Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, September 07, 2002
      ( 9/07/2002 08:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

POLI-ROCK – Two pieces in this week’s Blogcritics got me thinking about a trend that tends to push one of my critical buttons. It goes something like this:

hey, that new Sleater-Kinney album sure sounds great – has a lotta lefty political lyrics it, but, hey, that’s not important: what matters is the beat!


who cares if Jaguar’s co-opted the Clash’s “London Calling” for one of its ads – I never listened to the Clash for their lyrics, anyway!

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but this diminution of words can’t help but irk me. A great pop song works on both musical and lyrical levels, and downplaying either component is a critical cheat. My uncharitable guess is that some of the blogcrits may be attempting to get around an audience that they perceive as predominately neo-libertarian. (You know the type: their idea of individual freedom only extends to those who agree with ‘em.) But perhaps it’s just a variation of the ol’ rock-is-for-dunderheads-so-why-bother? routine.

I know it’s partially because my abiding love of rock ‘n’ roll was informed during the sixties, but I like good rock music when it gets political. To my ears, songs about 9-11 are just as valid as ones about the singer’s dick size – maybe more valid, ultimately. Great pop music is implicitly or explicitly in dialog with the culture around it (one of the things that kept Madonna relevant past the lifetimes of a dozen Britneys is her ability to remain attuned to the world). Sometimes that dialog is a political one. You may not agree with all the sentiments expressed (I know I sure don’t), but acting like they don’t matter does no service to the song or its audience.

UPDATE: I need to make a correction to the above. The sentiments that I somewhat snarkily paraphrased up appeared in two different Blogcritics pieces, but only one appeared as a part of the actual article. The second appeared in the comments section below and was written by the author of the first, Kenan Hebert .

Responding to my rant (which I'd also posted on the Brogcritics site) with more grace than it deserved, he writes:

I agree that the lyrics matter, but I don't think that the political views of a band matter ultimately. I don't think the Clash's lyrics are of light significance in the music, but I do think that their passion for the views expressed, and the poetry with which those words come out, is what elevates the music, not the politics. You may disagree with me on this point, but I do not think that rock and roll can change the world. I think it can only make the world burn brighter.

Two words: Public Enemy. You can already smell where I'm going with this. Are the politics of Farakkhan an integral part of the music? Yes. Should those politics be ignored in favor of all of the band's other virtues? Yes. A great number of people have collectively decided that the sound PE made was more important than to let it be dragged down by a little impassioned racism. I agree. You say, "You may not agree with all the sentiments expressed (I know I sure don't)," and I'm with you all the way.

My remarks were not intended to appeal to or circumvent any sort of particular political view -- quite the opposite -- nor to appeal to ignorance. I am dogmatic in only one regard: music is holy, and pure, and important, and when done well, timeless. It does certainly exist in relation to its culture, but if it does only that, its influence and significance fades. It must also have passion. I think music can contain ideas, but very seldom is it really about them. When it works best, it works on a level deeper than that.

I agree with Kenan (who does a great music-focused blog, so I’m glad this debate gave me the chance to discover it), actually. I enjoy listening to and mentally parsing the politics of a good rock song (even one by PE), much as I can be entertained by a clever lyricist offering insight on the love roundelay (last really great one for me: the late Kirsty Macoll’s Tropical Brainstorm). But it’s also true that a more mundane set of lyrics won’t hurt a song if all the other elements are in place.

Rereading Kenan’s reply, it occurs to me that one thing I love about great pop music is the way it can comment on a moment and be more timeless. So while Sleater-Kinney’s (or Springsteen’s or rowdy ol’ Steve Earle’s) take on 9-11 may not matter twenty or even five years from now, it does have resonance today.

My favorite pop criticism is the stuff that attempts to encompass both currency and longevity, though clearly that balancing act can be tricky. One of the first Blogcritics pieces I remember reading, for instance, was Ken Layne’s take on the current Steve Earle controversy. It had a lot of good insights into the situation surrounding the much-discussed Lindh song, but the only thing I learned about the song itself was that it sounded like the Earle we know from I Feel Alright or Transcendental Blues. That’s not criticism; it’s reportage – though to be fair to Layne I think he meant it that way.

