Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Not Dead Yet

Posting is light now because we're right in the midst of finals - like the swallows returning to Capistrano, that's the way the cookie crumbles, life in the Big City, etc etc. However, instead of just putting up a placeholder post, I would like to point out for people who might not have seen the link on the sideboard that I do have a Tumblr now that updates regularly - twice a day like clockwork. So much easier to put up a few pictures than write an essay! I can usually knock out a whole week's worth of posts in an hour on Sunday afternoon, so it's nice to have a less intensive way of keeping up a regular presence on these here interwebs.

It's not all just cat pictures and YouTube videos, however - I am periodically posting comics reviews on there. Nothing as involved as any of my regular "SIR" posts (that's "Stuff I Read," in case you've been wondering), but pages from recent mainstream releases and a few words here and there.

Monday, March 12, 2012


There has been a lot of talk about the Avengers lately. The initial trailers have done a good job of stoking fan enthusiasm, and a clever advance marketing campaign constructed primarily on the recognizability of the primary characters is building what appears to be an impressive degree of anticipation for the film. It's worth noting that as recently as five years ago any reasonable observer would have concluded that the very idea of an Avengers film was practically improbable - all those characters, all those stars, all those special effects! This is to say nothing of the fact that - again, just as recently as five years ago - Thor and Iron Man were far from household names, the Hulk had but one underperforming dud of a film to his name, and CW had it that Captain America was simply too dated a concept to ever succeed on film. Now it almost seems as if The Avengers has more hype behind it than the new Batman film, to say nothing of the new Spider-Man film, and this on the face of it is simply preposterous.

I'm not going to talk about the legal or moral issues entailed in the success or failure of the film, and how they may or may not impact your own ethical decision to see or not to see the film. I don't want to downplay these issues in any way, shape, or form, but I would like to set them aside for just one moment in order to talk about another aspect of the film that I haven't seen discussed in very many other places: namely, the fact that the Avengers we're seeing on film don't really resemble the Avengers I grew up with.

Based simply on the previews and the significant amount of foreshadowing that's been peppered throughout the other Marvel Studios films, it appears as if the filmic Avengers will more closely resemble The Ultimates than the actual, original Avengers. As strange as it may seem, The Ultimates is almost exactly ten years old. Conceived as the Ultimate Universe's answer to the Avengers - who weren't actually called the Avengers because the Avengers brand was not (in the far-off world of 2002) deemed sufficiently commercial to sell such a high-profile release - the Ultimates was Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's attempt to bring the idea of the all-star superhero team into the 21st century. Which meant, in practice, lots of sex, innuendo, gore, and general crassness. The main characters were all different shades of unlikeable, from Iron Man's callous alcoholism and womanizing to Captain America's jingoistic chauvinism right on down through the fact that the Hulk was a sexually prolific cannibal who spent half the series trying to kill Freddie Prinze, Jr. (If you've never read the book, you probably don't know that I'm not joking.) Thor wasn't necessarily as much of a shitheel, but he was a flakey New Age-messiah whose "Godhood" was generally assumed to be a convenient delusion. The characters were certainly all built on the recognizable foundations of their original 616 counterparts, but were in practice more fun-house mirror reflections of the familiar Marvel mainstays. All their negative characteristics had been tweaked out of control, and all the more noble attributes of heroism and friendship that defined their long relationships in the mainstream continuity were jettisoned in favor of something that more closely resembled Millar's run on The Authority, callous and violent with a grimy patina of quote-unquote "realism."

It's also worth pointing out that the original Ultimates series was also a hell of a lot of fun, not the least because one of its primary tones was high satire. This was the beginning of 2002, after all, right after 9/11 when we were just beginning to see the stirrings of the military-industrial complex's massive overreaction to the putative "War on Terror." It made a lot of sense at the time to read a book about the government spending a shit-ton of money on morally questionable superhero boondoggles. The fact that Captain America was a xenophobic asshole and Iron Man pretty much an indefensible cad was all part of the fun, and it fit the tone of the book perfectly. In terms of later Mark Millar, it's pretty much the last time he was able to accurately set the right balance between satire and the shrill obnoxiousness that has defined so much of his later work. It's also worth noting that Millar was later given the responsibility of more-or-less "Ultimatizing" the mainstream Marvel Universe just a few years later with the Civil War event, a story that was fantastically successful, and largely in proportion to the degree in which it rendered the core members of the Avengers less likeable.

