Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, February 03, 2007
      ( 2/03/2007 03:26:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY-MINUTE MANGA – (Today's Episode: In which we learn that "Many people love books, but very few are loved by books!")

The heroine of R.O.D. (Read or Die) looks more like a character who needs rescuing than a super-powered agent for a Special Operations Division. Tall and slender, with ultra-large eyeglasses that she never removes and a school marm's fashion sense, Yomiko Readman is a Paper Master for the Library of England. In the world of R.O.D. (first established in book and direct-to-video animé, if I've got my chronology correct), book-larnin' is a high-priced commodity and librarians are figures of power. Yeah, this is science-fantasy, alright.

Yomiko's powers derive through supernatural force of will from her close connection to books. As one super-powered antagonist puts it, "Our abilities have grown out of our intense attachment to what we love" – and, as innocent as she appears, it's also made her more than a little monstrous. Though we're not given any specifics, it's asserted (by an admittedly unreliable character) that she's responsible for the death of a previous Paper Master, a lover/mentor named Donnie Nakajima. As the 19th Paper Master, Yomiko can manipulate sheets of pulp or volumes of printed material – making them hard enough to repel bullets or support human bodies (in one scene, she turns a stack of Shonen Jump mags into a bridge), using single sheets to create paper airplanes that can serve as sharply pointed weapons. Is there a single weedy kid reader out there in the world who doesn’t wish they had this power?

In Volume One of the four-book Viz manga series (written by series creator Hideyuki Kurata & drawn by Shutaro Yamada), our heroine – after a single chapter quickie introducing her and the manikin-faced secret agent Joker who is her intermediary with the Special Ops Division – primarily spends her time rescuing a teen-aged writer from an obsessed fan. Christening her "Paul S" (after the protagonist of Stephen King's Misery), the wealthy psycho kidnaps writer Nenene Sumiregawa where he plans to bed her on a mattress made up of her books. It's all part of his crazed plan to inspire the girl to produce a "masterwork of unparalleled popularity to make the masses see . . ." No, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but the guy's nuts, right?

Abetting our maniac kidnapper is a second super-talented type named Fire Inc., who's your typical hyper-sexualized villainess: wears a breast-hugging top with much cleavage, actively flirts with our heroine and regularly speaks in sexual metaphors. ("We'll both reach our climax at the same time!" she shouts in the heat – double-meaning intended – of battle.) There's a good measure of girl/girl sexual teasing slathered onto this book, much of it centered around the "homely"-faced Yomiko, though we're pretty sure the most intensive tactilely sensual feelings that our heroine has experienced have centered around dust covers and leather book bindings.

Per her moniker, Fire Inc. controls flames using giant matches and is, of course, paper's "worst enemy," though we don't have any doubt that Yomiko will survive her "deflowering by fire." (Okay, that one was a bit campy, Inc.!) If their "climactic" battle frequently substitutes movement, impact lines and dynamic poses for clarity . . . well, that's not much different from too many American superhero books, innit? All I know is that our heroine defeats the henchwoman by intensely believing in the power of pulp to overcome flames and by flipping a sheet of paper at her. I'm still puzzled by her ability to make a convincing paper decoy of herself. Do her powers extend to making printed ink shift around, too?

Though Nenene's rescue isn't a Special Ops assignment, Yomiko's contact Joker also shows up to provide assistance. In his most memorable moment in the first volume, the library agent interrogates two henchmen in a manner that'd do Jack Bauer proud: he pulls out a tape of a forbidden book so dread-filled that to hear it drives the listener to madness. Sitting in the interrogation room with earplugs for protection, Joker starts the tape and has the two uncooperative villains whimpering in fear and pain within seconds.

There are repeated references in R.O.D. to deadly or just plain obscene banned texts (in the first chapter, a copy of The Black Book of Fairy Tales, a collection of erotic and grotesque stories penned for the exclusive enjoyment of the aristocracy, is retrieved from its thief by our heroine) – which leads one to suspect that the Library of England is not the most liberal of organizations. While I've tried to avoid reading too much advanced info about this series, my sense is that Yomiko is at some point going to bump against the powers-that-be. Whether that happens in the manga series or another media remains to be seen.

On its own, the manga R.O.D. can't help feeling more than a little incomplete, though. There are moments in the book where you can see author Kurata relying on reader knowledge of his heroine's prior appearances (I suspect, for instance, the references made to her doomed relationship with the previous Paper Master don't come off as awkwardly to followers of the series) and indulging a short-hand that I suspect does full justice to his own creations. At times, I found myself thinking of Dell Comics' comic book adaptations in the 60's of teevee spy series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – works that gave a hint of what their sources were about without fully capturing their (relative) complexity. The results ain't boring; I can see myself reading the remaining three volumes of this thankfully limited manga series, if only to see what other bibliographic adventures Kurata concocts. But I'm still guessing paper manga just isn't Yomiko's best medium . . .
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Friday, February 02, 2007
      ( 2/02/2007 03:47:00 PM ) Bill S.  