In any event, I do think that I did Kenan a disservice with my original piece. From his response, it’s clear we broach pop music from two slightly different perches and that what I was misreading as avoidance was really just a difference in perspective.

So . . . how about that new Mekons’ album, huh?
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      ( 9/07/2002 08:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AND THEY DUMPED THAT SCRAGGLY SUPERBOY’S BOOK, TOO . . . – From the Dept. of Cheap ‘N’ Overstated Critical Contrasts: when DC launches a new superhero team comic, it’s Power Company; when Marvel does, it’s Craptacular B-Sides.

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Friday, September 06, 2002
      ( 9/06/2002 02:48:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“THE SOOTHING BALM OF LAUGHTER” – Daniel Clowes’ Twentieth Century Eightball (Fantagraphics Books) is an entertainingly slapdash collection of rant comics and surreal misanthropy from the title that also yielded Ghost World and Daniel Boring.

It’s probably safe to say that if Clowes had produced nothing but strips like the selection in this book, he’d still be residing in the margins of alternacomics. In the aftermath of Ghost World’s indy film success, it’s worth noting that the satire strips of Twentieth Century at one time reflected Clowes’ primary cartooning voice: withering putdowns of pretension and superficiality by an artist who simultaneously was doing art for Cracked magazine. When Eightball #1 first appeared, in fact, it seemed more in tune with Mad-inspired underground collections like R. Crumb’s Weirdo than the more nuanced title that it is today. It wasn’t ‘til Clowes’ first serial novel, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, was released in a single volume that it became clear the artist was doing more than reviving Crumb-styled ranting for a younger generation.

Still, what great rants: here’s Clowes holding forth on art school, devastatingly nailing both students and teachers (“If you must go to art school, for God’s sake make the most of it . . . Seldom if ever again in life will you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations.”); here he is, in the guise of Lloyd Llewellyn holding forth on everything he hates (including “People who hide behind cartoon characters to espouse their unpopular opinions”); there he goes, slapping Freudian interpretation on popular American sports; or lamenting the elevation of loutishness in his hometown Chicago.

All very “total wiseass” (to quote Clowes quoting Art Spiegelman), all nicely keyed to the “everything sucks” attitude of all the male Enid Coleslaws out there. (The Ghost World heroine makes a brief appearance as “Little Enid” in an opening strip done for the book, incidentally.) In “The Stroll,” “Marooned On A Desert Island With People On The Subway” and “The Party,” the artist fantasizes about strangers much like Enid & Rebecca did in Angels restaurant. Do the beliefs espoused in these strips represent the writer/artist’s? Somewhat, I’d wager, though Clowes also includes a neat four-pager (“Just Another Day”) tweaking autobiographically-focused criticism by presenting himself in a series of bewilderingly contradictory cartoon personas.

As an artist, Clowes primarily works in a cartoony mode here: showing traces of EC greats like Bernie Krigstein and Wally Wood (appearing as a character in a new strip in the back of the book), parodying artists like religious tractster Jack T. Chick or the Harvey Comics bullpen. Clowes’ flair for facial caricature frequently recalls Chester Gould (another Chicago boy!) Though where the “Dick Tracy” artist elevated grotesqueness to define villainy, Clowes is more interested in the way these “flaws” reflect his figures’ humanity (c.f., his only half-ironic paean to “Ugly Girls”).

Between the rants, Clowes also includes a series of one-three page stories featuring a variety of unappealing types: agoraphobic Zubrick and his underwear-clad roomie, Pogeybait; teenfreak wannabe Hippypants; and the Happy Fisherman (who walks around with a frozen fish over his dick). Packed with crass behavior and barely concerned with story, these entries read like the free-flowing displays of stonery that characterized the underground press in its heyday. (No, I don’t know or care if Clowes has indulged in any pharmaceuticals – but in one early strip he does characterize what he’s doing as “underground.”) While not as strong as the cartoon diatribes, they can be laff-provoking if you’re in a dark enough mood.

