Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, November 16, 2002
      ( 11/16/2002 07:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“DON’T PUT MARBLES UP YER NOSE” – Don’t have much to say about the first major label release of punk partygrrls, The Donnas (Spend the Night). Sounds pretty much the same as their indy releases – same sonic blend of Runaways and Ramones, same post-adolescent blend of tease and putdown. If you liked the earlier stuff, you’ll probably like this, too. I do.

But I did want to note that the release also includes a DVD with an animated music video (“Do You Wanna Hit It?”) and add that concept and design credits are shared by Chris Georgenes, Jon Benjamin & Loren Bouchard. Those last two guys are involved w./ Cartoon Network’s po-mo "Peanuts" toon, Home Movies. And watching the video, you can’t help but be reminded of the music vids created by the show’s young would-be filmmaker. Is this what Brendan Small’d be doing if he had more money?
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Friday, November 15, 2002
      ( 11/15/2002 02:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SO HAS ZIPPY EVER HAD A SITDOWN W./ THE GEMINI GIANT? – The timing was entirely accidental, I swear – but the day I posted my “Zippy” piece, I learned of Bill Griffith’s appearance on a Travel Channel doc devoted to The World’s Best Roadside Attractions. The show aired Thursday night (it's being rerun this Saturday), lists Griffith as one of its Creative Consultants and features several commentary segments of the artist at his drawing board. Like most Travel Channel presentations, the documentary was lightweight, but had its kernels of info & analysis (most of the latter being supplied by Griffy, of course).

In case you’re wondering, the show’s top ten list of attractions is:
  • Muffler Men (& Uniroyal Ladies)
  • A Drive-Thru Chandelier Tree
  • Coral Castle
  • The World's Largest Killer Bee
  • The Largest Thermometer
  • Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast
  • The World's Largest Ball of Twine
  • Cadillac Ranch
  • Spam Museum
  • Shady Dell Trailer Park
Griffy’s comments were exactly what you’d expect from the creator of “Zippy.” At one point, he describes how great roadside attractions set up a dialog with the visitor – and how he uses that dialog as part of his strip. We also learned that the characteristic stance of the Muffler Man figure comes from the fact that the original mold was built for a Paul Bunyan statue. I also discovered that the Gemini Giant seen in my blog pic at the right is also a modified Muffler Man. I’ve visited him several times, but he’s never really talked to me. Perhaps the helmet was getting in the way. . .
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      ( 11/15/2002 12:23:00 PM ) Bill S.  

IN PRAISE OF ANAL-RETENTIVE GEEKINESS – So Becky and I are watching a pre-primetime rerun of That Seventies Show, noting how much funnier the series was in its first year, which is particularly germane since we’re viewing the show’s pilot ep. Set in Midwestern America circa 1976, the debut story concerns the cast’s trip to a Todd Rundgren concert in Milwaukee. Throughout the show, we hear a song that was once a big hit for the former Nazz-man: “Hello, It’s Me.”

During the final commercial break, I rise from the couch and head for my CD shelves in the study. Pull out a re-release of Something/Anything? (from whence came this version of “Hello”) and note the release date, March 1972, though further examination reveals that the song itself didn’t hit the charts ‘til the end of ‘73. I return to the living room couch just in time to see the cast singing along to “Hello” in the end credits and say to my wife, “You know, that single’s a bit old to be considered cool by a group of high schoolers, isn’t it?”

Becky’s succinct reply: “I don’t care.”

I get that a lot from her, particularly when I’m being picky about pop culture references. I don’t get bent out of shape by her reply. I know what I’m doing is trivial and ultimately unrelated to whether the show is any good at what it does – though a really good show’ll keep me too involved to notice such goofs ‘til I think about ‘em later. But I still find it fun to play Spot the Glitch.

In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, there’s an anachronism that has delighted young students for years: midway into the play, as Brutus and Casio are plotting, a clock loudly strikes three, adding to the conspirators’ anxiety. A nice scene, but for the fact that clocks would have hardly been chiming back in Ancient Rome. It doesn’t especially lessen the impact of the play to know that the Bard made this flub. For some of us, it actually enhances our enjoyment.

Sometimes when I’m talking to friends about something we’ve seen on TV or in movies, I get one of those statements that contain an implicit put-down of geekish criticism: “I just watch this stuff to be entertained, not to pick it apart.” Imbedded in that statement is the presumption that picking things apart is a joyless act. Well, I’m here to state that it’s not.

