Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, August 07, 2003
      ( 8/07/2003 07:37:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SPEAKING WITH FORKED – AH, YOU KNOW – In an even more cutting edge decision, today our governor signed a bill restricting the practice of tongue splitting! About time someone had the guts to speak out against that wholesale barbaric act!
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      ( 8/07/2003 07:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BIG HEAT, PLAIN SCRATCH – Just a quick note to state that, as far as I’m concerned, J.M. Straczynski’s use of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” in the opening pages of Supreme Power (MAX) is all the reason the book needs to exist.
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      ( 8/07/2003 06:40:00 AM ) Bill S.  

REDENBACHER REDUX – I was gonna write a snide posting this week about the California Recall foolishness, but this week my state governor signed a proclamation declaring popcorn the official Snack of the State of Illinois, so I decided to just skip it.
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Wednesday, August 06, 2003
      ( 8/06/2003 08:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

CONTEMPORARY COMMUNITY STANDARDS, MY ASS – Had an indignant piece written yesterday about the Jesus Castillo case, but the dog ate my homework/my computer crashed before I could save it. (Yes, I know to save regularly, but sometimes you just get into the flow of writing!)

Anyway, as most of the comics sites and weblogs have been noting, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear an appeal on Texas Vs. Castillo, an obscenity case wherein a Dallas comic shop manager was busted for selling an adult comic to an adult undercover cop. The title, a manga adaptation of the anime series Demon Beast Invasion, was sold in a special “Adults Only” section of the store, but prosecutors made a major issue of the fact that the store itself, Keith’s Comics, was located near a school. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund stepped in to provide funds and counsel for Castillo (their most recent press release on this story can be found here), who has been fined $4,000 and given a six month suspended sentence plus a year’s probation for his “crime.”

Let’s repeat the basic point of this case: Castillo sold the book, an erotic manga, to another adult. At no point in the case did prosecutors assert that this material was being sold to kids, just that it was being sold near children. As the prosecution noted in its closing:
“I don’t care what type of evidence or what type of testimony is out there, use your rationality, use your common sense. Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids. This is in a store directly across from an elementary school and it is put in a medium, in a forum, to directly appeal to kids. That is why we are here, ladies and gentlemen. … We’re here to get this off the shelf.”
Again, the main issue is one of proximity. It’d be like Dallas cops busting Barnes & Noble for selling a D.H. Lawrence novel to a college student just because the store also has a kids’ books section.

And say all you want about comics “growing up” as an art form, clearly to a significant chunk of the populace comics remain kids’ stuff. Even though Castillo’s defense brought in a trio of expert witnesses to testify to the contrary, all the prosecution had to do was appeal to that preconception under the guise of “common sense” and the words of a bunch of pointy-headed intelleckshals didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Comics are for kids – end story.

Makes you wonder how the Zap! crowd might’ve fared in Texas if they’d been brought in for Bob Crumb’s infamous “Joe Blow” strip.
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Tuesday, August 05, 2003
      ( 8/05/2003 10:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“YOU SORRY JUNKIE BEATNIKS AIN’T GOT NOTHING ON ME” – Just posted the summer entry of my ongoing Seasonal Rhinos appreciation: the Handmade collection of Rank and File’s The Slash Years. More cultish musical goodness, that’ll hopefully spark somebody’s interest. . .
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      ( 8/05/2003 07:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE FIFTEEN-MINUTE COMIC – It’s a hard and brutish world, especially if you’ve been reading some of the same comics I’ve been over the last week: from Garth Ennis’ raping-&-pillaging Vikings to Diggle or Ellis’ former gummint agents pursued by the country they once so nobly served (you think that’s bad, boys, try getting veteran’s benefits!), the only way to survive is to be way tough. Too much of this stuff, and I’m looking for an issue of Peanutbutter And Jeremy.
The Losers (Vertigo) #1 and 2: How well you’ll take Diggle & Jock(?)’s version of Spies on the Lam may depend on your tolerance for left wing paranoia: in issue two, our small cadre of “officially dead” operatives take on a large tanker used by a corrupt CIA to run drugs and finance dirty ops. (We know the Agency’s been doing this since Iran-Contra, team leader Clay helpfully exposits.) Me, I’m enjoying the actual moments of spy stuff but find Diggle’s attempts at between-action characterization to be pretty flat. Like our heroes, neither he nor Jock seem to know quite what to do when they’re not in the thick of things, so we get the group clown going after the unattainable female Loser in place of anything meaningful. I like the two-page spread where the gang’s fishing boat is shown up alongside the massive target oil tanker that’s their target. May not make any real plot sense for them to get so close to the Goliath this early in the caper, but it sure looked neat. . .

