Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, January 25, 2003
      ( 1/25/2003 06:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AND WHAT’S THE DEAL W./ THE T.S. ELIOT QUOTES? – An intriguing tale in DC’s latest Adventures of Superman (#612, “Authorized”): writer Joe Casey imagines the appearance of a Superman figure who resembles the earliest Siegel and Shuster model. No battler of supervillains, this version (has a cruder looking “S” on his chest, is colored with flat old fashioned solids & dots – neatly realized by artist Derek Aucoin and colorists Tanya & Richard Horie) hearkens back to the more proletarian fantasy figure of the Great Depression. A Friend-of-the-Downtrodden Superman, who stops a brutal Texas sheriff from beating on Mexican immigrants or pulls a wife-beater away from his spouse.

This retro version turns to be the creation of a frustrated writer (the superhero has somehow come to life – no clearer explanation is given – after the man’s written a novel entitled Champion of the Oppressed, describing his vision of an ideal hero). The presentday Superman, he states is “a bit too civilized . . . All that power . . . and look how he uses it. Wrestling with aliens and taking meetings on the moon doesn’t exactly speak to the common man. He’s just a bit too detached for me, so my hero fictional champion does things a bit differently.” Got to admit our author’s got a point, but since this is the 21st Century Superman’s book, the argument’s stacked against him. Persuaded by Clark to delete the ms. (like how many hard-working writers would do that?), he wipes out his creation.

DC is pushing its contemporary version of Superman – they gave him a Ten-Cent Adventure recently to launch a new creative team and wiped out one of the line’s four standing titles, Man of Steel – which has led to much fannish pontificating on What’s Wrong W./ Today’s Superman. In that context, Casey’s script can’t help coming off a wee bit defensive. And after rereading the book, I’m still not sure why (in a meta-human strewn world), the early incarnation Superman is necessarily a Bad Thing. Sure, he’s flat, but he’s more human than some of the other costumed vigilantes out there.

“We try to inspire them,” modern Superman tells his counterpart. “We don’t judge them.” (Tell that to the gang in Gotham City!) “I’m not built that way,” the flat-screen superguy sez, just before he fades away. All right, this reader thinks, you’ve pushed Delete on the prototype Man of Steel – now give us a modern version we can actually care about. . .
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Thursday, January 23, 2003
      ( 1/23/2003 10:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MUST BE “DELAYED GRATIFICATION WEEK” – Having watched Serendipity over the weekend, I pick up Amazing Spider-Man #49 and see scripter Straczynski spends most of the issue contriving to keep Peter Parker & estranged wife Mary Jane apart from each other ‘til the very end. Results aren’t as strained as the movie comedy (I believe, for instance, that Parker would have trouble w./ keeping his phone connected: it’s something that could’ve happened to the Stan Lee Spidey), but still . . .
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      ( 1/23/2003 09:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MAULDIN – Though it’s probably unfair to indulge in such comparisons, I’ve got to admit that I felt a stronger affinity to the late Bill Mauldin than I did recently deceased caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Mauldin was the first editorial cartoonist that I paid regular attention to. I’ve mentioned the influence Walt Kelly’s Pogo collections had on me in the past: discovering ‘em as a pre-teen in the Arlington Heights Public Library was the first time I keyed into the fact that comics could be popular art. After I’d checked out and culled over all the Kelly collections, the next artist I latched onto was Mauldin.

The man was the Chicago Sun-Times editorial cartoonist at the time: a proud liberal Democrat who could assert without irony that LBJ was an underrated president. Read his WWII memoir Up Front (even watched the slight Tom Ewell comedies made from Mauldin’s Willie & Joe cartoons), but because I was the age I was, I appreciated him more for his then-current work than I did his groundbreaking war cartoons.

Now, I can better understand the affection his early work engendered. In his Stars and Stripes panels, Mauldin depicted the war around him minus gung-ho romanticism or sentimentality. That he was allowed to present this funny, yet unglamorized vision of service in the mouthpiece for the American military was a small miracle: I’m betting there were times he seemed like the only empathetic voice the average Joe serviceman had. Small wonder that when word got out about Mauldin’s struggles w./ Alzheimer’s, a small army of veterans willingly sent off letters to help boost his morale – they were returning the favor.

For me, when Mauldin left the editorial cartoon field, a certain kind of humanism left w./ it. Mauldin could be merciless when it came to fingering bigots and blowhards, but he never lost his humane touch. There are those who assert that this type of work is better done by the merciless, and I can see their point. But at his best, Mauldin showed it was possible to be politically passionate and keep a hold of your humanity. I’ve been missing his work for years; now I’ll miss it even more.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2003
      ( 1/22/2003 03:24:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“I HATE/LOVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL” – Just posted on the OakHaus home page for Winter: one of my irregularly regular Rhino reviews (started out monthly, but after a year, I dropped back to seasonally). This time it's the Jesus and Mary Chain’s raucous 21 Singles retrospective – good ear-cleanin' pop fun!

