Monday, September 28, 2009

The World's Greatest Assholes

Is it possible to label an inanimate object as an asshole? Because, boy howdy, if you've ever played the above cartridge, you know what I'm talking about. You know just how possible it is that a few ounces of plastic circuits can seem like the living, breathing, pulsating embodiment of foetid evil.

I know less about the current state of the video game world than I do about quantum physics - ie, not a whole lot. But what I have heard about contemporary games like Ultimate Alliance or Arkham Asylum makes me envious. You see, back in the day, if you wanted to play a video game featuring your favorite four-color heroes in tales of derring-do, you were pretty much SOL. Sure, there were a few superhero games made for the NES and more for the SNES - and a few for the SNES were even pretty good (not Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade's Revenge, however, which is verifiable proof of the God's nonexistence). But in the beginning, despite the fact that the audiences for video games and comic books overlapped considerably, most comic book games were pretty poor. Movie tie-ins were generally dire (something I never really understood, but apparently it's pretty much CW at this point that movie games have always sucked across the board), but comic book tie-ins were worse. Who remembers the Silver Surfer game? That one actually looked pretty good, graphics-wise, but was almost impossible to win because it was impossible not to die. You know how in comics the Surfer is pretty much invincible, and can only be physically harmed by great cosmic power? In the game, he died when he was attacked by frogs. He died when he was hit by small weapons fire. He did when he flew into platforms. He just basically died, period.

But as bad as the Surfer was - and I should point out that I actually beat the Surfer's game, which at the time seemed an achievement on par with passing the oral defense for a PhD - it plays like Super Mario 3 next to LJN's X-Men. Calling this thing a game is stretching the point. First of all, you can't move - you just sort of wiggle. It's an overhead view, so you can't really see anything distinctive about your characters, other than they are vague lumpen dwarf things moving about in a surreal, ill-defined world of labyrinths and puzzles. In retrospect, it sort of plays like you imagine a Teratoid Heights game would - only, instead of the poor, unresponsive controls being a symbol of some kind of dysfunctional, existential reality-altered perception, the controls in X-Men just make it looks like the characters are wiggling when they should in face be running or dodging or doing something to avoid being hit by everything on the screen simultaneously. I don't think I ever made it past a few feet on the map for any level. It wasn't just hard, it actively worked against intelligibility.

This is, let's be frank, the worst video game I have ever played in my life. It gains added points in the field of soul-crushing despair due to the fact that it's based on a license that so many kids and pre-teens in the late 80s would have killed to see made into an awesome game. How many of these same kids rushed home from the store, unwrapped their copy of X-Men in a fevered rush, and proceeded to watch their fondest desires fade into the infinite abyss of gnarled purplish pixelated hell? There are few things that more define an asshole than arbitrarily crushing the hopes and dreams of children.


Monday, September 21, 2009

The World's Greatest Assholes

You know this guy. This guy haunts your dreams.

Street Fighter II is the best fighting game ever made. In fact, I've never played another fighting game that was anywhere near as fun. Mortal Combat was too dark and dreary, and the skill level necessary to pull off the combos was too high. I played Tekken once and it was just boring. Most of the others I've seen were either way too complex for the casual gamer to enjoy, or built in such a way that any clod could pull off devastating moves simply by pushing down on all the buttons simultaneously (I'm looking at you, Marvel vs. Capcom arcade edition).

But Street Fighter Ii? It was fun: no "fatalities", no twenty-button combos. You could have fun games with two average-to-mediocre players just bashing around, you could have a lot of fun with more advanced players as well. The fighters were cartoon characters and the violence was exaggerated - people weren't pulling out other people's hearts. I'm not a fan of real-life bloodsports, so the closer the games get to an "uncanny valley" of bloody fisticuffs, the further from some kind of pseudo-comic book fantasy, the less fun it seems, the more vaguely disturbing.

But this guy, this guy is the thorn on the rose bush of one of the SNES' best titles. To put it bluntly, Guile was an asshole, and anyone who picked Guile was an asshole. Why? Because if you knew how to play Guile, you could effectively put down any other player. All you had to do was sit in the corner and keep doing that backwards sonic kick thing and you were untouchable. Which is really frustrating: you're sitting down to play a nice fun game with some pals, and then the guy next to you picks Guile and the game sort of comes to a standstill. He keeps pushing the same combination over and over again, Guile keeps kicking, and anytime you try to hit him you get hit in return.