On the book’s back cover, our artist hero gives us a fanciful version of this collection’s genesis. After speaking to a mustachioed Fantagraphics publisher (who tells him the company wants “a book which elicits not morose empathy but applies to our wounded collective soul the soothing balm of laughter”), Clowes considers his early work. “As I recall,” he says to himself, “I occasionally used to include amusing material in my old comics!” Yes, you did, Dan – and some snottily bilious stuff, too.

It’s all on display for our divertissement in Twentieth Century Eightball.

UPDATE: I added the above review to the Blogcritics site, so if you wanna read the piece in a different font go here! (Oh yeah, there's lots of other good stuff there, too.)

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Thursday, September 05, 2002
      ( 9/05/2002 06:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“WELL, TWIRL MY TURBAN, MAN ALIVE!” – Who sez you don’t learn anything valuable from weblogging? Venturing onto Gary Farber’s Amygdala today, I had a Buffy question answered that had long been puzzling me. Subject: the origin of Buffy nemesis Faith’s “five-by-five” catchphrase. Ever since I first heard it used on the show, I associated it with an old swing era hit, Freddie Slack’s “Mr. Five By Five” (a joking reference to a fat band leader of the day who supposedly was as tall as he was wide). I was hanged if I knew how a young punk-ish lass like Faith would’ve even come across the phrase, though. According to Gary, however, the phrase is also used in radio communication to indicate when a message has come through clearly. Well, that makes a whole lot more sense. . .

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      ( 9/05/2002 02:43:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BLOGTYPING – I remain pretty skittish about attempts at defining the weblog world – if only because so many of the pieces that I’ve read so far make me feel like I’m an aberration. I don’t scour the N.Y. Times in order to snatch and expose liberal bias; after months of reading analysis from all sides of the political scale, I still don’t completely know what to think about the Israel/Palestine conflict (my easily rebutted core belief is that both sides are too invested in viewing themselves as victims to be able to resolve anything); I think Ann Coulter’s legs are too skinny; I’m still waiting for the administration to provide something concrete that’ll justify a war with Iraq, though I don’t reflexively recoil from the idea; I like watching reruns of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer more than I do Fox News or CNN.

I’ve never been linked in the Grand Central Station of Bloggerdom and don’t expect to be.

I came into weblogging in the aftermath of the so-called war blog boom, though my own writing focus has only occasionally ventured into political areas. I have difficulty sustaining Righteous Indignation for a prolonged period. No doubt this has contributed to the lightweight nature of Pop Culture Gadabout, but I suspect it’s also kept my blogging experience from personally devolving into excessive angst-ridden screeding.

Despite my misgivings about most attempts at characterizing the blog world, I am becoming engrossed in Andrew Sullivan & Kurt Anderson’s current Slate dialog on the subject. What started out as a fairly predictable discussion between two excessively self-satisfied pro pundits has taken some intriguing directions. I still think that too much discussion of the blogosphere focuses on a narrow journalistic take on What’s Important (reading Dawn Olsen’s gonzo rant today on the constricted worldview of the Big League Bloggers has helped reinforce that impression). But if we must have discussions of the blogosphere’s role in political discussion, so far this has been a pretty good ‘un.
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      ( 9/05/2002 11:18:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“HOLD ME, MY DADDY” – When I first began dipping my toes back in superhero comics last summer, one of the events I entered mid-story was the Death of Odin in Thor. Now Marvel has reprinted the multi-part event (spanning issues #39-44) in a trade pb entitled The Death of Odin, giving me a chance to return to this Asgard-shaking event from the beginning.

As a young reader, I never much liked the father-son dynamics between the All-Father and the God of Thunder: Odin spent too much time griping about Thor’s unwavering commitment to Midgard/Earth, when I knew all along that Earth was where Thor belonged! If I were part of the ever-shrinking kid audience today, I don’t think I’d be bothered by the death of Odin one whit. Sure, the guy occasionally showed to pull our hero’s fat out of the fire, but more often he just came across as an ol’ stick-in-the-mud.

The character has “died” in the series before, though this time the honchos at Marvel insist the change is permanent. I don’t fully buy it, of course – as Mark Evanier points out in one of his recently collected “POV” pieces, comic book change is only as solid as the whims of this year’s creative team – though writer Dan Jurgens and artist Stuart Immonen definitely go heavy on the aftermath pomp & breast-beating. The demise itself happens without much fanfare (indeed, most readers following the series when it came out weren’t aware that Odin had snuffed it ‘til the next issue), but the mourning goes on for four issues.

