Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, October 19, 2002
      ( 10/19/2002 10:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

VOLUNTEERS ARE STANDING BY! – WGLT, our local NPR station has been doing its fall pledge drive this week. So last night, yours truly drove onto ISU campus to do a four-hour shift manning the phones (spouse Becky was feeling under the weather, so she begged off this time). As usual, I’d asked to do pledgework during the weekend blues for a night show broadcast on both Friday and Saturday nights entitled “The Delta Doctor.”

“Doctor” Frank Black is a curmudgeonly fogey with an abiding love of the blues: one of those deejays who brings in his own big box of discs every night in addition to the station’s library of music. The guy’s still got the first Excello single he bought as a kid. Clearly he’s got it bad, and it’s one of things his listeners love about him. Black has been a fixture on GLT for something like eighteen years, and his show is typically a strong pledge attractor. This year, the station decided to cut its pledge week time significantly – from nine to four days – so the pressure was really on.

We got a steady flow of calls last night, so it may be the station’s decision to experiment with short pledge time was a good ‘un. I hope so. Because as much as I like the people and the programming at WGLT, I’ve gotta admit that I significantly curtail my own listening time during pledge drive. It's much more fun, hanging out at the station during a drive – eating donated pizza and joking with the callers – than it is listening to all those beggin'-for-dollars interruptions at home . . .
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      ( 10/19/2002 09:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“LOVE ME, I’M LIBERAL” – Must be the end of the week: wandering through blogland, I found several items that tickled my sporadically sparked political nodes this week. One of ‘em is on Tom Tomorrow’s site (wherein he comments on the clichéd “I used to be a liberal” rhetorical ploy), the other on Elayne Rigg’s (where she describes heself as neither liberal nor conservative); third is a Blogcritics’ column by Dean Esme (which basically reiterates a stunted description of “current liberal voices” as a means of asserting conservative intellectual superiority).

The more I read, the more it seems to me that the issue isn’t so-called “liberal orthodoxy” but rather conservative caricature of the “liberal mindset.” Liberalism has often gotten a bad rap in this country – in the late sixties it was sneered upon by leftist radicals for not being “active” or challenging enough (think of Phil Ochs’ satiric indictment “Love Me I’m A Liberal”); during the Reagan years (when conservative talk show hosts began edging rock ‘n’ roll off AM radio), it was practically decried as anti-American. These days, liberalism is frequently characterized in the conservative corners of blogland as non-intellectual, bullying and irrelevant. Each of these views is willfully blinkered and self-serving.

My own view of liberalism is fairly basic and probably skewed by my involvement w./ Unitarianism: that it involves a belief in progress and human reason, a certain measure of what writers in an earlier century might’ve called “Christian responsibility” and a strong commitment to personal and civil liberties. Like all political philosophies, liberalism starts with faith-based principles. One of its essential building blocks, for instance, is the belief that people essentially are good: a hard tenet to automatically espouse these days, but it's one of the reasons so much leftie writing has tended to focus on the precipitating factors that lead to events like 9/11. Conservative thinkers, already believing that humanity is at heart debased, have had no trouble attributing these acts to Ee-vil and leaving it at that.

My vision of the Essential Goodness of Humanity shifts daily, which no doubt prevents me from being pure liberal. That’s okay. I’m temperamentally suspicious of anyone who claims to be a pure anything. I still remain left leaning, however. I’ve spent most of my adult working life in the child welfare field – a left softie career track if ever there was one – and if there’s any one thing that prevents me from taking neo-con/libertarian dogma seriously, it’s the realization that there are seriously mistreated kids in this country who would not be served in their new world. I know this sounds squishy and Helen Lovejoy-ish (“Think of the children!”), but as I’ve already noted, human political thought has a strong emotional component. If you don’t believe this, check the sneering disputations that writers on all sides of the political spectrum have used when countering their opponents; go back and read all the bludgeoning references to the victims of 9/11 that pundits have used to bolster their arguments.

