Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, August 07, 2004
      ( 8/07/2004 09:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

O-E-O 'LEVEN – Steve Lieber has initiated a meme wherein comics bloggers are encouraged to come up with a list of eleven comics-related books that should be in libraries, an exercise that's guaranteed to appeal to the obsessive list-maker within me. So here t'is.

I tried to restrict my selection to titles that haven't already been listed by other bloggers, feeling that part of the point of this was to hold up varied titles worthy of being made available to the public. The bulk of my selections aren't very recent, in large part because I wanted to list books that'd held up to multiple readings on my part. (The ol' Test of Time thing.) The disheartening aspect about this approach was my realization that many of these volumes are currently not in print – one more argument in favor of a strong library collection:
  1. Walt Kelly, Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years With Pogo (Simon and Shuster): Gotta start with this one since it was my discovery of this book in the Arlington Heights Public Library that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of comic art. Many of the strip's greatest sequences (e.g., the Simple J. Malarkey plotline) get included, along with running commentary by Kelly hisself. I know this book's out of print, but so, unfortunately, are the eleven Fantagraphics volumes reprinting the strip's run from 1948 – 55. (The company promises to reinitiate the reprint series sometime in the next two years in a new format, but it's not soon enough for me.) So consider this my not-so-subtle nudge to get me some "Pogo" back in print.

  2. The Mad Archives, Volume One (DC): It starts out not much different from the s-f and horror books that preceded it, but over six short issues you can see something wondrous developing (if we must pinpoint a moment, could it be the "Superduperman" story in issue four?): a whole new way of looking at the popular culture around us. There's no reason that every library in the country shouldn't have multiple copies of this book on stock.

  3. Jack Jackson, Los Tejanos (Fantagraphics): Flipping through the most recent Fantagraphics catalog, I was inspired to reread Jack Jackson's look at Juan N. Seguin and the struggles of Texas-Mexicans in the early days of the state. Found myself wanting to go back and reread all of his historical comics.

  4. Charlier & Moebius, Blueberry, Volumes One – Five (Epic): Still the gold standard for fictional western comic art – and it deserves to be read by succeeding generations.

  5. R. Crumb, Complete Crumb Comics, Volumes Three onward and

  6. Kim Deitch, Beyond the Pale (Fantagraphics): Two undergrounders I'll continue to read 'til my last substance-damaged brain cell flickers off. Minds, as they say, were made to be blown. . .

  7. Joe Sacco, Notes from A Defeatist (Fantagraphics): Everyone else'll push Safe Area Gorzade, a choice that I can't oppose too strongly, but here's where I personally find comics journalist Sacco to be more approachable. A good starting point.

  8. Art Spiegelman, Breakdowns (Nostalgia) and

  9. Edited with Francois Mouly, Read Yourself Raw (Pantheon): Everyone else'll push Maus, another choice I can't oppose at all, but with these two books you can pretty much see the birth of American art comics. Plus "Ace Hole, Midget Detective" still makes me laff. . .

  10. David B. Epileptic 1 (L’Association): Of all the autobiographical comics out there, this is the one that has the most personal resonance for me: in large part due to its thoroughly unsentimental look at the excesses of the 70's counter-culture as well as a medical community that's too often reluctant to acknowledge its own limitations. A subtly devastating work. Still waiting for Volume Two, but this book holds up plenty well on its own.

  11. Archival Superheroes: Did a piece two years ago on my top pick DC Archives and Marvel Masterworks collections – it still holds up, though for this list I wouldn't just pick one volume in Marvel's FF reprints, for instance, but all six. (And thank God that the company has finally seen fit to correct the slapdash selection of their Masterworks series.) No good library should be without 'em, just as no good library should be without the works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
So there you have 'em: Milo George beat me to the Smithsonian collections, while half the comics blogosphere already wisely picked up on Hernandez, Ware and the other usual suspects. Me, I'm thinking if someone compiled and collected all the lists on display today, we'd have a kick-ass set of comic art shelves that'd do any American public library proud. . .
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Friday, August 06, 2004
      ( 8/06/2004 02:25:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"BETTER PUT IT ALL IN PRESENT TENSES" – Thinking 'bout this 'n' that with a few quick bullet points:
  • Good to see Bravo not making the same mistake twice with their preview of this round’s championship Celebrity Poker Showdown. The net held off revealing who won last night's game (though it quickly became plenty obvious who was the clear favorite) in its mid-show ads – and good for them. But, boy, that Amy Poehler sure is a potty-mouth, isn't she?

