Every new TV season has several shows that crop up which are not highly anticipated by the TV Guide set, but which have either critical buzz or some level of pedigree (usually due to the creators having produced a prior failed show with critical buzz). This usually produces at least one good show that inspires passion and/or online petitions, but will be cancelled before Christmas. This years prime candidates are Veronica Mars (created by Cupid supervising producer Rob Thomas) and Life as We Know It (with Freaks and Geeks credentials). Failure of critical buzzards with more network backing like Desperate Housewives (a show with very little cachet by way of pedigree, unless you liked Threat Matrix) and Jack and Bobby (ditto, unless you like Everwood) are possible, but much less likely. Lost looks like a winner judging by the viewership of the first episode, and I don’t think we’ll see any online polls to save Dr. Vegas if it goes under.
There is a great history of good shows, cancelled right out of the gate. Cupid (cited above) is a perfect example of a very sweet show that was different, well written, touching, funny, and quickly gone. Solid shows Profitt and American Gothic were axed early in the same season (the first for both), and Action lasted, what, six episodes? I even liked that C. Thomas Howell vampire mobsters show (the Kindred?) that was gone inside of two months. This is why I hate not having Trio available on my cable system to see cancelled show theater, or whatever it’s called (way to go, Cox). Chances are that one or both of these new shows will follow their illustrious forbears. Life as We Know It hasn’t premiered yet, so lets talk about Veronica Mars.
Veronica is played by Kristen Bell, who looks very familiar, though imdb tells me I’ve only ever seen her in two episodes of Deadwood. Her performance here is not revelatory, by any means, but she is good enough and likable enough to carry the show. The other kids are played by Percy Daggs III (who I vaguely recall as a mathelete in Freaks and Geeks only after gentle reminding – thanks again imdb), Francis Capra (hereafter, thanks to my wife, referred to as “Vin Desil Guy” – a man with a healthy history of playing young toughs, seen already this season in the Without a Trace premiere), and the problematic trio of Teddy Dunn, Jason Dohring, and Aaron Ashmore. The problematic part is what call the “Brooklyn South” problem – in a cast with a moderate number of actors, you have to be able differentiate the characters easily, or you get into a confused “which one is that” loop. These three actors look somewhat similar, and only Dohring (as asshole Logan) acts in such a way as to significantly differentiate himself. It is very detrimental to a show trying to gain an audience to have this issue.
Famewhore Paris Hilton shows up in the second episode, illustrating the show’s strength with some interesting peripheral casting. Mars’ dad is played by Enrico Colantoni, who has been trying to recover from being miscast (in my opinion) as the womanizing photographer Eliot in the long running sit-com Just Shoot Me! Bumbling PI and failing-but-not-for-lack-of-trying dad is much more his speed, and he is quite good here. It’s always good to see Kyle Secor, but he has been misused across the board (remember the beginning of Crossing Jordan?) since his defining role as Bayliss on Homicide. Here he plays the local rich guy to whom everyone owes their fortune, and the murder of whose daughter is responsible for the context of the show (more on this later). His use so far is encouraging, but sparse, but this could be very good thing. Voice actor and perennial San Diego Comic Con panelist Darrin Norris (Jimmy Neutron, Fairly Odd Parents, Cowboy Beebop, and Commander Courage in Comic Book the Movie, among many others) plays the obligatory smarmy lawyer with all the glee you would expect.
On to the show itself. It’s about Veronica Mars, who used to be a popular girl in the rich costal town of Neptune, CA. She was not rich, but her father, bein’ sheriff and all, gave her enough cachet to be considered “in.” Her best friend, who seems like the thick and thin type, is the daughter of Jake Kane, the aforementioned guy who made everyone in the town rich, and who is much beloved. She is seeing Duncan Kane, Jake’s son, and life is shallow but good, except, of course, that mama Kane hates Veronica. After telling Veronica she knows a secret, daughter Kane is murdered, and daddy Mars thinks daddy Kane did it. Sheriff Mars is driven from office, and Veronica has a choice – family vs. her life as a “Heather.” She chooses dad. Duncan leaves her. Mommy Mars leaves daddy mars. Veronica is alone, an outcast in high school, and stuck trying to help dad from going under in his new PI business.
There is an odd dissonance that I noticed in the first episode, which took me awhile to put my finger on. On the surface, the show has the feel of an after school production like the Bloodhound Gang or an Olsen twin DVD, with not exactly top notch production values, an unapologetically non-realistic set-up, and somewhat stagy scene setting. This effect is blunted somewhat in the second episode, but still seems (again, on the surface) no more artistically accomplished than something like Beverly Hills 90210. Veronica is a high school student who acts as an assistant to her PI dad, and solves some of his tough cases – this is the kind of adventurous wish fulfillment set-up of a pre-adolescent show, realism be damned.
But something bothered me. The first episode contains an explosive scene of violence at its end that interrupts the surface gloss of the show. Veronica seems not just a generic outsider teen, but seems actually troubled by the events of her life. There is authentic cruelty in the show. And then there is the rape.
The scene dealing with Veronica’s rape (which, along with her friend’s murder and Veronica’s fall from grace, is the major determinant of her current mindset) has as neon tinged unreality. She goes to a party where she knows she is not welcome in a last desperate attempt to cling to her old life, and is slipped a drink containing Rohipnol. One distortion effect later she lies on the chaise lounge by the adolescent sex-filled hot tub, and passes out. She awakes, mascara running, and painfully realizes she is no longer a virgin – having no memory of the who or how. In the following scene, where she reports the incident to the new sheriff (who does a great job conveying the aw shucks malignancy of a good ol’ boy system), his apparent cartoonish glee and her baby doll tears further reinforce the fakeness of the tableau.
Here’s the thing, though…it’s so fake, it’s uncomfortably real. The flashback is doubly disturbing because she has reduced the memory to overwrought iconography to reduce the pain. My wife hit the nail on the head when she called this show brutal. The genius of this show is the presence of the coiled snake of this brutality slithering under the rug of just another high school drama. Most shows of this type are fake at the core which is coated with a pseudorealistic covering. This show inverts that, with a deep, dark ugliness that bubbles to the surface, and is thinly covered up with a candy coated surface. Episode two continues with several more violent acts, including the vicious gang beating at the end. I should mention the current sheriff again, whose mask of bumbling stupidity (watch out Hazzard county!) slips just enough to catch a glimpse of the disease underneath.
The framing mystery is interesting enough, and I think the show has a few elements to keep it moving for a while, giving the repressed vileness a chance to steap, and let the id punch through every now and then. This is an unusual show where apparently lame surface elements (including a truly amateuristic credits sequence), add to an effect that is a lot like being in high school with dreamlike inauthentic external elements covering real pain, cruelty, and human evil.
IT’S A MEME!!!
has, thank god, brought up something interesting to talk about. Since I came back to the blogosphere, there has been a meme drought, and this is an interesting one. The matter at hand is the assessment of worth or value in art that transcends the idea of what you “liked better.” This crisis of criteria apparently occurred to Jeff partially because he liked Resident Evil: Apocalypse better than Sky Captain ATWOT (which he admitted to grumbling after seeing), although he thought the later was a better movie.
Many good comments are to be had, most notably by (no surprise) David Fiore
who, among many other brilliant posts, zings this paragraph:
"[T]his is precisely the problem with aesthetic hierarchies--it's all very well to claim that complex structure and susceptibility to multiple interpretations makes a work objectively 'more artful', but what happens when other readers begin finding all kinds of complexities and polysemies in a supposedly flat, 'for entertainment purposes only' text? This happens all of the time! And the humbling fact is that just about any work of art can be a steak, if the reader approaches it with a steak-sized appetite (can we change the metaphor to a gourmet oatmeal?)."
My posted response was simply to indicate the angle that everyone seemed to be toying with, but not quite tackling (typos fixed):
“It seems like Harold Bloom
is the elephant in the room (hey, iambic pentameter!).
Jeff mentioned "canon," but used the word hierarchy in the same breath, where hierarchy seems to be used in his assessment more as an indicator of qualitative order. The questions asked in the first post seem to lead to his list of discreet "values" which he posits could potentially be used as part of an objective assessment of the worth of an individual work of art. So the idea of strong and weak works within the canon is essentially ignored, as the "hierarchy" here is not a holistic relational framework, but only a calculus of worthiness using value criteria.
“So the unadressed thing is the Bloomian critical angle, if you will. How does an individual work relate to the canon of cop shows, superhero comics, fantasy novels, etc. Do they strengthen the tradition and rally the tropes (as prime example Harry Potter did with the child wizard sub-genre of fantasy), or do they have no impact (i.e. are "unsucessful") despite some high degree of "objective" worth (like, say, Alan Moore's Big Numbers).
