Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stuff I Read

Amazing Spider-Man #574

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Amazing Spider-Man #574 will be the worst comic I read all year. Now, true, I read a lot of shitty comics - what can I say, it's relaxing after a long week of school - so my standards for recreational reading are somewhat degraded. I've been known to read whole runs of putrid garbage like Deathstroke the Terminator just because it came in a nice, tidy .CBR file, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I just don't have the mental wherewithal to sit down with Bottomless Belly Button, sometimes I need to have my atavistic nostalgia belly rub.

But nevertheless I think a comic like this deserves to be singled out for a real, honest-to-God drubbing. Because it's not just a bad comic - all things considered, from a craft standpoint, you'll read many worse comics this year. Hell, a massively popular book like Secret Invasion can get away with being downright unreadable in places and people go with it. But no, the art is OK, the scripting is competent, it hits the basic structure of a 22-page short-form comic book story just fine, including an EC-ish shock ending that you'll probably see coming a mile away.

But what is actually in the story? Flash Thompson goes to Iraq. Now, this isn't necessarily bad in and of itself - remember, Flash went to Vietnam back in the day. If you concede that these serial characters have to live in some semblance of the real world - and it's always been a hallmark of the Spider-Man franchise more than most other books - then you accept it as a given. Harry Osborn had a drug problem. Mary Jane was retconned to have an abusive father. Gwen Stacy lost her father and then lost her own life, albeit in super-villain related circumstances, but painful nonetheless. Hell, you can say that from the very beginning of the franchise it's defining trait was juxtaposing "real" concerns with fantasy adventure elements - how can Peter defeat Doc Ock when all he can think about is his sick and dying aunt?

But this reads slightly different. True, there's no way a super-hero comic can adequately address these kinds of real-world issues without seeming somewhat ham-fisted - but, ham-fisted or not, if the intentions are relatively noble the stories can usually be forgiven. For instance, Harry's aforementioned drug problem may have been dealt with in an oddly exploitive, G-rated Beyond the Valley of the Dolls way, but the basic message was sound and the creators actually dealt with the long term consequences in a relatively well-reasoned manner. It holds up better than most "issue" stories from the period - that is, still not well, but readable. Ultimately, it's hard to argue with the earnest sentiment, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. (The Green Lantern / Green Arrow story from the same period is a good comparison, because it tries for something more ambitious with its drug story it comes up that much shorter.)

But for some reason the issue at hand read differently for me. True, it was created with input from real-life Iraq vets. And it deals with the war, for the most part, in an even-handed manner, making nothing that could even resemble an overarching statement about the war's purpose, but rather portraying a specific incident of the type that, to read news reports and documentary evidence, is all too common, down to the portrayal of relatively sound insurgent tactics and urban guerilla strategy. But the real queasy part is when Flash Thompson begins to relate his own experiences as a soldier - his own battles - to similar battles in Spider-Man's history. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to juxtapose a picture of Spider-Man facing off with the Sinister Six to Flash blasting away at six Iraqi insurgents with a machine gun? You can't put those two ideas side by side without trivializing one of them, and guess which one. It's not like this is some piece of wartime propaganda, like Captain America punching Hitler or Superman mowing down a line of fifth-columnists - this is something that actually reaches towards a "profound" statement on courage, using Flash's admiration of Spider-Man as his personal motivation for an act of real-life heroism. It feels odd and queasy in a way that, say, similar stories with characters like the Punisher and Nick Fury haven't.

Essentially, when you're dealing with real-life in such a pressing fashion, I think creators in the modern era have to keep fantasy elements at a remove. Otherwise, you end up with something like the 9/11 issue of Amazing, which leapfrogged over "well-intentioned" on its way to "massively stupid and wrong-headed", and reads all the worse for seven years' remove. Similarly, who the hell thought it was a good idea to devote a whole mini-series to Magneto's adventures at Auschwitz? That at least seems to be relatively benign in that the whole point of the story - let us pray and hope - is that the person who will become Magneto has no magical powers until after he survives the camps. It's a bit of back story probably best kept at a safe remove for obvious reasons, but an acceptable bit of motivation nonetheless for some thirty-odd years.