  • Pulled out a copy of Dylan's Nashville Skyline album this week and have been rediscovering its homespun pleasures. When the disc first was released back in 1969, I wasn't much enamored by the direction that the Rock Poet of His Generation had taken in his first overt country release: to those of us who'd spent much enjoyable time trying to decipher the labyrinthine lyrics of Highway 61 Revisited, this more straightforward visit to Songwriter's Row couldn't help but feel like a let-down. But after having followed Dylan into direr musical directions in the years since Skyline, I surrender to its tuneful joyfulness. Plus, "Lay Lady Lay" remains one of the most smoothly salacious songs that Dylan – or just about anyone – ever wrote.

  • A clever in-joke/tribute from the opening to the penultimate issue of Darwyn Cooke's still delightful DC: The New Frontier mini-series: as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are given a reporters' tour of hq for the Challengers of the Unknown, tough guy Rocky tells 'em, "The entire place was designed by this reclusive genius named Kurtzburg. Mad as a hatter."

    And am I the only one who – when first reading about Hal Jordan and his possession of his power ring – started wondering if they'd somehow missed an issue in the long delay between #s four and five?
More later. . .

(Background Music for This Round: The abovementioned Dylan elpee. . .)
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Thursday, August 05, 2004
      ( 8/05/2004 08:47:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"EVERYBODY EXPLODES. . .ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS FIND THE RIGHT PERSON!" – When we first see the trio of kids playing 'neath a huge sheltering tree in Ursula (AiT/Planet Lar), they could be any group of eleven-year-olds: two boys and a girl with large circles on her "strange, rosy" cheeks, fantasizing together and building a bond that'll hold into adulthood. It's only when the trio break from play that we realize one of the two boys, Miro, is heir to a powerful family – and even later when we learn that Ursula, that rosy-cheeked girl, is even more extraordinary.

Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba's Ursula is an unapologetically romantic fantasy about the endurance of young love. Packed with luscious allegorical imagery alongside smartly posed child and adult characters, it's the kind of story that either draws you in quickly or distances you with its unabashed emotionalism. It took me several tries, in fact, to get more than eight pages into this black-and-white graphic novella – all the stuff about a tree full of stars kept pushing me away – but once I actually succumbed to its storytelling rhythms, I found myself hooked. The two Brazilian graphic artists have created a simple love story, almost in spite of their occasionally overbearing poetic conceits, and in the end that's what carries the book.

The book opens with our trio of characters as story swapping children, introduces us to a "magic" talking bird named Pip (though at first we're unsure whether the bird is truly magical or if this ability is all in Miro's imagination), then we see this close-knit trio break up as Ursula is sent away to school. When next we see 'em, they're all young adults and Miro is being pressured by his traditionalist father to find a wife, so he goes off in search of Ursula. This doesn't take long: since Ursula, he reveals, is an "enchanted being," there's just one place she could be. He finds her and they kiss – but, unlike most fairy tales, that kiss proves to be just the start of the story. In a flash, Miro, Ursula and third wheel Boris find themselves in an uncharted landscape full of "emotions, longings, connections," once again in their eleven-year-old bodies.

Most of the scenes in this heavily symbolic land are handled wittily, with sprinkles of small visual jokes (a bit where Pip the Magic Bird, now chatting happily, goes after a "worm" that turns out to be a bit of dragon, is like something out of an old WB cartoon) and entertaining character poses. Clearly Moon & Ba (who swap art chores throughout the book) have more fun with their figures as whimsical children than as seriously pining adults. If Ursula falls down, it's through not making the adult versions as interesting as their young counterparts.

The story concludes with our trio finding their way out of this enchanted land and back to the world of pure adulthood: not the most complex of plot paths (even that dragon turns out to be pretty non-threatening), but Moon & Ba are less interested in story than they are in visually evoking emotional states. Despite a somewhat coy intro that depicts the two graphic artists discussing their story ("Does anyone die?" "Hum."), the outcome of Ursula's romance is never truly in doubt. For all its allegorical elements and regular thematic use of quotes from Brazilian novelist Guimaraes Rosa, the work's as driven by its single-minded need to get boy-&-girl together as any old-fashioned Silver Age romance comic. That is by no means a slam because I ultimately finished the book wanting to see more of Moon & Ba's work. A moderne romance comic that doesn't end with its sensitive hero feeling regretful and broken-hearted? We could use more of these. . .
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      ( 8/05/2004 06:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

