Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, July 07, 2003
      ( 7/07/2003 02:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“OH, VACUOUS VAPOR, AM I” – The central figure of James Robinson & Phil Elliot’s Illegal Alien (Dark Horse) may look like a London gangster circa 1964. But, in reality, he’s not of this Earth. A bodiless visitor from another planet, the unnamed alien has been shot down by the American Air Force. Freed of the containment suit which his race has used when piloting their starships, the gaseous alien takes over the body of recently slain tough guy, Guido Palmano. In this form, “Guido” returns to his body’s native London – and the Notting Hill domicile of his cousin Tony Bardinelli and family.

Illegal Alien is a modest black-&-white graphic novel that puts its s-f premise to the service of more mundane domestic dramedy. The primary story emphasis is on the ways that New Guido influences a family of struggling Londoners, Tony’s son Dino, in particular. Because the revived gangster shows a capacity to listen and a miraculous inventiveness, he ingratiates himself into the Bardinelli family and ultimately helps each one. He alters, for example, the frequencies on the music box of Tony’s ice cream truck so that whoever hears it will immediately become hungry for ice cream. The results are so phenomenal that by the end of the book Tony is the owner of his own ice cream parlour. “Now that I have that,” Tony tells his still-skeptical wife, “our future is assured.” (Hey, it’s the mid-sixties – these are simpler times.)

Though government agents and mobsters hover on the story fringe, watching Guido and pondering what he’s up to, their presence proves more of a distraction than anything. When several of these outside agents clash alongside a Brighton Beach mods and rockers riot, Robinson & Elliot pull away so quickly that you’re not quite sure what happened to ‘em. And though we’re given several scenes where the gangster responsible for Guido’s death is nonplussed by his resurrection, it never really leads anywhere. It's not what Robinson's interested in developing.

In the intro to Dark Horse’s reissue of this story (it originally was printed by the late lamented Kitchen Sink Press), the writer notes that he was trying for an Ealing Studios feel with this work. You can see this in the way Elliot renders the story’s gray urban setting (looks like something out of The Ladykillers), but I don’t think the creators capture the famous Brit comedy studio’s deft and idiosyncratic comic characterization. Elliot, in particular, seems more comfortable lavishing attention on architecture and setting than he does in creating distinctive people: a deadly problem when you’ve got a story that features lots of guys walking around in business suits. At times you can catch him taking from artists like Jaime Hernandez (particularly in panels featuring the Bardinelli women), but he doesn’t come close to matching Hernandez’s expressiveness.

In its casually cobbled way, though, Illegal Alien remains an appealing book. It captures its era – of emerging Britbeat and youth culture, of still-potent Cold War tensions – without pushing too hard, and it makes you care for its stranded hero. Trapped in a body he knows will soon betray him, he quietly enjoys the new experience he’s been given: “In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve touched and moulded and built,” he says. “I’m dying, but I’m happy.” Where so many mainstream s-f comics find their story in xenophobia or elaborately contsructed cosmology, Illegal Alien basically celebrates the simple joy of working with your hands. . .
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Sunday, July 06, 2003
      ( 7/06/2003 06:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ODYSSEUS, HE’S NOT – I happily noted the appearance of another Dark Horse Groo collection at my local comic emporium this week: The Groo Odyssey, which reprints issues #57-60 of Groo the Wanderer’s run as part of Marvel’s first Epic line. Sergio Aragones & Mark Evanier were working at peak productivity during this period – and the material remains as sharp today as it was when it first came out.

The Groo formula's still used by this creative team on Dark Horse mini-series: Groo, a barbarian whose stupidity is exceeded only by his brute strength in a fray, travels from kingdom to town through an elaborately rendered proto-Howardian world, often accompanied by his hero-worshipping dog Rufferto. Comic, violent disaster always follows, either through Groo’s own deeds or the machinations of those trying to take advantage of the dimwit mercenary.

By this point in the series, our hero’s capacity for calamity has been so well established that he doesn’t even need to appear in the story to spark it. In “One Fine Day,” the bumbling barbarian doesn’t show until the last panel, but the efforts of one city’s attempts to anticipate his arrival lead to its destruction anyway. Evanier’s script takes plenty of well-aimed jibes at politicians and advisers who capitalize on public fear of the Enemy from Without (an idea that gets explored more fully in the more recent Death and Taxes mini-series). Though the story first appeared in the late eighties, it could’ve easily been written last week (okay, two weeks ago – to allow Aragones a few days to actually draw the thing!)

Aragones’ art is intricately detailed: though cartoonish, he visualizes towns, crowds and elaborate architectures that look more believable than many “realistic” comic artists. In “The Captain of the Chinampa,” for instance, he creates a sprawling city/ship that looks like it could’ve sailed out of a Terry Gilliam movie (naturally, Groo’s made captain of this vessel.) His facility with comic expression is masterful, especially on Groo’s frequently puzzled canine companion.