When I’m confronted with an apparent flub on television, I don’t usually jump up and shout “Hah!” I typically wait ‘til the next break, head for the reference material and do a quick fact-check. If my first suspicion is confirmed, I do my victory dance, sit down and return to the program, momentarily secure in my status as Nitpicker Supreme.

Entertaining? You betcha.

(NOTE: Within this piece is a deliberate error. Can you spot it?)

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Thursday, November 14, 2002
      ( 11/14/2002 09:05:00 AM ) Bill S.  

CLIMBING OUT OF THAT RUT – I’ve been watching Ed this season, but nowhere with as much interest as I did when the dramedy first started: the show really backed itself into a corner with its “Is Carol Vessey gonna marry Dennis Martino?” plotline (c’mon, the show’s called Ed, not Dennis!) and lost much of its light touch in the process. Which is why I’m glad to report that the threatened marriage ceremony finally reached its climax last night. Perhaps, I now hope, the writers can return to the some of the plotlines that’ve been more comically fruitful in the past (e.g., Dr. Mike’s struggling practice). Less moping; more comic whimsy, please.

Sometimes, a show needs to get past a Big Event to regain its story focus. Watching this week’s West Wing, for instance, I realized how much of the drag the presidential election plotline had become on the show. Released from it, last night’s ep was zippier than it’d been all season: if Sorkin can continue to include scenes like the opener showing Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn squirming as media types bring his name up as a California candidate, Lowe could receive one of the best primetime series exits since Jimmy Smits left the NYPD.
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      ( 11/14/2002 07:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“AM I AT A HEIGHTENED STATE OF ALERT YET?” – The 2002 collection of Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” strip, Zippy Annual, (Fantagraphics) opens with a sequence that shows the cartoonist at his most playful. In it, a tearful retro comic strip femme – redolent of the kind of kitschy figures Griffy used to parody in his Young Lust underground days – mysteriously appears in the panels of the “Zippy” strip. Who is she? Neither our microcephalic lead nor his creator know, so the cartoonist decides to search through the “few remaining ‘realistic’ strips in the newspaper,” walking through such dinosaurs like “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and “Mark Trail,” only to be rebuffed by their straight-laced leads. Unsuccessful, Griffy returns to his own strip to discover that the teary woman isn’t from the funny pages at all – but a seventies romance comic book. “I hope it isn’t too late to save Zippy from her politically incorrect enticements,” he says before racing off to rescue his lovestruck hero.

Periodically, I marvel at Zippy’s continued life on the mainstream comics page. The strip remains a model of everything that “typical” comics readers are supposed to hate: a decidedly uncuddly muumuu-clad lead, non-liner storytelling, intellectual in-jokes, plus a point of view that embraces rigorous critical thought (even as it recognizes its limitations). Doesn’t Griffith know that we’re an anti-intellectual culture? Who does he think is the audience for this concatenation of cross-cultural japery, anyhoo?

Actually, the cartoonist tells us, “all the non-sequitars . . . all th’ obscure references . . . the convolution . . . th’ ‘giant beings’” are for one person: Grace Sturm. Who is Grace Sturm? “If I knew the answer to that, big guy,” Griffith tells the questioning pinhead, “I’d save thousands in shrink bills!”

Turns out that Miz. S. is a newspaper editor who “occasionally understood” Zippy. This li’l factoid is revealed in a “pindex” at the back of the annual (a typical Griffith touch: who else would deign to annotate a daily comic strip so compulsively?) The rest of us, most likely, just let Griffith’s comically surreal blend of cultural critique & lowbrow fetishizing wash over us. Nuthin’ wrong with that, of course. It’s what Zippy’d do.

As a newspaper strip, “Zippy” uses the parameters of its chosen form better than any other extant comic. Even the casual titles at the top of each sequence are part of the gag, often add needed context to what otherwise might pass for echolalia. Nobody else in mainstream comics is so conscious – and willing to make the reader conscious – of the confines of the three/four panel strip. Nobody else is as willing to dash full tilt against ‘em.

It helps that Griffith got his early training in the undergrounds: his sideshow hero first appeared (w/o the trademark stream-of-consciousness dialog) in a calculatedly tawdry 1970 ug entitled Real Pulp, while Griffy himself first started doling out trenchant observations in an alternative press strip named “Griffith Observatory.” Where most strip artists enter the field embracing its conventions, Griffith had already spent years deconstructing ‘em. In one of the Sunday strips, for instance, we see the printing company’s code numbers corresponding to the colors used on each character: “Thank goodness we’re color coded,” Zippy tells the readers.

