Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
I think there's something on the verge of being really, really good here. Forsman's wispy, hesitant line and Segar and Gray by way of Chester Brown and Sammy Harkham character designs can at times feel a bit unmoored against his backgroundless panels--I never quite buy their physicality. But it's a lovely style, one that makes his characters instantly sympathetic, particularly the hefty, good-natured title character with his wilted mohawk and Sears uniform, but also even the abrasive, adenoidal types with whom he interacts. And that in turn is key to making the umpteenth "'80s ennui among the Great American Nowhere's lower middle class" comic you've read feel, if not fresh, then at least deeply felt rather than a report from a rear-view mirror. Several of the moments Forsman selects to highlight in this day in the life are really astutely observed and wincingly sad, recognizable to anyone who's overstayed their welcome in suburbia with shit jobs, fast food, small-hours onanism, and well-meaning reprimands from the family with whom he's saddled himself. (Take that either way you want.) The ending in particular killed me, and I could return to the page where Wolf eats a burger and fries by himself over and over. Forsman clearly has enough control over line, pacing, and story that this is the sort of comic you read as much for the promise of future ones as for this one itself. I look forward to that future.
Arrant: Becky Cloonan has stated that after doing an OGN, she liked doing serialized stories more because she gets more feedback and can talk about things longer. Have you thought about doing any serialized work?
Larson: I haven't seriously considered it, no. I'm not too interested in anyone's feedback except for my editor's; I'm not doing comics by committee. When I was involved with the Flight anthology that was very much the atmosphere, and it didn't much appeal to me. I tend to think that the more sources you solicit feedback from, the blander your end product will be.
I also don't think there's an acceptable vehicle to serialize the kind of work I do. The Internet's great if you're willing to hustle, but I'm not. And floppies...Well, what publisher would be willing to publish a YA girl story in a monthly or bi-monthly format? On top of that, the editorial relationship I want isn't possible if I'm not working on large chunks of story at a time. For me, short-form serialization -- anything under 100 pages or so -- seems like a lose-lose situation.
That's a refreshing lack of fell-goody prevaricating right there.
* I think maybe my single greatest achievement as a comics collector is owning every issue of Acme Novelty Library, especially since I came late to the game (1999 or so) and the early issues are so hard to find and I had no idea just how worth owning they all were when I started getting them. Point is that even if you own Jimmy Corrigan, you wanna get one of the 20 copies of the out-of-print Acme Novelty Library #12 that Fantagraphics just found, if you can.
Saving the environment and the remaning species diversity of the planet is now your mindset. Nothing is more important than saving them. The Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Elephants, Froggies, Turtles, Apes, Raccoons, Beetles, Ants, Sharks, Bears, and, of course, the Squirrels.
This right here is almost everything Jane's Addiction did well: a gooey Eric Avery bassline, a huge Zeppelin Over Sunset power-chord onslaught, Stephen Perkins's super-produced pounding, and Perry Farrell's otherworldly wailing, equal parts vulnerable and Valhalla, introduced by that perfectly intimate intake of breath. Atop this, Dave Navarro (who was the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy before he turned to evil) constructs these gargantuan spires of guitar, effortless edifices that majestically tower into the atmosphere and cascade back down into the surf. The funny thing is that the lyrics simply say "Here we go now--home," but there's nothing homey about this music at all--it's music of epic adventure and grandiose, self-consciously exotic beauty. The only conclusion that we're left to draw is that this is home for Jane's Addiction, a whole new concept of home constructed by Perry and company through sheer willingness to be weird outsiders and artists and hedonists. This song isn't a day at the beach at all, it's them welcoming you to their place and saying "Here, let me give you the grand tour."
* Peerless contemporary choral composer/heartthrob Eric Whitacre talks about assembling his own private choir and recording his upcoming collection Light and Gold. One thing I love about Whitacre besides the fact that he's handsome for a man is that he talks about his music the same way I talk about his music--like its beauty is almost something to be endured.
* I wonder how many people will fall in the pop-cultural Venn diagram overlap of caring that guitarist Wilko Johnson from UK pub-rock progenitors Dr. Feelgood has been cast as the executioner in Game of Thrones.
Let's get two visual elements out of the way: 1) This is one of D&Q's many, many little brown books, and I don't understand the attraction to that ugly color; it makes books look like galleys to me. 2) Pascal Girard's loose, messy minimalism is so close to Jeffrey Brown's in appearance and effect, particularly in terms of character design, that this is practically a J.B. tribute album; not at all surprising to see Brown show up in the thank-yous. That said? Oof, this is a little gut-punch of a book. It's a very minimal memoir dealing with the death of writer/artist Pascal Girard's little brother Nicolas when both brothers were little boys, and how that loss has affected Girard's life ever since. Starting it off with a three page section called "BEFORE" featuring the two boys playing Ghostbusters together, then abruptly transitioning to "AFTER" with a shot of Pascal sitting there alone is just one example of how pointed and to-the-point this book gets. I'm particularly struck by the decision (a very un-Brownian decision at that) to eschew panel borders and backgrounds entirely and rarely if ever telegraph temporal or spatial transitions. Each page contains two images, almost more doodled than drawn, floating atop the white paper, like the sudden flash of isolated, painful childhood memories to the surface of your otherwise formless and featureless sea of memory. Some sequences are almost too difficult to bear--Pascal clutching his pillow with increasing intensity, his eyes welling with black tears like stormclouds, as his parents finally tell him the story of Nicolas's final hours; the final flashback, ending with an almost manic number of HA HA HA HA HAs as the two brothers, oblivious as to what is to come, laugh together. Somehow that laughter is an indication of a pain that will never go away.
* Jeez, the Sharkticons. I barely remember Transformers: The Movie at all--my memory of unsuccessfully trying to go see it after some Sunday-afternoon soccer game is clearer than my memory of the movie itself, whenever the heck it was I actually did see it--but what stands out is the incandescent creepiness of the Sharkticons and those three-headed floaty guys and killing off the lead characters and all that stuff. Children's entertainment did strange things to its audience back then.
* Mondo Tees is having a 30% off sale this weekend. They're the people who have that series of shirts that combine metal-band logos with director names--Herzog/Danzig, Ingmar Bergman/Iron Maiden, De Palma/Def Leppard, etc. If you've ever wanted one, now's the time!
Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before, but I don't get dreary brown book covers like this one--especially this one, given that the art inside is done in comparatively cheery hues of red and green as well as brown. This time around, however, the content is just as baffling to me as the package. Robel tells a fairy-tale-like story about a little man named Barnabe who lives in a Central Park-type oasis in the big city but is haunted by nightmares in which he becomes a giant and can't help but leave a trail of destruction wherever he goes. One day an actual giant appears and magically conjures up three giant beautiful women, with whom Barnabe falls in love. When two of them spurn his advances, he either tries and fails to commit suicide Groundhog Day-style or just contemplates it, I'm not exactly sure. But then the third woman feels fond of him after all and starts looking for him, but by then it's too late--he's built Icarus-style wings for himself and taken a header off a cliff. Once he lands he snuggles with the woman, and there's some narration about how he hadn't noticed that his isolated life had changed, and then he lives in the city all of a sudden. Robel is using the dream logic of fairy-tale storytelling, obviously, but the symbols and rhythms and analogues make little sense either on their own terms or in terms of extrapolating them to a real-world moral, especially given the frequent disconnect between the narration and the events of the story. (I suppose it could be thinly veiled autobio, but in that case it never transcends the personal.) Robel has a memorably jagged take on the cute, round-headed little characters that populate many alternative comics of this sort, one that's clearly of a piece with his hand-lettering, but it's not so attractive or unusual that it overcomes the book's other shortcomings by, say, creating cohesive and inviting environments, or even simply being really pretty to look at. Shrug.
Music Time: 80 Great Tracks from the 1990s That Aren't on Pitchfork's Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s List
I enjoyed Pitchfork's list of the Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s. The decision to limit the list to one song per artist opened things up to tons of songs, probably even whole genres, that would have been excluded if folks like Bjork and Beck and Radiohead each had five songs a piece or what have you; moreover it started a whole different set of discussions than "'Let Down' should have been ranked higher than 'Creep,'" which is probably what you'd have gotten otherwise. Still, as with any exercise of this sort, there are bound to be lacunae, oversights, goofs, choices you'd have made differently, artists you'd have better represented, and of course outright crimes against all that is holy. LOL srsly the closest thing I have to a substantive philosophical criticism of the list is that in the end, the voters admittedly went with comfort for their #1; given that the list has frequently been positioned as a statement about indie music today, read into that what you will. In my case, seeing the #1 vote-getter (no spoilers here!) simply reminded me that my 1990s were different from those of a lot of other critics--less "indie rock," more "alternative," electronic, heavy, and industrial.
So in the interest of showing my '90s off a bit, here, in alphabetical order by artist, are 80 wonderful songs from that wonderful decade for music that didn't make Pitchfork's cut. I applied three rules in making this list:
1) Like Pitchfork, I limited myself to one song per artist.
2) If an artist made Pitchfork's Top 200 list, I couldn't use them--in other words, I wasn't adjudicating whether "Donkey Rhubarb" would have been a better pick than "Windowlicker." (Although it is.)
3) Pitchfork very helpfully and very smartly included two or three "see also" suggestions with every entry, in order to give relevant sounds/scenes/artists that much more props. I didn't let this rule out artists who were thus listed, but I did let it rule out the individual songs that were cited. As a practical matter this meant that several songs which all things being equal I'd have included on any Top Whatever List didn't end up making it in, because the song Pitchfork had suggested as a "see also" was so clearly the right choice--"Stars" by Hum, "Gett Off" by Prince, "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check" by Busta Rhymes, "Jump Around" by House of Pain, and "Unsung" by Helmet all come to mind. But more often than not I had the leeway I wanted.
So there you have it. There was a lot of great music made in the days of my youth; here's some of it, in convenient video form. I hope you enjoy!
Carnival of souls: Special "post-Labor Day weekend morning" edition
* These long weekends have been bizarrely link-rich as of late, so rather than make this evening's regularly scheduled Carnival more like a Disney Theme Park, I figured I'd throw an A.M. edition together. Great day in the morning!
* Well I'll be a monkey's uncle: Robin Hardy's The Wicker Tree, the...thematic sequel, I guess? to his '70s horror masterpiece The Wicker Man, is actually happening, and this teaser trailer is the proof. Nearly impossible to say for sure with a few lines of dialogue and five seconds of footage, but dare I say it actually seems good? (Via Bloody Disgusting.)
* whoa: "Right Thing the Wrong Way: The Story of Highwater Books", an art show based on Tom Devlin's late great publishing imprint and featuring work by Jeff Zekaj, Megan Kelso, Brian Ralph, Ron Rege Jr., Marc Bell, Greg Cook, Jordan Crane, and Kurt Wolfgang, coming soon to Boston's Fourth Wall Project. I'm actually tempted to drive up there for this.
*and Chris Arrant also notes delays in Grant Morrison's work for DC. It has to be a concern for the publisher that, for all intents and purposes, two guys drive their entire line. I'd be more worried about any hiccups in Geoff Johns's schedule, given just how much of the line he holds down singlehandedly, how much the rest of the line revolves around the stories and events he cooks up, and the fact that he just got a major desk-job promotion that surely takes time away from his comics writing.
* Ben Morse of The Cool Kids Table takes a whack at my personal comics pinata: '90s mutatnts with vague energy powers. I don't think I realized just how vague they got--like, to the point of going for a year or two without even being introduced or explained--until I read Ben's piece. "[Cable's] powers would be incorporated into the character in a major way as time went on, but if you had said he was a super-fast typer or something, it wouldn't have changed his first two dozen appearances."
* I've been watching The Young & the Restless lately, and I'm so hugely thrilled by the density and byzantine complexity of the relationship drama on that show I can hardly tell you. To me it's delivering in practice what serialized comic books are supposed to be delivering in theory. With that in mind I endorse Douglas Wolk's call for more weekly comics, but without a lot of optimism. Of the bonafide weekly comics we've seen over the past several years, two have been among the worst comics I've ever read, and moreover I just don't know if they'll ever contain anything nearly as entertaining as Victor Newman.
* Over the weekend I saw several people on Tumblr lose they shit over this four-part essay on 28 Days Later and the allegorical difference between slow zombies and fast zombies by Christian Thorne. Longtime readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I wasn't quite as impressed, given how ruthlessly allegorical all readings of horror movies by non-aficionados have become and how inured (if not actively hostile) I am to them. Like most such readings, Thorne's overreaches in some areas and elides complicating details in others. Meanwhile, the prestige of his trick here, in terms of the complexity of 28 Days Later, is sort of no-duh stuff if you ask me--certainly if you've ever seen any of the countless films well and truly referenced by the ending of that film, not to mention the similar audience-sympathy shenanigans of The Wicker Man. But I still think it's worth your time, if only because, for me at least, the fast zombie is the enduring stuff of nightmares. Seriously, I had one this weekend! The more information I can get on why they bother me so much, the better, even if I'm reasonably sure it has nothing to do with a craving for the Strong Leader. (Given my history you don't need to look as far afield as my affection for Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake for evidence of that!) (Via Mike Barthel, among others.)
* Andy Khouri has been creating cool little grids of album art for various astutely art-directed artists' complete works. Here's New Order, and here's Bjork, and I'm told there are more to come. I saw this done with the Smiths and Morrissey once; talk about a guy with a well-formed aesthetic.
* Also, for a few hours I had all the videos from my 80 Great Tracks from the 1990s list behind a jump, until I discovered that you can't actually access the "after the jump" part of the post anymore. Sigh. Back into the main body they go; my apologies if this has the same deleterious effect on your browsing as it does on mine. I don't like to metablog, but I want to assure my long-suffering readers and commenters that steps are being taken to drastically improve your Attentiondeficitdisorderly experience.
* Hey look, it's a website and teaser trailer for Dash Shaw's next animation project, The Ruined Cast. Shaw's collaborators on this one include John Cameron Mitchell and Frank Santoro. For real. (Via Eric Reynolds.)
* Even though I have no brief with either of the two films it's nominally about, I love this Matt Zoller Seitz piece on why we need more "adult" movies--movies that can't be fully understood or enjoyed by children or the childish, as he puts it; "movies that let you spend time with morally compromised characters and that sort of hang back a bit directorially, letting the scenes and situations breathe, and mostly resisting the urge to tell you what the movie thinks of anyone, preferring instead to simply present the characters and let you feel however you want to feel." I have to say, between this and his earlier, infamous "superheroes suck!" piece (Peter David notwithstanding), becoming a bit of an aesthetic scold is a good look for Seitz, much more so than it's been for Roger Ebert, say. (Ebert's been there for decades, of course.) I feel like there's a connection to be made here between the mainstreaming of nerd culture and subsequent militant embrace of its most simplistic and bankrupt aspects and the way the recent acceptance of genre by comics' smart set seems to have severely curtailed the discussion of non-genre work, but that's probably poorly thought-through overreach and I know several smart people who tell me I'm just plain wrong about that anyway.
