Friday, July 27, 2012

Yo Dogs

I have decided to finally take Tucker up on his longstanding invitation and begin contributing to the current iteration of his Comics of the Weak currently offered on the Comics Journal website. Those of you with long memories might recall I once wrote extensively for the magazine before I went back to school and essentially burnt all my bridges as a semi-professional writer - therefore, this is my first involvement with the magazine since it has gone primarily digital. This week's column is up here, in which I say a few more words about Batman before finally deciding that the whole thing is just an incredible waste of time. So, you know, par for the course for me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight, Unleavened

Uh, spoilers?

In broad stroke, my reaction to The Dark Knight Rises is very similar to my reaction to The Dark Knight: a perfectly competent film with moments of greatness and thematic depth that nevertheless manages to epitomize everything I dislike about the character of Batman. On the most basic level it suffers from the same problem that has always crippled Nolan's films: 10 pounds of plot in a 5 pound bag. It's as simple as that - if they cut 1/3 to 1/2 of extraneous plot the film would have been so much more satisfying.

There is a certain spot in hell reserved for people who criticize movies based on what they wanted the movie to be and not what the movie actually is, so I am conscious of the hazards of spending too much time complaining about the film's portrayal of Batman as an excuse not to talk about the movie itself. But still, it's worth pointing out because the litany never gets old: Batman is the World's Greatest Detective, as well as a skilled gymnast and acrobat who has mastered half-a-dozen martial arts. In the most basic terms, Batman moves - he's an athlete and a sophisticated fighter, and his mind is even more nimble than his body. He's not a brawler. He doesn't - or, he shouldn't have to cover himself in head-to-toe armor so that he can barely move. I don't understand why, if they can make a convincing Spider-Man costume that allows the character to be just as athletic and flexible as we expect, Batman has to become a lumbering tank. Now, considering how deeply Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns is inscribed into the DNA of the Nolan films, it wasn't really any surprise that they took the bits from the story about Bruce Wayne's body falling apart and him having to rely on strength and brutality to push him through when finesse failed. But even in Miller's story there was always the inescapable sense of Batman as a physical creature - someone with muscles and tendons and bruises, who really felt the weight of years of punishment. There is some of that here in their treatment of Bruce Wayne as an old and frail recluse, but we only really get a sense of that when Batman is out of his costume. When he puts on that armor he's a tank - at least until he encounters Bane, who is more of a tank. (And it's worth pointing out that the problems with his knee - the same knee that we are told is completely stripped of cartilage and completely useless - somehow disappear when he gets tossed into Bane's prison hole. I guess the old blind doctor has some cortisone shots in his pile of soiled rags.)

Now, obviously not every Batman story can be about Batman's super-sleuthing skills, or his ability as a martial artist, or his athleticism - but the problem with the Nolan movies is that these skills just aren't part of the character at all. When Batman is broken and exiled to Bane's middle eastern prison, all we see is him doing isometric exercises in order to regain his core strength - bulging biceps and rippling abs. (Plus, there's that whole bit about healing from a broken back by being, um, hit real hard in his lumbar vertebrae? I'm no chiropractor but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't work - at least the comics understood the importance of being able to hand-wave that kind of shit away, with the use of Shondra Kinsolving's mystical MacGuffin healing powers.) All of Batman's strategic aims and tactical goals throughout the story can be solved by hitting or shooting. I am really, really not a fan of the "where does he get those wonderful toys?" school of gadgetry, and Nolan's movies unfailingly hinge on Batman's awesome paramilitary toys. There's only one scene of Batman using a wire to get around rooftops and sides of buildings, and it's a brief scene when he rappels down the side of a hospital so he can visit Commissioner Gordon - not even in Batman costume. And really, if that's not the most bass-ackwards way of accomplishing the goal of visiting Gordon, I don't know what is. Throughout the story, all of the supporting characters do important things that don't in any way involve using Batman's expertise or deductive skills - the GCPD figure out how to locate the bomb, Lucius Fox figures out how to defuse it, etc. I understand on one level the idea of showing how important Batman's supporting characters are in terms of providing him the necessary tactical and logistical support - that's been a staple of the comics for as long as the character has been around - but at the same time, having so many of the most important events in the movie occur completely independent of Batman puts the character in the unique position of being a supporting player in his own film.