A great funnybook collection – but I do have one small gripe. Unlike the other Dark Horse Groo trades, this entry lacks an irrelevant and entertaining Afterword by Evanier. Hey, waitaminute, wasn’t Mark gonna print the answer to a puzzle printed in Groo Nursery this time? What’s the story, guys?

UPDATE: Mark Evanier acknowledges my review on his must-read blog and answers the abovewritten question thus: “Bill Sherman . . . wonders why this volume doesn't contain the traditional silly text page by me. I'm kinda wondering the same thing.”
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Saturday, July 05, 2003
      ( 7/05/2003 08:09:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHAT ABOUT FLAMES OF GYRO? – Dirk Deppey alerted me to a decent article in the Village Voice on Fantagraphics’ near-disastrous financial troubles. But was Love and Rockets really the first Fantagraphics comic book?
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      ( 7/05/2003 07:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

OUR FOURTH – We had a fairly low-key Fourth of July at our house: no serious contemplative time spent pondering What It Means to Be An American, no heavy reading on politics or poker. Spent much of the day rearranging bookshelves that we’d recently stained and continuing the ongoing task of making my mother-in-law’s living area upstairs more comfortable for her. Grilled burgers on the Weber (charcoal, not propane, thanks!) and while they weren’t up to my usual standards, they were plenty tasty, just not as juicy as we like. Read some comics (Arkham Asylum, Amazing Spider-Man) while I was cooking, and perhaps this distracted me.

We considered watching a DVD of 1776 that evening, but opted for a cable showing of A Shot in the Dark (arguably the best of the Inspector Clouseau pics: it introduces such series staples as Hercule, Kato and Commissioner Dreyfus – and it maintains a balance between sophisticated sixties farce and slapstick that the series later lost) instead. Attempted a sparkler display in the backyard, but the humidity did us in – took too long to get each stick started so by the time we got to the middle, the first 'uns had already burnt out.

For night's finale, we sat on our back porch and watched the Town of Normal fireworks display. This is the first year we’ve been able to clearly see it from our house: since last Independence Day a housing development was built back behind our property, felling about an acre of trees in the process. Watching the pyrotechnics – which seemed more opulent than years before – for the first time I didn’t mind the loss of foliage. Then we went back inside and I caught the tail end of Jason X where the Crystal Lake killer is transformed into a cybernetic monster: don’t know how he got on the futuristic spaceship where this all occurs, but never mind. Near midnight, my wife and I went to bed, listening to Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars on the radio before finally going to sleep.

And that’s What Being An American means to me.
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Friday, July 04, 2003
      ( 7/04/2003 11:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SMELLS LIKE HOT FIVE – Happy putative birthday to Louis Armstrong, who would’ve been 103 if he were alive today – and the story of his birth on July 4th, 1900 were at all true.

Pop music will forever be in Armstrong’s debt: listening to his earliest recordings with the Hot Five, you can trace a direct line from his natural singing voice through crooners like Crosby and Sinatra to such marble-mouth enunciators as Kurt Cobain. By simply throwing off the affectations that were linked to pop singing in his day, by being himself, Armstrong stylistically liberated generations of singers to come. Even if he wasn’t really born on Independence Day, the man should’ve been.

Here in Central Illinois, local jazz station WGLT has been devoting the day to playing Armstrong tracks. Some legends just remain too delightful to dismiss.
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      ( 7/04/2003 06:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

CRISIS IN EARTH KING – With a new season of The Dead Zone (Season 2.67?) about to commence on USA, I finally was able to catch up on the second season finale this week. In it, Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) and his trusty physical therapist, Bruce Lewis (John L. Adams), share a vision of what-might-have-been over the body of the young black’s deceased father (Lou Gossett). We learn Bruce comes from a minister’s family, and the world he sees is one that might’ve been if he’d followed his father’s wishes and continued preaching.

Without the physical therapist’s mitigating presence, the still-psychic Johnny spins into a more solitary paranoid life, obsessed with the vision of doom sparked by contact with snaky politician Greg Stillson. He becomes, in other words, the more isolated Johnny Smith of Stephen King’s original source novel – just a hair’s breadth away from lone gunman psychosis. Smith attempts to assassinate candidate Stillson, but unlike King’s book, the act does not destroy Stillson’s career. What we get, as a result, is a closer approximation of the original novel that still manages to veer away from its tragic conclusion.

One of the biggest problems the writers and producers of The Dead Zone face lies in the question of fidelity to King’s novel. Part of what makes the original book so compelling is the fact that, though we’ve seen him utilizing his psychic gifts, we’re still not 100% certain of Johnny Smith’s Stillson vision. (Neither, for that matter, is Johnny.) Yet the longer the series runs, the more our belief in Smith’s powers grows. Each time they play a variation of Smith's apocalyptic image of the capital in flames, the more convincing it becomes. The core uncertainty of King’s original story – how can you tell vision from madness? – runs the risk of getting negated by the series’ own success.

