer and firearm supplier. In a particularly gruesome suicide, he rested the gun butt of the double-barreled shotgun on the floor of a hallway in his home, leaned over it to put the twin muzzles to his forehead just above the eyes, and pulled both triggers.  Despite the circumstances, the coroner, at request of the family, did not do an autopsy." (Plink.)
"Faulkner served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia from 1957 until his death at Wright's Sanitorium in Byhalia, Mississippi of a heart attack at the age of 64." (Plink.)
"Following Campbell's death Parker returned to New York City and the Volney. In her later years, she would come to denigrate the group that had brought her such early notoriety, the Algonquin Round Table:
'These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days - Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them....There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth...'
"Parker died of a heart attack at the age of 73 in 1967. In her will, she bequeathed her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation. Following King's death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her executrix, Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested this disposition. Her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including her attorney Paul O'Dwyer's filing cabinet, for approximately 17 years." (Plink.)
"In the late 1970s, Capote was in and out of rehab clinics, and news of his various breakdowns frequently reached the public. In 1978, talk show host Stanley Siegal did a live on-air interview with Capote, who, in an extraordinarily intoxicated state, confessed that he might kill himself. One year later, when he felt betrayed by Lee Radziwill in a feud with perpetual nemesis Gore Vidal, Capote arranged a return visit to Stanley Siegal's show, this time to deliver a bizarrely comic performance revealing salacious personal details about Radziwill and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
"In an ironic twist, Warhol (who had made a point of seeking out Capote when he first arrived in New York) provided the author with the platform for his next artistic renewal. Warhol, who often partied with Capote at Studio 54, agreed to paint Capote's portrait as "a personal gift"—rather than for the six-figure sums he usually charged—in exchange for Capote contributing short pieces to Warhol's Interview magazine every month for a year. Initially the pieces were to consist of tape-recorded conversations, but soon Capote dispensed with the tape recorder and chose instead to craft meticulously composed "conversational portraits" that applied his literary skills to the magazine's dialogue-driven format. Out of this creative burst came the pieces that would form the basis for the bestselling Music for Chameleons (1980). To celebrate this unexpected renaissance, he underwent a facelift, lost weight and experimented with hair transplants. Nevertheless, Capote was unable to overcome his reliance upon drugs and liquor and had grown bored with New York by the turn of the 1980s.
"After the revocation of his driver's license (the result of speeding near his Long Island residence) and a hallucinatory seizure in 1980 that required hospitalization, Capote became fairly reclusive. These hallucinations continued unabated and scans revealed that his brain mass had perceptibly shrunk. On the rare occasions when he was lucid, he continued to hype Answered Prayers as being nearly complete and was reportedly planning a reprise of the Black and White Ball to have been held either in Los Angeles or a more exotic locale in South America. ...
"Capote died in Los Angeles on August 25, 1984, aged 59.
"According to the coroner's report the cause of death was 'liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.' He passed away at the home of his old friend Joanne Carson, ex-wife of late-night TV host Johnny Carson, on whose program Capote had been a frequent guest. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving behind his longtime companion, author Jack Dunphy." (Plink.)
"In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee suffered the first two in a series of heart attacks, which ultimately claimed his life four years later at the age of 45. He died on May 16, 1955 (while in a taxi cab en route to a doctor's appointment) -- coincidentally two days before the anniversary of his father's death. He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, NY." (Plink.)
"Tennessee Williams died at the age of 71 after he choked on a eyedrop bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York. He would routinely place the cap in his mouth, lean back, and place his eyedrops in each eye. His brother Dakin and some friends believed he was murdered. The police report, however, suggested his use of drugs and alcohol contributed to his death. Many prescription drugs were found in the room. Williams' lack of gag response may have been due to drugs and alcohol effects. (Plink.)
"Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951 of advanced alcoholism. A final novel, World So Wide, was published posthumously." (Plink.)
"Jack London's death is controversial. Many older sources describe it as a suicide, and some still do. However, this appears to be at best a rumor, or speculation based on incidents in his fiction writings. His death certificate gives the cause as uremia, also known as uremic poisoning. He died November 22, 1916, in a sleeping porch in a cottage on his ranch. It is known he was in extreme pain and taking morphine, and it is possible that a morphine overdose, accidental or deliberate, may have contributed." (Plink.)
"Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, one day after being rushed with severe abdominal pain from his St. Petersburg home by ambulance. His death, at the age of 47, resulted from an internal hemorrhage (bleeding esophageal varices) caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking. At the time of his death, he was living with his third wife Stella, and his mother Gabrielle." (Plink.)
"The painful editing led Wolfe to abandon Perkins and Scribner's, and to switch publishers to Harper and Row. However, on a 1937 trip to the West, Wolfe was stricken with pneumonia. Complications arose, and he eventually was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain. He was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but the attempt at a life-saving operation revealed the disease had overrun the entire right side of his brain. He died three days later, never regaining consciousness." (Plink.)
"Thompson died at his self-described 'fortified compound' known as 'Owl Farm' in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
"Thompson's son (Juan), daughter-in-law (Jennifer Winkel Thompson) and grandson (Will Thompson) were visiting for the weekend at the time of his suicide. Will and Jennifer were in the adjacent room when they heard the gunshot, though the gunshot was mistaken for a book falling, and so they continued with their activities for a few minutes before checking on him: 'Winkel Thompson continued playing 20 questions with Will, Juan Thompson continued taking a photo.' Thompson was sitting at his typewriter with the word 'counselor' written in the center of the page.
"They reported to the press that they do not believe his suicide was out of desperation, but was a well-thought out act resulting from Thompson's many painful medical conditions. Thompson's wife, Anita, who was at a gym at the time of her husband's death, was on the phone with him when he ended his life.
"What family and police describe as a suicide note was delivered to his wife 4 days before his death and later published by Rolling Stone Magazine. Entitled "Football Season Is Over", it read:
'No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt'(Plink.)
"Despite his best writing efforts, however, he grew ever poorer. He was forced to move to smaller and meaner lodgings with his surviving aunt. He was also deeply affected by Robert E. Howard's suicide. In 1936 he was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine and he also suffered from malnutrition. He lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937 in Providence.
"Lovecraft was listed along with his parents on the Phillips family monument." (Plink.
"On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious and 'in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance,' according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died early on the morning of October 7. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name 'Reynolds' on the night before his death. Some sources say Poe's final words were 'Lord help my poor soul.' Poe suffered from bouts of depression and madness, and he may have attempted suicide in 1848.
"Poe finally died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. The precise cause of Poe's death remains a mystery." (Plink.
Monday, November 12, 2007
by Renee French
There has always been something in Renee French's work that has discomforted me on a very profound level. I can't point to any specific thing in particular, it's more a confluence of a number of different disturbing factors at work. There are lots of creepy / strange artists in comics whose work doesn't bother me in the least. But something about French's work just disturbs me. Perhaps it's the level of hyper-detailed, gently pencil-etched reality married to the strange, unpalatable subject matter - like a Edward Gorey as interpreted by Barry Windsor-Smith. Unclean.
To this day I've got a copy of The Soap Lady on my shelf that remains only partially read, because I can't quite seem to muster up the courage to make it through the whole thing. It's not scary as such, or particularly horrifying or gory or anything like that - I can take all of those things. There's something particularly effective about French's work because it seems so nice and wholesome on the surface. And then you get down to the faceless monsters and weird soap creatures. The dichotomy is killer.
The devil is in the details. Micrographica is a conscious attempt on French's part to move past the world of detail-oriented hyper-real imagery and into the realm of a more "pure" cartooning - focusing simply on figures and forms interacting on the plane of the paper. To that end, every drawing in this book (except for a few studies at the end) were originally illustrated at the mind-boggling size of one-centimeter square. Given that, the amount of detail she does manage to fit into these panels is mind boggling - if she uses pen-nibs this small for everything she does, she will probably go blind before long. (Think of poor Bernie Wrightson and his quixotic Frankenstein portfolio!)
The story is simple, about as simple as you'd expect given the format limitations: a handful of tiny hairless rats are wandering around a field looking for food. They find some shit, a sandwich, a dead guy, and more shit, roughly in that order. They talk trash with each other as they do so.