Why are you sitting here playing video games? Seriously, it's a good question. If you don't really want to play video games, if all you want to do is play in a disinterested, odious manner that frustrates the people around you, what is the point? You're an asshole, that's who, and Guile is an asshole for facilitating your churlishness.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Two Jakes

I didn't forget about the X-Men. I've actually been thinking about them for a while now, ever since I started writing about them infrequently. More than anything else I would like to thank everyone who had commented on the subject. I began the subject with a simple question - why are the X-Men no longer as popular, when for almost the entirety of the 1990s they were the industry's dominant franchise, and even more, one of the most dominant franchises in the medium's history? I had a few ideas about the subject which I spent some time exploring, but also a number of misapprehensions and suppositions which were subsequently refined or corrected by the comments.

My first mistake - and it's a common mistake, really, so I can't feel too bad about making it - is presuming some kind of continuity between the initial, long 17-year Claremont run and the subsequent years. It's obvious on the face of it that the books changed overnight once the adjectiveless X-Men began and Claremont left the ostensible flagship Uncanny. But the mistake I made was in asking why exactly the books continued to be popular after Claremont left, assuming that the dip in quality would have been obvious to anyone reading at the time - it was to me, certainly, and many others who enjoyed the Claremont run but had little to do with the franchise throughout the following years. The real question is not why people stuck with the franchise when it got "bad". The real question is why Marvel was stupid enough to screw over the franchise in the late 90s and early 00s.

Before 1991, the X-franchise was, while overwhelmingly popular, still not dominant to the degree it would be. There were only three main titles - Uncanny, X-Factor and New Mutants - with two peripheral titles, Wolverine and Excalibur. These last two were very obviously peripheral for one reason: they were printed on better paper and cost fifty cents more than the regular newsprint books. This meant that the books didn't get directly involved in crossovers. I don't know really why this was, but Baxter paper books (was it still called Baxter paper?), because of their price, were never vital components of crossovers or promotions. Perhaps this was one last holdover of the idea that the company's mainline titles should be readily accessible and affordable to the youngest readers. It would be interesting to know why this perception existed, but I know as a reader at the time I could discern a definite difference between the regular $1 Punisher book and the $1.50 Punisher War Journal - they were both Code titles, but the $1.50 books seemed to get away with a bit more than the newsprint line, and existed at a slight remove from month-to-month continuity.

In any event, this distinction disappeared altogether in the early 90s - printing standards rose dramatically, for one. They were already rising before Image started - Marvel had just recently dropped the universally reviled Flexographic process and even the mainline books looked dramatically better. But when the Image guys took charge of their new books and made $1.95 the standard intro price for the company's regular books, it was really only a matter of time before everyone else followed suit.

In the early 1990s, Marvel decided, with good reason, that since nothing sold as well as the X-Men, they would start making as many X-Men books as possible. I can't say how much of an influence Claremont's presence had on the line's relatively conservative growth up to then, but I have always suspected that he exerted a stronger presence than not. Consider that of the four ongoing spinoffs released up to 1991, he had personally launched three of them, and his displeasure over X-Factor created continuity problems that eventually resulted in the line's biggest-to-that-point X-over, 1988's Inferno. But whether or not correlation was causation in this instance, nevertheless, once he left the floodgates opened.

And the funny thing is, once the line started to explode in the early 90s, the fanbase did as well. It was popular before, sure, but the fans who came in with Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and the Saturday morning cartoon didn't care who the hell Chris Claremont was. (It didn't help that in the years immediately preceding 1991, Uncanny had been entrenched on a years-long "X-Men disassembled" storyline that featured the team dismantled, and whole months passed with only third-raters like Forge and Banshee as placeholders.*) Or maybe they knew who he was, but Wolverine as a character was more important than Claremont or even Lee & Liefeld as creators. This was the moment when the line really exploded, and oddly enough it also coincided with the moment when the line consciously pared away amount of influence any individual creator could exert on the line. Suddenly, things became interchangeable. There were a half-dozen top-shelf artists moving between the top titles, but none of them were ever in any danger of becoming marquee names. There were any number of competent writers, but no single writer could be allowed to develop any kind of long-term proprietary interest over the books.

The number one draw was the characters. From Marvel's perspective, the Claremont years were probably no less and aberration than the early 90s pre-Image explosion. Marvel didn't own Chris Claremont, but they did own Wolverine, and you don't get any credit for guessing which property they're more concerned with keeping safe and happy.

So here's what the X-Books were in the 1990s: one big giant ongoing soap-opera, of which no component was more important than the larger franchise. If you bought one, you were practically committed to buying most or all. Even when the titles floundered, even when the stories were ill-conceived, poorly drawn, badly written and even nonsensical, there were so many of the things being produced that momentum was never lost. Being a fan of the X-books was like being a fan of a sports franchise: you liked the X-Men like a Chicago fan likes the the Cubs. Sure, the Cubs never quite make it, but you enjoy the show all season anyway. Sure, some fair-weather fans may come and go as the home team waxes and wanes, but there's still a huge amount of people who stay committed through thick and thin. Sometimes, and this is something that is occasionally hard to comprehend for many, the franchise thrives despite the low quality of many of its constituent books. The reason for this is simple: people get loyal, and this loyalty takes buying X-Men books above the level of a simple capitalistic exchange of money for a good or bad comic and places it instead on the plane of loyalty to an idea. Ask any Red Sox fan circa 2004: there is nothing sweeter than a long-delayed victory, made even sweeter because of the turmoil wrought on the long-suffering fanbase.

