Comics TV Blah Blah
Friday, December 31, 2004
HOUSEScott at Polite Dissent has been writing about the mid (or so) season Fox replacement show House so I don’t have to. But I think I’ll mention it anyway. I agree with Scott about almost everything he says about the show, but I feel that I need to express my opinion that this is the best medical show in a long time. ER started somewhat strong (with a truly great pilot), but had already begun to succumb to its inherent problems by the end of season one (although the show has always been capable of the occasional really good episode). You really have to go back to St. Elsewhere to find a better show (the gold standard, of course, is Quincy M.E., a show that, thanks to strong identification with pathology, has made my job almost impossible to explain to people on airplanes).
Hugh Laurie (who I will parenthetically call Mr. Little just to be contrary to all the BBC watching snobs out there) is phenomenal, and the rest of the cast ain’t that bad, but he’s gotten so much attention for his paint peeling performance, that I have nothing to add. Omar Epps does a fine job, but has been singled out too much from the rest of the fine cast who all take a back seat to Mr. Little. But I’d rather talk about the medical aspects of the show, especially in comparison to the other major “medical detective” show on the air, Medical Investigations (MI), which I have written about before.
Let me start by admitting that House is not a perfect show. As in MI and other such shows, there is a tendency to up the ante on everything, so that any rare infection or drug with low percentage (but pretty bad) side effect comes off as ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH. Scattershot bizarre elements of the differential diagnoses are used to treat the patient, because much more likely explanations have been scratched off the erasable board because they don’t fit perfectly. Case in point, the woman in the recent episode who was very fatigued and was dying without a diagnosis was decided to have either tularemia (rabbit fever) or African sleeping sickness (both of which they admit didn’t quite fit) simply because they couldn’t think of anything else that it could be (I’m sure they could have come up with something a lot more common that didn’t perfectly fit - I don’t think that they even considered metabolic causes). I could follow this example out, talking about the other problem tendencies germane to this type of show (like when the doctors insist that the sleeping sickness had to be sexually-transmitted despite only one Portuguese report suggesting this could even happen, and proceed to rake the family over the coals about it till they caused the couple to separate, though the question of transmission was, at the very best, ancillary information… I could go on), but I’m here to say why the show is good, not to take pot shots at it.
The thing is, however the doctors take liberty with the execution of their medical knowledge, the whole show seems based on extremely solid medical understanding. The final diagnoses seem earned, and make sense. The differential diagnoses are thought out (apparently by someone who knows something), the tests chosen are generally correct, and many many moments seem piercingly true. The debunking of “if you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras” was edifying, the scrawling mnemonics on the erasable board and crossing through things conjured up memories of internal medicine rounds (aside – the leader of our internal medicine rounds, Dr. “Bo” Sanders, was so intuitive that he pegged me a future Pathologist - before I had decided to be one - after I uttered only 2 words to him – “Mallory bodies”), and the clinic scenes seem real even though the clinic set seems incredibly fake. And the odd mixture of high mindedness, contempt, the contentious relationship with political correctness, and the gallows camaraderie seems authentic when matched against my memories of academic medical training.
Scott isolates a very helpful point in one of his reviews, that I think all writers and producers for these shows should take note of. He coins the term “medical school disease” for those diseases that are talked about constantly in training, which you almost never see in practice. Just realizing that there are rare diseases that every doctor has heard about far out of proportion to the actual occurrence of the disease would prevent an entire type of error – the idiotic “a-ha, water is wet” moment - in all of these medical shows (I talked about this fact when I noted that everyone in MI was acting as if they had never heard of ontogenesis imperfecta when it is talked about constantly in med school - especially in ER rotations - and something like 2 questions a year about it show up on the step 2 boards).
The point is that even though House and MI are guilty of some of the same sins, MI feels utterly phony, and House feels authentic, despite specific lapses in reality (there is no way Dr. House could get away with acting the way he does – some other physician with an ax to grind would crucify him in front of a committee if he didn’t get thrown out over patient complaints first, unless he publishes a lot, which he doesn’t seem to – and they would never in this lawsuit shy environment force the guy to do a clinic). The show earns a pass in these areas. Right out of the gate, this is the third best new show of the year (after Lost and Veronica Mars).
