|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Thursday, November 07, 2002 |
( 11/07/2002 12:54:00 PM ) Bill S.
IT’S AARON’S WORLD, BUT I WANNA LIVE IN IT – I know that skippy beat me to the observation, but after watching Josiah Bartlet win Term Two on The West Wing last night, I'd like to live in Aaron Sorkin’s world. In Sorkin’s America, when a politico has the guts to admit out loud that the problems we’re facing can’t be fixed with ten-word sound bites, the citizenry rewards the guy by re-electing him!
And when a Dem candidate inconveniently dies several weeks before the election, the local party decides to run him, anyway – just to get the man’s progressive platform out to the people. Nobody disgraces the late candidate at his funeral. And the day of the election, the weather comes to his aid, producing a monsoon that keeps late afternoon voters away from the polls. Even Gaia is a liberal Democrat, it seems.
Sigh . . . no wonder I watch too much television . . .
( 11/07/2002 10:34:00 AM ) Bill S.
“NO SUCH THING AS UNCORRUPT JUNK” – It was one of those presents that have impact far beyond the usual Xmas present run. In 1966, I received a copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, and it forever changed the way I looked at both comic books and popular art. Feiffer’s hardcover, a collection of superhero tales from comic books’ Golden Age (the 30’s - 40’s) was unique in its day. There weren’t a lot of publishers wanting to focus on this still vaguely disreputable form of entertainment back then: closest you could find was an outfit called Nostalgia Press, which focused on reprinting classic newspaper strips (Terry and the Pirates, Little Nemo in Slumberland), though they would eventually hit the first great line of decidedly non-heroic comic books in the early 70’s with a collection devoted to EC Horror Comics of the Fifties.
What made Feiffer’s book so fascinating and so endlessly re-readable to me was the way he showed me characters whose exploits preceded my own boyish comic book reading by decades. Placed out of the fifties/sixties context that I knew so well, these four-color figures acquired a new strangeness (abetted, at times, by the much less sophisticated art that passed for acceptable in the infant days of the industry). In addition to the reprint material, Feiffer had also included a forty-page-plus essay: a breezy blend of personal reminiscence and historical review that, for me, was the first time I’d really come to grips with pop culture criticism. To this day, I know vestiges of that essay still linger (probably to my detriment) in my own writing.
Feiffer’s book has been out of print for years, though I recently read that Fantagraphics Books is planning a paperback reprint for 2003. (Still have my old copy, though the dust cover has unfortunately bitten what-it-was-meant-to-cover years ago.) In the years since the book first appeared, numerous comic book hero reprints have been published. But with holiday giftgiving approaching, it seemed apt to recommend the pick of the currently available material. I had three base criteria for my list: they needed to be hardbacks to survive the wear-and-tear of decades of revisiting; they needed to be from an era that was as least as strange to a current young reader as the Golden Age was to me; and they needed to be good exemplars of the form.
“Comic books,” Feiffer asserted in the Afterword to Great Comic Book Heroes, “are junk.” While there have been attempts at creating more artful fare, he observed, in the end they’ve all failed. That statement – true at the time the man wrote his appreciation of Golden Age Junk – has been significantly challenged in the years since 1966 by a variety of artists working outside the superhero genre. But no matter much how some proponents of art comics may seethe about it, Good Imaginative Junk continues to hold its broad-based appeal.
And, y’know, it looks even neater bound between the pages of a good sturdy book.
(Written for Blogcritics as part of the site's Top Ten week.)
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
( 11/06/2002 08:11:00 AM ) Bill S.
POST-ELECTION STRESS DISORDER – Well, the campaigns are over, so now it’s time for the seed corn ads to take over in my part of the country. Here in Illinois, it’s been a big win for the Dems. Even our hard-stumpin’ prez couldn’t help a Republican gubernatorial candidate so mired in unpopular status quo-ness and unanswered accusations of corruption that he couldn’t get his own party fully behind him.
