Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, March 12, 2005
      ( 3/12/2005 07:10:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LIQUID PAPER AND SAILOR'S HENNESSEY – So. . .what to say about the paperback collection of Andrew Boyd & Ryan Rount's Scurvy Dogs (AiT/Planet Lar) when you’ve already heaped critical hosannas on the original five-issue series when it first came out in comic book form? Well, you could discuss the book's previously unseen material: the four-page not-quite-a-team-up with Vampirella (pirate Jefe unsuccessfully trying to woo the alien vampiress to a date at a "romantic buffet in Atlantic City"), the throwaway Hostess Fruit Pie ad done to sell the comic or the fourteen pages of eight-point font writer-&-artist commentary about the splendid material being reprinted, but, to be honest, I've only skimmed that last feature since you have to keep flipping from the back to the front of the book to do it – and I didn't wanna mess up my review copy by actually, you know, reading it too hard or anything. Boyd & Yount crack plenty wise, though, so I suppose I will eventually break down and read more closely through it.

Basic point: if you've already bought the five issue mini-series in its comic book form, you'll still probably want this ace collection, since it contains more of the creative duo's nonsensical flight-of-ideas japery, and the original stories themselves remain funny when you reread 'em. For those unfamiliar with the adventures of this dissolute band of pirates – who rummage their way through modern times, getting into pointlessly violent scrapes with monkeys ("pigeons of the seas," they calls 'em) and hobo kings, tossing off the occasional "Yar!" and silly pop culture reference (one that made me laugh out loud on the reread: a set of Hummel figurines done in tribute to violent deaths in the Great War) – well, to you I say, plunk down $12.95 for a copy of this collection today. Because Boyd & Yount need to be encouraged to do more of this sublime silliness. And because any form of intentional silliness is all too rare in American comics these days. . .
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Friday, March 11, 2005
      ( 3/11/2005 09:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE LESSONS OF PROFESSOR CHAOS – Like Tom the Dog, I found the season nine premiere of South Park more icky than comic – not the first time I've had that reaction to the show (another instance: the outing several years back where Kenny performed extreme Jackass/Fear Factor styled stunts), though with a series that trades in shock value, it probably says something about me as an audience member that I'm not turned off more often. When you work so hard at pushing the boundaries of good taste, it's inevitable that you’d occasionally lose the funny.

Knowing how quickly that they write and produce these things, I wonder if this particular ep – which revolved around Mister Garrison’s decision to have a sex change – wasn't Parker & Stone's attempt at one-upping The Simpsons' gay marriage show this season. Both episodes featured a character refusing to stay with a partner because that partner is "not" gay; both episodes had sexual identity (what makes a woman a woman and a man a man) as one of its core questions. Biggest difference: the Simpsons episode still had jokes in it. Several seasons back, the South Park gang made the difficulty of writing plots that didn't duplicate beloved Simpsons episodes a central gag in one of its Butters storylines. Clearly, this is still an issue. . .
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Thursday, March 10, 2005
      ( 3/10/2005 04:43:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"THAT WAS MY FAVORITE PART OF THE SHOW!" – The cast and narrators of Joel Orff's 2003 collection, Strum And Drang: Great Moments In Rock 'N' Roll (Alternative Comics), are largely of a piece: white teens and twenty-somethings, living in the kind of ramshackle straits that haven't yet turned oppressive, seizing a moment of pleasure from their surroundings. True to its title, there are a lotta stories about short-lived local rock group – many of which don't even last beyond the one big gig that Joel visually recreates for 'em – but if Strum was just about a succession of garage (or self-described "primitivist") bands, it wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as it is. Instead, the one-page reminiscences that comprise each Great Moment (originally posted by Orff on his web page) frequently have nothing explicit to do with music, though you could argue that they embody the expressive spirit that feeds great rock.