Again with the brown for the cover, but alright, fine, I'm clearly on the losing end of this aesthetic battle with D&Q and I accept that. What's far more interesting here, and it's a shame if the drab cover (not to mention the choice of grayscale for the interiors) obscure this, is the story of Kaspar itself. Or rather himself--Obomsawin here traces through contemporaneous accounts the life of one Kaspar Hauser, who for five years around 1830 intrigued and baffled European society with his amazing story of spending his first 16 years kept in total isolation with no human contact whatsoever before being taught some rudimentary language and handwriting by a mysterious man in black who then left him in Nuremberg to fend for himself. Kaspar's story is one of a kind of cruelty my mind and soul virtually invert themselves to avoid having to deal with--I'm reminded of the story my wife told me from one of her psych courses, about a 19th-century experiment that used loud noises to condition a baby to be so afraid of bunnies that eventually he couldn't even see a cotton ball without screaming. There's something so unspeakably awful about human beings harming the human beinghood of a child right from the start that when I came across lines from Kaspar like "There is straw on the ground where I sit and sleep--it never occurs to me to want to stand up," or the idea that he doesn't know there even is anything else but himself, the bread and water he's brought while sleeping, and the toy horse he's locked up with, part of me just wants to run and hide. The trick of the book upon Hauser's Chauncey Gardiner-like entrance into high society is using his literal inability to fathom the cruelty done to him (how can he--until now he had no context for what he was missing) and his appreciation for simple things like the color red or the concept of distance as a proxy for our own rejection of such monstrousness and a way to awaken our own lust for life respectively.
Of course, a visit to Wikipedia reveals that Hauser was almost certainly a peerless goldbricker, something his various patrons almost all cottoned to eventually, and from which the mysterious accidents and "assaults" that repeatedly befell and eventually killed him were likely self-inflicted to distract. Obomsawin's choices to tell the story from Kaspar's first-person perspective and to draw it in a simplistic, childlike, unadorned fashion we naturally scan as a direct outgrowth of Kaspar's naivete--not to mention her one-page direct-address strip at the end, detailing her research for us, her "dear readers"--are a conscious effort to put aside the controversy and tease metaphorical meaning out of a story that's too good to check. But if you're like me, your mind already scrambled its way to "oh, this has gotta be a hoax, he must have been putting them on" long before you closed the book and opened up Google, and so the whole time you're reading you're wondering not just what Kaspar's suffering, his reaction to society, and society's reaction to him say to us--you're wondering what the fact that someone could fake all that stuff says to us as well. I'm still wondering. In a way, the need in someone who'd do that is every bit as deep and devastating as the need in someone who was like that for real.
* I have not made a secret of my enthusiasm for Stephen Frears's upcoming film of Posy Simmonds's graphic novel Tamara Drewe, but wouldja believe that until I saw the new trailer below I hadn't even noticed that the guy who played Evil Christopher Hitchens in Speed Racer was in it? Something must have been distracting me; I've no clue what it could be.
Yep, totally at a loss.
* The Missus and I have done a decent amount of biking near our suburban home recently, and the trip to the bike path usually involves coming or going along a very busy stretch of thoroughfare. This has made us hyper-aware of the difficulty, if not outright danger, posed to non-car travelers along such roads, whether bikers or pedestrians. That's why this Matthew Yglesias post on ergonomic crosswalks and the need to psychologically recalibrate our conception of who owns the roadway brought a big smile to my face.
* So too is Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever, if Milner's interview with Matthew Perpetua is any indication. Fascinating stuff about the making of the sound of recorded music, from Steely Dan to Steve Albini, Mutt Lange to James Murphy.
* Sexy gothy vampirey stuff generally isn't my thing--True Blood is sexy, gothy, and vampirey, but rarely all at once--but I stumbled across this piece called "The Turning" by Randis courtesy of my pal Lontra Phoenix and found it to be pretty hot stuff.
* The "deal with it" meme has reached its zenith. Shit, memes in general have reached their zenith. (Via Douglas E. Sherwood.)
* Rest in peace, Glenn Shadix. My wife and I have spent years, literally years, wondering aloud why Glenn Shadix in general and Otho from Beetlejuice in particular aren't iconic. "I was one of New York's leading experts in the paranormal...till the bottom dropped out in '72."
The strongest moments in A Sunny Day in Glasgow's songs usually don't come right away. They tend to emerge at some point deeper into the track at hand--an insistent beat, a plinky-plunky string-instrument hook, a vocal line given sudden luminous solidity after a few minutes of amorphousness. "Drink drank drunk" does it backwards. "When you say I'm alright / this happens all the time / when you stay out all night / without you I'll just die" is how it begins, the vocals unusually firm and clear as a bell. Then, as a toe-tapping beat kicks in, "When you stop, I'll stop, okay," repeated four times, mantra-like, the "'kay" splitting off into high-pitched harmony each time. And then? Blam! Swirly, buzzy, happy wall-of-sound in the mighty Sunny Day in Glasgow manner, getting progressively more swirly and buzzy and happy for the duration of the sound until it sort of tinkles and shudders to a close. The only truly decipherable lyrics after everything kicks in are a semi-triumphant-sounding "Hold my head / I can't find the keys to my house / I'm never going home again." If we are to take the song's conjugated title as a roadmap, that opening section is first a reason to drink, and then a quick four-shot montage sequence of the singer and someone else egging themselves on into inebriation, a state that the rest of the song evokes to a nicety. Which is a rare thing, actually. I've heard plenty of music that sounds like being stoned or tripping, but capturing that headlong jovial buzz a night of low-impact yet still purposeful drinking gives you, until you finally stumble into bed and swing out into sleep? That's quite a feat, and hangover-free.
* The crack team of Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman are going to turn Stephen King's Dark Tower series into a movie, then a TV series, then another movie, then another TV series, and presumably so on until it's all done. As longtime Attentiondeficitdisorderly readers can no doubt guess, I have deeply mixed feelings about this. The idea of The Dark Tower is one of the best things King has ever done; glimpsing it from afar via the various, relatively low-key references and connections to it in his work prior to the mid-'90s was absolutely thrilling; the original version of The Gunslinger is probably his best pure prose; here and there throughout the series he does fallen-world post-apocalyptic science-and-sorcery as well as anyone has ever done it; everything else is 100% pure garbage, the worst things I've ever read by him, among the worst things I've ever read by anyone, powerfully awful enough to almost destroy my interest in reading anything by him again. Also, y'know, Howard/Godsman. But who knows, maybe the bullshit will get lost in translation and you'll be left with the fairly compelling genre mash-up weirdness that's the novels' skeleton.
* Quote of the day #1 comes from Brigid Alverson: "I would ask them to redesign the original to include Wonder Woman, rather than giving the girls their own logo. But then, if I start thinking about it real hard I’ll start worrying about other causes like pay equity or health care and education for girls in developing countries, and I just get all distracted."
* Quote of the day #2 comes from Tom Spurgeon: "Every day I grow more suspicious that this particular game hasn't already been lost, and that the comics industry has completed its transformation into an industry that has given up on every modest means of making money independently for the dubious honor of generating the occasional flash flood of money for others, hundreds of people sustained by the hope, no matter how impractical, that they will be one of the lucky, tiny few allowed to benefit."
* Quote of the day #3 comes from Josh Marshall, on the Real Life Horror tip: "This is the standard approach of race haters and demagogues. They keep stirring the pot, churning out demonizing rhetoric and hate speech. Then some marginal figure does something nuts and suddenly ... oh, wait, I didn't mean burn Korans. Where'd you get that idea from? We were just saying that Islam is a violent, anti-American religion and that American Muslims should stop building their mosques and focus on apologizing for 9/11 and maybe get out of America. But burn the Koran? No way."
* More Real Life Horror: Congratulations to President Obama for winning for the United States government the right to kidnap, imprison, torture, and murder people with impunity. Thank goodness he and his relative decorum and presumably shamefaced public silence on these issues will never be replaced by anyone whose party and supporters unapologetically endorse and full-heartedly embrace the use of these powers against anyone deemed an enemy, or else we'd be in real trouble someday!
George W. Bush is a dimwit. There, I just saved you a couple of bucks. Ah, I'm being way too harsh, there--Jim Rugg is a true illustrative talent, and in this minicomic pastiche of the Rambo movies and satire of the Bush Administration and post-9/11 America generally he slips and slides between various alternative-comics styles, from slick and cartoony to editorial-page-y to an almost Frank Santoroish shot of John Rambo viewing Ground Zero, with vigor and ease. The problem is that it's in service of not much at all, particularly when compared with the surprisingly fecund material in Rugg's similarly minded mash-up of pop-cult-trash and politics, Afrodisiac. Bush is here presented in a way you've seen him a million times before, a moronic, sneering fratboy manchild-of-privilege who's both bloodthirsty and personally cowardly, and it's not really any funnier here than it was in all the altweekly political cartoons you remember. Similarly, the portrayal of Rambo is solidly aligned with the Reagan-jingoist interpretation that jibes most closely with the second and third installments of his series, and with the very basic Bush-bashing the comic's interested in. The complicating weirdness of the first and fourth films--in which Rambo is a victim of American adventurism rather than an exponent of it (the former) and a spiritually crippled killing machine and avatar of Conradian horror (the latter)--is ignored altogether. The comic's the poorer for this, since I think the country's blind stumbling rage, which if anything seems worse now than it did then, makes a far more compelling subject for exploration than the easy-target "America, Fuck Yeah"itude found in the umpteenth hyuk-hyuk Bush joke. Here's hoping Josh Simmons makes Rambo 4.5.
* Finally, I find the current shitstorm surrounding this dumb fuck in Florida who wants to light a pile of Korans on fire illuminating regarding another, more comics-centric such debacle, the Danish Muhammad cartoons. You might recall that for just about as long as he's been covering it, the issue's most indefatigable chronicler Tom Spurgeon has argued that even while he'd always defend the cartoonists' right to draw whatever they want and the publisher's right to publish whatever they want, and even while he'd decry the notion that anything they did in that regard justified intimidation, violence, or murder by anyone against them or anyone else, the actual act of publication of the cartoons was less some brave act of artists speaking truth to power than a politically minded provocation cum publicity stunt. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for a free speech absolutist like myself, one who moreover is temperamentally inclined toward supporting the smashing of religious taboos as a public good. (Andres Serrano could urinate for fifty years straight and still not produce enough piss in which to dunk everything about the world's major religions I'd like to see good and submerged.) And this is to say nothing about my feelings regarding violent Islamic extremists in particular. (My feelings: Let me show you them!)
But by removing the act of provocation from any artistic context, this dumb fuck in Florida clarifies the underlying act a bit. I don't mean to diminish the fact that there was an artistic component to the Danish cartoons while the would-be Koran burning is just an out-and-out act of religious and race hate, and a classically fascist one to boot, by some shitkicking faith healer. But I think what made it all come together for me the most was this post by antiwar blogger Thoreau:
I'm proud to live in a country where even the most odious speech is protected along with our right to criticize that odious speech. I am dubious that there will be any blood spilled in response to his stunt if he does it (I mean, it's not like the insurgents in Afghanistan were originally planning to lay down their weapons before some dumbass in Florida decided to pull a stunt), but if there is, well, this is America. Free speech is one American thing that genuinely is worth dying for, as civil rights protestors and revolutionaries and soldiers and numerous other patriots can attest. We spill lots of blood over things that are far less worthy than free speech, so if this jackass's stunt does cause somebody else to attack us, well, this ink doesn't run. (And that's about as jingoistic as I can get.)
The thing that the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy taught us, though, is that in the main it wasn't the cartoonists or the editors or the publishers or even just Danish nationals who suffered (admittedly not through lack of trying on the part of bloody-minded fundamentalist fucks around the world), as if any of that would have been okay. No, mostly it was random people caught up in riots and violence, incited by people who not only knew better but actually made things worse by lying about the cartoons and including even more offensive ones in the mix. Like Thoreau, I doubt any Americans really would die if this dumb fuck in Florida burns his Korans, certainly no Americans who wouldn't have been at grave risk in Afghanistan or Iraq anyway. But some people would die, that I don't doubt at all. That's the common thread that links the two situations.
Now, you can't live your life to please the sorts of people who murder people over a book or a cartoon. Moreover I think there is value in pissing off the right people; the dumb fuck in Florida, being the right sort of person to piss off himself, removes this aspect from the equation as well as the artistic one. But perhaps more importantly than all of that, you also oughtn't risk the lives of other people simply to express how much something irritates you. I guess after all these years I'm sick of bravely arguing for my rights from behind the safety of my laptop, while people I will never meet die for the argument.
Enough people have written to me about Alan Moore's recent interview at a prominent comics site--mostly because I guess I'm known for taking issue with what he says such interviews, specifically the parts where Moore takes swipes at "comics" or "Hollywood" in one breath while admitting he doesn't actually have any recent experience with them in the next--that I feel I ought to say something about it. I was hesitant to bring it up at all (and I'm not linking to it; you can find it if you really want to) because I think that in general I'm done with rewarding Moore-baiting of this sort. He's a fascinating man and a prodigious talent, and there are surely more interesting topics that could be explored than the fact that he doesn't like the process by which movies have been made of his works and doesn't like the companies that have facilitated this. But needs must, so...
I'm glad he used the phrase "mainstream comics industry" in his dismissal thereof, even if only once, because it makes his wave-of-the-hand dismissal of comics a lot easier to understand. I see where Moore's coming from: Burned by his experiences with the "mainstream" comics industry (I hate using the term "mainstream" to refer to the mostly-superhero publishers, but okay, I know what he means), he's walking away, flipping the bird as he goes. Even if I think (say) Grant Morrison is a "top-flight talent," I'm totally okay with Alan Moore not thinking any such talent exists in the biz and not caring to find out otherwise, even if it's based on no actual experience with Morrison's or anyone else's recent work. Is it unfortunate that Alan Moore will never know the joys of All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder? Sure, but if you did a Google search for unfortunate things, that would be on the 1 billionth page of results.
So yeah, the one-time emergence of this distinction makes this all a lot less depressing than the idea that Alan Moore (Alan Moore!) adamantly refuses to acknowledge the existence of Kevin Huizenga or whoever. That's what frustrates me: His bad experiences with comics have pushed him away from the medium entirely, even the good, smart stuff. He's said as much to friends of mine. But you know, that's fine too in the long run, I understand how things like that happen. I walked away from majoring in theater because I thought the theater kids were pretentious douchebags to the point, where film studies was the LESS pretentious choice. What has always bothered me in the past is that Moore rarely if ever tempers his big sweeping public statements about comics to allow for any of this. "I've had so many bad experiences that I don't read comics anymore" seems like a less objectionable, more true thing for him to say than "I don't read comics anymore because the comics industry has nothing worth reading."