In the early 1990s the X-Books were popular enough that even when they started to shed readers at a precipitate rate in the late 90s, the books were still popular enough to almost single-handedly keep Marvel afloat in its darkest hours. (People remembered the Age of Apocalypse, and the memory of how well-received that event was kept the books warm even through Onslaught and Operation: Zero Tolerence.) Seriously, the only possible reason why Marvel still insists on publishing so many X-books despite the general antipathy towards many of the secondary and tertiary titles is long-standing institutional memory - these books sold well during some very dark times, so it stands to reason they should always be remembered with pride by the company.

But if we can return for one second to the sports metaphor: when the fin de siecle hit, things changed. Even when the franchise was at its lowest nadir of quality, the perception of an ongoing, uninterrupted soap-opera narrative continuing without pause since roughly 1991 (or even 1975) remained intact. But then - well. Sports fans will stay with a team through even the most ignoble defeats and embarrassing scandals. They will forgive anything. But the fact is, with the notable exception of the Green Bay Packers, the fans don't own the teams. The owners take the fans for granted ,and with good reason. But there is one thing the owners can do too demolish this fanbase, one breach of absolute trust, one surefire method to demarcate the the end of one era and the beginning of a new, a clear and violent jumping-off point for even the most hardcore.

The owners can always move the team. It's their prerogative.

So, when Marvel decided to push the X-books back to prominence after a rather disastrous few years (despite Alan Davis' generally well-received run, it still culminated in The Shattering, the Twelve and Claremont's disastrous return), they didn't just revamp the line by putting better creators on the books and getting back to first principles. Or, er, they might have thought that was what they were doing, but it wasn't quite the same thing. They decided to do the equivalent of moving the franchise to another city: they set down a line in the sand between the "old" X-Men - you know, the books that regardless of any other considerations had been the company's lifeblood for the previous decade - and the New X-Men.

They could not have made their wishes more explicit: this weren't yer father's X-Men, this was something different. Whether or not Morrison's X-Men were any good is totally besides the point. It was a good book, but it wouldn't have been any less good if it had been a new series a la Astonishing or, contemporaneously, X-Treme. The point is that the "New" X-Men provided a convenient jumping off point for as many readers as it may have attracted. And the new readers jumping aboard with Morrison weren't the type of readers who were going to become fanatically attached to the franchise properties above all other considerations. Marvel's bread and butter in the 1990s was a solid core of fandom who had been trained to disregard creators and individual styles - which is not to say that these were ignored, just of secondary importance, even in the case of monstrously popular artists such as Joe Madureira. Suddenly, all the fans who had suffered through the worst of the 90s were being told that the stories they liked, the characters they loved, weren't going to be the backbone of the franchise anymore. Suddenly, the X-Men weren't the X-Men - the team had been moved. It didn't matter if the new owners pointed out how much better the team was doing in its new stadium across the country - for the fans, it just wasn't their team anymore.

* I have decided that Forge is my second-least-favorite Marvel character, behind only Morbius the Living Vampire. Why Claremont though this character was interesting at all is beyond me, and why he decided to devote a solid year of the book in the 80s to The Adventures of Forge and his Paddy** Sidekick Banshee is simply beyond me.

** I can say "Paddy", my name is O'Neil.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Happy Trails

I just read the last Scary Go Round ever. I'm sad about that. It has been one of my favorite comics for a long time.

John Allison showed up in the comments when I spoke about Achewood the other day, rightfully pointing out that comparing any living cartoonist to Charles Schulz is something of a canard. Well, yes, that it is, just like comparing modern superhero artists to Kirby doesn't do a lot for advancing that conversation either. I knew it was a red herring when I wrote it, but I still did it for a very specific reason.

One of the best things about cartooning is that, as an artform, it really offers a unique format with which to observe an artist's talent grow and mature. Sure, you can make these sort of observations with just about any kind of artist or medium - Pitchfork just did a whole week on the new Beatles' remasters, a series of reviews that drew specific attention to the ways in which the Beatles' sound and approach to musicmaking changed over the course of seven extremely busy and fraught years. This is an old story but still fascinating, not just because of the music itself, but because the frequency with which the music was made contributed to a fuller picture of the music and the musicians. They released so much music in such a short amount of time that it feels, at least in retrospect, like every moment of their creative maturation is recorded for posterity.