But with that said, one of the things with which I was genuinely pleased about the film was seeing just how much was taken either directly or indirectly from the comics themselves. Whereas the previous two Nolan films have taken extensive liberties with Batman's mythos, I was heartened to see that this movie had taken a number of elements from some unsung corners of the Batman myth - specifically, the oft-forgotten / ignored mid-to-late 90s run. For instance, 1996's "Legacy" is about as obscure a crossover as you can find, but the connection between Bane and R'as al Ghul is drawn directly from that, including the relationship between Talia and Bane. And while "No Man's Land" certainly isn't one of the better remembered Batman events, it's worth noting that (if you put that storyline together with its prelude, "Cataclysm") the damn thing ran for a year and a half in all the Bat-books. The second half of The Dark Knight Rises takes a lot from "No Man's Land," including the very premise of Gotham City shut off from the rest of the country and left in the hands of a few police officers fighting Bane and a number of other villains. At the time I know a lot of fans - and more than a few creators - disliked "No Man's Land" because the premise was so improbable. And then a few years later Hurricane Katrina happened and we did see the federal government evacuate and declare martial law in a city ravaged by natural disaster. So within the general realm of fantasy I think "No Man's Land" holds up as more than a bit uncomfortably close to reality, and the movie plays this element as being similarly uncomfortably close to something that could happen as the result of a massive terror attack. 

Incidentally, I can't help but feel a tiny bit vindicated by the movie's portrayal of Bane. For years now I've been telling people how awesome Bane is, but so many folks have been unable to see past his Chromium Age origins to the awesome character underneath the die-cut covers. I know Bane has his fans, but there are also any number of people who have refused to accept Bane's status alongside the "classic" rogues gallery because of his relatively recent vintage. If this movie did one thing well, it got Bane's character exactly right - from the overwhelming physicality to the truly formidable intellect, he was all there. Anyone who is unwilling to accept his temporary subservience to R'as al Ghul should probably go back to the aforementioned "Legacy," where he became Abu and (temporarily) R'as' heir. I even like the fact - not explicitly stated in the movie but definitely present - that after defeating Batman Bane always finds himself at something of loose ends. He enjoys sowing chaos in Gotham but he hardly has any interest in "ruling" the city, whatever that means. He likes seeing Batman's city destroyed, but beyond the actual act of gloating over Batman he doesn't have as much interest in what comes after breaking the Bat.

I do think it's unfortunate that they whitewashed the character - after all, Bane is perhaps the most prominent Hispanic character in mainstream comics. I can maybe understand why they wouldn't have thought the luchador visual wouldn't have played as well in Nolan's far more grounded milieu, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that they couldn't find a Hispanic actor to play a Hispanic character. That's not in any way a knock on Tom Hardy, who is simply fantastic - and every bit a match for Ledger's Joker - just an observation.

I also think it's funny - not "ha ha" funny, but darkly-ironic-funny - that the movie manages to seem topical while also being, necessarily, just a bit behind the curve. Certainly, the widespread acknowledgment of income inequality and an even more widespread distrust of capitalism has been a fact of life since the economy crashed in '08, and it's not hard to see that Nolan's story builds on that in much the same way that The Dark Knight built on anxiety over terrorism and the government's over-reaction to the same. But The Dark Knight Rises has been in the process of being made for a long time. The story was already set in stone when the Arab Spring happened, and filming was mostly done by the time the Occupy movement began to appear in headlines. So while it is interesting to see the movie concerned with a few aspects of our modern crisis, it is also true that the movie fails significantly in this regard by failing to predict just how strongly some of the images on display would actually be felt. Which is a fancy way of saying: Bane is the "villain," yes, but it's kind of funny that in this day and age we're supposed to respond negatively to seeing thousands of policemen imprisoned, prisoners jailed over unfairly harsh sentencing laws released, and the rich being publicly executed. I can't be the only one who applauded when Bane stormed Gotham's Bastille, or when the rich were being lined up for sentencing. I am sure the scene at the Gotham stock exchange was conceived as something that was supposed to make the audience uncomfortable by sympathizing with Bane's actions - but I didn't feel uncomfortable at all.