I think there are three reasons why he says it the way he says it. First, he's angry at the deal DC doled him, and anger impedes accuracy. Second, he is indeed Alan Moore, an artist who enjoys making sweeping pronouncements about everything from superheroes to Freemasonry, so it makes sense comics would get that same treatment. Finally, I think he prefers to present his departure from comics in a way that makes him seem more in charge of his choice than "I'm so angry and hurt by the behavior of my colleagues that I'm walking away from the whole megillah" does. Add it all up and you get the get-off-my-lawn shit-talking formulation that pisses people off.
All that being said, this is all such small beer compared to the issue of his treatment by DC. You could say that it's a shame for him to let business and rights disputes get in the way of his relationships with friends and colleagues he's had for decades. But by the same token I think he has a reasonable expectation for his friends of decades not to do the same in the opposite direction. What I worry about regarding my repeated statements that Alan Moore has a typical old-fart get-off-my-lawn mentality with regards to vital pop-culture industries with which he has admitted not actually engaging is that people lose sight of the fact that he has been dealt with shoddily, multiple times over the course of over two decades, by a company for which he a) made a fortune, and b) created their single most acclaimed work and several other Top 10 all-timers. In the grand scheme of things, the inability of a major publisher to deal with their historically most important creator in anything close to a mutually satisfactory fashion is a lot more baffling and upsetting to me than Alan Moore pissing on the work of Brian Bendis and Geoff Johns sight unseen or believing friends dealing with family illnesses are being squeezed to get back at him.
God bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with a light from above
From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans
White with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home
As he followed her inside Mother Abagail's house he thought it would be better, much better, if they did break down and spread. Postpone organization as long as possible. It was organization that always seemed to cause the problems. When the cells began to clump together and grow dark. You didn't have to give the cops guns until the cops couldn't remember the names...the faces...
Fran lit a kerosene lamp and it made a soft yellow glow. Peter looked up at them quietly, already sleepy. He had played hard. Fran slipped him into a nightshirt.
All any of us can buy is time, Stu thought. Peter's lifetime, his children's lifetimes, maybe the lifetimes of my great-grandchildren. Until the year 2100, maybe, surely no longer than that. Maybe not that long. Time enough for poor old Mother Earth to recycle herself a little. A season of rest.
"What?" she asked, and he realized he had murmured it aloud.
"A season of rest," he repeated.
"What does that mean?"
"Everything," he said, and took her hand.
Looking down at Peter he thought: Maybe if we tell him what happened, he'll tell his own children. Warn them. Dear children, the toys are death--they're flashburns and radiation sickness, and black, choking plague. These toys are dangerous; the devil in men's brains guided the hands of God when they were made. Don't play with these toys, dear children, please, not ever. Not ever again. Please...please learn the lesson. Let this empty world be your copybook.
"Frannie," he said, and turned her around so he could look into her eyes.
"Do you think...do you think people ever learn anything?"
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
"I don't know," she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
Bound & Gagged
Andrice Arp, Marc Bell, Elijah J. Brubaker, Shawn Cheng, Chris C. Cilla, Michael DeForge, Kim Deitch, J. T. Dockery, Theo Ellsworth, Austin English, Eamon Espey, Robert Goodin, Julia Gfrorer, Levon Jihanian, Juliacks, Kaz, David King, Tom Neely, Anders Nilsen, Scot Nobles, Jason Overby, John Porcellino, Jesse Reklaw, Tim Root, Zak Sally, Gabby Schulz, Josh Simmons, Ryan Standfest, Kaz Strzepek, Matthew Thurber, Noah Van Sciver, Dylan Williams, Chris Wright, writers/artists
Tom Neely, editor
I Will Destroy You, September 2010
$10 Buy it from I Will Destroy You
"What happens when you ask a bunch of cartoonists, artists, and assorted weirdos to do one panel gag comics? Comedy! Horror! Navel gazing! Abstraction! And more!!!" So reads the back cover of this collection of gag comics by a galaxy of alt/underground comix stars, and it's pretty accurate as far as it goes. And as anyone familiar with the history of altcomix one-panel gags from Ivan Brunetti on down, the horror, comedy, and navel gazing can get pretty inextricable from one another. As such it's the cartoons that make me say "Jeeeeeez" as well as "hahahaha" that click the hardest for me here. Josh Simmons takes top honors, as he is wont to do, with a drawing of burning, skinned cattle corpses floating down a river to a caption that reads "Uncle Daddy's home." The piece distills into a single panel the near-psychotic level of horror and rage that has absolutely seethed from Simmons's every work for the past several years. Though nothing else really comes close to that level of nihilistic uncomedy, there's something almost as soul-damaging in Tim Root's lushly colored, presumably drawn-from-life portrait of an old woman in line in front of him at a convenience store whose wig has become infested with ants. Austin English hands in a page darkened with pencil to the point of near illegibility, accompanied by an incongruously sunny "Hello!" Perhaps the single most indelible image in the whole collection is Levon Jihanian's reappropriation of the little girl from The Family Circus, here rendered as a mercilessly crosshatched shadow-person with white voids for eyes and bearing the legend "There is only one road that does not lead to death; and that is the road to hell." I know, this thing's a laff riot!
Actually, I laughed at all of those cartoons. The rest? Oh, you know, it's a mixed bag, as you'd expect from anything with that many contributors. Tom Neely and Anders Nilsen's contributions are poetic in gorgeous in the respectively lush and minimal way that Neel and Nilsen cartoons are poetic and gorgeous generally, but none are really gag comics. Andrice Arp gets a few yuks out of incongruous scenes drawn from her dreams, Julia Gforer at the expense of Wolverine, Marc Bell by doing his usual warped children's television aesthetic thing, Theo Ellsworth by actually writing actual jokes that dovetail with his hyperdetailed cartooning, Kaz Strzepek by cracking a couple of mildly off-color jokes about fantasy creatures of the sort you might find on a D&D website, Eamon Espey by creating a Boschian tableau of defecating, murdering demons captioned with the phrase "Time to make the donuts." The rest I suppose I could take or leave. It's an exercise, geared more to the participants than the audience.
Carnival of souls: Special "Like half a dozen great things to read at the end of the post" edition
* Today on Robot 6: Both Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly, two of the best publishers in comics, are having massive, and I mean in some cases quite ridiculous, sales right now. You should take advantage of this.
* Also, please let Tom Brevoort know what you think of Marvel's current event-comics strategy, whereby the company publishers miniature events/crossovers for individual families of titles/franchises rather than one massive line-wide thing. Personally, there's an attraction to me in linewide crossovers, for all their faults, that the smaller things lack. I mean, I remember franchise-specific crossovers from the bad old days, and it's hard to get all that excited about them now; by contrast, the sheer chutzpah it takes to make all of your comic books about Green Goblin, Secretary of Defense feels like it's taking advantage of the shared-universe and serialized-publication models inherent to Marvel and DC in a way that the umpteenth X-over doesn't.
* HBO aired two previews for their upcoming series adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Game of Thrones. One's your basic teasey early trailer deal, and one's a quick behind-the-scenes thing. Neither says all that much about what we can expect, I don't think, beyond the fact that Martin is very excited and Gregor Clegane is very well cast. (Seriously, if you've read the books you'll know him when you see him, he's a beast.) The trailers are at the links or below, and there's a still of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen below that. Also I guess they're doing some sort of production blog at the show's homepage.
* I thought this little portrait of mostly video-era horror icons was fun and admirably thorough; there are a couple on there even I'm not sure I recognize. I wish I knew who drew it; here's where I found it.
* I don't know how I missed this--I think it's one of those things I was vaguely aware of but didn't ever actively consider the fact of its existence, sort of like when someone tries to talk to me when I'm watching that Geico commercial with the little piggy who goes wee-wee-wee all the way home--but Eve Tushnet has an infrequently updated blog on which she mostly offers spoilery thoughts on mostly geeky entertainments. Here she is on X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Watchmen, Night of the Living Dead, The Descent, Iron Man 2, and Battlestar Galactica.
* As a former writer/editor for A&F Quarterly and thus one of the people partially responsible for Abercrombie & Fitch's holistic approach to lifestyle branding, I couldn't have enjoyed Molly Young's essay on Hollister for The Believer. The part about marijuana was more or less revelatory:
Weed was another great equalizer. It is hard to overstate the importance of weed as a determining factor in the lives of West Coast teenagers. Weed was the reason girls selected clothes based on fuzziness, the reason boys sounded dumb, the reason we inflected every sentence as a question and used like and you know as phatic communications. In an era of T9 input, text messages begun with I would automatically fill in mstoned. Anyone familiar with the dim and spray-scented bedrooms of a weedy adolescence will recognize in Hollister's decor an environmental proxy of the average Friday night. Weed may not be for sale at Hollister, but its exigencies are everywhere.
* Comics folk, Geoff Grogan's piece on the hard truth about small-press conventions is an eye-opening, spirit-deflating must-read. In all fairness, however, I don't know that alternative comics has that many cliques you can't infiltrate simply by throwing some elbows and barging in. Comics types respond to Type A personalities like a bichon frise responds to the Dog Whisperer.
One of my favorite parts of my favorite Martin Scorsese movie Casino is this tremendous line reading from Sharon Stone. DeNiro, playing her casino-boss husband, just had her lowlife pimp ex-boyfriend beat up in front of her and she's completely devastated, as well as fucked up on painkillers. She murmurs something DeNiro doesn't catch, and when she repeats it she starts by saying "I said..." But God, the way she says it!
Those two words are so fraught with sadness and contempt that it's like she can barely hold the parts of her mouth and throat necessary to say them together long enough to get them out. If you've ever gotten really, really, really low when someone you love has caused you unbearable pain or vice versa, maybe you've heard that sound before. Here, hear it again:
Man oh man how I love how Interpol's Paul Banks delivers the first line of this song, the lead single from his band's fourth, self-titled album. He plays with the vibrato in the last word of the phrase "All that I see" as self-consciously as anyone this side of Bryan Ferry, but instead of arch artifice it's a sound of despair and disgust. This makes it a fitting metonymy for the whole record, a veritable concept album about how Interpol hates Interpol even more than you probably do. Unlike a lot of folks I'm unhesitatingly happy with this approach and pleased with the result.
Interpol has always been very good at sonically conjuring up huge spaces. On this album and its divisive, derided (even by the band itself, it seems) predecessor, the (understandably!) underrated Our Love to Admire, they then take the defiant/ill-conceived (take yer pick) step of making these spaces unpleasant to inhabit. So you get that Ennio Morricone by way of Joy Division reverbed guitar from Daniel Kessler echoing out in all directions, bouncing off the walls provided by drummer Sam Fogarino and bassist Carlos D--but then Paul Banks comes in with his strident vocals and those short, repetitive, harsh riffs that sound like missing sections of that car-alarm sequence we all have memorized. In the past this trick often took a back seat to the more traditionally pleasant-sounding and hooky post-punk instrumentation and melodies of their single-ready up-tempo songs, your "Evil"s and "Slow Hands"es and "PDA"s and even "The Heinrich Maneuver"s and what have you. (Frankly, in the context of the more readily appealing material on the band's debut Turn on the Bright Lights, for example, songs that didn't take off in that way--"Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down," even the revered "Obstacle 1"--had a tendency to get on my nerves after a while.)
Here, however, the peppiest track is also arguably the most strident of the bunch: "Barricade" uses that trademark klaxon-like guitar sound to literally evoke the authorities walling off an area, and Banks shouts about it at the vocal-cord-straining top of his register. "Try It On" is maybe the one cathartic moment on the record--that is, it would be, if it weren't these uncertain falsetto voices repeating the title phrase over and over, which then degenerate into hoarse shouting of same. And structurally, the song's basically a long verse followed by a long chorus and then that's it, like some Franz Kafka version of "Don't Stop Believin'." There's nothing to get behind here like the anthems of their first two records. The good times done rolled away.
There's something deceptive about calling out individual tracks on this album--as with Our Love to Admire I think it's best experienced as an album, an extended stay in a place inhabited by people who at first made music that reflected unhappiness and increasingly came to embody it, specifically unhappiness with themselves. Indeed it's tough to talk about Interpol without calling back to Banks's excoriating This Is Hardcore-like self-satire of his own excesses on Our Love, like "No I in Threesome" and "Rest My Chemistry" and so on. That's the context needed to understand why the lyrics that appear like briefly solid ghosts amid this album's sonic tomb--"I'm a good guy," "The winter will be wonderful," "Always thought you had great style, and style is worthwhile"--ring so horribly false.
But this is not to say that individual songs don't contain memorable stylistic flourishes. I was really struck by the guitar curlicue/drum groove of "Safe Without," echoed by a similarly structured piano-and-percussion loop on "Try It On," which then shows up again in "All of the Ways." "Lights," the hands-down standout, makes the band's best use yet of that low, ominous piano, and adds a relative rarity, high sustained guitar notes, into the mix as well. Throughout the record there's an increased presence of backing vocals--I don't wanna say "harmonies"--and a tendency to record Fogarino like he's drumming for a completely different band you can hear from a radio playing down the hall. And you're gonna remember album closer "The Undoing," which flirts with major-key uplift before drifting off into something like a morose incantation, and which when coupled with the cover art and the departure of iconic bassist Carlos D following the recording of this record is a pretty clear summation of Interpol's theme. I don't think you'd wanna live here, but it's a fascinating place to visit, especially in light of how easily the band could have jumped from second-album songs like "Evil" and "Not Even Jail" into making arena-filling crowdpleasers for the rest of its existence. These songs could fill an arena, but they'd make it feel empty and lonely even if it were packed to the rafters.
* The annual Small Press Expo was held in Bethesda, Maryland this past weekend; it's one of my favorite comic cons, I tend to like it more every year, but this year I was kept from attending by entirely pleasant exigent circumstances so I'm jonesing for good in-depth con reports. So far the best of the bunch comes from Barry and Leon at Secret Acres; it features a game of "guess the prominent critic" that had me laughing out loud. I also enjoyed this effusive, personal report from Rob McMonigal. Unfortunately it sounds like my much hoped for Critics Roundtable Smackdown never materialized. If and when I'm able to participate in one of these again I promise you I'll son everyone else so hard they'll call it Father's Day. (Not true)
The Led Zeppelin show depends heavily on volume, repetition and drums. It bears some resemblance to the trance music found in Morocco, which is magical in origin and purpose--that is, concerned with the evocation and control of spiritual forces. In Morocco, musicians are also magicians. Gnaoua music is used to drive out evil spirits. The music of Joujouka evokes the God Pan, Pan God of Panic, representing the real magical forces that sweep away the spurious. It is to be remembered that the origin of all the arts--music, painting and writing--is magical and evocative; and that magic is always used to obtain some definite result. In the Led Zeppelin concert, the result aimed at would seem to be the creation of energy in the performers and in the audience. For such magic to succeed, it must tap the sources of magical energy, and this can be dangerous.
