Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, November 07, 2003
      ( 11/07/2003 11:10:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"A TURBULENT, THEATRICAL WAVE" – Very pink: the cover to Dave Cooper's explicit graphic novel, Ripple (Fantagraphics Books), is overwhelmingly fleshy, the two leads in this unflinching tale of a doomed sexual coupling shown up close and fully blemished. It's an apt display – simultaneously provocative and squirmy – that fully captures the sensation of reading this book. You know you're in for a feel-bad experience when David Cronenberg provides an introduction to the collection.

Ripple (subtitled: "A Predilection for Tina"), which originally was serialized in Cooper's Weasel art comic, revolves around the combustible affair between would-be serious artist Martin Degerres and his model/muse Tina. The book opens with Martin three years after their affair. The artist is a fortyish bearded wreck who alternates cigarettes with asthma medication huffs. He's ineffectively attempting to "exorcise" the memory of his failed relationship with Tina by retelling it, but we know he's doomed to fail.

The affair begins after Martin receives a Canadian Bureau Arts Grant to produce a show of "thought-provoking" erotic art. Choosing to focus on the Eroticism of Homeliness, he seeks real-life models with what he condescendingly calls "wonderful flaws." His quest leads him to Tina, a red-faced, pimply fat girl with scary canines and clunky eyeglasses. Initially taken aback by her youth and unattractiveness, Martin quickly becomes obsessed with her: she's a living representation of bad taste and proletarian appetite.

"I kinda like it when you tell me what to do," the young girl says, and the admission inspires all sorts of unhealthy fantasies on Martin's part. He invents reasons for her to continue posing for him, getting her to pose in rubber bondage gear and increasingly more provocative poses. After he tells her of a recurring erotic dream, the two embark on a sado-masochistic relationship where their roles get quickly reversed. Of course, it all falls apart.

Cooper's Tina is a more life-like version of the big-thighed fantasy girl/women that've populated R. Crumb's work for years (a recent art show catalog of Cooper's paintings of "pillowy women" has been issued as the latest issue of Weasel). But Ripple is more than just replicated Id-ian mock porn. It's a genuinely sad tale of missed connections. For artist Martin, Tina's plus-sized body becomes the frame on which he can capture the secret life of flesh (or "ripple"). To Tina, Martin's attempts at intellectualizing human carnality are an old man's conceits. (He's just, in her eyes, trying to rationalize his porn addiction.) She ridicules him for his age (38) and sexual inadequacies – and is unable to accept it when he expresses how beautiful she has become to him.

Cooper's art, printed in three colors, is filled with discomforting head and body shots of both characters: the ruddy-cheeked Tina and balding, slightly weaselly (yes!) Martin. The look is heavily exaggerated (though at times the artist surprises you with a panel catching his protagonists in more humane light) and sexually graphic. Unlike much of Cooper's earlier work, though, the focus is not on surreal flights of fancy (the closest we get to that are the occasional glimpse of children's book art Martin is hacking out to make a living) but on grim psychodrama. At times, I found myself thinking of an art comic Last Tango in Paris – only with ice cream instead of butter.

For all its seeming forthrightness, Ripple's not an easy work to pin down: in lesser hands, the work'd come across as a simple battle of types (Lumpen Prole Girl Meets Hoity-Toity Artist), and at times you can see the characters falling into that simplistic formulation. But Cooper's unerring dialog gives his characters more real-life heft. Martin and Tina are more than just artist and model, more than just exemplars of class differences. They're both not-so-wonderfully flawed human beings who linger in your thoughts long after you've put the pages down.
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      ( 11/07/2003 05:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

NOT DICK CHENEY, LON CHANEY! – One of my loyal readers (had a low number joke in this parenthesis, but I removed it – make up your own, why don'tcha?) writes to note that the Lon Chaney/Tod Browning collaboration, The Unholy Three, is appearing this Sunday on Turner Classic Movies as part of An Evening with Lon Chaney. TCM is showing both the silent and sound version of this circus melodrama – which should make for an interesting contrast. The first was directed by Browning; the second shot by Jack Conway, who reportedly duplicated most of the original's frames until the movie's reworked resolution. I'm setting the recorder. . .
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Thursday, November 06, 2003
      ( 11/06/2003 10:33:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SOUP TALK – Though the much-anticipated hardbound collection of Gilbert Hernandez' Palomar stories hasn't yet made it to my part of the prairie, I read with interest Heidi MacDonald's Pulse interview with Beto, which touches on his early days cooking "Heartbreak Soup." Much as I enjoy the current states-bound adventures of Luba and her clan, a huge part of me really misses the people of Palomar – Heraclio & Carmen, in particular.
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      ( 11/06/2003 10:05:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SANTO SWINGS! – After last week's Lorne-centric Halloween party episode and yesterday's tribute to demon battling Mexican wrestlers, I'm thoroughly sold on this season's Angel.