There's a really, really stupid scene when Selena supposedly expresses her doubts over how far Bane's revolution has gone - her street urchin hooker friend asks her something along the lines of, "isn't this what you wanted?" and the audience is supposed to look around at the carnage of the homes of the rich and powerful being ransacked and see that Bane's men have indeed "gone to far." On the contrary, Selena's sudden crisis of petit bourgeois sympathy is powerfully sad, because what we see in that moment is that Selena was not so much a revolutionary as a petty criminal who aspired to the same wealth and luxury she had supposedly disdained as a member of the criminal underworld. Jewels and money only possess value so long as existing power structures remain firmly entrenched, and once the rich of Gotham are gone there is no ideal of material wealth for her to idolize. Her class-consciousness was completely false.  

But no: if there is one image I take away from this movie, it's not Batman as a force of counter-revolutionary repressive violence, it's the grim satisfaction of seeing the rich and powerful utterly and completely destroyed by a wave of revolutionary violence. That is the kind of visceral image that lingers in the imagination, an association that is all the more unavoidable given the terrible circumstances of the movie's release. I would not be surprised if Bane's distinctive mask becomes as much a symbol of underclass ressentiment as the Guy Fawkes mask. How about as a symbol of the way the gun control debate has been manipulated by conservatives as a weapon of unambiguous class warfare, with disastrous and repeated consequences for the health and safety of the body politic?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Gotham's Reckoning

Courtesy of Violet

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

San Diego Comicon News Wrap-Up 2012

Drawn & Quarterly Announce New "Building Stories" Deluxe Edition

Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros announced today that the company would be releasing a deluxe edition of Chris Ware's newest graphic novel, Building Stories. While the collection's first edition, slated to hit stores this October from Pantheon, is still months from release, Oliveros is confident that the announcement of the new super-deluxe edition will not effect sales. "We've seen this model for years in the movie business: new movies are first released on DVD in bare-bones format, with no commentary tracks or extra footage. Then six months down the road, the studio releases the two-disc deluxe set that has all the bonus goodies that fans wanted all along. People have no problem double-dipping on the newest Batman movie, so it doesn't seem unusual to expect that people are going to be willing to pay a similar premium to get the complete Building Stories experience."

The first edition of Building Stories is already a marvel of interactive packaging and state-of-the-art book design. When pressed for specifics as to how the updated Building Stories would surpass the original, Oliveros said that the deluxe edition would "dwarf" the original. "The version of Building Stories that goes on sale in October is the best version of Building Stories that Pantheon could produce. It's a little box with a bunch of posters and fold-outs in it. It's a perfectly reasonable approximation of the Building Stories experience, good for the types of people who are going to read the New Yorker's inevitable laudatory review and buy a copy of the book to put under the holiday tree. Dilettantes, basically. But the real Building Stories is something much larger and more ambitious. Pantheon balked at the idea of creating a 3' x 6' x 6" wooden plank hand-carved and lacquered to look like a scale model of a real building. The book is basically going to be a kind of advent calendar. The reader will open up the thirty "windows" on the face of the building and pull out thirty tiny mini-books with the story content. But - here's the best part - each succeeding window can only be opened once the reader answers a riddle and inputs the answer into the digital master-lock controlled by the book's security system, the answer to which has been cleverly hidden in the previous book. These are hard riddles, too - I don't want to give anything away, but there's a lot in the book on the life of Robert Moses, and it might help to have a copy of The Power Broker on hand, as well as - obviously - Boethius."

When asked about the content of the books themselves, Oliveros said that the finished, deluxe Building Stories would be substantially larger than the Pantheon edition. "Our version has at least 75% percent more material than the Pantheon edition, maybe more. The first book in the sequence is what we in the trade call 'normal size' - the customary 6 ⅝" × 10 ¼" comic book size that you might recall from the most recent, nostalgia issue of Optic Nerve. As the narrative continues, the books get smaller and smaller, reflecting the crushing spiritual ennui and claustrophobic depression these characters experience. The final book in the sequence is only 1" x 2" inches and printed in tiny micrographic detail - with the naked eye the pages look almost completely black, covered with tiny lines. We're including one of those magnifying glasses you get with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, and even then you might be unable to read the conclusion without pulling the pages out of the book and reading them under a microfiche reader, the type you probably have to go to a major university library to find because most public libraries threw out their microfilm years ago."     