That is like porn to me.
* The Mindless Ones' review thereof reminds me: I've been meaning to say that Batman & Robin #14 from Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving is the single best Batman issue I've ever read. I mean, this thing simply could not be more of what I'm looking for from Batman comics.
* Real Life Horror #3: Discover Blog del Narco, a ground-level no-nonsense chronicler of the prohibition- and human-depravity-fueled drug war currently ravaging Mexico. The picture that accompanies this post made my heart crumple; not safe for people who have a really hard time with cruelty. (Via Spencer Ackerman.)
* I have no brief with Robert Rodriguez's Machete--the trailers look fun, most Rodriguez movies have struck me as inert collections of things that work better as pullquotes from your description of the movie to your friends than as parts of a movie proper, I'll see it if and when I work through the long list of other more interesting movies I've negelected--but this promotional photograph of star Michelle Rodriguez nonetheless felt like something I needed to bring to your attention.
The issue that has made my blog even more of a pain to load than usual for the past week or so has been fixed. If your attempts to visit the main page have been greeted with ten minutes of browser-crushing load-time, your troubles are over--things ought to have gone from "unbearable" back down to "merely unpleasant" now. (Comments are still the usual disaster area. Just be patient and let it do its thing for a few minutes and I assure you that the comment you just wrote that looked like it didn't get posted did, in fact, get posted.)
Again, I hate metablogging, but I wanted to let anyone who's stayed away for the past few days know that it's safe to come back, and to repeat my promise that concrete steps are being taken to greatly improve the Attentiondeficitdisorderly experience. Thank you for your support.
Batman and Robin #14
Grant Morrison, writer
Frazer Irving, artist
DC, September 2010
24 story pages
Despite liking this issue more than any other single-issue Batman comic I've ever read--short version: shuddery stylish Lynchian atmosphere with genuinely horrifying villains, cool action sequences, killer art, and a sense that it's fun to be a Batman comic--I didn't want to review it, simply because I've reviewed like a billion Grant Morrison Bat-books. But a quick check of my left-hand sidebar reveals that I've run only five such reviews; that's a tie for third place in the Attentiondeficitdisorderly Review Sweepstakes with Big Questions, compared to eight separate reviews for MOME and a whopping eleven for King Shit of Comics Time Mountain, Cold Heat. (It's Frank Santoro's world--we just live in it.)
So what the hey, let's talk about artist Frazer Irving and artist Frazer Irving only. Irving emerges here as Morrison's single best collaborator, I think. This is something of a surprise, not only because of the existence of Frank Quitely, but because this pair's previous Bat-collabo, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2, was a murky, hard-to-follow mess, owing largely to Irving's failure to properly differentiate his Puritan-garbed Bruce Wayne from his similarly attired antagonist. (This has its in-story reasons, as it turns out, but still.) This issue, however, is the kind of thing where you could just go page by page enumerating all the visual high points and let that make your argument for you. To wit!
* Page one: The steely blue color of abandoned Wayne Manor
* Page two: The Joker cowering on the floor, turning to face us only after he's revealed he's been in control all along
* Page three: The Joker's awkward positioning of his hands, closed eyes, off-balance body language, and big grin conveying how he's flailing around without a care in the world, so confident is he that he'll best his tiny, deadly opponent Robin; the barely visible splash of blood when the Joker scratches Robin's face with his poisoned fingernails
* Page four: The emergence of aquamarine against he ugly brown background as Robin begins hallucinating; depicting Robin's spasms by showing him against the floor, propped up only by his heels and the back of his head--his whole body an inverted rictus
* Page five: The sudden shift from blue-green to bright orange as the explosion hits--the door has already been blown clear across the hallway and knocked the cop off his feet, as though we blinked and missed a panel
* Page six: What do you even say about this image of Professor Pyg hanging upside-down, held up by barbed wire, in the womb of his monument to his imaginary mother? It's an absolute killer, but I will add that the belly-fat rolls are a nice touch.
* Page seven: The choreography of the Senator's recoiling away from Doctor Hurt's gunshot; the tangent linking the vomit bucket to the pumpkin with teeth in it (yes, it's that kind of comic)
* Page eight: The fact that this action sequence is colored pink; the motion of Gordon's body and trenchcoat in panel three
* Page nine: The color palette's shift to orange with every gunshot; the cantered frames
* Page ten: The way Batman's body seems to spin with each panel
* Page eleven: The final three panels leaning forward into one another, pushing Batman and the viewer along to the inevitable explosion
* Page twelve: That top-most silhouetted body flung into the air by the explosion, limbs dangling backwards
* Page thirteen: Professor Pyg's proclamatory pointer-finger gesture as he announces "Je suis showbiz!"; the quasi-fisheye view of Hurt, Pyg, and their minions walking down the hall, as though they'll breeze right past us in another second
* Page fourteen: The musculature of Dick Grayson's bare back
* Page fifteen: The light from the doorway as Batman runs to the Batcopter
* Page sixteen: Conveying Commissioner Gordon's disorientation when he awakes by drawing the panel upside-down, but in such a way that we can only tell for sure that it is upside-down if we flip it upside-down ourselves
* Page seventeen: The way panel three is lit from below and to the left; the consistency of the profile of Pyg's mask in panels five and six
* Page eighteen: Pyg's gut sticking out when he suspects he's being made fun of for his weight problem
* Page nineteen: Pyg and Hurt, the Diabolical Duo
* Page twenty: Batman's whirling-dervish fight choreography
* Page twenty-one: The look on Batman's face as he lands the punch in panel four; Pyg's pose when he tells Batman "I can't blame you for finding me attractive"
* Page twenty-two: Batman's flat boot-sole connecting with Pyg's flat pig-nose; the fountain-like silhouette of Batman's cape as he lands
* Page twenty-three: The ungainly way Batman whips around to see who's behind him, when it turns out it's no one and he was being tricked by Gordon--the pose conveys that he's been duped
* Page twenty-four: Joker in the Batcave at last; the smiley face painted on the bound-and-gagged Robin; the final three images of Batman, the Joker, and Doctor Hurt
I've read a lot of superhero comics, and this sort of attention to detail is all but nonexistent. To rely this much on subtle shifts of figurework and coloring to convey both vital plot information and to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the physical combat that is superhero comics' bread and butter, to have the chops to pull it off and the confidence to even try...well, it's pretty much unheard of outside of some really titanic stuff, Dave Gibbons on Watchmen/Frank Quitely on All Star Superman-type stuff. And while Irving shares with Quitely a genuine, contemporary sense of style and art that allows for neon-bright colors to really pop, his work (perhaps because he does all the color and texture himself) feels fuller. Flipping through the book again before writing this sentence I realized that Irving will drop backgrounds just as often as Quitely does, but with his billowing puffs and swirls giving every panel depth, you'd never know it from memory. Irving took a comic it was apparently a struggle to convince people who needed to be convinced he should even be involved in and handed in the best-drawn superhero comic of the year, and honestly one of the best-drawn comics of the year period. Bravo.
* This morning when the new Hark, a Vagrant! strips popped up in my Google Reader I looked at them and thought to myself "Wow, Kate Beaton has really turned some kind of corner with her inking, this stuff looks sick." But it turns out it was actually Rebecca Clements drawing in the style of Kate Beaton. Ladies, this was a worthwhile experiment.
I've got a theory that a lot of pop music today actually strives to be annoying on purpose. From Drake's nasal obnoxiousness to Katy Perry's bullfrog croaking to Lady Gaga's goofy monosyllabic chants to Nicki Minaj's Judy Tenuta-like stream of funny voices, it's something radio commercial jingles have known for decades: If you're going to be heard primarily in snippets--ringtones, network bumpers, the background of TV shows, flipping around the car radio--then from a sales perspective what really matters isn't making a great song, it's getting the song stuck in your head. Quality songcraft and strong vocal performances can do this, sure, but so can simply being irritating, as anyone from the New York City area who's heard the commercials for "1-877-Kars for Kids". The method is inconsequential; the goal is simply to lodge in your brain, by hook or by crook. Of course, some folks are literally hook crooks: As I'm fond of pointing out, two of the past year's biggest songs, Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" and Katy Perry's utterly inescapable "California Gurls," both swipe the pre-chorus melody of Kylie Minogue's "Love at First Sight" for their choruses. But what I didn't know until recently is that the co-writers/producers of "California Gurls" also swiped it from themselves--they're the co-writers/producers of "TiK ToK" as well. That's how nakedly mercenary this stuff is: If it ain't broke, do it again, right down to the "three bars of lyrics, one bar of 'oh-whoa-oh's" lyrical structure.
Same as it ever was for pop, of course. And to be fair, it's possible to dance along the fine line between stupid and clever without falling over: There's something almost mighty about that "Rah Rah Ah Ah Ah" thing from "Bad Romance," like you'd been waiting all your life to hear it; Minaj is simply the latest in a long line of fun, funny court-jester MCs, the complicating detail being her vagina; and I'll admit it, it's hard for me to resist the pure-dee lyrical idiocy of lines like "Call me Mr. Flintstone--I can make your bed rock" or "I'm trying to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful" (the latter sung by Akon with hilarious anthemic gravitas, right before a chorus consisting of the words "Damn, you's a sexy bitch" no less--hey, he said he was trying, not that he'd actually pull it off).
And then there's Ke$ha, an artist whose entire career--singing style, subject matter, party-slattern image--appears calculated to rub people the wrong way. From the name on down! I've seen folks proclaim, apropos of nothing, that they'll be damned if they'll ever use that dollar sign when writing it. (We at Attentiondeficitdisorderly have no such qualms.) Ke$ha's gigantically popular first single, the aforementioned "TiK ToK" (note the MySpace-style capitalization--not an accident!), is notable for vocals that alternate between speak-singing that sounds like (and at certain points throughout the song actually is) a taunt and autotune that sounds still sillier and more strident, all in the service of lyrics in which she brags about being insufferable. The follow-up single refined the strategy by centering on the obnoxious sounds you make when someone is being obnoxious to you: It's called, and its chorus consists largely of, "Blah Blah Blah." Even the relatively buoyant and radiant love song "Your Love Is My Drug," for all its pleasant bounciness and relative sincerity, ends with thirty seconds of deliberately stupid-sounding studio banter, culminating in the non sequitur "I like your beard." It all worked, though
Where can you go from there? You can base a song on "There's a Place in France (Where the Naked Ladies Dance)"? Such is "Take It Off." Songs kids sing on the playground or while jumping rope or whatever have been a source of material for ages; surely it was only a matter of time before someone went for the kind of kids' song that'd get you in trouble if your first-grade teacher heard you singing it. Personally I hope Ke$ha does a whole series of these; I can hear her hit version of "Milk, Milk, Lemonade" in my head even now.
But the problem with "Take It Off," and Ke$ha in general ("Your Love Is My Drug" excepted, perhaps) is that while obnoxiousness is good enough, it's not actually good. There's nothing new or interesting about the "place downtown where the freaks all come around" she's singing about. The description is half-assed ("lose your clothes in the crowd"--I've never been anyplace where that's happened, and I've actually partied naked). The rhymes are either lazy ("when the dark of the night / comes around, that's the time / that the animal comes alive / lookin' for somethin' wild") or just uninspired doggerel ("it's a hole in the wall / it's a dirty free for all"; "where they go hardcore / and there's glitter on the floor"). The title/chorus is a lowest common denominator catchphrase. The autotuning makes Ke$ha's already weak vocal instrument even harsher and less pleasant to listen to as it trails down below her register with every other line. The beat and the parts of the melody that aren't "The Streets of Cairo" are simply inert. For the work of laser-focused pop gunslingers, it's firing blank after blank.
Like I said above, I'm not objecting to the notion of pop music that blurs the line between catchy like a tune and catchy like a virus. Look, you don't own multiple Ministry records and not understand the value of being grating now and then. But the irritation is a foot in the door--once the song gets inside the foyer, does it make you feel anything, think anything, want to sing or dance or screw along? If not--and Ke$ha, for me, is "if not"--all the earworms in the world can't get past that. We deserve better.
* Jeet Heer offers some thoughts on Daniel Clowes's Wilson. I particularly like the idea that Wilson represents a synthesis between Clowes's earlier, shorter, more outwardly funny rant-comics about sports and art school and things like that and his subsequent turn to longer narratives.
* Somehow I missed the trailer for Marilyn Manson's long-mooted directorial debut Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, so it was with some surprise that I read today that fan backlash against the trailer may have led to the shuttering of the entire project. So I watched the thing and, well, it's pretty much what you'd expect a Marilyn Manson movie about Lewis Carroll to look like--perhaps with more exposed labia, but still. Did people think it was gonna look like The Grand Illusion?
* Ben Morse is right: Gossip Girl is off to a good start this season. This is almost completely meaningless since the show basically starts over again every fourth episode, but after an exceptionally juicy season finale, which itself followed a frustratingly repetitive wheel-spinning season, it's good to see they mean business. What sold me here was that even as I was sitting there feeling smugly superior to the Georgina pregnancy storyline--it's obviously not his kid, she's probably not even pregnant, now we're gonna have to sit here for a couple episodes until they send her packing again--the show had actually already delivered the baby during the break! Thank you for remaining two steps ahead of me, Gossip Girl.
* Thank you also for continuing to portray Blair as almost autistic in her neurotic reliance on markers of social status to make herself feel good relative to other people. I appreciate that the show didn't even try to make her seem like anything but a horrible snob when she discovered she'd actually be dating a prince's driver and not a prince, and how this manifested itself as a sort of mental illness in which she could hardly control the Miss Manners horseshit streaming out of her mouth during dinner when confronted with the supposed pauper's supposed transgressions against Good Classy People. No wonder she and Chuck are destined for each other--who else has the training to deal with crazy people that Batman has?
* Speaking of! I loved that the show saved Chuck for the final segment, like the juicy mythology-revealing part of a Lost episode. I love that they made the storytelling rhythm of his section so different from the rest of the episode, with the flashbacks and jumpcuts and time jumps. I love that he is now Harold Prince, a back-up personality he has unveiled after great stress and torment. The Chuck Bass of Zur-En-Arrh is here.
* I hope Nate's latest CW-famous guest-girlfriend is a bit more interesting than the last few they've saddled him with; using the fact that she lives in a studio apartment and does her own dishes as a signifier of her villainy is a good start. If we can't use Gossip Girl as a sexy funhouse-mirror version of the class warfare being waged against the poor by the rich over the past year or two, what can we use it for?
* Congratulations to Vanessa for getting the line of the show in re: Geor-GEE-na's Geor-JI-na; thank you, we won't be requiring your services for the rest of the season.
