Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, March 01, 2003
      ( 3/01/2003 06:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES?” - Break out the sharp cheddar & sparkling grape juice: it's Pop Culture Gadabout's birthday!

It's been a fun year since your obedient servant decided to follow old fandom funnies bud Jay Zilber into blogland. Spent more time on this whole bloody blogging thing than I probably should've, but since I've enjoyed the past year's bloggish writing, let's leave fuller consideration of my time management skills for another day, m'kay?

Spent some time skimming through the last year, and some highlights jumped out at me. So here's a half-assed overview:
March 1, 2002: we debut - w./ a fingerpointing piece (Blame Jay for This!) plus our 1st review: Joey Ramone's Don't Worry About Me (an apt way to open, actually);

March 5, 2002: 1st of many TV reviews: the season premiere of Six Feet Under;

March 6, 2002: 1st comic book review: a reprint paperback of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which I foolishly decided to re-read;

March 15, 2002: Necco mints considered;

April 2, 2002: Unitarian Poker Night is documented for the first time; blog readership en masse goes huh?

April 5, 2002: a visit to Metropolis, Illinois, is described;

April 24, 2002: 1st book review: Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum (I don't read enough real books these days: an embarrassing admission for a former English teacher);

April 27, 2002: on personning the phones for an NPR station Pledge Drive - weeding out the people w./ money from the chatty drunks;

May 3, 2002: grousing about celebrity activists;

May 10, 2002: 1st big blockbuster movie review: Spider-Man (liked it);

May 12, 2002: in praise of cartoonist/buddy Ned Sonntag (and his zaftig pin-up ladies);

May 18, 2002: the joys of Closed Captioning;

May 28, 2002: 2nd big blockbuster movie review: Attack of the Clones (was lukewarm toward it);

June 6, 2002: underrated alt country greats, The Meat Purveyors' All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail;

June 19, 2002: 1st of the Dog Park Tapes: Rhino's DIY: Starry Eyes collection of late 70's era Britpop (life begins at the hop!);

June 26, 2002: lookin' at pro-gun propaganda signs on the Illinois highway;

June 28, 2002: takes four months to do it, but I finally add a comments section to this blog;

July 15, 2002: 1st big flop movie review: The Powerpuff Girls (liked it a whole lot more than that Star Wars flick);

July 28, 2002: ruminations on the Fat-Guy vs. MacDonald's lawsuit;

August 4, 2002: 3rd big blockbuster movie review: Signs;

August 16, 2002: yours truly joins Blogcritics and begins the dubious practice of posting more extensive review pieces both & there; first up: Mark A. Long's Bad Fads;

September 1, 2002: my review of Mark Evanier's 1st collection of “POV” columns sparks a friendly response from Mark on his own site;

September 13, 2002: we begin an ongoing look at sundry prime-time TV premieres w./ an examination of WB's Family Affair (don't worry: the pickings improve);

September 29, 2002: review of Rhett Miller's The Instigator, which turns out to be my fave album of the year;

September 8, 2002: my review of Marvel Masterworks: Spider-Man, Volume Two is the start of a near weekly series of comics books reviews written w./ the Blogcritics audience in mind;

October 19, 2002: thoughts on liberals & liberal bashing;

October 27, 2002: the inevitable Mad magazine reminiscence;

October 29, 2002: taking a holiday from caffeine (oh, the headaches!);

November 10, 2002: post card collecting & fatabilia;

November 24, 2002: poli-blog Mad Libs (well, the idea amused me);

November 29, 2002: the Man of Steel on the psychiatrist's couch?

December 3, 2002: review of R. Crumb's 1st new comic in way too long, Mystic #3;

December 9, 2002: one of two reviews following the Spielberg produced mini-series, Taken;

December 12, 2002: your lazy-ass reviewer finally finishes a book he's started months ago: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay;

December 12, 2002: 1st of two considerations of the gastric bypass subplot on NBC's Ed, a topic that has resulted in more Google-spurred visits than anything else I've discussed on this blog!

December 26, 2002: 1st e-book review: the William Messner-Loebs tribute/benefit book Working for the Man;

January 20, 2003: my review of Courtney Crumrin And The Night Things sparks a comment from the book's creator himself;

February 1, 2003: reader reaction to a Blogcritics posting sparks a review of Marvel's The Ultimates - pure blog dialoguing!

February 7, 2003: bloggish self-absorption at its finest: your humble correspondent gets the gout!