Red (Homage) #1: How well you’ll take Ellis & Hamner’s version of Spy on the Lam may depend on your tolerance for implicit slams against the Bush Administration’s knee-jerk judgmentalism. (Unlike Diggle – who works to align the morally bankrupt CIA system with Big Bizness – Ellis fingers the naiveté of a single new agency appointee as the source of the trouble: unable to handle the grown-up responsibility of shadow operations, he orders the most successful perpetrator of such ops killed.) Ellis starts his story quickly and moves it just as rapidly: lots of wordless pages as retiree hero Paul is stalked then turns the tables on a trio of would-be assassins. Artist Cully Hamner is new to me, but he has a clean style that makes me think of a less curvilinear Dan Spiegel. With just one issue, I suspect this three-parter won’t amount to much more than a nice action story, but between this and Global Frequency, it seems clear that’s where Ellis wants to direct much of his energies. I miss Spider Jerusalem, though.

Silver Surfer (Marvel) #1: Gad, a Silver Surfer story that doesn’t open with the title character bemoaning his fate as he rides the skyways? What’s that all about? Oh, it’s another one of those tales where we get to view the hero from the POV of an ordinary person: in this case, a grifter psychic and single mother of an autistic child. Writers Dan Chariton & Stacy Weiss open on a Close Encounters note, then spend the bulk of the issue detailing our struggling heroine’s difficulties making ends meet on the streets of New Orleans. Artist Milx(!) has a good sense for setting, but less for people: in one three-panel sequence we get a doctor whose head seems to be floating, detached from her body. What this all has to do with our noble hero has yet to be determined, but from the title (“Communion”), I’m thinking we’ve got some religio-mystical imagery in the future. . .

Thor: Vikings (MAX) #1: How well you’ll take Ennis & Fabry’s take on Norwegian mythology may depend on your tolerance for Ennis’ bullshit and seemingly indefatigable willingness to utilize splatter tricks that undergrounders like Greg Irons and Jack Jackson exhausted decades ago. Get me in the right frame of mind, and I’ll like it just fine (I’m a sucker for a good decapitation), but Glenn Fabry’s Ivan-Albricht-on-crack-style art can be a chore to plow through. Like Silver Surfer, this debut doesn’t bring its lead on until the last three pages – which still leaves unanswered this series' big question, namely, how will Ennis actually handle one of Marvel’s biggest Boy Scout characters. Gotta admit I’m curious.
Also Briefly Noted: Looks like it’s Jason Todd Month in Bat Country (see Batman #617 for latest sighting). But didn’t Frank Miller already play the Robin card in DK2 – or are DC’s editors counting on the fact that many Bat Readers still don’t understand what was going in that grand mess of a mini-series? . . . The Kolins/Hazlewood art team departs from Flash with #200 – and with it goes my primary reason for following this title. The way they segue into new artist Alberto Dose is pretty clever, but, c’mon, is Wally West really a rain-drenched noir guy? . . . On the basis of all the dismayed fannish reactions to news that Chuck Austen may be taking over a Superman title, it appears as if the guy has become the present generation’s Bill Mantlo; I’ve found his work on the Superman: Metropolis to be less offensive than some treatments, so I don’t think it’s the end of the world (hey, he’s managed to make Jimmy Olsen interesting again – when’s the last time that occurred?) . . . Sweatshop’s cancelled, just as its most recent issue (#4) shows scripter Bagge hitting his stride (the dating sequence with Alfred and Nick approaches the level of a pre-marriage Buddy Bradley strip). Could do without Johnny (“Gaytriot”) Ryan’s art on the story, which only suggests Bagge without ever capturing his manic energy. . .

More next week, and, remember, it’s a bad-ass world out there – so Keep Yer Guard Up!
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Monday, August 04, 2003
      ( 8/04/2003 05:59:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIMILE OF THE MONTH – As heard (for the first time by me) on The Essential Shawn Mullins (Legacy), “Santa Fe”:
“She was grinding like the gears on a Pacer.”
Good old American Motors: first car I ever owned was a used AMC Pacer – which probably makes that line funnier for me than it does for you . . .
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      ( 8/04/2003 10:04:00 AM ) Bill S.  

I’M PISSED THAT THEY DIDN’T KEEP LINDA FIORENTINO, TOO – Caught Men in Black II on HBO Saturday night. Now it’s Monday, and there’s very little I can dredge up about it except the fact that Michael Jackson looks more convincing as an alien than much of Rick Baker’s makeup. I also recall thinking, “They’ve rewritten Jewel of the Nile!" (yet another watchable let-down sequel) near the end of the flick.
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Sunday, August 03, 2003
      ( 8/03/2003 10:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BOOT PRINTS AND BLOOD WORK – When USA Network started advertising its detective/western series, Peacemakers, the hype-men were all over the “Western C.S.I.” comparison (it’s a top-rated show – who can blame ‘em?) Yet when I first heard of the new Tom Berenger series, the first show that popped into my head was Hec Ramsey.