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      ( 1/22/2003 11:09:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“CAN’T BRING ME DOWN” – Picked up a cheapish copy of Ryan (“Don’t Call Me Bryan”) Adams’ Demolition (Lost Highway) the other day: disc starts out strong, but fumbles my attention around track three by focusing on excessive acoustic snoozery (notable exceptions: “Starting to Hurt,” which yowls like vintage Replacements; “Gimme A Sign” and the countryrocker “Chin Up, Cheer Up,” which thankfully follows its own advice). The drone-y “Jesus (Don’t Touch My Baby)” that closes the former Whiskeytown lead’s first solo effort is a nice touch, however.

Still, to these ears, Rhett Miller’s first solo release is the alt country break-off disc to beat. . .
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      ( 1/22/2003 10:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

IT’S A MET-A-FER – A tiptop moment from last night’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer: blabbery hanger-on Andrew (Tom Lenk) begins pontificating on the presence of all the neophyte slayers in the house and states that the whole slayer deal is like a metaphor for the power of developing young womanhood. (Response from a disgusted Xander Harris: “I’ll pay you to talk about Star Wars again!”) In that one moment, Andrew became every pop addict who’s tried to explain their love of this series to non-comprehending friends. Very funny.
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      ( 1/22/2003 08:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HONEST ABE & FRIENDS – Sticking to the world of caricature (see Hirschfeld posting below), we have MTV’s new animated series Clone High U.S.A., which posits a high school populated by teen clones of famous historical figures (Lincoln, Gandhi, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra), overseen by principal Cinnamon J. Scudworth (“What is more powerful than a high school principal?” he asks) who is in the employ of mysterious dark governmental forces.

Writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Bill Lawrence present the clones as awkward teens. There’s a whiff of the short-lived Mission Hill about the whole show, but the premiere at least was played at least a beat faster than that “Adult Swim” mainstay. In one early scene, for instance, Gandhi desperately tries to jog Cleopatra’s memory of him – he states that he once donated a kidney to her, and we get a quick C.S.I.-styled cut into his inner body, where the remaining kidney (voiced by Michael J. Fox) moans about how much he misses his partner.

Much of the basic byplay (Abe yearns for Cleo; Joan wistfully pines for Abe; Gandhi provides the comic relief and lusts after everything in skirts) is familiar teen sitcom stuff – as was the plot where Abe provides non-alcoholic beer for a kegger hosted by a randy J.F.K. (hey, wasn’t that an ep of Freaks and Geeks? – the fake beer part, not the JFK part). But the details & side gags (like a malt shop called The Grassy Knoll) make this the first MTV show to interest me since, well, since Daria was part of the network’s lineup. Good to see the net once more venturing into animation.
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      ( 1/22/2003 06:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HIRSCHFELD – The death of Al Hirschfeld prodded me into checking out some of the man’s elegant work this a.m. (and isn’t it a drag how it often takes their death to remind us of an artist who we always think’ll be there?) at the Hirschfeld Gallery. Lots of great images arranged by decade – from the 20’s to today – and if some of ‘em (from long-dead Broadway shows, for instance) are obscure, there’s plenty that’s familiar, too. Hirschfeld has long been typed as a theatre/show biz caricaturist, but from the breadth of work on display (Mayor Daley!) it’s obvious he had an eye & intellect that went beyond the confines of the theatrical world. It’s been stated many times in the last few days, but I have no qualms about repeating it here: that this guy could produce work that looked as good as it ever did into his 90’s is phenomenal.

(Reading TCJ’s message boards, I see that a conversation between Hirschfeld, Jules Feiffer & Art Spiegelman was planned for the mag’s next big seasonal special. Don’t know if this event took place, but if it did, I’m reserving my copy now.

(PARENTHETICAL UPDATE: According to Egon, a conversation between Spiegelman & Hirschfeld, "Drawing the Essence," is being rebroadcast this Friday on Public Television's "Theatre Talk." This appears to be different from the Hirschfeld, Feiffer & Spiegelman conversation, but still sounds like it's worth checking seeking out. So check your local listings.)
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Tuesday, January 21, 2003
      ( 1/21/2003 08:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FATE & SCREENPLAYS – Watched Serendipity on Starz the other night: one of those romantic trifles whose path you can chart fifteen minutes into the flick. Leads John Cusack (doesn’t get a standing-in-the-rain scene this outing – but he does get snowed on) & Kate Beckinsale perform admirably as Attractive Young Leads, but I had more fun watching best bud character type Jeremy Piven – not to mention criminally underused Eugene Levy, who steals his piece of the movie as a canny haberdashery clerk.