Wednesday a.m., and the Republicans are crowing over “taking back” the Senate and “holding onto” the House. As someone who believes that democracy works best as a debate instead of a monologue, I’m theoretically bothered by this. But time will tell whether this victory is really the “mandate” that all the pundits will want to claim it to be.
None of the channels I watched did any crawls or screen shrinking during regular TV scheduling. Perhaps the presence of so many all-news channels has made this less viable in a two-year election. I was looking forward to catching at least one crawl during 24. Would’ve added an entertaining subtext to that show’s ongoing political intrigues . . .
( 11/06/2002 07:48:00 AM ) Bill S.
I WANNA BITE THE HAND THAT FEEDS ME – At the behest of head Blogcritic Eric Olsen, I’ve put a Top Ten list up in the site's musical section: ostensibly, it’s to give readers a sense of where individual critics are coming from – but it also serves as good advertising for discs that the reader can order through the Amazon links that accompany each piece. My own list was by no means meant to be comprehensive or categorically significant: just an enumeration of ten discs that I’ve regularly been returning to this season. But if you’re interested, you can find the piece here.
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
( 11/05/2002 12:14:00 PM ) Bill S.
“AS MAINE GO SO GO POGO GO KEY LARGO . . .” – Just got back from voting. Seemed like a decent turn-out at our local polling place: have no way of gauging if it’s as sparse as the pundits claim it’s supposed to be. But whenever I hear that type of prognostication, I personally feel doubly inspired to go vote.
Ah, who’m I kidding? I like voting. All those years of elementary school propaganda have taken hold. I still believe it’s my duty as a moderately informed citizen to get out and vote. Entering that booth is one of the few times I feel like an unequivocal adult.
Our polling place is the Grace Baptist Church, which has always struck me as a little weird (and me voting for all those damn secular humanists!) I’ve been going to the same building for over a decade, and to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a hint of voting irregularities. The judges are your basic League of Women Voters types: you see the same faces year after year – and good for them.
Voting is done in Illinois with the usual punch-out ballots. So, of course, this year I had to double check mine to insure there were no dimpled chads on the form. My ballot, I’m happy to report, was pristine.
In Illinois, we’re electing a governor this year along with a senator and representative. I voted on all these, but I balked when it came to our more local races. In the county where I live, the Dems are so anemic that most of the local races are run by uncontested Republicans. I refuse to vote in an uncontested election even when (as I do with one of the running judges) I like the guy. That’s not an election; it’s an appointment.
Still, like I say, I enjoy voting. If nothing else, it's one good way of insuring I won’t be too teed-off tonight when they shrink the screen during the suspenseful part of my favorite TV series.
( 11/05/2002 08:54:00 AM ) Bill S.
“FOR ADULT INTELLECTUALS ONLY” – Visiting Dirk Deppey’s Journalista web log, I started pondering the categorizations Dirk had placed in the left column o’ links. One cluster of comics company sites (Alternative, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, et al) was labeled “Publishers;” the second (Archie, DC, Marvel, Image and so on) had the more limiting heading of “Publishers (Children's).”
I’ve seen this distinction made before: “mainstream,” primarily superhero, comics described as Children’s Lit. You can see where this originated. Historically, superhero comics were initially marketed to kids (think of all those comic book covers that featured urban ragamuffins perched atop the hero’s shoulders, for instance). There was a time in popular entertainment when if you wanted to suggest that an adult character was an unidjicated dolt, all you had to do was show him reading a comic book; these days, in the popular imagination, that same character would be a nerd (not quite the same thing). As the ongoing battles of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund attest, though, a sizable part of the American public still primarily thinks of comics as Kid’s Stuff.
If the audience age range for superhero comics has expanded over the last three decades, the basis of the fantasy remains lodged in impulses accessible to kids, adolescents and adults. But you could also say this about much of our mainstream entertainment. Most genre work is steeped in formula comfort, after all, and when it comes down to it, are the adventures of the comic book Peter Parker any more ridiculous than the latest Vin Diesel flick?