February 17, 2003: first movie since Xmas holidays (I've gotta get out more!): Daredevil;

February 25, 2003: in which our hero firmly stands up for the right to still be indecisive on this whole War Bizness.
In the grand Duchy of Blogland, Pop Culture Gadabout has been a fairly low-profile operation. On a good day, we get between 50-75 visitors: not bad, considering the essentially trivial focus of this blog. (The Blogcritics pieces, hopefully, increase my readership, but I have no idea how much.) I'm a reluctant self-promoter: too damn introverted to garner the energy to do it, I suppose.

I'm well-nigh hooked on this blogging thing, though, so it looks like Pop Culture Gadabout'll be carrying on for another year. To those of you who've visited, here's hoping there'll be enough to keep you coming back. And to those of you who've emailed, corrected or otherwise added to the discussion (a gold star goes to Johnny Bacardi, who holds the record w./ fifteen comments and counting), many thanks. When you don't have a tip jar, comments are your currency.

Now . . . onto Year Two!
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Friday, February 28, 2003
      ( 2/28/2003 12:36:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“DOPE WILL GET YOU THROUGH TIMES OF NO MONEY BETTER THAN MONEY WILL GET YOU THROUGH TIMES OF NO DOPE!” – Reading of the Ashcroft crowd’s current venal crackdown on drug paraphernalia, I was naturally driven to reflect on my own wasted youth.

During my later undergraduate and graduate school years, I lived in the same house with the former owner and operator of a small-town head shop. Mark had served time in a minimum security prison for possession of a big bag of piss-poor Illinois grown and returned to his hometown to go back to school. (He’d ultimately go onto law school and pass the bar: last I heard he was working for the ACLU.) Sequestered in his parent’s garage during his incarceration was the entire stock from his shop, The Periphery: a large collection of underground comix and a comic book spinner rack among them.

Mark gave me the spinner rack, which I still use in my study. I didn’t ask for the undergrounds since I already owned copies of ‘em all. I’d first met Mark and his later wife Susie, after all, buying comix at their shop.

In the late sixties and early seventies, head shops were the prime place you could get undergrounds by the likes of Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. Alongside the bongs and the hash pipes and the incense and the black lights and the blacklight posters would be these funky li’l booklets with the black-and-white cartoons. Buying undergrounds in head shops was a whole different experience from later getting ‘em in a comics shop or bookstore: it even felt vaguely illicit.

Spent more money on comix in Mark’s shop than I did drug paraphernalia, though I did purchase a little wooden boxed one-hitter. Couldn’t tell you what became of it (it’s been years since I’ve smoked anything), but I’m not one of those boomers who’ll hypocritically deny any past recreational drug use. I did it for years – not merely “experimenting” but actively enjoying it – and stopped when it became unenjoyable.

Over on The Comics Journal message board, there’s a thread initiated by Kristine Anstine of Last Gasp (publisher of a slew of classic undergrounds) lamenting the effect this misdirected bong crackdown will have on a long-standing (if shrinking) distribution source for comix. I share her sadness. Every once in a while, I recall the days of picking up a new Zap! or Last Gasp in The Periphery, and I can’t keep from grinning.

(Thanks to Neilalien for steering me to this thread.)
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      ( 2/28/2003 09:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“WHAT I WANTED TO DO WAS TALK WITH HELL” – The plain yellow cover to David B.’s Epileptic 1 (L’Association) only hints at the visual inventiveness found in this remarkable autobiographical graphic work: two boys, one half a head taller than his brother, look out at the reader. To the side of this duo lurks a large lizard head – turn the book over and we see the full lizard’s body curling on the back cover. As we quickly learn, the lizard is a visual symbol of the older brother’s epilepsy.

Epileptic 1 reprints the first three volumes of a six-issue black-and-white comic series about French cartoonist David B.’s family life after the onset of his brother’s illness. First half of this work (gracefully translated by Kim Thompson) concentrates on the cartoonist’s boyhood, the ways both he and his family cope with the uncontrolled disease and the bizarre paths they take. Set in the 70's, the book documents how the cartoonist’s parents, frightened by an arrogant and callous medical establishment’s inability to successfully treat their son, turn to dubious non-medical approaches like macrobiotics, acupuncture and spiritualism. They drag all three of their children (our narrator, epileptic brother Jean-Christophe and younger sister Florence) to a series of communes where seemingly arbitrary rules and adult power plays are constant. Through it all, we see how Jean-Christophe’s illness has become the defining fact of this family’s life – and how it effects the way both his siblings will grow into adulthood.