When asked how much the deluxe edition would cost, Oliveros was unwilling to speculate what the final retail price would be. "We aren't sure yet - we're still talking to contractors and lumber yards. I'm pretty sure that no one in this room is going to be able to afford this one, though - we've already accepted an order for 5,000 copies for the gift shop at the Met. It's going to be a great conversation starter for anyone who can get it up through the freight elevator to their SoHo loft." Although Ware himself was not present in San Diego, he made an appearance by phone during the D&Q showcase panel. After Oliveros placed the telephone speaker against the microphone, the crowd heard a muffled, wet sound that Oliveros assured the audience was weeping. "That's usually what Chris is like, there's a lot of uncontrollable weeping and gnashing of teeth. I know it sounds like he's laughing hysterically, but he's not, I promise."

DC Announces New "Kid-Friendly" Batman Book

Responding to longstanding fan and retailer complaints that the mainline Batman titles offered by DC Comics are far too explicit to be sold or given to children, the company announced during their spotlight panel earlier today that they would be publishing a new all-ages Batman book specifically aimed at winning over lapsed kid readers and the parents who buy them comics.

DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio introduced the book with a tacit apology. "I recognize that we've painted ourselves into something of a corner in the last few years, with increasingly explicit content in both our books and some of the ancillary product, like [the popular video game] Arkham City. But we've taken a look back at some of our publishing decisions and realized that we need to reaffirm our commitment to once again making Batman friendly for kids and families."

The new book will start, Didio said, with sanitized retellings of some of the more controversial highlights of the last few years of Batman stories. "The first issue of the new Detective Comics started with the Joker getting his face ripped off - we realized after the issue hit stands we may have crossed a line. In our new version, the Joker draws on his face with permanent marker - I think any parents in the audience should recognize which is more horrifying! In Night of the Owls, Batman and his friends faced the undead corpses of Gotham city's most powerful citizens - in our new version, the Court of Owls' foot-soldiers will have really bad ice-cream headaches."

Didio alluded to the imminent arrival of the latest Batman film as the impetus for this new initiative. "In just over a week, people are going to be lining up across the world to see The Dark Knight Rises. And that movie is going to be promoting a vision of Batman that we need to be able to follow-through with on the publishing level. The cinematic Batman lives in a gaudy fictional city filled with colorful villains and pulse-pounding adventure. Christopher Nolan's films have done a great job exposing Batman to a new generation of kids and parents alike. Families walk out of the theater with huge smiles after watching Nolan's films. They're used to seeing a Batman who isn't afraid to crack jokes with Robin, fighting villains with colorful costumes and dastardly yet absurdly elaborate robbery and extortion schemes. They want the basics: death-defying acrobatics and sharp detective skills, Batman overcoming impossible odds to escape preposterous death-traps and sock the villains on the jaw, that kind of thing. That's the 'new' old Batman we need to be promoting in our books."

The first issue of the new all-ages Batman book is being solicited for a November release. The creative team will be Tony Daniel and Philip Tan.

Marvel Studios Pleased to Announce New Slate of Creator-Screwing

Fresh off the success of Marvel's Avengers, Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige appeared in front of a packed standing-room-only crowd to discuss Marvel's upcoming slate of big-budget creator-screwings.

"So, who here saw Marvel's Avengers?" Feige began by asking the crowd. The question elicited a thunderous reply from the assembled fanboys, many of whom had waited in line for two days for the opportunity to maybe see a test reel from Ant-Man. "We couldn't be more pleased by the reception Marvel's Avengers has received not just from you guys, but from the whole world. But I'm here to say that we're not going to be happy with just the third-biggest movie of all time, our creator-screwings are only going to be getting bigger from here on out."

During the panel, Feige announced the titles for the next Avengers-family sequels - Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. "We're thrilled to embark on the next round of creator-screwing. One of the problems with our creator-screwing so far is that - although there have been some exceptions - our most potent screwings have been going to creators who are either dead or on death's door. It's just not as much fun to screw estates as it is to screw the old guys themselves - you can really see the hate in their eyes when you tell them you just bought a third house in Florida with the proceeds you got from signing off on last-minute script revisions for a property they unambiguously created but over which they have no legal control. Or rather, scratch that, you can't see it in their eyes, because who would want to go near old people?"