But this - this just seems wrong to me, all the more so for the "twist" at the end (which I haven't specifically mentioned for fear of getting people pissed at me in the comments). For all the talk about how the reboot was intended to get Spider-Man back to his roots and re-engage with his strong supporting cast, what they did in this issue was arguably the worst misstep of the whole run so far. Essentially, when Flash Thompson gets back to New York after his stay in Germany, his presence is going to totally distort the tone and shift the focus of the books, which up to now even I will admit had been trending upward and improving steadily since the first few, shaky months. Sure, it's "real", it's "ripped-from-the-headlines", but it's also not a story element that can ever be swept under the rug, and every single person who uses the character from this day until the end of Spider-Man will have to address it in some fashion.

Am I wrong, or have they made a terrible mistake, a horrible misjudgment in tone and execution? Is this genuinely touching in the way it's obviously meant to be, or does it come off as crass and exploitive, at least in the context of a comic book about a man in blue and red tights who fights crime? Am I overreacting? I am honestly interested in your comments on the matter, and would like to hear some differing opinions.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tony Has Some Explaining To Do

Monday, October 20, 2008

November Fifth

You will wake early with a slight headache. Your eyes will be sore, you will remember tearing up. There is a bottle of champagne still corked in the refrigerator, party food only half eaten. Everyone left surprisingly early, discouraged and demoralized.

How did it all go so terribly wrong, is the first thought that passes through your mind. How could things have slipped so far out of our grasp? The polls were so positive, the wind was at our backs, the sails were full, etc etc. All the leading economic indicators were plainly working against the incumbent party.

And yet, deep down, you had known all along, known that the higher the polls went, the more certain an upset victory became. There was literally no way to win - it wasn't that the system was rigged, or that there weren't enough voters, or the voluntary registration system was an inefficient joke designed solely to disenfranchise, it was all the above. Ultimately, it didn't matter, because there was only one party people trusted to rule, even if they didn't know how. The insurgent always lost, because everyone likes a winner.

And when everyone else had courted euphoria, predicting a landslide above and beyond all conservative expectations, you had stayed back, afraid that the opposition was merely hiding in wait, playing the part of the wounded animal as a means of lulling the enemy into a false sense of security. It didn't matter by how much we had outspent them, or how confident tracking polls had been - the result was the same as if we had stayed home. We didn't win. We would never win.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Defining Moment of a Generation

Skip ahead to 2:02.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


"Graphic Novel" is a functionally useless term. I heard it described this weekend as a very useful term for marketing, and that is nothing to sneeze at. The smallest confusion over genre, medium or labeling can cause even the best book to fall through the cracks - surely one of the culprits behind Minx's demise, among others. Having any kind of umbrella label to help booksellers help sell the books is, by definition, a good thing.

But for any other purpose besides the utilitarian - be it practical, aesthetic, critical or ontological - it's useless. Eddie Campbell is, in this respect at least, absolutely correct.

I have always avoided the use of the term. This has been problematic, as it means I am left without a term to easily describe an increasingly common phenomenon. But I guess I'm of the "old school": I remember a day not so long ago when "graphic novel" as a term was a joke, an awkward portmanteau designed to mask what could only - at the time - have been an embarrassing social admission. "I don't read comics, I read graphic novels." It was, frankly, pretentious in the worst way, in that it attempted to graft some kind of cultural respectability onto something that wasn't respectable, didn't particularly need to be respectable and which, for many readers, was only an issue of personal insecurity. Saying "graphic novel" extended a pretense of deception, an ostentatious display of faux refinement used by many to cover up the fact that six Batman comics compiled between two softcovers is still a Batman comic.

Will Eisner used the term, so it certainly has pedigree - tons of pedigree. Lots of smart people have spilt a lot of ink over the meaning and history of the term. The only things the term doesn't have are meaning and purpose.