“This is not the only way to view the issue of value or worth, but its hard to completely disregard this approach when talking in terms of genres built on tropes so well worn that they become equivalent to cliché. How does the work under scrutiny "hold up" in relation to the other works we are judging it against?”
Incidentally, after posting this, I read a subsequent post of Jeff’s, and I think I was wrong about his use of the word hierarchy, but I think he still had not tackled the “strong work/weak work” aspect of the question of relative value. I don’t think this critical approach is the end all be all, but I don’t think you can approach the question of worth in this day and age (especially within Jeff’s hierarchical groupings) and ignore the anxiety of influence factor.
COMICS – QUICK TAKES
One danger in deciding that I would not post during the weekend is that on those occasions when I get snowed under at work for a couple of days, all of a sudden its been 5 days since I’ve posted, and I’m at the bottom of the Updates page. Oh well. I need to catch up on TV posting, but I guess I’ll start with a few comics reviews of this weeks stuff.
SLEEPER SEASON TWO #4: As usual, a good issue without exciting me quite enough to say anything of substance. I have a friend in the workplace that will read and enjoy certain comics that I lend them. They loved Goldfish and the first four issues of Caper, and really dug the CSI and Shield comics from IDW. But I have had a bit of trouble trying to broaden their interests, or even finding the edge of what they like. I wasn’t totally surprised that Watchmen went over like a Lead Zeppelin, but I was surprised that the reception to Jinx was so cold. They have basically rejected the idea of superhero comics as a viable read. Sleeper is one of those titles that I somehow wish could have avoided being a superhero comic, because I think that they might like it if it weren’t for the “powers.”
TOM STRONG #28: Nice self-contained issue, and the best in a while. Probably the best non Moore issues, in fact (and better than some of Moore’s efforts of late). The real spark of life here was the melee with figures from famous paintings (though “the scream” didn’t help out much), but the actual story was simple and touching, if not entirely original. This title started out really, well, strong, with the interesting first few issues followed by the 4 issue Saveen arc (did it win the Eisner for best serialized story? Can’t remember – it was quite good), but has seemed to be treading a lot of water for a long time (the problem began for me with the first Terra Occulta arc – issues 11-2?). Signs of life occasionally appear, but for the most part my favorite Tom Strong appearances since the first year have been in Promethia. Terrific Tales, for me, has been an almost complete loss. Again, once Moore leaves ABC, and my thoughts congeal, maybe I’ll be able to face up to writing a “what went wrong” piece on ABC.
ELRIC MAKING OF A SORCERER #1: It’s always nice to see new ambitious work from Simonson, and Moorcock’s Elric is always worth a look (I recently reread the Marvel Graphic Novel #2, and it was even better than I remembered it being). This story, though, is a bit abrupt in it’s storytelling method (i.e. it’s choppy, and grinds its gears while shifting), and is kind of hard to follow if you don’t know most of the Elric story (I’ve read a few books and GN’s, but don’t know the full story by any means, and I could follow it only with extreme effort). Also, the 2nd part has only just been solicited, meaning waiting for the end of this 4 issue series may take a while. Still, it was pretty, and built up a head of steam during the brief periods of fluid narrative between the gear grinding.
VENOM VS CARNAGE #3: How is this art done? Is this standard pen and ink art colored with some pseudo 3-D methodology (sort of the evil opposite of cell shading), or is this simply an unusual computer “painting” method? The story’s not too bad, really (remember – I buy this because my wife likes venom), but this is definitely the “evil” (clock punching) Peter Milligan, and I don’t think this will change anyone’s life.
UNCANNY X-MEN #449: All it takes is one non-Alan Davis issue to make abundantly clear that I’m only buying this title for the Davis/Farmer team. That said, the fill in artist is not that bad, but the inanity of what’s going on in this title finally has really penetrated.
AVANGERS #502: Ugh!
EX MACHINA #4: This is a case of me clearly seeing the issues that some online critics have with this title, but simply not having any of said issues myself. I know, intellectually, that the scene between the artist and the intern from the mayor’s office is implausible (the intern seems to have had the perfect speech prepared, and the artist reacts on cue), but it felt fine and didn’t crack my suspension of disbelief when I read it. I’m not sure that my gut believes the twist at the end, but we don’t really don’t know if it’s true or not yet, so I’m in wait and see mode. Incidentally, I may be the last person in the entire comic reading public to get the “Ex” part of the joke in the book’s title. I understood the “Machina” part in context, but just noticed that since he’s not the Great Machine any more, that the mayor is now…Ex Machina. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
VENOM #18: This is a series I haven’t enjoyed that much because it doesn’t make sense to me moth to month. I suspect that it would read a lot better if read together, but I don’t know if I’m up to try. It seems like there is some time travel thing that will explain things, but I can’t figure it out with the little they give me to go on every 30 days.
BLACK WIDOW #1: Very disappointed (most depressing purchase of the week). Bill’s art was so-so, which makes it better than 90% of everything else, but the story was unpleasantly didactic (to the point of being almost preachy) and lacked the sense that it’s going somewhere. The Black Widow (exotic spy) is the wrong place to prattle about female victemization, which is most of what I retained after reading it. The truckers win the “most clichéd characters of the month” award.
TEEN TITANS #16: Last issue I will buy. This is supposed to make you WANT to buy the Titans/Legion crossover?
CONAN #8: Interesting “Origin” story (something I didn’t expect them to do at this point) with change of pace but nice art by Greg Ruth (of Freaks in the Heartland fame).
That’s enough for now – tomorrow, I should take a look at Veronica Mars, and/or give a status report on this TV season.
I buy way too many comics, and I have to make a list every week (with running things to check on from week to week) or else I miss stuff. Since I have a blog now, I figured, why not slap this list up here with some light annotations:
A1 Bloodman Special Mister Monster WWII, $6.99: I’m excited about Atomeka’s return, and am willing to see where they go. Mister Monster is one of those low key independent comic “properties” that I missed out on, so this will be all new to me.
Robocop Killing Machine Special #1 Crowd Control, $5.99: I’ll get this if Stephen Grant (a fellow Hendersonite and Nevadan) is writing.
DARK HORSE COMICS
Conan #8, $2.99: A good midrange book. I’m never really excited to read it, but it’s been pretty solid month to month.
Milkman Murders #1-3 (Of 4), $2.99 – look into: I like Parkhouse, but just sort of missed this. If I see the issues, I might pick them up.
Catwoman #35, $2.50: I’m out with Brubaker. I’m one of those ninnies that got left cold by the art change.
Elric Making Of A Sorcerer #1 (Of 4), $5.95???: The ???? designation means taking a look at it in the store.
Ex Machina #4, $2.95: Put me in the pro column for this – I’m really enjoying it month to month, and none of the reported inconsistencies have bothered me. My favorite Vaughn book right now by a comfortable margin.
Flash #214, $2.25: This title and JSA (both by Johns) have increasingly lost me as of late. They may not be long for my list.
Manhunter #2, $2.50: First issue intriguing – giving it one more to sell me.
Sleeper Season Two #4 (Of 12), $2.95: I really like this title, but I’m not as gung ho as some. This is definitely quality storytelling, and I hope, somehow (though I don’t see how it will happen) this can avoid the axe at the end of this “season.”
Teen Titans #16, $2.50: Think I’m dropping this (wait, another Johns book – I see a pattern)
Tom Strong #28, $2.95: In till the end – I’ll write a dissertation on the ABC books some time (maybe when the universe finishes ending, and Moore does his last issue, I’ll do a postmortem).
Witching #4, $2.95: Mildly interesting – thought it was a mini-series, and I’ll probably be out after the first storyline if it’s not.
Justice League Unlimited #1, $2.25: Residua – missed this when it first shipped– this is for my 8 year old (though I will read it) who also gets Teen Titans, Go! And Sonic the Hedgehog
Gray Area #3 (Of 3), $5.95: Don’t think this comes out this week
Walking Dead #11, $2.95: Really liking Kirkman’s stuff at the moment, but I’m beginning to tire of the volume, and (I believe) so is he. This is his best title right now in my opinion, and I like Allred’s art better now than I ever did before.
Astonishing X-Men #5, $2.99: No comment.
Avengers #502 (#87), $2.25: One of only 2 come hell or high water titles I get – the other being Legion. I’m not enjoying the Bendis here (this is only the third Bendis title I haven’t liked, though, and he still hits more than he misses) and I hope he just finishes the arc and leaves.
Black Widow #1 (Of 6), $2.99: Gotta do it.
Doctor Spectrum #1 (Of 6), $2.99: Missed it somehow, still looking for it.
Nightcrawler #1, $2.99???: Probably not, but I’ll look.
Ultimate Elektra #2 (Of 5), $2.25: No comment.
Ultimate Fantastic Four #11, $2.25
Uncanny X-Men #449, $2.25: Good art, that’s it.
