Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
      ( 10/07/2003 12:24:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY-MINUTE MANGA – (Episode Four: In which our explorations lead us to a much-lauded work of horror manga.)

Mention that you're curious about manga, and one of the first names manga-philes will likely offer is Junji Ito. The young writer/artist has staked a place for himself in the realm of horror comics, primarily on the basis of two limited series: Tomie and Uzumaki. I went looking for both at my local comic shop and chain bookstores – of the two, Uzumaki (Viz) was easier to find. I was able to buy all three volumes in the series over two weeks' time.

Unlike the other GN paperbacks I've been reading, Uzumaki isn't printed in the back-to-front format of "100% manga;" instead, it's been reconfigured for Western readers. For a moment, the mango dabbler in me rebeled against this concession – hey, I've invested time and energy in training my eyes to read backwards . . . what’s the deal? – but that momentary hubris abated once I delved into Ito's beautifully textured artwork.

Hard to imagine an idea less promising than the one put forth in Uzumaki, a trilogy about a Japanese town named Kurozc-cho that's haunted and ultimately destroyed by spirals. Spirals! Memories of cheesy B-pictures with villainous hypnotists immediately pop into play. (Cue the theremin.) Quick! Hide the Spiro-graph®! It's ee-vil!

Once I started reading the series, it became obvious that Ito has anticipated my initial smart-assed reaction. Not only is he aware of the essential absurdist nature of his conceit, he also strives to stretch it as far as he can. Much has been written about the fine line between horror and comedy: Uzumaki swirls around that line like one of its own mad dust devils. There are scenes in all three books that make the reader go aw, c'mon! - only to veer into ghastly seriousness. If Ito isn't always fully successful in maintaining control of his tone, you have to admire his audacity.

The series is narrated by a teenaged girl, Kirie Goshima, who winds up at the literal center of most of the events that hit her town. Her best friend, a bespectacled boy named Shiuchi, is the one who serves as harbinger of doom, in part because his father is the first to come under sway of dark forces. As Kirie walks to the train station to meet her friend, she happens upon Shuichi's father, crouched in an alley staring at an empty snail shell. When she describes this scene to Shuichi, the young boy goes off, stating that the town is making him and his family crazy. "This town is contaminated by spirals!" he says, and we quickly learn his father has grown so obsessed by the shape that he's quit his job and has taken to collecting samples of it: sea-shells, springs, children's toys, dress patterns. He goes to Kirie's father, a potter, and asks him to create a ceramic spiral, and in so doing sparks the potter's own self-destructive fixation with this ubiquitous geometric form.

The town's spiral possession starts manifesting itself in increasingly grotesque ways. When Shiuchi’s mother throws away her husband's spiral collection, he begins to emulate spirals, culminating in a death that's both cartoonish and disturbing. When his body is cremated, the ashes emanating from the crematorium spiral into the sky and then descend into a pond located in the center of town. Driven mad by the death of her husband, Shiuchi's mother attempts to remove all the spirals off her body – which leads to volume one's most unnerving vertiginous conceit (without giving any plot away, let's just note that it revolves around the woman's last days in hospital).

After Ito has established his basic premise through Shuichi's family, the story loses some of its straightforward momentum. We get individual chapters focusing on other townspeople – a schoolgirl with a tiny scar on her forehead, two young lovers caught in a Montague/Capulet conflict in the town’s poverty-struck row houses, a second schoolgirl with a burning desire to be noticed – plus an effectively ghostly chapter involving Kirie's father and his kiln. By volume two, the physical transformation motif becomes even stronger, as some of the slower townsfolk start to transform into snails – an idea that owes as much to Ionesco than it does Weird Tales until the third volume when some of the other townspeople start to eat these once-human snails, again yanking an absurd conceit into the realm of horror. Some nicely horrific chapters set in the town's hospital (where Kirie winds up after a near fatal adventure in a lighthouse) comprise the largest part of the middle book. By the final volume, the entire town is ravaged by this all-consuming geometry: repeatedly assaulted by hurricanes and sudden whirlwinds, its own roads twisted into paths that turn in on themselves.