A lot of mainstream American comics fans don’t have a lot of patience with autobiographical comicwork. The indy press is flooded with it, and I’ve got to admit that reading too much of this stuff can be deadly. Spend too much time with a bunch of would-be bohos bemoaning their chosen lot in life, and you may start to yearn for a simple-minded superhero knockdown fest.

But David B.’s work doesn’t fall into this trap because a.) it’s clearly about something; and b.) it’s clearly about something distinctive and significant. Outside of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year, I don’t know of another comic book series which so honestly looks at the ravages illness can place on a family unit. That it’s accomplished with so much visual poetry is even more outstanding.

(A quick, but inevitable autobiographical inclusion: I worked in an adolescent six-kid group home for several years where one of the children was a pre-teen girl with uncontrolled epileptic seizures. I recognized many of the moments in this book – like the time the younger brother childishly induces a seizure by exciting Jean-Christophe, then realizes the gravity of what he’s done – as well as the feelings of powerlessness and guilt that being around serious disease can engender. David B. captures it all unflinchingly.)

The focus of the 163-page work isn’t just on the immediate family: David B. also takes time to chart the careers of the various new age healers that his parents look to – and of ancestors whose own hard lives have preceded his. (In one of the book’s few missteps, the cartoonist includes a scene where the adult cartoonist is confronted by his mother for including so much background information. “Our ancestors were locked in a constant struggle to escape their misery,” he explains, hamfistedly pointing out what we’ve already realized. “What interests me is the struggle to escape disease and death.”) The artist’s family past has its ultimate representative in the ghost of his grandfather, a long-beaked bird figure who appears to torment both mother and children. In one striking image, the ghost beak is drawn impaling the still-grieving mother.

What elevates Epileptic into great graphic art, in fact, are the visual motifs the artist utilizes to explore his subject. His brother’s epilepsy is alternately represented by a sinuous lizard or a looming mountain; a Japanese self-help guru is given a cat’s head in contrast with his ghostly grandfather’s bird dome; the armor that the young boy dons to protect himself from the specter of death is modeled after Genghis Kahn, an early boyhood hero. Each of these simple conceits gets played out in elaborate brush-and-pen inked panels that could only be realized through comic art. David B.’s cartoonish characters grow or shrink in relationship to their surroundings. At times, the visual surroundings morph into an overwhelming tableau of icons and twisted landscapes: no mere visual show but an approximation of the disorienting nature of the disease.

An extraordinary comic album – can’t wait for Volume Two.
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      ( 2/28/2003 05:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LEAVING THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF MAKE BELIEVE – Spent yesterday first working out of town, then taking half a personal day to finish moving my mother-in-law’s stuff out of her old apartment. Went to bed early with my back and arm muscles aching, without even bothering to log onto the Internet. As a result, I didn’t read of Fred Rogers’ death until this morning. A helluva note on which to start the day.

I missed experiencing Mister Rogers as a very young kid; his show didn’t start broadcasting in my area until 1966, and by then I’d long aged out of his core audience. (My gateway drugs to the wonderful world of teevee viewing were Romper Room and Ding Dong School, neither of which had the lasting power of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.) As I got older and started working with children myself, I learned to appreciate the guy’s open and encouraging approach. For lot of kids, I suspect, Rogers was the least judgmental adult they’d ever encounter.

The NPR series This American Life once did a segment where a reporter took a real-world city neighborhood dispute to Rogers for advice on how to resolve it. Turns out, he could be just as good with adult problems as with small kids. As I remember it, the advice he gave was common sensed and doable. We sure could use a lot more of that . . .
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Thursday, February 27, 2003
      ( 2/27/2003 06:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WATCH OUT FOR THAT PINK KRYPTONITE! – Peter David is definitely having fun with his last extended Supergirl tale: issue #79, which features a variation on the “Death of Supergirl” cover from Crisis on Multiple Earths, concerns our heroine’s attempt at preventing apocalypse by taking the place of another dimension’s Supergirl (I skim the multi-dimensional gobbledygook, so don’t ask me to explain any further). Said dimension turns out to be the Silver Age superworld where Lois Lane is still zanily trying to uncover Superman’s secret identity and Jimmy Olsen is wearing bow ties.

“It’s like living in Pleasantville,” Linda thinks at one point. “The heroes are filled with joy over being heroes . . . The villains have elaborate plans that we can always foil, and they don't go around killing people . . . And, my God, everything’s so clean!” David’s tribute to a style of superhero storytelling that the industry unfortunately believes it’s outgrown: much more fun for readers who grew up on the 50’s and 60’s books than Frank Miller’s DK2 rampage through the Silver Age Universe.