* Not one but two "look, I was gonna tell you..." revelations in this episode alone! Oh, Gossip Girl, don't ever change.
* Needed more lingerie scenes, though, and not from the Rock Band Pussycat Dolls or whoever that was.
Incredible Hulks #612-613
Greg Pak, Scott Reed, writers
Tom Raney, Brian Ching, artists
Marvel, August-September 2010
32 story pages each
When I talk about how Batman is the only superhero for whom I feel affection outside or beyond the quality of the Batman comic currently in my hand or movie/TV show currently on my TV, that's not quite true. Years before I got into Batman, my childhood (and I mean young childhood, barely remembered fuzzy pool of memories out of which pops the occasional actual memory) favorites were, thanks to a back-to-back hour of Saturday morning cartoon programming, Spider-Man and the Hulk. But I think my continuing fondness for the Hulk, at least, stems from his being the superhero metaphor to which I most closely relate. First of all, huge green dude punching things is the superhero concept boiled down to its strongman essence. Secondly, mild-mannered smart guy who smashes anything that makes him angry? Sure, I'll eat it. But best of all, the consequences of that superpower are built right into the concept. He might be able to put it off by becoming ruler of some planet someplace, or forming a surrogate family of super-goons, but ultimately the Hulk will always be an outcast, always unwanted, always on the run. If Spidey's thing is "with great power comes great responsibility," the Hulk is a cautionary tale about what happens when great power is used irresponsibly.
So I dig the Hulk. More specifically, I dig a lot of what writer Greg Pak has done with the Hulk. His Planet Hulk saga showed an admirable attention to detail in building the sci-fi space-opera world, aliens, and cultures through which an exiled Hulk cut a swathe on the road to becoming ruler of the planet. His subsequent World War Hulk event took the kind of concept that would make a third-grader say "Awesome!"--the Hulk vs. the Marvel Universe--and tied it to both killer fight scenes for John Romita Jr. to draw and an exploration of whether the ends justify the means and the extremes to which grief and rage will push us. After that, though, the Hulk disappeared from his own title, which became a road movie starring a de-powered Bruce Banner and his alter ego's barbarian alien son Skaar, and then everything got tied up in a huge multiple-title roundelay of crossovers and spinoff miniseries and so on.
Now, I really liked all the huge gamma-irradiated bruisers suddenly coming out of the woodwork to jump ugly with one another throughout these events--after all, I love the Hulk conceptually, and there's really not anything that having a million Hulk-type guys and girls running around pounding the shit of each other does to weaken that concept, so by all means let a thousand She-Hulks bloom. But without THE Hulk, without The Strongest One There Is, I decided to tune out until Big Green himself was back. Which is what Incredible Hulks--that's not me referring to more than one issue of Incredible Hulk,that's really a plural, it's really referring to multiple Incredible Hulk characters a la William Safire going to Burger King and ordering five Whoppers Jr.--promises: Bruce Banner can transform back into the Hulk when he gets angry again, and he's now surrounded by a posse of behemoths. If this is a book that lives up to the promise of a "Giants Walk the Earth" era of Hulks, I'm all for it.
As it turns out, I'm not all for it. On a surface level I think primary artist Tom Raney can pull off one genuinely impressive drawing of some big super-dude for every eight or nine drawings that make them look sort of gawky, so there's that. But beyond that, you've got two problems.
One, I appreciate how hard Pak, aided by co-writer Scott Reed in this case, works at really doing the worldbuilding with regards to the space-opera concepts involved in this book's co-feature, the story of Hulk's other alien son Hiro-Kala traveling through space to find and kill his brother Skaar. But it's almost impossible to get me to care about worldbuilding if the world you're building don't house a character I care about to begin with. Thus Planet Hulk works fine, because it's the Hulk and I like the Hulk, but Hiro-Kala, Son of Hulk's journey through space with his psychic-planet frenemy doesn't work, because not only do I know very little about Hiro-Kala, the psychic planet, or anyone on it, but it also lacks the basic conceptual oomph that making him a huge strong awesome-looking brute would give him. He's just a scrawny bald dude with crazy psychic powers, and the combination doesn't mesh with the Hulk the way even his usual super-genius-model antagonists like the Leader or MODOK do.
Two, and this is the same problem I had with Incredible Hulk once it shifted to being the Banner & Skaar road movie storyline, I really don't like stakes-free fighting in superhero comics. In the Banner/Skaar stories, Banner kept duping Skaar into meeting and fighting various heroes and villains with which the Hulk used to memorably spar--Juggernaut, the Thing, Wolverine, etc.--in order to train him to be a better fighter so he could kill off Banner's alter ego if and when he ever reemerged. In other words, we knew these fights wouldn't matter, because they were all pointing to some future fight; plus, in half the cases they were with other heroes, and we knew things could get only so ugly. So you just ended up twiddling your thumbs during what should be the most thrilling and visceral part of any supercomic.
In the case of Incredible Hulks #612-613, we know that the Hulk and the Red She-Hulk--the new vicious Hulk alter ego of Bruce's ex-wife Betty--aren't going to seriously hurt or kill each other or anyone else. We know it because they're main characters who were married. We know it because they're not really fighting for any particular reason--on an emotional level it's the equivalent of two exes arguing. We know it because all the other characters are treating it with the seriousness of people watching a couple have an ugly spat in the frozen foods aisle of the supermarket. We know it because this is billed as a Hulk Family book and she's the matriarch and thus she's not going anywhere. In other words the book works overtime, on every conceivable level, to send the message that this battle doesn't really matter. So...why have it, then?
Look, I know that part of superhero comics dating back to the Silver Age is having these goofy inconsequential fights where heroes smack each other around for a variety of reasons--mistaken identity, just being in a bad mood, whatever. But that it's been done is not a good enough reason to keep doing it. If you're like me, you think that fights in superhero comics are as important as songs are to musical theater. They're where the real emotion of the story is expressed through spectacle. Granted, on a certain level that's what's going on here: Instead of just using harsh language, Hulk and Red She-Hulk punch each other. But the problem is that we know this won't have any real consequences. They're gonna make up and the story's gonna move on. A good fight scene has to have some real, palpable ramifications for the participants--something that shakes up the status quo of the book on some level. As I detailed above, we know this won't happen here. So keep your powder dry and save the fighting for when it matters.
* People in Afghanistan are being killed and injured during protests and riots over Koran-burnings in America. I don't at all wish to diminish the fact that the people primarily responsible for these deaths and injuries are the people actually perpetrating the violence and the people egging it on. Nor do I wish to diminish the fact that hurting someone because of what happens to a book, any book, or because someone made a drawing, any drawing, is beyond disgusting. But this is what I was talking about when I said that the Koran-burning controversy made me rethink the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy: People pay for provocations, and those people are almost never the provocateurs or the counter-provocateurs. There are, of course and alas, exceptions.
What makes a life? Is it the narrative we assemble in retrospect from the sights and sounds we remember best? Is it like comics in that regard, a combination of words and pictures stacked together to tell a story? To what degree do we act as our own cartoonists, then, picking and choosing the right combination of words and pictures to tell the story of ourselves we most want to hear? Is it possible that the way we misremember things tells us more of that story? What about the words and pictures we skip entirely? When we come to a point in the story that makes us think "Wait a minute, shouldn't we have seen Event X or Y or Z by now, why did we skip that, shouldn't that have been a bigger deal," what does that tell us? What does a jump cut mean? What does an absence mean? Or what does a presence mean? What do we make of recurring marginalia that pops up when the story is supposed to be dealing with something entirely different? Is that persistence a reflection of the original absence? And who are the characters in our story? Is it fair to see them that way? Do they have any idea that's what they are to us? Do they know how big a role they play? Do we know how big a role we've played in their stories? Would we even remember? Would we ever have known in the first place, or did we forget? How does it feel to find out? How do their stories affect our own? What happens when they leave our story? What happens when we leave theirs? What gets in the way of our own story? What constitutes static on the screen, blots out the image as it really is and makes it something else, however briefly? What do we do and say and think and feel in those moments that's different from all the other moments? In what new direction will those moments send our story? What happens when we prefer the way the story used to be told? What happens when we find ourselves in a new story of someone else's making? What happens when a turn of a page to a new set of words and images stuns us, hurts us? What happens when we reach the end of the story? What makes a story worth telling? A life worth living? Looking back, can we ever be sure that the answer isn't "nothing"?
Also, wasn't that, or something like it, the name of the graphic novel MCR frontman Gerard Way was doing with Becky Cloonan? Could this in some way mean Cloonan will eventually end up in Morrison's stable of artists, which I think we can all agree is her rightful place?
* Here's a provocative post from Frank Santoro on whether the current generation of minicomics makers are falling down on the job. Frank's thesis, with which I don't disagree, is that cartoonists who work in minicomics mostly don't work with the raised bar of previous "generations" of minicomics in mind--each one tends to start with the tabula rasa of plain white pages and builds from there. And that's true--you're not seeing the equivalent of the aesthetic arms race between today's Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, PictureBox, AdHouse, Top Shelf, and (sniff) Buenaventura to release The Most Beautiful-Looking Graphic Novel of All Time. But I was hashing this out with cartoonist Dustin Harbin on Twitter, and he made me wonder: Should we expect that? I've always seen minicomics, first and foremost, as the pre-Internet era's easiest and cheapest way to publish comics, and the Internet era's easiest and cheapest way to print comics. It's certainly wonderful when cartoonists who are publishing through minicomics experiment with format, printing, and suchlike, but it's pleasant the way gravy on a tofurkey is pleasant. It's gravy, not tofurkey. Now, if Frank's arguing that he's not seeing anything that delivers a knockout blow as comics, rather than something with a super-impressive silkscreened cover, that's a line of argument I'd have an easier time engaging with, pro or con. But I think that as opposed to when Frank was starting out, there simply are a lot more full-fledged alternative-comics publishers around today--Fanta, D&Q, Top Shelf, AdHouse, PictureBox, Sparkplug, Secret Acres, Koyama, until recently Buenaventura and Bodega, even various big NYC prose houses--publishing a lot more comics by a lot more cartoonists and abrogating the need for young-ish cartoonists to keep working on their own. So that's where a lot of that energy went.
* On a similar note, my pal Ryan Penagos, aka the redoubtable Agent M, lists his favorite Marvel collections. That publisher put out a lot of quality work over the past ten years, a lot of which you can get your hands on relatively easily, and this is a pretty solid shopping list in that regard.
If Ke$ha is contemporary pop's bottle-blonde body-glittered spray-tanned walk-of-shame-wardrobed yin, Katy Perry is its raven-haired porcelain-skinned candy-coated Rainbow-Brite yang. Ke$ha's career is founded on obnoxiousness; Perry aims to please with the dead-eyed accuracy of a trained sharpshooter and the force of a shotgun. Indeed, with her enormous eyes, enormous breasts, enormously loud voice, crowd-pleasing patina of residual Christianity, and the lipstick lesbianism of her pleased-to-meet-you opening-salvo single "I Kissed a Girl" (one of two smashes whose titles she swiped from earlier hits), Perry is practically pop self-parody--she's everything culture considers pleasurable cranked up to a ludicrous, this-goes-to-11 degree. As Ann Powers points out, Lady Gaga's costume bra features machine guns--Perry's shoots whipped cream. True, the other day I mentioned her occasionally bullfroggy croak, especially evident when she flips down past that atrocious break between her upper and lower registers, as one of Pop 2010's annoying-earworm tricks, but it really strikes me as something she can't help rather than something she hones. Put it this way: Ke$ha stabs into your brain like a parasite--Katy Perry steamrolls you. Or as my wife put it, our summer got measurably more tolerable when we decided to stop fighting it and just go along with "California Gurls." She's the juggernaut, bitch.
Needless to say, this inspires resistance just as surely as insidiousness does, because anything so clearly calculated to be appealing going to become almost impossible to like. So even though I kind of dig the sleazy Goldfrappian squirm-stomp of "I Kissed a Girl,"--even though it's halfway between the Glitter Band and the Revolting Cocks version of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?", two of my favorite things in the world--I could never just suck it up and enjoy it. The song's ludicrously problematic sexual politics, its cynical titillation...whatever the music's pleasures, on some level it's just "ugh, gimme a break." Similarly, for a dude like me there's pretty much no resisting the candyland camp of the video for "California Gurls," or the album cover above with which it shares imagery (best cover of the year that I've seen, in all seriousness), or even the ersatz Discovery-era Daft Punkisms of the song itself. But everything about it--the easy-peasy subject matter of having a good time with sexy people in California; the stated goal of being a response to the equally jingoistic, far more annoying "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys; the "Snoop Dogg needs a new pair of shoes" cameo to ensure crossover appeal with hip-hop-friendly ears--screams "I AM 2010'S SUMMER JAM!!!" to such a degree that even though you can enjoy the song, you can't really like it. On an even more lizard-brain level, anyone who's as into pale brunettes as I am is gonna think she's absolutely stunning-looking--I mean, Jesus--but that only makes me even more suspicious of the Katy Perry enterprise, if you follow me. Like, do I prefer her music to Ke$ha's partly or simply because I'm not as into blondes?
Into this mix comes "Teenage Dream". It's the title track of her record. It was quite strategically released as a single to soundtrack the end of summer. As Mike Barthel notes, the video for the song has the washed-out look of a teenage girl's Tumblr photo posts, or the polaroid/instamatic vibe Eric Harvey chronicles as having taken over indie rock album covers. It's a look of instant, enjoyable nostalgia, which of course is also the basic idea of the lyrics--the same forever-young Molly Young describes in her essay on Hollister's prefab SoCal experience. It's as shrewd as anything else Katy Perry has ever done.
So why does it work for me? Why is it possible for me to like, really like this song, listen to it on repeat and everything, in a way that I can't do with her other songs? I think it's just a better-written and recorded piece of music, mostly because it's not trying so hard. Alright, I know that's a weird thing to say about a song called fucking "Teenage Dream," but stick with me. After the no-holds-barred attacks of all her other hits, I really appreciate how this song's chorus doesn't pound you in the skull--musically, it just does the exact same thing the rest of the song does, only a bit louder, with guitarish synth stabs tracking the not-really-a-bassline. It sounds to me, of all things, like the happy cousin of Daft Punk's "Television Rules the Nation." It's not the usual onslaught of tricks and hooks. It kind of glides.
Lyrically, I'll admit it has a lot in common with all the "let's have a good time" songs by Perry and Ke$ha I don't like in that it's a stream-of-consciousness onslaught of unspecific, undercooked cliches, though these ones are mostly about romance rather than partying. "You think I'm pretty without any makeup on," "Now every February you'll be my valentine," "I'm complete," et cetera et alia--we're not going to be winning an Pulitzers. But! But but but, there's something so damn disarmingly direct about that lead-in to the chorus: "Let's go all the way tonight--no regrets, just love." Well, how about that? A straightforward expression of the desire to have sex in the expectation that it'll be a fun, memorable, worthwhile, pleasurable experience for two young people in love? More of this, please! Somehow this makes the two following lines, "We can dance until we die" and "You and I, we'll be young forever," come across not as the staple sentiments of the over-the-top emotions of pop music since forever that they are, but almost like the intense, perhaps slightly embarrassing in retrospect, utterly sincere things you might say during lovemaking. It's like the song tips you off balance and makes you more receptive to what it's doing--the opposite effect of what Perry's pandering usually does.