Since the death of Asgard’s ruler, son Thor has taken on the mantle of leadership – which has given Jurgens the opportunity to explore the nature of divine power even as it’s made the series lead a much less identifiable fantasy figure. With authority, ol’ goldilocks comes across as blustery as his pain-in-the-ass papa. There’s a measure of psychological truth to this – working with kids, I remember that first shock when I heard my father’s voice coming out of me during a moment of heavy conflict – but it sure does lessen the character’s appeal.
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      ( 9/05/2002 07:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“EVERYONE LAUGHS AT THE FREAK SHOW” – I’m not a cultish fan of the Residents, but I have enjoyed some of the avante-prog band’s material. Their early Cryptic releases Third Reich 'N' Roll and Duck Stab, plus later CD-roms Freak Show and Bad Day at the Midway are the works I’d probably place highest, though my familiarity with the group’s full output isn’t all it could be. (Lost track of the band for about ten years.) The group, which has never to my knowledge appeared without masks hiding ‘em from public scrutiny, specializes in weird, just-barely-rock music with a strong Brecht/Weill influence (or maybe that’s just me reacting to Freak Show’s Germanic sideshow barker?) and theatrical singers.

Much of it sounds pretty creepy (as in the refrain from Freak Show: “Nobody laughs when they leave.”) But, if you’re in the right mood for it, the Residents’ music can be fascinating. It certainly works in CD-rom universes like Midway, where it’s all a piece with the desiccated worldview on display.

This week’s Blogcritics interview is with Homer Flynn, a graphic designer who has been part of the Residents’ Cryptic Corp since 1976. The piece offers some small glimpses behind the scenes of this most obscure of bands, though not much clarifying information about the group itself. If you’re into “pop” music that sounds like background music to a fever dream, then you're probably already sliding your cursor up to check it out.
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Wednesday, September 04, 2002
      ( 9/04/2002 09:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LOVE’S LABORS MISLAID – Reading Gary Presley’s telling Salon piece on the Jerry Lewis Telethon pretty much reinforced my own reaction to the ongoing spectacle that is the annual MDA fundraiser (this year’s theme title: “A Labor of Love”). Like so many big public moneyraisers, the event is layered with so much sentimentality and self-congratulation that the original intent gets smothered. I haven’t watched one in years.

In my part of Central Illinois I couldn’t view this year’s telethon if I wanted to. Our cable CBS affiliate chose not to run the Labor Day event, filling its air time with the likes of “The Invisible Man” and “Sheena” instead. To the best of my memory, this is the first year the telethon’s been nudged aside by a package of syndicated reruns. Perhaps it's because so much of its core audience has aged out of the Big Disposable Income bracket?

Me, I’m just happy to have had the opportunity to miss the increasingly irrelevant (as good ol’ Cap’n Spaulding observes) Yaakov Smirnoff.
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Tuesday, September 03, 2002
      ( 9/03/2002 09:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TAPE HIATUS – Most weekends I’ve been writing about the audio tapes I’ve rediscovered during my recent dog walks – a neat way, I’ve thought, to talk about music from an earlier decade (most typically, the 80's). But this week I decided to put the kibosh on Walkmanning for a while.

Saturday a.m. I was out with Ziggy Stardust (Australian Shepherd/Sheepdog mix) and Cedar (Shepherd/Lab/something mix), midway through the first side of Lene Lovich’s Stateless. (Doesn’t hold up as well as other Stiff releases from the period, I’m afraid.) Part of our usual route involves walking through a wooded area with a wood chip trail. At one of the curves an elderly couple came upon us suddenly, and Dusty, herd dog that he is, tried to keep the two away from me. Nothing serious occurred, but it sure as heck startled those hikers. My dog (seen in the right column pic) weighs eighty pounds and has a pair of Bowie blue & brown eyes that've been known to unnerve the unwary.