On his blog, writer David has been making a point of noting how well his title has been doing now that it’s cancelled. Problem is, it’s difficult to tell whether this small resurgence of interest in the title has arisen from its plotline reviving the Kara Supergirl character or from the fact that fans know this book is on its last legs. I know I’d stopped watching M.A.S.H. regularly for at least a year before it ended, for instance, but I made a point of catching its two-hour final episode along with the rest of America.

That noted, I still have no qualms recommending this last story arc as a piece of fannishly-focused genre entertainment. Reportedly, DC will be reprinting it in trade paperback, “book-ending” David’s run with the 1998 trade reprinting the title’s first nine issues. If you can’t find the last five issues at your local comics shop, that might be the route to take. Me, I’m looking forward to David’s “tactful” introduction to that book.

Corrections Dept.: A day after posting this piece, I realized I'd inadvertantly left the "don't" out of Linda's thoughts. Talk about screwing up the whole point! It's since been inserted where it belongs.
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      ( 2/27/2003 05:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AU REVOIR, SAM – Passed on watching Saddam Hussein deny that he’s had a nose job to see Rob Lowe’s goodbye ep on The West Wing: a rather low-key affair. We’re told Lowe’s Sam Seaborn is gonna lose his bid to be first Democrat elected from Orange County (something that’s been obvious for several episodes) and leave on a brief bonding moment between Sam and ex-boss Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff). No big group hugs or farewells, not a heck of lot of interaction between Sam and the rest of the series regulars. More like real life, not series television.
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Tuesday, February 25, 2003
      ( 2/25/2003 09:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I’M A LONG GONE DADDY IN THE U.S.A.” – Reading Ken Tucker’s interview with The Boss in Entertainment Weekly, I particularly found myself focusing on the following quick q-and-a. Asked by Tucker if he thought we were going to war with Iraq, Springsteen answered simply:
“I think we already are; I think the administration is just set on it. A month ago I wasn’t so sure, but now I am. Those drums are being beaten really hard. I think the administration took September 11 and used it as a blank check. And like most Americans, I’m not sure the case has been made to put our sons and our daughters and innocent civilians at risk at this particular moment. But I don’t think that’s gonna matter, unfortunately. . .”
Yeah, I know: I’ve ridiculed celebrity political statements in the past. But there’s a difference, I think, between something asked and answered in an interview – and those queasy blends of activism and personal p.r. that so often overlay public celebrity political action. Martin Sheen or Sean Penn have a right to air their public opinion, of course, in whatever forum they choose, but I’ll always dock 'em debate points just for taking advantage of the celebrity bully pulpit. May not be fair, but it’s imbedded in my passive-aggressive genes.

That tendency also comes out whenever I’m confronted by either pro- or anti-war bloggers trying to force me into making a final decision on the War in Iraq, incidentally. After Colin Powell’s less-than-compelling presentation to the UN (where have you gone, Adlai Stevenson; a nation turns its lonely eyes to you?), a chorus of Xena yips rose from the pro-war crowd. Me, I wanted to put some earplugs in to block out the noise.

Basically, I’m inclined to give Bruce points because I’m still part of his “most Americans” grouping. Read too much pro- or anti- material, and pretty soon all the other agendas start to pop up (fear of capitalism or multi-nationalism, for instance). At times, these may add to the debate, but more often they only serve to detract from the big questions. Do we have economic interest in Iraq’s oil? Unquestionably. Does that blunt any of the concerns we have about Saddam’s regime? Not necessarily. Are some of our purported allies recalcitrant dicks? Perhaps. Are they wrong to state that we should let the currently initiated inspection procedures work as they’re supposed to? Again, not necessarily.

But I’m also with Bruce on this: I believe that the machine has been set in motion and the process of labeling and marginalizing anyone who questions this has been going on for months. But if anything is likely to push me firmly into the anti-war column, it’s the attempt to cut short debate by repeatedly shouting there’s no time! for it. . .
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Monday, February 24, 2003
      ( 2/24/2003 03:23:00 PM ) Bill S.  

Movin’ more of my mother-in-law’s stuff from her old apartment into our house, and Becky’s ma pulled out some packages of stuff that I’d heard about but never tasted: Sen-Sen. “America’s Oldest Breath Freshener” was first manufactured in the late 1800’s and is currently still produced in Chicago. It comes in a foil packet labeled “Confection Sucrerie” and is darkly crystalline. First time I’d even heard of the stuff was in The Music Man, when Prof. Harold Hill warns parents of Sen-Sen use as a sign of kids in “Trouble.”