Many of the strip’s best moments, for me, play creator and creation against each other. Per his self-caricature from the earlier “Observatory” strips, the needle-nosed Griffy is congenitally critical of everything he considers shallow & distracting in American culture (e.g., last year’s big fantasy flicks). Alter ego Zippy, though, is pure uncritical impulse. In real life, he’d be a babbling street person; in a comic strip, he gets to be an accidental savant. Zippy occasionally relates to other characters – a female pinhead named Zerbina, who may or may not be his wife; a lumpen bumpkin named Claude; a desperate trend follower called Shelf Life – but the soul of the strip lies in the Griffy/Zippy split.

Nearly as profound, though, are the character’s regular dialogs with discarded commercial statuary. In a post-9-11 Sunday strip, for instance, the pinhead talks to a statue of a giant Christmas elf. “Nothing is normal anymore,” he tells the elf, “we can’t have a normal holiday,” and the joke lies in the fact that normalcy for our hero includes regular dialogs with inanimate objects (giant muffler men, in particular). Walking through an abandoned amusement park, Zippy says in a rare moment of lucidity, “Nothing sadder than a defunct rotting away, pre-computer kids’ theme park!” as gingerbread men plead for our hero to save them. Zippy hears everything our artifacts are saying: hallucination as cultural satire.

At times in this collection, you can feel Griffith straining to maintain his Zippyness (one too many strips with our hero repeating the same phrase through all three panels, for instance). But then he’ll follow it with an entry that flips your view of the world around you. If it wasn’t for “Zippy,” who’d memorialize such American oddities as the Oregon big bunny statue built from a former muffler man? (“I don’t look Disneyesque enough for ya?” the statue challenges. “Well, life isn’t a theme park. . .Life is a big scary bunny!”)

In another extended sequence, our hero struggles to save his favorite comic strip, “Nimrod,” from being cancelled by his local paper (a plotline parodying the temporary cancellation of Griffith’s strip by the San Francisco Chronicle). “Since we’re vaguely embarrassed that comics still bring in large numbers of readers,” the paper’s editor states at one point, “we like to take a cavalier attitude toward th’ ones we choose to publish!” That “Zippy” continues to run in papers every day alongside tripe like “B.C.” is a triumph of cultural subversion.

Long may his muumuu wave.
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Wednesday, November 13, 2002
      ( 11/13/2002 07:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

DOES THIS MEAN HE’S NOT “THE MAN” ANYMORE? – The comic sites are buzzin’ about former Marvel honcho Stan Lee’s lawsuit against Marvel Comics: Tuesday, he filed a $10 million lawsuit charging that the company is cheating him out of his share of lucrative movie profits. With the movie versions of Daredevil and X-Men II on the event horizon (and blockbuster Spider-Man currently entering Xmas gift-giving season w./ two different DVD sets) that’s probably a nice chunk of change.

It’s the type of story guaranteed to appeal to the press: comic book superheroes are supposed to be about fairness, about fighting the good fight for truth and justice. Now, here we’ve got what appears to be a corporate entity screwing an 80-year-old man out of his fair share. This is based on an agreement signed between Lee and the company in 1988, which includes this pertinent sentence:
"In addition, you shall be paid participation equal to 10% of the profits derived during your life by Marvel (including subsidiaries and affiliates) from the profits of any live action or animation television or movie (including ancillary rights) productions utilizing Marvel characters.”
Marvel’s response has been to assert that the $400 million spider hit hasn’t seen any “profits” as defined by the contract. The entertainment industry is filled with tales of creative accounting, so it’s possible they might have a legal case here, but it’s still a public relations nightmare for the comics company. During the Spider-Man movie’s p.r. blitz, Lee was all over the media as the “Man Who Created Spider-Man” (w./ a little help from artist and collaborator Steve Ditko, of course). And now this genial old guy is the public victim of slippery corporate types.

Lee’s lawsuit demands damages and a court order forcing Marvel to turn over Lee's share in any profits from movies about characters he created. In reply, Marvel has issued a statement saying Lee “continues to be well-compensated” for his contributions to the industry. In comparison with the piss-poor treatment that fellow collaborators Ditko or Jack (Hulk, Fantastic Four and more) Kirby received from the company, this is doubtless true. But it doesn’t make that contract any less binding.

As someone who grew up reading Marvels when Stan Lee was the comics line’s most vocal voice (as scripter for most of the early titles, it was Lee who personalized comics writing in a way that is still being felt today), I’m rooting for the guy. The comics industry has had a long and sordid history of mistreating its creative people. And while this case won’t redress all the earlier grievances (some of which Lee himself at least tacitly supported) between creators and company, you still can’t help wondering if a dose of korporate karma isn’t being doled out. . .