But I think the lines that really stick with me come toward the end. Over the inimitable wistful-joyful melodic progression of the glam descend, Perry all but shouts: "I'm'a get your heart racing in my skintight jeans / Be your teenage dream tonight / Let you put your hands on me in my skintight jeans / Be your teenage dream tonight." There's something actually poignant about that, and dead-on too! The repetition communicates a sense of involuntary urgency and expectation, a desperation, almost, that's really endearing. I remember writing about the sex scenes in Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #18 about how Ware captured young lovers' "raw, almost manic hunger to have and give and demonstrate pleasure." And that's the teenage dream, or a big part of it--putting on skintight jeans to get someone's heart racing and hands moving--or, your heart racing, putting your hands on someone wearing skintight jeans. The song captures a feeling I once loved feeling. Katy Perry's music is a job, that's impossible ever to lose sight of--but I call that a job well done.
* Big changes at DC Comics--DC Entertainment (the non-comics stuff) is moving to Burbank while the publishing end is staying put, sans the soon-to-be-shuttered WildStorm and Zuda imprints. You can count Kurt Busiek among those who don't know what this means for his series with the company.
* Here's a fine essay/interview by Mat Colgate of The Quietus on Underworld singer/lyricist Karl Hyde's collagiste writing method. "It was a pact -- a deal -- I'd send the drunk me out on the streets to experience stuff that the straight me would never dream of going anywhere near. And all this technicolour stuff came back."It's interesting to hear just how much of the now-sober Hyde's approach stemmed from his alcoholism. (Via Andy Khouri at Born Dirty, the new and quite good Underworld fan blog.)
* I clicked over to check out this strip "The Moon Monster" that Tom Spurgeon linked to mostly to check out that really inventive creature design, and indeed that and the rest of Bernard Baily's art is really beautifully and dynamically drawn, but the strip also has a level of pathos I wasn't expecting at all. Good stuff.
1) I've spoken with at least one person over the past couple of days who's stayed away from this blog for the past couple weeks, afraid it would crash his browser like it had been doing a little while ago. I promise that problem is fixed. So if you're like that person, please don't worry, and if you know someone who's like that person, tell them not to worry either.
2) I caught up another couple of perfectly legitimate comments in a recent spam sweep. They've been restored, but I can almost guarantee you that I've done this to someone else and never realized it. Please know that I have never ever deleted a comment from this blog for content reasons. So if you've left a comment and it disappeared, it's my fault--let me know and I'll put it back.
Scary Stories Treasury
Alvin Schwartz, writer
Stephen Gammell, artist
115 pages, hardcover
$9.95 Buy it from Amazon.com
It was a red-letter day when I snagged this omnibus edition of the three collections of scary stories from folklore assembled and retold by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell: 1981's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 1984's More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and 1991's Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Honestly, I could skip this review and just post the collection of Gammell's world-beating brain-searing images I gathered up from the Internet, and any point I'd have tried to make would probably be made at least as effectively. If you ever came across these books as a kid, you probably, and this is no joke, remember some of these illustrations better than the faces of your best friends. Like a proto-Al Columbia, veteran illustrator and Caldecott Medal winner Gammell found a way to depict a kind of evil that seems to have seeped into and corrupted those depictions themselves. Instead of deconstructing these images like Columbia does--using sketches, abandoned work, damaged or destroyed pages and so on to suggest that these things almost too horrible to truly commit to paper--Gammell uses washed-out black and gray inks to suggest forms slowly coalescing into being from...someplace else, someplace we can't fully see and wouldn't want to. On the memorable occasions when he comes right out and draws these things where you can't help but look at them, and seemingly they at you, it can quite literally be difficult to sustain that gaze. I defy you to stare at this image, for example--astutely chosen as this omnibus collection's cover; no effing around here!--without eventually just shaking your head and saying "Jesus."
But Gammell is equally adept, and just as haunting, when he's not depicting anything in particular. In a few memorable pieces--sometimes in illustrations for the front matter, sometimes for the stories themselves--he goes full-on black-psychedelic, creating images that suggest surrealism but which replace the traditional visual punning of that movement with disconcertingly decontextualized tendrils and splatters and parts of leering, screaming faces. My favorite of these is the below illustration, for the story "Oh, Susannah!"
Which leads me to the storyteller, Alvin Schwartz. A folklorist with dozens of collections under his belt, Schwartz displays here what I imagine to be a hugely underrated and underremembered proficiency with his prose. These are books for children and young adults, but Schwartz uses that to his advantage. In his best moments, he takes the economical prose typically used to communicate to these age groups--that "So-and-so was a person and this is what happened to him" factuality--and employs it to tell stories of not just the unexplained, but the unexplainable. Again, "Oh, Susannah!" is my favorite. A college student names Susannah comes home late at night and tries to go to sleep, only to be awoken by her roommate, already in bed, singing the old Stephen Foster song. When she switches on the light to confront the roommate, she discovers that the roommate's head is missing. The story ends with Susannah telling herself "I'm having a nightmare. When I wake up, everything will be all right...." Who murdered the roommate? How long ago did it happen? If the roommate is dead, who was singing the song? Is Susannah having a nightmare? Will everything be all right? What does any of this have to do with the cosmic hellscape with which Gammell has adorned this story? We don't know, and Schwartz's all-business prose offers us no comforting room for interpretation. It is what it is, and what it is is horrifying.
Schwartz's technique can make even the collections' most familiar stories freshly disturbing. Consider his take on the old "the call is coming from inside the house" urban legend that gave rise to When a Stranger Calls. Here's how he ends it:
Just then a door upstairs opened. A man they had never seen before started down the stairs toward them. As they ran from the house, he was smiling in a very strange way. A few minutes later, the police found him there and arrested him.
As adults, we know what might cause a stranger who's spent the evening hiding in a house, menacing a babysitter and the three little children she's been watching, to smile in a very strange way. Indeed, Schwartz states repeatedly, in introductions to the volumes and chapters and in the notes and sources sections at the back of each volume, that scary stories about the non-supernatural are a way for young people to warn each other of the dangers the real world contains once they leave the protection of their parents--a homeopathic remedy for all-too-real fears, if you will. But within the context of the story itself, the man's motives and bizarre behavior--that strange smile, his apparent lingering long enough for the police to "find him there and arrest him"--is a mystery, both tantalizing and repellent. It's up to the young reader to fill in the blanks, and nothing good's going in them.
But it's also worth noting that Gammell and Schwartz display a sly sense of humor in a lot of their work here as well, befitting the funny-scary tone of a lot of these summer-camp and tall-tale-derived stories. I'm thinking of the subtly grinning alligator with the human hand who accompanies a story of shapeshifting swimming fanatics that ends with the sentence "Everybody knows there aren't any alligators around here." Or of the juxtaposition of the extravagantly bloody, elegantly gesturing hand that accompanies "The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers" with the downright goofy story itself, which ends with a guitar-playing hippie obliviously telling the sanguine specter to "Cool it, man! Get yourself a Band-Aid." This stuff works as a relief valve for the out-and-out scary stuff, obviously. But it also shows just how deft both writer and artist are in treading that liminal area--between funny-weird and funny-haha, between fact and fiction, between popcorn-spilling scary and afraid to get up and go to the bathroom at night scary--where all these folk tales dwell.
One last thing: Schwartz comes up with the best titles! Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark itself is brilliantly matter-of-fact, but the section and story titles really get good in vol. 2: "When She Saw Him, She Screamed and Ran," "Something Was Wrong," "A Weird Blue Light," "Somebody Fell from Aloft," "She Was Spittin' and Yowlin' Just Like a Cat," "When I Wake Up, Everything Will Be All Right"...More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the best collection of titles this side of early Gang of Four--just one more delight to be found in this treasure of a book.
* The DC Entertainment restructuring story from yesterday continues to develop--internally as well as externally, I might add. For now, here's Kiel Phegley talking to Dan Didio and Jim Lee about the moves, and Kevin Melrose with a roundup of the developments and reaction to them, the most helpful such post I've seen so far. The big question today is the provenance of the LA Times' much-quoted figure of 20% layoffs for the company, a figure that didn't, uh, figure into any of the other press the company heads did yesterday.
I really, really, really, really, really don't like going to a movie mentally prepared to wedge myself against or behind conventional wisdom about that movie. I like writing about movies with that sort of thing in mind even less. But for once, in seeing Christopher Nolan's much-lauded, much-backlashed Inception a couple months after it first came to dominate the pop-culture conversation, all that business had me in the perfect place as a viewer. I knew a lot of people loved it. I knew a lot of people, especially people whose taste I trusted, thought the emperor was, if not naked, then at least in his PJs. I knew I have a tendency to disagree with the people I trust. I knew I have a tendency to like Christopher Nolan movies even less than they do. And so I went in with not high expectations, not low expectations, not no expectations, but simply expectations. I expected it to be a fun time at the movies. And that's what it was.
One thing I enjoyed to a degree that surprised me even in the moment was the young, or at least young-looking, cast. Starring as Dom Cobb, an expert dream-thief pulling One Last Job so that he can buy himself back into a life he was forced to leave behind for reasons to do with the death of his wife, Leonardo DiCaprio brings that same aging-babyface sourness he brings to all the parts he plays in this stage of his career. He looks like someone who's aged more in mind than in body and the pieces just don't fit together; his physicality has the rage and regret of someone who's still living in his parents' basement during his ten-year college reunion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page look like they're in grad school and college respectively; Tom Hardy looks like he just got back into town after blowing his trust fund. Put it all together and you've got a core group of stars who look, perhaps, like you looked when you first realized you were good at a certain thing, learned to respect yourself for it, and learned to expect respect from others for it. It's a much more exciting set of casting choices than the umpteenth "band of grizzled operatives gets together for one last score" flick of the year.
I also dug the confidence with which Nolan draws us into the world he's created--echoed, perhaps, by the mechanics of Extraction and Inception themselves, in which operatives create a dream world then basically knock their targets in and out of it with them. The technological advances that allow for this are cursorily addressed, mostly I'd imagine to head off questions from the sorts of viewers who would demand those answers, but for the most part you're just rolling with it like this was the un-whimsical version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. True, the worlds these dreams create are surprisingly straightforward, maybe even disappointingly so--most of that cool-looking zero-gravity stuff you see in the commercials really is just run-of-the-mill bodies in free fall, and aside from some perfunctory M.C. Escher staircases there's very little reality-warping of the sort you saw in the movie's print and billboard ads. But while they don't look wild, or particularly dreamlike, they do look nice, like cool places to chase and be chased. The worlds constructed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character Arthur in particular come across like the Gordon Willis World Theme Park. And all of them make a fine, sumptuous home for Hans Zimmer's subconscious hum of a score--it's leagues beyond the almost aggressively forgettable stuff (the Joker's cues excepted) he turned in for Nolan's two Batman movies. (Batman movies without theme music! I still can't get over it!)
And pacing-wise, Inception is crackerjack stuff. Nolan constructs a scenario that at one point had no fewer than five simultaneous countdowns built into it, each level of which had a crystal-clear entry and exit point for viewer and character alike. After seeing the mushy, nonsensical Expendables or the hero's-journey-by-numbers Clash of the Titans remake, I can't tell you what a relief it was simply to see an action-movie blockbuster where the directors and the characters clearly knew what they were doing and why they were doing it, let alone where all did it with such aplomb. (Iron Man 2 doesn't count--it was basically banter interrupted with the occasional armor fight.)
Problems, you ask? Oh, for sure. It's a damn good thing the structure was so propulsive, because Nolan again shows himself to be perhaps the least skilled director of action to have somehow forged a career making action movies. Chases through city streets--on foot in Mombasa, by car in Los Angeles--are flabbily edited, blurry, context-free messes, everything that everyone complained about, wrongly, in the rigorously, gloriously shot and choreographed Bourne action sequences. Later sequences involving sniper rifles and sneak-and-shoot maneuvers are stronger, mostly because quickly becomes clear that in terms of staging Nolan is relying almost entirely on the viewer's sense-memories of first-person shooters. The film's biggest setpiece, the storming of a snowbound fortress, feels so much like a level from GoldenEye or Call of Duty that I found myself imagining what buttons I would have had to press for each character to do what they were doing. (Sidenote: As best I can tell, the entire snow sequence tell was mercifully and wisely left out of any trailers or commercials; it was nice for it to come as a surprise all these weeks later.)
What's funny is that the film also contains a...well, not a knockout, it didn't light my world on fire like (say) the Darth Maul duel in Phantom Menace or the subway fight in The Matrix did, but the zero-gravity fight between Gordon-Levitt and various subconscious-security goons in the hotel hallway was quite strong. It's the one action sequence in the film, if not Nolan's entire career, where he just let the camera record the movement of bodies through space and the physical consequences of their actions without all the shake'n'bake smash'n'grab slice'n'dice. Clearly he knew he had something special here, and thus got out of the way of it; why didn't he realize how much stronger that made it, and apply that technique to everything else?
Nolan's also an enormously dour and sexless filmmaker. I laughed a grand total of twice during the entire film, which let's be clear is not some exploration of soul-crushing sadness, it's a sci-fi heist picture--once at the kiss Gordon-Levitt's character steals from Ellen Page's, and once because I thought, and thanks to the way Nolan shoots action I'm still not sure, the Chemist was flipping his pursuers the bird as his van plummeted off the bridge. The movie feels like one of the very classy brown suits the characters favor, rich and stiff. And forget feeling any kind of sexual chemistry between any of the characters (beyond my own budding crush on Tom Hardy, perhaps)--Nolan's films are David Lynch for squares.
It's also surprisingly emotionally flat. Over and over we are told how dangerously attached Cobb is to his memories of Marillon Cotillard's incomprehensibly named character (Maude? Moll? Mauve? Maume?), but their final confrontation is simply a repetition, in some cases a literal one, of their previous scenes together--including one endless recitation of their history by DiCaprio to Page that grinds the film to a fault halfway through. Only Cobb's believably blasphemous reaction to his wife's suicide cuts through the fog of stylized regret that hangs over this supposedly pivotal relationship. Particularly compared to the relationships that formed the core of two films to which Inception is frequently compared, Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, the Cobb/Mal (I looked it up) amour fou wants for intimacy, heat, and in the end, genuine, frightening grief and loss. Other than DiCaprio's cry for his suicided wife, the only emotional beat I really bought, ironically enough, was Cillian Murphy's wide-eyed, wordless reaction to his fake father's fake last words.