Thursday, December 30, 2004
MY GODI just heard on the news about an Australian woman who had to choose which of her two children to hold onto during the flooding in Asia. When I heard the coming-up blurb, I thought “oh, another one of those kind of stories.” But when I heard the report I was horrified on some existential level. She was holding on to her toddler and her 5 year old, and wasn’t going to be able to keep holding on. She was convinced, she said, that the older child was dead, and thus chose to let him go. He was found alive hours late floating on a car door. Happy ending, says the news. WHAT!!
I’m scared for life just hearing the story. The choice is truly horrifying, but the woman could not have been too convinced that the boy was dead. She just willed herself a reason to do what she had to, which was let one go. Now, she knows she was lying to herself, and she has to look at the kid she was prepared to let die every day. Then, there’s the fact that she’s more guilty of doing something wrong in a complex parent guilt way than if the kid had died, which means it has to enter the back of her mind that if the kid had died, her life might be better. I’m not saying anything against the woman at all – but can you imagine living with yourself after this. It reminds me of the cruel old testament god who would make someone decide to sacrifice his child, then say, in essence, “psyche!” Also, isn’t this complex moral topic (the necessary sacrifice that survives) the subject of Touching the Void (I didn’t see the movie, but I think its about 2 mountain climbers, one of whom has to be cut free over a big crevasse, but lives).
These stories might strike home for me more because my whole family was, while in a car, directly hit by a tornado about 6 or 7 years ago. We were driving (down from Nashville through the Huntsville area which is the second most active tornado area in the world – did you know 2/3 of all the worlds tornados are in the US? Weird, huh) ahead of a bad weather front. We stopped for food, and as we pulled out onto the road back to I-65, the visibility dropped to close to zero, and I saw, for a split second, a funnel touch down in a ditch 50 ft from the car, and in a split second, the windows of the car vaporized into a hail of tiny cubes, and the sound was like being convertible in a car wash x20. Swirling earth filled everything. I was leeward, and so my feet got buried in earth and roofing tiles. My wife wrenched her back throwing herself over the baby, and got hit in the side of the head with some roofing material (she had tinnitus for a month). Everyone had dicing injuries but, other than the above-mentioned injuries to my wife, was pretty OK.
But I always think back to why I didn’t act quicker somehow. Floor the car, try to help the children like my wife, something. But in my mind at the time I was the driver, and was at a loss to specifically see how moving would be better than standing still (read: I was in shock, and froze up). Backing up would have been bad - one of those roadside signs (the ones with the lighted arrow and the 2 wheels, with little rectangle letters you stick up – do you know how big and heavy those things are?) crushed our trunk. But what if someone had died – how would I have felt about this not making whatever decision would have prevented it?
I feel really sorry for all of the victims of this tragedy, but I also feel sorry for this woman who did would she had to do, and lucked out, but will have to live with the fact of what she was willing to do for the rest of her life.
AND THEN THERE'S THE FOOTBALL THING***Football warning: Stop here if you don’t want to here my idiotic sports blatherings***
Please scroll down for more sensible comic talk
I will be watching collage football on new years day (LSU plays Iowa in the Capitol One Bow), which is something I haven’t done in a while. I’m a huge LSU fan (went there for undergrad, medical, and graduate school), and think that, overall, they have been greatly wronged by the collective sports media during the past year. But my son goes to USC, and I think I have some perspective on the issue, and you won’t see me with a FUSC shirt on.
For those not in the know, Oklahoma, USC, and LSU were 1,2, and 3 going into the conference championship weekend. Oklahoma lost to K State, LSU won against Georgia, and the Pac10 doesn’t play a championship. Thus, the AP poll had USC 1, LSU 2, and Oklahoma 3. But the rank that determined the championship bowl (the BCS or BCE) had Oklamoma 1, LSU 2, and USC 3, due to complex rules including strength of scedule. The consensus opinion was that USC and LSU deserved to play (some thought USC and Oklahoma), but the system dictated LSU vs. Oklahoma. LSU won. The AP poll voted USC 1 anyway, the coaches poll violated their agreement with the BCS and voted USC 1, The BCS had LSU as 1. So LSU wins the championship game, but is 2nd in the major 2 polls. LSU has one trophy that says National Champion at the bottom, USC has 2. So, this is a problem. Bad for USC (didn’t have a chance to prove themselves). Bad for LSU (met all the requirements, won game, still don’t get full credit). Bad for Oklahoma (everyone hates them because they “didn’t belong” in the game). People rail at the BSC system. And over the year LSU, who won the national championship game, has been systematically written out of the position of national champion.
