DRAWN AND QUARTERLY 5 – A REVIEW
I’ve always been interested in D&Q’s eponymous anthology, but somehow never picked one up. As is my habit in such matters some small thing must have stuck in my mind long enough for me to remember to pick up the latest anthology in the stores. And, as you might expect, I read it.
You know a review, even a quick and dirty one like this, is not going to be entirely positive when it starts off with “well, the production values were good,” but… well they were pretty good. The stiff pages and top-notch printing reeked of quality, and I do mean reeked. The book smells great! The odor is that great banana-oil, ester-like smell that I for some reason associate with learnedness (does anyone else associate the smell of certain books with academic quality?). Anyway, reading this is, as a result, a better physical experience.
The anthology is divided by page count into thirds: Depuy and Berberian’s piece, that opens the book, the Albert Chartier retrospective that ends it, and a few assorted shorter stories rounding out the middle third. My favorite part (aside from the aforementioned smell) was the ECized version of Wuthering Heights by R. Sikoryak and Harry Mayerovitch, which managed the neat trick of lampooning both the Bronte story, and the EC story format. This wasn’t great satire by any means, but the experiment is so exacting (love the typeface, slightly off register lettering) that I couldn’t help but giggle at the little flourishes (ridiculous overuse of underlighting, for example) helping fit the original tragic story into an EC moralizing arc.
Before this, the last thing I had read by Depuy and Berberian was the odd little story in Dark Horse Maverick anthology 2001 (you know, the one with the upstairs neighbor that apparently doing it with his toaster). That story was driven by a strange set of events that resolve into a mystery (what is he doing with that toaster?). Those of you who have not read this story will, doubtless, be staring at me slack jawed, but I’m telling you – the spark of life in the story was trying to imagine how the upstairs neighbor was using the toaster sexually. The story in D&Q5 has no such spark and suffers from its length. Part of my overall assessment of “technically competent, but mediocre” comes from my general malaise when it comes to autobio (or pseudoautobio?) comics, but I will say that Depuy and Berberian do tend to have some story agendas that are head and shoulders above the listless self involvement of most comics of the me-me genre. It’s just that here, none of these ideas really take flight (except possibly for the odd linkage of a game boy pokemon-like game, and the overwhelming responsibility of parenting). The mistaken-as-gay and holocaust-money subplots are a bit sit-comy (well, if the holocaust can be a sit-com topic), and my inability to sympathize with the main character (that is to say, I sympathize with the situations he’s in, but he acts so poorly, he looses any shot at my identification with him) eventually couldn’t be ignored. Reaction: technically competent but meso-meso.
The Michel Rabagliati story was shorter, and thus better tolerated, but otherwise gave me a similar feeling of nice art-no point. This is a more standard autobio, but we are given no real reason why we should care about the two delinquents in the story. Like many “rebel youth” comics (Mahfood’s Working Grrls, to pick another random example), the characters seem to look down on anyone who doesn’t have the same screw-it-all attitude. Slice of life tales are always tough for me to swallow (there’s that pointless thing again), pissing on an unsuspecting shopper doesn’t make it go down any easier. I haven’t read Paul Has A Summer Job, which may have some qualities that this lacked, but this short piece wasn’t a terribly good introduction to Rabagliati. Better pacing than the Depuy piece though (it moved better), although it aimed a lot lower.
I can’t comment on the piece by the Japanese artist (the name eludes me at the moment), because I didn’t understand what the hell was going on. This may be my fault, but I doubt it. More likely, understanding is based on some prior knowledge of the people in the story, or based on Japanese cultural things that I am unaware of.
On to the Albert Chartier retrospective. The opening about the significance of the artist is quite good, and made me want to find out more and see the cartoons. Then I read a few. O.K., the printing really shines here. These are full color representations of B&W artwork, so you can really see the process (liquid paper and all). It really gives you the sense that this is a gifted artist, with his deceptively simple linework fearlessly depicting anything he wished to draw (although he apparently liked snowstorms and auto accidents quite a bit). The guy was an excellent draftsman.
But man, what the hell is up with this strip.