Perhaps it would’ve worked better, in fact, if the writers had gone all the way with Bruce’s vision and followed the book’s finish faithfully. Where we gonna go now? the King-noscenti are left wondering. Why, just about anything could happen. . .
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      ( 7/04/2003 06:29:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THEM DARN LIBERAL HYPOCRITES – Odd how your political grounding can make you see stories differently. Franklin Harris reads a news story about Alabama Governor Bob Riley attempting to push through a tax increase, citing his Christian beliefs as justification for doing so. Harris notes how funny it is that leftists “change their tune [on separation of church and state] when they can use religion to raise taxes,” utilizing the quote of one “liberal religious activist” to bolster his point. I read the same piece and go, “Isn’t it interesting that a conservative Republican is using the Bible as justification for a tax hike, of all things?”

But, seriously, I think Harris is missing the boat by ignoring a crucial difference between those who enter the political arena out of religious motivation and those who don’t. There’s a long-standing tradition in this country of religious-based activism from both right and left, after all. And many of these religio/political folks are much less uncomfortable with the blend of church and state than your card-toting secular humanist ACLUer.
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Thursday, July 03, 2003
      ( 7/03/2003 07:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“WE’RE GONNA HAVE A SURFIN’ HOOTENANNY!” – July 4th weekend is upon us, so what better time for an old fashioned “Surfin’ Hootenanny”?

I first took note of Al Casey’s divinely goofy surf pop single on Rhino’s four-disc Cowabunga box set. On disc two, ‘tween a sax-heavy instrumental entitled “Surfin’ At Mazatlan” and Jack Nitzsche’s orchestral surf masterwork, “The Lonely Surfer,” was this cut, and every time it popped up, I’d do a quick Whaaaa? In basic sound and substance, the track stretched about as far from the genre as you could get and still be called surf music. But it was also wackily appealing.

Sung by the Blossoms (Darlene Love’s early group) under the name the K-C-ettes, the 1963 song is a simple entreaty – C’mon and join the surf music celebration! – with journeyman guitarist Casey (played lead guitar for Sanford Clark’s 1956 rockabilly classic, “The Fool” and was part of Duane Eddy’s pool of musicians for years) doing imitations of three big-name guitarists just to show off his dexterity. Though the lyrics reference the then au courant folk boom, the K-C-ettes sound more like an easy listening choral group than either folkies or rockers. Rosemary Clooney’s kid sisters, perhaps.

The tune was written by L.A. music pro Lee Hazlewood. Like Casey, Hazlewood had worked with Eddy but was on the outs with the twangy guitarist at the time. Just contemplating the song’s conceit, you can pretty much reconstruct the creative processes that must’ve led to his composition: Hey, surf instrumentals are still pretty big and this folk stuff seems to be catchin’ on with the kids, too, so why not combine ‘em? From such crassly commercial logic can sometimes come pop greatness – or at least endlessly replayable folly.

Casey and Hazlewood did a second track with the K-C-ettes, “Guitars Guitars Guitars.” It wasn’t as successful a single as “Hootenanny.” But listening to it today, the cut is even more rollicking: the girls singin’ about a nonstop barrage of rock guitars in their neighborhood (“Guitars groovin’ in the alley/Guitars comin’ through the walls/Guitars sneakin’ round the corner/Guitars wailin’ down the hall”), only they’re not complaining about the noise, just describing how cool it sounds where they live. Casey’s guitar solo is edgier and more piercing than the surf sounds he assays on the earlier track. Perhaps it was closer to the sound he really liked creating.

Both tracks show up on Al Casey’s first full release, inevitably entitled Surfin’ Hootenanny (currently available as a Sundazed reissue). Because it was released in the days of one-or-two-hit-singles-plus-filler LPs, the rest of Casey’s album is devoted to more traditional surf instrumentals, recorded in July of '63 with session pros like Leon Russell and Hal Blaine. Fun for fans of echoey tremolo (Casey and co. even do a version of “Caravan” sans drum solo and “The Lonely Surfer” without the French horns), but nowhere near as grand as the album’s two vocal numbers. Perhaps if “Guitars” had matched the first single’s fluky success, Casey & Hazlewood would’ve pursued the sound further, reworked it until every teenager across the country had grown utterly sick of the sound. Sometimes, failure can be a good thing.

