Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, May 07, 2007
      ( 5/07/2007 09:40:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE FIFTEEN-MINUTE COMIC – In the future (to misquote a once-famous purveyor of Pop Art Productions), every comic will be famous for fifteen minutes . . . more or less. So let's look at a few recent titles, to test out whether this'll be a good thing or not . . .
  • Amazons Attack! #1 (DC): Figures that Rockford, IL., resident Will Pfeifer'd open this grandiose six-ish mini-series with an attack in the Lincoln Memorial: live in the Land o' Lincoln for any amount of time, and it's hard to not fall under sway of the Cult of the Great Emancipator. With a title and cover blurb meant to recall both the classic Topps gum card series and the not-so-stellar Tim Burton movie made from same, this series promises to be over-the-top fun. First thing we see is a father and son (the only two visitors to the memorial? now that's a tad unbelievable) play First Victims to the attacking Amazon horde, then we're taken to a White House where everybody but the president seems to have the day off (it's lonely at the top). Led by Wonder Woman matriarch Queen Hippolyta (and presumably abetted by the villainous sorceress Circe – who, though it isn't stated, must've helped this massive array of flying horses, cyclopean giants and big-breasted babes in armor suddenly show up in the U.S. capital), the angry army of Amazons has apparently come for blood after Diana Prince was reportedly captured and tortured By Men!!! back in her own title. Artist Pete Woods doesn't always communicate the chaos of the battle situations with as much histrionic glee as you'd hope – the bit where Queen H. speaks to her troops while the capital dome explodes behind her isn't as spittle-flecked as you'd want it to be – but he's good in the quieter moments. (Especially liked the one-pager where Circe casually offs a Amazon soldier for misspeaking – how'd this woman get to be the Queen's trusted confidante again?) Meanwhile, those of us in the audience who recall that the Mars of Men's World has long been a WW enemy will have to ponder just how much this mini-series title is just tribute . . . or something more????

  • Justice League of America #8/Justice Society of America #5 (DC): Received the first JSA entry in this mini-crossover as a review copy – and was inspired to go back and pick up the chapter so I'd have a clearer sense of what's going on in "The Lightning Saga" (s'not like having to catch with 49 issues of 52, after all!) Can't say that my efforts entirely cleared things up, but it helped. (Seems to me I recall Red Tornado just turned human at the end of the last big Event Comic I read, but so it goes.) This crossover mini- concerns the two super-team's quest to find seven scattered "soldiers" from the Legion of Superheroes, who mysteriously have shown up in the 21st Century. In the JSA outing, Batman, Geo-Force(?), Starman and the umpteenth version of Sandman enter Arkham Asylum to save the pre-cog Dream Girl from faceless Doctor Destiny. Pretty straightforward, though Starman, for reasons I can't determine, appears flipped out, dispensing non-sequitars like the DCU version of Zippy the Pinhead. As an example of the old reliable super-team scavenger hunt plotline, "Lightning Saga" does the trick nicely: it even opens with members of the two teams playing games to remind us how often these team-up books are actually unacknowledged competitions. Nice touch . . .

  • Supernatural Origins #1 (Wildstorm): A prequel to a CW series I haven't watched in over a year, this comic takes us back to series' heroes Dean & Sam Winchester's boyhoods right after their mother was slain by supernatural agents. (Neat Tim Bradstreet cover showing the moment – mom floating near the ceiling as her body bursts into flames.) As scripted by Peter Johnson, you thankfully don't need to've kept up with the teevee series to follow this, though I suppose regular viewers'll get much more out of the proceedings than I did. Me, I enjoyed Matthew Dow Smith's art, which uses heavy blacks to give all the adults deeply sunken eyes and highlight the bags beneath 'em, giving the impression that no one in this book – especially distraught father John Winchester – has slept for days. Additionally, the first issue contains a short five-page back-up story by Geoff Johns & Phil Hester: doesn't really add anything about the characters that even a non-series fan like me doesn't know, but it effectively conveys how our series' heroes' lives were turned upside-down by their mother's unusual death. A nice respectful comics spin-off, in other words, though placing the story during the leads' kid-hood pretty much quashes the potential for a lotta funny wisecracks.
Also Briefly Noted: Ish #3 of Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil continues Jeff Smith's delightful run with the Fawcett characters (I'm especially enjoying his take on little Mary Marvel, who for the first time gets to really be a kid). Why is anybody else but Smith at DC even allowed near these characters? . . . Was under the mistaken impression that Brave And the Bold was a "Green Lantern With ______” book until I got ish #3, centered on Batman and Blue Beetle – my mistake. Bringing in the Fatal Five as adversaries in the Lords of Luck plotline makes some sense, but, gee, those future types are all over the DCU these days, aren't they?