The first issue of The Avengers hit stands in the summer of 1963, and featured the fateful first meeting of Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp. From the very beginning the major motor of the book's storytelling has been the interaction between so many disparate and seemingly incompatible characters. Whereas the Fantastic Four are a family and the X-Men (at least initially) were a school, the Avengers was a team of independent adults whose personalities often clashed. They had no intrinsic reason to be together other than the fact that they all believed it to be a beneficial idea to band together for the common good. The team first formed for the purpose of tracking down the Hulk - or rather, were tricked into fighting the Hulk, by Thor's brother Loki. They banded together after defeating Loki, but the line-up couldn't even stay stable for a single story - the Hulk got tired of the group and left at the end of the second issue. The Avengers' third mission was to once again track down the Hulk, who had teamed with the Sub Mariner in an attempt to be revenged on the surface world. The remaining four members found Captain America in issue #4, after which he joined the group and became the team's de facto heart and soul. Soon after that the remaining founding members left for considerable leaves of absence, leaving Cap to fill the ranks with Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver - one ex-criminal and two ex-terrorists, all of whom faced an uphill battle in terms of earning not merely the public's trust but each other's as well.

The point is that the Avengers is a book that's always been about the often-unpredictable dynamic between opposing personalities. There's no better example of this than the team's core three members: Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. (Cap, though not a founder, has usually been allotted the status of a founder in lieu of the usually estranged Hulk.) The characters could not be more different and their dynamic defines the team: Cap is the stoic, idealistic leader; Iron Man the willful pragmatistic; Thor the noble warrior. It's not that these characters won't be represented in the movie, but that the movie itself doesn't look to be telling a story about the Avengers. The Avengers are a team of peers who come together of their own volition to do battle against foes no single hero can defeat; the Avengers in the movie seem to have been assembled by Nick Fury in his office as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to do the bidding of government-sanctioned security forces. Do you see the difference here?

I'm sure there's more to it than we've seen so far - or, at least, I would hope that there's more to the movie than what is revealed by the previews and the plot points from previous films. But still, we're left with Nick Fury being the prime mover behind something called the "Avenger Initiative." The Avengers isn't some name the Wasp thought up on a whim because it "sounded dramatic" - it's a government program. The Avengers isn't a team of oddballs and outcasts coming together sometimes despite themselves, it's a government-formed special-ops team.

I said before that The Ultimates was intended at least partially as satire. That might be hard to discern now because the series and its approach were so successful that any pretense of satire was quickly subsumed. After Civil War, the main motor behind multiple years of stories in the mainstream Marvel Universe was essentially "who gets to be in charge of the super-heroes?" Who gets to be the man in charge of the government's superhero policy? The Avengers had always been in conflict with the government in some form or another - getting their security clearances revoked or their zoning permits pulled, dealing with uncooperative National Security Advisors and the shifting winds of political opportunism. But the Avengers were always an independent body despite all of this, and government problems were just another element of the book's ongoing soap opera, similar to Spider-Man having to struggle in order to pay the rent. But since The Ultimates the default mode for the Marvel super-heroes has been that of government lackey: a far cry from the strictly independent, fiercely individualistic roots of the Marvel Universe as a haven for the weird and the strange.