Venom #18, $2.99: For my wife, believe it or not.
Venom Vs Carnage #3 (Of 4), $2.99: Ditto (she’s a Venom fan – yes, they exist).
Ashes 2 Ashes???
TV LAST NIGHT
I’ve decided not to talk too much about the third movie I saw this weekend – Waco: Rules of Engagement. Suffice it to say it hails from the great tradition of one-sided documentaries that are made as deprogramming exercises to (also one sided) popular public perception. The problem is, after being spoiled by really ambitious fully fleshed out documentaries like “Capturing the Freidmans” that aren’t afraid to raise questions they might not be able to answer, I wanted this to address the really hard questions that were implied, but ignored (such as did the ATF push a raid instead of an inspection because they wanted to find something more than just guns – evidence of child abuse, for instance - and, even though this was clearly out of their jurisdiction, would this be right or wrong/legal or illegal if the local government was looking the other way intentionally?). It does raise some interesting questions, though, and does make the FBI look like the FB-CYA.
Some TV notes:
CSI MIAMI 3.1: When the predicted death occurred, I told my wife that that was my favorite character. She said I’m the only person in the world for whom that’s true, as the person in question was boring and not working properly in the show. I thought there was something sort of enigmatic about them: relatively quiet, hints of a Spartan existence, guilt about having an easy life, an odd tendency to attract porn stars (not kidding – women were strangely attracted to this person in this show at odd moments). I need to learn how to use inviso-text so I can talk about these things easier. This episode was typical of the standard quality level for the show established in the first two seasons.
LAS VEGAS 2.2: Thank god! Its like 2.1 never happened, and we’re back to the non-stop brea…fun. I mean fun. Danny is magically cured of his PTSD! Good Las Vegas filmed scenes with this one, even if they were walking in the wrong direction (the Monteceto has been established as south of the Tropicana across Las Vegas Bvd from the Luxor via many CGI shots, now, so there is no reason to cross to the MGM Grand from NY, NY – it would require going over the strip and back for no reason). But by now, travel down the Strip with the hotels in the wrong order is practically a trope (see: “Beavis an Buthead do America” for a particularly flagrant example). This is another show that looks to continue its healthy quality level plateau (in this case mounted in the last third of last season).
TWO AND A HALF MEN 2.1: Nice use of cameos. Elvis Costello taking notes on Sean Penn’s sex life for a song was quite funny. Harry Dean Stanton “they say you’re as young as you feel…and I feel like boiled crap.” Sitcom competition is extremely weak nowadays, and this moderately funny one turns out to be one of the better ones on the air (in a thin field) as a result. My wife makes me watch it.
LOST 1.1: I saw the pilot at the comic-con, and though it was one of the most impressive first episodes I have ever seen. This Lord of the Flies meets Land of the Lost via Swiss Family Robinson effort surprised me with how much I enjoyed it. It premieres Wed., so give it a try. This is a JJ Abrams (Alias) show.
I’ll try to tackle BIG BROTHER after the finale, but I will say that this was the second best season after BB3, and I predicted the two ultimate game masters (Nikomas and Drew) in the second week.
MOVIE WEEKEND 2: LOST IN TRANSLATION
I’ll say right up front that this movie was not made for me. This film relies almost entirely on the ability of the audience to empathize with Scarlett Johansson’s character, and it becomes almost impossible to enjoy if your psychological make-up/attitude/background/alignment are not close enough to bridge the gap of feeling between Charlotte and everyone else. I would probably have loved this movie, another words, if I didn’t think she was a whiny bitch that won’t take responsibility for herself. I really liked many things about this movie, but I felt shut out of its core.
The street scenes of Tokyo were fantastic, and worked to build the bright but alien/alienating atmosphere that was obviously indented. Bill Murray was funny for the 15 minutes or so that he was supposed to be (the scene in the hospital waiting room was hilarious). Certain scenes really worked (the phone conversation in the tub was chilling; the Porsche pronunciation parlay was subtle). And the ending evoked “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (the MOVIE) in a mostly good, but slightly problematic way (more on this later).
The problems start with the dialogue (or lack thereof). There was a stiffness and lack of genuineness to much of the dialogue, and, I believe, this contributed (along with a sense that it might possibly be “deeper” to do it this way) to the fact that so much emphasis was placed on communication through heavy silences. The problem in writing this way is that it places a LOT of faith in your actors’ ability to communicate effectively in this manner, and this is not easy. Johansson is, in my opinion, just not up to the task, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither is Murray. They don’t fall on their faces, but I just don’t think they ultimately bear the burden that these silent passages place on their abilities.
Murray is not as much of a problem as Johansson because when he’s being funny (which is a chunk of his screen time) he is undeniably entertaining, while she has nothing to do but brood and occasionally converse. The movie is also centered on her for most of its length (with a subtle shift towards him at the end) and more time is spent fixedly watching her character, and creating a situation where the movie lives or dies on her performance. My theory about Scarlett Johansson (formed while watching “Ghost World” for the first time) is that she comes off as the girl you think is pretty, but that you think other people see as plain, so you feel “special” for being attracted to her. The thing is, that’s what everyone thinks. But having this preconceived nature is a useful bit of equipment to bring to roles, so I find her generally interesting as an actress.
Her character Charlotte, if I’m reading her right, is actually more Enid than Rebecca, though - if Enid had gone to Yale and delayed her crisis of self-worth a few years. Charlotte is Prozac Nation fallout – certain she is superior to everyone else because a) she’s smarter and b) she suspects she has more depth somehow, but is faced with the dawning realization that she is ill equipped for anything important in life (true feeling, living life, finding fulfillment). We are supposed to know this because a) Hubby John tells us she’s a Yale graduate, b) Hubby John tells us she feels superior to everyone else, c) she tells someone on the phone she doesn’t feel anything, and d) she hangs out by the window a lot, silently not doing anything (like, you know, feeling or living). This is a lot of telling, and a lot of assumptions to be made in a performance vacuum.
When moments of understanding come, they often “strike” from nowhere. Bob telling Charlotte in the restaurant something like “sorry, I didn’t know I was the only one around keep you entertained” (damn, I wish I could remember the exact phrase). This is kind of a slap in the face to Charlotte and the audience, who didn’t know Bob was feeling this kind of thing (I didn’t at least – and I know, this was mostly defensive posturing, but it seemed to come out of nowhere). And then there’s the embrace at the end.
I love the book “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and I think the movie, though thoroughly compromised of course, acquits itself fairly well. The ending is the obvious hot spot illustrating the difference between novel and movie: instead of Holly running off to Africa to resume her pantheonic role as free spirit (which the end of “Almost Famous,” with Kate Hudson playing the most thinly veiled Holly Golightly rip-off in history, gets exactly right), the characters embrace on the street suggesting that they could live happily ever after. One of the beauties of this scene, however, is that with a little thought, we realize they won’t, and the scene becomes not a pat Hollywood ending, but an endearing character moment, as the two connect on some level, even though the DON’T have a future together. Odd place to put THE END, but hey – Audrey Hepburn can sell anything.
Lost in Translation delivers us the implied ending of this scene as the actual ending. Bob and Charlotte, who previously come hesitatingly together, inadvertently wounding each other, come together again and embrace, happy with the moment of connection as something to carry on with them, even though they will likely never meet again. The movie is about the collision of the two major change of life crises – youth to maturity, and productive years to old age, and the glimmer of recognition as two ships pass each other against the backdrop of an alien and unfamiliar seas. As such, this ending works just fine, although by setting itself BiT as a point of comparison, is comes off lacking. Charlotte is Holly Golightly robbed of the transcendence of the human spirit, and Lost in Translation is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” robbed of its lost but shining star (and through this, its meaning).
MOVIE WEEKEND 1: STARSKY AND HUTCH
As I mentioned earlier, I managed to squeak in 3 movies this weekend in between all the normal domestic stuff like buying a new toilet, and helping my middle son carve/paint the car for the pinewood derby (no, seriously). The first movie, which I saw on Saturday afternoon, was certainly the slightest – the Owen Wilson/Ben Stiller Starsky and Hutch. The movie was mildly amusing (I have no idea why I found the Will Farrell part – “TWO dragons” – as funny as I did, and shooting the pony was fried comedy gold...well, bronze at least), but it irritated me too much to really say that I enjoyed it. The movie was, on some level, a spoof, but really belongs to the same genre of comedy devoid of sincerity as Zoolander, the Brady Bunch movie, and (I presume – I haven’t seen it) Anchorman. The Abrams and Zucker style spoofs (like Airplane! And Hot Shots) also lacked sincerity, but this was in the service of merciless deconstruction (pushing genre conventions as far as possible, and recording the results). This new crop of movies basically examines only its own ironic detachment to the material. Stiller and Wilson (and Phillips) are playing at making a cops and robbers movie not to poke fun at cops and robbers movies, but to point out how above making a cops and robbers movie they are.