More later in the week with a special FCBD edition of "The Fifteen-Minute Comic."
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Sunday, May 06, 2007
      ( 5/06/2007 07:00:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JUST A PILE OF ROCKS THAT HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE" – While everybody else was pushing to get into the new Spider-Man flick for New Comic Book Day, my every-tardy self attended a showing of Pan's Labyrinth at our local revival moviehouse, the Normal Theater. While the movie has its flaws (many of its plot mechanics – a too-conveniently found vial of antibiotics, for instance – are overly visible), I definitely dug it (more than, say, Sean Collins did). Writer/director Guillermo del Toro's blending of fantasy storytelling with the wartime cruelties of life in 1944 fascist Spain worked to convey the harsh world of sacrifice that's as much a part of the world of fairy tales (which, after all, were originally folk tales told by peasants to whom living "happily ever after" meant making it to forty without dying of starvation) as it can be "real-life."

Though the flick offers some wiggle room in its final minutes, giving us space to believe that every fantastic moment we've seen is nothing but the imagining of its plucky young bookish heroine (Ivana Baquero), to my mind Labyrinth only works as a modern folk tale – with young Ofelia being nudged into increasingly more dangerous situations by the spirit of a fairy princess imbedded within her. Doug Jones' (Abe Sapien in Hellboy) ambiguous faun and out-and-evil blank-faced child devourer were both wonderfully realized, but the creepiest moments belong to the film's "real-life" antagonist, the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López).

As the wicked fascist stepfather, Vidal makes a great movie villain, and though the moment when he gets his comeuppance is one that got me going, "Serves ya right, ya bastard," the movie's great cringeworthy moment came a few minutes earlier. In it, the sadistic Captain Vidal has crudely sewn and bandaged the side of his mouth up (a lá Rambo) after it's been sliced by a not-so-helpless resistance fighter (the wonderfully expressive Maribel Verdú); he takes a swig of booze to ease the pain, and we see the gold liquid seep into the gauze. That's one big ouch!
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Friday, May 04, 2007
      ( 5/04/2007 10:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – With spring comes the occasion of Ziggy Stardust's big seasonal shave; here he is, midway through the process:

THE USUAL NOTE: For more companion animals, check out Modulator's "Friday Ark." And if you wanna see some more dogg blogging (and who doesn't?), there's the weekly "Carnival of the Dogs" at Mickey's Musings.
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      ( 5/04/2007 08:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY!" – Perhaps the most frustrating moment for an admirer of any period of Frank Zappa's considerable output comes as one of the bonus features to the Frank Zappa Classic Albums DVD (Eagle Rock Entertainment). In "Welcome to the Vault," we're taken on a tour through the Zappa musical archives – shelf after shelf of recordings in every possible format, going back to before the Mothers of Invention, all preserved with anal retentive diligence – and the Zappahead can't help but cry out, "Why aren't we hearing so much more of this undoubtedly cool stuff?"

The prime focus of Classic Albums, though, isn't on what we haven't heard, but on the man's two biggest commercial successes: the early seventies jazz-rock long-players, Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe ('). Both albums, we're told, were essentially made at the same time with much of the same personnel – keyboardist George Duke, percussionist Ruth Underwood, drummer Ralph Humphry, bassist Tom Fowler & trombonist Bruce Fowler, etc. – many of whom get to show us how much they've aged by appearing on-camera to talk about the experience of Working for Frank. No big surprises here: we learn that Zappa had a knack for hiring "amazing musicians" (a phrase repeated several times, including by Zappa admirer Billy Bob Thornton, who is also filmed rhapsodizing about "Dinah-Moe Humm") and for writing difficult parts for 'em to play. There's a charming moment where Ruth Underwood, thirty years after the fact, attempts to replay a difficult marimba passage from Apostrophe(') and makes three barely discernible mistakes: "one for each decade that I've been away from the music and the instrument."