The main agent of this has been ESPN, which has been pretending all year that USC are THE National Champions. I personally would have preferred the nomenclature of LSU as the National champs and USC as the #1 team as a rule, which would seem to be more of a correct apportionment (seeing as LSU won the championship game), but even the split championship idea isn’t being acknowledged (even in a Roger Maris 61* kind of way). If you turn on the tube, it’s like USC were undisputed champs.
Having talked to many USC students, I can tell you that there is a general arrogance about the championship, but I do not think this is specific for this issue. USC is just arrogant. They are a great school academically (far better than LSU) with one of the best football program histories (better than LSU’s – no doubt about it). But one reason they are so easy to hate is a pall of superciliousness over the basic “school pride.” So I don’t think that USC itself has really contributed to the championship travesty, except to collectively say “of course we’re the real champions,” which is in perfect harmony with other past and present actions. Short version – it’s not USC’s fault because they’ve always been assholes.
I’m not going to further analyze the whys and wherefores of this issue. There are a lot of major and minor contributing factors (anti-SEC bias, pro USC-bias, game availability to voters, specific bad decisions in the BCE system, the SEC knocking its own teams out of contention year after year, groupthink, a tendency to use or not use facts to support gut level conclusions), but several things are noteworthy about the outcome of the controversy. First, the BCE rules were changed this year by trying to remove some of the objective component of the system. In other words, the sports-media complex doesn’t like it when the facts get in the way of their conclusions, so it’s back to the popularity contest. Second, no one is even talking about USC “legitimizing” their championship. This is really odd on a basic psychological front as whatever they “won” last year is undeniably tainted, and Leinert will likely leave after this season. So anyone who has ever competed in anything should realize that this game has to be important to USC being considered the “real” champions, but there is nary a peep on this front. Third, we’ve already seen the boo-hoo for Auburn (the undefeated #3 team this year) come and go, and (mark my words) no one will consider this championship split or tainted in any way if if a bowl winning undefeated Auburn winds up #2, because there is a general comfortability with the SEC team being left out. I feel really sorry for the Mountain West, whose teams have looked really good this year but no one will take seriously. The fact that no one acknowledges the conferencism and programism is just weird (Notre Dame, for example, is ALWAYS overrated). Fourth, I think things look really bad for LSU with Sabin leaving. A big recruiting class was coming in, and there is a very high rate of these guys un-committing as we speak. The offer from the Dolphins sounds like it was too good to pass up, but I wonder if the championship fiasco influenced his leaving at all.
But being national champions is like being Miss America – you’re only “it” for a year, and that experience can be contaminated by events, but for the rest of time, you were “it,” and noone can take that away. Except maybe ESPN.
WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING? AND A DEFENSE OF DAVE FIOREWhy, I got busy at work, had a lovely Christmastime visit in Louisiana, had the kids get sick, got sick myself… everything but blog posting, it seems. Even got involved in yet another John Byrne discussion over at the pop culture bored, but I’m through talking Byrne for now. But I didn’t realize quite how long it had been since I posted, and I feel like I need to get in some serious writing in this week not to be embarrassed at myself.
Christmas was good to me. I received as gifts mostly comic related books, (B. Krigstein Comics, the Smithsonian book, two Joe Sacco’s, Tales to Astonich, Men of Tomorrow, A Complete Lowlife, and Bighead). It was weird being in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The trips back always have an oddly depressive component, as the environment appears to have deteriorated since I lived there, but there is a lot of new construction, and maybe that’s a good thing.
I am horrified by the tsunami deaths (115K and climbing – shit!), which I keep thinking about. What could have been done if there were warning beforehand? Anything? Is this one of the biggest natural disasters in recorded history? I know there was a famine in China (that the government tried to keep hidden) that killed many millions, but how many natural disasters have killed over 100K? I can’t seem to conceptualize the size of it all. Just hearing about one kid dying gets me sick to my stomach. Thousands, though. God.
I have to throw my support in for David Fiore, though, as there has been a little backlash concerning his opinions on Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier (see here for the backlash discussion and links). I have to admit that, although I found stuff to like about this series, I was, at the end of the day, underwhelmed by it. The saving grace for me was the style of the thing, which I think accomplished no mean feat by achieving a reliable “feel” of silver age superheroes as seen through the lens of the current public conception of the 50’s-60’s swinging hipster aesthetic (note: I live in Vegas and get a thrill of pleasure every time I pass the construction on the decadently future-deco sign going up in front of the Wynn – so I have something of a weakness for the style in question).