But really, no matter how much the most prolific musician might release, they've got nothin' on a strip cartoonist*. Day-in, day-out, they've got to produce a strip. If there is one thing the last few years of excellent strip reprint projects has taught me, is that there are few more edifying experiences in all of comics than sitting down with a two-year chunk of, say, Terry & the Pirates or Dick Tracy and swallowing it whole. Incremental change flies by in the time it takes you to turn the page, and before your very eyes you witness an artist mutating, growing and bettering himself, using the pressure of daily deadlines as a kind of crucible to constantly improve themselves. It's not just broad strokes but every little detail - little things like the kind of brushstroke Caniff used to draw people's cheekbones, minuscule details that might not have stood out when observed daily over the course of the decade but which, when seen together, add up to vast differences. A cartoonist who releases artwork on a regular basis gets to grow up in public in a manner not really analogous to any other kind of art**. Sure, a touring band will improve daily, but most people don't get the change to follow a young rock band on the road for the first two or three years of their existence in order to register the gradual change from scrappy young naifs to grizzled pros. In comics, you get to do that, and I have really sincerely come to believe that this sort of intimate experience is one of the true pleasures of comics as an artform, unique among others. It's not just that an artist improves, but that they leave concrete, verifiable traces of every step of the process, from the very beginnings to the present moment.

Look at the first episode of Scary Go Round, here. It could have been drawn by an entirely different artist that today's strip. Look at the first Bobbins, here. Pretty amazing, no? From an almost total cipher to one of the most influential webcartoonists extant - just ask Jeph Jaques or Kate Beaton - that's an amazing arc for just eleven years. He's not retiring anytime soon - he promises a new start with a new strip (with some of the same characters) in a week or so, but still. Every new chapter is preceded by the closing of the previous chapter.

So, thank you, John Allison. Thank you for providing one of my favorite strips for seven years running; thank you for having the stamina and perseverance to make yourself a better cartoonist and giving us all the opportunity to watch every step of the way; thank you for your funny characters and your willingness to follow every joke to its logical conclusion regardless of how preposterous it may have seemed; thank you for answering my fan letters about why Tessa and Rachel disappeared from the strip. No thank yous for setting them on fire, however, that was just mean.

* I wouldn't put it past Robert Pollard to start releasing a song a day, but it's not really the same thing.

** Perhaps in the 18th and 19th centuries, when prose fiction was released primarily in serial form, it might have been possible to observe similar effects - but since fiction is no longer received that way, that is an experience most modern readers will never have (some internet experiments notwithstanding).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The World's Greatest Assholes

An asshole is less than a villain - not usually a schemer or a manipulator, no great personality and even with even less motivation. An asshole is someone who manages to get by simply by being a tremendous dick, sometimes for no reason, sometimes just because he's getting paid to be a dick by someone else. Assholes are quite simply obnoxious and indefatigably nasty.

So it should come as no surprise that the biggest asshole of the day is none other than:

Anyone who ever played Super Mario Brothers knows this asshole well. How frustrating: you're cruising along, stomping on mushroom things and kicking green turtles, and suddenly some dick on a flying cloud starts raining spiny death down from the sky. At least the King Koopa has some motivation: he wants to ravish Princess Peach, steal a kingdom, amass some flying gold coins. He's greedy for some reason, and even though he's a giant turtle dinosaur thing he wants a (moderately) human bride. Fair enough. But Lakitu is just a straight-up punk, pulling down a paycheck from the boss to drop exotic munitions on some fat Italian plumbers.

You know, if Lakitu had been around in the 60s he would probably have been delighted to drop thousands of gallons of napalm on the Viet-Cong. If he had been working for the Allied Command in World War II, he would have flown the inaugural bombing run on Dresden. As horrifying as war in general - and Mushroom Kingdom skirmishes in particular - may be, there is a special kind of terror involved in the act of dropping heavy ordinance from the skies onto hapless victims. Lakitu is, quite simply, an asshole and a dick of the highest magnitude: if there are ever war crimes tribunals in the Mushroom Kingdom, he'll be first on the docket.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Has Achewood Lost It's Groove?

I put the question in the title not because I intend to make a definitive argument either way. I'm torn. It seemed for a bit as if the current storyline, which began with Ray learning the (ahem) ins-and-outs of writing Sapphic erotica and culminated with (another) death of Roast Beef - with Cartilage Head and some wicked Chris Ware pastiches thrown in along the way - was building for something big. Gary Tyrell said we were in for something as big or bigger than the Great Outdoor Fight, perhaps the strip's greatest extended storyline. I was on board, too - it seemed as if the strip was climbing out of its recent doldrums and getting exciting again.