Conventional Wisdom has it that the current political blog climate is more conservative than liberal, but my purely biased & unscientific read is that this imbalance may’ve started to level in the past months. While 9/11 inspired a goodly number of right-leaning writers to start their own blogs, events since have brought out a more diverse element into the fray (fellow Blogcritic skippy is a good, honest example). Some leftie writers can be as snarky and self-righteous as the most rabid warblogger (e.g., Warbloggers Watch, which tries to respond to the excesses of some of the more established rightist polibloggers but too frequently takes refuge in cartoonish sarcasm); some are well-reasoned and some mired in rhetoric.

Depending on my personal tolerance level, I can go for days without delving too deeply into poliblogland. Some days I’m not very patient with the outraged tone affected by bloggers considering viewpoints that are different from theirs. Too often, they come across as appalled as Claude Rains’ Louis discovering that “there’s gambling going on this establishment!” Their indignation is phony and self-serving: whether it’s Glenn Reynolds hyperbolically calling a political cartoon “monstrous” (if cartoons are monstrous, what do we call truly monstrous acts?) or Ted (“Blogs are Over!”) Rall accusing everyone who critiques him of being opposed to free speech. That’s not political discussion; that’s browbeating.

But I also believe that these are times when you can’t stray too far from political thinking altogether. To do so is to indulge in another type of dishonesty. So like a lot of Americans, I’ll continue to fumble my way to my own take on the World Today. Liberal? Most days I'll cop to the charge.

But, hey, my dog likes me. . .
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Friday, October 18, 2002
      ( 10/18/2002 08:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“CAREER OPPORTUNITIES, THE ONES THAT NEVER KNOCK” – Writing the review of Bigg Time below spurred me into remembering a game I used to play as a kid: Careers. It was a popular board game in my house, in part because it was time-limited (unlike Monopoly or Risk, say, which could go on forever). In Careers, the object was to pick an occupation, and depending on the job, you worked to accumulate varying degrees of money, fame and happiness. Each career track had a different set of rewards, one fairly sophisticated theme of the game being that people took different jobs with different personal goals in mind.

As young boomer boys, most of my crowd tried to go for the money jobs, though occasionally you’d see someone aim for a fame-focused track. Nobody wanted a happiness-tilted occupation: where money points were repped by dollar signs and fame by stars, happiness points were symbollized by hearts. In my neighborhood, few pre-teen boys would consider working for hearts. Happiness was girlie stuff.
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      ( 10/18/2002 06:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AGENTS OF A FALSE GOD – A fresh solution to the Iraq situation has just been offered in this month’s Mighty Thor (#55): Send in the Asgardians!
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      ( 10/18/2002 06:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHAT YOU GET IS NO TOMORROW – When I first read the subtitle of Ty Templeton’s graphic novel Bigg Time: A Farcical Fable of Fleeting Fame (Vertigo), I must admit I was not enthused. Another satire of disposable celebhood – was there anything new that cartoonist Templeton would be able to wring out of this overdiscussed subject?

Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean the writer/artist can’t make a few good jokes along the way.

Bigg Time is the story of Lester Bigg, a ranting street denizen who accidentally (after pissing on the third rail) gains the ability to see and hear his guardian angel, a burnt-out “earthbound celestial being, third class” named Stavros. Bigg forces his angel to help him attain his big wish, which is to be famous. Said goal isn’t as easy as it looks, however – especially when you’re an unattractive, balding wreck like Lester.

Our hero acquires an agent after Stavros impersonates an alien (seems many of our big league power brokers've been regularly abducted and submitted to anal probes). This gambit secures Les a speaking role on a big-budget action flick, a recording contract to sing a hiphop version of “Stayin’ Alive,” plus a chance to play on a high-rated game show entitled Who Can Survive Becoming a Millionaire? Of course, he blows ‘em all.

In between, Les ineptly tries to woo a gorgeous, but slightly cracked hair technician named Shelly. He dangles the promise of a meeting with his brother Lance, a celeb baseball player, to pique her interest – a fool’s ploy, indeed, as we all know where it’s gonna end once the starstruck blond sees Les’ handsomer bro in the flesh. Yeah, our hero's an idiot: only way he’ll achieve lasting fame is through a fatal accident.

