Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
      ( 4/07/2004 09:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LITTLE TRIGGERS – Some mid-week bullet-pointing, which is to say another batch of random political and pop cultural thots that probably couldn't stand up by themselves:
  • Upon reading that my home state of Illinois was not being considered a "swing state" in the coming election, my first response was to take umbrage with that decision. Living in dominantly Republican Central Illinois farm country, the idea of characterizing the Midwestern state as Full Democrat sure feels counter-intuitive. But once I realized that this meant the presidential candidates wouldn't be doing a big teevee commercial blitz in my area, I quickly muzzled my objections. About the only thing these ads effectively communicate to me is the profound intellectual contempt with which the candidates' handlers view the American public. . .

  • And speaking of appalling TV sights, how about last night's episode of The Shield? Every season of fx's shock cop series seems to have one scene that's tailormade to provoke a they can't do that, can they? reaction from the audience. Last night's ep – which put Benito Martinez's Captain David Aceveda in a palpably awful Bobby Trippe situation (that's a literary reference, incidentally, designed to obscure what happened) – looks to be this year's entry. Not sure that I accept the plot mechanics which put Aceveda in his perilous situation (would even a desk jockey like the Captain so stupidly remain behind by himself in a crime scene?) But once the Bad Thing started taking place before our appalled eyes, such second guesses were cast aside. Also liked the secondary plot use of a group of little old lady rape victims displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – a hint of things to come for our politically ambitious police captain. . .

  • Visiting Wal-Mart the other day to buy a 100-foot extension cord, I spied the new Blondie cd, The Curse of Blondie, being sold in the mart as an Epic Import. Picked it up a day before the band's newest elpee was set to be released in America on Sanctuary Records. On the basis of two-and-a-half listens, I don't have much of a take on the disc yet (except to note that – opening track aside – this seems like a stronger set than the group's first reunion disc, No Exit). But I do think it says something about the state of American pop that where Curse was released in Australia on the mainstream Epic label, it has to come out here on the indy nostalgia label Sanctuary. . .

  • Keeping it pop muzicky, I also recently managed to get copies of the remastered Tusk and Rumours over the weekend. (The former, though it contains a second disc of earlier versions of each track, was only going for $13.99 – so I could hardly resist getting it right then.) I was curious as to whether a rough version of Mac's Tusk would sound better than the notoriously expensively produced commercial release. But on one play-through, I don't hear much difference. Perhaps I should try a comparison review between Mac's Disc Two and Camper Van Beethoven's track-for-track remake of the double album. . .

  • Also worth tracking down: the most recent Rhino boxed set DVD reissues of Sci-Fi Channel eps of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 have been popping up at bargain prices ($34.95 being the best I've seen to date) in megalo-chains like Best Buy and Circuit City. Got a copy of Volume Five (nicely reviewed by Franklin Harris), which is particularly recommended here for its inclusion of the comically pointless Boggy Creek II. But as I bought this set, it hit me (not the for the first time): we've probably seen the last of the Comedy Central MST3K reissues. The contracts on those early gems have likely lapsed, which means no DVD of the Joel Hodgson crew's take on Robot Monster or Mike and company's skewering of Ed Wood's The Violent Years. Or any of the Gamera movies. Or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Or Bert I. Gordon's Tormented. Or Herschell Gordon Lewis' Monster A-Go-Go. Or. . .
I'll stop now. Have a great mid-week. . .
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Tuesday, April 06, 2004
      ( 4/06/2004 12:27:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"MOVIE'S OVER, TOUGH GUY!" – Some graphic novels work so hard at being "cinematic" that they run the risk of losing much of what makes 'em graphic novels in the first place. Matt Fraction & Kieron Dwyer's Last of the Independents (AIT/Planet Lar) openly acknowledges its movie roots from the get-go – scripter Fraction dedicates his portion of the book to "Dads that take their kids out of school to catch movies instead of math class." – and it's at its weakest when it lets these roots show too clearly.