Basic plot of the movie is something only a screenwriter could concoct: Cusack and Beckinsale’s characters meet cute in Bloomingdales. They share a night on the town, then split – at Beckinsale’s behest – without exchanging full names or phone numbers. If we’re meant to be together, the New Agey ingénue asserts, fate’ll make it happen. She puts her name inside a copy of Gabriel Marquez’ Romance in the Time of Cholera and sends it out into used bookland, while Cusack in kind writes name & number on a five dollar bill.

Rest of the pic occurs several years later, as our two separated protagonists follow the contrivance-laden screenplay path to connection & romantic resolution. Lots of talk about taking foolish risks for love, but it doesn’t mean much since we can see the writer’s hand every step of the way. A diverting li’l okay-for-cable flick. But when it comes to it, I prefer the more screwed-up Cusack of High Fidelity or Grosse Point Blank.
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Monday, January 20, 2003
      ( 1/20/2003 04:18:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“HAVE A BANANA, HANNAH” – So we’re driving back from Peoria w./ my ma-in-law and a trunk & backseat full of stuff, and we’re playing some disc collections of 40’s – 50s music. I bring along DinerMite (Sony), a collection of swingin’ food-themed songs (The Modernaires’ “Java Jive,” Xavier Cugat’s “Chiquita Banana,” “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” etc.), in part because I remember hearing Cab Calloway’s “Everybody Eats When They Come To My House” on Ed two weeks ago. Why don’t we get more current pop tunes about food? I wonder, and the last ‘un I can immediately think of is Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.”

Surely, there are more current examples, I think. So when we return home, I hie myself over to All Mixed Up’s food song page where deejay Peter Bochan has listed 475 munchable songs (ZZ Top’s “TV Dinners” – now that’s devolution!) by course. I dare you to read this page and not go away hungry.
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      ( 1/20/2003 07:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A BESTIARY OF NIGHT THINGS – The big-eyed heroine of Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things (Oni Press) looks like she wouldn’t be out of place in Edward Gorey’s fog-shrouded neighborhood. A newcomer to Hillsborough Junior High, Courtney & her worthless parents have moved in to sponge off her Uncle Aloysius, a cadaverous Victorian looking gentleman who has been subject of neighborhood gossip for decades. Uncle Al lives in a creepy old mansion where things always seem to be scampering just out of peripheral vision, while the upper crust suburb of Hillsborough also has its share of creepy denizens, most notably a rapacious goblin named Butterworm. Courtney’s self-absorbed folks (who rival Daria Morgendorffer’s in the almost-too-dense-to-breathe division) don’t notice anything untoward. But our heroine has her big black eyes open.

Reprinting the first four issues of Naifeh’s grimly charming (or is that charmingly grim?) black-and-white comic, Courtney Crumrin is a work that shows adolescence’s threshold as a world filled w./ exclusionary cliques & monsters in the woods. It’s a familiar enough children’s lit trope, but one the writer-artist presents briskly. Our sardonic heroine may share Wednesday Addams’ clothes sense, but not her flat affect. Confronted by a shape-shifting creature that’s attempted to steal her identity, Courtney proudly asserts her individuality: “I’m rude, bad-tempered and basically, I don’t like people. Maybe that makes me a jerk,” she continues – but it sure beats being a phony.

Naifeh’s art is full of thin-lined shading and detail, lots of effectively placed blacks: just right for the kiddie gothic setting that’s Hillsborough. In one episode, our heroine, babysitting for one of the neighborhood’s old money families, has to recover an infant stolen by goblins. She follows the thieves into a nearby goblin market (the Rosettis would be proud), which Naifeh renders in gleeful stone-bridge detail. I kept expecting Bowie’s Goblin King to pop up in the background.

Outside of Courtney (whose round head occasionally looks more ungainly than I suspect even the artist means it) & her uncle, Naifeh lavishes more attention on his monsters than he does his people: the rest of the human inhabitants (w./ one exception: a doomed child name Axel, who doesn’t survive the first chapter) of this privileged community come across vacuously pretty and to a certain degree indistinguishable. I know: the rich are different from you or me. In one chapter, Courtney digs into her uncle’s murky tomes and comes up w./ a glamour spell that gets everyone in town eager to be her new best friend. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be more a burden than a pleasure – considering the soulless bourgeoisie who comprise the rest of the community, you can see why.