Along the way, Templeton (who previously trafficked in comically cosmic matters w./ Stig’s Inferno) gets to ponder bigger questions. Stavros has been tossing obstacles in front of Les all his life. But where Bigg sees this as proof that fate has conspired against him, for Stavros it’s just a means of staving off the boredom of his “dead-end human shepherd job.” It’s the poverty of Bigg’s dreams that oppresses him: “Wanting to be famous,” the angel notes, “is sucking the ego nipple without ‘doing’ anything!”

There’s more to the story, but to even parse the workings of Templeton’s convoluted philosophical farce is to spoil some of the better jokes. Cartoonishly rendered in black-and-white (over the years, Templeton has been paying the bills by drawing kid’s comic book versions of DC’s superheroes – and he has a clean, straightforward style), Bigg Time is the product of a kid raised on Capracorn fantasy, Kurtzman’s Mad and the rare spurt of Serling-esque whimsy. “I don’t want . . . any of that O. Henry twist ending crap you supernatural beings are so fond of,” Bigg tells Stavros at one point, even as he (and we) know that’s precisely what he’s gonna get.

It’s to Templeton’s credit that even when we’re sure we know where his story is going, he’s still able to thrown enough good spin to keep us chuckling.

At one point in the story, Les’ spirit guide magically “convinces” big name comic book creators Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Tod McFarlane and Art Spiegelman to work uncredited on a graphic novel under Bigg’s name. “You will acclaimed as the greatest comic creator in North America,” Stavros brags as his charge flips through the pages of this ghosted opus.

“I thought you were supposed to be trying make me famous,” Les grouses back.

Clearly, Ty Templeton has not been holding too tightly onto the “ego nipple.”
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Thursday, October 17, 2002
      ( 10/17/2002 06:33:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A WOMAN WITH FATHER ISSUES – So I’m soaking in the tub this a.m., reading a couple of new comics when I notice that both of ‘em (Grant Morrison’s The Filth and Kevin Smith’s Spider-Man and The Black Cat) make jokes about their heroines PMS-ing. Coincidence, hackneyed “edgy” writing – or is the universe trying to tell me something?
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      ( 10/17/2002 06:32:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“DO YA DO YA DO YA DO YA WANNA DANCE?” – From our Creative Cognitive Dissonance Bureau comes this moment from last night’s Ed: our hero has volunteered to participate in a jitterbugging contest and is being coached on dance moves. A learning montage follows, scored to the Ramones’ version of “Do You Wanna Dance?” And this viewer is struck by the realization that, nowadays, 80’s pop punk is as nostalgia-laden as big band swing . . .
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Wednesday, October 16, 2002
      ( 10/16/2002 07:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“WHO LIKES A SMOKE? ENJOYS A JOKE?” – Chad Orzel has a sharp piece on why he could never be a "real" rock critic. He starts out discussing the White Stripes, noting that for all the raves this new big thing band has received, he can only find one song on its debut disc that sticks: the countryish “Hotel Yorba.” I’ve been playing the disc since summer, and I can’t say I disagree too strongly with his assessment. To my ears, the band’s debut, White Blood Cells, is only fitfully successful.

I’ll admit to some prejudice here. First time I heard the opening track, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” with Jack White’s strangulated Plant-inflected vocals, the doubts stated kicking in big time. If there’s any rock sound I’m less interested in hearing, I can’t for the life of me think of it. Cuts like “Expecting” seem like something you’d expect the characters on That Seventies Show to come up with if they had the wherewithal to form a garage band. A certain amount of rock but very little roll, lots of bombast but scant propulsion.