I GUESS WE'RE A BLUE STATE, AFTER ALL – How to react to the news that the Illinois Republican Party is offering the party candidacy for the position of U.S. Senator to Alan Keyes? Uncontrolled snickers aren't quite sufficient. And I'm sure that every Democrat blogger across the country has already pointed out the irony of the Grand Old Party bringing in a candidate who has never lived in the state of Illinois – when many GOPers yowled long and loudly about "carpetbagger" Hillary Rodham Clinton running for senatorship in New York. So how's about just linking to this great Peter Bagge article about Keyes, the Year 2000 Presidential Candidate?
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Wednesday, August 04, 2004
      ( 8/04/2004 04:19:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"OH NO, I CAN'T FIND MY MONEY!" – Between recent CD reissues of the Camper Van Beethoven catalog and a new release of the Mekons' Honky Tonkin', it's a good season for lovers of good ol' shambolic art/roots rock. I was able to latch onto a copy of the latter disc this week, and I've been rediscovering its plentiful dark pleasures. When the record was first released back in 1987, many fans thought its country-punk tone was an affectation (Christgau on the album back in the day: "I await the next phase.") Yet the years – and head Mekon Jon Langford's immersion in Bloodshot Records and the Waco Bros. – have shown that in Honky Tonkin' the band was test driving a sound they truly loved and would enthusiastically embrace. (See their 2002 reunion disc OOOH!) Today, the disc's assertive low-fi countrifyin' sure sounds both prescient and satisfying.
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      ( 8/04/2004 08:15:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"HEY KIDS! COMICS!" – When you're right, you're right. And Michael Chabon – in his call for more comics that’ll appeal to a kid readership – is the rightest. What's surprising is the splenetic response of some otherwise bright comic book writers to this simple proscription. Does delivering an address in a simply eloquent speaking style and alluding to comics history make one an "elitist"?

Re-reading Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba's Ursula this a.m. (review soon to follow), it struck me that, while not strictly following the rubric of those Silver Age works that Chabon cites as kid-welcoming, it's an example of what would be familiar comic book fare in the best of all worlds. A romantic work written for an adult reader that's accessible and appealing to pre-teen girls with an eye for fantasy: is it really elitist heresy to suggest there should be more books like this?

(Thanks to Grim for alerting me to this exchange, though I've gotta admit I sure as heck didn't have the patience to wade all the way through it.)
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Tuesday, August 03, 2004
      ( 8/03/2004 02:21:00 PM ) Bill S.  

I'M A SHOTTY PRIIFREADER – So I'm over at Johnny Bacardi's house, and I get in a brief discussion about all-time-faves, the Kinks, and in a burst of bloggish self-advertisement, I drop mention that I have a couple of tribute pages to Ray Davies and the boys (something Johnny already knows, but someone else might be following the conversation, right?) I bop over to the Kinks page to copy the link, and when I do, I notice a glaring typo in the text. Where I meant to say "could do no wrong," I've written "could to do wrong."

Now, these pages have been up for several years. They were not something I dashed off in a fit of web log gadding: they were crafted as labors of love that I read through repeatedly before posting, both as Word and as html documents. So I've proofread these rascals. I know the tricks for self-editing (read it backwards), though I admittedly don't consistently utilize 'em. And, every so often, I'll come across something I've written with a boneheaded typo or grammatical error that starts flashing at me like the oil light on my car.

I blame the American public school system. . .
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Monday, August 02, 2004
      ( 8/02/2004 09:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GIGGLING TO BYZANTIUM – Fave quote from "Hector Reeder"'s look-the-emperor's-nekkid! Ninth Art commentary on the "insatiable" comics blogosphere:
The blogosphere hates everything, and even the best examples score higher on insight than sense of humour.
So. . .it's better to score higher on sense of humour than insight?
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      ( 8/02/2004 08:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MANOS!" – See from the official Mystery Science Theater 3000 site that a new two-disc set entitled Essentials is being released by Rhino this month. This will make the third time I've purchased a MSTified copy of the Manos, the Hands of Fate, but I'll likely be buying it, anyway, since the set also includes Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Pia Zadora's best performance 'til Hairspray), which has not to my knowledge previously been issued on VHS or DVD. Hey, guys, any chance of sneaking out a DVD version of The Amazing Colossal Man?