And then there are the usual Nolanisms: gaping plot holes (Fisher, who we learn has been trained to guard against Extraction and thus surely must be on the lookout for suspicious stuff, didn't notice that his company's chief competitor was flying in the same first-class cabin he'd be napping in for hours at a time on the way to his magnate father's funeral?), hugely predictable "revelations" (the second Cobb told Saito he'd done Inception before, I knew whom he'd done it to), softball-hanging-over-the-plate "thought-provoking" stuff (wAs It aLL a DrEaM???). And of course it's another movie about angry men in suits that only passes the Bechdel Test if you're grading on a serious curve.
But it's also stylish, fun, pretty to look at, crisply plotted, generally exciting. The entirety of the film gives you less to think about than the Winkie's dream sequence in Mulholland Drive alone, but whaddayagonnado? I'll tell you what I'm gonna do: I'm going to be happy to have enjoyed myself and call it a night. One of the great things about being a grown-up is that you don't need Inception to decide to approach a given work of art precisely the way you want.
There's a lot I could say about the Walkmen, a band I liked for their first album, then fell for hard for their second, then fell away from for their third onward. I could say that singer Hamilton Leithauser's tendon-straining shouting and arrhythmic delivery totally undo the music-for-grown-ups restraint and professionalism the band's spent the last few years dealing in, which in turn strikes me as too polite for the "stranded and starry-eyed" stumblebum charm it's clearly aiming for. I could say that the way Leithauser's vocals are recorded, as though they've been throw atop the music like a towel hanging out of a hamper, also emphasizes the lack of memorable hooks and melodies the band's come up with in recent years. I could say that the frequently tinny mix really doesn't mesh with the drunken physicality you ought to get out of a band doing the rueful bards of the bar scene thing. I could admit that for all this I'm still intrigued by aspects of their work--the ongoing fixation with Christmas/New Year's/winter, for example, or their "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" approach to incorporating a horn section. But I really just want to ask: Once you've discovered that you can sound like a barfight...
...why settle for sounding like shuffling home after last call, over and over and over? Yes, that's a special feeling, worth capturing, but if it's always last call, it's never really last call at all, right?
* In case it wasn't clear from yesterday's link, that David Bordwell piece on the formulation of the idea of "classical Hollywood cinema" as (essentially) a school of moviemaking wasn't just a blog post, but an introduction to this massive, delightful essay by Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson on the 25th anniversary of their book The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Tons of stuff that put a smile on my ex-film-student face in there, and not just the shoutout to my old professor Charlie Musser. Here's Bordwell:
...literary academics often argue about terminology, insisting that the choice of a single word reveals deep things about an author's conceptual commitments and biases. Perhaps this is one reason the literary humanities make so little progress in producing reliable knowledge.
I find symptomatic criticism (finding subtexts of race, sex, sexual, and class ideologies within films) a valuable critical project because I believe that many people see such ideologies while watching films. However, I also believe that Neoformalism has the greatest critical scope for describing and analyzing works of art.
* Mallory's Clothes, a tumblr dedicated to nothing but posting pictures of every single outfit worn by Mallory on Family Ties? Sure, I'll eat it. It's a fine document of the days when tens of thousands of Vampire Weekend cover models roamed the American plains in huge hordes. (Via Matthew Perpetua.)
If his own Xeric Grant-funded book Young Lions and this inaugural release for his Gaze Books imprint are any indication, cartoonist and newly minted publisher Blaise Larmee could certainly do a lot worse than cranking out tastefully designed, inexpensive perfectbound softcover books with brightly colored covers containing softly pencilled, elliptically plotted comics about longing for however long he feels like doing so. Even with all the vitality artcomix has right now, this is an underserved aesthetic, overwhelmed by inkslingers whose work tends to be either tighter and angrier or choppier and wilder. I'd imagine that this material is going to click hard with a group of people who just aren't getting the comics that might speak to them elsewhere.
I'm not sure how hard it clicked for me, for whatever that's worth, despite it being a really lovely comic I'm glad I read. In a weird way the lettering, of all things, gives the game away in terms of why this story, of a young woman coming to terms with the death of her partner (whose gender is unclear, and unimportant), didn't hit me the way it might have. (Or the way Anders Nilsen's comics on this topic, for example, actually did.) Stick with me for a minute here: Koch draws like a slightly beefed-up version of Larmee--her sensuous, slightly tremulant line shored up by more detailed and realistic figurework and portraiture and a more frequent, textural use of light and dark grays. She has a knack for using filmic techniques like eyeline matches--between her main character and her tiny, adorable dog, to name one memorable example--to make panel transitions pop. And many of those panels are strikingly, intelligently composed: I'm fond of a splash page of boats along a dock at the bottom of the page, the water filling the rest of the page with just a few suggestions of waves and ripples, which echoes a similar "shot" of our protagonist's bare feet protruding from the bottom of the page as she looks down at a rug partially covered with boxes of her late loved one's possessions. We get bird's eye views, seal's eye views, close-ups, panoramas, and through it all the sense that we're not just seeing some figures move back and forth in tiny boxes someone drew, but that we're in a world someone inhabits, and which that someone colors and contours with her emotions and thoughts. It's confident comics-making.
Then there's that lettering. It's not unpleasant, don't get me wrong--nice simple all-caps block hand-lettering, in pencil, slanting slightly forward. It's just that relative to the size and tone of the drawings, it's a bit overwhelming. The handwriting might obscure that everything's being said IN ALL-CAPS ITAL, but that's what it is, and it wrings a lot of the nuance and quietness out of the emotional content of the words. This in turn draws attention to how several of the story's beats are, if not cliches, then at least familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the literature of loss. Boxing up their stuff, grabbing/being grabbed by certain memorable possessions; survivor's guilt ("THEY SAID I WAS THE LUCKY ONE"); the soothing and saddening presence of the sea; the fairly on-the-nose metaphor to which the title refers, and so on. It's grief in all-caps ital, if you will.
This, perhaps, is a weakness of this style: losing sight of the fact that feeling something intensely is, in itself, value neutral. How you express it counts more than that you express it. There's one genuinely moving bit here where that's clear: The protagonist calls for her dog, and the second time she does so her word balloon has suddenly sprouted another tail, pointing to a ghostly figure who once would have done the same. It's a killer detail, unexpected and immediately powerful. It's worth more than any all-caps emotion.
* Must-read of the week: Tom Spurgeon's twelve questions about DC's announcements this week. It's well-sourced and wide-ranging: theorizing that the announcements were staggered the way they were to dull the impact of the negative stuff; wondering if the attitudes of the respective areas' circuit courts toward IP issues might have played a part; musing on the start-to-finish history of the DC/WildStorm relationship; including direct follow-ups with DC President Diane Nelson and the LA Times reporter who said 20% of the DC workforce would be laid off. This was my favorite part, which I hope he won't mind my quoting in its entirety:
7. How Horrible Must It Have Been To Be A DC Comics Employee This Week -- Heck, This Year?
One thing that's been to my mind under-reported is how the lengthy period preceding Tuesday's announcements must have had an effect on those that now must deal with the collective outcome of those decisions. Despite R. Fiore's post-announcement assertion that the rumors of a total west coast move were only that because such a move made no sense, Diane Nelson has clearly acknowledged that such a move was on the table and considered, and the pervasiveness and certainty of the rumor was as ingrained in the day to day reality of its believers as any I've ever seen in comics. This was not a case of a few bloggers running around screaming things just to be heard.
So, if you're a DC employee, it's possible you just spent several months thinking you might lose your job -- a comics job! -- in a shitty economy or have to move to California and away from your friends with an unknown incentive package, or none at all, as the basis for making this possible. This was followed by a couple of weeks just past where you were told that an announcement was imminent. This may have been followed by a moment of relief -- that's how it was described to me -- when the New York publishing offices were announced as staying open. And yet this was followed by word that divisions are being closed, which was followed by further news that everyone is being evaluated -- with firings on the table.
Now, I don't know if that's a fully accurate view of the timeline, but if half of that stuff happened to me, if I rode on the first two plunges of that particular roller coaster, my morale would be at the sub-basement level. One can argue that DC Comics isn't exactly a healthy culture to begin with; one can further argue that it's been a particularly difficult place to work for the last few years. I can't imagine what an injection of real drama might do to that group's collective ability to function at the high level required of them by current industry circumstance.
* Meanwhile, up to 80 employees will be moved or let go, according to a filing made by Warner Bros. That number equates to about a third of the DC workforce, but as the comment-thread discussion--which involves myself, Chris Butcher, and Kurt Busiek among others--should make clear, it's not at all clear how that will break down between "moves" and "layoffs."
Dark Reign: Zodiac
Joe Casey, writer
Nathan Fox, artist
in Dark Reign: The Underside
$24.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Here's a fun, nasty, wonderful-to-look-at comic about letting your freak flag fly, even or especially if that means murdering people. Yes, writer Joe Casey, who at this point has carved out a career in comics by dancing between other writers' raindrops--he can afford to, since as a honcho at the studio that created Ben 10, he's the one making it rain most of the time--is doing one of those "charismatic villain makes vaguely philosophical points about anarchy and society and shit while blowing stuff up" stories. And strangely, it works!
I think that's because Casey keeps it so rooted in a villain-vs.-villain context, specifically the "Dark Reign" event Marvel did, in which former Green Goblin Norman Osborn assumed control of America's defense, intelligence, and superhero infrastructure. Zodiac, who as best we can tell is just a guy in a suit with a bag over his head for a mask, sets out to be (in John McClane's memorable description) "the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass." It's not just that killing people represents the ultimate act of a free man in an existentialist world or something like that--it's that seeing a one-time whackjob who rode around on a glider dressed as a goblin with a purple nightcap throwing pumpkin bombs at people suddenly become Donald Rumsfeld offends his sensibilities as a proud supervillain. That's a way to sidestep the been-there-done-that philosopher-killer thing and bring out the fun of watching different bad guys smack each other around, something superhero comics can always do well.
It also helps that Zodiac's design and raison d'etre owe so much to Christopher Nolan's uber-popular Batman movies: He's basically just Heath Ledger's Joker dressed up like Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow. Heck, Zodiac kicks things off by painting a sloppy smiley face on his mask (in blood, of course), and in the final issue all but quotes Ledger's Joker: "What is being a super villain if not living a life of no rules?!" Why, he even blows up a hospital! (He also has scars, though he doesn't ask anyone if they'd like to know how he got them.) Casey barely needs to paint in broad strokes, since we've already seen this particular painting. We can just revel in the Neveldine/Taylor-style grand guignol mechanics of it.
That's where Nathan Fox comes in. Casey's work has its adherents, but as with any writer, his stuff works best when he's paired with a grade-A stylist. (Cf. Frazer Irving in Iron Man: The Inevitable.) Fox is certainly that. His work owes a great deal to Paul Pope's, clearly--it takes Pope's "What if 'Guernica' were a science-fiction action spectacular?" approach, dials down Pope's Romanticism, and dials up the raw, testosterone-packed spectacle of it all. Considering how much ink is being slung around here, it's really quite impressive how easy it is to parse both the action scenes (the Human Torch's doomed attack on Zodiac's goons is every bit as propulsive as a Human Torch attack ought to be) and the pacing (a scene at the Torch's hospital bed flashes back to the attack and forth to his super hero visitors effortlessly). His character designs are a lot of fun, too: I'd imagine future Zodiac appearances will be made possible simply by Fox's memorably rumpled take on him here, for example, while the existing heroes and villains we see--Torch, Ronin, the Wasp, Osborn's Iron Patriot armor--stay on-model just enough for us to be able to appreciate the way Fox coaxes out the weirdness and aggressiveness of their original designs.
I also want to draw special attention to the colors of Jose Villarubia. It's not just that they're bright, buoyant, and practically glow off the page, particularly any time fire or explosions are required (which is often). It's that flipping through the comic once again just now reveals an overall scheme at work: The heroes, represented by the Fantastic Four, usually appear in a world of blue, while Norman Osborn is red--as are the Torch and the giant robot Zodiac uses as a decoy at one point, i.e. the characters who engage in direct physical combat. Against these primary colors stands Zodiac, a dark and dingy brown and gray presence who eventually, for reasons I won't spoil but which have to do with Marvel continuity minutiae so they're probably not spoilerable anyway, glows with a sickly green. You don't have to have read very many Vertigo comics to understand that that palette is supposed to represent edgy, grown-up concerns--it's a simultaneous salute to and parody of Zodiac's self-conception as the superior force to the brightly colored heroism and law'n'order ass-kicking represented by the prevailing order of heroes and villains. Which is something we've seen before, a lot, to be sure. But it's fun to see again in this case, and fun is what matters.
* Bob Harras has been named Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics, a position he previously held at Marvel. Pretty sure that's a first. I'm also pretty sure Harras is a well-liked figure--I know I like him--even outside the traditionally effusive "congratulations to the person who just got a job wherein they could hire me someday" phase of things, and that could be a piece of the puzzle here.
Arrant: DC has recently begun encouraging more artists to write, from you to David Finch, Tony Daniel and others. You mentioned some resistance from DC earlier about you writing more. Can you expound on that resistance and how it's changed for you?
Williams: I think so, but it hasn't been with any real sense of maliciousness -- but rather not fully understanding your players. It simplifies things to classify people for one discipline: he's a writer, she's an artist, and so forth. When you get individuals who can do both, there's a perception, real or imagined, that one of those skills will be lackluster due to time constraints or just being more talented in one area than another. I'm sure there's some truth to that -- we've all seen artists who begin writing their own stuff and it's not as dynamic as it could be. But at the same time, I think the industry could benefit from publishers reaching out to artists and seeing what they're truly capable of.
Question: Between Daniel, Finch, Williams, Darwyn Cooke, and Paul Pope, what is it about the Bat-characters that makes DC that much more likely to take a flyer on writer-artists? Other than Pope and Cooke's non-Batman/Catwoman stuff I can't even think of another one-creator run from the company in recent memory.
* Apropos of not very much, it occurred to me the other day just how many extremely lovely looking, well-drawn monthly comics came out last week. The debut installments of Steve Epting on Fantastic Four, Gabriel Hardman on Hulk, David Aja and Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano on Secret Avengers...the latest issues from Charlie Adlard on The Walking Dead, Francis Manapul on The Flash, David Lafuente on Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Rafa Sandoval on Ultimate Comics Mystery...just a lot of fine-looking books.
* Jordan Crane's "Unraveling" continues unraveling at What Things Do. This installment's a doozy, with several subjects dear to my black heart.
* Gabrielle Bell's San Diego Comic Con Comicumentary continues as well. I don't think this is her intention necessarily, but I can easily see this comic being the thing fans and creators of alt/art/lit/underground comics point to when they want to explain why they're not going to San Diego anymore, so neatly does it nail what the experience is like for certain non-nerd comics people.
