Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, November 11, 2006
      ( 11/11/2006 11:11:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THE RIVER WAS BEING A RIVER" – The title leads of Alexander Grecian & Riley Rossmo's black-&-white graphic novel Seven Sons (AiT/Planet Lar) are likely most familiar to American audiences as the Five Chinese Brothers of the Claire Huchet Bishop & Kurt Weise's 1938 illustrated children's book: a set of identical twins, each blessed with one fantastic power, who use those powers and the fact that nobody else can tell 'em apart to save the one brother who’s been accused of killing a child. A classic folk tale that also served as the inspiration for a song on REM's Reckoning album (lyricist Michael "Let's play Twister/Let' play Risk" Stipe long having shown an affinity for pulling in details from childhood), Grecian & Rossmo's adult version transplants the basic story to the American Gold Rush. The results are surprisingly effective.

In Sons (the title change from "Brothers" to "Sons" is significant, though, interestingly, the cover of the book as it appears on Amazon gives the impression that "Brothers" was once in the book's original title), our seven identitical twin heroes immigrate to California, bringing their mother with 'em. There, they prospect for gold, keeping to themselves until a winter accident occurs: a group of children playing on an iced-over river falls through the ice, and one of the brothers (who has the ability to swallow the ocean) attempts to rescue them by taking in all the river's water. Unfortunately, he's unable to hold it long enough and when he lets the river back out, he winds up killing both the children and the men who attempt to retrieve their unconscious bodies. Facing an angry mob of townspeople, the brothers use their individual powers (stretchability a lá Mister Fantastic, super-tough skin, imperviousness to fire, et al) and the fact that nobody can tell 'em apart to save themselves from the villagers' wrath.

As told by Grecian & Rossmo, then, Seven Sons is a super-hero story (not much different from those early Justice League of America comics where super-types separated into individual chapters to defeat an overarching enemy, really), though the historical overlay add some intriguing subtexts to the story. That the immigrant brothers are nearly identical (right down to their freakishly large ear lobes) is, of course, an essential plot point that's been carried through in various countries' version of the folk tale, though, here, the townspeople's inability to see that there is more than one brother also stands in racist xenophobia. (To be fair, as presented in the book, about the only thing to distinguish the brothers is their powers – and the fact that the brother with super-sensitive eyesight wears sunglasses.) From X-Men on, super-hero tales have frequently been used to focus on the persecuted Other, of course, though in this case the metaphor has historical antecedent in the era's exploitation of Chinese immigrant laborers. At one level, you get the sense that – even if they weren't identical – most of the white townsfolk wouldn't be able to differentiate the Chinese brothers, anyway.

Making the mother part of the story strengthens its family theme in some surprising ways. Me, I found myself pondering just what it must've been like to give birth to seven of these guys (how did, f'rinstance, stretchy son come out of the birth canal?), though such questions prove irrelevant when we learn that Ma has some pretty formidable abilities of her own. She is, we learn, a force of nature much like the river that proved too strong for the first brother – and when her "years of accumulated misery" are finally given voice, it has devastating consequences for the town.

Riley Rossmo's loose art, filled with sensitive use of blacks and gray wash, is beautifully suited to the story: he is able to make the art look both super-hero comic bookish (e.g., the scenes where first brother swallows and lets go of the river; a bit where stretchable brother escapes the hangman's noose), than more darkly expressionistic (as in a scene where one of the brothers is cornered by the angry mob). It's a far cry from Kurt Weise's more whimsical storybook take on the characters, but it suits the graphic novel's more serious tone. Still, neither Grecian nor Rossmo forget their story's origins. For all their sturm & drang, super-hero comics remain – no matter how much fans or publishers may protest to the contrary – simple children's tales at heart . . .
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Friday, November 10, 2006
      ( 11/10/2006 09:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THIS WEEK'S LOST MUSICAL CUE – Ann-Margret cooing "Slowly" over Kate's opening flashback with Nathan Fillion? Think I would've preferred "Thirteen Men."
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      ( 11/10/2006 06:30:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THIS IS NASHVILLE, NOT LOS ANGELES; WE PLAY IN TUNE HERE!" – First saw Jason Ringenberg back in the early 80's when he was fronting what was then being called Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (though later the "Nashville" part of that group moniker would be dropped). A skinny Central Illinoisian who could affect a drawl that spoke of deeper southern roots, Ringenberg was as adept at slow country ballads as he was rousing rapid-fire cow-punk. Saw the band live at a cruddy club just before their first full album was released – and I can still see ‘em sending ripples through my beer, hear Jason yowling across the bar with fervid intensity. Dang, but they were a great band.

