Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, November 06, 2006
      ( 11/06/2006 02:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

THOSE WACKY RED/BLUE STATERS – Back when I was but-a-lad, one of my favorite covers from the glory days of the black-and-white Mad was for the mag's January 1961 issue. Designed to come out after the Kennedy/Nixon presidential election, the issue contained two covers, each featuring mascot Alfred E. waving a pennant by an illustrated photo of one of the two candidates. Each cover congratulated their featured candidate for winning the presidency, ending with the tagline, "We were with you all the way!" (Bought an old copy of the mag in a Central Illinois garage sale a few years back, and you could tell the original owner's political bias by the fact that they'd penned a goatee and mustache on the Kennedy pic.) A good example of the magazine's political ethos, I suspect, that still holds true for the Presentday Gang of Idiots.

Haven't read an issue of Mad all the way through in at least a decade, but I recently received a review copy of issue #471 along with a press release plugging the fact that, with elections coming up, the magazine was pushing the political material. For years, my take on Mad was reflected by National Lampoon's devastating 1971 satire ("What? Me Funny?") of the mag, though it turns out that particular joke was on NatLamp, doesn't it? Still, the point remains that I haven't really kept up with the print mag, so I was eager to see if my perspective on it would be shaken up by the current Gang.

Long story short: my preconceptions weren't challenged much. Like the '61 issue that so tickled me when I was ten-years-old, the writers and artists at the present-day Mad work hard to have it both ways – look at how we stick it to both parties! – at a level that probably wouldn't overwork your average late-nite teevee monologue writer. (Since, theoretically at least, the Letterman "Top Ten" List is on after your average Mad reader's bedtime, perhaps that's perfectly okay.) Thus we get Red State and Blue State editions of Monopoly with game pieces like a mounted deer head or a hand holding a joint attached to specific editions, a two-page spread of "Honest Political Slogans We'd Like to Hear" ("The New Democratic Party: Now Lieberman Free!" "The Republican Party: Spreading Freedom And Democracy Abroad, Even If Nobody Wants It!") and a comparison between what Conservatives and Liberals Believe featuring two middle-aged cartoon caricatures who look exactly the way you expect 'em to. There's also a one-page Ted Rall strip, but it's pretty darn toothless.

More telling is a little quarter-page piece included as part of the magazine's catch-all "Fundalini Pages": the image of our president and Condi Rice in cheerleader garb under the heading, "Good News Coming Out of Iraq Which the Media Isn't Covering" ("After a cursed, 30-year losing streak, Basra Tech is having a Cinderella run in the Iraqi NAA basketball tournament," we're told.) But with a number of conservative pundits acknowledging the current failings in that particular skirmish, even this doesn't read as all that trenchant.

Still, I'll admit that the Mad of today's youth, in general, is a mite rougher than the Mad of my boyhood. One of the mag's regular comics features, "Monroe," centers around our young boy hero being mistaken for a pedophile when he ventures into "MySpace," f'rinstance, while a two-page feature on "When Videogames Become Religious" (didn't The Simpsons do this with Rod & Todd several seasons back?) tweaks evangelical and millennialist beliefs amusingly ("The environments in the excruciating Sims 3 will limited to tent revivals, anti-abortion rallies and door-to-door pamphleteering.") Decades ago, when I was in elementary school, I used to have to sneak issues of the early Mad mags into the house (kept a whole set of Signet paperbacks in the space behind my dresser drawer): if my folks then could've seen what passes for Mad fodder today, their heads would've probably imploded.

For me, though, the most risible parts of the current mag are the more lightweight pieces: good ol' Sergio Aragonés' three-page series of wordless pirate gags, a grotey "TV Commercial We'd Like to See" written by old-timer Dick DeBartelo that takes maximum advantage of the mag's current color printing to make mushed-up food look really disgusting, plus a seasonal article on "The 18 Worst Things About Halloween" illustrated with lotsa cartoony fume lines by Peter Bagge. Another geezer, Al Jaffe, is repped with both a legitimate and a back-page ad fold-in. Never could bring myself to actually fold them pieces – the anal retentive collector in me just couldn't do it! – so I can't clearly say if Jaffe still has his stuff. Best I can tell, the new fold-in contains an anorexia joke, though, so I'll put it in the plus column.

