Thursday, September 30, 2010

SIR

Thor #615


So this is the much-lauded first issue of Matt Fraction's much-hyped run on Thor. And I have to say, for one of the most heavily hyped debut issues in recent memory, this is a big ol' eh.

It's become de rigueur for reviewers, when discussing Thor, to state up-front that they don't really like Thor, or at least that they don't know Thor very well. I don't even need to link, because literally every single review of the new Thor I've seen (that wasn't written by Tucker or Chad Nevett) has featured the sentence: "I haven't read Thor since Walter Simonson," or the variant, "before JMS, I hadn't read Thor since Simonson." And then the reviewer says something along the lines that "Simonson casts a long shadow." Simonson's "long shadow" has become axiomatic. Which leads you to wonder, what the hell happened to Thor between 1987 and 2007? Was the character not published? Was he just pulled out of mothballs by JMS after having lain fallow for two decades?

No, there were a lot of Thor comics published in the intervening years, but most people apparently didn't read them. Regardless of the fact that, with the exception of a couple years in the mid-90s during and immediately after Heroes Reborn, Thor was published on a monthly basis for twenty years following the end of Simonson's run and preceding the beginning of JMS, no one seems to remember those comics at all. And I'm not trying to say that there was some kind of hidden Watchmen somewhere in the back 400s of his first volume or anything like that but . . . you know what? I'm that guy who read every Thor comic between Simonson and JMS. I love Thor. I've never, ever understood why Thor never got the respect I felt he was due. For years he was in the same boat as Captain America and Iron Man: languishing in semi-obscurity despite the fact that their books were still being published for decades; one of Marvel's undisputed heavyweights in terms of character prominence but not in terms of actual publishing priority. No one who worked on Thor ever got poached by Image (well, OK, Erik Larsen's first work was a fill-in issue of Thor, but you know what I mean). next to the "happening" books of the early and mid 90s, it was a creative backwater, old fashioned, staid.



After Simonson left the book, Thor eventually settled into the capable hands of Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. Now, I have never read any articles on the topic, but it's conceivable that DeFalco got the job because no one else wanted it. He was Editor-In-Chief at the time and, given the fact that Simonson's run on the character was so immensely popular, it might have seemed like something of a poisoned chalice. How often does anyone talk about Denny O'Neil's run on Daredevil? But you know what? I loved DeFalco and Frenz's run. It was awesome. Sure, it wasn't SIMONSON, but it wasn't really trying to be. Simonson was all about giving Thor more of a connection to his actual mythic roots; DeFalco was all about pushing Thor back towards his Kirby roots. So yeah, you can definitely say that DeFalco's Thor was a Kirby pastiche - and later on the run, with the increased prominence of Erik Masterson's character, a bit of a Spider-Man pastiche as well - but pointing out that DeFalco does solidly retro-flavored superhero books with a strong Silver Age feel is a bit like pointing out that fish have gills and swim in the water.

But then, you know who else was also awesome on Thor? Roy Thomas! He's hardly fashionable anymore, but Thomas' run on the character, and especially the run of stories leading up to issue #300, was pretty damn cool. Reading those books, in hindsight, it almost seems as if Thomas predicted late-period Grant Morrison - there are so many ideas, such a plot-heavy density of storytelling, that those books are a real feast - three-course meals of stuff happening . Thomas, of course, devoted much of his run to absorbing Kirby's late 70s work - particularly The Eternals - into mainline Marvel continuity. The argument has been made that this was unnecessary, and that Kirby never intended for The Eternals to be anything other than a stand-alone series, but that ship sailed a long time ago. Fact is, Thomas was correct in guessing that the Celestials were perfect antagonists for Thor - insanely powerful Kirby space deities who could squish the most powerful god on Earth into a fine paste, if they could even be bothered to notice him. Thomas' run was one of his best at Marvel, and if you don't believe me just pick up a copy of Thor #300 the next time you see it in a dollar box. Tell me that's not everything you ever wanted in a comic book.



