Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, January 06, 2006
      ( 1/06/2006 12:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"FOR EVERY SINGLE THRILL THERE'S ANOTHER HEART-ACHE" – Just put on Lou Rawls' soulful classic "Love Is A Hurtin' Thing" after reading of the man's passing on Mark Evanier's blog. You're right, Lou, it can be . . .
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      ( 1/06/2006 09:36:00 AM ) Bill S.  

PITCHFORKS IN THE ATLANTIC – Whenever I read about the latest mouthings of a certifiably whacked-out religio-conservative like Pat Robertson, I often find myself flashing back to the years I used to work in the foster care system. Years ago, I was employed by a childcare agency in Illinois to supervise foster parents. This being the middle of Illinois, a good number of the licensed fosterers I visited were farmers (look to the history of foster care in the U.S., and you'll find that much of it was initially bolstered by the need for more hands on the family farm). The majority of parents were levelheaded churchgoing Midwesterners who became foster parents primarily because the kids in the house had all grown up and the mother was experiencing the empty nest thing. But there were a few odd ducks in the crowd, and one of the oddest was Dan.

Dan (not his real name) was a smallish guy with a crackly voice that said Pure Small-Town Geezer and a religious mind-frame that was slightly to the right of Matthew Hopkins. The foster dad devotedly listened to radio evangelicals, and regularly he would float some of their statements my way, perhaps as a rebuke to my godless secular humanism. One day he started holding forth on Disney's The Little Mermaid, which apparently some radio voice had told him was about the daughter of Satan. The evidence? The fact that undersea heroine's father, King Triton, was always seen holding a trident, which Dan called a "pitchfork," an implement that everybody knows Satan carries with him. I don't know if the actual radio proselytizer called it a pitchfork, but that's what Dan took from the broadcast. It's possible that the preacher called it a trident than explained to his audience that the three-pronged staff is very like a pitchfork, but after I heard Dan's pronouncement, I immediately began visualizing the king of the merpeople bailing hay twenty thousand leagues under the sea.

Disney films have long been subjected to a variety of off-the-wall accusations over the years – there are two different urban legends about phallic imagery supposedly "hidden" in The Little Mermaid (they can be found at Snopes here and here). But to accuse a figure plainly inspired by a figure from Greek mythology of being "satanic" requires an assertively willful ignorance – and an audience gullible enough to fall for your bullshit. Sitting in the farmhouse with Dan, I was clearly in the presence of the latter.

To this day, whenever I read or hear some palpable nonsense from Robertson or his ilk, I find myself wondering What Would Dan Think? I'm guessing – to a man who didn't distinguish between a trident and a pitchfork (can you accurately spear fish with the latter?) – Robertson's ravings speak perfect truth . . .
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Thursday, January 05, 2006
      ( 1/05/2006 01:48:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WITH MY LESS-THAN-PERFECT DROP-THE-BALL FACE" – For those hooked on guitar-centric rock, 2005 was a satisfying year, indeed. It was not, at least for this writer, a year that leant itself to satisfying Top Ten Lists, primarily because my first two choices – the already much-discussed Go-Betweens and New Pornographers' releases – were so above anything else I listened to. Depending on the day, I'd probably give you a different answer as to which of these two I favored: Oceans Apart is a crown point in the regrettably limited category of Vibrant Grown-up Rock, while Twin Cinemas is arguably the best art-pop release since the glory days of XTC.

Moving away from my two personal obsessions, though, we find plenty of good-to-great pop-rock. I've already raved about the Pernice Brothers, but another American Band who came up with an exceedingly strong addition to their canon is Dressy Bessy (Electrified). To these ears, Tammy Ealom's rockin' confessionalism was stronger than releases by better known peers Fiona Apple and Liz Phair, though I have to admit that the Jon Brion loyalist in me is still having difficulty hearing the former's Extraordinary Machine in an unbiased light. Perhaps with time, I'll change my tune on this, though.

Among the glossy Brit names, both Coldplay and Doves continued their staunchly melodic ways – I especially like how the latter have roughed things up a bit on "Some Cities." (Still haven't caught up with Franz Ferdinand's 2nd, unfortunately.) But the Britpop band that won my heart this year was the Magic Numbers. Though their debut is only two-thirds an album – by track eight they really start to lose steam – at their best, this boy/girl congregation of hooky proto-hippies come across like some sublime mating of Mungo Jerry and the Mamas & Papas ("Mornings Eleven," "Forever Lost," "Long Legs"). Wish Romeo Stodart had more to say in his lyrics than "love's a game," but, hey, we can't all be Forster/McLennan . . .
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Wednesday, January 04, 2006
      ( 1/04/2006 05:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IF TEDDY KENNEDY JUMPED OFF THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE, WOULD YOU DO IT, TOO?" – Been following the Jack Abramoff story with much interest and amusement. Watching members of a political party that only a few years ago was heavily relying on "Character Counts" as its electioneering mantra now trumpeting, "But everybody's doing it!" as an excuse is pretty funny. Didn't these guys listen to their mothers?