Telling satire? Not particularly. But that Mad can continue as (to use the press release's phrase) "America's longest running humor magazine" with or without the occasional more overt nod toward topical relevance is worth cheering all by itself. Keep it up, fellas – I'm with you all the way!
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Sunday, November 05, 2006
      ( 11/05/2006 07:04:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"SUCH PLACES WERE OVERLOOKED, WITH A WINK AND A NOD . . ." – At root, the high concept behind Bill Willingham's witty DC/Vertigo series, Fables, is one that could quickly be described to a not-particularly-bright teevee producer: modern-day adventures of the characters who populate the fairy tales of our youth (with an occasional ringer like the critters from Orwell's Animal Farm tossed in for spice) told from a slightly more grown-up PoV. Not much different in tone from a tele-series like Charmed, in part, with good-looking characters and fantastic creatures intermingling, playing off and betraying each other in slightly soap-ish ways. The new Vertigo hardback graphic novel, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, gives us the back details of many of the series' regulars – the stories inbetween the original Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm (much, er, Grimmer fare than the bowdlerized fairy tales that most of us know) and modern-day New York where Willingham's living fables reside.

The means by which the writer has chosen to present these bits of Fable history is pretty simple: in a prose opening designed to look like an early twentieth century's children book (wonderful color illos by Charles Vess & Michael J. Kaluta), no-nonsense political envoy Snow White travels to an Arabian kingdom to enlist the alliance of a sultan in a Fabletown war for survival. The primary reason that these figures of folklore have fled to the New World is to escape a monstrous unseen Adversary, who has enlisted the eviler figures in the land of myth – trolls, sorcerers, witches – to brutally subjugate all the other fables. Unfortunately for Snow, the sultan who she is visiting has iss-yues of his own: believing all women to be perfidious beasts good for one night of marital bliss than a quick beheading, he holds our heroine a prisoner. To save her lily-white skin, Snow goes Scheherazade, telling the sultan nightly stories, each of which is illustrated in comics form by an A-Level comics illustrator.

White's opening story works to establish the rules of Willingham's world: "The Fencing Lesson" follows newlywed Snow and her husband Prince Charming in the early days of their marriage. Readers of the comic know that Charming's philandering will eventually destroy this union, a character detail that's not essential to understanding this story, though it adds a certain piquancy to the proceedings. In "Lesson," we learn that the dwarves of Snow White's story are not Disney-esque naives but rather thuggish reprobates. As painted by John Bolton, they're gnarly and unpleasant. In short, this is not the Grimms' – or even Donald Barthelme's – Snow White (though perhaps it's closer to the latter). The dwarves, we learn, are more tolerated than accepted aboveground, primarily for the riches that they procure digdigdigging in the mines. When several of the more disreputable little men are murdered, it threatens the profitable economic alliance between Charming's kingdom and the underground civilization of the dwarves. The identity of the dwarf slayer is never in doubt, though newcomers with the old fairy tale in their heads may be taken aback by the motive behind 'em.

Snowfall presents ten of the stories that Snow purportedly told over her 1001 nights of captivity, and, in general, the stronger entries are the longer ones that we can imagine being told into a long night. A few of the shorter tales, while beautifully illustrated (an animal yarn wonderfully colored by the comic mag's regular artist Marc Buckingham; a second animal fable illoed by Derek Kirk Kim which had me thinking of Watership Down; a two-page throwaway vignette by an artist I wish was doing more graphic storytelling, Brian Bolland) read so sketchily that you can't help wondering how discerning an audience that sultan was, anyway.