So, no, I'm not being reintroduced to Thor after a long hiatus. I've been around the block with Thor, and I have to say, the first issue of this new era of Asgardian adventure kind of seems - well, it's not bad, but no one should mistake this for anything new, either. The "Asgard is empty, the space has been usurped by dark gods from another pantheon of evil deities" was done back in the first arc of Jurgens and Romitas Jr.'s run in the late nineties.* Pasqual Ferry is a nice draftsman, but his design work is very sterile, and not very inspiring. I know all the double-page spreads and widescreen vistas are supposed to be cool and all, but seriously - how about showing Thor hitting something? You know, fighting some trolls or the Wrecking Crew or - something besides mooning around Asgard with Balder? Anything?

I'm not expecting something novel, but I am expecting something with some life in its bones. It's not hard. But for all his pedigree, much of Fraction's Marvel work has been remarkably staid. I know this is the first issue, he's just setting up dominos for later stories, etc etc. But you know, they said that about his Iron Man work as well, and it took a long time for that to get interesting, and it arguably only got interesting once a crossover intervened and changed Tony Stark's status quo so radically that the book became something else entirely. (And now that Dark Reign is over, Iron Man is settling back into its regularly scheduled naptime.) I'm not hopeful, basically. I just want a good Thor comic, and while this isn't a bad Thor comic, it's nothing new for anyone who's been reading Thor for as long as I have.



* This on the heels of JMS' "the gods are missing, they're hidden on earth in the guise of random mortals" plotline, which was straight out of the late 90s' short-lived Journey Into Mystery revival; plus, that same plotline was lifted by Neil Gaiman for his own Eternals revamp a few years ago. Are they really only so many ideas you can do with Asgardian gods and Eternals?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

SIH

Interpol - Interpol




It feels weird to be talking about Interpol in 2010. Hearing a new Interpol album just seems . . . quaint? . . . in a comparable fashion to, say, sitting down to read a new Rob Liefeld comic. For better or for worse, they're so strongly tied to a certain moment in time that the idea of them putting out new music in the here and now feels vaguely anachronistic. I always like to imagine that Interpol were one of the bands Sleater-Kinney had in mind back in 2005 when they wrote "Entertain" and dropped the hammer on all the retro-hipster scenester bands that defined "indie rock" in the early years of the decade. Sure, some of the music was OK, but given just how tumultuous the last decade was, the fact that so many otherwise talented bands retreated into anodyne nostalgia-mongering was disappointing - even if you could tap your toe to Is This It, it left you hungry afterwards, like a plate full of cancerous MSG. You can't tell me it holds up as well as you thought it would Back In The Day.

It's funny how our judgment becomes clouded by the passage of time - I seem to recall this kind of crap clogging up the whole of pop music for years, but a casual glance at Pitchfork's Top 50 for 2002, for example, proves that this just wasn't the case. There was lots of stuff released in those years that wasn't just skinny jeans & Television / white dress shirts & Joy Division. It just seems like that was the whole story, because that's all anybody ever talked about. And, wow, what the fuck was going on at Pitchfork that they put Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pole-position behind Turn On The Bright Lights? I understand the desire to take a stand against stifling rock critic groupthink - and, it's no secret, YHF was pretty much deified the moment it hit shelves, to say nothing about the long legendary months of record label turmoil that preceded its release. Wilco was never really as "cool" as they were "good," and even back in 2001 they were already suspiciously close to hoary "dad rock" for many peoples' comfort. Subsequent years have proven WIlco's early decade peak to be kind of a fluke, a once-in-a-career confluence of a drug-addicted, clinically depressed songwriter (Jeff Tweedy) finding a production voice (that of Jim O'Rourke) uniquely suited to grinding Tweedy's material into a diamond-hard edge. (Which isn't to say that anyone should resent Tweedy his hard-earned sobriety and domestic equanimity, but we can resent him making complacent-ass records of boring "dad rock" all day long.) But still: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Still awesome, still played to death; Turn On The Bright Lights? Seriously, when was the last time you listened to it? Be honest with yourself: it's kind of dated.