This begs the question – why make this movie at all? The obvious answer is that the movie had to be made because Snoop Dogg was destined to play Huggy bear, and like some Robert Jordan “taveran,” he warps space/time around himself until the destiny is fulfilled (the same way the X-Men movie had to be made so Patrick Stewart could play Professor X). I’m only slightly joking here, as I think the movie serves of the attitude of the producers, writers, director, and actors, and not the other way around.
There is no attempt to peruse the “spoof” angle with any diligence. The cop spoof ground has been covered before (notably the underrated “Loaded Weapon 1”), and 70’s spoof has been done to death. Even as specific an avenue as pimp culture has been well canvassed (“I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka” among other efforts). Still, nothing new is attempted or added. Snoop is basically a plot device that wears outrageous clothes and drives a Lincoln (Oooh, burn!). Stiller and Wilson aren’t really trying to play Starsky and Hutch, with Wilson stuck in Roy O’Bannon (or “Hansel” or Kevin the Christian, etc) mode, and Stiller doing a non-specific over-the-top tense guy. Only Vince Vaughn does anything to play with his archetype (by making his drug dealer villain humorously self-involved in a “here come the 80’s” way) so that he looks like he’s at least trying for something.
Part of the problem is the cringe-worthy realization that Stiller and Wilson are the closest thing we have right now to a working comedy team (since the death of Chris Farley, and resulting stranding of David Spade – not a great apex from which to fall in the first place). The basic shtick – Stiller is kind of uptight, but finds himself casually and mostly unintentionally (or is it really unintentional?!?) outdone by the laid back Wilson, agitating him all the more - was well worked out from their first outing (“Meet the Parents” I mean – did they work together in the “Cable Guy”? – I don’t remember). It’s not that they aren’t funny together (I thought the “Greg’s Jewish, Kevin,” “Alright, so was J.C. – you’re in good company” sequence was the funniest part of “Meet the Parents”) just that the shtick’s too thin to support a body of work together.
All in all, I’d rather have seen “Napoleon Dynamite” again – a movie also steeped in irony, but which ultimately is a human story. Starsky and Hutch is not about human beings, but about cool detachment. All of this would be excusable, though, if it were just a little funnier.
Lots of stuff to write on this week, including the Emmys, the TV premiers (this is the big week), and the 3 movies I saw over the weekend, but I thought I’d start with comics. I got through my read pile of the week (except for Apocalypse Meow vol. 2, which I probably wont get to for a few days), and most of it was unremarkable.
MADROX 1 was OK, but I don’t know if Peter David is going to be able to capitalize on the set-up.
My enjoyment of STRANGE 1 was hampered by my general distain for origin revisions that futz around trying to fine tune the basic premise of a character for no other reason than the comic company can’t figure out how to tell NEW stories (thank you Spider-Man, Chapter One), although the changes here are relatively minor in comparison (BUT do you really want Strange to start as a sympathetic character? It changes the nature of the origin in a way I’m not sure I’m comfortable with because it’s more, I don’t know, easy to make him an idealist that lost his way and not just a callous bastard).
I’m ready for Rucka’s WOLVERINE (19) to end. I’m getting nothing out of this now.
I thought THE END: WOLVERINE (5) had already ended (shows you how crucial the story is to me).
Is Micha Ian Wright writing NEW INVADERS (2) under a pseudonym? Or is the art and military stylings just giving me Deja-vu.
What I really want to talk about, though, is FOLLOWING CEREBUS (1). I didn’t know quite what this was when I asked my retailer for it. I definitely didn’t know that it was produced the same people responsible for “Wrapped in Plastic,” the Twin Peaks fanzine which I’ve read a few issues of and which really impressed me with the depth of its analysis. I guess I thought Sim himself might be producing Following Cerebus as part of the archival work he’s always talking about. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this issue.
It opens with an editorial in the inner cover, which is continued in the interior for a total of two and one half pages. This mildly intriguing mission statement is a bit over long, and spends way too much space trying to explain one very simple idea (that sometimes its better not to know what an artist intends in a work of art – it’s often a richer experience when we don’t know) with multiple examples. It also pissed me off by telling me that Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (which I was going to watch soon for only the second time) is really about *****Spoiler – skip the rest of the sentence***** Lynch’s reaction to the trial of a certain celebrity murder defendant who has the same initials as a breakfast drink. I would have preferred not to know this until after I saw it again. ***We’re back*** This editorial was still enjoyable, and was actually the weakest piece in the whole thing!
The Dave Sim interview was fascinating the way all Dave Sim interviews are fascinating. He’s such an intelligent guy, and it’s fun to watch his mind work whether you agree with his conclusions of not. I love his tendency to go on several hundred word tangents (like his observation of the effect of John Lennon’s assassination on men of his generation), and his use of odd examples and counterpoints (in this issue, he references Kurt Cobain’s observation that it SMELLS like teen spirit – not looks or sounds - as possibly “the last keen observation we will get out of rock ‘n’ roll,” in a discussion of the nature of “light”). I have two favorite passages from this interview. The first:
“It’s really “Stairway to Heaven” stuff. The ironic secular humanist acknowledgement that you can’t buy a “Stairway to Heaven” (what kind of idiot do you take us for?) in no way ameliorates for secular humanists that they are aware that an “up there” exists and that getting “up there” involves some manner of “stairway” or “Stairway.” In my own case, I wondered if there wasn’t a metaphorical “way up.” Was it possible to tell a story that was long enough and exact enough in proximities in intent itself to create a stairway by writing and drawing about it?”
This is the missing link between Sim and Grant Morrison. The discussion in physical terms of a narrative creating the “stairway” through the reader (like an instruction manual to enlightenment) is almost exactly Morrison’s concept of the comic experience as magic sigil for creating sentient universes, cat medicine…whatever. Sim is explicitly saying that this is nonsense he left behind with his secular humanism, but admits that this is one of his aims early in the creation of Cerebus.
The second passage I like just cause its funny. In talking about how Cerebus couldn’t get past Jaka, and its relationship to the presence of color on the TPB covers:
“…he entered the female half of reality where a much-beloved analogous transformation takes place in the quintessential female movie, The Wizard of Oz, which starts in black-and-white and then, when Dorothy gets to Oz, switches to technicolor. This is a beloved transformation, I suspect, because it reflects female nature which sees the movement from schism to fragmentation as a “good thing,” which is what color really is. Light and darkness are white and black. A duality. “0” and “1.” The fragmentation of light is color, a multiplicity. This was another part of the joke behind the title of Going Home, indicating to the ladies and “ladies” in the audience that even at the point where the Wizard of Oz switches to color, when Dorothy arrives in Oz, she is also, in a real sense, going home. Or, as the Koran assures us, we all came from god and to him we are returning.” The fragmentation from light to color isn’t permanent, the basic duality of light and dark is still there, and only light is subject to entropy. It will, ultimately, dissipate.”
Wow. There is very powerful playing with ideas, here, but it seems a bit too much, eh? But is Sim saying movement from fragmentation to the “schism” of a binary system (which is against the nature of light tends to split apart due to its inherent “entropy”) is “a good thing?” He most often resists reductive thinking himself (one of his biggest problems with feminism is the pushing of equivalence of unequivalent things - Male=female – for the sake of unification), but here color is bad because it offers more than two choices? So unification = bad, schism = good, fragmentation = bad? All sense aside, the reason I love this passage is that I love any over the top deconstruction of popular entertainment. I read a paper once on racial egalitarianism in Pulp Fiction as the final step in the racial paradigm of American narrative as it has evolved from Huckleberry Finn. Couldn’t stop laughing (in a good way). Making an argument that the color change in the Wizard of Oz is a feminist statement is just brilliant!
The Gerard interview brings up a nagging problem of mine - I really have never been convinced that he is a separate person than Dave Sim. This interview would appear to help lay this unusual suspicion to rest, what with a picture of him and all, but then he goes and says this:
“Although, I did have this strange sensation near the end of the book. It occurred to me that maybe the pressure of doing a monthly comic book all by himself caused Dave’s personality to split, and his mind created this background artist guy, and that I was just going to poit out of existence when I finished the last page.”
So apparently Gererad agrees that he might be imaginary.
The crowning glory of this issue, however, is the analysis of the usages of the phrase “something fell” throughout the series. I have only read the first half of the series, and had no idea about this repeated phrase. Although the article fails to completely pull together a cohesive thesis of the usage of this phrase, it does yeoman’s work of charting the usage, and related “fallings” and “ascensions” that pepper the book. Really nice work, and exactly what I want to see when I buy something like this.
This looks like an excellent start, and I would love to see where this series goes. Best of the week.