The better, longer tales take folk-tale figures who were previously largely one-note and complicate them in enjoyable ways. Even the villains – Big Bad "Bigby" Wolf, seen in childhood as the runt of the litter; Stulla, the witch from a dozen different tales, shown as a young girl in the mountain tribe of her birth - get their own stories. The art is lavish, with a variety of styles that range from faux primitive (Esao Andrews, nicely used on Stulla’s tale) to more traditional "realistic" comic stylings (Bolland being the most beautifully conservative in this front, followed by Derek Kirk Kim). To my eyes, the stand-out piece is Jill Thompson's tale of King Cole in hiding with a large company of animals for the way she manages to most successfully blend classic children's book art with graphic storytelling. It's the book's 1001st story (aside from a prose epilog that frees Snow from the sultan’s clutches), and it sends Snowfall out on a suitable grace note. True to the series, Cole is depicted as more than a Merry Old Soul. Despite his joviality, the character is forced to make some hard decisions and even, in the end, betray the same creatures he owes his life to. That Cole has a good reason to do so is a detail that Willingham keeps upfront. Even Wicked Old Witches have their reasons, after all . . .
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Friday, November 03, 2006
      ( 11/03/2006 03:56:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"IT'S A LEGAL DEFENSE FOR HOMICIDE – THE WIND!" – Caught the opening entry of this season's Masters of Horror: Tobe Hooper's filming of Richard Christian Matheson's elaborate modernization of the Ambrose Bierce classic, "The Damned Thing." I was pretty harsh on Hooper's first season offering (also done in collaboration with Matheson), but this 'un was much closer to the mark. The story of a cursed Texas town that is revisited by a malevolent force which drives the townspeople into a murderous/suicidal frenzy, Hooper's entry shows he hasn't entirely forgotten how to build suspense and not incidentally wallop the viewer with a shocking moment or two. A few bobbled bits – a scene where the story's doofus deputy (Brendan Fletcher) rushes into a church confessional in the midst of all the chaos stands out – but the central piece surrounding town sheriff Sean Patrick Flanery (who as a boy survived an earlier visitation) is strong.

Flanery's Sheriff Reddle, traumatized by the memory of his father being eviscerated by an invisible creature, is the story glue here – and he's quite fine as the hard-drinking paranoid who dreads the doom he knows is about to return to his town. There's a moment near the end that plays off Night of the Living Dead quite effectively: Reddle, visited by a group of panicky townspeople desperate to be protected from their neighbors and friends, sends them in the basement where he then proceeds to lock them in. His wife and son are upstairs, and we know that any one of them could suddenly turn violent without any warning. A flash of doubt/guilt goes across Reddle's face as he listens to his neighbors in the basement. He moves to the door to unlock it, begins to do so, then backs away, leaving them trapped beneath the house. A classic case of Damned-If-You-Do-Or-Don't: one of the central tenets of modern horror . . .
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      ( 11/03/2006 08:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MUST BE THE MIGRAINES – Is it me or is C.S.I. coming across really pissed-off and crotchety this season?
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Thursday, November 02, 2006
      ( 11/02/2006 02:40:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DAG – Proving that he'll watch nearly anything in the pursuit of the occasional comic nugget, Aaron Neathery sits through all 28 of the Blondie Columbia features and writes to tell about it. The Blondie flicks were, like the Bowery Boys features, fare that often showed up in low-traffic timeslots on local teevee stations during my wasted youth. Remember catching a few back in the day, but I can't say they were especially memorable but for the presence of Penny Singleton, already cemented in my Boomer brain as the voice of Jane Jetson. Still, Aaron's piqued my curiosity about the series' big musical entry, Blondie Goes Latin, wherein, "The Bumsteads sing . . . dance . . . and make the wild waves wilder . . ." Yeah, when I think Latin Passion, I think Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead . . .
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Wednesday, November 01, 2006
      ( 11/01/2006 03:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

HEADY STUFF – Had a strange disconnected feeling watching last night's Boston Legal: most specifically related to its resolution of the ongoing Michael J. Fox plotline. Playing a billionaire dying from lung cancer, Fox's Daniel Post had disappeared after several guest shots earlier in the season – only to have his lady lawyer spouse Denise (Julie Bowen) learn last night that he died during a risky lung transplant. One of the subplots to BL's Halloween ep, then, involved Denise's attempts at tracking down her late husband's body – which had been chopped up and shipped all over the country by organ thieves – ultimately winding up in a New England Haunted House where Danny Boy's head had been put on display as part of the horrors. Far fetched? Decidedly – and the moment where Bowen and co-star Candace Bergen discover the head, shrieking in each other's faces like they were trying out for the sequel to 1941, totally sunk it.