Independents is a caper yarn: the story of a trio of westerners who rob a bank to reverse their bad luck ("Because we're losers and it's time to be winners," developmentally stunted savant mechanic Billy rotely explains,) only to discover that this particular bank is money laundry for a brutal Vegas mobster named Vincenzo R. Francone. How vicious is this guy? Midpoint in the story, we see he's tortured and crucified the unfortunate bank guard who was unable to halt the robbery. Francone sends a henchman named Pascal Thorpe to retrieve "his" money, and the latter half of the book is devoted to our threesome's battle of wits against an army of black-suited goons.

It's a familiar enough yarn (think Don Siegel's Charley Varrick.) But Fraction & Dwyer treat the material simply and, thankfully, sans a lot of self-conscious jabberjawed media riffs. The scripter establishes his threesome – grizzled cowboy Cole Caudle, pilot girlfriend Justine Worrell and (you know he's doomed the instant he tells the other two that they "take care" of him) big kid Billy – without a lot of fuss. (If anything, he underplays their back story.) Cole is a former town drunk who's won an amusement park through some dubious means (he says he won it in a "river boat poker game," but we're not sure we believe him.) He's driven to plan the robbery (which he refuses to call a "caper," though Billy wants him to) after a larger park called Planetworld puts him out of business. Caudle wants "to be a different man. Not a new man, just different," but instead finds himself with eight million dollars that he can't give up even as it guarantees that Thorpe and his gang o' thugs won't give up trying to get it back.

Dwyer's art, printed in sepia tones suited to the story's dusty milieu, is at its best showing moments of quiet before the action (there's a two-page wordless sequence between Cole and younger Justine in bed that tells us all we need to know about the pair's relationship) and mano a mano facedowns. It's less successful during the book's action sequences, which occasionally come across more static than they need to. (A panel where a greasy bank manager gets a rock flung at his teeth just plain doesn't work, though I liked how Dwyer made the manager's checked coat blend against a wire fence during a gunfight.) There's a neat car and horse chase sequence, however, which Fraction wisely keeps dialog free and which also got me wondering how Dwyer would do with a full-blown western comic. He has a heavy brush line that makes me think of Jack Davis in places – not a bad look to cultivate in material like this.

On the whole, Last of the Independents is a nicely played genre exercise, which works best when its filmic influences aren't too openly aired. A scene where Justine improbably escapes a group of thugs holding her captive, for instance, doesn't fully work because Fraction can't resist giving her a snappish screenplay line before she grabs a handful of steak knives off a nearby kitchen counter. Better if Fraction had followed his own advice from the inevitable showdown between Cole and Pascal Thorpe: "What? No clever line? No witty fucking quip. . ." Thorpe sneers as his nemesis towers over him – and, true to his laconic cowboyness, Caudle sez nothing. Quick and dirty, that's the way to play this kind of GN pulp.
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Monday, April 05, 2004
      ( 4/05/2004 02:39:00 PM ) Bill S.  

GET CRAZY WITH THE CHEEZE WHIZ – Shane Bailey at Near Mint Heroes sent an email today noodging me to mention the Big Losers Contest over at Ringwood Ragefuck. The writer who comes up with the best description for why s/he is the Biggest Loser in the Universe will win a complete run of the swell Andy Diggle & Jock Vertigo comic. Hey, if I didn't already have all these issues, I'd happily humiliate myself for the prize!
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      ( 4/05/2004 09:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TALKIN' BASS SILENCED – In a move that'll surprise no one who's been following Fox Network, the flawed but zippily whimsical fantasy series Wonderfalls has been axed after four airings. (Haven't viewed the fourth ep yet myself, but it's been taped.) Per producer Tim Minear, there's little chance of getting the blinkered network types to change their collective mind – too busy seeking out the next Swan to look back, one supposes – but there already is a petition out asking 20th Century Fox to consider releasing the series as a DVD set. . .