To my eyes, the point isn't whether Democrats would've engaged in the same level of slimy money raising tactics if they were in power or not – the point is that the conservative Republican power elite used the funds raised through these illegal lobbying moneys to become a consolidated power, all the while loudly and hypocritically touting their moral supriority over their ideological enemies. (See Abaramoff's involvement in the K-Street Project.) For this, of course, all involved in this sleazy mess need to be taken to account (as Sammy Davis Jr. once philosophized: "Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time.") Unless, of course, Character doesn't really Count any more . . .
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Tuesday, January 03, 2006
      ( 1/03/2006 04:13:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"CAN YOU GUESS WHY CLARK IS SO POSITIVE THAT JIMMY'S DREAM COULD NEVER BE FULFILLED?" – Belatedly received a ten dollar gift cert for Borders after the holidays, so I quickly availed myself of this windfall by using it on a copy of the 500-page Showcase Presents Superman collection – definitely some sharp bargain shopping on my part.

By now, enough comics bloggers have written about this hefty black-&-white collection of Superman comics circa 1958-59 to make much description necessary. In no uncertain terms, these are kids' books, pure and simple, written by solid pro pulpsters with a young reader in mind (as an eight-year-old, I built my reading vocabulary on this stuff!). And, depending on your tolerance for the type of comics writing that tells you the same thing three different ways – then stops to ask the reader if they can figure out the grade school riddle upon which the story hangs – you may or may not be attuned to its clunky charms. Me, I find if I ration it, sticking to one or two issues worth of reprints at a time, my good will remains intact.

Too much at once, though, and it's like trying to quench your thirst with Nik-L-Nips. . .
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Monday, January 02, 2006
      ( 1/02/2006 09:03:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BUT WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HINO HORROR? – As my Comics list below makes clear, I did manage to somewhat keep up on my manga reading over the past year. Three titles that I've continued to wholeheartedly enjoy (Battle Royale, Iron Wok Jan and Nausicaa) had new English translated releases over the past year. For me, one of the best bits of manga biz in 2005 was Jan's resurrection from the defunct ComicsOne line to its place on the new DrMaster manga line (if only some American publisher would do the same for Tokyopop's canceled Kindaichi Case Files): Shinji Saijyo's culinary face-down remains a great formula series. Royale is up to its penultimate chapter, and as one who's thus far avoided both the novel and movie versions, I'm dying to see how this bloodily preposterous series gets resolved. Nausicaa has been a more leisurely read for me – Miyazaki's work pretty much demands it – and has been all the more enjoyable for it. Here's to new manga discoveries in 2006!
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      ( 1/02/2006 07:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"POSSIBLY GILMAN OUGHT NOT TO HAVE STUDIED SO HARD" – New Year's Eve, Showtime ran a marathon of Masters of Horror episodes, so I took advantage of the opportunity to catch the one item that inexplicably has been unavailable through the service’s Video on Demand: Stuart Gordon's adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's novella "Dreams in the Witch House." Gordon is, of course, the guy responsible for one of the great sick joke movies of all time, Re-Animator, and while his new hour-long adaptation of Lovecraft doesn't have the same level of audacity as his horror debut (Ezra Godden's Walter Gilman just ain't as dynamic as Jeffrey Combs' Herbert West), it's quickly vaulted over all the show's other offerings to date.

The story centers around Gilman, an overworked graduate student at Miskatonic U. who has taken a room in a dumpy boarding house where dark deeds have been done. One of the corners of his room has some of that peculiar geometry that Lovecraft always liked to go on about – and the more that Gilman notices it, the more he experiences hideous dreams and bouts of sleepwalking. Most disturbingly, these nightmares increasingly revolve around the ritual slaying of an infant who also lives in the boarding house. In Lovecraft's original tale, the infant-in-peril aspect is treated as just one more dark detail (with his usual class-based sensitivity the writer refers to the baby’s mother as a "clod-like laundry worker,") but Gordon and co-scripter Dennis Paoli make it the story's central appalling act by turning child and mother into major characters. (This is not a story for new parents to be viewing.) The revision makes dramatic sense, but it also blunts the horrifying denouement.

Still, "Witch House" provides plenty of perverse over-the-top moments (and a nice dose of nightmare sex, too) – even if the show's shoot-quick budget doesn't always support Gordon's delirious visual intentions. The director and his makeup team have especially dark comic fun with a nattering creature named Brown Sawyer in the original story (a rat-like witch's familiar with a human face), who at one point is shown burrowing his way out of a man's body. Now there was an image to hold onto while you're ringin' in the New Year . . .
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Sunday, January 01, 2006
      ( 1/01/2006 09:35:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"VE GO BACK TO MY VAGUN FOR JEEPZY VEAST!" – If you're not a year-end list fiend, this time of the Bloggish Year can definitely be a bring-down since it's just about all we anal retentive writers seem to be able to come up with. The desire to tie the year into a neat bundle of Significant Events is as old as using the artificial starting point of January One as the First Day I Really Start to Get My Life Together, but if you accept its artificiality, they both can be an instructive game. Here, then, are my Ten Favorite Comics releases of the last year, a list that most right-thinking readers should immediately declare null and void as my already over-discussed financial straits put me considerably behind on getting several releases that I've been eagerly anticipating reading (Black Hole and Epileptic immediately spring to mind – I loved the first half of the latter when it came out two years ago). So with that caveat noted, let's dive into my personal list, mmm-kay?