Among the tiny slices that Orff identifies: two teen girls sitting on a suburban lawn, dreaming about forming a self-sustaining commune ("We could run a cheese factory!" "Yeah, with no rules!"); the hungover inhabitant of a "punk rock house," sitting on a couch that has inexplicably been moved into middle of the living room; the trio of teenagers, realizing on the start of a Monday morning that they've all spent their Saturday night watching Saturday Night Fever; the would-be performance artist who covers himself in a sack and happily insults passersby; the tripped-out visitor to an amusement park, who spends most of his day watching ants on a tree stump – and other tales of ordinary folk entertaining themselves, frequently in spite of their circumstances. Most of these stories were sent by readers to Orff at his website (though he does indulge in an occasional autobiographical moment) where he first posted these cartoon interpretations of 'em.

Though he renders these strips in a loose, occasionally anatomically wonky style that at times brings to mind a less rigid Lynda Barry, Orff treats each submitted anecdote respectfully. (Bet it was tempting to treat some of these dispatches from Teenage Wasteland snarkily.) Despite its punning title, there isn't a lot of loud breast-beating angst in these strips (except when it's being performed by onstage bands); many of these one-page strips turn out to be rather sweetly adolescent, in fact. Reflecting on a high school punk rawk concert cut short by school authorities, one narrator notes about the scene that rose from that incident: "I know there's nothing earth-shattering about this. There are bands and scenes like this one in a thousand places across the country, but this was our scene!" That's rock 'n' roll, alright. . .
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Wednesday, March 09, 2005
      ( 3/09/2005 10:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MOST OF MY ADULT LIFE I HAD THIS TOWERING CONTEMPT FOR AMERICA" – Though my favorite material remains his purely underground comix, I remain a huge fan of R. Crumb – and have been enjoying the series of articles and appreciations appearing this week in the Guardian Unlimited. Today's offering features a series of the expatriate artist’s statements about his abandoned homeland. Some of it'll be familiar to anyone who recalls his Arcade diatribe, "Let's Talk Sense About This Here Modern America" (which seems crankily prescient these days, especially in its global warming jeremiad). But though he says he doesn't consider himself an explicitly "political" artist, I'd respectfully beg to differ: Crumb's not an agitpropper (too independent a cuss for that), but I can recall several strips over the years that had an explicitly political PoV, if not a more general satiric take on the American scene. (He was also, during its most excessive moments, one of the sharpest critics of seventies era New Left radicalism, too.) For all that the media – and Crumb himself, for that matter – like to focus on his sexually explicit fantasy strips, the man has long been a telling observer of much that is crass, phony and just-plain-ugly in This Here Modern America. And more power to him. . .
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Tuesday, March 08, 2005
      ( 3/08/2005 02:06:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"THE TRIP WILL PROBABLY BE BORING ROUTINE" – Driving into work on Monday, I happened to mention to the woman with whom I periodically car-pool that my wife and I'd watched the DVD of The Empire Strikes Back over the weekend. Her response was not unexpected, since we talk movies and teevee all the time: "I never got into the Star Wars movies," she said. "Never saw what the fuss was all about."

My response was a fairly typical boomer geek one: "You need to remember what s-f movie fans had to put up with before George Lucas, the number of cheesy looking flicks that were regularly released under the sci-fi banner." And then I told her about also watching The Angry Red Planet on Sunday.

Released in 1960, Planet was a low-budget American International Pictures flick written by Sid Pink (also responsible for Reptilicus and the early 3-D pic, Bwana Devil) and its director Ib Melchior, who reportedly shot the whole shebang in ten days. The flick revolves around the first manned mission to Mars – which we see returning from its flight after sixty days of radio silence. Only two of the four-person crew are still alive, though one is not at all well: covered with a greenish fuzzy goop, he is near death with only his crewmate, Dr. Iris Ryan (a large-mouthed Nora Hayden), alive to provide a clue as to what's happened. Trouble is: Iris has suffered traumatic memory loss from the horrors she's glimpsed, so the only way to get the full story is for the doctors to drug her. "Her recall will be colored by reinterpretation," we're told – and so it is. . . a bright red color.