UPDATE: As Dirk Deppey points out, Marvel's share of the spiderflick profits are pretty paltry on paper.
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Tuesday, November 12, 2002
      ( 11/12/2002 11:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

IT’S ALSO DERIVED FROM THE NAME ANNIE – Reading a piece on Blogcritics about this week’s Boston Public ep, I ran across one of those rhetorical catchphrases that never ceases to get my goat.

The term: “Nanny State.”

It’s a popular phrase among a certain breed of conservative, used to disparage a kind of elitist liberal do-goodism. A pretty effective image, too: hearing it, you can’t help but envision an army of Mary Poppins (“practically perfect in every way”) marching down your neighborhood, ready to barge into your home and tell you how you’re supposed to live your life. Not only is it regularly used on poliblogs, it also pops up on sites devoted to special interest groups like the liquor or tobacco industry.

As a part-time writer, I’m sensitive to heavy-handed govt. intervention of all stripes (though I can’t help noting that some writers who get bent out of shape when the intervention is in the service of social well being have no issue when it’s being proposed for defense). But as someone who has spent more then two decades employed by the literal “nanny state,” I still chafe when the phrase gets wielded. I’ve worked as a counselor and child care worker in the child welfare system most of my adult life – with kids in residential and foster placement who have Illinois as their guardian because, in many cases, their parents were too criminally abusive to safely rear their kids.

I mention this because I think that there are times when being a “nanny” (which is to say: someone employed to take care of someone else’s child) in the service of the state isn’t a bad thing. I’ve known kids whose home lives would have made V.C. Andrews shudder. I’ve known plenty of good people (and a few idiots, too) who’ve devoted part of their lives to providing safe, alternative homes for these kids. It’s a part of the “nanny state” that frequently gets downplayed – unless it’s in a state like Florida where the system is so criminally mismanaged that they keep losing kids – but it’s one that I personally value.

And it’s something that keeps from me wanting to read or listen any further any time some would-be pundit tosses out the catchphrase. (Probably not much different from the response a cop feels when they hear the phrase “police state” being carelessly bandied around.) These, I think, are the words of the privileged and the cocooned – of big boys who probably could’ve benefited from the stern directive hand of a Mary Poppins in their formative years.

I know my reaction is gut-level. But rhetoric isn’t about reasoned arguments; it’s about communication. And to this reader & listener, this simplistic, sneering phrase is one big rhetorical bug-in-the-ass.
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      ( 11/12/2002 08:16:00 AM ) Bill S.  

. . .EGON TOMORROW – More than once Journalista! has pointed us to a comics news focused blog entitled Egon, which largely ignores the mainstream majors in favor of news & shipping dates for alternative press goodies. (Irrelevant query: is the blog named after Harold Ramis’ Ghostbusters geek?) Recommended reading for those who care as much (or more) for news about Jim Woodring as they do the new Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee Batman collab.
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      ( 11/12/2002 07:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LUCK BE A LADY TONIGHT – This wouldn’t be a full-service blog if it didn’t include the regular self-indulgent “It’s My Life and I’ll Do What I Want” posting. At Gadabout, that typically means another quick peak at my standing in the local Unitarian men’s poker group: came out a $5.50 winner this month, making up slightly for last month’s big loss. At the end of my first year, I’ll probably tally the results to see if I’m hero or goat.

Hey, I give a rat's ass, okay?
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Monday, November 11, 2002
      ( 11/11/2002 12:24:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“I LEARNED HOW TO LOVE BEFORE I COULD EAT” – For the last two weekends, my dog park tape of choice was Sam & Dave’s 1967 classic Soul Men (Atlantic).

I’m a longstanding fan of this great soul duo, and this album was the platter that first hooked me. It’s not just the statement-of-purpose title opener (Isaac Hayes and David Porter at their strutting best) but the range of soulful cuts that follow: from the yearning “May I Baby” (with its odd Oriental bells in the opening) to their churchly remake of “Let It Be Me” to “Don’t Knock It” (with a nasally vocal that somehow manages to mesh garage punk and mainstream soul), singers Sam Moore and Dave Prater grab each song and don’t let go for nuthin’. Backed by the Stax Studio musicians – a group that included Hayes & Porter, plus piercingly economical guitarist Steve Cropper (“Play it, Steve!”) and Donald “Duck” Dunn – the duo exemplified passionate sixties soul singing at its apex.