And then - well, I dunno. I'm still on board, obviously. I've been with Achewood since the very beginning - since way back when I saw an ad for the strip in the back pages of the Journal advertising "animals blitzed out of their minds on hooch", or some such immortal ad slogan. Looking back at the archives, the first strip ran on 10/01/01. That was a really weird time in general. It didn't seem to have anything to do with anything, but it hit me right where I live, and since then - no joke - there probably hasn't been 48 hours passed in that entire time when I haven't checked Achewood for updates. I have one of the first printings of the first book Onstad ever put together - a dinky little saddle-stitched affair with a plain white cover and a tiny illustration of Phillipe and Theodore on the cover - "A Momentary Diversion On the Road to the Grave". It even has a little personalized sketch of a sad Roast Beef with indigestion from eating too many nachos and an inscription to my (then) wife and I. I didn't pay for the sketch or inscriptions, but he did them anyway - that's just how Achewood rolled back in the day.

This isn't one of those, "man, your old stuff was better" posts. If there is one thing that has been true of Achewood since its inception, it is that it has gotten steadily better for almost the entirety of its existence. At first it was gag-a-day, then continuity developed, then subplots, larger storylines, epics. A small cast soon ballooned into, what? Hundreds of people slipping in and out? I'm pretty much in the tank as far as you can possibly be for Achewood. It's probably one of the dozen or so great comics of the last decade - not webcomics, comics, period. I truly believe that - it had the potential to be one of the defining works of the current era, and to a large degree it has fulfilled those expectations.

But I was speaking to a friend the other day who pointed out that the strip ain't what it used to be, for a number of reasons. Now again I need to preface this by saying I don't necessarily agree with his criticisms - but now that I've had a couple days to mull them over, I'm not quite sure I disagree with them, either.

The first point is that the strip has struggled to regain its equilibrium after the month-long hiatus coinciding with Onstad's move to Oregon. Now, I am not sure I buy this at all - looking back through the archives, there's some great stuff, including the resolution of the Charlie Smuckles stuck in 18th century Wales plotline, featuring the return of the Magical Realism Mexican textile industry. That brings us up to June and the first stirrings of the current storyline.

The second point is that the strip is having a harder time juggling its cast. In the past, arguably the strip's greatest strength was that there was a surfeit of really good - or at least really funny - characters to draw from. It was typical for extended storylines to be interrupted multiple times in progress by, say, a Theodore gag strip or a Mr. Bear and Lyle conversation, or whatever. You got the idea that these characters were strong enough that just having them around sparked more ideas than could be reasonably contained in any convention storyline, and gratifying tangents multiplied. Usually the best storylines consisted of multiple tangents which fed and informed each other. I see some truth in this criticism, honestly, even if I also acknowledge that it could be merely a blip in the current storyline.

But there's also the third, and perhaps most damning critique. The strip just doesn't come out like it used to. Now, obviously, you've got the caveat that it's free and we shouldn't complain about free. That's a given. But you know, at some point you can feel a cartoonist's enthusiasm start to wane and his attention begin to wander. Is Onstad getting ready to make a move to larger, stand-alone works, the kind of which The Great Outdoor Fight collected edition would serve as a model? Are the longer and longer gaps between strips indicative of diffused attention or impatience?

Again, let's be clear: he's under no compulsion to provide cartoons except for his own volition. I don't have any kind of contract with him regarding a certain level of output - hah! Achewood has never been daily, it's usually been thrice weekly. But lately the gaps are are getting wider. Now, when you look at a strip like this, you have to wonder - is he really trying to become Chris Ware? Because honestly, I don't think that's the best role model for any cartoonist to adopt. I kind of sort of gave up on Chris Ware a while ago - not that he's not a master, obviously he is, but his particular blend of technical mastery and pinched, emotionally astringent subject matter is getting, frankly, stale. I haven't read a new chapter of Rusty Brown in a few years - maybe he's switched it up in the last couple installments. But his work repels me a little bit. I think Onstad has a far better ear for character and emotion than Ware - yeah, I said it. Attempting to replicate Ware's most pained achievements of technical wizardry aren't exactly going to do a lot in terms of the strip's core strengths: character-driven melodrama, anarchic plotting and - when in doubt - raunchy slapstick. I say: move past Chris Ware. It's doing more harm than good.

Honestly? I think there comes a time when a cartoonist needs to shit or get off the pot. Charles Schulz produced a strip every day for fifty goddamn years without so much as an assistant. Now, not everyone has to be Schulz. But the point is that if you're going to be a strip cartoonist of any kind you have to have at least some consistency - it's part of the job description. Nick Gurewitch quit the Perry Bible Fellowship because he just wasn't ready for the grind, and didn't want to be a daily (or even weekly) strip cartoonist. Now, that was a big disappointment for me - PBF was a great strip. Still makes me laugh when I troll the archives, even at strips I've read half a dozen times. But you know what? He didn't want to do the thing to death. We can call him a dilettante - hell, I just did. He will most likely never hit on anything as good as PBF again. Most people are lucky to have one idea that hits half as well as that, and anyone who thinks they can just pull another one out of their pocket is deluded, unfortunate or both - and by the way, how many unsold copies of Stewart the Rat do you think were clogging up Steve Gerber's crawlspace when he died? (Yeah, low blow - but the point is made.)