This is why issue 1 fell utterly on it’s face as far as I was concerned (the dinosaur island and boneheaded Hal Jordan pacifist fighter-pilot sequences left no room for the grooviness), and the series most fully captured my attention in the Las Vegas cocktail party sequence. The convertible rides went a long way to making the series worthwhile. But I had no use for the overall plot, theme and subtext which makes the sledgehammer subtle Kingdom Come look like Gravity’s Rainbow in comparason. My reaction to this series reminded me of my reaction to Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score, where the visual and stylistic elements evoked (in a positive way) a period chic (calling to mind –oh, I don’t know – The Getaway where New Frontier recalls The Right Stuff), but the narrative itself felt a bit creaky and clunky. I my mind, Cooke is an excellent stylist who could stand some improvement as a writer.
But I don’t understand the bile directed towards poor Dave. He’s always been upfront about the fact that he views comics through a somewhat narrow prism, and that no one else is compelled to agree with his conclusions. I have disagreed with his position an several occasions (most notably on the issue of whether Lost in Translation is a masterpiece or a failure of a movie with a few redeeming values, and on the topic of whether or not the phrase “it took me out of the story” makes sense), but I can trust that his thoughts are authentically his, and that he will not seek to judge the opinions of others as less worthy than his own (this alone places him above 95% of online commentators). He is the only blogger that has stayed near the top of my blog favorites list for an extended period of time because of this non-judgmental sincerity.
I hope to be back to regular blogging now, I just had a really rough few weeks. I’m going to the Electra premier and after party on Jan 8 (at the Palms – yay!), and I hope to report a bit on it.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
WE USED TO WEAR AN ONION ON OUR BELT, WHICH WAS THE STYLE AT THE TIMEThis (as always lovely) David Fiore post leads me to this Ian Brill post about John Byrne and outmoded comics, which got my juices a-flowin’. By way of quick recap (so you don’t have to follow the branching tree down to the roots) Joanna Draper Carlson started this train a-rollin’ by suggesting the approach to dialoguing in Doom Patrol #6 was “sloppy and boringly old-fashioned,” using the outmoded techniques of redundant description (describing stuff that you can see in the panels), and clunky character over-exposition (with characters completely restating what they know for the sake of convenience). Into this is stirred Dorian’s answer to Bob Layton’s open letter on the Death of Future Comics (to which the link is broken), in which it is noted that, despite Layton’s protestation to the contrary, Future comics went down because the comics stunk, they were expensive, and they were hard to order (in that order). During this preaching to the converted, the word old-fashioned is used again, along with “dated” and references to grandpa. Ian approaches this subject (old styles stubbornly refusing to die) seriously, as an admitted fan of older comics. He makes the good point that, in refusing to evolve, creators stagnate, and become irrelevant.
As you might expect from a confirmed “Byrne victim,” I think he misses the mark on what it is that Byrne is doing wrong. Brill writes –
“In the case of Future Comics, John Byrne and others we get creators who hit it big decades ago and apparently don’t feel they have to improve the skills they used in creating comics back then. To them and many of their fans the problem isn’t they fact they haven’t changed, the problem is the fact that the rest of the world has.”
There are two distinct concepts here – 1. Byrne and his ilk don’t feel the need to improve and 2. they view change from “the way things were” as a bad thing. I think there is something here, but it misses the point of where Byrne went off of the rails. Byrne began his carrer as an artist, but found great success in collaberations where he had some story influence. We all love Cockrum, but Claremont did his best writing along with Byrne, and this is not just in response to the art. Byrne had certain narrative abilities (finding the surprisingly interesting handle on the neglected character, stripping core concepts for reuse, etc.), and he used these to sucessfully launch from collaborative efforts to solo work. There was no looking back - from the moment he set foot in FF, he was (except for a few notable exceptions such as the Larry Niven and John Cleese collaberations and a brief reuniting with Claremont) a writer/artist, dammit. So far, so good.