These days, Jason's relationship with his fellow Scorchers appears to be an on-again/off-again deal, with more of the singer/songwriter's time currently being spent in the persona of Farmer Jason, kid's music performer. His second F-Jas disc, Rockin' in the Forest with Farmer Jason , has recently been released by Kid Rhino alongside a reissue of his 2003 debut A Day at the Farm with. Of the two discs, the second is arguably the more All Ages friendly: fun for kids to listen to without driving adults in the room into poking at their eardrums with an ice pick. With Farm, you can hear Jason falling back once too often on familiar kiddie records moves ("The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug," indeed), while Forest more wisely plays to his rootsy songwriting strengths. There are tracks on Forest that – with only a little tweaking (less talk about forest critters, more about broken hearts) – could've easily shown up on a Scorchers disc. "Anarchy in the Pre-K!" the cover cleverly trumpets, bringing up memories of the glory days when a scandal-free Peewee Herman happily coaxed kids on television to "SCREAM REAL LOUD!"

Jason isn't as manic as Peewee, of course, though he clearly takes to his role as children's entertainer with enthusiasm – perhaps a closer analogy might be Riders in the Sky and their untimely ended children's program. Both Farmer Jason discs contain a lot of "Hey, kids!" patter in between songs that I fantasize editing out in the mix-tape of my mind. But for really lame disc talk, check out guest vocalist Todd Snider's Reverend Jim-styled spoken performance on the intro to "He's A Moose on the Loose" (not to be confused with the honkin' Roddy Jackson 45 from 1958). Sounds like Todd just woke up with a really bad hangover – and nobody was around to give him a little Hair of the Dog.

But with songs like "Moose" (a comically New Orleans-y r-&-b number), the bracingly hard-rockin' "Punk Rock Skunk" (inspirational verse: "I have a leather jacket, my jeans are full of holes/If I lived in England, I would be on the dole."), the Johnny Horton-esque "Catfish Song," and the speed country nonsense song "Opossum in a Pocket," Forest is on solider ground. The Forest band – Nashville session folk like soundman/guitarist George Bradfute and drummer Steve Ebe – are dutifully diligent when it comes to straddling genres, and there are some sweet musical moments here: a gorgeous harmonica line on "Arrowhead," some fine country swing fiddlin' in "A Butterfly Speaks," the apt use of pennywhistle in the album's shanty opener. I'm not a big 'un for songs with kid vocalists in it (don't much like kid sidekicks in comics either), so the Bo Diddley beaten "Forest Rhymes" didn't do much for me. But I was amused to hear the "'Little Farmers" chanting, "Hey-Ho, let's go!" in the skunk song – the Ramones, lest we forget, had a clear affinity for bubblegum.

Both discs' lyrics range from silly to overly earnest (even with the Scorchers, Ringenberg could occasionally be too sober for his own good), though, thankfully, the latter moments are kept to a minimum. Forest's funniest moment comes during the break in "Opossum," when our hero gets interrupted in the midst of a solo by his producer and realizes he’s been playin' the wrong-keyed harmonica: "Jimenentlies!" he moans. "It's supposed to be an F harmonica and I'm playing an A-Flat!" Yes, kids, even Farmer Jason makes mistakes.
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Thursday, November 09, 2006
      ( 11/09/2006 10:15:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"TO LIVE OUTSIDE THE LAW, YOU MUST BE HONEST" – Recently received a pair of Kid Rhino children's discs by Farmer Jason (Ringenberg), onetime frontman for Jason & the Scorchers. So I went lookin' for any YouTube vids of this gone-but-not-forgotten cow-punk band. Found their full-throttle version of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie," one of the band's absolutely greatest tracks:

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      ( 11/09/2006 05:02:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A SINISTER CABAL OF MANGA READERS – Over in the Books section at Blogcritics, they're looking at manga this month. So to help get things rolling, I posted a quick general piece on the manga boom. Nothing too surprising in it to the cognoscenti, but I do get to posit a crackpot theory . . .
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Wednesday, November 08, 2006
      ( 11/08/2006 05:08:00 AM ) Bill S.  

VOTING EARLY – Had to move out early yesterday a.m. to get in and vote (had a three-hour drive for work, afterwards), but I managed to rouse my groggy-ass self to make it to the polling place. In Illinois, our big race was for the governorship – one of those contests where I wound up weighing debits more than assets and voting for the person who pissed me off the least – though we did get to vote for a congressional representative today. Since this part of the state skews heavily Red (so much that many of the county selections didn't even have a Dem candidate), I didn't expect the results to be any different: none too surprisingly, Republican Jerry Weller held onto his seat for the 11th Congressional District, though it was touch-&-go for a while. I still enjoyed handing in my ballot. I miss the punch-outs, to be sure – the current large forms being used in my neck of the woods just aren't as much fun to fill out: made me feel like I was back in school, filling a Large Print version of the SATs.