(Found at Tony Collett's blog.)
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      ( 4/05/2004 09:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

IN-JOKE DU JOUR – From Sunday's episode of The Sopranos comes a disbelieving conversation among the F.B.I. agents pressuring Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo) to narc on the Soprano family. Learning that Ade and Tony S. have shared a moment of mutual lust, one of the agents scoffs about the knock-out Adriana being attracted to "Barney Rubble." Which echoes an episode of "Adult Swim's" Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law that recast Fred Flintstone as a putative mobster – and later revealed Barney Rubble to be the real power behind the throne. Dabba Do, indeed. . .
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      ( 4/05/2004 08:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WE HAVE MET, RIGHT? IT'S GETTING SO HARD TO TELL. . ." – Don't much disagree with Johnny Bacardi's thoroughly negative assessment of Avengers/JLA – which rates a big huh? what? from this reader – but I will note that I was momentarily caught by a scene between the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern (who, in the story, have been temporarily revived by the "chronal chaos" symptomatic of all the cosmic goings on.) In the lull between overcrowded fights, the two share a nice moment of comradely reflection: "If only there was one more day, one more cookout with Carol and Iris," the Barry Allen Flash notes. "One more loud night with Ollie and Ralph," the Hal Jordan GL takes up. It may've just been fanboyish pandering on Busiek's part, but for eight brief small panels I connected to the story and these two favored characters from my boyhood.

Whether that's worth the cost of four $5.95 prestige comics is another question, of course.
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Sunday, April 04, 2004
      ( 4/04/2004 02:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BOTH REACHING FOR THE GUN – So I finally caught a Starz showing of the movie version of Kander-&-Ebb's Chicago last night: a neatly heartless musical, though unlike K&E’s Cabaret it never manages to achieve devastatingly heartless since (aside from John C. Reilly's cellophane hubby Amos) none of the characters manage to rise above cartoonish. The flick moves along at such a clip I'm guessing a lot of character material from the original play was discarded – but perhaps not. (I'll have to catch a theatrical production sometime.) Best musical numbers: Queen Latifah's bawdy reciprocity song and Reilly's soft shoe self-description, which I knew from many Sunday afternoon radio playings of Joel Grey's original cast rendition – wouldn't have thought Reilly could've kept up with Grey, but he does.

But, anyway, that's not the real point of this post. This a.m., while perusing blogs I'd managed to skip over the past few days, I came upon Peter David's political parody – which uses another song from Chicago to proactively lampoon the upcoming Bush/Cheney testimony before the 9/11 Commission. If I'd read this before I'd viewed the movie, I probably wouldn't have chuckled so much, but, for me, the timing was right. If you know the musical, check out David's entry – and you'll probably picture Mort Drucker renderings of the principals as you do. . .
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Saturday, April 03, 2004
      ( 4/03/2004 09:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

DEADED DREADLINE DROOM – Got a writing deadline to make this weekend, so bloggish posting will be light to non-existent over the next few days. I did want to note that I received a package of AIT/Planetary books for review late yesterday, so I'll be reviewing a bunch of 'em over the next few weeks. Looks like publisher Larry Young is doing a p.r. blitz of the comics blogosphere. It'll be instructive to see how this plays out. . .
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Friday, April 02, 2004
      ( 4/02/2004 01:17:00 PM ) Bill S.  

IN-JOKE DU JOUR – That floating body we saw at the end of the debut issue of Bendis & Bagley's The Pulse (Marvel) turns out in issue #2 to be "Terri Kidder," recently hired gal reporter for The Daily Bugle, who was previously employed at "one of those big, old-fashioned, great metropolitan newspapers." Okay, but if Bendis tries to tell us her middle name is Phyllis or Noel, then he's really stretched the joke too far. . .
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      ( 4/02/2004 11:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FACTOIDAL – Because I'm annoyingly fond of trivial factoids, I couldn't resist picking up Craig Yoe's Weird but True Toon Factoids (Gramercy Press) when I discovered a pile of copies of the 1999 book going cheap at local comics shoppe Acme Comics. A collection of "Believe It Or Not"-styled pages of odd toon trivia (some of which appeared in The Comic Buyers Guide), Yoe's book is jam-packed with the kinda data that feeds my addiction to semi-relevant parentheticals. Though some of his items have more than a whiff of p.r. flakkery about 'em (unless you believe, for instance, that Bob Kane truly was the sole creative talent behind Batman), the collection makes for fun bathroom reading.