Last night's "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco," written and directed by Jeffrey Bell, worked as both an affectionate parody and a tribute to endearingly cheesy South of the Border 50's/60's horror movies. In it, the last surviving brother of quintet of wrestling champions is enlisted by our vampire hero to defeat a returning Aztec warrior demon. The flashback scenes depicting the five Number Bros. captured the feel of such durable flicks as Santo Vs. the Vampire Women or one of the Aztec Mummy movies – without, thankfully, descending into sneering camp. Bet Bell watched a lot of these pics as a kid on Saturday afternoons: though we're constantly aware of how absurd Numero Cinco (Danny Mora) looks, in the end both he and his brothers are allowed their own heroic dignity.

Also worth a chortle: the running joke around an evil Satan-built robot that was destroyed by the bros. Soon as it was mentioned, I instantly could visualize that clunky-assed creation. . .

AN EXPLANATORY POSTNOTE: The heading for this posting was taken from an early Estrus Records extended play by the band Southern Culture on the Skids, which included images of the famed masked wrestler alongside creatures from sixties Mexi-monster films. In addition to a spoken word tribute to Santo ("Viva del Santo!"), the disc contains versions of Slim Harpo's swamp blues classic "Scratch My Back" and "Double Shot of My Baby's Love" in Spanish. A treat for fans of this surfabilly band. . .
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Wednesday, November 05, 2003
      ( 11/05/2003 02:32:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SPEAKIN' OF COMICS-RELATED NO-SHOWS – It's been over a month since yours truly posted a "Fifteen Minute Comic" entry. At this point, the smartest thing to do is just call October a wash and turn to this week's November genre releases. A few delayed comments beg to be made, though:
  • Per the Brian Azzarrello Batman (#620), I have to wonder if Bruce Wayne still suffers PTSD every time he lands in an alley.

  • And what does it say about Bats (nickname deliberately utilized even though I know John Byrne'll probably never see it) that he's still suffering from trauma when the younger Peter Parker is able to achieve emotional resolution (see Spider-Man #500) on his Uncle Ben's murder, a death that he actually might've prevented?

  • Two issues of the revamped Princess Di X-Statix story have been released, and my sardonic self can't stop wishing that Marvel hadn't caved to public pressure and turned the reanimated princess into a pop starlet. The change totally defuses the story (nope, don't think there's a diva alive who could inspire the emotional fannishness that Henrietta Hunter is supposed to receive), dampening scripter Peter Milligan's pitch-dark take on celebrity as well.

  • Go to Marvel’s website, incidentally; click on the November comics listings and you'll see they're still listing the X-Statix series as "Di Another Day." Guess all those Marvel reading Princess Di fanatics have been too distracted to bring it to the webmaster's attention.

  • Back in September, I commented on the first of a two-part prestige series, Batman: Tenses, finding the opening volley an okay look at the character's early years. Since then, the second half's appeared, and Alan David Doane has justly lambasted writer Joe Casey's frittered finish and his mistreatment of a gay character. Looking at the two ill-meshed volumes together, the first thing that comes to my mind is, "Where's the editor?"