In short, we've entered H.P. Lovecraft territory – the land of horrifying mathematics and eldritch forces imposing themselves on modern unfortunates. Even some of Uzumaki's minor ideas take a page from old Howard Phillips: the row housing which assumes a major role in the series' final chapters, for instance, recalls Lovecraft's obsessive fear of poverty's trappings (without the racist underpinnings). When we're taken to the source of Kurozc-cho's demolition – an ancient city hidden beneath the town – we can't help thinking of the New England writer's Elder Gods.

Ito's art is rendered in a detailed style that is exceedingly friendly to Western readers: only occasionally does he appear to utilize tricks that look odd to manga newcomers. In one chapter, for instance, Shiuchi is shown thoughtfully examining his friend Kirie – an act that is pointlessly emphasized by the words "glance glance" placed in the space between the two characters. But more often, the artist's tight control of doom-laden atmosphere pleasantly reminds me of American horror artists like Reed Crandall in his Warren period, with a nod to Edvard Munch tossed in for good measure. There's even a winking allusion to "The Scream" placed in the background of one panel. But unlike Hollywood's jokey attempts at decontextualizing that image, Ito recalls Munch's late-night angst and recurrent themes of body loathing. Somehow I suspect that the Norwegian artist'd really identify with the hospital chapters, with their devouring women and infants.

In the end, Uzumaki succeeds as a creepy graphic exercise. In contemporary terms, the only American comic book writer/artist to successfully work this turf is arguably Charles Burns, who also brings a tone of camp detachment to the proceedings that I don't detect in Junji Ito. I can see why manga boosters have put Ito in the top of introductory list: his art's accessible, while his plots – though occasionally opaque on the background details – work a realm of dread most older readers will recognize. Me, I've headed from finishing the spiral books straight into Ito's earlier series, Tomie. The work's measurably rougher, but it's still nicely (this last was inevitable, gang!) twisted.
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Monday, October 06, 2003
      ( 10/06/2003 12:23:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I ADMIT TO HAVING AN OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE PERSONALITY" – Crawling across the country, American Splendor (HBO) finally opened in my neck of the woods this week. I've been anticipating this film with much the same fervor that your average X-Men junkie reserves for Hollywoodizations of Claremont's World, so I was more than eager to see it.

Being a comic book fan and a moviegoer is often a matter of regularly revising expectations: you go into a movie adaptation of your favorite graphic work with high hopes and the only way you can maintain 'em is to continually adjust the bar as you watch. Yet once Sheri Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini's flick started unreeling, I gratefully settled into the moviegoing experience without feeling like I had to make any concessions. The writer/directors capture Pekar's comics better than I know I expected.

Berman & Pulcini don't take the easy route either. Mixing images from Pekar's slice-o'-life "off the streets of Cleveland" comics with acted dramatizations of the comics plus real-life interviews with Pekar, spouse Joyce Brabner and self-proclaimed nerd/Splendor regular Toby Radloff, the movie strives for the same collation of tiny observations Pekar uses in his comic series and by-and-large achieves it. The film is chronologically structured to follow Pekar's life from his early years as a V.A. clerk and part-time record dealer through his bout of quasi-celebrity as the author of autobiographical comics and early relationship with Brabner ("Man, she's got good-lookin' handwriting," Pekar gushes as he reads her introductory letter). It does not, happily, ignore the supporting cast of real-life working stiffs who also inhabit Pekar's comic books.

As a writer and autobiographer, Pekar works with a variety of artists, each of whom renders both Harvey and his friends differently. When spouse-to-be Joyce – wonderfully played by Hope Davis (loved her delivery tossing off snap DSM diagnoses of Pekar and his compatriots) – is asked by Pekar to meet him for the first time, she's initially reluctant. She's seen, she states, so many different cartoon images of him, how does she know what he really looks like? (Is he really, for instance, as hairy as collaborator/buddy R. Crumb makes him out to be?) In the movie, we get several on-screen versions of Harvey, too: Paul Giamatti acting the role ("He doesn't look nothing like me – whatever," the genuine Pekar notes in his narration) and Pekar himself being interviewed by the filmmakers and in clips from Late Night with David Letterman. At one point, the actors playing Harv and Joyce watch a California theatre production of American Splendor, as a scene we've already seen dramatized on film is unconvincingly and comically replayed on-stage. That's a whole lotta Harvey.