The jokes, which are very gag oriented, are just not funny at all. Although lacking the treaclyness of Family Circus, Billy and the gang might just be funnier. Yes, I said it. Family Circus is funnier. I concede that some of this may be that the jokes just don’t translate into English, or are aimed mostly at rural Canadian concerns (and thus are lost on me), but they seem pretty bad. The only parts that stood out were the bizarre things, like the main character (who appears about as physically strong as Don Knotts) beating up a… wait for it… belligerent hippie.
There is a movie review site I used to frequent called Mr. Cranky that gives only bad reviews (ranking movies by shades of badness), and I know that’s what I sound like here. Overall, throughout this book, I found the material well presented, well drawn and professionally done, but none of the stories completely engaged me. So, please don’t take this review as a unilateral slam, but I would be remiss if I didn’t relate my disappointment. The majority of the material here is translated, and this may explain the fact that the stories never connected, but given the positive features mentioned above, the lack of any sense of excitement or transcendence feels like a waste.
So I managed to squeeze out that last post completely on comics during TV premire week. What was I thinking! I figured I’d better get some opinions up on the new season before the cancellations start to hit, though.
PRISON BREAK: I need to comment on this show because, just a few posts ago, I called this the only new show I was excited about this season. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the premiere – I lost my critical objectivity. I initially saw a bit-torrented version of the pilot, which I watched on a computer screen, and really liked. Specifically, I thought they did a good job achieving a big reversal before each commercial break, which made the show feel like it moved at a good clip. Although I noticed some tenuous plot elements, I felt the show misdirected and moved passed them nicely (maybe watching in a small window helped). Then the reviews hit, and everyone blasted the show for its lapses in plot logic and overall silliness and now I have to actively resist reacting to the reviews of the show when I feel negative thoughts (did I really not like that, or is it just the critics talking?). For instance, when the main character whittles a bolt to use as an Allen wrench on a toilet screw, his placing the head of the bolt against his tattoo (instead of just inserting it in the head of the toilet screw which was right there in the same room) feels like an attempt to make the tattoo look useful, and I groan. But would I have been able to look past this (or even thought about it for more than a second) if a voice inside my head wasn’t saying, “look - this stuff just doesn’t work.” I guess what I’m saying is that the critical response has hampered my enthusiasm for the show, and now I’m seeing the flaky stuff, and it’s harder to get past. I still like the show; I’m just not as high on it now as I was initially.
HOUSE: Strangely enough, this show has been sluggish out of the gate for the same reason the OC was slow to start its second season – the most compelling actor had a cold while filming. Like the 2nd season of the OC, I expect this show to get back up to snuff soon, but still a lackadaisical start (especially considering the second to last episode of last season, which won the writing Emmy, was clearly the show’s best). They haven’t used Sela Ward at all yet.
While I was watching LOST’s first episode of the season, it seemed mighty good, but the more I thought about it, the better it got. Easily the best hour of the new season so far.
REUNION came incredibly close to loosing me completely in the first 20 minutes or so. There was a lot of really sloppy writing, very clumsy setups of a few of the situations, and some huge character problems. For instance, I instantly disliked, but was not interested in, the Tom Cruise character (I call him this because of the 4 Risky Buisness references in the first half of the show alone) and the other male characters seemed to be complete non starters. But the show did pick up towards the end of the first episode. I think one of the big trends for pilots this season is starting badly, or at least very coldly, and showing improvement towards the end of the hour (the other HUGE example of this is Nightstalker, which has the most soporific opening 10 minutes of any pilot I've ever seen). Episode 1 gets going in its last half as some of the emotional punches start to connect, and the characters get a little more exposure. The second episode, although it had less character issues, didn’t show any improvement in the writing department, which is where the show could use the most work. There is a moment in the episode (one character stands up and screams “nature calls,” leaving the other two characters in the room to have an conversation that is all important to advancing the plot) that is so un-natural, that I was jarred right out of whatever immersion in the narrative that I was able to develop by that point, and it generally takes one hell of a lot for this kind of shoddy transition to cause me any problems (I’m a 80’s TV vet, dammit). Interesting premise that looks DOA on execution.
I refuse to talk about the OC, a formerly great show, on the grounds that it might cause me internal hemorrhage.
