Monday, September 29, 2008


The Minx line seemed hampered from the beginning by the fact that all the books were, with maybe one or two lonely exceptions, more in line with a vague idea of what tweenage girls should want to read than what they actually do read. They all seemed steeped in understatement, whimsy and / or boho culture on some level - with witty, misunderstood underdog heroines trying to make their way in a world they never made. All of which sounds great if you're a nostalgic late-thirty-something thinking about the kind of books you'd feel comfortable giving to your own junior-high-aged daughter.

But in reality, girls are just like boys who are just like everyone else: they like to be entertained, primarily, and the Minx books seemed to be saturated with a Grape Nuts brand counter-cultural conservatism of the type that ensures bland, generally well-meaning product will always win the day over any kind of energy or enthusiasm. There's no shame in pandering to kids: it's what kids entertainment is all about, really, because kids - even the supposedly older audience the Minx line was aimed at - are primed to accept pandering as their primary means of judging aesthetic worth. Kids and tweens don't give a good god damn whether or not something is "good" - I know I didn't even begin to form any kind of reliable sense of "taste" until I was old enough to seriously regret the crap I'd filled my mind with for the previous decade and change (it takes some people a lot longer). The Minx line didn't have any books that wanted to pander to their audience.

If you are a literate tweenage girl in today's world, your reading life probably revolves around one of two phenomenas: Gossip Girls or Twilight. One of them is a trashy, exploitative look at the vacuous lives of insanely overprivileged rich brats, the other is a trashy, exploitative look at teenage vampires who act out intensely felt, generously insipid emotions and get it on like rabbits. Notice the key elements - "trashy, exploitative". Boys like stuff that makes them feel like they're getting one-up on their parents by doing something supposedly "bad" for them, is it so different to imagine girls might like to do the same thing? They'll either get around to The Bell Jar when they're older or they won't, but trying to sell "good", "heartfelt" comics to kids, any type of kids, is always an enterprise doomed to failure. Kids don't want Care Bears, they want Wolverine. Kids want trash. They have to read the "good" stuff in school - and God knows when I was that age there were few things I hated more than Judy Bloom and S.E. Hinton. Even good kids literature is wrapped in trashy wrappers these days. Kids manga, and manga aimed at teenagers, is primarily trash - some of it well-done trash, but trash nonetheless. (Hence the fact that many respectable critics actually hold the Gossip Girls books to be grade-A social satire, with the tacit assumption that a good-sized portion of the intended audience can suss actually out the distinction for themselves without having to be condescended to.) Figure out what the kids want and sell it to them, even if you have to hold your nose while you're doing it. Anything less and you're just throwing your money away on good intentions.

Who was Minx's audience? Well-intentioned parents stocking up on wholesome stocking stuffers? Or the kids who actually saved up their allowances to buy Breaking Dawn at midnight sales events all over the country?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Happy Birthday To Me

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants

And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style

And in comes Romeo, he's moaning
"You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says," You're in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave"

And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside

All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain

And the Good Samaritan, he's dressing
He's getting ready for the show
He's going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid

To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness

And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk

He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet

Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They're trying to blow it up

Now his nurse, some local loser
She's in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
"Have Mercy on His Soul"

They all play on penny whistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they've nailed the curtains
They're getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest

They're spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they'll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words

And the Phantom's shouting to skinny girls
"Get Outa Here If You Don't Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row"

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene

Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers

Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?

All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name

Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Universe Has Finally Justified Its Existence
(But Tim Has Yet To Figure Our How To Use An Apostrophe)

I just found a large repository of Mantra fan-fiction online. Yes, Mantra, from Marvel's Ultraverse. (Here's your requisite boob-war reminder, because Dave Campbell liked the series so much he looked at it twice.)

No, I'm not going to link to it. If you really want to find it, you can, but I'm certainly not going to help you on that particular fool's errand.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Albums You Should Own, Part the First

For a while now I've had an idea for a periodic feature where I would spotlight albums that I love that have been, I feel, either unfairly maligned, critically overlooked or just plain forgotten. There are many, many albums that could fit in that category, and since the audience of this blog has been proven time and again to possess pretty diverse tastes in entertainment, I figured it might not be without some interest for regular readers.

What better way to begin this discussion than with a few words in support of that most unjustly dismissed third Daft Punk CD? No less an authority on electronic music than Kevin Church recently referred to Human After All as "close-to-unlistenable". Now, I respect Kevin's knowledge and taste in the field of electronic music, and I believe based on past experience that our ideas of good electronic music matches up pretty closely - but I have to take issue with that assessment. I love Human After All. I think, and this may just be heresy on my part, but I think I may like it more than Discovery.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like Discovery just fine. I will admit that it took me a long time to "get" it. It's not that I was disappointed that they hadn't simply released Homework 2 - I'm always happy to se artists branch out from their comfort zones and try something different. No, I just wasn't feeling the 70s soft-rock / soul / synthpop vibe they were channeling, at least not at first. To this day, even though I've come around, the album is not without problems for me: I like "One More Time" just fine, but I still prefer "Aerodynamite" to "Aerodynamic", and tracks like "Digital Love" and "Something About Us" are still as likely as not to get skipped. But I liked Human After All from the very first listen. It's different, obviously, and it's still nowhere near as good as Homework - if I was speaking in my capacity as a Popmatters writer I'd say that Homework is still a solid 10, whereas I'd rate both Discovery and Human After All as solid 7 or 8, depending on my mood and how recently I'd listened to either.