IF NUTHIN' ELSE – This week's ATHF hullabaloo shows why it's oh-so-important to have a good grasp on moderne pop culture:

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      ( 2/02/2007 12:02:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"MY WORLD'S STRANGE INDEED!" – That José Mojica Marins' Awakening of the Beast (1969) was banned in its country of origin for almost two decades is almost enough to get one favorably reconsidering oppressive military juntas. An incoherent mélange of calculatedly appalling acts, Awakening is presented as an entry in the Brazilian actor/filmmaker's Coffin Joe series – though Marins' CJ persona proves more metaphor than active character. A popular figure in horror movies, radio and black-&-white horror comics (during the movie's opening credits, some comics pages are used as back – they look very Warren-esque), Coffin Joe is a menacing figure with ultra-long curly fingernails and a top hat. Awakening opens with a black-&-white shot of Joe blasting out of his coffin to the strains of "Ave Maria," then delivering a portentous speech into the camera. But following that intro, CJ disappears for two-thirds of the film. Instead, we're treated to a series of vignettes devoted to a variety of sordid activities – most of which revolve around drug use.

The movie proper, which recently aired on the Independent Film Channel's Friday night "Grindhouse" series, begins with a sequence that pretty much lets us know what to expect. In it, a young blond shoots up – an act shown in protracted detail as she injects the needle into her foot – then strips before a room of leering scuzballs while a perky Brazilian pop tune tells us, "We're all gonna die/Die at first light." Once our shapely junkie is fully undraped, she directs the room's attention to a wrapped package. Her audience eagerly tears it open to reveal a chamber pot. The sequence concludes with a pot-level shot of the woman squatting down, preparing to deliver the inevitable. "Oh boy," we think, "we're in for some real entertainment tonight!"

Turns out the vignette – and a host of others – are being delivered by Marins himself as part of a teevee show entitled "People's Court of Truth," where the director has been asked to appear to defend his popular entertainments. "You recount the exploits of degenerates as though they were poetry for some romance," one of his television interrogators states, though the viewer might be forgiven if they don't see much visual poetry in the proceedings. In a second sequence, a young schoolgirl is lured to a party held by a group of bearded young bohemians; they get her stoned on reefer, then proceed to fondle her as she dances on a table and they whistle the "Bridge on the River Kwai" theme. "My world is multi-colored because I make it so," she declares, but since this part of the flick's in black-&-white, we have to take her word for it. (Later, the flick turns into beautiful Technicolor.) The party turns sour, though, when a robed prophet sudden appears in the apartment and fatally, sexually assaults her with his walking staff: "an orgy of addiction that took the life of a young girl."

After several more of these little moral tales, we finally arrive at Awakening's "story." In it, a psychologist enlists four volunteers to take what they believe is LSD and spend their trip focusing on a poster of Coffin Joe. The clean-cut looking drugees – two men and two women – each have an extended hallucination with CJ as their guide, and the movie transforms into bright color to give us the full glory of these trips. Marins cuts between these mind voyages – which are staged like more surreal versions of the Jaycees' Haunted House. In one, f'rinstance, a character walks across a bridge of naked men; in another, the older male watches a troupe of naked babes dog pile on top of each other into a fleshy pyramid to be languidly whipped; in a third, our tripper is menaced by a mysterious creature that looks like a chicken with a face painted on its plucked butt. Through it all, Coffin Joe stands on the sidelines, appearing and disappearing, looking all knowing and sinister but otherwise not doing very much.

Pretty nonsensical, though from what I can gather, this isn't necessarily a typical Coffin Joe flick, which tend toward more traditional horror subject matter. Instead, it's Marins' attempt at a combination social statement/artistic manifesto, a defense of his assertively primitive brand of exploitation cinema that apparently fell on deaf ears when it came up against governmental forces of anti-expression. Thirty years later, much of Marins' confused nattering looks more goofy than shocking, though the sixties era music remains fun. (We even get an extended discothèque sequence with a lotta shots of wriggling rumps.) As an examination of the sinister world of drug abuse, though, the movie doesn't hold together – especially when it's revealed in the "surprise" ending that the LSD our foursome thought they were taking was actually distilled water so all that hallucinatory craziness wasn't drug-induced at all, just a reflection of their true inner selves. Pretty freaky . . .
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Thursday, February 01, 2007
      ( 2/01/2007 06:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IF I HOLD MY NOSE . . . WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW?" – Here's a fun promo, put up on YouTube by the folks at New Line – John Waters reads the liner notes to his new CD collection, A Date With:

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007
      ( 1/31/2007 05:05:00 PM ) Bill S.  

THE WAITING GAME – Went in this a.m. for Becky's scheduled surgery, a laparoscopic hysterectomy. We had to get up early to make it to the morning procedure: because my work insurance is a PPO and because my employer's office is an hour's drive from our house, we live "out of network." To keep from paying an obscene deductible, we consequently have to drive to Champaign for serious procedures. (Living on social services worker's level salary, we definitely have to be deliberate when it comes to medical costs.) Since check-in was scheduled for 6:30, we had to be out of the house by 5:30 a.m.