I liked the book even if it was a quick read. I think something like this is far more interesting as a formal experiment than as a work in and of itself - although I was amused by the rats' antics, the whimsical plot points seemed more perfunctory than finely wrought. The narrative was initially posted online as it was completed, but I have no idea how it could possibly have read in serialized form. This is fun stuff, but slight.
The most interesting aspect of Micrographica will be whether or not this consciously-limiting experiment will have any effect on French's future work. I think a detail-oriented storyteller like herself can only benefit from flexing her muscles in such a fashion. Which is not to say she should abandon her customary style anytime soon. The fact is that I find her work absolutely repulsive, but I can't hold that against her because it is supposed to be repulsive. I hope she continues finding new ways to be repulsive for a long time to come, and maybe her and Al Columbia can have a big Kaiju battle in downtown Portland over who gets to be the creepiest motherfucker of them all.
Friday, November 09, 2007
I haven't been buying a lot of CDs lately for obvious reasons, but I had a little bit of extra change in my pocket today so I decided to succumb to temptation and buy myself a record. I have to admit that buying CDs is probably my biggest vice, having supplanted comic books a long time ago (I buy many books as well, but it's not quite the same thing in terms of volume and consumption). Going into the CD store for the first time in quite a while and limiting myself to just one purchase was a difficult proposition, but after considerable deliberation I decided upon the recently released original soundtrack disc accompanying Todd Haynes' new Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. I felt like a bit of a lazy post-boomer nostalgia fetishist, but the lineup of musicians involved was simply too much to resist, even with the almost certain knowledge that it was bound to disappoint at least as much as it would thrill. That is after all the nature of these kinds of all star-studded tribute compilations.
But still, even knowing better as I do, I still defy any reader out there to easily turn away from any compilation promising new music from a cast of characters as wide and varied as Sonic Youth, Steven Malkmus, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Tom Verlaine, Jeff Tweedy . . . Los Lobos, Willie Nelson, Richie Havens, Ramblin' Jack Elliott . . . man, you see the problem? There are 34 tracks spread across two CDs, and only a couple obvious clunkers evident from the label -- who invited Jack Johnson? But it's hard even to hate Johnson when he's wedged between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Yo La Tengo.
As I mentioned these type of tribute discs are always disappointing in one way or another, even though it's a rare tribute that doesn't manage at least a few notable interpretations. This set succeeds partly by overwhelming the listener with sheer mass: did I mention there are 34 tracks? Some disappoint, some thrill, some are neither here nor there, and some sound exactly as you would expect them to. As much as I hate to recommend such an obviously flawed set, the fact is that despite its flaws it's still pretty damn neat.
First of all, the disc gets all a lot of points for going out of its way to dig deep into the Dylan catalog, deeper than any comparable sets have ever ventured in the past. Sure, all the obvious suspects can be found here, and in many cases their ubiquity serves to stymie even the best intentions of their interpreters. I don't particularly hate Eddie Vedder, and I even have a few Pearl Jam albums (although, truth be told, I don't listen to them very often), but could there be anything more obvious than Vedder singing "All Along the Watchtower"? They don't even really make a pretense of trying to slip in the new life into this overplayed FM dinosaur rock staple, hewing fairly closely to Jimi Hendrix's arrangement (but then, even Dylan has played Hendrix's arrangement). Likewise, if I never hear another cover of "The Times They Are A Changin'" it will probably be too soon, likewise "Knocking On Heaven's Door". I'd be willing to bet even money that even Dylan regrets writing these songs at this point. But, these are probably unavoidable lapses (and, to be fair, Antony & The Johnsons' reading of "Knocking On Heaven's Door" is unlike any I've heard before). It's hard to be mad at a set that digs as deep as Empire Burlesque ("Dark Eyes", by Iron & Wine) and Saved ("Pressing On", performed by X's John Doe). A number of lesser-known tracks from Biograph and the first installment of The Bootleg Series -- not to mention the legendary Basement Tapes -- appear throughout. I consider myself a fairly well-versed Dylan listener, yet I will readily admit that there were quite a few surprises on here for me. (Not all of them good, but your mileage may vary.) The catalog is voluminous enough that they could release albums like this at a fair clip and not come close to tapping the well of original Dylan compositions for many, many years.