I should note that I’m not particularly bothered by the use of the Children’s Lit label. Back in the seventies, when yours truly was a lowly English grad student, two of my biggest areas of emphasis were Elizabethan drama and what snootier grads liked to call “Kiddy Lit.” Like most young master’s students, I could be quite emphatic defending my chosen line of study. Much of what passed for mainstream modern lit, I’d assert, was academic claptrap removed from real life: the best juvie lit was vibrant and still concerned with telling a story.
My point in mentioning the above – aside from revealing that I’m just as capable of being broadly dismissive for purpose of promoting an aesthetic agenda as the next guy – is to indicate I don’t share the view that being a “children’s publisher” is necessarily a bad thing. I just don’t believe it’s an adequate distinction.
For one thing, it’s not useful. It doesn’t account for the audience gap between Scooby Doo Mysteries or Archie and DK2 (which relies on a readership that has a good twenty years of comics reading behind it). Carl Barks and John Stanley created clear-cut children’s comics; the work that Lee & Kirby & Ditko et al produced at their peak was irrefutably kid friendly (you could probably match the growth in character development in superhero comics of the sixties w./ a comparable blossoming among children’s book authors, though I’m thinking that the comics industry beat the more cautious children’s book publishers by a few years). But what do you do when you get to Garth Ennis?
I know, I know: Jim Steranko’s bete noir is an extreme example. But there are plenty of other comics coming out today from “children’s” publishers that I know I’d want to at least screen from my kids if I had any beginning readers in the house. One quickly selected example: Marvel’s Get Kraven, which brandishes the Spider-Man imprimatur as part of its logo but is clearly meant for a readership old enough to get Howard Stern. You can argue that much of Kraven’s humor is childish, but that doesn’t mean it’s for children.
To hammer the point more than is probably necessary: just because a work is created out of adolescent impulses doesn’t mean that its intended readership is kid or teenaged. Pornography, after all, is driven by urges accessible to the horniest fifteen-year-old. But that doesn’t make it teen fiction.
I can understand the need to draw a line in the sand between comic art that has previously been described as “mainstream” and the growing library of work that looks at more than the spandex crowd. But the Children’s distinction is more murky than helpful (what does it do for so-called “neo-innocent” indy comics artists like James Kochalka?) Perhaps, if Deppey wants to maintain a haughtily trivializing label, he could resurrect John Simon’s “kidult” term (first read by me in a “Zippy” strip). Or, better yet, call ‘em “Pop Art Productions” – in tribute to the days when funky ol’ twelve-cent superhero books first started putting on airs. . .
Monday, November 04, 2002
( 11/04/2002 12:08:00 PM ) Bill S.
A FROSTY CHOCOLATE MILKSHAKE – Sunday was a good night for TV ‘toon fans: both The Simpsons and King of the Hill had their season premieres (yeah, I know that Fox is claiming that the “Treehouse of Horror” entry was not this year’s true season premiere – but I don’t believe ‘em), while on The Cartoon Network, new eps of Sealab 2021, Aqua-Teen Hunger Force and The Brak Show were aired for the first time in weeks.
This year’s “Treehouse” (number thirteen!) was a solid collection: the opening clone story with its landscape of big daddy Simpsons (including a version of the early model from season one, the fat Homer from his misplaced attempt at getting disability, and the rip-off Family Guy model) was particularly funny, though the second sequence where Lisa convinces everyone in Springfield to throw away their firearms provided a suitably trenchant satire of the gun control debate. As with the best eps of this show, just when you think they’re going one direction with their satiric point, they’ll do an about face and slap both sides.