You'd think all this meta-storytelling would work against the basic purity of Pekar's work – which, after all, is devoted to autobiography and naturalistic snapshots of mundane life (without, as Pekar would put it, the "getting crushed to Earth" component of American Naturalistic novels) – but it doesn't. A big key to the film's success is its smart reliance on Pekar's keen ear for dialog (not many comic book movies could so fully pull straight from the word balloons of their source material). But an equally important piece is Giamatti's performance, which captures every aspect of the comic book Pekar – the V.A. hospital grind, the curmudgeonly free-lance writer, the obsessive collector and whole-scale neurotic – believably and appealingly. When the movie reaches its most serious act, our hero's battle with cancer as originally dramatized by Brabner & Pekar in the Our Cancer Year graphic novel, Giamatti nails Pekar's fear and frustration beautifully, even when the directors briefly bobble one of the moments (Pekar's notorious final guest appearance on Letterman). It's a damn fine piece of acting.

There was a time when I first started reading Pekar's comics that I thought the title he gave his series was meant to be taken ironically. But the longer he's been writing and the more developed his vision of American life has grown, the less sarcastic his title appears. It would've been easy to turn this movie into either a sneering or a sentimentalized vision of Pekar's life and work. American Splendor, the movie, does neither. For once, this viewer's fannish expectations have been fully satisfied. . .
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Saturday, October 04, 2003
      ( 10/04/2003 06:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GROOVY! – Caught the second episode of Joey Pant's new series, The Handler, last night. Centered around an F.B.I. guy (Pantoliano) who recruits and oversees undercover agents, last night's offering focused on two cases: a fresh-faced blonde who works as a waitress to catch a corrupt judge and a frizzy-headed black guy who infiltrates a gang of rock 'n' roll playing band robbers (they carry a boombox playing Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels' "Devil in A Blue Dress" to every job). About the time that we got to the gang's booze-&-drug party, I realized that I was essentially watching an updating of The Mod Squad with just a little more air time being given to Link and Julie's boss than we would've gotten in that sixties era show.
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Friday, October 03, 2003
      ( 10/03/2003 08:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THOSE DARN TREACHEROUS CORRIDORS – Like Darren Madigan, I taped this week's The West Wing in order to watch the season premiere of Angel. But unlike the Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, I haven't entirely given up on the Sorkin-free series yet. Watched E.R. at least a year longer than most smart viewers, too.

If any question existed as to whether producer John Wells and the show's new writing staff were going to attempt to replicate Sorkin's breakneck dialog, though, it was answered on this second ep. Midway in, we have a scene where Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joss Lyman and his assistant Donna are doing the patented Sorkin speedwalk-&-talk through the corridors, breathlessly being followed by a new intern. "Do you always walk this fast?" he puffs, just before tripping and tumbling to the floor. Which I took as Wells' way of telling us that these types of scenes'd be downplayed in the future.

At least they made John Goodman less phlegmatic in his swan-song episode.
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      ( 10/03/2003 06:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SOUND OF THE IDEOLOGUE – So I'm listening to "Fresh Air" on NPR in the car yesterday, and Terry Gross is interviewing Grover Norquist, a big-name conservative mucky-muck who was a player in the 90's Republican created "Contract with America" and is a current voice in the Bush Administration's plans for revising our tax system. About five minutes into the program, Norquist is decrying how our current tax system "penalizes" the much-referenced upper two percent. (Just so the five readers who actually follow these infrequent political notes know: I personally have no problem with the idea that the ultra-wealthy theoretically have to pay a higher percentage for living in the country that gave them the opportunity to become ultra-wealthy in the first place.) To hammer how unfair the tax percentage is, Norquist compares the two-percent being taxed to the percentage of Germans killed in the Holocaust.

Holy shit, I'm thinking from behind the wheel of my beat-up Buick LeSabre, did he just say that being taxed is equal to being gassed to death? Show hostess Terry Gross, bless her skinny little heart, is right behind me. Incredulous, she asks, "Did you just compare taxation to the Holocaust?"