  • And I don't care what "Jess Lemon" sez, I liked reading World's Best Comics's archive sampler – especially Jack Cole's ornate and vicious "Plastic Man" offering.
Now onto November's comical books. . .
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      ( 11/05/2003 09:02:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHEN THERE'S NO MORE ROOM IN FOUR COLOR HELL. . . – Several comics bloggers (Franklin Harris the most recent) have pondered the continued absence of Four Color Hell and its posted announcement that the site will return to active status this week. I've mirrored some of my Gadabout comics-related reviews on that site and am listed as a contributor, but to date I've received no email communications confirming the new start-up. So, for the record, I'm still waiting to be pleasantly surprised. . .
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Tuesday, November 04, 2003
      ( 11/04/2003 10:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THAT CRAZY MANGA FORMAT – Seen within the shelves of manga GN paperbacks at my local Borders bookstore: the newest Courtney Crumrin collection (And the Coven of Mystics) from Oni. They've reduced the size of the paperback so that it fits alongside a Viz reprint like Gyo, included a volume number on the side and added a rating scale comparable to the one used on Tokyopop’s titles. To the uninitiated, it's indiscernible from all the other Japanese fantasy manga paperbacks out there. Wonder if this approach'll sell more copies of Ted Naifeh's entertaining kids' comic? I picked up a copy, but, then, I was going to anyway. . .
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      ( 11/04/2003 10:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ONCE MORE, WITH SCREAMING – So. . .Sean's last two horror picks, his #1 and 2 choices for Scariest Films Ever: Blair Witch Project and The Shining. Strong contenders, both of 'em, think I. (Unlike Eyes Wide Shut, I have seen Kubrick's King film enough times to key into its blend of dark humor and cascading horror.) Both are films that have polarized their audiences, but – c'mon – isn't that partly what great horror pics are supposed to do?

Or are they? Reading Sean's list – and the writing of other ruminating fright fans, it's clear that the audience for horror is as diverse as any other cluster of genre fans. Most broadly, we probably could divide the horror crowd into three broad groups: traditionalists, who enjoy old-styled gothic stories and monster tales for their formal pleasures (their atmosphere and look, even their clichés) and are in their element with a night of old Universal or Hammer pics; thrill-seekers, who want the jolts and scares but prefer 'em with humor or ironic distancing (nothing too lingering, thank you: you'll see this crowd at Disney's upcoming Haunted Mansion); and purists who prefer their horror straight with no chaser.

Clearly, Sean's approaching his list from that last stance (in contrast, I'd note that Johnny Bacardi, for instance, has one foot in the first two camps) which at times means he favors the conceptually pure over the dramatically involving. I love The Shining for its look, feel and moments of genuine fright, but for all that I still don't find myself as wrapped in the movie as I do (let's take another upper tier King adaptation) David Cronenberg's version of The Dead Zone. There's a too-studied air to Kubrick's The Shining (typified by that blood cascading elevator – more an emblem of horror than the real thing) that makes it feel like an experiment not an experience.

Blair Witch is something else again: sideways horror that reminds me of Robert Wise's original The Haunting in places – and of great radio genre work like Lights Out. Very effective, and I'm not even bothered by the much-discussed final scene either, where we see one of the doomed campers off to the side in the corner. If, as Sean notes from his viewing of an earlier rough cut of the pic, the "interview" where we're told about kids being made to stand in the corner was later added to "clarify" that final moment (I don't think it necessarily does), it also accomplishes something else: taking us back to childhood fears that we can't just shrug aside.

It says something about the range of good horror movies when the two top two pics include a movie made by a director notorious for the extreme visual control he shows in every single frame and a flick where you're not even sure what you're seeing just at the point you really want to. Probably says just as much about me that I find the latter approach so much more evocative than the former. Halloween moviegoing at its best: reveling in glimpses of the not-quite-seen.
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Monday, November 03, 2003
      ( 11/03/2003 02:35:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHY CAN'T I TINKER WITH THE FABRIC OF EXISTENCE?" – Not surprisingly, Sunday's broadcast of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror – XIV opened with a gag on its own late airing (alien observer Kodos noting: "Pathetic humans – celebrating Halloween in November!") But, out of season or no, the show's recent three-tale anthology remained good gory fun.

As usual with these collections of mini-toons, the quality was variable (but not as much as it has been on earlier entries: remember James Earl Jones reading "The Raven"?) Of the three, the highpoint has to've been "Reaper Madness," where Homer takes the Grim Reaper's place, though a variation on the ol' time-stopping pocket watch story ("Stop the World – I Wanna Goof Off!") also had its moments of hilarity. Loved the bit where Lisa uses the watch to change the room's reality (at one point transforming her family into a fanboy's fantasy – members of the Fantastic Four!) Third tale, "Frinkenstein," had an intriguing back story (casting Jerry Lewis as the father of Springfield mad scientist Frink was a nice touch) but never quite took off.