A few bright songs break on through to the other side: the aforementioned “Yorba” (which evokes early Violent Femmes in its folksy looseness), plus a sweet acoustic trifle entitled “We’re Gonna Be Friends.” “Now Mary” has a nearly buried hookish earnestness that makes you hope a more playful pop voice gets hold of it someday. The movie geek in me also smiles at the inclusion of Charles Foster Kane’s campaign song in the middle of “The Union Forever” (though perhaps the band meant it to evoke Monty Burns from The Simpsons?) But, on the whole, I’d rather spend my time with the Citizen Kane DVD – sitting on a shelf at my house and as yet unopened – than spend much more time listening to this B-grade release.
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Tuesday, October 15, 2002
      ( 10/15/2002 07:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HE’S LOUD – Was prompted by Tom Tomorrow toward a dead-on parody of “fisking” (the rhetorically suspect blog practice of taking an essay and interspersing nitpicks throughout as a means of undermining the work’s larger argument) on the Calpundit site. Author Kevin Drum does a fisk job on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the results are fairly telling. But halfway through I found myself remembering: “Didn’t Loud Kiddington and Honest Abe once do a variation of this routine on Histeria?” In it, the loudmouth lad kept interrupting the Great Imancipator as he attempted to deliver his famous speech.

Is Loud the prototypical fisker?
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      ( 10/15/2002 07:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FORTUNE’S FOOL – This month’s loss (courtesy of the monthly Unitarian poker group) was a whopping $8.70 for yours truly. PBJs for lunch this week!
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Monday, October 14, 2002
      ( 10/14/2002 10:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“OUR FIRST REMARKABLE AND ROUSING NARRATIVE” – The heroes (and heroine) of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (America's Best Comics) should be familiar to any school kid who's looked to old blood-and-thunder storytelling as a means of meeting Classic Lit reading requirements: Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley (Invisible Man) Griffin, Henry Jeckyll/Edward Hyde and resolute Mina Murray (married name, Harker). It's the entertaining conceit of comic book scripter Alan Moore that this disparate group of fictional characters is brought together by the British govt. at the turn of the 19th century. Their mission: to battle nefarious forces like the unnamed Oriental doctor skulking in the vicinity of Limehouse. Their leader is only known by the letter "M," which Mina readily assumes is shorthand for Myrcroft Holmes, Sherlock’s super-genius brother. Of course, she's mistaken.

League is one big gift for the kid within who still recalls reading Conan Doyle & Sax Rohmer paperbacks in the 1960's, a witty and playful evocation of what used to be called Boy's Adventure Books - only filtered through the cheerfully limb-rending sensibilities of modern British comic art. (Artist Kevin O'Neill, working full tilt at recreating the Victorian milieu, is also known for rendering the garishly ultra-violent superhero series, Marshal Law.) First volume in the series - issued in trade paperback just in time for the second set of comics to start appearing - collects the initial six issues: a ripping comics yarn, plus a prose piece that looks like it could've come out of The Strand, followed by a bunch of risible features like a color-by-numbers version of the picture of Dorian Gray.

Like most of Moore's comic work, League is densely packed: the man's a master at embellishing what in lesser hands would be straightforward pulp. (Not surprisingly, there's a site devoted to annotating Moore’s comic work - with a section on this series' Victoriana.) But he's also adept at writing entertaining characters, too. Mina Murray (strong-willed yet still clinging to some vestige of Victorian tradition) and Allan Quatermain (a druggie when we first meet him, though he soon reverts into the stalwart adventurer I recall from those H. Rider Haggard books) quickly move to the forefront, though there also are some enjoyable sequences featuring their less stable cohorts.

The first half of volume one is devoted to our heroine recruiting other team members: traveling in the Nautilus to Cairo than Paris (where we get to return w./ Auguste Dupin to the Rue Morgue) than a comically depraved British girls school where the Invisible Man is running rampant. Second half revolves around the pursuit for an anti-gravity element that could've also appeared in one of s-f writer Michael Moorcock's pastiches (Warlord of the Air, say). A great air battle over London ensues, which is certainly in keeping with the conventions of British speculative fiction, circa 1898.