Though the documentary attempts to place Zappa's Big Hit Albums within the context of his long and frustrating career, it makes no attempt at answering what I've long considered the big dilemma for many of us first attracted to the man as a musical satirist: the point in his career where he shifted so much of his lyrical emphasis from strong cultural/political satire to soft-porn comedy. Though they both focus on sexual themes, there's a major intelligence gap between "Harry, You're A Beast" from the MoI years and Sensation's "Dinah-Moe Humm," yet unfortunately it was the latter that brought Frank his biggest coterie of fans. Talking about the "Humm," widow Gail Zappa notes that "the horror is that it's like the most madly requested" song (there's even a moment on one of the concert discs where we hear an obviously drunken fan ask for it), yet that was the story realm where Zappa increasingly spent his time. Small wonder, perhaps, that the man would later state that he much preferred writing the music to the words.

That fannish bone-of-contention aside, Classic Albums does contain some tantalizing pieces within it: pointlessly sped-up film footage of Zappa in the studio; sequences where son Dweezil sonically deconstructs the sound of a cut, pointing out the "eyebrows" used as atmospheric embellishment to the song; snippets of concert footage and some muy blurry home movie footage; an interview with Valley Girl Moon Zappa where she confesses how, as a kid, she found the subject matter of Frank's songs "to be embarrassing." As bonuses, the DVD includes a live Roxy performance of "Montana" (arguably the best song from Sensation) and the original Saturday Night Live recital of the anti-teevee screed, "I Am the Slime," wherein SNL announcer Don Pardo performed the song's central monologue and later gleefully announces that he is the Slime. There's also a version by Dweezil Zappa and friends of "Camarillo Brillo," which is respectfully performed and thoroughly unexciting.

One thing that this doc – especially in the Dweezil studio segments – makes clear, though, is that Zappa packed a lotta musical information into his studio albums: so much so that even a lesser album like Sensation stands up to decades of repeated playing. While I'd have liked to hear more about the actual process of compiling and editing which built to a work like Apostrophe(')'s extended Eskimo fantasia, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," that's a process that is lost in time. All we can do is sit back and marvel at the man's ability to balance so many sonic elements in his head.

But if Classic Albums provides no true keys to Zappa's conceptual continuity (outside of a coupla interview snippets of the man himself telling that it's all connected), it still works as a tribute to a rock composer who made sounds like nobody else – despite countless attempts at emulating his music by his followers. May not've ultimately learned much from this DVD, but it inspired me to go back to the originals (and wonder, why no mention of "Uncle Remus"?) Had a good time with 'em both, but I've gotta admit I still prefer One Size Fits All as an example of this particular studio configuration at its best. For one thing, the songs're consistently funnier . . .
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Thursday, May 03, 2007
      ( 5/03/2007 09:16:00 PM ) Bill S.  

THAT "NEW CAR SMELL" – Bought a copy of TV Guide for the My Name Is Earl scratch-'n'-sniff card, so we could more fully experience this week's episode, though in my considered opinion the episode's menu of odors (cheap cologne done twice?) paled in comparison to the ones featured in John Waters' scent-filled classic Polyester. (Still have my old s-'n'-s card from its first run at the Normal Theatre somewhere.) Earl's Oreo Cookie scratch was kinda cool, though . . .
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      ( 5/03/2007 06:26:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MID-WEEK MUSIC VID – After briefly considering JB's Number Ones earlier this week, let's flash back to an outing of Soul Train to catch an early seventies performance of "Say It Loud – I'm Black And I'm Proud.":

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007
      ( 5/02/2007 11:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"ZOON!" – Was saddened to read of the death of Tom Poston, a wonderful funnyman who I remember most strongly from his role as George on Newhart (one of the great All-American Sitcoms) and as the alcoholic ne'er-do-well in Norman Lear's Cold Turkey: he was a master at playing humorously out-of-sync types. Poston was probably more active as a teevee comic actor than in movies, but the Poston performance I keep remembering was in an early sixties kids matinee feature entitled Zotz!. The flick (which concerned hapless professor Poston's possession of a magic coin) was, apparently, director William Castle's attempt at crafting a Disney-esque children's fantasy a lá The Shaggy Dog or Absent-Minded Professor, but it was only a sporadic success. Still, watching Zotz! as a largely uncritical pre-teen, I remember getting a major kick out of it; I'll have to check it out again just to see what my older – if still immature – self thinks of it . . .