It did provide the night's best line, though. When dead Daddy Frink is revived by his son, he is stunned to learn that he's now in the 21st century. Lisa quickly puts it all in perspective, however: "It's a lot like the twentieth," she sez, "except everybody's afraid and the stock market's lower. . ."
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      ( 11/03/2003 09:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE AMAZONIAN SAGA CONTINUES – Two days after my grouse about it, I received the following status notice via email pertaining to my Amazon order of Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four - Volume Two:
We have contacted the publisher by phone concerning the status of your order for "Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Vol. 2."

The representative we spoke with indicated that this book has not been published and is not expected to be released until April 2004. Release dates tend to fluctuate, however, so there is a chance that this will change. If we receive additional information about this, we will let you know.
This is a book, remember, that's currently available in most Direct Market bookstores and on auction sites like eBay (where a goodly number of comics dealers offer new releases). At this point, I'm baffled as to where the blame goes, but I have to wonder – when one of the primary sources for on-line book sales can't get a Marvel hardbound with substantial boomer nostalgia salability – if anyone at Marvel knows or cares about it. . .

I wonder: is this the kind of crap that killed the first run of Marvel Masterworks?
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Sunday, November 02, 2003
      ( 11/02/2003 12:43:00 PM ) Bill S.  

ALL THE RAGE – I've been fannishly skeptical about Marvel's Ultimates comic line since I first started sampling the books. In general, the idea of starting Marvel's classic hero series over from scratch – while simultaneously carrying on the longstanding established runs – seemed like both an aesthetic cheat and a slap in the face of those fans who grew up with these characters from scratch. (Yeah, I know: baby boomers, always thinking the world revolves around them.) If Marvel wanted to interest new readers in superhero comics, I thought, why not create new interesting superhero characters? You know, like that Alan Moore guy seems to do at the drop of a hat.

But I've been trailing after some of the Ultimate titles: in trade and hardbound collections, basically. Picked up the first hardback Ultimate Spider-Man book on sale when it was released to feed off the movie, for instance. ("Wait for the trade"? I'd rather wait for the Marvel hardbound: you get just as much bang for you buck and the pages are printed magazine-sized.) Of all the revamped titles, the webspinner's series is the one that's worked best for me: scripter Brian Michael Bendis never loses track of Peter Parker's essential teenhood (in the mainstream Marvel Universe, he's an adult teacher, of course) and believably builds the character's responses and reactions around it. If his stories are more leisurely paced than they would've been in the days when doing an issue of Amazing Spider-Man without a fight scene was considered a risky decision, it's not pointless padding.

But, still, I've held back on a whole-hearted endorsement of Bendis & artist Mark ("Big Eyes") Bagley's take on the character because I still wasn't sold on this whole Ultimates Bizness. (Couldn't they have just done a Spider-Boy title? You know: Adventures of Peter Parker That We Missed When He Was Still A Lad! [No, I'm not serious.]) Then I picked up the most recent hardbound collection, Volume Three, which reprints Ultimate Peter Parker's battles with the Ultimate version of Venom.

Okay, I surrender. This is pretty good stuff.

Perhaps it helps that I have no loyalty to the original Venom, a creature inspired more by the need to undo a stupid concept (Spider-Man gets an all-black, living alien costume!) than anything. With prodding by the recently dethroned Bill Jemas (who, for all his faults, could occasionally be a strong concept guy), Bendis wrote a Venom that owed nothing to the original continuity-snared creation, recasting it as a cancerous bio-tech mishap that Parker's late father had a hand in developing. The results are suitably monstrous, as Peter gets enwrapped and controlled by the lab-created genetic mutation, then fails to prevent the son of his father's partner from following the same path. "We seem dead set on turning ourselves into little monsters, don't we?" lizardman Curtis Connors notes in the aftermath. "It's all the rage. All of a sudden."

Sure, it's the old "he tampered in God’s domain" routine, but Bendis & Bagley handle it with real élan. The scenes where Eddie Bowers, the poor shmoe without spider powers who gets transformed by the Venom mutation, appears before an unfortunate cleaning lady, makes good reading for those of us who want to hold onto Halloween a little bit longer. Nicely (to use the high-falluting critical term) ooky – and a healthy reminder that sometimes Ultimate revisionism isn't automatically a bad thing, after all.

But if Spidey starts beating up on Mary Jane Watson, I'm outta here. . .
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