There are a few tracks off of John Wesley Harding, probably my least favorite Dylan album from the classic. Nothing much off Nashville Skyline. The biggest deficiency would have to be the lack of material from Dylan's late period renaissance -- the trilogy of excellent albums he's recorded the last decade, beginning with 1997's Time Out Of Mind. Tom Verlaine, of all people, tackles "Cold Irons Bound", but that's it (if ever a track was made for a Tom Waits cover, it that one -- but Waits is MIA). I haven't seen the movie yet so I don't know how much if at all these interpretations are a part of the film, and I don't know whether the artists in question had any choice as to what songs they would be interpreting. Some of the choices are inspired, and a few of them seemed to be the type of dead-on readings that could only have been inspired by a deep love of the sometimes very obscure source material -- but that's just a guess.
Some of them also fall flat. Far be it from me to gainsay Richie Havens, but he just doesn't know what the hell to do with "Tombstone Blues". For all I know it may be his all-time favorite Bob Dylan song, but the fact that he can sing a line like "The sun's not yellow, / It's chicken" with a resolutely soulful straight face tells me that he has absolutely no business singing it in the first place. Karen O's reading of "Highway 61 Revisited" really doesn't do anything but remind the listener of how good PJ Harvey's interpretation of that same song is -- and I like Karen O, but it's one of s few tracks that show a dogged lack of imagination on the part of the interpreters. Karen O, as well as Vedder, Verlaine and Stephen Malkmus, are backed by an All-Star pickup-group called the Million-Dollar Bashers. The fact that this group is composed of the likes of John Medeski, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and Tom Verlaine should not serve to distract you from the fact that it's still essentially a karaoke band. Sometimes that works, as on Malkmus' performance of "Ballad of a Thin Man", which does a pretty good job of turning Dylan's warped narrative into the best late-era Pavement B-side you've never heard. Malkmus himself is a distinctive enough performer that you don't really mind the band's overly literal arrangements: he'd still sound like Stephen Malkmus if he were backing the JB's or singing a track for the Chemical Brothers. But Vedder just comes off as lazy -- a grunge Sinatra in all his insouciance -- and Karen O is overwhelmed by her material, rudderless in comparatively calm seas.
Still, there's more than enough to love here. Yo La Tengo's version of "Fourth Time Around" is quite simply perfect. Cat Power seems to be having so much fun with "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" the you easily forgive the familiar arrangement. Jeff Tweedy delivers a characteristically melancholic reading of "Simple Twist of Fate". Willie Nelson singing "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" may be almost as obvious as Vedder singing "All Along the Watchtower", but that doesn't make it any less satisfying.
If I were king, I think I would probably put a ban on any kind of encomium for living artists until at least 50 years after their death. People have been praising Bob Dylan for over 40 years now and as a result the man is now the embodiment of insufferability. I like Bob Dylan, and I even quite like his later-era albums, but gnomic ponderousness is a particularly unflattering mood for any man to adopt. I blame all the rock journalists who have been calling him a genius since 1963. Better that he should have lived a long and productive life in relative obscurity then we should be made to suffer through these aggrandizing monuments to boomer self-importance, existing as they often do outside any continuum of genuine aesthetic consideration. Still, for all that this is still a pretty irresistible package, and if we must have bloated celebrity tributes to living artists who hardly need to have their heads in deflated any more than they already are, I guess this is as good a model is any to follow.
Monday, November 05, 2007
As I rule I have no use whatsoever for Halloween. I didn't care for it particularly as a kid, see no use for it as an adult ,and have even less patience for grown adults who do. My surliness in this matter should come as a surprise to no one.
But if the holiday involved more people walking around dressed like this . . . well, I would probably change my tune.
Remember, folks, the gentleman's name is Blackagar Boltagon.
Also, who knew that Apocalypse was such an oenophile?