But Gurewitch knew he didn't want to be - couldn't be - the next Charles Schulz, so he got out of the running. I can respect that. Similarly, Aaron McGruder got sick of making Boondocks strips and cut his losses - and honestly, we knew the end was coming with all the "Huey talks to the TV" strips that were obviously ghosted with the punchlines inserted after the fact. But Boondocks moved to TV, and you know, the funny thing is that as cool as it was to have something in the newspaper that genuinely offended so many stupid people, Boondocks works a lot better as an Adult Swim show than it ever did as a strip. "Return of the King" was one of the best half-hours of TV I've seen this decade. Moving to a new medium was good for the characters. And again, McGruder wasn't in the running to be the next Schulz.

So this is what it comes down to: is Achewood alright? Seriously, I've written all these words but I'm not convinced either way. I think the current storyline is dragging, yes, but that could change in an instant once I see what's on the other side of that exit door. Could be this was all a blip, and the preceding words are just fanboy entitlement jitters. Or it could be that he will announce the end of Achewood as an online strip sometime in the next six months. I just don't know, and the interesting thing is that I think the strip has reached a point - in terms both of the success of the online serial and the success of the printed collections - where these concerns are probably at the forefront of Onstad's mind, too. Maybe it's nothing and these worries are just the product of an overactive imagination. Or maybe The End Is Night.

What do you think?

Happy Hooligan (Forever Nuts)
by Frederick Burr Opper

Happy Hooligan is a bum, literally, a hobo out to make his way in the world and failing miserably. He means well, he really does, but invariably his attempts at doing well for others backfire on him, landing him in hot water with the cop who exists seemingly for the sole purpose of collaring Happy. It's a remarkably simple and yet quite solid template for situation comedy. Eventually the formula changed, new characters were introduced outside the world of Happy, his brothers and the cop who pursued them. But the same essential logic remained, even when Happy toured the world and got married. Happy was, in a word, hapless.

For all that the early strip artists focused on the poor immigrants flooding the streets of New York in the late 19th and early 20th century, there wasn't always the empathy that Opper displays towards Happy. Looking at some of Outcault's earliest Hogan's Alley pages, its not hard to see the veiled disgust reflecting prevalent attitudes towards the urban poor. Look at this example, from 1896 (courtesy of Wikipedia), and notice how the slapstick violence seems less playful than merely chaotic. The crew of diverse racial stereotypes seem filthy - it brings to mind nothing so much as William Hogarth. And lest we forget, Beer Street and Gin Lane was not intended to create empathy for its subjects, but bring the full force of social approbation down upon the miserable proles in the grips of the Demon Gin.

But Happy, despite his misfortune, is nevertheless very charming. The strip's primary effect stems from the fact that the reader does empathize with Happy: when bad things happen to him (as they do with clockwork regularity) the reader laughs because they identify with the character on some level. Instead of an object Happy is a character, and his undying optimism and unflappable decency stand in such stark contrast to his circumstances that the juxtaposition is itself the source of humor. It's the same reason - the exact same reason - Charlie Brown can never quite kick that football. It's funny but it's also really, really sad. The confluence of those sensations, laughter and sympathy, creates a kind of collusion between the reader and the character. Just based on the sampling of strips presented in this collection, I like Happy - he's a simple fellow and his adventures can be quite repetitive, but better comic strips have been made with much less in the way of moving parts. (Krazy Kat, for one, with only three real characters and one gag spread over 31 years.)

Let's look at this strip, from early in the run. The first thing the reader sees is that the six panels are stationary: the reader has the same view of the landscape in every panel. Thus, when the characters move around in the strip, the illusion of motion is created - in one panel, a character is in one place, and in the next panel he has changed position. Because the strip progresses temporally in the time it takes the reader to scan the captions and "read" the pictures, the implicit assumption follows that the two panels occur consecutively in short order. This is the most basic form of sequential storytelling, but for Opper's slapstick it is the most effective. Because, as you might notice, there's a lot going on in these six panels. You've got four characters interacting on both the vertical and horizontal planes of the tableau - speaking up to the second story of a building, and moving to and from the background horizon line. Someone is moving in every panel, and the next panel illustrates whatever incremental movement has been made. Look at the visual symmetry of the cop traveling from the background to foreground on the top tier of panels, and the organ grinder walking out of the foreground and to the horizon line in the bottom tier.