And, yet, considering the flap that has flown around Fox's recent political appearances in favor of stem cell research, that part of me which regularly has difficulty differentiating reality and really dumb television kept blurring together. One of the plot points surrounding Daniel's character has been his willingness to try anything – no matter how ethically dubious – to fight his cancer. Bergen's sniping brings this point home at one point, noting the irony of a man who was willing to buy another man's lung ultimately being scavenged by organ thieves. "Good thing they didn't show the character's actual severed head," I thought, imagining it showing up on any number of poli-websites today as a cautionary warning on what happens when you Push the Bounds of Medical Science Too Far . . .
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      ( 11/01/2006 10:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JUST LOOK UP . . . AT A SKY OF POSSIBILITIES . . ." – It doesn't take long for Tom Dare's grim plight to reveal itself: after a few small symptoms (a moment of stiffness as he attempts to play keyboards at a House of Blues concert, a certain grayness on one of his fingernails), it quickly becomes apparent that Thomas is inexplicably turning to stone. It's a malady he apparently inherited from his father, and it's seemingly incurable. All that he (and we) can do is watch as the poor guy transforms into a statue.

As dramatized by Joe Casey & Charlie Adlard in the new graphic novel, Rock Bottom (AiT/Planet Lar), Dare's tale is a dark one that at first put me in mind of Stephen King's Thinner. In both horror tales, a flawed common guy is suddenly forced to deal with an accelerating physical change that'll ultimately destroy him. But where King's diminishing protagonist spent most of his book denying his personal responsibilities, Dave is more honest with himself. An unfaithful husband, unwilling would-be father, he nonetheless manages to acquit himself with a surprise act of heroism that Ben Grim would recognize. (When we see an "artist's rendition" of our hero after his story hits the news, it even resembles Jack Kirby's earliest version of The Thing.) It's not enough to stave off the inevitable, but it does make him a national legend.

Casey's script is clear and straightforward, both pitiless in its acknowledgment of Dare's considerable failings and empathetic to his dilemma. The story's central irony – that the closer our hero gets to becoming a petrified statue, the more he discovers his humanity (in this, Dare's transmutation could be a stand-in for any number of debilitating diseases) – is an obvious one, but Casey resists the urge to belabor it. In this, he's abetted by Adlard's black-and-white art, which is surprisingly subdued in contrast to Adlard's heavily darkened inkwork for a previous collaboration with Casey, the Eisner-indebted Codeflesh.

Using fine pen lines with minimal shading, Adlard's panels all look as if they were lit by hospital fluorescents. For the first few pages of story, I have to admit the approach made my eyes slide across the page without taking much in. But once I got into it, Adlard's visual control of his characters held me. There are a lot of scenes of our hero sitting around either waiting to receive or receiving his worsening medical prognosis: Adlard keeps 'em interesting throughout. (A comparable moment set in an abortion clinic waiting room is especially fine.) As his work in the ongoing zombie survivalist series, The Walking Dead, shows, Adlard is fully capable of crafting good full-blown horror action scenes. Here, he proves himself even better at visualizing quiet horror, reflecting it through the distress of those around Thomas as they watch their friend or former lover ossify.

Really really fine storytelling, in sum, that'll linger long past many more flashy efforts. Even if it doesn't (unlike Casey's popcorn-y werewolves-in-space AiT GN, Full Moon Fever) attract the attention of the Hollywood optioners . . .
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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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