Now, does Norquist do what you might hope he'd do? Does he back off and say, "I'm sorry. That was an asinine point no better than some ultra-leftist spouting off and comparing the Bush Administration to Nazis." No, instead he tries to explain his hyperbolic comparison by stating that he meant to focus on the unfairness of treating two small percentages differently from the majority. The longer he tries to explain the more I realize: a.) with or without clarification, Norquist doesn't see how essentially demeaning his statement is; and b.) he's most likely used this same talking point in the past to great audience approval. And this man is a major voice in present public policy. . .

UPDATE: Josh Marshall weighs in with an October 8 post that also asks why more hasn't been made of this.
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Thursday, October 02, 2003
      ( 10/02/2003 01:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I TURNED AROUND AND MY EYES BUGGED OUT!" – Have no idea who the mysterious folks behind Germany's Buffalo Bop records are (none of the discs that I own have any production credits on 'em), but I've been buying their releases in funky li'l record stores for years now. A reissue label devoted to collecting obscure rockabilly and rock 'n' roll 45's, they've been putting out nicely mastered sets of stuff you probably wouldn't otherwise hear if it weren't for them obsessive European collector types.

Two of the line's collections, Horror Hop and Monster Bop are particularly apt for this time of year. Gathering rockin' novelty numbers from a variety of defunct labels (Sandy, Brunswick, and so on), they take us to an era when teen-centric movie companies like AIP were drive-in staples – and rock could be as goofy as it wanted. Echo and sound fx, wolf howls, cackling laughter and choral screams, lots of lyrical riffs on characters beloved by an audience reared on Famous Monsters of Filmland: it's all there by the casket full on these two CDs.

Consider "The Mummy's Bracelet" by Lee Ross (from HHop), a country ballad in the style of Marty Robbins about a man who steals the title object and gives it to his girl, only to see the mummy return to retrieve it and then turn his girlfriend into stone. Or Jack Hammer's "Black Widow Spider Woman" (HH), a squawnkin' saxy rocker about a guy who falls for a real-life black widow and asks, "Do I get a love bite tonight?" Or Bobby Please's "The Monster" (on MBop), which describes Doctor Frankenstein's dismayed realization that the monster he thought dead is still alive and pursuing him ("Why do my feet move so slow?") until the final stanza delivers a punchline right out of an old Jack Davis comic illustration.

Some of the material is probably familiar to fans of early rock 'n' roll: the Hollywood Flames' Coasters-styled "Frankenstein's Den" (MB) has appeared on more than one Halloween-themed oldies collection, as has the Revells' doo-woppy "Midnight Stroll" (HH). Kip Taylor's "Jungle Hop" (HH) is on a slew of rockabilly collections and has been covered by the Cramps besides. But most of these cuts will be new to all but the most diligent rockabilly junkie. A few forgotten Golden Throat ghastlies are even resurrected: Lon Chaney's fangless cover of Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Holiday" and Bert Convy's amusing original "The Gorilla" (both HH), which owes more than a little to "Flying Purple People Eater."

Pure adolescent dumbness, in other words – and lots of laffs, too. Only pop-rock this disposable could be so cheerily attuned to the teen-aged monster lurking within its mass audience. (It isn't 'til we get to punk and metal that full-blown self-loathing enters the equation.) "I'd rather go to a horror show than a party or a dance with you," Eddie Thomas tells his girl in "Frankenstein Rock" (MB) 'cause it's the only time he gets to hold her tight.

Horror and horniness: they go together like peanut butter and chocolate.
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      ( 10/02/2003 08:58:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A DASH OF OTTER – The much-anticipated-in-my-house season opener of Angel was broadcast last night and, happily, it surpassed our expectations. Lots of comic moments (one of my faves: Angel flummoxed by his new office's phone system) as our merry band of do-gooders find their way around the belly of the beast (a.k.a. law firm Wolfram & Hart) – and a decent evildoer-to-be-thwarted plot, too. By melding the legal and urban supernatural settings, series creator Joss Whedon and crew have opened up their series' capacity to delve into realms of moral ambiguity that mundane legal dramas like The Practice can only suggest in passing. If the show can maintain half the wit and flair of Joss Whedon's written-&-directed opener, it should be one heckuva season.