Slapstick is physical comedy, and physical comedy is one of the hardest things to do well. Cinematic comparisons to comics are reductive, of course (the necessary disclaimer), but they fit well since Opper is replicating so much of the vocabulary of early silent film staging. In early film the camera was too heavy to be moved, so the action had to be staged for the benefit of a stationary observer. A premium was placed on visual legibility, in order for the elements of the narrative to be communicated as effectively as possible. Here, the stationary panels offer a view of a very brief melodrama, occurring in pretty much the time it takes the reader to scan the panels.

Comics, as with any artistic medium, is defined as much by its weaknesses as its strengths. Comics singular weakness in regards to communicating direct action is that it is a static medium - motion only exists as an illusion in the reader's mind. Figuring out that two pictures placed side by side will create an inference of connectivity in the mind of the viewer was one of the first steps in embracing, and eventually overcoming, this weakness, by turning the cartoonist's ability to manipulate the reader's understanding of time's passage into one of the most crucial parts of the cartoonists toolkit.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

This isn't about Radiohead. There's nothing less interesting in 2009 than writing about how great Radiohead are, how smart and talented and prescient and demanding. All the ink both virtual and actual that has been spilled in the process of lionizing them over the past decade has only made them more unapproachable; their critical acclaim has rendered them practically inert. Why write about Radiohead? They're not interesting anymore - they're ubiquitous and canonized and overpraised. (Yeah, I like Radiohead and I'll be the first to say they're way overpraised - but I also think Sgt. Pepper's isn't very good, either. [I loved Sgt. Pepper's when I was 15, for what it's worth.])

Now is the point in the essay where you are probably expecting me to say something to the effect of, "even though Radiohead have been done to death, I'm going to flip the script and show you something you've never thought about before". But I'm not going to do that - in fact, I freely admit, I don't have anything particularly novel or interesting to say about Kid A itself.

Therefore, this isn't a story about Radiohead: if you want to read about Thom and Co., sorry. Really, just like The Woods and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Sounds of Silver and Show Your Bones too, for that matter - these essays are less about the music than about me working through the decade in my own head through the prism of the music. Does that seem self-indulgent? I'm not trying to tell you that you should like this music, although obviously I think it's pretty good music and you'd be happier if you did. I can't articulate very well why these discs mean the things they mean to me - an odd admission for a writer to make, yes, but it's true. But that's the idea, that's the goal: pop music pulls us back in ourselves, music to which we are attached acts as an ever-recurring Proustian miracle, instant nostalgia for the ways we used to be.

(Perhaps that's why, despite my best efforts, I've never been able to build up more than a clinical appreciation for classical music - it's exalted cultural status demands the exclusive attention of our faculties. It's hard to perceive classical music as a part of our lives when it is only encountered in isolation from the rest of culture. It doesn't interact with our memories in the same way, if we haven't been raised to consume it with the same avidity as we all do pop music. It's segregated in our perceptions, and so therefore fails to gain a foothold in our biological RAM. But that's neither here nor there - that's my own personal cultural insecurity speaking. Wouldn't I be a better person if I could sit around pontificating joyfully on the subject of Mahler, instead of listening to his symphonies with a sense of grim, determined obligation?)

Kid A is, for me, a very specific moment in time. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard it for the first time: it was a hopeful moment, an exciting day. If you don't remember - the buildup to Kid A was huge. The anticipation for the "FOLLOW UP TO OK COMPUTER" was simply overwhelming, with the entirety of the music press (and even many in the mainstream press) filled with breathless speculation, a mountain built atop whatever small crumbs the band had let fall from their studio seclusion. It felt like something was about to happen. Like a lot of things it seems really silly when I type it up now, after the fact - music culture and music consumption has changed so radically in the last decade that this kind of phenomena seems - well, I don't know. Quaint? Sure, In Rainbows was a big deal, but not the same thing.

Maybe I'm reading to much of myself into the process. Kid A seemed at the time like both a culmination and a prelude: a culmination of many different strains of 90s pre-millennial tension, and a prelude of where all these different kinds of futurism, once united, would go. In our future. It seemed for a brief spell as if we were actually living in the future. Y2K had come and gone, leaving a pile of anxiety in its wake, but the Utopian hopes and technological dreams of the 1990s were still hanging in the air. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that we were waiting for something to happen, something that would justify our presumptions, some indication that the absolutely arbitrary calendar flip would have some deeper meaning. We're human, and humans are slaves to their symbols and systems, regardless of how arbitrary they may in reality be.

I sincerely hope my foreshadowing hasn't been too clumsy. Fact is, the future did arrive pretty quickly after that, only it wasn't anything at all like the future in which we had imagined we'd be living. I think it's safe to say that no one saw this decade coming.