Our heroine's memories start out innocuously enough: with the foursome in the cockpit of the MR-1 (sometimes called the XR-1), a blandly walled studio set with a large reel-to-reel, a collections of gauges and a Bulova clock on the wall to provide that futuristic techno-feel. Accompanying Iris is hunky Air Force colonel Tom O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr), geezerly professor Theodore Gettel (ubiquitous B-movie actor Les Tremayne, who spends a lot of time sucking on an unlit pipe to look professorial) and proletarian stereotype Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen). The last is shown – in a bit of dramatic foreshadowing that even the kids in the audience can catch – reading a pulp serial on ship and wondering if he'll "get to see the next issue." Sorry, Sam, but if you have to ask, it ain't gonna happen!

Once our expedition lands on Mars, all these teeny bits of character shorthand are largely forgotten as our crew ventures out onto the planet, wearing space helmets that are fully open in the front. Red planet Mars is suggested through a process called "Cinemagic," which basically involved filming everything in solarized crimson. The technique was supposed to provide a modified form of 3-D, but on digital DVD, at least, it's hugely unsuccessful – especially with the large amount of heavily outlined painted backgrounds and images inserted into the frame. When the portrait of a gaping three-eyed alien appears in the spaceship portal, freaking out poor Iris, even the awkwardly inserted CGI images in Star Wars 2.0 look slick in comparison.

Despite the fake-y backdrops, though, there are some appealingly Basil Wolverton-ish fx in the movie: a forty-foot-tall spider/crab/bat-like creature that our bedazzled team first mistakes for a grove of trees (apparently, our team approached the beast while keeping their eyes on the ground, looking for dropped change?) and a great gloopy amoeba-like creature that rises from the ocean to pursue our crew through the phony Martian jungle. That painted alien head also has a living counterpart which we periodically see peering at our protagonists from behind a rock, but the only communication that we hear from the Martians comes from a recording that is played at movie's end, warning the people of Earth to never visit Mars again.

In short, Planet is the kind of low-budget, minimally plotted experience s-f fans endured for years before Lucas and his collaborators began the Star Wars saga. Say what you will about the occasional gawkiness of Star Wars dialog, but in comparison to the some of the stuff Pink & Melchior came up with, it's David Mamet. Consider this moment from stalwart Captain O'Bannion. Asked if he is nervous about their expedition into unknown outer space, the good Captain launches into a childhood reminiscence about the dog he had when he was but a lad. "I'm pretty sure people will be just as sure of space travel as I was of my dog," he says in all seriousness. No wonder the Martians don't respect us.

My on-the-road description of my DVD viewing experience did little to persuade my car-pooling friend, which is probably okay because if she considered it long enough, she might've thought to ask me, "Okay, I'll grant you the comparative coolness of Star Wars. But why were you spending your Sunday morning, watching Angry Red Planet?"

My answer would've been something along the lines of: "Grand futuristic epics and high-priced fx are great. But low-rent sci-fi cinema has its own whacked-out appeal, too. Particularly when it's aligned with moviemakers whose vision far exceeds their budget. In a world where viewers can choose between state-of-the-art moviemaking and desperation storytelling, sometimes you just wanna sit back and marvel at the lengths to which psychotronic filmsters will go to try and bamboozle their audience. Besides, that spider/crab/bat puppet is really neat to look at. . ."