I'll mainly be glad to see the end of the campaign ads, which – as everyone predicted – got pretty nasty as we drew closer to election. Many of the uglier ones came out of Peoria television stations fifty miles away, so while I couldn't vote one way or the other on 'em, I still had to be subjected to their crap-slinging. Definitely made me wish I had Tivo . . .

THE INEVITABLE POSTSCRIPT: Like a lotta folks, I see this year's American election results as a vote in favor of checks-&-balances. Kinda funny to watch members of a party that arrogantly refused to give Dems a listen when it controlled congress now calling for "bi-partisan cooperation." As the ol' saw goes, "Careful how you treat people on yer way up . . ."
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Monday, November 06, 2006
      ( 11/06/2006 02:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

THOSE WACKY RED/BLUE STATERS – Back when I was but-a-lad, one of my favorite covers from the glory days of the black-and-white Mad was for the mag's January 1961 issue. Designed to come out after the Kennedy/Nixon presidential election, the issue contained two covers, each featuring mascot Alfred E. waving a pennant by an illustrated photo of one of the two candidates. Each cover congratulated their featured candidate for winning the presidency, ending with the tagline, "We were with you all the way!" (Bought an old copy of the mag in a Central Illinois garage sale a few years back, and you could tell the original owner's political bias by the fact that they'd penned a goatee and mustache on the Kennedy pic.) A good example of the magazine's political ethos, I suspect, that still holds true for the Presentday Gang of Idiots.

Haven't read an issue of Mad all the way through in at least a decade, but I recently received a review copy of issue #471 along with a press release plugging the fact that, with elections coming up, the magazine was pushing the political material. For years, my take on Mad was reflected by National Lampoon's devastating 1971 satire ("What? Me Funny?") of the mag, though it turns out that particular joke was on NatLamp, doesn't it? Still, the point remains that I haven't really kept up with the print mag, so I was eager to see if my perspective on it would be shaken up by the current Gang.

Long story short: my preconceptions weren't challenged much. Like the '61 issue that so tickled me when I was ten-years-old, the writers and artists at the present-day Mad work hard to have it both ways – look at how we stick it to both parties! – at a level that probably wouldn't overwork your average late-nite teevee monologue writer. (Since, theoretically at least, the Letterman "Top Ten" List is on after your average Mad reader's bedtime, perhaps that's perfectly okay.) Thus we get Red State and Blue State editions of Monopoly with game pieces like a mounted deer head or a hand holding a joint attached to specific editions, a two-page spread of "Honest Political Slogans We'd Like to Hear" ("The New Democratic Party: Now Lieberman Free!" "The Republican Party: Spreading Freedom And Democracy Abroad, Even If Nobody Wants It!") and a comparison between what Conservatives and Liberals Believe featuring two middle-aged cartoon caricatures who look exactly the way you expect 'em to. There's also a one-page Ted Rall strip, but it's pretty darn toothless.

More telling is a little quarter-page piece included as part of the magazine's catch-all "Fundalini Pages": the image of our president and Condi Rice in cheerleader garb under the heading, "Good News Coming Out of Iraq Which the Media Isn't Covering" ("After a cursed, 30-year losing streak, Basra Tech is having a Cinderella run in the Iraqi NAA basketball tournament," we're told.) But with a number of conservative pundits acknowledging the current failings in that particular skirmish, even this doesn't read as all that trenchant.

Still, I'll admit that the Mad of today's youth, in general, is a mite rougher than the Mad of my boyhood. One of the mag's regular comics features, "Monroe," centers around our young boy hero being mistaken for a pedophile when he ventures into "MySpace," f'rinstance, while a two-page feature on "When Videogames Become Religious" (didn't The Simpsons do this with Rod & Todd several seasons back?) tweaks evangelical and millennialist beliefs amusingly ("The environments in the excruciating Sims 3 will limited to tent revivals, anti-abortion rallies and door-to-door pamphleteering.") Decades ago, when I was in elementary school, I used to have to sneak issues of the early Mad mags into the house (kept a whole set of Signet paperbacks in the space behind my dresser drawer): if my folks then could've seen what passes for Mad fodder today, their heads would've probably imploded.

For me, though, the most risible parts of the current mag are the more lightweight pieces: good ol' Sergio Aragonés' three-page series of wordless pirate gags, a grotey "TV Commercial We'd Like to See" written by old-timer Dick DeBartelo that takes maximum advantage of the mag's current color printing to make mushed-up food look really disgusting, plus a seasonal article on "The 18 Worst Things About Halloween" illustrated with lotsa cartoony fume lines by Peter Bagge. Another geezer, Al Jaffe, is repped with both a legitimate and a back-page ad fold-in. Never could bring myself to actually fold them pieces – the anal retentive collector in me just couldn't do it! – so I can't clearly say if Jaffe still has his stuff. Best I can tell, the new fold-in contains an anorexia joke, though, so I'll put it in the plus column.