UPDATE: Fellow MSTie Franklin Harris notes in the Comments section that if you purchase Essentials through direct order from Rhino, you also get a bonus disc of "Shorts, Volume Three," which collects more of those priceless edutainment films from the fifties and sixties ("Speech – Using Your Voice") as filtered through the snarky critical orbs of Joel/Mike and the bots. Where'd I hide my credit card?
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Sunday, August 01, 2004
      ( 8/01/2004 08:12:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"LOAD UP, LOAD UP, LOAD UP, YER RUBBER BULLETS" – A few quick bullet points for a weekend jam-packed with household crap:
  • Watched The Daily Show's capper to the Democratic Convention on Friday (you'd think that Comedy Central would've been advertising this schedule change all week during the rest of the broadcast day, but I never saw anything about it in ads), and they were especially cutting when it came to dissecting "real" reporters and their handling of the event. Most telling was host Jon Stewart's look at the reportage around Rev. Al Sharpton's speech: think what you will about Sharpton, the guy is news and, at minimum, you'd hope that the cable news channels would have the, oh, I don't know, professionalism to broadcast and actually listen to his words. Yet as The Daily Show rather mercilessly revealed, the gang at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC couldn't even bother to do that. Shameful.

  • Mark Evanier notes the passing of character actor Eugene Roche, listing some of his best performances. I agree that his role in the underseen The Late Show is a career highlight, but my most enduring memory is of his role as the lovestruck lawyer on Soap.

  • Been listening to the new release by the Streets (a.k.a. Mike Skinner), A Grand Don't Come for Free. (This is my first Streets' album, so if his earlier material is different, I'm sure someone will let me know.) A kinda rap storyteller, Skinner strikes me as fitting within an established Brit pop tradition of talky urban misfits (Ian Dury, Jilted John, Blur's "Park Life"). He has lots of funny lines and stories, but the sound isn't as varied as pub-rock survivor Dury could be at his best. And after growing familiar with Grand, I'm not especially predisposed to pick up his earlier material, but I don't regret buying the disc either. Some pop's like that. (Personal Hit Picks: "Fit But You Know It" and "Dry Your Eyes.")

  • And then there are popsters who you follow for a time, forget about and then rediscover several years down the pike. One such case for me is John Wesley Harding: I own and enjoy two of his early discs (Here Comes the Groom, The Name Above the Title), but lost track of him after that. I recently picked up a promo copy of his newest release, though, (Adam's Apple) from a store that probably shouldn't have been selling it – and was once more won over by the guy's blend of John Sebastian vocals with slightly more modernized folk/pop sounds and lyrics that alternately recall Elvis Costello and Phil Ochs. (Also like the way that "Sluts" swipes the guitarline of "Last Train to Clarksville.") Think I'll keep an eye out for Harding's next 'un. . .

  • Way behind in my mainstream comics reading, but I have been enjoying DC's Julius Schwartz tribute books. Even when the stories don't fully work (which is, at my estimation, about 75% of the time), they possess enough Silver Age timbre to get by. Best of the batch to date: Grant Morrison's culturally half-baked but still enjoyable take on Adam Strange and Mysteries in Space, though reading Morrison's meta-script on the same week that Peter David went even more overtly so in Captain Marvel's finish got me pondering the clear limitations of self-consciousness.

  • Not to tell Marvel their business or anything, but this week I picked up three different Fantastic Four titles at the comics shoppe (regular FF, Marvel Knights Four and the Ultimate model). Per DC's handling of its Batman and Superman franchises, wouldn't it make more sense to space the release of these books out over the month, so fans could have three weeks of Baxter Building goodness? And the range in quality between each title wouldn't be so instantly obvious?

    UPDATE: Oops. Just caught that Mike Sterling made the same point on Friday.

  • Another new Gilbert Hernandez Luba comic? I'm still poring over the last two books he completed. Doesn't he know that art comics guys are supposed to take an agonizingly long time between projects? What's Beto trying to do? Make a living from this stuff?

  • In the Future, Everybody Will Have A Blog for Fifteen Minutes Dept.: Have added several fun blogs to the roll on the over the past week or so. Dullard Gazette, Heck’s Kitchen and Martian War Machine. Man, cut into my writing time, why don't ya?
More later. Now I'm off to finish putting together a metal shed.

(Background Music for this Round of Bullet Pointing: DCG's two-on-one CD reissue of 10CC and Sheet Music. Do the "Wall Street Shuffle"!)
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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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