At my ma-in-law’s behest I ripped open a packet and sampled some: boy, is it gawdawful – an odious blend of licorice and something floral (it originally was marketed as a “breath perfume.”) Supposedly, Sen-Sen was used in the early twentieth century by spouses trying to hide the fact that they’d been drinking. If that’s all they had back in those days, it’s a testament to the fortitude of the American drunk. I couldn't even finish a tiny packet.
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      ( 2/24/2003 04:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE LOST WEEKEND – Archives play peekaboo; I get up this a.m. and see that everything I’ve posted on this site since Thursday is no longer up. It’s like a Philip K. Dick novel where everything you think has happened for the last forty pages turns out to be some alternate reality!

Did I read last week that Google just bought Blogger or was that in some other universe, too?
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Sunday, February 23, 2003
      ( 2/23/2003 08:11:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT WORD AGAIN? – Blogcritics has just posted the first of its year-end awards, the Critiquees, in a variety of “Music” categories. I voted, but most of my choices made it nowhere near the Top Ten or Top Five listings. I liked the Wilco release – which also made it to the top of Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Poll – but there’s something too studiously navel-gazing about it for me to wanna call it Disc of the Year. (Perhaps the elevation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot represents a pendulum swing away from the overplayed in-yer-face psychodrama of the Eminem Show?) Whatever the critical dynamic, the Blogcritics lists make for good argument fodder, so check 'em out.
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      ( 2/23/2003 06:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I’M NOT LIKE OTHER BOYS” – I’ve held off writing about the Michael Jackson freakfests because, well, I don’t have anything much to say about the guy that hasn’t been regurgitated a million times. But I do think these are doggy days for television when so much written series fare has been pre-empted in the last week for endless replays of the same creepy history and footage of tacky celebrity hangers-on “explaining” Jacko to the viewing audience. I know, for instance, that ABC’s Miracles has been getting critically drubbed. But can anyone convince me that this tabloid teevee crap is preferable?
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      ( 2/23/2003 06:41:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THE NEW ROCK REVOLUTION” – More songs about guitars and gurls: been playing a lot of recent discs from the current crop of pop-‘n’-roll bands, so let’s weigh in on three of ‘em.
  • Geezers of the batch have to be Supergrass – now on their fourth release, Life on Other Planets (Island), an altogether solid exemplar of their T. Rex Meets Blur dynamics. Lots of heavily echoed vocals: you just know young listeners will be playin’ and replayin’ this thing over headphones, puzzling over lyrics that veer between opaquely English garden cosmic and I’m-justa-singer-in-a-rock-’n’-roll band (paging John Lodge!) Does it all mean much? Probably not, but it sure sounds cool, particularly when singer/guitarist Gaz Coombes channels his inner McCartney, remakes “Let ‘Em In” as "Prophet 15" and invites Bowie’s Joe the Lion to the show.

  • The Reunion Show opt for more contempo pastichery, blending Weezer-style nerd rock with strong 70's era keyboardery: not as hook-filed as the other newcomer key-and-guitars band, OK Go, but not as pissed about the perfidy of womankind either. I tune out when the sound recalls Kansas too much (that’s one brand of audio-kitsch I can do without). But most of the band’s debut Kill Your Television (Victory Records) swooshes by so rapidly that the songs meld together into fun pop noise. “It’s all been done before,” the band tells us at one point, but perhaps it could be re-done with a trace more distinguishability?

  • And then there’s The Exies, whose Inertia (Virgin) has the MTV imprimatur stickered on its outer plastic wrap (the network’s rediscovered guitar-based pop-punk big time). These guys do just about the same pose and greenish tones that Foo Fighters used on their most recent release’s back photo. And the similarity extends to their sound, too. I like the track the band’s chosen for its first video (“My Goddess”) – good hard rock that plays the angry lust card quite effectively – but the cut that’s been getting me to punch replay regularly is “Can’t Relate,” which adds a (dare we say?) Beatlesque chorus and amphetamine stammer into the alienated mix. Wish there were more on this disc like it, but perhaps it’s a sign of better things to come.
So there you have it: three discs of decent pop-rock. Nothing that’ll change your life (for that you need the new Go-Betweens release), but so what? Sometimes a singer and a rock-‘n’-roll band is just enough.
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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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