There are some very good reasons why the movie Avengers are being assembled the way they are: it's easier to tell a story where a man from the government brings everyone together and tells them what to do and who to fight than to write a story where five or six strong individuals convincingly come together of their own volition. Certainly, anyone reading Lee & Kirby's original Avengers story now can't escape the very strong suggestion that the whole thing is being hammered together with tape and glue for purposes of having a plot and having these characters agree to stick together for issue #2. But regardless, the idea that the characters had to be the prime movers in their own story was central to everything Lee & Kirby knew about making comics. The idea that these strong characters would ever willingly consent to be action figures in someone else's army would have struck them both as - if not strictly improbable - simply poor storytelling.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Random Notes

I received a pair of interesting and very thoughtful comments to Monday's review of Apollo 18 - interesting and thoughtful enough that I thought it was worth the time to repost the conversation and my replies for the benefit of anyone who might not other pay attention to the comment section.

The first comment, from my most loyal reader moose n squirrel (seriously, we should all be so lucky as to have such a close reader!), presented as a rebuttal:
I have to say, your take on TMBG is striking me as more than a little simplistic at this point. What you see as "nerdiness" or "a refusal to grow up" I see as a refreshing ability to work outside the boxes that music critics (and wannabe critics) typically try to cram artists into. There's a tendency on the part of critics - who, I'm sorry, are some of the dumbest fucking people on the planet when it comes to talking about music - to try to only discuss music in terms of what label they can slap on it (the other tendency they have is to talk about music entirely in terms of how well the band's previous album sold, or how trendy their style of music is, without actually talking about what the actual fucking music sounds like). TMBG is a hard band to label precisely because of their ability and tendency to hop from one genre to another,, even within the same song, which has gotten them dismissed as "quirky" or a novelty act. Because their lyrics are smart, they're called "nerds." Because they write fantastic pop tunes, and because they've already been relegated to the "quirk"ghetto, they've been dubbed "childish," because we've decided that music that's fun, but that's too complex for stupid adults to understand, should be relegated to children

You imply that the band doesn't take itself seriously, and I've got to say, are we listening to the same band? Yes, TMBG has a sense of humor. But the jokes they tell are about disease, decay, addiction, depression, war, divorce, paralysis and death. Much of "Fingertips" itself is positively funereal. A while back in your review of Lincoln you dismissed "The Pencil Rain" as a bit of nonsense, which made me scratch my head, because that's as "messagey" as anything the Johns ever wrote - it's an obvious, sledgehammer-subtle antiwar song.

You hold out "Narrow Your Eyes" as one of their best songs, because... why? Because it's a "real" song, and it's a "real" song because... why? Because it's about a traditional subject (love/break-up) written in a traditional style with more-or-less traditional instrumentation? (If only they cut out the accordion - then it'd REALLY be "real"!) That's a pretty strange, blinkered use of that term. Is it that that song is "real," or that you have a nice, grown-up-sounding category you can push it off into? "AHA! Flansburgh is singing a 'break-up' song! CHECK!"

"Ana Ng," "Kiss Me, Son of God," "See the Constellation," "I Palindrome I," "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "The End of the Tour" "Destination Moon" "The End of the Tour" - I guess none of those are "real" songs then. But they are fucking amazing songs, and they are much, much better songs then "Narrow Your Eyes," both because they're better-written and more original and because they're still about real emotions. For whatever otherworldly trappings those songs may have, they're about loneliness, exploitation, obsession, death, delusion and longing, approached in a way that's smart, funny, and sometimes deeply affecting.
And then, on a similar note, from Jebediah-P:
Like some of the others above, I find your take on "authenticity" short-sighted. Why should They Might Be Giants feel the need to be "authentic" if their songs have little relevance to the world outside themselves? There is no reason for a song to be "real" if it's about a personal topic of little social relevance. A great deal of legitimately terrible music has been produced in the name of such “authenticity”. They Might Be Giants' greatest strength is their whimsy, their refusal to make vanilla songs despite having the competence to do so.

Your dismissal of "Fingertips" disregards an important factor of what makes the band unique: their desire to be several bands at the same time. Most They Might Be Giants albums feature songs that vary a great deal in composition and subject matter, sampling the whole pop spectrum. "Fingertips" is the ultimate expression of this. It also strikes me as a much more personal song than "Narrow Your Eyes". "Narrow Your Eyes" is about a breakup. "Fingertips" is about imitating every song on the radio and making fun of them at the same time. It's a song for showing off how you’re smarter than everybody else. It's silly and obnoxious and much more authentic for They Might be Giants than a song without jokes or vocabulary words.