COMICS – SHORT TAKES
Its been a busy couple o’ days, but I wanted to eek out something before the weekend (my intention is to not post on the weekends unless something burning comes up). Of my Wednesday reading reading pile, I’ve only read two items, but I thought I’d give them a go.
TERRA OBSCURA, V2 2: I liked the first mini up until it completely fell apart in the last 1/3, but this one is a mess. It is difficult to pull off this type of epic (this story, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, reminds me of the Starlin Warlock stories that ran through the Marvel Two-in-One Annual and seemingly random issues of other Marvel books in the 70’s) with characters that no one has anything invested in. The “superteam fights itself from 40 years ago” trope pisses away all of its potential as metacommentary (which is what this book is about, right??) and, more importantly, is boring in execution. Shouldn’t stripped down melee at least be visually interesting? There are a few good lines in the battle, though, and I like the necessary explanation of why the teams have to impulsively (compulsively?) fight when they first see each other (of course, it must be a “Japanzi” plot!). It may make more sense once completed, but I’m not holding my breath. All in all, it reads like someone trying to explain the idea of a story to you, not as the story itself.
WANTED 5: This was my favorite issue since the first, and I think it was the focus on Rictus (who gets all the best lines) that did it. Plus Eminem and Halle Berry, who are getting on my nerves more as the series progresses, get little screen time, and when they do, they are being shot at. Smelled the twist at the end 4 issues ago, though. This is the only Millar book I’m enjoying right now, and the art (by J G Jones) may be part of it, but I think Millar’s not hacking this out like his is the horrendous Marvel Knights Spider-Man.
I’ve got more TV commentary on the way soon, as I’ve got to cover Hawaii and Father of the Pride, and discuss Big Brother before it goes into hibernation for 9 months. See you next week.
I have intently been watching the hurricane coverage on the news. I used to live in hurricane country (born in New Orleans, lived in Southern Louisiana for 28 years), and I feel tremendous sympathy for all those with personal loss of property or loved ones. But…
Hurricane coverage makes me homesick.
I left Louisiana many years ago, and I miss some things, while I don’t miss others. The unbearable humidity and the attitude of many towards education (this is a rant for another time) I could do without, but I love a lot of things about the atmosphere of the Crescent City…just not enough to make me want to go back.
There is something compelling about the atmosphere surrounding the storm, though. Life stops for a day or to, and routine schedules are supplanted by the persistent thought of “what actions will I take to keep me, my family, and my property safe.” Even if you are not too worried, or most likely the hurricane will miss you, the normal grind is set-aside for a while. There is electricity in the air (which is partly barometric and party psychological), and a heightened sense of community. In short, it is a kind of purifying experience.
So, when I watch the coverage on the news, it brings back that feeling, and I miss New Orleans in a way that I usually don’t. Hope everyone stays safe.
A few days ago, I received in the mail a flat envelope from Kitchener Ontario. There was an attractive little aardvark logo next to the return address, and inside was a copy of Cerebus 168, signed by Dave Sim and (I think – its hard to read) Gerard, a flier advertising the Cerebus trade paperbacks, and a typeset letter (also signed by Sim). I was thrilled.
This was the result of writing a letter and mailing it, followings Sim’s offer to send a free comic (signed, if requested) free to anyone who would do so. I heard about this via Neil Gaiman's Journal
, as, apparently, did a host of other people. This was stated at the outset to be an experiment, the purpose of which was to ascertain whether (i.e. prove that) people in this computer age won’t take the extra time to write letters via mail. The hell you say! I wrote mine the first day I heard about it.
I am extremely grateful to Mr. Sim for this small generous act, and am elated out of proportion to the size of the gift. This was a great idea on his part, and reinforces my feeling that he is a marketing genius. I own the “Phone books”1-6 and 8, and have wanted to complete the set, and finish reading the saga. This small act, which didn’t cost him very much, made it far more likely that I will act on this impulse sooner rather than later. In the “Cerebus Guide to Self Publishing” (an extremely interesting document I haven’t seen referenced a lot lately, even though many of its points are just as applicable today as when it was initially published), Sim spends some time talking about how to attract attention at conventions, and how to market a comic out of the gate, and if this was another ploy, I can see how it works. I just wanted to note that I was surprised at how positive my reaction was to just getting a signed comic in the mail for free. Thanks, Dave.
I found the accompanying letter very funny, and quite intriguing. Well, let me just post the letter, and then comment:
“30 August 04
“Dear Sneaky Neil People:
“Having gone to the mailbox this morning only to find only James Turner’s as-yet unpublished, soon-to-be-self-published computer comic book, I, Librarian, and Nihil Obstat (which can be viewed at firstname.lastname@example.org)(and which he had sent me a few pages from and which, because I asked nicely, he has now printed out all 62 pages to date for me to comment on)(and you thought you had a good job) and a very nice letter from Sgt. Brian L. Moore accompanying a copy of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen from 1922 because he really thought I should read it and because I sent him a copy of Guys. Two hour later there was one inquiry about the free signed comic book from a gentleman in England.
“And I thought, Well, it’s finally subsided to nothing, after last week subsiding to the point where I could open all of the inquiries in a half-hour or so, type the form letter, print it out, sign it and get on with my other work (mostly the Cerebus Archive). So, I actually gathered up all of the form letters to date and faxed them to Neil for his dining and dancing pleasure (specifying which ones had already gone out, and which hadn’t so he wouldn’t give anything away before the intended recipients read them) and prepared to “turn the page” on the Blog Plug That Just Wouldn’t Stop. Then I went to the post office after lunch and there were another 60 Inquiries. I made that funny High-pitched “MMMMM!!” noise that Jerome “Curly” Howard used to make in the Three Stooges.
“Took me an hour to open those and – just now realized the post office closes in twenty minutes! Raced down there to stay ahead of the deluge and…the box was empty. “MMMMM!!” Is it any wonder that they call you The Sneaky Neil People?!
“Anyway, this 60 brings the running total to 981. Tomorrow should push us over the 1000 mark. Or it might not happen ‘til next week. Or it may never happen. For such is the existential premise of the Sneaky Neil People – whose every epistulatory outcome is uncertain!
I found the letter amusing in tone (a sort of “gosh darn it, thems there folks got me” bemusement), with a light undertone insidiously implying that the letters really “don’t count” in the experiment because we’re writing intentionally to prove him wrong. Well, I don’t feel very sneaky…just happy to get this nice signed comic and amusing letter.
The main point of interest for me, however, was that the letter reads like the latest of a series, and I am entering in the middle of the “Sneaky Neil Saga.” I would be love to read the other letters! Since the letter implies that he has sent copies of all letters to Neil (presumably Gaiman), who, again, has a blog
, I wrote Mr. Gaiman yesterday asking:
“Would you consider (with Mr. Sim’s permission as needed) posting these to your site? I feel like I have one sliver of an ongoing conversation, and would like to hear the whole thing.”
So, maybe he will, which would be cool. Meanwhile, this offer does not (as far as I know) have a time limit so it is not too late to get your cool free signed comic, and prove that civilization is not crumbling at the same time. My letter was handwritten, not typed (he says in a defiant tone). So hop on the bandwagon, and send your written and mailed request to:
Aardvark Vanaheim, Inc
P.O. Box 1674 Station C
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2G 4R2
Tell em’ Todd sencha’
BLANKETS REVIEW REDUX
Since I mentioned my feelings on Blankets in my Comics Journal Review, I thought I would repost my review from Fourcolorhell, which, I think, absolutely no-one saw. I’m giving it to you unaltered, though I thought about rewriting some of it for clarity (I really liked this book, and I don’t know how forcefully that comes across) and timeliness (man mentioning Bendis’Alias... we were such crazy kids back then). No, it’s better to let it go as is. So, without more needless posturing…
List price: $29.95
Format: Paperback, 582pp
Pub. Date: July 2003
I took a while for me to get around to reading this. I haven’t read Goodbye Chunky Rice (and so wasn’t clamoring for more of Thompson’s work) and I have a mild aversion to autobiographical comics because I can’t stomach the self-indulgence that is sine qua non for the sub-genre. The thing that finally made me get up and buy it, despite the spate of reviews declaring it a flawed work, was that the first printing had sold out and there was a nebulous feeling in the air that this was, in some way, an important work (the unqualified positivity of Neil Gaiman’s opinion may have had something to do with this).
The first thing you will notice when you bring this thing home, and you should bring this thing home, is the mass of the object. Clocking in at around 600 pages, it is doubtless the largest original (read: not previously serialized) graphic novel that has been produced. The trade dress is nice in literate press sort of way, and it just feels substantial and non-embarrassing to hold.
