Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
      ( 1/07/2004 08:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

LINCOLN, LINCOLN, I’VE BEEN THINKIN' – From The Department of Teevee Scenes That Look Good But Don't Make A Lick O' Sense comes this moment from tonight's 100th ep of The West Wing. President Bartlett, returning from the funeral of a former, more conservative president, is following the last advice from the dead prez by going to the Lincoln Memorial and "listening." The show ends with Bartlett climbing the stairs to the looming Lincoln statue, standing there and humbly, I guess, looking up at it. Then the camera pans back, leaving him in the shadow of the memorial, backing down the steps and along the walkway – and we don't see any secret service agents anywhere in the vicinity! Thank God they brought in new writers (hey, didn't this William Sacret Young guy write China Beach?) to save this show from Aaron Sorkin's nonsense. . .
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      ( 1/07/2004 11:10:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"AN INTENSE NIGHT OF FAKE SLEEPING" – The beginning of January can be a tenuous time for those of us who habitually follow pop culture. With the previous year already neatly stamped and cataloged – and the pickings for new releases spare – it's a period when many of us work to catch up on stuff we missed, usually by perusing the best-of lists of other pop junkies. It's a bittersweet practice for many of us. While it’s always a joy to come upon unfamiliar pop that speaks to you, there's also a sense of "Why didn't I discover this for myself?" tingeing it.

So it was for me with Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont Records), the 2003 disc by New England's Pernice Brothers, a release I was alerted to via Thomas Bartlett's year end summary piece on Salon (you may need to sit thru an ad to read it - so enter at your own risk!) I was unfamiliar with these guys, and if you'd asked me to categorize their sound based on name alone, I'd have guessed they were one of those bluegrass groups beloved by cultish country aficionados and nobody else. I'd have totally missed the mark.

Turns out the bros. (singer/songwriter Joe and brother Bob) are power poppers: guitar-friendly melders of the Beach Boys and Smiths, capable of matching either at their melodic peak. YM&O is the group's third outing: don't know if the early entries sound anything like this, but after playing this 'un feverishly for days, I intend to find out. Simply put, it's a gorgeous pop-rock album: harmonic and musically uplifting, even as the lyrics often plunge into depresso-ville. (Pernice's idea of being reassuring to his lover is to imagine himself as King Solomon and telling her to "Cut the baby in two.") We need good moving melancholy pop like this: it's everything that Brian Wilson's Imagination tried to be and heartbreakingly fell short of achieving; it's how you imagined the Smiths sounded when you first read about 'em – until you actually heard Morrissey's one-note gloombox voice.

And in this case, at least, the bittersweet sense of picking up another pop-nerd's leavings only adds to the experience. The perfect pop experience for an ultra-chilly January. . .
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Tuesday, January 06, 2004
      ( 1/06/2004 02:21:00 PM ) Bill S.  

EGO-TRIPPIN' (A WHOLLY INEXCUSABLE EXERCISE) – Rambling through The Comics Journal's messboards this afternoon, I came across reference to the Michigan State University Comic Art Collection Reading Room Index. The index includes TCJ, so out of pure self-indulgence, I decided to see if I was in it. Found a page that listed fifty-plus articles I'd written for the Journal from 1977-87 – and also referred to a dopey fannish letter I wrote to the EC fanzine Spa Fon back in 1969. The list ends with a November '99 letter to TCJ that must've been written by another Bill Sherman because I wasn't reading the mag (or indeed many comics) that year. I'd love to read that letter, though. The title, "You & Your Silly Research," cracks me up!

Okay, so I'm not completely over my head cold. . .
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      ( 1/06/2004 11:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TALES FROM BLOGOSCOPIC OCEANS – Still feelin' pretty muzzy-headed from this cold, but I had to celebrate the re-emergence of Steve Wintle's Flat Earth blog: which re-opens with a commentary on the state of comics plus a wonderful piece on an Archie dential hygiene(!) comic. Welcome back, Steve!

And in other blognews, Big Sunny D has apparently changed the title of his web log from a music reference that I recognized to one that I don't. The blogroll's been adjusted accordingly.

UPDATE: Scott McAllister links to BSD's explanation (makes sense that he'd get his new blog title from a Grant Morrison book!) in the Comments section below.
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Monday, January 05, 2004
      ( 1/05/2004 09:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHERE I AM TODAY – Major head cold . . . goin' to try to sleep it off . . . so, if you haven't already, why not head to Sean Collins' most excellent interview with Phoebe Glockner? Lots of good info and insights offered on this underappreciated graphic artist.
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Sunday, January 04, 2004
      ( 1/04/2004 08:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BRING ON THE HORSES – Caught Gore Verbinski's Americanized The Ring last night on HBO – so, of course, I'm tempted to do a quick comparison between it and Hideo Nakata's Ringu. Some of the remake's shots, particularly in the opening sequence (Oh no, they're gonna kill Joan Girardi!), ape the original fairly closely. But the film soon finds its own way with the material.

Considered side by side, both versions have their strengths (a scene in The Ring featuring a freaked-out horse on a Pacific Northwest ferry was an especially strong addition). But the climactic appearances of the movie's central evil were a bit cheapened, I thought, by the obvious CGI overlay. (The bit where we watch a body decay in our heroine's arms could've come out of Pirates of the Caribbean.) Perhaps if I'd caught the American remake first, I'd have accepted these scenes more readily. As it stands, the original flick's unadorned crawling ghost was just plain creepier. . .
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Saturday, January 03, 2004
      ( 1/03/2004 03:55:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"A GENTLE GIANT, PROTECTING US FROM HOSTILE INVASION" – Bloggish gratitude goes out to Dirk Deppey, who noted my comment about blurb-ular billing on the Zippy 2003 Annual in Friday's ¡journalista! You're a giant among comics bloggers, Dirk!