"Real"songs imploy far more odious gimmickry than "Joke" songs. The "gimmick of no gimmicks", so to speak. Reality is not a breakup song. To imply this, to dismiss the goofy as unimportant, is miserablism par excellence.

Make no mistake, I appreciate this series of posts quite a bit. It turned me on to Join Us and helped me better appreciate some of the material from TMBG’s back catalogue, especially John Henry. It’s just that this post has exposed an unfortunate undercurrent in those previous. An inability to see the forest for the trees.
To both of these comments, I will say first and foremost that I sympathize with your position and, to an extent, cede the point. My problems with They Might Be Giants are my own, the result of living with this band for - what, twenty-three years now since I bought a copy of Flood? - and having committed a large part of their catalog to memory. Make no mistake: whatever my conclusions my be, I still have all of these albums memorized backwards and forwards, at least up through Factory Showroom. After they leave Elektra I have to admit my interest wanes precipitously, for a number of reasons. I don't think, until Join Us, they had produced an LP even half as good as anything from the Restless or Elektra years. The music the produced in the intervening years struck me as vaguely shrill, somewhat wrong-footed in a way that their first albums never were. I am certainly open to the possibility that the only real difference was myself - I changed, my tastes changes, whatever - "it's not you, it's me."

There's an old saw that gets trotted out every now and again (although, much less so now that so much of Western culture has been set on a course of terminal infantilization), actually a verse from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I hate that quote, and I think it encapsulates a perfectly rancid view of maturity, of maturity as preparation for seriousness and bloody-mindedness to the exclusion of all else. We live in a wonderful world where we can be perfectly functional adults who pay taxes, kiss ladies and prosper while also maintaining comics blogs. It would be the height of hypocrisy to accuse They Might Be Giants of failing to conform to some notion of High Seriousness, when I myself flee from the unpleasant drudgery of day-to-day life by posting pictures of Lea Thompson in skimpy dresses.

And yet . . . there is nonetheless a part of me that long ago became dissatisfied with the band for precisely those reasons. There's a difference between putting away childish things and simply wallowing in them. The last time I saw They Might Be Giants was in 2009 - actually, New Years Eve 2009, just before the calenders switched over to 2010. It had been exactly ten years since I had seen them last - in 1999, at a street fair in downtown Denver of all things - and I had no idea what to expect. They were playing two shows that day: an afternoon matinee for the kids' music, and then an evening rock show. So I was expecting, you know, a rock show.

But that wasn't what they gave us. I had remembered them being a pretty fierce live act, but this time around, not so much. They had a lot of gags, a lot of schtick - hand puppets, toy drum kits, confetti canons. They brought out the extremely annoying John Hodgman to do some really, really unfunny and very much protracted bit about a rich person. And then - even though they had played a kids' matinee earlier that day for the express purpose of playing their kids' music for their kid fans - they played a pile of songs from their kids albums anyway - to a room full of adults, let me stress. And all through it I kept rolling my eyes, hoping that they'd burn through the jokes and the schtick and actually, you know, start the show, get down to the business of playing some of their songs. And they never did - it was just joke after joke, and I got tired of sitting their waiting for them to play two songs in a row without interrupting the show for a bad gag. To say nothing of a bad gag, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

You're not going to find a bigger booster of those first six albums than me. Despite my misgivings - which are completely my own - those albums are a part of me and always will be. If you've been reading along you've seen me discuss just how deep their dark streak runs - all the way back to their self titled debut, although I'd argue that their bleakest and most profoundly unsettling album is still Lincoln (although John Henry, as we'll see when I get around to it in the near future, certainly gives it a run for its money in terms of unvarnished misanthropy). I also see a lot of the more manic, chipper, and unabashedly goofy material from their earliest albums as being unpleasantly shrill and occasionally even sinister. What I get from their more recent albums, however, is the same kind of manic, chipper, and unabashedly goofy material with all the hard edges sanded away.