Top Five:
  • Cromartie High School (ADV): One of two new manga addictions I acquired this year, Eiji Nonaka's Cromartie tells the ongoing story of the biggest dolts in a school notorious through the land for dunderheaded antics. The stories are nonsensical and aimless (for these goons, just the act of gettin' across town strains their brain cells) – like an old movie short where the comics were given a simple set-up and told by the director to just wing it – and also made me laff a lot. Best funnybook collection in a year that also saw a trade of Scurvy Dogs.

  • Death Note (Tokyopop): My second new manga obsession is a whole different creature: a dark and violent story about a bright high schooler who stumbles upon a notebook that gives him the power to kill from a distance; at first, our hero dreams of using it to dispose of untouchable Evil People, but before Volume One is finished, you already know he's a-headed for the Dark Side. One of Shonen Jump's new "Advanced" manga, this is a creepily pulpish (I keep seeing elements of Fritz Lang in the storytelling) rumination on the poisonous nature of the By Any Means Necessary mindset.

  • Demo (AiT/Planet Lar): As I recently noted in my review of this collection, this reads even better as a trade than it did a series of individual booklets. Brian Wood & Becky Cloony's stylish recreations of big choices not always wisely made is the kind of plain and truthful storytelling Will Eisner was striving for when he began his flawed-but-wonderful Dropsie Avenue graphic collections – and we still don't see enough of today. . .

  • Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires (Fantagraphics): Not that there isn't room for impure flights of dark whimsy, of course. One of the best news this year has been the appearance of a batch of Richard Sala collections from Fantagraphics, but this title (officially the thirteenth issue of Evil Eye, Sala's long-running comic booklet) edged ahead of the pack by featuring a sprightly original full-length tale starring Sala's bare-legged damsel-in-distress Peculia and a family of menacingly kinky vampiresses. Some of my favorite single-panel images came from this book (the full pager of a gnarly vampire hovering over our heroine, f'rinstance), a testament both to the pleasures of a simple beautifully composed image and to my warped sense of fun.

  • True Story Swear to God: This One Goes to Eleven (AiT/Planet Lar): Autobiographical romance cleanly and breezily told: the bloody-minded pulp lover in me sez I shouldn't keep falling for Tom Belland's sweet series, but with this book I'm like Scrooge insincerely berating himself for feeling happy. Just a nifty comic.
Almost As Good:
  • All-Star Superman (DC): I’ve recently praised this comic – and perhaps it's too soon to making with the hosannas considering the fact that we've only seen its premiere issue. But that opener did such a strong job establishing scripter Morrison's knack for wonderment that he's gonna have to really mess things up to blow this series. And even then we'll hopefully have Frank Quitely's jaw-inspiring artwork to keep us reading.

  • Colonia – On Into the Great Lands (AiT/Planet Lar): At first, I wasn't too sure about Jeff Nicholson's "All Ages" New New World fantasia – the art (all those over-sized 2-D heads) kept putting me off. But as I read and become involved in the depths of his witty alternate universe, I was won over by the cartoonist's willingness to let his characters lead him where they may. It reminded me of many of the non-Cerebus comics that Aardvark-Vanaheim released with happy frequency back in the eighties – and got me wondering why today's publishers don't do more of this stuff . . .

  • Hero Squared (Boom! Studios): Arguably the most traditional – at least in storytelling approach – current superhero title on my list, Giffen & DeMatteis' multiversal romp may've flagged a bit as it bopped from single-issue preview to mini-series to Coming-to-A-Comics-Shop-Soon! extended series, but it still provided beaucoup smart-alecky po-mo pleasure.

  • Planetes (Tokyopop): In America at least, this is the year that Makota Yukimura's wonderfully old-fashioned and poetically meditative space exploration series concluded. I'll miss it.

  • Scurvy Dogs (AiT/Planet Lar): Okay, I give up. Pirates are the New Monkeys. Sure hope that Boyd & Yount are getting money from Capital One for swiping their jokes . . .
And that's my list for this year: no room for Superf*ckers since I haven't read it yet either. Aside from the Big Releases (ongoing Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Little Lulu, Fantastic Four Omnibus), the one reissue that I've gotten the most fresh pleasure out of is Sam Henderson’s Humor Can Be Funny, which reads and looks like something a young Virgil Partch might've scrawled on a napkin while thoroughly plastered. Good disreputable fun – and on what better note to end this consideration of '05 comics, 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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