* On a somewhat lighter note, my pal Alex Kropinak (animator extraordinaire of Marvel Super Heroes What The--?! fame) draws Captain Caveman, who as it turns out is an absolutely fascinating character to draw for some reason.
* Speaking of, I actually have a surprisingly spotty record of seeing Fincher's films, but I still got a lot out of the intro to Aaron Cutler's review of The Social Network for The House Next Door in terms of how it breaks down the way Fincher has grown to deflect or defray his characters' central pursuits over the course of his career.
* Film critic Edward Copeland rounds up a variety of august personages, including the great Matthew Zoller Seitz and (quite awesomely) actress Anne Bobby of Nightbreed fame, to reminisce about The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the occasion of its 35th anniversary. Rocky is unfuckwithable 'round these parts, and not just because I met The Missus when we were the only people at a wedding reception who knew how to do the Time Warp. Richard O'Brien's songs--especially "Over at the Frankenstein Place," "The Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite," and "Rose Tint My World"--are absolute monsters of glam, and the audience responses still crack me up, even context free. (Some favorites: "Where the women look like cupcakes and the men have bananas on their heads," "Only...assholes...write on doors," "And Betsy Ross used to sit at home and sew and sew and sew and sew...," "What do you like on your corn flakes?") Rocky Forever.
You know something very un-Dan is going on with this song when you hear its first verse: "Son, you better be ready for love / On this glory day / This is your chance to believe / What I've got to say." Wait--this is from the record that also contains "Hey Nineteen," right? What's more, Donald Fagen actually sings them with something approaching, dare I say it, conviction: "You better be ready for loooooove...This is your chance to belieeeeeeeve." This over a relatively stark instrumental backing--drums (possibly programmed), a little electric piano and bass doing basically the same thing at the same time, a tee-tiny bit of Mark Knopfler guitar--so smooth that I heard Skunk Baxter recommended it to the Defense Department as a coating for surface-to-air missiles. This song is a more or less unreconstructed good time, something to dance and have fun to, which appearances to the contrary Steely Dan did very, very rarely. I think the most direct comparison can be made with "Josie," the song that closed out Aja and represented to the band in particular what that album represented to them in general: their artistic high point. I know they're less keen on Gaucho but this thing's a marvel of production as well: the beat is so crisp, and any song that all but subliminally introduces the vocals of Michael McDonald until finally you're like "Hey, where did he come from?" is alright by me. And like "Josie," "Time Out of Mind" sings of having a tear-the-roof-off-the-sucker good time. But my favorite thing about both songs is that Fagen and Becker can't quite bring themselves to sing about such fun in the present or even past tense. Awesome shit's gonna go down "when Josie comes home," whenever that might be. In "Time Out of Mind"'s case, good stuff is gonna happen tonight: "Tonight when I chase the dragon / The water may change to cherry wine / And the silver will turn to gold." Various online dictionaries assure me that "chase the dragon" does not necessarily mean smoking drugs, although clearly this is far from outside the realm of possibility where the Dan is concerned, but okay, fine; what's more interesting to me is the way Fagen appears to psych himself up into believing he's going to catch that dragon after all. "The water may change to cherry wine"--who knows? But then "The silver will turn to gold." Tonight for sure!
* I kept forgetting to point out the comment thread on my post discussing Brian Michael Bendis's comments regarding journalism and writing for free. Brigid Alverson, Laura Hudson, Heidi MacDonald, Tom Spurgeon, Dirk Deppey, Noah Berlatsky, J. Caleb Mozzocco, Abhay Khosla, Johanna Draper Carlson, Marc-Oliver Frisch, Alex Dueben, and Kevin Huxford are among the comics crit/journo types who weigh in.
* Real Life Horror: You title a post "Is It Good to Live in a Destroyed World?" and it contains not one single mention of zombie apocalypses or killer viruses or alien invasions or leather-clad mutant raiders roaming the wastelands? Dropped ball, Krugman, I don't care how many Nobel Prizes you win.
* Speaking of Johnston, back when I posted my list of 80 Great Tracks from the 1990s, certain persons who shall remain nameless scoffed at the inclusion of "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe" by Whale, saying it was a go-nowhere one-hit-wonder. But once you've seen/heard the video for "Infinity Guitars" by Sleigh Bells, well, who's hobo humpin' now?
Knightfall was the big Batman event during my time as a comics reader in the early to mid '90s. That basically means it was the big superhero comic event for me during that time. Batman was the character that got me reading comics. The first Tim Burton movie sparked my interest in the character, and The Dark Knight Returns--the first comic book I can actually remember reading--cemented it. The comic shop I went to was called Gotham Manor, for pete's sake. And so, a multi-series crossover pitting Batman against basically his entire rogues gallery until some hulking brute takes advantage and breaks his back? Yeah, sign 9th-grade Sean Collins up. But how does it look now?
Unlike most of the straightforward superhero comics I read during that time, I actually remember Knightfall, and remember it fondly at that. This is not to say it doesn't suffer from all the shortcomings you'd expect. The dialogue, the clothing designs, the hairstyles, especially for anyone we're supposed to think of as "cool"...you almost wonder whether early-'90s DC writers and artists ever had any contact with the outside world at all. The book is also deep, deep in the shadow of Dark Knight, and not just in the obvious grim'n'gritty way; it occasionally serves up ersatz versions of Miller's satire--a pop psychologist called "Dr. Simpson Flanders" hawking his book I'm Sane and So Are You! and glibly defending the rights of the escaped Arkham Asylum inmates, for example--with none of Miller's sharpness or genuine comedic sense. Despite the overwhelming tonal debt to Miller and Burton, the character designs and color palette remain incongruously bright and buoyant. And while the newly created archvillain Bane cuts an impressive figure despite his many detractors at the time, the less said about his perfunctory posse of villain types (bird guy, knife guy, tiny brick) the better. This comic is not one of my favorites in the way that Black Hole is one of my favorites, in other words.
But! The book still somehow remains exactly what a big crazy Batman event should be. For one thing, it's got that inner-eight-year-old appeal: What Bat-fan wouldn't want to see Batman tangle with all his big enemies in rapid succession, with some minor ones given impressive tweaks and thrown into the mix for good measure? The very nature of Batman's rogues gallery--75% of them spend their days right next to each other in a row of cells in Arkham Asylum, allowing both the comic and your imagination to pace the hall and peruse them like a set of action figures on the shelf--taps into a childlike desire to see a bunch of cool characters one after the other, and the story takes full advantage.
But it's not just that Knightfall shows Batman fighting the Joker, Scarecrow, the Riddler, Killer Croc, the Mad Hatter, the Ventriloquist, Firefly, Zsasz, Poison Ivy and so on all in a row--many subsequent storylines, for both Batman (Jeph Loeb's Hush) and other characters (Mark Millar's Spider-Man), have gone back to that well with diminishing returns. Knightfall clicks because, as far as Batman comics go, it makes sense. If I were some criminal mastermind who wanted to take over Gotham and fuck Batman up, blowing a hole in Arkham Asylum and freeing all the crazy supervillains is exactly what I'd do. Meanwhile, if I were Batman, taking on all my crazy supervillain enemies in a row really would wear me down to the point of exhaustion. To Dixon and Moench's credit, the labors they put Batman through are such that they emphasize the physical toll Batman's heroic activities would have on his body. During one fight, he has to leap his way through a burning amusement park; during another he has to carry the wounded mayor through a flooded tunnel; he does an awful lot of hand-to-hand combat with guys with swords and knives or guys twice his size. And keep in mind that this is the Jim Aparo-era Batman, not a Frank Miller tank or a Jim Lee splash-page pin-up. He has a sinewy swimmer's body that you can practically feel getting pummeled. His downfall--ahem, Knightfall--is perfectly plausible.
Then there's the ending. Ninth-grade me wound up so upset about Bruce Wayne getting replaced that I stopped reading with that issue with the die-cut Joe Quesada cover where the new armor-clad Batman takes Bane down; the bad guy got his comeuppance, and that was enough of that for me. I've since managed to track down most of the KnightQuest and Knight'sEnd material that followed, and it seems to me that the mega-event couldn't keep up the manic intensity of this opening arc. So in that sense, having Bane break Batman's back so that a new guy could take over may not have amounted to much. But as an image? One of the highlights of the '90s in superhero comics, certainly. Say what you will about Bane and Doomsday, but people remember them not just because of what they did (if that were so, everyone would remember all the Clone Saga bad guys too), but because of the memorable way in which they did it. And after issue after issue of histrionic overwriting, it's how simple the end winds up being that makes Bane stick: There's the famous splash page of Bane snapping Batman's spine over his knee, followed by the words "Broken...and done." After all this crazy build-up, Batman goes out like a sucker, and Bane drops him on the floor like garbage. It's almost the opposite of the big final simultaneous punches that enabled Superman to "die" a hero. It's appropriately more morose.
Knightfall is a book I return to often, but not to read. I flip through it, skimming a passage, checking out an image, slowly going through a sequence. The execution may often be wanting, which makes going page by page a slog, but the basic ideas are sound as a pound and a delight to light upon. When I'm in the mood for raw superhero action and thrills, there aren't many books I like better.
* Your must-read of the day: Peggy Burns on Tom Devlin and Highwater Books. Yes, they're married, and no, that doesn't matter to this essay at all. Peggy writes convincingly of Highwater as comics' introduction to the sensibilities of emo and twee indie rock, not only in aesthetic terms but as a whole business and philosophical mindset:
I think, however, what affected Highwater's sensibility most is that Tom was the first comics publisher to directly come out of the zine/minicomic/indie-rock generation, rather than before it, like Fantagraphics, or alongside it, like D+Q. With that DIY ethos in mind, during its existence, Highwater did more with less.
She also gets points for referring to Highwater's Free Comic Book Day giveaway as their bestselling title. The fact that I wouldn't be where I am today if not for the existence of Highwater is an exceedingly minor entry on the list of its legacies, but it's true. (Peggy played a pretty big role too, come to mention it.)
* Major layoffs at Vertigo. I don't really know Joan Hilty or Jonathan Vankin, but I've done some freelance jobs related to several of Pornsak Pichetshote's books and he strikes me as a guy with an editorial viewpoint worth watching. In general I just don't like layoffs, especially not now and not in this business and not now in this business. I hope the people involved, and also anyone in similar circumstances whose departures aren't seen as newsworthy, do well for themselves very soon.
* Rest in peace, Arthur Penn. One of my all-time favorite drug experiences was seeing Little Big Man while cataclysmically baked, a recipe for a memorable movie-watching experience if ever there was one. Every single wild tonal shift hit me like a really fast turn on the Cyclone.
* DC is publishing a Geoff Johns Flash omnibus. I'm glad about this for a couple reasons. First, I like Johns's stuff and that's a run I've been wanting to check out for ages; it seems like it could contain the seeds of the style that first made Johns click with me on his Green Lantern and Action Comics runs. Second, I think it's good for publishers to put creators first and foremost and package runs of comics accordingly, especially given the dizzying profusion of similarly titled titles out there.
* Filing this away for later #1: Jeet Heer on Love & Rockets: New Stories #3. Can someone tell me if I need to be totally caught up on the Locas-verse to get "Browntown"? Please tell me NOTHING ELSE ABOUT THE STORY BUT THAT, if you would.
* I fully support the new My Chemical Romance song "Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)", though I'd like to state for the record that nothing touches "Teenagers." (Via Tom Ewing.)
* Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us of the Junior M.A.F.I.A./Jeru the Damaja player battle, which is always a good thing. Contra Coates I think "Player's Anthem" remains phenomenal. That Biggie verse (eg. "Big Poppa never softenin' / Take you to the church, rob the preacher for the offerin' / Leave the fucker coughin' up blood and his pockets like rabbit ears / Covet the wife, kleenex for the kids' tears") is one of my favorite verses by anyone on anything ever.
* Tom Spurgeon link of the day #1: Spurgeon on the 5th anniversary of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. I think that the last time I spoke about the cartoons, in the context of how that dumb fuck in Florida's threat to burn Korans made me reassess them, I didn't express myself clearly, so let me try again. There's a degree to which I think art, the act of making art, is an inherent good. There's a lesser but not insignificant degree to which I think that blaspheming is an inherent good. And there's a degree to which I think that doing something that pisses off assholes is an inherent good. So when the Danish Muhammad cartoons came out, even though they were pretty openly a disrespectful provocation first and foremost, I thought "Yeah, okay, right on." But when the dumb fuck in Florida threatened to burn a bunch of Korans, well, that was just a disrespectful provocation. He wasn't an artist making art, he himself was the kind of person who'd get really upset by blasphemy if directed at the right Abrahamic religion, and he himself was an asshole. Suddenly I could the cartoons' underlying fecklessness and nastiness was something on their own and as their own unpleasant, inadvisable things, quite aside from my feelings about art and blasphemy and asshole-baiting.
Arrant: And specifically the comics journalism field -- what kind of kick in the ass does it need?
Spurgeon: I think more money would be good, Chris. A bootful of cash. An ass-kicking of filthy luchre. That sounds like a jerky response, but I think if industry journalism is valued the best thing that can happen to it is that it's supported, and that it's supported without qualification. I'd love to be able to work an eight-hour day on CR, but I can't afford to. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way about writing comics articles and the like. I'm so grateful for the opportunities I do have, and I realize a lot of that is patronage rather than a cold, commercial transaction.
Tom goes on to warn people away from using comics journalism as a stepping stone to comics creation, a slap in my face personally that I will take up with him through force of arms when next we meet.
* Words I never thought I'd write: Kurt Busiek on Coober Skeber 2.
Does music make you laugh? It makes me laugh a lot, and I can't remember the last time I laughed about a song as hard as I laughed over this one. As I heard it for the first time I was just chortling, out of sheer joy. Laughing is an involuntary "hooray!" a lot of the time, a physical "right on!", and that's what it is in this case. Every time this ten-minute-plus dance remix of George Michael's seminally (pun intended; it always is) direct paean to the physical pleasures of monogamy took things just a little higher, just a little further; every time it re-cut and looped together his multi-tracked vocals to say "Everybody in the 'hood, everybody should"; every time it just repeated the word "sex!" at intervals; when it slowed down to do a full-fledged '80s-funk remix of the song as we know it; when it added a goddamn horn section, because apparently the original was insufficiently celebratory and flamboyant; when it kicked back into the four-on-the-floor crowd-killing temp it started with...every time it did one of those things, it demonstrated a willingness to have as good a time as it possibly could at every opportunity. To go all the way, if you will. (Those familiar with Michael's oeuvre might compare it to that crowd-goes-wild moment at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert where his band suddenly morphed the bassline from "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" into the bassline for "Killer.") In so doing it turned a come-on into a party, a strut into a parade. Hooray! Right on! LOL!