It was such a pleasant surprise to put Join Us onto the stereo and actually hear Linnell call someone a dick - not because I'm twelve years old and like hearing grown-ups cussing, but simply that it seemed to be a kind of "all clear" sign to those of us who had been left in the cold by their childrens' material. And sure enough, if you look at the liner notes and read the lyrics for Join Us, it's all about death, death, death - including a surprisingly, refreshingly tacky visual pun about the Dakota apartment building in New York. It's not a perfect album but it is a very good album.

So yeah, the best answer I can provide is that my prejudices are my own, and I acknowledge the shortcomings of my own perspective. I've been frustrated by the band for a long time - it's not that I wanted them to "grow up," so much that from my perspective it seemed as if their state of permanent arrested development had begun to sap their vitality. It's that edge, the razor-thin dividing line between cynical misanthropy and cheery fortitude, that defines their best music. Their more straight-forward songs - "Narrow Your Eyes," "End of the Tour," even "You Don't Like Me" off Join Us - all take advantage of our expectations regarding what They Might Be Giants songs should sound like, and are that much more effective for confounding our expectations of glib cleverness. They're the codices that make all the rest of their strange, contradictory, frustrating, wonderful music legible.

Monday, March 05, 2012

And though I once preferred a human being's company

Apollo 18

I would argue that Apollo 18 is pound-for-pound a much stronger album than Flood - more focused, more precise, with better hooks and the first stirrings of a real, muscular rock sound. It's definitely a confident album. If Flood was tentative, defined as much by its missteps as by its successes, Apollo 18 represents a band far more comfortable with their larger canvas afforded by dint of being signed to a subsidiary of one of the world's largest media conglomerates. All things being equal, this is one of the very strongest records in their catalog.

Perhaps you can sense a "But . . ." coming.

If you know They Might Be Giants, you can probably guess exactly where this is going. There's one giant pink elephant in the room for any discussion of Apollo 18 - a moment where the album takes a step away from being a stone-cold five-star classic and instead becomes something far weirder and less immediately palatable. That moment is, of course, "Fingertips," a 4:35 long collage of 21 song fragments - that is, fragments of hooks, verses, or sound effects from hypothetical songs. Conceptually, it's a nod to the Residents' 1980 release Commercial Album, albeit even more manically demented. It's something that only a hardcore fan could truly love - but since most They Might Be Giants are fairly hardcore, this hasn't usually been a problem. Really, TMBG aren't Pearl Jam: they're not a band you can sort-of like in a vague way. You either like them a lot or not at all, and if you like them a lot there are good chances you really like them a lot, and therefore will find even their most pointedly unpleasant experiments interesting and even lovable. The problem begins at the moment when their reliance on the good-will of their hardcore fanbase becomes a commitment to schtick for the sake of schtick. You can see the first stirrings of subsequent dissatisfactions on "Fingertips."

But with all of that said, I'm still one of those guys who knows all of "Fingertips" backwards and forwards, from "Everything is Catching on Fire" all the way through the incredibly grating "I Walk Along Darkened Corridors" (one of the all time best shower singing songs, simply by dint of the fact that it can in theory loop forever on that same repeated phrase). The fact that they didn't end the album with "Fingertips," that they appended another song, "Space Suit," to the end, and the fact that "Space Suit" is one of the band's all-time best compositions - all of these are reasons why They Might Be Giants remain one of the most simultaneously rewarding and frustrating bands in town. They're gifted songwriters and incredibly capable musicians who remain wedded to juvenilia as a way of life. It never quite reaches the level of regrettable sophomoric humor, because they don't have it in them to go blue and their music is never less than resolutely good-humored. But that lack of edge certainly creates as many problems as it solves - even when being nasty might be funnier than being snarky, they can only very rarely pierce the veil of Maya that separates their songwriting from sincerity. (Of course, those moments when they do manage to pierce the veil are always worth noting.)