What does it mean? A novel told in pictures? That leaves out too much, and also lets too much in. The term was pretty much dead the moment Marvel decided to stamp "Graphic Novel" all over a series of large format one-shots which aped the European model in form if not - certainly not - in content. Certainly if you use the term there is no reason why The Death of Captain Marvel isn't a graphic novel and A Contract With God is, for much the same reason that no sane person would actively argue that a mass market paperback adaptation of Star Trek III wasn't by strict definition a novel. Definitions of form must remain neutral on the subject of content - but by design the term "graphic novel" has carried an implication of heightened subject matter. The entire reason why the term exists was to separate the practice of "serious" cartooning from the rest of the crap clogging up the newsstands, head shops and newspaper pages. That it was almost immediately co-opted by the juvenilia which it was designed to circumvent makes its adoption, in this respect, a singular failure.

What is it's purpose? Well, that it exists enables books which would otherwise have no recognizable category to be marketed and sold with greater ease. That can't be dismissed. But otherwise it is purposeless, for all the reasons enumerated above, but mostly in that it is indefinably broad term meant mainly to cover up perceived insecurities.

Is Watchmen a graphic novel? Most people would agree that it is, despite it's serialized origin and superhero subject matter. Is A Contract With God? Well, it's a collection of short stories, but could probably be considered a novel in the same respect that short story cycles such Winesburg, OH and Dubliners are considered to be a kind of novel. But once you leave the realm of books that consciously reach for effects comparable to those of the prose novel in terms of length, breadth and narrative scope, what do you use? Is Maggots a graphic novel? Really, you'd have a hard time making the argument that it resembles anything the world of prose novels has ever produced, possibly excepting outliers such as Naked Lunch. And yet Maggots isn't an outlier - the form is wide enough to encompass any number of artists stretching the medium in every conceivable fashion. Lots of books are released every year that are as strikingly bizarre in form, execution, subject matter, or all. Maggots is far, far closer to an artists' monograph than a novel, and yet there is still a narrative element that sets it apart from merely a catalog.

Is the comics adaptation of the 9/11 report a "graphic novel"? It says in the title that it's a graphic "adaptation", which is good in as much as it's accurate. But the book itself is nonfiction, so the term "novel" can't really be used without a sizeable stretch. Is The Complete Terry And The Pirates Volume 4: 1941-1942 a graphic novel? Well, obviously not, I hear you say - but what about the fact that, when read in huge chunks, Caniff's strip approaches a depth and breadth whose only ready comparison is in fact the prose novel? Weren't Dickens' novels - and, in fact, many of the great novels of the 19th century - serialized and only compiled after the fact? Is Reads a graphic novel? Is The Essential Spider-Man a graphic novel? Is Palestine? Is The Great Outdoor Fight?

It is inescapable that the term "graphic novel" will remain in common usage for a long time, now that it is firmly ensconced in the popular imagination. In the end it accomplished exactly what it was created to do: created an artificial distinction which would allow publishers to market otherwise risky titles, cartoonists to describe their occupation without embarrassment at cocktail parties, and fans to grasp at a social significance for their previously disreputable hobby. But the fact is that the books have only ever been as disreputable as their quality. if it can find an audience, a good book will likely win the day on its own merits, regardless of label. A pretentious label won't improve a bad book's content.

But there is good news! We just happen to have in our possession a very useful term that can be used to encompass every single work above mentioned, and many more besides; which sets aside all question of genre or quality in favor of neutral (albeit not uncontroversial) questions of form; which has the added bonus of being almost universally recognized and accepted by readers as young as two or three years of age.

What is this magic word?


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Albums You Should Own, Part the Second

A lot of people gave up on REM about the time this album came out. They lost a drummer between 1996's rather ominous New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up. Losing Bill Berry meant, in a word, that the rock band had lost its rock. What was next? There were a lot of people who were simply confused: why go on after losing such an integral member? REM always advertised themselves as a true democracy - equal songwriting credits, equal participation. Longtime fans got to know each member's particular contribution to the band over the course of the decade-and-a-half since the release of the Chronic Town EP. Berry was, appropriate to his position as the drummer, the foundation. Whenever things got too strange or abstruse, he was always there to pull them back to the basics. He's why the group followed up the relatively stately Out of Time and Automatic For the People with the rollicking Monster.