And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. When Interpol debuted, they really were pretty impressive - sure, they were always more or less derivative, but they had the tunes to back it up. "PDA"? Still gets stuck in your head after all these years. Yeah, it sounds a lot like 2002, with all that implies - maybe what we really needed then was vaguely inconsequential Bauhaus riffs? The problem was that, if their first album was pretty much the epitome of what Interpol should sound like, where the hell could they go from there? Antics was, in some respects, as good a record as their debut, but it was basically just a further refinement of an already clearly defined aesthetic. There didn't seem to be any place to go - no room for improvement or even exploration. Their sound was always sterile - that was the point - but they didn't seem to be the kind of band that would ever be able to pull-off a convincing stylistic 180 or even just a 30. They were what they were, and what that was was black slacks, shiny patent leather shoes, crooning not-quite-Goth-more-like-Weimar Ian Curtis showtunes. It didn't seem likely that they would suddenly decamp to Woodstock and produce an acoustic country album or record a lo-fi garage project with Dave Fridmann, or any of the other typical left-turns rock stars take when they need to freshen up a stale bag of tricks.

Interpol was a very narrow box, and they pretty much shat all over the walls of this narrow box with Our Love To Admire. If you want an example of what happens to a decent band when they sign to a major label and lose their minds, this is Exhibit A: a soggy mess of meandering synth noises and echoey vocals that sounds . . . well, like shit, if you don't mind me going back to the fecal imagery so soon after the first sentence of this paragraph. It was just awful, so much so that the band itself eventually disowned it. I gave up on them at that moment. It was an album awful enough to make you retroactively rethink all their previous music that you had liked, or at least that you remembered liking at some indeterminate point before the bag of memories in your head entitled "Interpol" was burnt with fire.

So what are we doing here, then, bothering with a group about which we had once sworn never to bother with again? Well, a few months back I just happened to hear Turn On The Bright Lights in a record store. I hadn't heard the disc in years - at least three or four. And suddenly I remembered why I had once liked the band: the album sounded good. The hooks were sharp, the sound was clear, and even if it was derivative it was so perfectly conceived that you almost couldn't help but feel that they were making better use of those styles than the people from whom they bit. Let us make no mistake - a good Interpol song is essentially a trifle. Their m├ętier is very limited, and their glowering, self-important attitude can seem relentlessly juvenile. But when they hit inside their range they can really satisfy. They at least know how to tell a joke, which is more than most gloomy bands can manage. (Hint: "Bela Lugosi's Dead" was always intended as a joke, people.)

So - self-titled fourth album, first after having to crawl back to their indie alma mater for forgiveness after being kicked off the corporate teat for - heh - sucking too hard. It's . . . not bad! It sounds pretty much like their third album never happened. That's a good thing for all concerned. If you never cared for them this album is not likely to change your mind, because it's basically still got everything you didn't like about them wrapped up in a nice black bow. But if you do like them, or if you did once like them and then got bored, this is actually a pretty decent comeback. Sometimes the best ambition a band can have is just to recapture the spark of what made them special in the first place. For that, this is Mission Accomplished.

How long they can continue into the future after having lost their bass player / resident fashion plate Carlos D is unknown. But then, Carlos D has been a mortifying hipster cliche for so long that it might even be good for them. In the meantime, we all eagerly await the D-Dawg's appearance on the next Methods of Mayhem album.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Podcast for the Week of 09/25/10




Last week we looked back at the life and career of indie-rock institution Pavement, this week we offer something completely different. Because I contain multitudes. And I really do mean "completely different" - what could be more unlike Pavement than straight-up techno? And I don't just mean the generic "techno" that people WHO DON'T KNOW SHIT say when they mean computer music, I mean old-school Detroit-influenced bleeps and bloops. Some of it is straight outta Deutschland, so be warned if that's a Problem.