Hill’s plotline was more character driven as father Hank is driven to distraction by the sight of son Bobby’s innocently provocative dancing at a boy band concert. One of the appealing things about this show is the way it manages to balance lampooning with an honest liking for its characters. In a lot of ways the show’s writers have managed to pull off a subtle use of animation. Utilizing the “unreality” of cartoon characters to more baldly depict human behavior, they get away with things live action sitcoms can’t. Last night’s images of Bobby Hill unknowingly engaging in dance moves simulating actions that a child actor could never perform on a prime time sitcom provide a good case in point. The joke is in Hank’s appalled reaction to the sight, but the reality is that a good many flesh-and-blood parents would be dismayed if they came upon the same thing in real life, too.
As for the “Adult Swim” toons: though I’ve written in praise of Brak in the past, I have to give the edge Sunday to the Aqua-Teens. Last night’s entry, featuring Meatwad’s acquisition of a depressed alcoholic doll named Larry, was darkly laugh-out-loud funny. When this series first started, I gave it a big shrug. But it’s quickly developed into one of the most consistently satisfying fifteen minutes within the Sunday “Adult Swim” lineup.
Shows like Aqua-Teen are the Cartoon Net’s equivalent to a good sardonic indy comic (the ultra-limited animation matches the comic artists’ frequently primitive rendering). Though, no doubt, the cartoons’ audience share is massively larger. Still, I like that TCN continues to hold a place for this material: even if it is in a slot most conducive to an audience comprised primarily of the jobless and/or college students. You’ve gotta be particularly bent to want to start your work week with the exploits of a giant talking meatball. But I, for one, am proud to be a part of that small demographic.
Sunday, November 03, 2002
( 11/03/2002 12:20:00 PM ) Bill S.
“MEDIOCRE PEOPLE DO EXCEPTIONAL THINGS ALL THE TIME” – Among new bands, it’s tough to beat OK Go in the Apt Names Department. It sounds just like it sounds like: short and punchy, a smidgeon of adolescent aggressiveness tempering yer basic pop-rock friendliness. All very guitar-&-keyboardy in the manner of new wave giants, the Cars (and their lesser known but no less tuneful contemporaries, 20/20), as filtered through the deceptively soft harmonics of more modern cult faves like Wondermints. Music for those too cool-whipped to admit they actually kinda like the way the new Avril Lavigne single sounds.
The band’s eponymous debut disc happily runs all over the pop-rock landscape: handclap drumming, studio airiness, chomping guitar chords, soaring keyboard flourishes, falsetto backing vocals. When lead Damian Kulash drives “10,000 Miles An Hour,” you know he’s doing it on Utopia Parkway; when the band’s guitars start to get fuzzy & noisy around a “sing me a song” chorus, you start to wonder if Blur’s Graham Coxon snuck into the studio. “You’re So Damn Hot” opens like the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” only it’s more sneering in its description of a conscienceless “boy trap.” The band even ventures into more openly quirky pop realms of Barenaked Ladies (“There’s A Fire”) and TMBG (“Hello, My Treacherous Friends”) without surrendering the fatal cutesiness of either group at their weakest.
In short, OK Go is just the kind of accessa-pop you play incessantly when you first get it – then may or may not keep in rotation once the newness has worn off. Lyrically, most of the disc revolves around the heartbreak of twenty-something singlehood (not much different from such Midwestern forerunners as Shoes, say, or Material Issue) with a predilection for the arch putdown (“Compassion’s just a nicer way of looking down your nose.”) Might get irritating over repeated releases, but not ‘til the third or fourth album, I reckon. For power pop junkies already weary of the tin-can studio sounds & gravelly adenoids of the neo-garagers, OK Go could be Just What They Needed.
Friday, November 01, 2002
( 11/01/2002 10:05:00 AM ) Bill S.
“YOU AIN’T GO FRIENDS ON THE LEFT: YOU’RE RIGHT! YOU AIN’T . . .” I’m curiously following the recently initiated anti-war-w./-Iraq blog, Stand Down, not just for the arguments but because blogmaster Max Sawicky is touting it as a collective of left and right-leaning writers whose main slab of common ground is the belief that this proposed war’s a foolhardy enterprise. It’ll be interesting to watch how long this coalition stays intact. (Insert joking ref to Israeli govt. here. . .)