The story, as if you need another rehash, is a near autobiographical (I’ve heard there is a missing sister, for instance) coming of age tale, about a sensitive and pious Christian kid dealing with a narrow-minded set of values within both his family and the surrounding town, a relatively normal (if obnoxious) relationship with his brother, the casual cruelties of adults and other socially darwinian teens, and the confusion of his first exposure to the larger world and the guilt inducing feelings stirred up as a result. These emotions are largely focused on Raina, a girl he meets at a Christian retreat, and whom he later visits for two weeks during a school break.
The main thing that struck me after reading the book was how quickly it went. From Hell, which is a similar size with annotations, seemed to take ten times as long to read and Maus, which is half the size, still took much longer. Now, granted, this is not intended to be as dense, but, as deeply felt as it was, it came off feeling a little more slight than I would have liked. 30 bucks seems like a bargain for a comic this huge, but it reads so fast, that it about breaks even on the dollars per hour of enjoyment scale with your average issue of Alias. It sounds weird to suggest this, but it seems “serious” works are usually imply gravity and craftsmanship with dense page layouts and wordiness, and this may represent one of the first “decompressed” serious autobiographical comics.
Tangent: There is a USA show I enjoy watching called “Monk.” As soon as I first saw the show, I realized one reason I liked it was that it was something of a throwback. I initially attributed this to story structure elements such as strong act breaks and “on the nose” tying up of loose ends. But the more I watched, the more I realized that the relatively low number of shots and the abundance of medium shots (held for a length of time) are part of what made the show seem pleasingly “old fashioned.” I like this because the actors have more room to actually act, and not just give microscopic sub-performances to be edited together later to tell a story. Maybe this is my personal averse reaction to the MTV editing-in-lieu-of-ability style of video making that has influenced so much of the modern narrative paradigm. Its no wonder that classically trained actors and actresses love the stage, where the performance is of the utmost importance. In any event, it occurs to me that there is a similar formalist issue in comics, with an art comix rejection of any decompression of storytelling, the implication being that this emphasizes flash over substance. Perhaps the Blankets reads so fast because it rejects the notion that tightly packed storytelling is necessary to create something important, and indeed the airy pacing may better fit the dreamy subject matter. It still felt slight, though.
I try to read and review before I’ve read any other reviews, but in this case, both due to my purchasing tardiness and the delay in the return of the web site, I’ve got to deal with the prevailing set of opinions. The most common criticism is that Raina is not a fully realized character, and only exists in reaction to Craig’s desires. Now, this brings up some complex issues, not the least important of which is the fact that this is something approaching autobiography, and thus other people essentially DO only exist only in relation to the author/protagonist, especially those who are relegated to such a short, emotionally charged time in the author’s life. But I don’t think its fair to dismiss her as a badly fleshed out character, just because she is kept firmly in the subjective lens throughout the book (this subjectivity is the only way such a character can really function). So let’s look at two aspects of this character’s “reality:” the way she is written, and the way she is (physically) rendered.
The main objection Raina’s presentation is that she is kept inscrutable – that we have no clue why she acts as she does. It is left largely unexplained as to why she seems so eager to get close and seems to need Craig so badly, and then withdraws rapidly without explanation. Let me just ask: has anyone not had this happen to him or her at least once? Adolescents are confused little beasts in the best of circumstances, and demonstrate various levels of over-sensitivity, magical thinking, and inconsideration, all at an unconscious level. Everyone has hurt and been hurt by someone who has emotionally turned on a dime with no explanation ever offered. And, more specifically, it is not at all an uncommon occurrence for one partner to kick the other to the curb (for no apparent reason, of course) a couple of weeks after instigating talk about what to name the kids. If Craig has broken subjectivity to show us what Raina was really thinking, what we would get would be something mundane, such as “well, it couldn’t have come as a surprise... we both knew it wasn’t going to work out,” which breaks the beautiful spell that helps Thompson depict the way it felt, not the way it really was (whatever that means). The fact that Raina and even Craig himself are viewed in such a subjective light, adds a layer of meaning as we apply our own knowledge of adolescent sexual politics to the situation, which gives her a more complex characterization than if he had depicted her with full disclosure. The story is truer because her conflicted behavior remains unresolved. Bottom line, it would have been false to break into her head and give her motives. My largest concern in this (subjectivity) arena is actually that by framing the book with adult “understanding,” it may be slightly dishonest about Craig’s lack of objectivity about his own feelings and actions, but I think his adult inconclusiveness suggests that he is at least aware of his inability to accurately judge what had happened all those years ago.
Her physical depiction is actually a huge factor in making Raina unknowable. I had already seen Thompson’s “sketchbook” in Top Shelf’s Comic Book Artist #1 before I read this book, and I noticed that, even in his realistic sketches of his partner (wife? girlfriend? don’t remember), he seems to be attempting to capture not the essence of the character, but some idealized ephemeral moment. This is why these sketches mostly show her sleeping or staring at something. You know, he’s capturing the moments of transcendence and beauty, not laughing or talking or other character bits. His depiction of Raina is similar and, although she does talk, laugh, etc., she really doesn’t seem to be. She always seems to be slightly arched, eyes closed a lot, head tilted… you know posed, unnatural. But one would assume that this is what he remembers of her. Craig seems like the kind of kid that is more interested in the transcendent than in the real, more the impression than the detail. And he never truly rejects this.
The religious text (not sub enough to be subtext) of the book is pretty tame stuff, but has real resonance. I don’t think anyone from the hardened atheist to a big ol’ Jesus freak could find anything offensive here, as he eventually embraces a relatively non-judgmental (to both self and others) spirituality that is Christian specific yet generic enough to squeak by either way. But it helps a lot that he really, really remembers how it feels, and seems like a genuinely good person who is not interested in passing judgment. I like that he never blames his God for the fact that religious followers gave him a hard time (this is a fairly easy way out, and is often taken) and “his” Jesus looks on him approvingly at him after he knows physical love.
Well, you get the idea. I loved the book, though I thought it read too fast. I thought Raina was as fully fleshed out a character as could be (or should be) when depicting the captured image of another person from your own experience. I found a real resonance in Thompson’s depiction of his childhood, possibly because I was an awful lot like that character (a bit sensitive, a bit religious, a bit wracked with guilt and self doubt, but ultimately a better person after the bugs get worked out and everything gets more integrated). Blankets is very impressionistic and the underlying emotional truth trumps the question of what is real and what is bullshit. The blanket in the story itself (dispensing with the obvious security metaphors) seems to reflect this patchwork view of subjective truth. Raina’s blanket stitches together bold individual impressions into an object of beauty, with the strength of the individual pieces of cloth placed next to each other giving the illusion of detail in a simplified design. In the same way, the story emerges from strong well-remembered details in an overall simplified outline of a specific time in Thompson’s life. This is a good-though-not-flawless work that borders on essential reading.
LAS VEGAS PREMIRE
As a Las Vegas resident, I am ethically bound to watch this show and to talk about it. When it started out a year ago it was, in my humble opinion, not that great, but quickly found its legs. By 1/3 of the way through its first season, it had become compulsively watchable. This show is about FUN, which is why I am a little disturbed by this season’s premier, even though it was, in isolation, a good episode.
Danny, the young male lead who’s sex seeking antics and father-son relationship with James Caan acted as the main axle for season one’s narrative rotation, returns from somewhere top secret, with that Rambo from first blood look in his eyes (except he wears a shirt… well, most of the time). By the end of the episode (several twitchy PTSD interludes later), he is sitting by a window in a Treasure Island Casino room with an assault rifle, presumably ready to kill himself and/or take a bunch of people with him.
The episode was good, but how can they get back to the fun without a) dragging everything down with an egregious drawn out after school special-like healing sequence (which would have to take at least 8 arduous episodes) or b) conveniently restoring Danny back to normal next episode, because, you know, he was bonked on the head by the catharsis fairy. Dumb an unbelievable (b) beats overwrought and tedious (a) in my book.
I don’t think getting Danny engaged is a bad idea (even though it does seem a bit early in the show’s development) because virtually every regular on the show besides James Caan is young, unattached, and promiscuous, so we don’t really loose anything. But I’ll bet they shit-can the engagement to go for a long-winded will-they-or-won’t-they romance (screw that – the characters belong together, and this is not a novel plot anymore).
So – a good but worrying start, and here’s hoping they get back to the fun. Incidentally, the show has the best opening credits of any show on TV with the remix of Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” against an exciting Strip montage. LAX (see OH GOD, NO below) in comparison, pairs a great opening song (ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) with a good airport montage, but by just playing the song’s opening (you don’t even get to hear the words “Mr. Blue Sky”), it gives you that didn’t-reach-the-climax feeling (like auditory blue-balls). Maybe they’ll do a better opening song edit for the series (this was, after all, just the pilot, and sometimes pilots don’t even have the opening credits).