Also, on a purely subjective level, he always struck me as being singularly important to the band's sound on account of the fact that he was the first member of the band who really knew what the fuck he was doing. Go back and listen to Murmur, if you have it handy. There are some great, truly great songs, but who's the real “All-Star”? Peter Buck's guitar playing is rudimentary, Mike Mills bass playing is already melodic but nowhere near as confident as it would become, and Stipe's vocals were, well, they were certainly like nothing else. But I still think, as great as all these elements were, they would have sounded pretty murky and unappealing if they hadn't had Berry's explosive drumming underneath. Without his crisp drumwork, the band would have probably sounded a lot more like the Cure than Gang of Four or Pylon. (As it is, you can certainly still hear the Cure on Murmur, particularly Three Imaginary Boys and Seventeen Seconds, but it's the rhythm section, as well as the bright sound of Buck's guitar, that raises the early material so far above these immediate influences.)

So, after what I just said, how do I approach their first Berry-less recording? Well, the short answer is that it took me a long time. My friends will attest to the fact that my original reaction to Up was violently negative - it didn't sound like REM, really, and even if that alone wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker, it just sounded weird. (It doesn't help in that regard that the album opens with the one-two punch of "Airportman" and "Lotus", two songs that could not be more dislike each other. Starting off the album with, alternatively, the most electronic sounding and the most rock songs on the whole disc was probably more than most casual listeners could deal with.) But then, over the next couple years (yes, I said years) I went back to the album a few times, and each time I did my antipathy lessened. Eventually, I began to listen to it out of more than mere dutiful curiosity, and actually began to enjoy it. Finally I realized that it had become one of my very favorite REM albums - what had seemed strange and uncharacteristic on first or second listen had revealed itself as subtle and positively demure. It's a shy album, in that it does require a bit of effort to get into. But once you do, the rewards are great.

Not everything on it is perfect - while it's nowhere near as patchy as the schizo Out of Time, it's still got a lot of material on it that many fans won't easily warm to. The thing is, I'm sure if you asked REM fans to poinpoint their least favorite tracks, they'd probably all give you different answers. Myself, I have never really warmed to "Lotus", dismissing it as a hangover from New Adventure's strange high desert glam vibe - although I don't hate it near as much as I used to. "At My Most Beautiful" is a Pet Sounds pastiche, and while it doesn't fall flat, it's doesn't really do anything more than merely announce it's influence and shuffle off unobtrusively. (Interestingly, they would continue the Beach Boys vibe on 2001's Reveal, to much more satisfying results on tracks like "Beachball" and "Beat A Drum".) But even if they aren't my favorites, I can't imagine the album without either of them - part of the reason why Up works so well is that it is practically overstuffed. It's a dense album, filled with rockers and ballads and dirges and even strange electro tracks, and part of the fun is working through the thicket to get a feel for each individual song in relation to each other.

The songwriting on Up is as strong as anything the band had done since Automatic -- particularly the handful of plaintive ballads that form the album’s spine. “You’re In the Air” is one of the best love songs the group has ever recorded, definitely in the vein of Out of Time’s better tracks. “Walk Unafraid” is a slow-burning rocker that foreshadows some of Stipe’s worse tendencies as a lyricist – the unpalatable, clumsy self-help jargon that marred Reveal and served as one of the primary factors behind the absolute failure of Around the Sun - but here manages to overcome the “inspirational” overstep with a strong rhythmic hook. Ultimately, however, the strength of the album primarily rests on the trio of downtempo chamber-songs that bring the album to a close – “Diminished”, “Parakeet” and “Fails to Climb” (with the lo-fi vignette “I’m Not Over You” wedged between the first two). Stipe’s later lyrics can often cloy and drag, but this is some of the best work of his career – as different from the abstruse poetry of the early IRS albums as can be possibly conceived, but raw and sincere in a fashion that could almost be called “emo” (that is, back when “emo” meant less screaming and more crying). It’s easy to see how this approach ultimately led them astray – after all, Around the Sun was solely composed of somber balladry with heartfelt lyrics. But Around the Sun was simply horrible, bereft of tunes, rhythm or palatable lyrics. On the contrary, listeners with the patience to appreciate the primarily somber, minor-key work being done on Up will come away greatly satisfied.