I'm fairly certain she wouldn't have believed me, though.
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      ( 3/08/2005 07:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ALL WHO CHOOSE TO OPPOSE HIS SHIELD MUST YIELD – Courtesy of Atrios comes this poli-plog discussion thread of Ed Brubaker's most recent Captain America (#3) and a sequence therein where the good Cap'n waxes wroth about American's "dismissing the French as cowards." The former WWII Super Soldier, currently on a mission in Paris, recalls the members of the French Resistance he fought alongside back in the day and the average citizens who were killed for not yielding to occupation.
"In one day alone, 600 men, women and children executed in the village or Oradour-Sur-Glane. All because of what the Maquis did on D-Day. . .stopping those tanks from getting to Normandy."
A small in-character moment for Steve Rogers, I thought (who, despite his name, is less concerned about nationalism and more with acts of decent human bravery.) Apparently, Cap's diatribe has riled some easily rile-able comics fans and generated a decent length comment thread on the Work Bench poli-site to boot. (Note the one commenter who accuses Cap'n of being a flip-flopper by quoting a French joke that the Ultimate Version of the character made – wanna convince me that these two Marvel lines are aren't confusing to those outside the fandom community?) Me, I wonder if Jim Henley has any thoughts on the character's current run. . .
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Monday, March 07, 2005
      ( 3/07/2005 01:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"RUNRUNRUN-RUNAWAYS. . ." – After reviewing Ex Machina early last week, I thought I'd take a look at another of writer Brian K. Vaughan's series, Marvel's Runaways – which conveniently is available in a trio of inexpensive Marvel Age digests. One of the questions that has recently come up in discussions of Vaughan's work (see Johanna Draper-Carlson) is whether the writer can hold up to his promising beginnings. Runaways, which ends its first eighteen issue run with the recently collected third digest, provides a good opportunity to see if the guy is up to it.

The series opens strongly enough: six kids, brought to what they think is gonna be a boring yearly parental get-together, are horrified to discover that their folks are actually an enclave of super-villains. After secretly witnessing a ritual sacrifice, they covertly investigate and learn to their dismay that their parents comprise a group called the Pride, which basically controls all illegal activities on the West Coast. They take it on the lam, hiding in an earthquake-sunken mansion in the Hollywood hills, unsure what to do but certain that they want nothing to do with their parents. Along the way, each runaway learns a secret about themselves – usually involving something inherited from their parents (one girl has an empathic connection to a watchdog dinosaur, the youngest has mutant super-strength, etc.) The main story focus, then, is on this prickly sextet of girls and boys as they evolve from a group of guarded teens and almost-teens into a semi-cohesive team. One of the six, we learn, is sending out dispatches to his/her parents, while members of L.A.'s Finest – who are also aligned with the Pride – are scouring the city, looking for our gang.

A fine set-up, like I say – and by chapter/issue seventeen in volume three, Vaughan actually resolves most of these plot threads. The identity of the group mole is revealed (not a big surprise), as well as the underlying reason for the Pride's existence; we also get to witness a climactic showdown at the Evil Parents' underwater lair. Vaughan does a brisk job differentiating our cast of reluctant super-kids (he's less effective when it comes to the adults), and there are some fine bickersome moments reminiscent of early Marvel throughout. Though Runaways flags a mite in the middle volume with the infusion of a Buffy-indebted plotline, the writer generally keeps his eye on the prize.

A decent li'l short-run series, in other words, with the added advantage of being only marginally connected to the Marvel Universe. (Obscure duo, Cloak and Dagger, make an appearance, and there's at least one reference to the West Coast Avengers – but it really is the kids' show.) Marvel's attempt at wooing readers with manga lite packaging, art and plotlines may, at root, be a compromised half measure, but in the case of Runaways, at least, it seems to've paid off. Though not as layered as a work like Ex Machina, the Marvel Age series succeeds on its own lightweight terms. So perhaps Vaughan can slap a tidy "finish" to one of his creations.
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      ( 3/07/2005 01:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHEN I'M CALLING YOU-HOO-HOO-HOO. . ." – Caught the champeenship finish to this round of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Sunday – not as egregious as I thought it might be: knee-jerk caller Colin Quinn actually played some hands where he didn't call with nuthin', while Brad Garrett had some actual funny lines to go with his loud-mouth bluster this time. Me, I wish Bonnie Hunt had won – 'cause dammit, I've got some serious audience lust for her – but when she didn't call what seemed like an obvious Garrett bluff (would've been a good hand to do "How Would You Play It?"), it was obvious that this was just not to be. . .
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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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