I've always liked Apocalypse, or rather, the idea behind Apocalypse, given how few good stories he's been in. It's rather surprising in hindsight that he didn't make it into Morrison's X-Men run, but maybe his pedigree was too recent to be of interest, considering that Morrison's X-Men stories were more concerned with providing riffs on "classic" X-Men scenarios than dealing with a great deal of the muck and mire of post-Claremont X-shenanigans.
The great tragedy of Apocalypse (well, besides the raft of bad stories written about him), is that he's one of those characters whose definitive story has already been written. There's not a lot you can do with him after The Age of Apocalypse. Kirby never properly "finished" the Fourth World, so you can say that Darkseid is still a fairly open-ended character -- Morrison came close with "Rock of Ages", but that wasn't so much a Darkseid story as a, well, everything and the kitchen sink, with Darkseid's alternate-future Earth being but one component. Lee & Kirby did some fantastic, defining Dr. Doom stories, but they also left room for future interpretations.
However, The Age of Apocalypse said pretty much everything you can say on the subject. It was pretty good, for super-decadent 90s post-Image action-driven corporate comics (talk about your qualifying statements!), but it had the unfortunate side effect of sidelining a character who had been very methodically established over the previous decade as one of the X-Men's top bad guys, just a notch below Magneto and the Sentinels. Kind of like Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet -- what do you do with a character like that after you take him to his zenith? Apocalypse showed up a couple of years back, if I recall, after lying low a long time in the aftermath of the late-90s clusterfuck that was "The Twelve". ("The Twelve" was a storyline so bad it somehow managed to encompass Wolverine being impersonated by a Skrull, Apocalypse being revealed to be a wizened old man in a giant puffy Apocalypse suit, and then having Apocalypse and Cyclops merged into one person. Or something.)
Saturday, November 03, 2007
I got a simple question today. It's been bugging me for a little bit now, and I haven't really been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect there is no satisfactory answer, but merely a moderately depressing and dispiriting answer.
OK, to wit: whatever happened to the Beast?
We know who the Beast is: he's an X-Man who also spent a fairly long stint on the Avengers in the 70s. He's one of the first five X-Men, one of the few characters in the franchise to really feel the strong influence of Lee & Kirby, considering how few X-Men stories the two men actually created. Even given the gray / blue fur he received in the early 70s (a rare example of a significant cosmetic upgrade that actually stuck), he was still talking like Stan Lee and hitting people with his giant feet. He was a fan favorite, and that's probably why he stayed a significant player in the Marvel Universe when the other four original X-Men were relegated to support status in their own book, following the invention of the "All-New, All-Different" team.
He was a fun character. He used to jump around and hit people. A splendid time was guaranteed for all.
And then, after a lengthy tenure with the Avengers and a not-so-lengthy tenure with the New Defenders, he got shuffled back into the X-Men books for good with the invention of X-Factor, and there he's stayed ever since. And while there has still been a great deal of hitting involved, in later years the character has been seen in increasingly depressed states, usually in a lab coat muttering about science. Nowadays the Beast is more likely to be sifting through the mass graves of an ethnic cleansing than hopping around and hitting bad guys with his feet. Is there something wrong with me that I don't see the fun there?
Everyone loves the Beast. More specifically, everyone loves the Beast who appeared occasionally in the pages of Kurt Busiek's Avengers run: fun, flip and funky. The Beast who actually appears in the X-Men books is a clinically depressed recluse. It seems like there's always some kind of virus or mass contagion or something that comes along to sideline the Beast as an active participant in stories, relegating him to the role of generic Science / Doctor Guy. Whenever I flip through an X-Men comic today the mood is invariably Grim, Grim, Grim (that's been the default mood since, what, 1987?), and there's not a lot of room there for a giant blue teddy bear who talks like Stan Lee and kicks people with his giant feet.
So I ask you: why is this so? Do they think that a morose, non-functional Beast is better than a happy-go-lucky kick-happy Beast? I would posit that the latter is a demonstrably more interesting character, inasmuch as the latter is much more fun. Fun is good, yes? Or no, is fun not good? I forget how that works . . .
(Courtesy of these fine people.)