Part of the old Sunday night NBC Mystery Movie bloc that also gave us Columbo, Quincy and MacMillan and Wife, Ramsey starred former Paladin Richard Boone as a canny Old West lawman as adept with forensic sleuthing as he was gun-fighting. The series ran for two years in the seventies and is not as well remembered as some of the era’s more durable mystery series, but its central premise – cowboy coppers utilizing this newfangled science stuff to unravel murder cases – was the same. The biggest thematic difference: where an elder Boone took the role of forensic cheerleader in the earlier series, Berenger’s established lawman is the one who has to be tutored in this new means of law enforcement by the young ‘uns.

Set in the 1880’s in a typical backlot Colorado mining town, Peacemakers centers around the trio of Marshal Jared Stone (Berenger), former Pinkerton man Larimer Finch (Peter O’Meara) and comely mortician Katie Owen (Amy Carlson). It’s Finch, a missionary’s son who has been trained at Scotland Yard, who comes equipped with all the scientific knowledge: when the town’s founder is discovered garroted in a private railroad car, he’s sent to Silver City to investigate the case. This leads to the inevitable territorial pissing with town Marshal Stone, who has also begun to investigate the murder, though since we’re watching the pilot, we’re pretty certain that the two’ll mend this breach before the initial ninety minutes are up.

Stone may not know much about fingerprinting, but he’s observant enough to recognize a unique boot print at the scene of the crime. And while Silver City may be out in the boonies, as one sign boasts, it’s also “the only town west of the Mississippi with its own telephone exchange.” Clearly, we’re in that rarefied realm of television westernland where no one shows the least bit of resistance to progress and the town’s sole black man is allowed to shoot a thuggish white henchman without anyone saying a thing about it.

Still, I bought Berenger as the laconic pipe-smoking Marshal, and O’Meara as the callow new age detective (Carlson’s perky mortician was a stretch, but she’s more watchable than, oh, Kim Delaney’s grumpy Florida C.S.I.er). The premiere tips its hand midway into its ninety-minute story, but even then I remained intrigued as our protagonists teased out murder and motive. In sterling western tradition, the latter revolves around a land snatch (insert Blazing Saddles quote here), and there's a pretty nifty train chase 'n' fight in the climax to boot. And, yes, we do get a suitably bloody forensics scene, too, something you’d have never seen in the old NBC Mystery Movie days.

All in all, a diverting summer offering. And if you must go with the C.S.I. comparison, it sure beats watching the third rerun of that David Caruso’s spin-off’s first season. . .
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      ( 8/03/2003 05:02:00 AM ) Bill S.  

DEATH TO THE UNI-BROW – Have caught three eps of Bravo’s new ode to conspicuous consumption, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and also read several pieces pondering whether the series reinforces the same ol’ stereotypes. (Okay, people, it’s not Reality Television; it’s Reality Television!) Personally, I’ve found the show droll, but after watching one of the Fab Five’s rehab jobs doling out pâté on a platter of truffles, I started wondering Where’s Queer Eye for the Broke Straight Guy?
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Saturday, August 02, 2003
      ( 8/02/2003 11:04:00 AM ) Bill S.  

NOW PLAYING: CURLY HOWARD IN OF MICE AND MEN! Daniel Frank does a great job responding to a hatchet eulogy of Bob Hope delivered by the agenda-riddled Christopher Hitchens on Slate this week. As I wrote in my early Hope note, we all take what we want from the man’s career, but Hitchens clearly is not the man to write about movie comedy. Observing that Hope only played “one role” throughout his movie career (like W.C. Fields, like Groucho Marx, like any number of great movie comics didn’t?) strikes me as a particularly clueless slam.

One of funny moments I recall from Hope in the movies: it’s the end of a Road pic (Road to Utopia, I think), and heroes Hope and Crosby reunite after years of being separated. Hope’s character is married to Dorothy Lamour, and when Crosby sees their child, it’s a dead ringer for the crooner. As Bing registers shock, Bob looks into the camera and simply tells the audience (I may not be quoting the exact words), “He was adopted.” Just remembering that sequence still makes me snicker today.

UPDATE: Mark Evanier has since weighed in on Hitchen.
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      ( 8/02/2003 10:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

Party Time (or Night Life)
Greasy Kid’s Stuff
Extra credit points if you include a reference to Edith Piaf's or George Sanders’ death in your piece.
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      ( 8/02/2003 09:06:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“LOOKING FOR LOVE IN A LOOKING GLASS WORLD” – (Per Johnny Bacardi and Sean Collins, a few personal reflections on a classic Roxy Music elpee:)

The cover to Roxy Music’s Stranded (a.k.a. “The Third Roxy Music Album”) clearly announced that this was No Album for Little Boys: a full-breasted model in a torn red dress, languorously lying on the ground with a “just laid” look. Inside the original LP gatefold, three rows of individual pics of the band – each row tinted different colors like an Andy Warhol silk screen – hid as much as they revealed. You had your typical longhaired guitarist, a familiar enough look for 1973, but who the hell was the guy with his hair slicked back?