For all its filigreed trappings, Courtney Crumrin knows about modern pre-adolescence well enough to keep grounded in good ol’ middle school insolence. At one point, Uncle Aloysius explains why he’s allowed Courtney & parents to live in his house. “I’ve drawn more than my share of attention from the general public over the years,” he states. “I invited your parents to live here to provide myself with some anonymity.” Courtney’s response: “Okay, I get it now. The last place anyone would be curious about is Casa de Dumbass.” The girl’s rude alright.

But clearly not a phony.
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Sunday, January 19, 2003
      ( 1/19/2003 09:16:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“EVERYBODY’S TALKIN’ ABOUT BAGGISM” – More anti-war protests; more poli-blog slams the morning after, stridently reacting to ‘em.

I’ve noted this before, but as the noise level grows louder, it’s worth repeating: it’s easy to pick on demonstration rhetoric, which can often be rude or overstated. Get a large group of folks who agree on anything together, and you’re guaranteed to have some attendees acting like junior high schoolers w./ a fresh supply of water balloons. Some of this can be attributed to mob behavior; some the plain giddy thoughtlessness that frequently arises when you’re among folks who publicly share something in common.

One of the common devices used by those who disagree w./ a dem’s intent is to show some pics of the goofier/ruder denizens or take the broad-stroke comments that are made in speeches and dissect ‘em like they were footnote worthy political thesis. Neither tack gets to the intent of demonstrations, which is to simply show in visual terms that a large number of folks share a core belief. To this end, I think this weekend’s protests succeeded.

During the 20th Century’s last big bout of anti-war activity, I used to cover dems for a left-leaning underground paper. Every time, I found as much appalling behavior as I did positive: you often could tell demonstration newcomers by the clumsiness of their signs – or the ferventness w./ which they shouted out their newfound beliefs. For many demonstrators, attendance is the main way they have for expressing something political: they’re not writers nor are they especially interested in crafting & posting any personal manifestos for some right-leaning academic to fillet. The fact that this growing group exists should be addressed, though, and not just by name-calling.

Bottom lining it: the administration still has failed to convince a good number of people that its plans for Iraq are justified. (Diplomatic bobbles like the North Korea embarrassment don’t help when it comes to inspiring public confidence either.) Sure, some of this number are ideologues who’ll never be convinced. But as the numbers grow, the argument that the only ones questioning war are a nothing but a bunch of loony-lefties-still-stuck-in-the-60’s becomes more observably specious.
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      ( 1/19/2003 07:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LONNNNG BOXES – A month ago, my mother-in-law moved in (yeah, my life’s turned into a bad sitcom), after a series of yo-yoing trips to the hospital – and we’re still in the process of moving crap around to accommodate her. She’s taken the guest bedroom, which comprises about two-thirds of what used to be the upstairs attic. This is nice on one level, since it affords her a measure of privacy. But it necessitated our re-thinking some basic storage issues.

I had to move my comic book boxes to the attic side of upstairs this weekend.

Damn, but I didn’t like doing it. As I’ve mentioned before, until we moved to our current two-story craft house, my old comics were stored in an inaccessible closet space. It was the process of moving these long boxes to a more open area that re-sparked my interest in monthly comics. Now here I was, putting the old ones back into a cave.

Plus, those long boxes are a chore to move. They’re designed to be as difficult for one man to move as possible and are a real hassle to negotiate through a small attic door. My current collection is a piddly shadow of what it used to be: have about ten long boxes and some smaller magazine ones upstairs, a spinner rack (that I got from a defunct head shoppe) of current comics in the study alongside two shelves worth of undergrounds. But fifteen heavy cartons of paper are still more than my lazy ass self wants to lug across the house (after, let’s not forget, straightening out the attic to provide room for ‘em). Did a lot of under-breath muttering the entire time.

So now the boxes are in the attic, and I’m going to do some research on climate and comic books. Not too worried about the books in the cold winter space, but those humid Illinois summers are another matter. But that’s a matter for another day.

Collecting can be a pain-in-the-ass.
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      ( 1/19/2003 07:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WORLD EATS JIM – Clicked on Jim Treacher’s weblog, I Know My First Name Is Jim, this morning and found an obliquely worded hasta la vista. I usually hit Jim’s site a couple times a week, so I'll miss his presence in blogland. Though I only shared his POV about an eighth of the time, I still find the guy’s voice darkly funny. Plus: he also sent me to Ken Layne’s Dot Con (a book I fully intend to belatedly review some day), for which I say much thanks.

UPDATE: Double-checking my link on the morning after, I see that the early goodbye paragraph has been replaced by a simple "Bye for now." So come back soon, Treacher.

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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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