Telling satire? Not particularly. But that Mad can continue as (to use the press release's phrase) "America's longest running humor magazine" with or without the occasional more overt nod toward topical relevance is worth cheering all by itself. Keep it up, fellas – I'm with you all the way!
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Sunday, November 05, 2006
      ( 11/05/2006 07:04:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"SUCH PLACES WERE OVERLOOKED, WITH A WINK AND A NOD . . ." – At root, the high concept behind Bill Willingham's witty DC/Vertigo series, Fables, is one that could quickly be described to a not-particularly-bright teevee producer: modern-day adventures of the characters who populate the fairy tales of our youth (with an occasional ringer like the critters from Orwell's Animal Farm tossed in for spice) told from a slightly more grown-up PoV. Not much different in tone from a tele-series like Charmed, in part, with good-looking characters and fantastic creatures intermingling, playing off and betraying each other in slightly soap-ish ways. The new Vertigo hardback graphic novel, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, gives us the back details of many of the series' regulars – the stories inbetween the original Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm (much, er, Grimmer fare than the bowdlerized fairy tales that most of us know) and modern-day New York where Willingham's living fables reside.

The means by which the writer has chosen to present these bits of Fable history is pretty simple: in a prose opening designed to look like an early twentieth century's children book (wonderful color illos by Charles Vess & Michael J. Kaluta), no-nonsense political envoy Snow White travels to an Arabian kingdom to enlist the alliance of a sultan in a Fabletown war for survival. The primary reason that these figures of folklore have fled to the New World is to escape a monstrous unseen Adversary, who has enlisted the eviler figures in the land of myth – trolls, sorcerers, witches – to brutally subjugate all the other fables. Unfortunately for Snow, the sultan who she is visiting has iss-yues of his own: believing all women to be perfidious beasts good for one night of marital bliss than a quick beheading, he holds our heroine a prisoner. To save her lily-white skin, Snow goes Scheherazade, telling the sultan nightly stories, each of which is illustrated in comics form by an A-Level comics illustrator.

White's opening story works to establish the rules of Willingham's world: "The Fencing Lesson" follows newlywed Snow and her husband Prince Charming in the early days of their marriage. Readers of the comic know that Charming's philandering will eventually destroy this union, a character detail that's not essential to understanding this story, though it adds a certain piquancy to the proceedings. In "Lesson," we learn that the dwarves of Snow White's story are not Disney-esque naives but rather thuggish reprobates. As painted by John Bolton, they're gnarly and unpleasant. In short, this is not the Grimms' – or even Donald Barthelme's – Snow White (though perhaps it's closer to the latter). The dwarves, we learn, are more tolerated than accepted aboveground, primarily for the riches that they procure digdigdigging in the mines. When several of the more disreputable little men are murdered, it threatens the profitable economic alliance between Charming's kingdom and the underground civilization of the dwarves. The identity of the dwarf slayer is never in doubt, though newcomers with the old fairy tale in their heads may be taken aback by the motive behind 'em.

Snowfall presents ten of the stories that Snow purportedly told over her 1001 nights of captivity, and, in general, the stronger entries are the longer ones that we can imagine being told into a long night. A few of the shorter tales, while beautifully illustrated (an animal yarn wonderfully colored by the comic mag's regular artist Marc Buckingham; a second animal fable illoed by Derek Kirk Kim which had me thinking of Watership Down; a two-page throwaway vignette by an artist I wish was doing more graphic storytelling, Brian Bolland) read so sketchily that you can't help wondering how discerning an audience that sultan was, anyway.

The better, longer tales take folk-tale figures who were previously largely one-note and complicate them in enjoyable ways. Even the villains – Big Bad "Bigby" Wolf, seen in childhood as the runt of the litter; Stulla, the witch from a dozen different tales, shown as a young girl in the mountain tribe of her birth - get their own stories. The art is lavish, with a variety of styles that range from faux primitive (Esao Andrews, nicely used on Stulla’s tale) to more traditional "realistic" comic stylings (Bolland being the most beautifully conservative in this front, followed by Derek Kirk Kim). To my eyes, the stand-out piece is Jill Thompson's tale of King Cole in hiding with a large company of animals for the way she manages to most successfully blend classic children's book art with graphic storytelling. It's the book's 1001st story (aside from a prose epilog that frees Snow from the sultan’s clutches), and it sends Snowfall out on a suitable grace note. True to the series, Cole is depicted as more than a Merry Old Soul. Despite his joviality, the character is forced to make some hard decisions and even, in the end, betray the same creatures he owes his life to. That Cole has a good reason to do so is a detail that Willingham keeps upfront. Even Wicked Old Witches have their reasons, after all . . .
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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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