Download the mix at Sharebee and Sendspace.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Damn, That's Cold

From 1 Month 2 Live #1:






































































































































Sunday, September 19, 2010

Podcast for the Week of 009/18/10




So, yes: let us now discuss Pavement. Or more to the point, let us discuss the band Violet & I saw in Boston on Saturday, on the home stretch of their massive reunion tour cash-in-apalooza. There will be time for a more detailed examination of The Event later in the week, but for now let it suffice to say: pretty spry for some old guys. Alternate snark: Boy, the Jicks sure have let themselves go.

In the meantime, let's enjoy a trip down memory lane, shall we? Not just the hits - in fact, I avoided all but a couple of the "hits" - more a guide for the perplexed who may already be predisposed to the idea that "Cut Your Hair" is an annoying song that sounds unfortunately like Weezer. So here's some deep cuts, b-sides, and other assorted ephemera culled from those massive double-disc reissues they've been releasing the last decade; as well as a couple oddball covers of their songs by other artists (one of which I think is pretty good, the other of which I think is endearingly awful, you guess which one is which), and a couple cameos from their biggest influences, for those playing the rock critic game at home. (Pavement have never made any secret of wearing their influences on their sleeves, and this kind of trainspotting is part of the fun.) The goal is, shall we say, a kind of "secret history" that serves not as a corrective but a corollary to the kind of strange focus that comes from hits-heavy reunion shows and the best-of compilations that inspire them.

Download the mix at Sharebee and Sendspace.

Monday, September 13, 2010

SIR


Remember me? You should CARE what I have to say about comics I read because I'm too tired to concentrate on Hegel.

Amazing Spider-Man #641


I do not believe that it is necessarily wrong for people to have something in their lives over which they can temporarily suspend their sense of proportion. It is important that, at the end of the day, you can put your feelings about Spider-Man neatly back in the box labeled "Feelings About Spider-Man" and go about your business. But it's nice to be able to spend an afternoon's holiday in a land where Spider-Man is the most important thing.

Some will say that this specific story - this deck-clearing exercise dedicated to cleaning up some cobwebs left over from the end of the Spider-Marriage - is simply a boring mistake. It is either a waste of time that will hold no interest for anyone who is interested in Spider-Man's post-Brand New Day status quo, or it is a futile gesture that will only further incense those fans still smarting over the summary dismissal of the pre-Brand New Day status quo. I am speaking from the perspective of someone who retains fond memories of the married Spider-Man and misses those stories, even though I clearly understand the mercenary necessity of clearing the decks in order to revert the core iteration one of the most popular intellectual properties in the entire world to its most familiar "classic" configuration. Given this, One More Day was the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B, even if the story itself is monumentally stupid. (It was probably a mistake to give a character like Spider-Man the "has no problem making deals with the devil" personality trait.)

So what is this comic, besides a belated attempt at actually explaining the precise mechanics of the aforementioned awful plothammer? Surprisingly, a shamefacedly sentimental and very affecting envoy to the Spider-Marriage era, an apology of sorts penned directly by Joe Quesada to all the fans hurt by his decision to erase their childhood memories from existence for the sake of future childhood memories. (It goes without saying that "future childhood memories" translate into cold hard cash on the Intellectual Property futures market, but you're a better man than I if you can begrudge your hypothetical seven-year-old child the right to fall in love with Spider-Man just because he's now owned by Walt Disney.)

If One More Day was a proverbial wet fart, One Moment In Time was the wrap-up that - well, I was going to say the wrap-up that 20-odd years of Spider-Fans deserved, but I want to speak as precisely as possible. These IP farms masquerading as friendly publishing houses don't "owe" us anything in the strictest sense, but it is nevertheless nice on those rare occasions when they acknowledge that - regardless of whatever their bottom line may dictate - they do "owe" their entire continued existence to the often disproportionate emotional connection we fans bestow on these fictional avatars.