Only item I would thoroughly dispute: a piece which asserts that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer "was first introduced to the public in a 1951 comic book." Gene Autry's recording of the holiday perennial debuted on December 3, 1949, and recharted for four consecutive Christmas seasons. The singin' cowboy rerecorded the song in 1957, which may account for some of the confusion.

That nitpickoid aside, I'd recommend picking up a copy (it's available for $5.95 through Bud Plant) – and I promise not to blow the whistle on any bloggers who use its material in their postings. . .

(One sign of the speed with which things change on the web: the '99 collection alerts the reader to the presence of Yoe's weirdbuttrue.com site, but an investigation of that current URL takes you to "The Leading Quizes Site on the Web." Oh, the firefly life of websites!)
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      ( 4/02/2004 07:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IS BIG CRIME TO MAKE ANYTHING PERFECT ON BIZARRO WORLD!" – Yesterday's round of Bizarro bloggery (as most explicitly exemplified by Franklin Harris) produced plenty o' amusing moments: John Jakala's gorgeous bloggish reworking of "Stan's Soapbox," Steve Wintle's "Family Circus" hosanas, Mike Sterling's reinvention as gambitfan and Sean Collins' four-word Hush review among them. But the topper has to be Jim Henley's day-long political about face, which inspired a long and emotion-packed thread at leftist poli-blog Eschaton.
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Thursday, April 01, 2004
      ( 4/01/2004 07:18:00 PM ) Bill S.  

A SEXY THOUGHT ON WHICH TO END THIS DAY: Bob Dylan in a Victoria’s Secret bustier. . .
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      ( 4/01/2004 01:17:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"AND NOW ON OUR STAGE . . ." – Mark Evanier offers an informative appreciation of three short-lived Gold Key comics, Barney Miller, Three's Company and The Ed Sullivan Show. Used to own a copy of that last title, myself, but I remember trading it for an issue of Hollywood Palace (the ish that showed Allan Sherman on the cover with his fly open!)
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      ( 4/01/2004 11:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A CORRECTION – In an earlier post, I may have given the impression that I was an avid teevee viewer. I don't watch much television.
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      ( 4/01/2004 10:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

I'D RATHER BE WATCHING THAT BITCHY SIMON GUY, ANYWAY. . . – If I watched much teevee (which, as I noted before, I rarely do), I might choose to comment on ABC's decision to shift their Stephen King mini-series, Kingdom Hospital, from its Wednesday berth to an hour earlier on Thursday. Moving the struggling mini-series mid-story to a different night opposite a ratings juggernaut like CBS's C.S.I. strikes me as an act of utter programming genius – especially since there's not a whit of overlap between the audience for a show filled with graphic depictions of blood-&-guts and King's horror fiction. Only thing better for viewers would be if a third network – Fox, say – decided to move a struggling whimsical fantasy series – Wonderfalls, say – into the exact same time slot!
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      ( 4/01/2004 10:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BLOGGERIFFIC! – Smooth talkin' Franklin Harris beat me to linkage on blogmeister Dirk Deppey's return, but he somehow managed to miss the wealth of new postings at Four Color Hell!
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      ( 4/01/2004 08:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE "DIS" – As I noted in my previous piece, I don't watch a lot of television (unless, of course, it's weekend sports). But my curiosity was definitely piqued by this posting on Cartoon Brew, describing a proposed Disney cartoon teleseries created by Michael Eisner himself! Reads like a real winner to me. . .
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      ( 4/01/2004 05:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE SIXTY-MINUTE MAINSTREAMER – (Episode Umpteen: In which our mainstream explorer takes a tentative dip into mutant matters.)

I happened upon a copy of the mainstream graphic novel, X-Men: Evolution without much advanced word on this title. Sitting on a shelf alongside more familiar Tokyopop and Viz titles, the Marvel book jumped out at me because of its darkly busy cover and smiling kid faces. "The hit Kids' WBI cartoon is now a comic book!" the back cover tells me, so apparently this new "All Ages" mainstream title is based on an animated TV series. (I don't watch a lotta teevee, so I couldn't tell you when it's on.) Sounds like a blend of Mai, the Psychic Girl and Psychic Academy, thought I – and since I've enjoyed both of those well-known manga series, I decided to give X-Men: Evolution a try. At $5.99, it seemed like a decent buy, certainly less pricey than a volume of Iron Wok Jan!