But there's no question in my mind, at this point, I would prefer to listen to Human After All. It is more interesting to me. I hear something new every time I listen to it, which is just not the case for either of their earlier albums. True, it's slapdash in places, rough, kind of strange at times. But I think that's the point. A good analogy that came to mind was, in a rock vein, what if Radiohead went in to the studio for two weeks, limited themselves to only using the basic guitar / bass / drums / piano setup, and came out with something that sounded like a Replacements record? Sure, it's playing against type, probably playing against their strengths, but you can't tell me you wouldn't be interested.

Human After All reminds me of an Armand Van Helden record, in that it sounds really, really off-the-cuff, to the point of being insultingly simple in places. You've got loops and drums and a lot of repetition. But that simplicity is really effective in places: the title track is basically a simple 20-bar rock loop played over and over again, with a strange digitized voice humming "We are human after all" over and over again on top of it - but if you listen, the vocodered voice is actually changing on every pass, until the noise turns into something far weirder and melodically interesting. It almost sounds as if they're putting the vocoder through Auto-Tune, which is so stupid it's brilliant.

"Prime Time Of Your Life" follows the same vein, with a simple (albeit hard and stomping) beat contrasted against some really far-out melodic improvisation laid on top. The comparison with Lil Wayne is probably apt here as well. Everybody knows Lil Wayne is an incredibly talented MC, but half the time it seems like he's more interested in making weird, bizarre noises and experimenting with patois more than actually, you know, spitting some hardcore rhymes. This is like that: whole sequences of the album seem to be simply fuzzed-out vocoder loops processed until the become something entirely different and practically unrecognizable. Listening to the way these sounds morph and interact, producing unexpected melodies and startling moments of harmonic confluence, you become convinced that no matter how haphazard the album may seem, even the moments of improvisation have been brilliantly conceived.

So, Human After All has many meanings. Many not so generous critics interpreted the title to say that after two stellar releases, the duo had finally crashed and burned, proving themselves less-than-divine in the process. But also, there's the notion of taking their oddly sterile robot fascination one step beyond and trying to return to something more organic, more fraught with imperfection, more, well, human. If Discovery sounded like it could have been manufactured in an Intel clean room, Human After All sounded dirty, off-center and glaringly imperfect. Every track is built around that most human of instruments, the voice, in some capacity. Even the slower, downtempo-ish tracks work better for me than they did on Discovery. "Make Love" is quiet and understated like a Yo La Tengo jam, while "Emotion" is so simple that it verges on downright profound - a robot voice repeating emotion over and over again, rising into a crescendo of digitized harmonics that actually, for a moment, convinces you of the sincerity of Daft Punk's absurd mission statement. These are robots trying desperately to prove their humanity. They succeed, beautifully, and the results - while inarguably uneven - are still pretty awesome to behold.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008





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Monday, September 15, 2008

This Is The Cover I Have

And this is the cover I still prefer. Maybe nowhere near as iconic as the up-close smiley face - and really, it's probably inconceivable we'll ever see another redesign in our lifetimes, just as we'll never see lasting redesigns for this or this - but more subtle and understated. The broken window is like a portal into the book, an obscure mystery for the reader to solve, much like the whole universe of the book itself.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

You Are All So Stupid

You can't remove a person's heart from their body and expect them to live. There's comic-book science, and then there's listening to mentally challenged teenagers talk about Yu Gi Oh, and then lower still on the totem pole of stupid there's Selina Kyle in a hospital room with jumper cables hooked up to what appears to be her lungs.

Your big crossover is about important characters having been replaced at crucial points in their history by evil shape-changing aliens. So . . . let's say you reveal that Character X is revealed to be a Skrull. Would anyone minded if you had gone far enough back to reveal that it was not actually Character X but actually a Skrull who beat his wife back in the early 80s? Anyone? I almost admire Brian Michael Bendis' unwillingness to step on any previous creator's stories in writing his own - it's generally classy in a way that clannish, backstabbing superhero writers usually aren't. But! Still! Make an argument as to why that bit of unsavory detail has to remain On The Record.

Batman says "cunt" a lot in real life. Usually after work at the bar.

I wonder if "New Ways To Die" was the plan all along for Brand New Day, or a reaction to the perceived sleepiness of the relaunch. It's pretty much bog-standard as far as these things go, but nonetheless has the same kind of old-school pizazz that made "The Sinestro Corps" such a sales darling. (Despite it's general air of redundancy, it projected the illusion of relevancy with sufficient vigor to achieve implausible sales increases.) If Amazing doesn't jump at least 20,000 copies for the duration - reorders included - I'll eat my hat, because the market really is that predictable.

So how come no one has mentioned the drug-addled Dr. Manhattan analogue in that Superman Beyond thing? There's no love lost between Morrison and Moore, but this is rather interesting nonetheless. Now more than ever Watchmen is one of the few true sacred cows in mainstream comics. There have certainly been a few extra-canonical references over the years - that profoundly weird issue of The Question, for one - but since at least the early 90s there's always been a tacit, if not explicitly stated understanding on the part of editorial that if Watchmen was to remain on its pedestal as (arguably) the company's most significant single story, ever, it needed to be kept sacrosanct: not out of any desire to placate the unplacatable Alan Moore, but simply for the logical reason that one of its major selling points is its absolute critical and thematic autonomy. What this meant wasn't just no followups, which have always been mooted, but no Ambush Bug spoofs, no thinly-disguised analogues getting ripped apart in Millar's Authority. Allowing Morrison a free hand to take the piss out of the story's signature Captain Atom analogue, even if it doesn't seem like that big of a deal on the surface, strikes me as a significant act, and as much of an indicator of Morrison's uniquely privileged status at the company as anything else.