It was Bryan Ferry, of course, lead singer and primary composer of this unparalleled Brtish prog-pop group. Stranded was not the first Roxy album that I’d heard, but it was the first that I’d thoroughly keyed into. “Street Life” was the immediate grabber – a yowling plaint that begins with off-key synth sounds and Ferry yelping, “Wish everybody would leave me alone!” – with “Mother of Pearl” a close second. Both songs open on pure chaos, “Street Life” only barely climbing out of it, while “Pearl” quickly settles into a “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” vibe. (When Bryan Ferry opened his first solo album with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall,” many critics saw it as a joke; I thought it was his means of tacitly acknowledging one of his foremost lyrical influences.) They’re two of the album’s most openly rock (third such track being the Spanish-tinged “Serenade”), and while the songs remain highlights after all these years of listening to it, they’re only part of Stranded’s story.

To be honest, much of this album eluded me at first: slower, even more elliptical, more quietly pretty than the bombastic cuts that first grabbed me, it hardly fit the profile of glam rock (where the band was frequently miscategorized at the time: think of groups like Sweet or Gary “Big Drums” Glitter). Indeed, most of Stranded is barely rock at all (hardest rockin’ of the RM catalog: Country Life) – more like eccentrically personal cabaret.

And then there’s “Psalm,” eight minutes of solemnly religious lyricism (hard to tell how serious Ferry is being with this, but he did later do a cover of “Amazing Grace” for one of his solo albums, so who knows?), much of it just Ferry and his piano ‘til Andy Mackay’s improving sax, Phil Manzanera’s guitar and Paul Thompson’s heavily cadenced drums enter. If ever there was a track designed to test the patience of a fastpop focused listener like me, it’s this ‘un. Yet Ferry’s voice is so bald and affecting in this cut that I can never push “skip” on it.

I need to emphasize Ferry’s voice because, for all the brilliantly off-kilter musicianship of the rest of the band (Manzanera’s guitarwork catches me more than once on this disc – the soaring interlude to “Amazona” for instance – it’s both studied and uncontrolled at the same time), Bryan remains the voice and vision of Roxy Music. A crooner’s instrument capable of attaining trills unheard since Tiny Tim frolicked on the soundstages of Laugh-In but also adept at plain melodic balladeering, Ferry was an unlikely lead for a rock band in the early seventies. And the persona he evoked, that of a world-weary roué perpetually unlucky in love and also too smart to know (as Peggy Lee would also realize) that “party time wasting” was not all there is, was not in sync with the way we in America, at least, wanted to see in our rockstars. (Like David Bowie, Roxy Music would have to wait for the disco era – where the beat could camouflage the lyrical irony – before really hitting big in the U.S.)

As a singer, Ferry is not as adept on Stranded as he would later get – at times you can hear him camping things up where later he’d be more subtle – but he’s still phenomenal. Listen to him on “Sunset,” the album’s gloomy finale (in a way, it’s his rewriting of “Seasons in The Sun” – the Jacques Brel version, not the sappy Rod McKuen Americanized translation), sounding elegantly reflective and rueful as he inhabits one man’s reflections of a wasted life, and it’s clear that the man belongs to the tradition of great actor vocalists. (Whether that’s rock ‘n’ roll probably depends on whether you believe Lou Reed’s “Heroin” is fully autobiographical or not.) To my ears it just cements the message of Stranded’s cover: that this is not music for little boys – not even grown-up little boys.

In sum: a splendorous record, sad and thoughtful, propulsive when it needs to be and tranquilly melodic (c.f. “Just Like You,” which I’d love to hear a singer like Annie Lennox wrap her tonsils around) other times. It’s the album that hooked me into Roxy Music – and later into Ferry’s solo stuff – and for that I’m still thankful. . .
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Friday, August 01, 2003
      ( 8/01/2003 07:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

PHEW! – Picked up a copy of Craig Thompson’s mega-graphic novel Blankets (Top Shelf), and I’ve gotta admit I’m feeling a bit daunted by the thought of dipping into the 500-plus page beast. Where most genre comics read quickly and disposably (thanks, in part, to years of familiarity with their visual clichés), I move much more slowly through works like this: started Seth’s It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken last weekend, for instance, and I’m only halfway through it. Perhaps I spend too much time reading and watching crap, but I also like to be more deliberate reading non-genre fare like this. So maybe I should take a day off from work and devote it to reading Blankets, eh?
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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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