I had a great time with this stirring volume. Moore is unique among current comics writers in his ability to communicate the enthusiasm of his elaborate story construction. He's like the crazed inventor of some Terry Gilliam contraption. Even when it doesn't do much of anything, you wanna watch it working just to see how all the parts move. . .
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      ( 10/14/2002 10:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE COUPLE THAT WRITES TOGETHER – One of the things that keep me from going out and interacting with the outside world is an ongoing writing collaboration with my wife Becky: a romantic serial for the size acceptance website Dimensions Online entitled “Measure By Measure.” Set within a mythical Midwestern s.a. chapter, the series is our attempt at doing a sort of Tales of the City demi-soap – only w./ lotsa fat characters instead of gay ones. When we first started this project, the serial appeared on a bi-weekly basis, though over time it’s eased in a rough monthly schedule. (This summer’s been rougher than usual.) Over the weekend, though, we just posted the ninetieth chapter in this series: we’ve got it plotted into Episode One-Hundred, and my goal is to get there more a bit quickly. So if I start babbling about being unable to post more regularly here because of “other writing commitments,” this long 'n' winding pastiche is probably one of the reasons.
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Sunday, October 13, 2002
      ( 10/13/2002 09:33:00 AM ) Bill S.  

RALL OVER THE PLACE – Read the new Comics Journal (#247) over the weekend. It’s devoted to political and post-9/11 comic art and features a nicely merciless review of 9/11 comics by R. Fiore (does a great job nailing clichés and sentimentality); an informative piece by Michael Dean on the mechanics of producing benefit books; a strong report on an editorial cartoonists' conference by R.C. Harvey plus an interview with Tom the Dancing Bug’s Ruben Bolling, a cartoonist I’ve grown addicted to via his weekly offerings on salon.com.

Oh, yeah, and there’s Ted Rall stuff, too: a lengthy interview by editor Gary Groth, plus two reviews of his recent work – one by Rich Kreiner that’s cautiously positive, a second by John Giuffo that’s considerably more damning. (Rall also shows up in Harvey’s coverage, and it’s worth noting that a point which Giuffo notes in passing as reflective of Rall’s superficial emphasis on the inconvenience of traveling through Afghanistan is discussed more seriously in Harvey’s piece.) That’s a whole lotta Rall.

Though the man’s been the object of controversy in the comic community for several years, I frankly wasn’t that familiar w./ Rall’s work until after 9/11, when he became damn near ubiquitous as a leftie contrarian spokesguy. My own take on his role in the national debate is close to Giuffo’s: that in a time when rigorous political writing and analysis has been essential, Rall primarily proffers fuzzy-minded leftist reaction.

One of the standard ploys in debate, reductio ad absurdum, consists of taking your opponent’s point-of-view, exaggerating it into something few would support and then responding to that exaggeration as if it were the original point. (We’ve seen this method used repeatedly in the debate on Iraq.) As a writer and political cartoonist, Rall too often does the work of his political opponents: holding up arguments that have already been reduced into absurdity. If Rall didn’t exist, the Right would’ve had to invent him.

Still, you’ve gotta admit that nobody can fire up the knee-jerk outrage like Rall. Over at The Comics Journal's message boards, mere mention of the man’s work has been known to spark interminable threads. At issue, I suspect, is whether you primarily view Rall as an editorial provocateur or an insensitive bully: there’s plenty of evidence in his own work to support both perspectives, while Rall’s own failings as an artist frequently confound the question. The new TCJ may not change anyone’s pre-set opinions about the man, but it’s definitely worth reading if you’re at all interested in comic art’s role in our present-day ultra-political world.

UPDATE: Jim Treacher links to a TCJ thread that’s way too long for me to want to completely wade through. But in it, Rall worries about the blog phenom thus:
”I'm still studying the blog phenomenon so my opinions are still in a state of flux. But they are worrisome. While they're obviously a function of free speech in and of themselves, the right-wing bloggers (seems to be most of them for some reason) often use their Borg-like structure to stifle free speech.”
To support this, he references reaction against his “Terror Widows” strip, a work that drew fire from all sides of the political table. This blog even commented on it, back when we were still test driving the Gadabout. Which I guess makes me part of the hive mind.

It's a good day when you learn something new about yourself.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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