Fans met this announcement with surprising enthusiasm, marked by an occasional, confused yell of "pull the plug!" Feige continued: "in hindsight, the real model for us going forward is going to be Elektra. That film may have underperformed at the box office, but we learned some valuable lessons about screwing over living creators with that one. Sure, Marv Wolfman sued us over Blade, but the circumstances surrounding that lawsuit were regrettable - Wolfman actually had half a case, and we had to go to court, and it just got drawn out. Where's the fun in going to court and listening to some boring judge take half a day to say what you already know, which is that old people stink? But with Elektra, we actually had a living, breathing creator - the incomparable Frank Miller - who was not merely alive to see his creation turned into a big-budget bomb that even in failure still made the Second Unit Best Boy more money than Miller has probably ever seen in royalties - but also had the common decency not to sue since we were so unambiguously within our legal rights to attach his good name as a creator to any half-assed piece of shit we felt like crapping out."

At this point, Feige pointed to a slide on the screen behind him featuring concept art for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film. "We're all really excited about this one, because we can finally start sticking it to some younger creators here. Half of these characters were created by Jim Starlin, the others by Steve Englehart and Bill Mantlo. The name 'Guardians of the Galaxy' was, of course, created by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan,  both of whom are dead and who are therefore no fun to taunt. But Starlin and Englehart are both alive and kicking, and all signs point to them being extremely displeased with the liberties we're taking with 'their' creations. But we're especially pleased to be able to finally screw over Bill Mantlo, co-creator of Rocket Raccoon: not only is Mantlo a destitute older creator, but he's also been confined to institutions for twenty years following a tragic accident that left him permanently mentally impaired. This is pretty much a dream come true in regards to being able to screw over the most helpless and pitiful creators possible."

As for the future of Marvel Studios past the next wave of Marvel's Avengers spin-offs, Feige was optimistic. "Basically, the sky is the limit in terms of our ability to piss off creators of every generation. We're just now getting around to screwing over creators in their fifties and sixties, so just imagine the kinds of opportunities that are still available for even younger creators. We've got a Deadpool video game coming out that you'll be pleased to hear Rob Liefeld has no input in whatsoever. We're still working on a Runaways movie - Brian K. Vaughan isn't even forty yet, so he could potentially enjoy another forty or fifty years of prime quality screwing if we turn his property into a massive hit. And one of these days you know we're going to make a fucking Sleepwalker movie, because I ran into Bob Budiansky once and he stole my soft pretzel. It was a fucking bomb-ass pretzel, too."

In conclusion, Feige alluded to the more complicated status of characters created since the institution of participation contracts in the mid-80s. "Since the 1980s, creators are entitled to participation in any profits from their creations. What this amounts to, in practice, is that they get to sit in on a conference call while we count the money. You know how modern business is, we don't actually need to physically count money, but for the benefit of our creators - for whom no effort is too great in terms of giving them the screwing they so richly deserve - we actually go to the bank and get these big sacks of dollar coins, and crisp bank notes, and take turns stacking and restacking and folding them as loudly as possible so they can hear over the phone, the actual sound of money. The best part is that after a while you can hear this soft moaning over the line, like the sound of an old, bruised heart finally breaking after a lifetime of undeserved mistreatment, like the end of Homer's Odyssey when Argus raises his head off the garbage heap and sees his old master Odysseus one more time before dying, only instead of his old, kind master all he sees is the Devil himself rising up out of the ground to drag his soul down to Hell as just rewards for being such a God-damned sucker. I tell you, at the end of the day, that's what makes it all worthwhile."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Free the demon / Hear this ceaseless screaming.

John Henry

It would be an extreme overstatement to say that John Henry was a "grunge" album. And yet at the same time it would be incorrect to say that the album didn't feel and sound quite differently from its predecessors, and that a great deal of this change in tone was a direct result of the band's decision to actually become a rock band. If you're not that familiar with They Might Be Giants, this might seem like a fine distinction: after all, TMBG had always been a "rock band," in that they had always played rock & roll music. But it wasn't until they toured for 1992's Apollo 18 that they had actually put together a band - drummer, bassist, extra guitar. And it wasn't until 1994's John Henry that they bought a fuzz box.