That wasn't as difficult as it sounds since neither of us slept very deeply the night before, anyway. Per everyone we knew who's had experience with the procedure, laparoscopy is a relatively non-invasive surgery – but it still is surgery. My wife was more restless than me, of course, but the best that either of us could manage were one hour bursts of half-sleep. We arrived at Provena Hospital five minutes later than we were told, but since we spent a half hour in the Surgery Waiting Room listening for them to call anybody's name, those five minutes didn't make much difference.

Becky's surgery itself lasted an hour: at 10:30, her doctor came in to tell me it went without a major hitch (a little more blood loss than like but nothing requiring a transfusion) and show me some inner workings photos, so I could see what had been removed. I know I blanched at the sight. My wife never ceases to be amused by the fact that this fan of over-the-top gore-laden horror flix is a wimp when it comes to looking at real-life medical procedures. Given the choice 'tween flesh-&-blood and artifice, I know which one I'll always pick. . .

Another two hours of waiting – reading R.O.D., watching The Price Is Right (gee, that Bob Barker is old), hitting the vending machine one too many times, agreeing with out-of-date Fareed Zakaria essays in month-old Newsweeks – until I was told Becky had finally been transferred to her room. It's always disconcerting to see someone you love hooked up to hospital machinery. But to my uneducated eyes, she looked good. Spent more time than she wanted me to, watching her drift in and out on the morphine drip, then I drove back home to let the animals out and phone family members. A long day for both of us, but mostly for her . . .

Now I'm off to take a nap before Bones and its forensic FX comes on.

UPDATE (2/1): We made it back from the hospital late Thursday. Becky's recovery was quicker than her doctor expected (she's done that kinda thing before), though it's gonna take some days before she fully recovers, of course – at this pint, just getting off the couch is a chore. As I type this, my resilient wife's resting back comfortably in the living room and phoning family to let 'em know how she's doing. And I'm feeling very relieved . . .
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Tuesday, January 30, 2007
      ( 1/30/2007 06:13:00 PM ) Bill S.  
TWISTIN’ GORILLA SUIT – To commemorate National Gorilla Suit Day, what better mid-week music vid than Los Straitjackets' (w./ the Pontani Sisters) "Twistin' Gorilla"?

(The above is being posted a day early for obvious reasons.)
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      ( 1/30/2007 06:07:00 PM ) Bill S.  

INTERRUPTED SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT – Posting has been – and will likely continue to be – largely one-paragraph for a while. Wife Becky is going in for laparoscopic surgery Wednesday, so my attentions'll primarily be elsewhere. Hope to see ya soon!
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      ( 1/30/2007 05:32:00 AM ) Bill S.  

COCKROACH! – Two quick observations from watching the first half hour of Victor/Victoria on TCM this weekend: a.) that Blake Edwards, the man who brought us the unfunny slapstick excess of The Great Race's pie fight, should recognize the value of the long shot in the restaurant melee is itself delightful; and b.) after watching the full movie more times than we can count, we consistently are amused by the continuity flubs in the fat-man-eating-pastry scene (it's on his nose/it's not on his nose). Oh, and Graham Stark has one of the great hangdog faces of all time . . .
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Sunday, January 28, 2007
      ( 1/28/2007 08:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"PEOPLE TAKE PICTURES OF EACH OTHER" – Spent a good part of my Saturday doing volunteer work for WGLT, our local university-affiliated NPR station known for "News, Blues and All That Jazz." The station was holding a fund-raising antiques auction at the Illinois State student union. Yours truly helped out by working Security, a job that basically entailed strolling around the selling area, smiling and looking for suspicious characters, then returning to the station's booth to chat with the on-air talent. (The lovely Laura Kennedy, an aficionado of Swing Era jazz, was the primary GLTer present during my shift – she'd put together a sweet set of Big Band music that was played over the room's sound system.) Don't know what I would've done as Security if I'd come across any terrorists or someone actually shoplifting, but I thankfully didn't have to find out.

Of course, I also looked through the displays: like any good collectibles show, there was so much stuff, it took several walkabouts to catch all of the good stuff. Saw a wooden Popeye pull-toy from 1939 or so that showed him beating on a large can of spinach: the thing was going somp'n like $900, so all I did was look. Came upon a table devoted to Post-Mortem Collectibles: photographs from the 19th Century of families posing alongside open coffins with recently expired loved ones inside. I'd read about these pics before, of course, and had seen samples in articles, but viewing a whole display of 'em was kinda creepy.

Away from comics and the type of pop culture usually celebrated in this blog, I also have an interest in fat collectibles and related sideshow memorabilia. Found three cartoon postcards at the show (all by personal fave Walter Wellman), going for two bucks apiece. Keep an eye out and postcard collecting can be a fairly inexpensive hobby. I also bought a reproduction photograph of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus Side Show from 1933 (not a real collectible since it's a reproduction, of course, but it's still pretty neat looking). Within it, you can see several cast members who appeared in the movie Freaks, along with famous circus fat lady Ruth Pontico (subject of a Ned Sonntag bio strip in DC's Big Book of Freaks, naturally seated in bottom row center. T'was a day well-spent, in other words . . .
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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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