So, what about Bill Berry? It is to REM’s credit that they didn’t just go out and find a hot-shot hired gun to fill Berry’s drum kit off the bat, a la the ill-fated Jason Newstead. Berry’s departure left the group flat-footed, and Up is a tentative album because of this. They take some chances they might not otherwise have taken if they hadn’t already been yanked out of their proverbial “comfort zone”. Eventually they did find another drummer, Bill Rieflin, but it took the band ten full years to figure out how to best incorporate another full-time percussionist. This year’s Accelerate is, accordingly, their tightest album since New Adventures, harkening back to the clean, albeit slightly sterile sound of 1987’s Document. Up, however, is not a confident record, but this vulnerability is downright endearing from a group that had once been hailed as "America's Best Rock & Roll Band" by Rolling Stone.

Moving past the album’s inaccessibility, its density, its vulnerability, and its stylistic variety, Up is revealed to be one of the most consistently interesting, endearing and intimate recordings in the band’s catalog. It’s the sound of a group actively working against its own strengths, not merely because they want to do something new but because, due to circumstances, they feel they have to.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The 50 Things That Every Comics Collection Truly Needs, Part 1

1. Wolverine #75

Wolverine gets totally PWNED by Magneto at the end of the Fatal Attractions storyline, getting all the metal sucked out of his bones just like he was being fellated by a giant magnet thing. We get to see Logan pop his BONE CLAWS out of his wrist for the first time, all bloody and covered in goo. Man, I bet Jean Grey would love to have Wolverine pop some bone claw, if you know what I mean. PLUS, totally AWESOME hologram cover, this is the BEST kind of cover you can think of.

2. Codename: Stryke Force #1

Dude's got THREE ROBOT ARMS so he can hold TWICE as many guns as anyone else, even the Punisher. DON'T make the same mistake I did and get it mixed up with THIS:

NOT the same thing.

3. Lady Death #1

ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES, this is the one that started it ALL. Action #1, Detective #27, Amazing Fantasy #15 - this is right up there, and you can probably get it for a steal now that the speculators have left. Plus, there's something about that gooey sword she's holding, I can't quite put my finger on it, but maybe SHE can, if you follow my meaning.

4. Marvel Swimsuit Issues ALL OF THEM

I couldn't find any good photos on line and my scanner is under some bags of Chee-Tos but LET ME TELL YOU these are absolutely essential, a cornerstone of any collection. For years, people had had to find ways to put unobtrusive bookmarks on all the Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee X-Men books where all the pics of HOT LADIEZZZ were on. Finally that was unecessary, because Marvel finally figured out what we REALLY want from their hottt SUPER-HEROINES - that they be as close to naked as possible, the better to facilitate jackin' it. The ONLY problem is that you'll probably have to put masking tape over the pictures of the DUDES that they stuck in for God knows what reason. Is this like equal time for Teh Phaghs? They can spank it to Alpha Flight. SNOOCH TO DA NOOCH!!!

5. The Protectors #5

I still don't know what this comic is about, I never bothered to read it. But it has a real, live authentic BULLET HOLE right through the center of it, right out of that dude's bloody torso. I remember buying this comic at a spinner rack in the grocery store, where it was put right next to Archie and DOnald DUck - I knew even back then how lucky I was to live in a world that could produce such beauty.

6. ROM #1

U NO ITTT!!!! This is IT! This is FIRE! This shit is like LIL WAYNE, TI and HOVA wrapped into one AWESOME BURRITO and put down on the muthaphuckin grill. Only thing that could make ROM better? If it had never been canceled, then ROB LIEFELD could have started his career on ROM instead of Gay Mutants.

7. Preacher #5

Not only does this comic have a man getting his face ripped off - which alone would put it on the list of comics every comics aficionado and scholar NEEDS to have, but it centers around a PRAWN mag called ANAL RAMPAGE. NEED I SAY MORE? Frank Zappa knows I do not.

8. Punisher War Journal #6

When you think about it, all they needed to do was put PUNISHER GUEST STARRING WOLVERINE on the cover and they might as well have been printing up $100 bills. It doesn't hurt that the story is MEGA WIKKKID like Tera Patrick if you get my drift, homeslice. Straight up in terms of artistic merit and aside from historical significance, you'd have a hard time arguing this wasn't the best comic on the list.