Still, "Surfin' Hootenanny" has since become a part of my yearly summer soundtrack. Hopelessly dated, the sound of studio musicians blatantly reaching out to capture the Youth Market yet somehow still having fun as they try, pure summertime silliness . . . what’s not to like?
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Wednesday, July 02, 2003
      ( 7/02/2003 08:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

R.C. RANTS – Comics critic and historian R.C. Harvey does a twice-monthly feature on his website entitled “Rants and Raves,” and it’s an entertaining amalgam of comic art commentary and the occasional political aside. His most recent piece, which was posted on June 29, includes a look at some inaccuracies (or, in some cases, misconceptions fostered by the documentary’s focus) in The History Channel’s recent look at comic book superheroes. Definitely worth a read . . .
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Tuesday, July 01, 2003
      ( 7/01/2003 11:11:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GEMSTONE COMICS ARE GOOD COMICS – After a four-year hiatus, the funny animal comic books released under the Walt Disney imprimatur are finally reappearing in American comics shops.

The first two titles to be released under the Gemstone Comics banner, Uncle Scrooge #319 and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #634, appeared in shops last week. Disney comics have been steadily produced for the European market (kind of sad to realize that these most American of comic creations for a time only flourished outside the U.S.), so there’s plenty of fresh material available. Much of it, like Don Rosa’s densely written updates of Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge mythos, will be welcome to lovers of honest-to-gosh funnybooks. (Rosa, in particular is an underrated master at comic adventure tales: his twenty-four page “The Dutchman’s Secret” is enough reason to buy the Scrooge title.)

Gemstone’s two squareback titles are pricey enough ($6.95) to get me wondering how many younger readers’ll be encouraged to buy ‘em – especially when a book like DC’s Powerpuff Girls can be had for about a third the price. Somehow I suspect more parents (with a fond memory for the original Dell and Western books) and adult fans’ll be buying these babies than kids. Gemstone reportedly has plans to also publish $2.95 pamphlet comics, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and Friends, so perhaps those’ll be the ones to reel in young newcomers.

Though they may be re-launch titles, both Scrooge and WDCS seem more attuned to returning readers, anyway. Stories like William Van Horn’s hard-boiled Donald Duck parody rely on a readership well versed in Duckburg Lore, while even the newbie friendly Rosa inserts a puzzling reference to a canonical figure (Flintheart Glomgold, who fortunately appears in a later story that reveals who he is) in his offering. Perhaps the operating assumption is that everyone knows these characters: a fair one to make with Donald and his nephews or Scrooge McDuck – but I’m less sure it works for Glomgold or Magica De Spell.

Where mainstream superhero comics have been praised for their supposed developing depth of characterization over the years, in many ways the Disney funnybooks have been long ahead of ‘em. Because they were populated by cartoon animals, their protagonists could be both adventurous and flawed in ways early superhero writers wouldn’t have dared to imagine. Barks’ Uncle Scrooge still stands as a model comic creation: an ultra-successful capitalist, brave and loyal to his family, he nonetheless is so pathologically acquisitive he can be his own worst enemy. In a Barks reprint from 1951, Scrooge’s panicky fear that longtime nemeses the Beagle Boys are going to loot his vault grows so extreme that he winds up accidentally making it easier for the crooks to get at his money. Even as we root for the character, we recognize those qualities he has which make him a pain in the ass to everybody else.

Many of the writers and artists repped in the first two issues will be familiar to those who’ve been regularly following funny animal titles: William Van Horn, for instance, is a wonderfully adept light comic writer/artist, while Noel Van Horn brings a suitably rubbery drawing style to a Mickey Mouse adventure. If few of the scripts with the exception of Rosa's (and Michael T. Gilbert's – who does a fun job with a story featuring the preternaturally lucky Gladstone Gander) quite match the grandeur of Disney comics at their peak, well, that’s a pretty high mark to reach. And after reading too many comics set in the mean streets of our modern world, it’s kind of relaxing to return to a place where bright blue skies can be plentiful, where pluck & luck still get regularly rewarded and a mouse can stand as tall as a duck.

Here’s wishing Gemstone a long, happy run.
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      ( 7/01/2003 07:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FAREWELL TO MARCELLUS WASHBURN – Mark Evanier pushed the mushroom soup aside last night to recount a sweet and telling anecdote about Buddy Hackett (one of the many reasons Mark’s website is worth a daily visit). For me, Hackett’s greatest role is as Professor Harold Hill’s sidekick Marcellus in the 1962 movie version of The Music Man. Though he could barely sing, he still was given one of the movie’s big show-stoppers, “Shipoopie,” and managed to make it totally his.

Hackett was active for years as a stand-up. I remember seeing an old HBO hour that reproduced his act: lots of “adult” jokes which were only marginally funny. He also was a fixture in kids comedies in the sixties – from cult fave It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World to The Love Bug to Everything’s Ducky. Still, to my mind, his funniest role remains that fat Brooklynite in a stable in River City, Ioway. . .
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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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