To say that the album met a mixed response would, again, be something of an understatement. This was back in the earliest says of the World Wide Web - I wasn't around on Usenet, although I'm certain there were plenty of TMBG fans who were incensed that the Johns were using a real drummer. With almost twenty years (!) in the rear-view, such fine distinctions seem comical - after all, by now the Johns have been a "rock band" for almost twice as long as they were a duo. But people hate change. I remember specifically that I didn't like the album at first, either. It took me a while to come around to it. I don't know why, in hindsight - it certainly sounded different from their previous albums, but not enough so that you'd be hard pressed to recognize one of the most distinctive-sounding bands of the last thirty years. Perhaps it was less a matter of the album sounding different from its predecessor than of it sounding uncomfortably similar to the then-current gold-standard of post-Nirvana high-gloss rock and roll jamming the radio waves in the year of Kurt Cobain's death.

Again, this is a tricky proposition, because John Henry is still far closer to being a They Might Be Giants album than, say, a Smashing Pumpkins album. But the more I listen to the album now the more I also see it as something that remains an artifact of its time. That's not necessarily a bad thing. My mind has always twinned John Henry with R.E.M.'s Monster - two albums released two weeks apart in September of 1994, which I purchased on the same day on a trip to the Tower Records on Watt Ave. in Sacramento. Both albums seem to me to be an expression of the same kind of desire to emulate the trademark heaviness of early nineties grunge without subscribing to the prevalent self-seriousness that was already recognized as Cobain's dubious legacy. Monster was essentially a peak-era glam album released 20 years too late - playful, sardonic, and intense in equal measure. John Henry was - well, it was still a They Might Be Giants album. But if the album began with the band's trademark accordion (the first few seconds of "Subliminal") that accordion is soon joined by heavy drums and deep growling fuzz guitar. The Johns weren't just playing around with the denser sound afforded by the post-grunge heavy rock palette, they were fully committed.  

It should always be remembered - despite their unique career trajectory - that They Might Be Giants are a historically important band in terms of the evolution of quote-unquote "alternative" music. Depending on your perspective they were either one of the last significant "college rock" bands or one of the very first "alternative" bands - do you remember college rock? Do you remember how when college rock actually started selling albums it morphed into the vague category of "alternative," because in order to be considered legitimate in the nineties, you had to come positioned as either an implicit or explicit "alternative" to something else? "Dirt Bike" is a song explicitly about the salad says of college rock radio, telling the story of a fictional touring band - called Dirt Bike, of course - touring the country and slowly taking over:
Here comes the dirt bike,
Beware of the dirt bike,
Because I hear they're coming to our town.
They've got plans for everyone.
And now I hear they're over their sophomore jinx, so you had better check it out.
Mind control is a frequent topic in TMBG songs, and the metaphor is useful here as a means of describing the intense bond between college bands and their fanbases - exchange "Dirt Bike" for any mid-to-late 80s hard-touring regional rock band. Michael Azerrad named his book on American "underground" rock of the 1980s Our Band Could Be Your Life, and in the post-Internet, post-Napster, post-Pitchfork world, it's becoming harder and harder to understand how the small scale of post-hardcore pre-grunge American indie-rock bred such fervent and long-lived loyalty from its fans - how to imagine a world where good music was hidden like a secret, in which uncovering a new favorite band could feel tantamount to becoming a different person? RIght now you have at your fingertips a machine that can give you access to the sum total of all written and recorded music throughout history with a few key strokes. Remember when we had to pore over back issues of SPIN to catch brief mentions of promising ultra-obscure bands? When people actually circulated zines ,and college radio stations were cultural institutions? I'm barely old enough to remember that heyday myself but it already feels like a far-distant age of Pharaohs.