Back when Belushi and Ackroyd were perpetrating the Blues Brothers, “Soul Man” was one of their big numbers. The two comedians never came close to capturing the hard-working ethic of this song, even if they did appropriate some of the Memphis musicians who’d played on the original single. Listen to both versions and you'll hear an object lesson on the yawning gap between Real and Tribute. . .
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      ( 11/11/2002 10:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“KNOWN TO CAUSE INSANITY IN LABORATORY MICE” – Lame duck series Futurama had its season premiere last night: a riff on global warming that included a guest appearance by Al Gore (“inventor of the environment and emperor of the moon”). This is Al’s second appearance on the show, and I’ve gotta admit he comes across more personable as an animated disembodied head than he ever has on camera. Perhaps if the cartoon Gore had run in 2000, the outcome of that election would’ve been different.

The ep itself was a bit of a mixed bag. I enjoyed the sequence where our heroes race to Halley’s Comet to pick up ice (dumping large blocks of ice into the ocean is the stopgap measure for counteracting the greenhouse effect – an idea so short-term and ludicrous you just know it’d appeal to our current elected officials), only to discover the comet’s supply of ice has been depleted (“Like some outer space Motel 6,” hero Fry notes). But the final third, where we learn that robotic gaseous emissions are responsible for increased global warming, featured more obvious bodily function jokes this side of a John K. cartoon. The idea of filling the Galapagos Islands w./ farting robots may be theoretically funny. But the cartoon reality is actually kinda blah. . .
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Sunday, November 10, 2002
      ( 11/10/2002 07:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THERE’S SO MUCH OF ME TO LOVE” – Cornpex is the name of an annual postcard and stamp show held in Bloomington, Illinois; I’ve been attending for the past eight years to scout for new pieces of “fatabilia” (fat-themed collectibles). It’s the only show I’ve attended (I buy most items at antique shops and on auction sites), but, hey, it’s in my back yard so I’d be a fool not to go.

The cards I look for are typically comic, but not insulting, featuring cartoon images of attractively rendered plus-sized women, frequently drawn in vacation settings. Occasionally a joke may be made about the woman’s size (e.g., “Traveling is so broadening”), but it’s usually a mild one. Many of the jokes can also be lightly risqué. Today, fat jokes are primarily put-downs; these old placards from the twenties, thirties & forties have the innocent naughtiness of a fifties era Playboy party joke.

I’ve been collecting these types of cards for close to a decade, so nowadays it’s gotten increasingly more difficult to find unique items in unsent condition. Came out of this year’s show with five postcards, which set me back eleven dollars. (Most comic cards cost between two and five dollars.) All of ‘em were by American artists I knew: two by Craig Fox, two by Walt Munson and one by Walter Wellman. The last is a particular favorite of mine, known for rendering full figured flappers like the example below done for the Manhattan Post Card Company: the sinking canoe/rowboat is a standard comic vacation card gag – it was also recently used by the Farrelly Bros. in Shallow Hal.

When I first started looking for these cards (spurred through a series of articles by Dimensions writer and rabid fatabiliac Karl Neidershuh), most sellers didn’t bother to separate ‘em from the other comic cards. But thanks to the presence of sites like this (yeah, that’s me, writing under a pseudonym), many card dealers have begun including their own “fat comic” section within the topical cards boxes. That makes a visit to Cornpex go more quickly, but it also lessens the thrill of the hunt a tad.

Comic postcards are generally a low-end collectible: one more reason that I like ‘em. In general, the pricier items are done by two artists. English seaside postcard artist Donald McGill is familiar to many Americans as the source for many of the comic cards used to bridge commercial breaks on the repackaged Benny Hill half hours. I’m not particularly enamored of his ruddy-faced fat ladies, but there are a couple of cards out there with more attractive female figures that I’ve been looking for. German artist Arthur Thiele is more commonly known for fantasy and anthropomorphic animal cards though he also did some cards showing life in early 20th Century Germany (including some WWI soldier comics), including a series of seaside cards featuring supersized Teutonic bathing beauties. Some of these are quite nice and a lot harder to find in this country. A couple of years ago, I came upon one at Cornpex, but more typically I have to find Thiele on eBay or Playle.

I can’t make any high-flown claims for my love of these modest little cardboard items. I like ‘em for their cartoon art and for their images of a world when being larger than usual wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. In an era where a disturbing number of young girls indicate they would rather be hit by a bus or lose a limb than be (shudder!) fat, that’s kind of refreshing.

(For a selection of an earlier year’s Cornpex pickin’s, click here.)
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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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