I probably would’ve heard the duo coming if I hadn’t been listening to “Lucky Number.” So 'til the leaves fall enough for me to see ahead through the woods, I’ve put the tapes on the shelf. Ah well. I was planning on playing a Hoodoo Gurus release last Sunday. But it’ll have to wait for another day.
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Monday, September 02, 2002
      ( 9/02/2002 03:42:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“LAST CALL FOR EVERYONE” – After several plays, I still can’t decide if Camper Van Beethoven’s Tusk (Pitch-A-Tent) is a brilliant conceptual coup or a total waste of time. Maybe it’s both.

A “lost” work from the mid-eighties, Tusk was recorded between the band’s second and third records. Faced with recording time and an incapacitated drummer (thanx to a ski accident), the group decided to record their own version of Fleetwood Mac’s monument to production excess. That a willfully shambollic group of alterna-goofballs like CVB would choose to tackle a work that reportedly cost over a million bucks to make in its original form is funny – on paper at least. The end results are something else again.

Camper Van at its best was capable of strong reinterpretations (have long preferred their driving version of “Interstellar Overdrive “ to Pink Floyd’s, for instance), but this injured version is not the band at its best. Call it a fannish artifact: a representation of this never-too-serious rock band when they were really goofing off. Fans’ll wanna hear it: everyone else is herewith directed to those releases that show this defunct band of alternative roots-ters at its prime: Third Album, say. Or Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the band's first major label release.

They do a mean hoedown version of “The Ledge,” though. . .
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Sunday, September 01, 2002
      ( 9/01/2002 05:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

COMICS CLUB BOYS & OTHER OBSESSIVE TYPES – If you don’t agree with the premise embedded in its somewhat whimsical title, than Mark Evanier’s Comic Books And Other Necessities of Life (TwoMorrows Publishing) probably won’t have much to say to you. A collection of pieces from a weekly column entitled “POV” that Evanier wrote for the Comics Buyers Guide between 1994 and 2002 – until a haggle over a one-cent-per-word increase between writer and publisher spurred the writer to take his talents elsewhere (Evanier ironically anticipates this dispute in a column on the dysfunctional cheapness of many comic book fans) – it’s written from both an industry insider and a fannish perspective.

Evanier has had an extensive career in the mainstream comic book field, writing everything from Daffy Duck books to Superman to a series of gritty comics set around the world of Hollywood show biz (one of my favorite unsung comic books); he’s also staked out a sizable chunk for himself as a TV comedy writer. Pay’s no doubt better, but still he keeps returning to them comics. Clearly the guy’s got it bad. . .

Not so bad that he doesn’t look at the worlds of comic book publishing and its satellite fandom with a clear set of eyes, however. Most of the collected “POV” columns focus on one of three areas: ironic tales from the world of comic book collecting, anecdotes and reminiscences about some of the industry’s most prominent and/or colorful figures and reflections on the artistic state of mainstream comic books today. In that last arena, he is fairly conservative, both in focus and interpretation. So when he criticizes comic books going down a darker path than the books of his youth, you know he’s not talking about latest development in Love and Rockets, say, but about the transformation of Silver Age superhero Green Lantern Hal Jordan into a universe-mashing psycho.

I’m willing to accept Evanier’s narrower focus even as I wish he were as willing to hold forth on the merits of R. Crumb is he is on famed duckman Carl Barks. But I can see where he’s coming from when he talks about the misdirection that many mainstream comics have taken over the years. Superhero books, in particular, are at root children’s & adolescent literature: doesn’t mean that adults can’t enjoy ‘em, but that their basic grounding remains in the needs of a young audience. Superman/Clark Kent’s dual identity (as Evanier himself points out in “We Are All Clark Kent”) makes no real sense, for instance, unless you accept it as an aid to help the young reader fantasize. It’s jarring when these characters start pushing the behavioral envelope: like watching a Winnie the Pooh cartoon suddenly burst into Tarantino dialog.

So Mark has a point when he decries the mainstream industry’s herd stampede into making their superhero books indistinguishably noir-ish, for it’s likely that this trend has contributed to the industry’s shrinking starter readership. (That and the shrinking number of real funnybooks.) It’s not just fannish yearning for the days of the “more innocent” stories: it’s awareness that there remains an untapped market for this core type of comic book entertainment.