If you were feeling unkind you could say - perhaps not without some justification - that TMBG's switch to a more conventional full-band rock sound in the mid-nineties reflected a broader pasteurization of the college format to reflect the realities of alternative rock's brief commercial heyday. Despite having significantly exceeded expectations with the improbable success of 1990's Flood, TMBG were soon lost in the shuffle of A&R shakeups at Elektra. Apollo 18 was a fine album that met a muted sales response, and the chances of John Henry being lost in a similar fashion were high. By 1994 it was probably hard to ignore the probability that Flood would remain the group's commercial high-water mark. Was the adoption of the full rock sound an attempt to appeal to more conventional radio audiences by jettisoning many of the band's more prickly and unpalatable eccentricities?

The evidence doesn't seem to back up this pessimistic narrative. Although the harder rock sound of John Henry would be mostly abjured on Factory Showroom, the band would never return to the more stripped-down sound of their earlier releases. Every album and tour since the Apollo 18 tour has been performed by the band as a full band. Although they would never again release an album as consistently "hard" as John Henry, the hard rock sound would remain in their repertoire, popping up most notably on 2007's downbeat The Else. John Henry didn't mark a permanent change in the band's sound, but indicated the means by which the group would continue to expand and enhance its stylistic variety. Put simply, as the band has grown and changed they have remained resolutely chameleonic, and if John Henry means anything with almost twenty years' hindsight, it marks the point where the group was first able realize the full range of their wide ambition.

The album's stylistic ambition is nowhere more clear than "Sleeping in the Flowers." The song begins as a heavy, borderline sludge-y rock track before veering to the left to become an up-tempo vaguely ska-core ditty, before veering back towards the heavy sound of the song's introduction, and back again. In the space of four-and-a-half minutes (itself a previously-unimaginable running time for the band), TMBG runs the gamut between sincerely facetious appropriation of Alice In Chains-y shredding and Operation Ivy skronking, complete with horn section. It's a bravura performance, showcasing not merely the kind of facile wit for which the band was already well known but a level of compositional acumen that was simply head and shoulders above anything they had produced up to that date. And of course, being who they are, the band follow up "Sleeping in the Flowers" with a bonafied country song, "Unrelated Thing."

Perhaps the single most important factor in the album's success is Brian Doherty's extraordinary drumming. For their first album sans drum machine, the Johns were clever enough to find a percussionist who could appropriate the precision and forcefulness of a programmed drum track while also offering the kind of energy and spontaneity that is very difficult to produce with a machine. From the very beginning of the album and the primitive stomp of "Subliminal," up through the frenetic workout of "Meet James Ensor" (seriously, listen to the drums on that song), Doherty is precisely the kind of drummer TMBG needed in order to be able to be able to convincingly "sell" their rock pose. They still had the pop ditties and the strange genre experiments (coutnry on "Unrelated Thing," barbershop quartet on "O Do Not Forsake Me"), but the backbone of John Henry is a real rock & roll rhythm section.

If "grunge" is the first word we need to keep in mind in relation to John Henry, then "maturity" is the second. This is something of a canard, I realize, and it's become something of a shadow narrative throughout these articles: have They Might Be Giants somehow "failed" to mature? Did their so-called "arrested development" hurt their output, particular into the late nineties and early aughts? As I've discussed in past articles, I've struggled to frame my own disappointment with the band's post-Elektra output not in terms of their failure to live up to some kind of implicit "potential" - as if there was an alternate universe somewhere with a demure, adult contemporary They Might Be Giants playing soulful dad rock to Pitchfork crowds - but as a product of my own understandable alienation from their deserved and long-overdue sustained success, a success that just happens to have come about as a consequence of their transformation into children's musicians. I don't resent them their success but much of their output for the last decade, until last year's Join Us, just hasn't grabbed me. I used to think the correct model for comparison for TMBG was the Flaming Lips: another veteran of the mid-80s college rock scene who made the transition to major label success and "alternative" status with indie cred left (relatively) intact. And, of course, this comparison is deeply unfair because the same year the Lips released The Soft Bulletin, the Johns were reeling from their major label exodus and releasing unsatisfying experiments  like Long Tall Weekend.