THE COMICS JOURNAL 262 REVIEW: MEET THE NEW BOSS
The most recent Comics Journal (Aug/Sept, #262) is an attractive package with a smashing Toth cover, and gobs of nice full color reprint pages. But this issue, which feels like the end of the transition between the George and Deppy eras, begs for analysis of its contents vis-à-vis the question: has anything really changed?
Yes, and No.
The Toth section, which is composed of an old interview, an article by Bob Levin, and a juicy reprint section is, in fine Journal tradition, good, but not as good as you thought it might be when you saw the cover. The interview shows the strain both of being of being overly reverent, and really old (the ancient interview reprinted from now defunct European magazine is another Journal tradition), especially when Toth mentions current projects or talks about any peripheral subjects. Being someone who doesn’t know much about the guy, however, it worked for me as a brief introduction. Personally, I would have preferred that they print the legendary aborted Groth attempt at an interview instead (the one that allegedly ended in an acrimonious fit), but I probably learned more from this one. I found the accompanying article very nice, again mostly because I don’t know much about Toth’s life.
Toth is one of those artists that everyone respects, but who remains a bit mysterious to most of us comics plebeians. One of the reasons for this is that his work is generally unavailable for anyone of casual interest, and I myself have read very little of it (just some of the random DC work, and the stuff that was reprinted in the “Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics”). Alot of my exposure is via decontextualized drawings of his, mostly his animation work. The article actually addresses this point, acknowledging that due to his lack of any consistent work on a recognizable serial (except perhaps Zorro), his work tends not to be reprinted, and this not seen by anyone but the hardcore collector. In this way, this section was perfect for an audience of what I imagine are a bunch of interested folks like me who need the quick intro, and a little taste of the work itself. Just don’t approach this as more than a surface swoop at the topic of Toth’s artistic genius. Besides the color reprint section (the importance of which should not be undervalued), there is nothing here that wouldn’t have been seen in past years of the Journal.
The newswatch section is also about the same-as-it-ever-was, but contains the fantastic article “Collective Inaction: The comics community tries and tries again to get it together.” This is an excellent well-researched account of attempts to organize comic professionals that, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing in the issue. The letters section (Blood and Thunder) prints only one letter, however it is exactly the kind of letter and point-by-point response/filking that so marked the last iteration of the magazine. The letter (from Chris Oliveros) is picked mercilessly apart my Michael Dean (also the author of the fantastic Collective inaction piece). This was business as usual.
The manga essay was light, but fun and makes some good points. Most importantly, though, it is different in tone and content than what I’ve been accustomed to. Thus emerges the main point of deviation from the George years: the presence of commentary that dares to brave the cold heart of the comics mainstream (read “the direct market and Manga”). There had been some recent stabs at this (during the transitional phase), and all were thoroughly condescending and worthless except as comfort reading if you have similar views. This issue was very different. The nu-marvel article (part 1 of 2) is basically an admiring letter to the rise of Quemas (although part 2 will, we have been warned, not as kind to the post Jemas Marvel), something of the sort I thought I might not ever see grace these pages. The article is well reasoned and suggests that the Journal may now be able to broadly analyze the industry without dismissing large segments of it out of hand. But, hey, that’s Dirk
The Cwilklik article (“Obsolete”) is even more evidence that there has been a fundamental shift. The article argues that superhero movies have outdone superhero comics, and there may be no turning back, but it does it without really condescending to either fanboys or mainstream movie audiences.
“Fighting Words” was fun, and I think a magazine like this is wise to have a feature that simultaneously keeps its ear to the chatter, and presents it in a gossipy-fun way. The momentary tonal shift adds to the reading experience.
The reviews were also basically same old/same old, but I was happy to see Smax and Demo in the bullets section. The only review that bothered me (and it wouldn’t be TCJ without that) was the Blanket’s review, which had something of a salient point to make but sort of lost it in the execution. Austin English compartmentalizes Craig Thompson’s Blankets to a genre, teen romance to be specific, solely in order to help take it down a peg by association. I understand the point, and may even agree with some of what he’s getting at, but it is impossible for me to embrace the implication that “just” a teen romance could never, by virtue of what it is, attain the level of great art. English also claims to really like the illustration, but refuses to let this in anyway affect his judgment about how good the book is (a little odd when evaluating a comic). Any of this could have been in the old Journal (the Blankets review was even a year late! - Journal tradition, again).
The last and worst item was an overwritten piece of BS called “Time Out of Joint.” The article is basically an attempt to expound upon a relatively easy to understand and convey worldview (a sort of grand unification conspiracy theory of world control and psychological manipulation) with some relatively simple consequent conjecture, which is presented as fact and hidden inside jargon and unnecessarily baroque language. I’ve never seen anything quite like this in TCJ and I hope it was an aberration because it simply did not belong here (comics it definitely wasn’t, and calling it cultural criticism is really pushing it).
So has the Journal changed? Yes, some. But it never needed to change that much to begin with, and the changes here all seem to be steps in the right direction. Not all the annoying things are gone, but I think the tweaks we see here, both physical and editorial, bode very well. This is a good time to start reading if you aren’t already.
BACK TO COMICS
I am going to start focusing more on comics soon. I hope to get the (now half written) Comics Journal article up today, and I want to share the hilarious contents of my form letter from Dave Sim (I wrote off for the free comic he offered, that I discovered via Neil Gaiman's Journal
- and apparently lots of others did too), but I left the letter at home, so Manăna.
OH GOD, NO
Against all reason, last nights pilot for “LAX” turned out to be pretty good. There is something a little off about the two leads, with Blair Underwood in full pre murder OJ mode (not just the running through the airport, but the simultaneous pompous/charming/sleazy thing) and Heather Locklear as a rule breaking rebel (we know this because she tells us). The chemistry here is odd, but there was a huge “ugh” moment when it was revealed, low and behold, they had previously had an affair, and he’s married. To me, this is the kind of baggage a quick moving show like this does not need. I wonder if their animosity to each other will turn out to be thinly veiled attraction? I also though the dog-chasing slapstick was a little much, and they overused the soundtrack (it was too obtrusive in the same way the “Crossing Jordan” weekly folk-remake orgy is). But otherwise, the usage of the secondary characters was good, and they managed to develop some nice tense moments. The drunk Serbian pilots were fun (enough to suppress the feeling of “no way that could happen”) and the “orphan plane” thing was genuinely touching, though it did come out of nowhere. I am very surprised as this looked dreadful from the ads.
EPISODE 2 - ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE AS PATHETIC(AL) INVESTIGATION
I do not know what possessed me to watch the second episode of “Medical Investigation.” Oh wait, I do… my wife made me do it! I’m innocent, I tell ya! This episode somehow wasn’t as bad as the pilot, but this may have simply been mathematics – there was really only an A plot (with maybe an associated C- plot) but no B plot like the pilot’s stellar example. The recurring theme between the episodes is large numbers of people reacting outrageously to limited exposure to agents that wouldn’t quite do what the show says they would. Most of my specific problems in this episode came from the diagnostic phase, however.
The final agent (again, ****Spoilers****) causing the problem was a pesticide, the treatment (or should I say miracle cure) for which was atropine. This pegs the substance as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, the treatment for which is either an acetylcholinesterase reactivator (such as 2-PAM) or atropine. The symptoms of this type of poisoning are vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, tearing, myosis (constriction of the pupil), trouble breathing, slowing of the heart rate, muscle tremors, paralysis, and depressive mental effects, which could lead to coma or sudden death. Note how many of these symptoms should ring bells on a physical exam, plus the fact that encephalitis is not really present. In their work-up, they jumped strait from coma to “must be encephalitis” to brain biopsy, and told the parents “the risk of not doing a brain biopsy is worse than the risk of doing it.” Wrong. The risk of having shitty doctors is worse than either. This case would have never been misdiagnosed by some of the tards’ I went to medical school with, much less the NIH’s favorite weird looking doctor. We also never found out about why the kids all had herpes, either (brain biopsy my ass). The parasitic worm (the C- plot) was fun, though, even if the ultrasound was bullshit.
One interesting facet of this show appears to be that unlike normal shows with a detective component (and somewhat honed scripts), there is a lack of clearly delineated clues and red herrings. This show violates the Chekov rule (or whatever it’s called) all the time by bringing up issues that are never quite explained or dealt with fully. You know, like the unexplained herpes, or the way everything in the first 20 minutes of the show screamed “check the coffee shop” as a common point of exposure, but no one ever did – but that’s OK cause’ it wasn’t the coffee shop anyway. No. Plot. Function.
That’s it. I’m watching the third episode now to pick it apart more. Medical shows nowadays tend to use medical conditions by understanding the illness first, then writing a show around it. This show seems to come up with a situation, and try to come up with a condition to explain it. They just must not have a medical consultant (or they just won’t listen to the consultant, or the consultant is one of those tards’ I went to med school with).