I'm not nostalgic for the late 90s. The late 90s was a weird time, and certainly no better than a lot of other weird times. I am nostalgic, however, for the future we thought we were going to get, the Year 2000 that seemed to promise so much that didn't materialize. Kid A is, for me, probably the saddest disc on this list, because it symbolizes something that we (and by using the royal "we", you can understand I mean "me") missed out on: a vision of the future we didn't quite reach.

The 90s was all about smooth and sleek, about moving faster and deadlier towards some kind of approaching event horizon. When I try to articulate exactly what I'm thinking, the only images that seem to make sense are Massive Attack videos - like this andthis and this and this. Although they are obviously - tragically - a bit dated now, at the time they seemed so state-of-the art as to be positively prescient: look at that aesthetic, how shiny and glamorous even the dirt and gravel are. It's cosmopolitan and globalized in only the best way: globalization is one of the dirty legacies of the decade's overly-optimistic neo-liberal Thatcherism, but at the time the idea that national boundaries were being slowly erased by technology and economic prosperity wasn't the least bit controversial. It was reality. Sex is there, but not in the way that sex is here now. It's a (at least slightly more) mature sensuality, a sexuality for adults by adults, not kids.

Most importantly, though, was the music. What did my fin de siecle sound like? It sounded like the smashing clatter of progress. 1999 for me was Surrender, it was Beaucoup Fish, it was Play and The Contino Sessions and The Middle of Nowhere and even (for all its solipsism it was gorgeous) The Fragile - all these albums that pointed to nothing so much as the ultimate effacement and devaluation of the individual artist in favor of a Platonic, principled anonymity. No more pictures of artists with pretty hair on CD booklets. We were going to be living in a real life theme park version of "Cups" - building slowly from a simple disco vamp up through a deceptively insistent beat, growing from a deep house track into some kind of monstrous pseudo-trance breakbeat epic, pulsating Daft Punk-ish synths warring with complex jungle-esque polyrhythms. It was massive and gloriously impersonal and simply bigger than anything you could individually imagine. Even the people making the sound were dwarfed. Daft Punk wear robot masks, and if that seems like a puckish affectation to some, it's really the only logical conclusion that arises from making principled self-effacing dance music.

I was late to the party with Radiohead. OK Computer didn't take over the US immediately, and I was one of those people who only warmed to the album long after the fact, turned on by a loose acquaintance who pressed the album into my hands and assured me I would like it. Sure enough, I did. For a rock band, they seemed to "get it", to feel and to be animated by the guiding spirit of secular millenarianism that moved so much of the rest of the era's culture. Kid A threatened to make good on OK Computer's promise, taking the next logical step for any self-respecting rock band, immolating themselves heroically at the altar of some great, depersonalizing future spirit.

In hindsight, of course, that couldn't have been further from the truth. For all the hype about Radiohead recording a Warp Records album, at its core the disc was still propelled by some fairly conventional pop songcraft - right down to a hard core of two or three rock songs that wouldn't have been that out of place on The Bends (maybe with a slightly different mix, but still). Sure, there was lots of strange sounding music, probably more than most people were comfortable with. But the way it straddled these expectations, that is what seemed so novel - the way it bridged the expectations of so many constituents, achieving something that sounded wholly new despite being the sum total of many years and many obvious influences. Aphex Twin recorded many discs worth of ambient music during the 90s, but he never made anything as coherent. I personally would have been happy with a whole disc of "Treefingers", but the fact that they made "Treefingers" fit with a whole album of less-outright-confrontational but still varying-degrees-of-futuristic rock music was really quite impressive.

But like many things, it turned out to be less than advertised. Kid A didn't kill the rock band, rather, it served as a nice tombstone for an attitude and a philosophy that didn't survive the frightening traumas of our current decade. Turns out the new generation of rockers didn't aspire to be anonymous, consummately professional craftsmen. They didn't want to disappear behind their music, and they didn't find ostentatious displays of individuality to be vaguely distasteful and frankly presumptuous. And that was the moment I began to feel old because I realized my personal vision of the culture had deviated so radically from the reality that I just didn't qualify even vaguely as the demographic anymore.

But it's all moot: the future we got wasn't the future we wanted, for a number of reasons. It's sad in a wistful way to look back at the moment and remember the strange little booklet of political doggerel that came pressed inside the jewel case of the initial release. You know, the one attacking Tony Blair for being a demagogue, promoting a dangerous agenda of centrist neo-Thatcherisms. How nice it must have been to be worried about Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Ah, were we ever so young?

Best Music of the "Aughts"
10.The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
9.Spoon - Gimme Fiction
8.The New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
7.Girl Talk - Night Ripper
6.The Roots - Phrenology
5.LCD Soundsystem - Sounds of Silver
4.The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
3.Radiohead - Kid A
2.Sleater-Kinney - The Woods 1, 2
1.Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 1, 2