From the very beginning of the album, there is a noticeable emphasis on rock - they had always been a rock band, obviously, but they had only rarely ever rocked before, if you can see the difference. It's worth noting that the Apollo 18 tour was their first with a real live drummer, and it's fairly obvious that many of the drum tracks on this album were written with a live percussionist in mind (or, at least, were written to approximate the effect of a live percussionist, which isn't an effect for which they had ever particularly strove until then). This trend would come to fruition on their next album, John Henry.

Once you move past the de rigeur observation of "Fingertips," it's really hard to pinpoint anything resembling a lapse throughout the whole album. "Dig My Grave" and "I Palindrome I" provide a suitably energetic and even - heavens! - aggressive introduction to the leaner, meaner They Might Be Giants. The vaguely glam rock feel of "Dig My Grave" is echoed later in the album on "See the Constellation." The core of the album is a remarkable run that begins after the strangely heartfelt "Mammal" (about, you guessed it, mammals), with "The Statue Got Me High," continues through "The Guitar" on through fan-favorite "Dinner Bell" (about, you probably didn't guess, Pavlov's experiments in conditioned reflex behavior), and finally climaxes with the remarkable "Narrow Your Eyes." The reason why "Narrow Your Eyes" is perhaps the highlight of the entire album is that this song represents one of their first attempts at writing a "real" song, a song without any kind of cutesy gimmicks or narrative conceits or schlocky jokes. It's just a song about a guy who can't get off the bus because the bus stop reminds him of his ex-girlfriend. It's got a strong melody and one of Flansburgh's most affecting vocal performances. It is one of their best songs, full stop.

If you've been reading these reviews as I've been posting them, you've probably already picked up on the main theme of my assessment of the band's catalog: the tension between cloying juvenilia and grown-up songs. This might strike many of you as unnecessarily pedantic, not to mention besides the point: after all, isn't the point of They Might Be Giants precisely in the fact that they steadfastly refuse to grow up, that they insist on writing songs about science and puns long past the point when they should by all rights have graduated to writing about love and politics and all that jazz? There is certainly a part of me that is sympathetic to that criticism. After all, one of the benefits of listening to their albums after all these years is their uncanny ability to recreate the emotions and sensations of being younger, of growing up. Even if you weren't a kid when you heard these albums for the first time, they retain the ability to put you into a kid's mindset - with all that entails both good and bad.

For me, I can't hear Apollo 18 without thinking about both the 1992 LA Riots and Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books. I bought the album on April 29th, 1992 - it had been released in March but since I lived in the sticks it was a while before I heard there was a new album and was able to get into town to buy it. (The now-defunct Wherehouse Music store in Reno, Nevada, in case you were wondering.) That was the day of the LA Riots, so when we got back to town from Reno the TV was full of images of Southern California in flames. This was also the spring I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and I specifically remember many long hours spent reading To Your Scattered Bodies Go with Apollo 18 on the headphones. Good times.

They Might Be Giants have proudly worn the badge of the Worlds' Biggest Nerds for decades now, and it's part of who they are as musicians - hyper-literal, ready to make bad jokes at the expense of good songs, unable to pass up the opportunity to mug for the camera. The problem is that there are a handful of moments scattered throughout their history where they show that they are capable of doing more than that. They're not "Weird" Al: they don't just do parodies, they aren't just immaculately turned-out jokesters. They can write real songs about real people, emotions and experiences. That they choose not to do so very often forces their audience to make a choice: either you accept their "serious" songs as inessential stylistic outliers next to the main business of being bratty and precocious fiftysomethings, or you listen to songs like "Narrow Your Eyes" and "The End of the Tour" and "Pet Name" and realize that - for whatever reason - they're consciously holding themselves back. And that's the point where their jokes become just a little bit less funny, when you realize that the conscious decision to remain in a state of arrested development has done as much to limit their development as it has to advance their career.

Next: Man vs. Machine

(out of five)