My favorite columns, though, venture into the ever-entertaining world of comics fans and creators: a world Evanier captures with a storyteller’s assurance. His tales of the Los Angeles Comic Book Club are told with a telling eye for comic detail, especially when he catches young boy rationalization – as practiced by young kids “kyping” comics (a term used by the writer’s California crowd to specifically describe swiping comic books, though back in the day around Vernon, Connecticut, it was used to connote more generic shoplifting) or by putative adults trying to talk around the fact that they’ve been selling unauthorized model kits.

Mark gets ‘em down: the young boy versed at weaseling free art out of comic pros, the penny pinching collector who walks out on a dinner date and stiffs her on the check, the hapless convention volunteer who dreams of becoming a comic book writer but whose sole plot idea consists of variations on Batman-and-Catwoman-Get-It-On-and-Have-A-Kid (shades of TV’s upcoming Birds of Prey!) Choice material, well told.

The third big block of articles is more serious: historical pieces and appreciations of various well-known and unsung comic book artists. Evanier even manages to provide a fresh look at one of the most over-discussed moments in comic book history – the Kefauver committee investigation in the 50’s that led to massive industry self-censorship – by including material about that journalist/fraud Walter Winchell and his feud with Lyle Stuart as well as a clear-eyed analysis of Mad/Tales from the Crypt publisher William Gaines’ disastrous testimony before the Senate committee.

His takes on comic book greats are primarily formed around the connections he’s made with ‘em throughout the course of his career (a potentially limiting approach - but not in Evanier’s hands). Many of these are memorial pieces, not surprising since so many of the writer’s influences had their career peaks from the forties through the seventies. He ends the book with a heartfelt eulogy for Roz Kirby, wife of his late mentor Jack Kirby. Jack and Roz spent their lives in the world of comic books – Depression kids whose lives would be forever changed by these garishly colored fantasies.

Reading Mark’s words on this tough-minded woman and her connection to one of comics’ greatest artists, his book's full title doesn’t seem so ironic, after all. . .

POST REVIEW DISCLOSURE – In the interests of full disclosure, I probably should mention that Mark and I once both belonged to the same amateur press alliance, CAPA-alpha (a.k.a. K-A). In those pre-Internet discussion group days, apas were one of the prime ways for fans across the country to keep in touch: via self-published amateur zines sent to a central mailer for monthly distribution. My tenure on the K-A mailing list ran during part of Mark’s run, but I don’t recall us having much to say to each other.

That happens. Just because you have the same general interest area doesn’t mean you’re automatically gonna be Best Buds. The stuff I wrote for K-A frequently fixated on underground comix, rock ‘n’ roll and psychotronic cinema – none of which particularly appeared to interest Mark. I was also prone to making sweeping pretentious critical statements (a tendency I still have, of course, though I try to hold it in check) that were guaranteed to get a working creator’s back up. The few interactions I recall from those days typically revolved around me making a dumb statement about the industry and young pro Evanier patiently but succinctly correcting me.

Even if we never did connect, I remain a fan of his comic book writing: his scripts for the long-running Groo, his show biz themed Crossfire and Hollywood Superstars books, plus his respectful takes on Blackhawk and other comic figures from our youths. Heck, he even got me reading Scooby Doo for a while – and taught me to appreciate the considerable talents of artist Dan Spiegel in the process. These days, Evanier's POV Online has long been one of my regular website stops.

UPDATE – ME responds to the above written review on his site, gracefully taking issue with my statement that I wished he focused as much on artists like R. Crumb as he does the creator of Uncle Scrooge. “Drop him a note,” Mark tweaks after recommending this site, “and tell him he doesn't have nearly enough there about Carl Barks.”

Fair enough. My choice of Crumb in my contrasting example was done for two reasons: I knew I’d be submitting the piece to Blogcritics and wanted to use a name a more generalized culturally hip audience would recognize; and Crumb’s “funny aminal” comics made for a nice dichotomy next to Barks. Though as I thought about it, I realized that I haven’t written anything about Crumb on this site yet either! Fully intend to once I glom a copy of his first new book in several years (Mystic #3). Anybody know if that Barks guy has anything in the works?
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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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