R.I.P. Tom.
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      ( 5/02/2007 08:29:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"ONLY CRAZY FOLK CAN COME HERE" – From its title, you might think that Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's The Last Sane Cowboy (AiT/Planet Lar) was some sort of a pomo western, but this graphic stories collection proves to be something else again. Set in a "unfolded Earth," where reality has become much more malleable, Cowboy consists of a series of stories and amusingly Feiffer-esque monologues from the inhabitants of this world, a place where a man can bleed scorpions or a woman can smell the future; where one supporting character has a Labrador's head, another a dolphin's. In two of the tales ("The Man Who Fell to Earth," "The House That Wasn't Her,") characters express their profound sense of dislocation in this changed setting; in others, we see them striving to adapt to their Absurd New World.

Rendered in a high-contrast style which blends computer-generated figures with grey-toned photo backgrounds, Cowboy's tone alternates between wryly deadpan and a more somber mournfulness, though the flatly static nature of the art tends to favor the former. To my eyes, the most effective pieces are the two extended stories, the title tale and "House That Wasn't Her," which both center on characters who have lost a part of their family – and venture into an increasingly more surreal landscape in the hopes of getting back what they've lost. In "Cowboy," a ten-gallon hat wearing woman enters the town of Insanity to bring back her fish brother: along the way, she's confronted by talking horses, six chattering skulls (a bit that reminded me more than a little of Bob Burden), the ghost of Abe Lincoln (murdered twice, we're told) and a giant scorpion who is guarding the saloon where her brother's being held. The saloon is the last vestige of sanity left in the town, but our heroine isn't allowed to enter because she's adapted so well to the madness all around her. "One saloon in a town full of mad folk," the cowgirl says. "And only the sane are allowed inside? That ain't just crazy. That's downright mean." Insanity, we quickly see, is the most travelled route in the unfolded Earth.

In contrast, the hero of "House" remains stubbornly focused on the world – and love – he lost. Convinced that his house is no longer (literally) the same place where he once lived with his lover, he travels through an Escher-styled landscape in search of the place that was stolen from him, refusing to recognize the fact that even if he gets his home back, his loved one will still be gone. A surprisingly poetic meditation on the power of grief, couched in a series of dream-like images and absurdist tactics: not exactly the kinda comic you expect from AiT/Planet Lar (which more typically traffics in more straightforward genre storytelling). But perhaps that fact adds to The Last Cowboy's lingering effectiveness. This isn't a graphic collection that you put down and easily forget. Once a map has been unfolded, it's never quite the same . . .
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Tuesday, May 01, 2007
      ( 5/01/2007 02:52:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"VIOLENCE DEVOURS ALL IT TOUCHES!" – Thanx to TCM's rerunning its first batch of "TCM Underground" movies late Friday nites (sans Rob Zombie's intros, apparently), I finally was able to record and view a flick that I'd long felt bereft for having only seen once too many years ago: Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Funny how tame this once daring piece of exploitation cinema looks on teevee today. Heck, the episode of Heroes I watched last night on NBC was bloodier and more violent (no one in Pussycat gets the top of their head telepathically sliced off) than Meyer's drive-in lady car gang classic. Of course, nuthin' on network television comes even remotely close to Jack Moran’s out-there dialog (part Flannery O'Connor; part Playboy Party Jokes) – or Meyer's witty way with his engagingly low-rent characters.

At one point, watching the ultra-statuesque Tura Satana strut before Meyer's approving camera, it occurred to me that this flick could almost be seen as an antidote to the recently released Anna Nicole mess Illegal Aliens. Both movies feature a former Playboy centerfold in a lead role (in Pussycat, it's nice girl Sue Bernard); both center on a trio of very hour-glassy dames (in Aliens, they're alien cops; in Meyer's flick, they're a psycho girl gang); both films conclude with a scene where the big mannish villainess wrestles in dirt and sand with the protagonist. But where old-pro Meyer was able to take these elements and produce an enjoyable exploitation classic, the guys behind Aliens flop big time . . .
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      ( 5/01/2007 01:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

DON'T DRIVE, HE SAID – So we turned on Fox Monday night to watch Drive, only to quickly learn that Fox was rerunning a House in its place and had already cancelled the show after just three weeks. I swear, next time Tim Minear sells a series with Nathan Fillian in it to that network, Fox'll be canceling it three weeks before it even airs . . .
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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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