John Henry is a great album - a truly great album - because it confronts the question of "maturity" that had always been lingering in the background of any discussion about the band and places it defiantly in the foreground. It's not a mature album with all the loaded, dad-rock qualifications that brings to mind - it's something far more rare and infinitely more rewarding, it's an album about maturity, about the act of growing up without actually being grown-up. They Might Be Giants built a loyal constituency out of precocious adolescents and disgruntled teens - the kind of kids who were far more clever than their surroundings but nowhere near yet wise enough to look past the limitations of "clever" as an overriding worldview. John Henry represents a confrontation with the profoundly, triumphantly juvenile worldview of their earlier recordings.

The album is filled with stories of unhappy, paranoid, delusional characters, confronting a world that refuses to conform to their deeply unrealistic expectations. Nowhere is this more clear than on the aforementioned "Sleeping in the Flowers," about the painful discrepancies between the fantasy and reality of unrequited crushes. "I Should Be Allowed to Think" quotes Allen Ginsberg to make a point about the growing pains of young intellectuals. "Why Must I Be Sad?" is a song about youthful misanthropy filtered through the lens of Alice Cooper. "Extra Savoir-Faire" and "No One Knows My Plan" are both about suffering delusional levels of self-regard.
"A Self Called Nowhere" is unambiguously about depression. "Meet James Ensor," ostensibly about the painter, is also about misanthropy masked as asceticism and self-denial, a theme echoed again on the brief sketch "Window."

The album climaxes with "Stomp Box" and "The End of the Tour." Although on first blush these tracks could not be more dissimilar, they fit together as the culmination of the album's themes. "Stomp Box" is a violent pseudo-metal stomper, led by a distorted, demonic vocal that spews a barrage of sarcastic bile, echoing and lampooning the endless destructive if of early 90s hard rock:
Kill Kill Kill Kill
Kill me now
Free the demon
Hear the ceaseless screaming
Little Stomp Box
Tear it from my heart.
For all their reputation as perpetual adolescents, They Might Be Giants nevertheless see right through the supposed "maturity" of the early nineties. Just a few months after Cobain's death, it was hard not to see the limitations of using rock music as catharsis. Genuine emotion easily congeals into self-parody with just a few turns of the notch. 1994 also saw the release of The Downward Spiral and while it's not hard now to see that Trent Reznor always had a sense of humor (most early industrial acts, it must be remembered, were also quite funny), few who followed his footsteps, or Cobain's, saw the inherent absurdity in the pose.

"Stomp Box" fades into "The End of the Tour." This track is pretty much universally acknowledged as one of the band's best. It    comes after almost an hour of songs and stories about delusion and self-parody, unhappiness and sadness masked in uptempo drumbeats and chipper melodies. What is the song about? I've heard some theories that the action in this track - a car crash on the interstate - is a kind of capper for a number of the people involved in previous songs - "AKA Driver," "Subliminal," "Sleeping in the Flowers," very much like the end of Short Cuts or something similar where all the previous threads are drawn together in a single massive accident. I've seen ideas that the song is a tribute to fans who died in a car crash on the way to a show, that the song was a tribute to the Grateful Dead ("the engagements are booked through the end of the world"), or that the song was specifically about the death of Kurt Cobain. (The "girl with the crown and the scepter" is supposedly a reference to the cover of Live Through This.) In any event, the song is about endings - about something drawing to a close, about admitting that " the scene isn't what it's been," and that it might be time to go home. It could be about death or dying, or hearing about the death of a close friend, or simply the literal act of being a touring band, and the point when driving around the country in a van starts to lose its appeal.

It's a song about what it means to be a rock & roll band in the mid nineties, after the underground scene you were a part of crested and became an aboveground phenomenon, after the community spirit of eighties indie rock became a marketing slogan for nineties alt rock, after Pavement recorded "Range Life" and Cobain wrote "Serve the Servants" and R.E.M. wrote Automatic for the People and all those other bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements and the Minutemen broke up and scattered to the winds. It's a song about growing up whether you want to or not, and it comes as the climax to nineteen other songs about the negative consequences of not growing up, not learning to acknowledge other people, not being able to look past your own self-obsession. It's sobering, but it's also hopeful - maturation doesn't have to mean death, but it does mean change. Sometimes it might even mean change for the better, once you've got over yourself.
And it's old and it's over, it's over now
And it's over, it's over, it's over now
I can see myself.

Next: Industrial Revolution

(out of five)