I've gotta tell ya, though, after years of reading manga, the format of these so-called "mainstream" comics continues to throw me. I'm still unaccustomed to reading my comics from left to right, so the first thing I do is open the book on an ad for something called the Marvel Encyclopedia. And more than once, while reading along, I find myself falling back into old habits, so on one page, orphan mutant Scott is on his ass before an intolerant human decks him. Kinda like watching your VCR tape run backwards, it is. . .

X-Men: Evolution is the creation of Devin Grayson and an artist named Udo (at least I assume it's their creation since the book doesn't contain any other credits on its two title pages - aside from five different editors, that is – perhaps Grayson & Udo were responsible for the earlier WBI cartoon show?) Befitting its connection to a cartoon series, the art is entirely in color instead of the more easily scanned black-&-white – though perhaps as an aid to manga readers coming to this material for the first time, much of the coloring looks one step away from gray-scaled.

The book opens on a shirtless figure lying in the snow – who he is, we're not told, but the guy seems to have major problems with his knuckles since a close-up of his hand reveals some extra-long curvy spikes coming from his hands. What are they? How do they work? Are they out all the time? If not, how does the guy managed to bend his wrists when the spikes are retracted? We don't get any answers to these pressing questions yet, since the story shifts to an unnamed campus and a wheel-chaired college prof. Turns out the professor, whose name is Xavier, is an expert on mutations – of which, presumably, knuckle boy is an example. He sets up a school for adolescents who are just discovering that there’s something different about 'em.

Grayson is inconsistent when it comes to describing these young mutants' place in the world. At one point, two of the new students are accosted in the streets by an angry group of townspeople for being mutant "freaks," but later, one of these two – a kid who shoots rays from his eyes – tells another, "The world isn't ready to know about mutants yet." Perhaps this world is like the one in The Big O, only instead of the characters experiencing world-wide memory loss, they suffer daily glitches with short-term memory?

The first volume of X-Men: Evolution primarily devotes its pages to introducing each of our teen mutant characters – though some are more clearly delineated than others (among the others: a red-headed telekinetic, a woman who can make it rain and a blue guy who can "bamf!" – which apparently involves creating big black clouds and jumping out of 'em!) Not a whole lot of action occurs in the first four issue – which is fine because who wants to read about a bunch of guys 'n' gals jumping around in goofy costumes? – though there are hints of something bigger coming down the road. In the book's first chapter, for instance, we see the professor arguing with a colleague about the place of mutants in the world. Said colleague later appears, floating in the air and wearing a goofy helmet on his head, and though he doesn't really do much, I'm guessing we'll see more of the guy in the future.

Udo's art took some getting used to. For all the adolescent angst we're privy to, it's relatively affect-free aside from a few brief smiles. And though we see the characters engaging in physical exercise – and yoga – in the professor's school for mutants, none of 'em ever breaks into a cooling sweat! Perhaps that goes along with being a mutant; in which case I imagine one of the first big enemies that our strapping young X-Men (the name comes from a so-called "x-gene," incidentally) will face is the superpowered owner of an anti-perspirant company. Another visual convention that took some adjustment was the freakishly small size of each character's mouth and eyes.

Would I buy future volumes of X-Men: Evolution? I'm not sure the idea has legs, to be honest. Perhaps if Grayson & Udo further downplayed the mutant thing and focused even more clearly on the travails of school and teenhood, I'd be more enthused. (Maybe they could add a wacky instructor – like Great Teacher Onizuka! – to the cast.) If I watched a few episodes of this supposed "hit" cartoon, I suspect I'd have a better handle on these characters – but shouldn't these so-called "mainstream" creations be able to stand up by themselves? After reading this offering, I've gotta wonder if the guys at this upstart Marvel company know what today's manga-reading kid wants. . .
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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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