It is the Byrne persona, however, that helped incite the development of the problems that Brill notes. Tracking the development of this persona is not that difficult, as Byrne did a lot of interviews in the 80’s, and his 90's columns (the Next Men’s “A Flame About this High” being the most prominent example) gave him a chance to state his beleifs and rail about this and that. So the foundation, and subsequent evolution of Ego the living artist is pretty clear. He stated pretty early on that the artist is the most important person in producing a comic, using the example that a good art can save a lousy story, but bad art can ruin a good story. This may be a good point in the currently writer dominant environment, but he repeatedly harped on this point during a period in comic history when the writer was all but ignored. Statements like this show that he, out of all the hot creators of the late 70’s early 80’s (Miller, Perez, Giffen, etc.) served as the most direct template for the attitude of the Image guys (an attitude still evident in McFarlane).
Two things seemed to happen to Byrne as the 90’s dawned. He became nummingly comfortable with his approach to the comic page (beginning to lock in his angulated approach to layout and the pencil/inking relaionship that caused the major fluctiations in his art during the 80’s), and he began to see himself as more of a writer (he bublished two novels around this time “Fearbook” in 1988 and “Whipping Boy” in 1992). He still appeared to have areas where he was trying to improve the art (e.g. the use of computer technologoies, mostly in backgrounds), but it seemed that he felt his primary area of growth as an “artist” was in trying to find his place as a writer.
It is my belief that the reason that Byrne has been having a bit of a problem being precieved as an creator of note lately is that his primary focus is on a certain kind of story, and he is just not that good or innovative in dealing with the subject matter he is trying to explore. In addition, and perhaps most crippling, he does not have the proper feedback system in place to acnowledge and react to this. Virtually everything Byrne has written since he returned to Marvel last time (in 1999) has been a rehash of the same kind of weak sci-fi plot ideas that he toyed with in the Next-Men phase (early 90’s) through the filter of his mid–late 90’s DC Legend-ized work (which was, in turn, the direct descendant of his 80’s FF and Supeman work). These plots, which revolve around attempts at structurally convoluted time travel, what’s-real-what’s-not virtual reality, and issues of memory/identity/humanity, were all better explored by episode 10 of the original Star Trek series, but Byrne approaches them as if he’s the first one in the territory. I think these topics still interest him, and he feels that he is trying to explore and perfect them.
Byrne’s imperviousness to feedback is sad, but not unprecedented. Many great artists, writers, and mucisians have been felled by the lack of an editor and insulation from criticism. Stephen King, who is a pretty good writer (really, I believe this) has written only a small number of books of note since1990, and I attribute this to the fact that he has no editorial influence at all other than his wife. He has some good instincts, but he has mostly given himself over to stylistic bloat. Byrne seems to get most of his ideas on “how things are” from his own head, without any additional strengthening of his position through debate with dissenting voices (this has been going on for a long time – see any of the afforementioned columns – but has worsened). The JB message board, with its squelching of dissenting voices and syncophantic chorus, is not a competitive environment in which to grow strong ideas.
The other issue, that of older professional’s view that “things shouldn’t change,” is harder to defend, as I think there is a component of thought on Byrne’s (as well as Layton’s) part that modern storytelling has abdicated some positive storytelling values. But it seems that the old fashioned feel of these comics come predominantly from blind spots – things (like that expository scripting and overuse of internal monologue thought baloons) that these creators have done for so long they no longer even comprehend that there is a different approach possible. New approaches are not so much less valued, but simply not comprehended.
So, to disagree, I don’t think that Byrne has given up on improving (although I think he is “happy” with his rendering and layout style, which means he has gotten a bit static and, thus, boring), just that he has focused his attempts at improvement in an areas that he’s not that good at (e.g. sci-fi plotting), or that are process concerns that don’t significantly affect the story experience (e.g. computer modeling for backgrounds). He does not, as Brill suggests, refuse to evolve, but believes he has evolved (and is still evolving appropriately) - he has just done so in a fashion perpendicular to the rest of the comics industry (although he thinks the comics industry has evolved perpendicular to him). To put it another way, Byrne hasn’t stopped moving, he’s just been moving on different vectors than the audience (whicle standing still in some axes that the audience has moved on), and thinks that’s the audience’s problem. Popular musicians who do this kind of thing wind up with rabid loyal followings and, like Byrne and Claremont, do “reunion tours” from time to time, filling bigger arenas by doing so. And I don’t think Byrne necessarily feels things were “better back then,” but simply has some ingrained anachronisms, and a (possibly partially healthy) view that just because it’s new, doesn’t mean its better.
So that’s my defense of Byrne (like my previous defense of Dave Sim on the old fourcolorhell, with people like me defending you, who needs adversaries).