COMICS: SHORT TAKES
I’m going to have to post on the second episode of Medical Investigation (yeah, I know, why did I watch it AGAIN) before I do the Comics Journal post, so I figured I would at least prove this is a comics blog by posting some reviews of what I read this weekend.
PUNISHER 11: I’m in the opposite camp of most of the reviews I have read on this title. I didn’t warm much to the first arc (issues 1-6, which people seemed to like), but I’m liking this one (which I have heard complaints about) MUCH better. It seems like my favorite Ennis stuff is always when there’s a bunch of characters wrestling with issues of belief (or lack there-of), hurtling towards a bloody end. “Brotherhood” (the one with the cops and the priest) was my favorite arc by far of the last series, and this current story is doing it for me. I also like the Punisher better when he is used as a Mary Worth (i.e. non-essential character – the story could have been written without them – who acts as a narrative nexus)/Instrument of Nature figure more than a character, and mostly that’s what happens here (this story isn’t about the punisher in any significant way). I wonder why people don’t try writing Electra this way (I think Rucka took a spin at it in one arc). Wonder if the Punisher and the two young characters (the British Soldier and the Irish guy who has spent the last 3 issues tied up) will be the only ones to walk away (only wiser).
IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS: Short review – “about what I expected.” I’m not a huge Ted Rall fan, but I agreed with most of his critique of Speigleman
, which was recently rediscovered by the blogosphere. It had always seemed to me that Maus was a greater triumph of ambition and self-marketing than art, but there are many positive things to be said for it. I have been apprehensive about reading No Towers, Speigleman’s first real work (magazine covers non withstanding) in a while, mostly because I didn’t like the excerpts presented in the McSweeney’s graphic novel issue. The full result, however, is even more under whelming than I expected, as works of more personal and political power were produced within a few weeks of 9-11, and it’s tough to read this without realizing it took 3 YEARS to put together what amounts to not very much (this is partially because Speigleman won’t let you forget how long it took him, and how hard it was). The art comes off as crude, sometimes obviously intentionally (when reenacting old newspaper strips), but often not (the sequence of parts of himself and his cat changing places looks like a layout sketch). The most obvious complaint, however, is that the book is almost entirely about Speigleman himself, but the self-focus yields no real revelatory content besides that he has trouble dealing. The only part that really got to me was the bit where he runs across the Tribeca foot bridge to get to his daughter at Stuyvessant, and this is an entirely personal thing (we moved from NYC a few months before 9-11, where our son went to Stuyvessant, and watching the students run was the main image that haunted my dreams of 3 years ago). I think there was something of value going on in the (admittedly poorly rendered) page where he gets yelled at by the homeless woman, but this little anecdote is 10% of the story, and can’t support the weight of the whole work. This was not BAD, per se, just not nearly good enough for so many reasons.
BITE CLUB 6: Didn’t see that ending coming. This redeems some of the other sins of the series.
FABLES 29: Love the apology for Van Helsing getting there first.
FORSAKEN 1: Late on this one. Story idea clichéd’ (they admit as much) but OK. The art is not impressive. Colorist should get top billing.
As promised, the call of crappy TV forces me from comics before I actually have ever said word one. You have to go with the passion, though, and what forces me to write is my strong reaction to NBC’s new CSI meets the Agency meets really-sloppy-writing drama “Medical Investigation.” This is not the first bad show of the year (I turned to my wife 35 minutes into the pilot of “North Shore” and said “If they don’t blow it in the last half, this may be the worst pilot I’ve ever seen”), but this one was somehow uniquely offensive to me.
The show has that NBC house brand production (all their shows seem to be shot on the same film stock, with similar camera work) which works fine. The lead actors are that weird looking guy from “Band of Brothers” and Minority Report whose name I can never remember (and I refuse to look it up on principle) and the non-fat white lawyer from “the Practice” (she’s even more non-fat now, having lost 15 pounds and all of her charisma). The weird looking guy (henceforth referred to as “weird looking guy”) is ideally suited to play authority figures who are unsettling not because of their actions, but because they are weird looking. He has intense unblinking light eyes which stay popped WIDE open, and a shock of blonde hair that looks like it belongs on another person (the first time I ever saw him, probably Angels in the Outfield, I thought he had gotten a bad dye job for the role, but at this point I theorize that it must really be his). It is like a male no-cosmetics-necessary version of those hyper-tanned women who wear light colored make-up – he looks like a photo negative.
Enough! WLG didn’t bother me that much, and the emaciated 5/6ths that’s left of Kelli Williams (the Practice chick – see I know some names) was too innocuous to really bother me. The rest of the actors were not really noteworthy. The production was OK. So what bothered me sooooo much? This show is constructed to rely almost entirely on its medical detective plotlines (thus living and dying by its writing and research), and it has THE LEAST BELIEVABLE MEDICAL CONTENT EVER.
The A plot commits the greater sin of being utter fucking hogwash, but the B plot actually offended me more. A plot rundown (warning ****SPOILERS**** that may hamper your enjoyment of the tense suspense achieved during every minute of this taut drama): Instead of shipping salt, a food company actually ships saltpeter, a meat preservative and well known military de-lebidinizer, in salt cannisters. Apparently, the one diner that gets it salt quicker than everyone else, puts it in a shaker, and everyone who uses it turns blue and dies in the exact same amount of time (we know, because the number of minutes left per patient is stated as a bold absolute as if they had a time-bomb display over their heads). They figure out the thing because the smrufy dying patients have a large amount of nitrite in their “brackish” blood (whatever that means), which turns blue (see blue, blue – its science!) in a test tube. The TV in a “scoop” (don’t ask) reports that the salt is benignly being recalled, and all is right with the world.
Since absolutely nothing here made any sense, I guess that’s why it wasn’t that bothersome. The B plot, however, took the medical show-of-the-last-10-years standby osteogenesis imperfecta and fucked up everything around it (usual plot – med stud thinks baby is abused, consequently is mean to parents, attending reviews case and looks at X-rays, blue sclera noted, attending says “don’t you study,” student is appropriately ashamed as parents leave with baby and glare at them). The same basic plot is in place here, except the first step is a resident (who obviously had never seen Unbreakable or taken step 2 of the boards) knows “something’s wrong” which, as is standard procedure, dictates that she must call her sister from mythical NIH offices, so that they can send some MD field agent in training (during a suspected “biologic crisis” I might add) to help. The agent (who obviously had never seen Unbreakable or taken step 2 of the boards) says “yes, something’s wrong” and orders some tests. An evil doctor, accompanied for some unknown reason by an even more evil hospital administrator (neither of whom has ever seen Unbreakable or taken step 2 of the boards, but who seem to have just stepped out of a fairy tale via the principles office of Rock-and-Roll High School) threatens to arrest him, but lets him send the tests (whew!), where the “orphan” brittle bone disease (later in the show called osteogenesis imperfecta just so you know they know) is uncovered. Did I mention the glow in the dark blue sclera? Would it have killed them to crack a textbook?
I don’t even want to address the interpersonal stuff, which was complexly so-so. I predict week three for a terrorist attack (you know its coming), but I won’t be there to see it.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
With this wee post, I am going to attempt to slide unobtrusively back into the comics blogosphere with no fanfare, no mission statement, no muss, and no fuss; however, I though I should at least remind everyone that this is not my first blogging experience, and thus explain why my name may ring a bell with the 2 or 3 people who ever read any posts in my previous ventures.
About a year-and-a-third ago, I became one of the collective bloggers for Fourcolorhell. I managed somewhat regular fairly long posts, and was involved in some good cross talk. Lack of synchronization of the blog (which was kind of up and down) and my schedule (both vacation timing and my involvement in establishing a lab at a new hospital) took its toll on my posting record, though, and the collective blog eventually folded from atrophy. I was sure that I would return to the fold, but I just didn’t have the time to figure out (from a technical standpoint) how to start my own blog.
Well I did, and here I am. I will try to post as regularly as I can, and I believe the fact that this is a semi-comics blog will make this easier to accomplish. This means I can talk about other topics and personal stuff, which I never felt comfortable doing on Fourcolorhell. As the name of the blog indicates, TV will be another main topic, but so will books, cultural stuff, and anything that comes to mind - but I'll try to keep the comics #1 (damn, I said no mission statement). TV will likely figure big in the beginning, as the new (and likely shitty) season is just starting now.
This is the best of times and the worst of times to come back, it seems. The number of bloggers has hit a critical mass; however, we have also just lost two of comic’s best (John Jakala
and Sean Collins
)who functioned, in the absence of Journalista!
as the defacto tastemakers of the blogosphere. At least ADD
So here we go. I will post soon concerning my thoughts on the most recent (the one with the Thoth cover) Comics Journal, which was eagerly anticipated, but which I don’t think anyone’s taken a hard look at (although some TV thing will probably eek in first). Wish me luck.