Some passing thoughts on the morning after: when I heard that former Sunnydale ditz Harmony was going to appear as Angel's executive assistant this season, my first response was a grimace. But with the first ep, our "single undead girl in the city" grabbed her place in the lineup and happily held onto it. I was also disenchanted by the news that Whedonverse regular Cordelia Chase was out of the picture for this season. I can only hope that they resolve the girlfriend in a coma plotline sometime over the year. (It's serious!) God, here I am, getting all continuity wonky – but Charisma Carpenter's Cordy has been a part of Sunnydale lore since the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer pilot, and she deserves to not be shuffled aside off-stage.
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Wednesday, October 01, 2003
      ( 10/01/2003 09:09:00 AM ) Bill S.  

NEW KINDS OF KICKS – It's a jam-packed working Wednesday, so instead of writing something that requires connecting strands of thought longer than a paragraph, let's just bullet point it:
  • Watched a tape of Bravo's Animated Century the other night. A joint venture between Bravo and a Russian production company, the documentary suffers from none-too-funny interstitial animation segments (reminiscent in tone of the old school science films with "Dr. Frank Baxter") and the producers' decision to cram the entire history of world-wide animation into two short hours. Lots of attention is paid to Soviet bloc cartoons, but Japan, for instance, only receives a quick nod for its anime – as if the country'd produced nothing before the current boom, while in America, Disney gets noted for its groundbreaking early shorts but receives nary a word for its features. This could've been an event mini-series like "The Blues" if anyone had cared to do it that way.

  • Speaking of Martin Scorcese's big blues project, I haven't started watching the fall event. Unlike Johnny B. (lots of luck on the job trek, JB!), I do collect and listen to blues artists and eras, so it's not like I don't have the interest. (Brought into work this a.m.: Howlin' Wolf's Real Folk Blues, a title that Chess Records used for several of its bluesmen in an attempt to corral the folk era audience and an indispensable album.) Scheduling this blockbuster docu-series every day for a week is just too intensive for me, though, particularly when it comes opposite the networks' fall premieres. I'll wait for reruns or DVDs, thanx.

  • It's October now, which means it's also time to pull out the Cramps' discs. Today's selection: To the Bone, a British best-of that pulls from this psychobilly band's early IRS years (you get their bugfuck version of "Surfin' Bird") and contains a keen 3-D comics cover. The bird remains the word. . .

  • James Kochalka's newest trade collection Fancy Froglin's Sexy Forest (Alternative) has been gathering positive press lately (this week's favorable review: Greg McElhatton at Comicon's iComics – wish I knew how to link to it). So I'm steppin' forward to state for all time that Kochalka's gigglysmut strip left me so cold I thought of reviving Dorothy Parker's famous put-down of Winnie the Pooh in this paragraph. Fancy, the phallocentric phrog, might've been amusing as a sporadic strip, but the ongoing "look-at-my-boner" shtick wears thin quickly. Same week I bought this collection I also read the reworked Magic Boy and the Robot Elf (Top Shelf), the art cartoonist's first graphic novel, and even though the rewritten ending remains a mess, it's still got ten times the heart of Sexy Forest.

  • Hey look, I got through the previous paragraph without mentioning Kochalka's ass!

  • Still wending my way through manga graphic novels for review. Picked up Junji Ito’s "spiral into horror" Uzumaki and after reading two volumes, I realized it's a limited series that wraps up in Volume Three. So I'm holding off 'til I finish the entire story before writing a "Sixty Minute Manga" on it. Definitely liking what I’ve read to date. . .

  • fx's Nip/Tuck continues to simultaneously entertain and induce periodic groans. This week's episode included some clever fantasy sequences reminiscent of both Six Feet Under and The Reanimator(!) but also contained another exceedingly lame line in the ep's final confrontation scene between doctor Sean and his wife Julia, who has quickly turned into mistress of the godawful simile (this time comparing their dead love to the ashes of her husband's recently cremated lover). Props to actress Joely Richardson for delivering this crap with a straight face, though. . .
Enjoy your Wednesday.
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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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