And speaking of giants, I've been reading Bill Griffith's latest Fantagraphics collection and noted with interest the appearance of the Gemini Giant in a 03/16/03 Sunday strip. Towering over Zippy and his creator, the revamped muffler man sparks a fearful characterization from Griffy: "He's a dangerous lunatic, sheathed in phallic headgear & brandishing nuclear tipped weaponery!" Zippy, of course, has an entirely different take: "He's standing guard over our proud nation!" Or at least a decent Wilmington, IL., burger joint. . .
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      ( 1/03/2004 07:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MORE PULSE-POUNDIN' EXCITEMENT! – It's lightweight and silly, but as long as Marvel continues to put out fare like Gail Simone's Gus Beezer, I'll continue to hold out hopes for mainstream superhero comics. If something as frivolously goofball as this can be published with the Spider-Man logo attached to it, why, then creativity can burst out just about anywhere!

Well, mebbe not here. . .
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Friday, January 02, 2004
      ( 1/02/2004 04:55:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I LIKE 'OR'S – DOUBT IS REASSURING" – New Year's Day I spent much of my time, sitting back to install software updates (put Windows XP on the ancient p-c – which engendered much updating), plus reading a graphic novel it took me months to crack open: Craig Thompson's Blankets (Top Shelf).

Thompson's wrist-strainer of a trade paperback has been received both praise and brickbats: it's been out long enough to spark both Best-Graphic-Novel-Since-Will-Eisner-"Invented"-The-Form kudos and a Hey-It's-Not-That-Good backlash. Coming to the book after all the dust has cleared – and web critics like Andrew Arnold have unequivocally enshrined it in the Best of 2003 pantheon – I'm more on the side of the book's boosters. Reading it over the course of a snow-less winter day, I found myself wrapped up in Thompson's semi-autobiographical graphic novel all the way to its finish – it's the closest thing to a Thomas Wolfe novel ever attempted in comics.

The book centers on Craig as an adolescent and the star-crossed romance between him and a kindred spirit named Raina. We first meet our hero as a young Wisconsin boy, sharing his bed with a younger brother, and though the main story revolves around the romance between Craig and his teen-aged flame, it keeps returning to the author's boyhood. Blankets is as much about the dynamics of growing up in a family as it is a love story (much as Wuthering Heights, say, is as concerned with questions of child-rearing as it is Heathcliffe and Cathy's doomed love). When Craig stays with Raina at her estranged parents' house, as much attention is paid to the young girl's role as surrogate parent to an adopted brother and sister as it is to her developing romance. (At times, you get the sense that Raina's role as parental teen is part of what makes her so attractive to Craig.) The book's first chapter offers two grimly effective scenes of child mistreatment: in the first, the author's brother Phil is forced to sleep in a vermin-infested crawlspace as parental punishment; in the second, both brothers are sexually abused by an overwhelming babysitter. Both moments loom over the rest of the novel (more than once, for instance, we're reminded of the "cubby hole" by the boys' room) and color its central romance.

At the same time, Thompson's graphic novel is also about the limits of adolescent faith: raised in a conservative Christian home, Craig turns to the Bible as a shield against a world he perceives as unremittingly hostile. But relying on religion solely as armor proves to be insufficient, and our hero falls away from the family faith once his incandescent romance burns to its end. Some readers have seen this plotline as Thompson's slam on evangelical religion, and while there are elements of this in his hero's growing disenchantment with organized faith, it's depicted more dispassionately than the bullying doled out by both religious and secular authority. Just as often, the book's honest evangelicals are shown to be struggling to get by just like everybody else.

But what brings in readers is the romance between Craig and Raina, which is crafted with well-remembered detail and delicacy. Attracted to Raina even as he wrestles with the nattering strictures of his stern upbringing, Craig slowly lets his guard down. We follow the duo's building relationship with both anticipation and dread. We know that they're meant to be together at least once, but we also suspect that once it happens one or both will retreat from following things further.

The art used to depict this ultimately bittersweet story is fluid and often beautifully composed. (One dubious visual decision: a mid-book sequence where our hero's nose looks like it was made of plywood and pasted on his face.) Thompson's depictions of the snow-blanketed Midwestern setting make maximum use of the black-and-white format, while his page and panel composition utilizes Eisner-esque storytelling techniques in a way that feels totally natural. Too often, when comic artists take from as florid an artist as "Spirit" era Will Eisner, all you get is showy technique divorced from story emotion. Here, I found myself accepting Thompson's visual decisions without stopping to consider where they might've come from. When the artist abandons his snow-bound Midwestern setting to show his artist hero's visual imagination working full force (one memorable image: the sight of Craig and a naked Raina embracing as angels pull the pair out of reach from a horde of hellish demons), it illuminates the book's knowing awareness of adolescent romanticism. Giving teen emotions their due without succumbing to sentimentality is a tricky balancing act: the beauty of Blankets lies in the way we accept our hero's heartbreak even as we hope he'll learn enough to eventually grow out of it. . .
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Thursday, January 01, 2004
      ( 1/01/2004 12:36:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BLURB-ISM – Standing in the comics shop yesterday without enough cash to purchase the book, I see I got to be a blurb on the back of this year's Zippy Annual. Though the line quoted from my review of last year's Fantagraphics Zippy collection is only cited as "Blogcritics.Org," I still remain quietly proud – and plan on buying the book tomorrow.
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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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