Writing continuity bandages can be harsh and artless exercises, but this one took the problems inherent in this type of story and turned it into a singular virtue. Spider-Man's great defining trait is that, when the chips are down, he somehow always manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He is always torn between doing what is right and what is easiest, or doing what is strictly necessary and what is most desirable. Doing the right thing is always the right thing regardless of whatever negative repercussions it might entail: this is Ditko's greatest thematic contribution, and not even decades of anodyne soap opera and toothless sci-fi shenanigans have been able to efface that cold, hard truth.

At the end of this comic Spider-Men - even though he's finally succeeded in doing the impossible, putting the "Genie back in the bottle" regarding his secret identity and the harm it causes his loved ones - does something so monumentally selfish, a choice predicated on love but in reality so incalculably hurtful, that you can't help gasping in shock. It is, against all odds, a classic Spider-Man moment. Spider-Man, even as he succeeds in accomplishing the impossible, makes a selfish split-second decision that alienates the one person he loves most in all the world. That right there? That's a punch in the gut, in the last place in the world I was expecting to find such a well-executed coup. They could have just erased the continuity and called it a day, but they were smart to realize that, for Spider-Man, there's always a price to be paid, and the price for undoing all the damage done by his own stupid mistakes is almost inconceivably high.

Some will still say this was a story not worth telling, or that didn't need to be told - but good stories justify themselves simply by being good stories. This right here? Regardless of its origins or the ostensibly self-serving motivations of the creative team involved, this is a good story. Credit where it's due.

Franken-Castle #20


Paul O'Brien has said, in as many words, that this crossover - the Frankenstein's Monster Punisher in a rematch against Daken - is of only tangential significance to Daken's story, and represents a significant detour for a book that was already victim of multiple significant detours. I must respectfully disagree, and this is the issue that very explicitly illustrates the crossover's significance to Daken's "story."

The main action of the story isn't really the fight between Daken and the Punisher, or between the Punisher and Wolverine, but the conversation that Wolverine and the Punisher have as they deciding what to do about Daken. Wolverine says he has to protect his boy even if he's gone rotten. The Punisher replies, in essence, you're stupid: Daken is completely rotten, he's an opportunistic and invincible murderer without so much as a shred of conscience, and if anyone in the entire world needs to be put down, it's him. Wolverine has no reply to that, and ultimately tacitly agrees with Frank. That right there was worth the whole price of admission: Daken is and has always been less than half a complete character, more a series of "kewl" Poochy-esque traits strung together with the unifying theme of hating his father. He is, frankly, an absurd attempt at franchise building, a regrettable memento from a regrettable era of Wolverine stories (an era which, it should be noted, is already being swept under the rug as quickly as humanly possible).

Many of the people who have written Daken since his initial appearances have either tacitly or overtly recognized his basic absurdity and uselessness, and the few "good" Daken appearances have capitalized on the fact that he's a purposeful cipher whose only traits are his unremitting unlikeability. This crossover crystallizes and punctuates those traits and essentially draws a big neon sign in the direction of all future Daken stories, since they've obviously got high expectations regarding the future economic viability of "Wolverine's son:" the only way forward for Daken as a character is up. He either becomes a complete villain - which he basically already is except for the fact that his name is on top of the marquee - or he begins some sort of arduous and long-winded road to redemption (or, at least, a state of being slightly less annoying). As with One Moment In Time, this crossover was essentially a bog-standard narrative necessity which actually found a useful guise: basically, they needed some sort of pay-off for the whole "Daken is a monstrous douche" arc before they could begin to tell different types of stories with the character. Having the Punisher - a character with whom the audience's sympathies are more likely to rest - beat the little pissant silly was a satisfying resolution for many readers (such as myself) who honestly can't stand the little prick. Now that he's been pulled up short and brought face to face with at least a small smattering of the consequences of his actions, hopefully they have a new direction in mind. Because if they don't, then people will start caring even less than they already do.