BONES will succeed or fail on the basis of whether they can put together a writing staff that can provide better plot material for the lead actors to work with. I thought David Boreanaz basically "got" his character right away, and managed to inject enough charm so that I didn't rankle so much that the character is a bit creaky and hackneyed. Emily Deschanel, however, seemed to be trying to wrestle her character for control in the first half, and there was an interesting internal friction as a result (the character seemed overly developed in the script, and the actress seemed like she was trying to avoid the dialogue/exposition landmines to actually find the character she was playing). Toward the and of the first episode, this seemed to be actually working to her advantage, as she was employing that confusion/awkwardness in the character, which helped counter the "Mary Suism" some have pointed out. But never have I seen so many absolutely useless secondary characters. They really did a good job of giving us leads that can carry the show, but (as the X-Files shows) this kind of program just doesn't need all this other character baggage (plus which, this is a forensic anthropology show, so there must be a lot of travel a lot and you can't drag the whole cast along, unless you are "Medical Investigation" and have a (bullshit) transport plane and Batmobile to run around with). I would be shocked if at least 2 of these characters are not gone by the fifth episode.
SUPERNATURAL is a classic decent WB show (like Smallville) were casting blandly attractive actors seems more important than acting chops, but the show seems to work, and develops some nice tense moments in the first two episodes. I’ll watch anything with Wendigo in it, anyway.
HEAD CASES: My wife liked it. It’s cancelled. No need to go on.
SYRVIVOR has managed to really hook me all but two of its (what, is it eleven now?) seasons. I have faith, and bringing back Stephanie and Bobby John (sp?) was a nice touch. The early (as in just off the boat) incredibly hard reward challenge is nice to watch the fallout of. Survivor is one of only two reality shows (the Amazing Race being the other) that have been able to maintain both quality and watchability.
THRESHOLD: Whew, boy. This one is tough. I like the ideas in this show a lot (bioforming – i.e. alien invasion by taking over the organisms already on the planet - is a great one), everyone wants Karen Cisco to finally lead a show that doesn’t get cancelled, and the horny dwarf is a hoot, but crap! The show hasn’t really (after 3 hours) given me any indication that it is going to do anything interesting. This show is paradigmatic of the current season’s sturdy and serviceable, but bland and undistinguished shows. Nothing of any real interest has happened.
The CSIs: Warren Ellis is the only person who agrees with me that these shows have gotten more interesting to watch as abstract art films as they go on. All sorts of experimental film techniques are used to fetishise body fluids, and the shows different visual themes that make each distinct are miraculous. Meanwhile, the shows are well written and have watchable actors and actresses. All except for CSI:NY which sucks.
LAS VEGAS had a really odd opener, which does a reboot on the show after only two years. The episode took some very interesting character turns, but seemed to lack conviction (this should have been a two hour premire, just to let the “I’m not coming back…, OK I’m coming” reversals have more room to breathe). I just finished watching Twin Peaks in its entirety, and let me say that, although always limited, Lara Flynn Boyle looks especially wooden in Las Vegas in comparison. And the pony tail makes her look like Cindy in Jimmy Neutron (the second best animated lookalike in the past few months, as Michael from Big Brother looked exactly like Syndrome (Buddy) in the Incredibles). Some fun stuff and interesting moments, but felt a little forced getting from point A to point G in one hour.
INVASION: probably, after review of the play, the best pilot of the new shows, but I will reserve judgement for now.
SURFACE: I will also readdress this after a few weeks, but, out of all the shows I’ve seen, this had a pilot that was MUCH better than I expected judging by the reviews. I have no idea how this show could work week in, week out, but I was pleasantly surprised by the casting and writing. I like the Louisiana guys a lot.
MEDIUM: Interesting start, but we really have no change in the status quo after some diverting “has she lost her powers?” mumbo jumbo. As I have said before, I really warmed to this show after a chilly start (I really thought the pilot was bad), mostly due to ceasing to think of it as a real life psychic show and starting to look at it as a realistic superhero show. The fact that the family life somehow feels more authentic (and actually loving) than anything else on the air helps.
So far, the surprise of how good the last season was has given way to a season of the meh’s (good but not great! is the motto for the new shows). To be continued.
A recent series
(the Lethem and Leifield parts in the later link) over at Double Articulation
got me thinking about some interesting things. If you read the two Lethem articles
linked at the site back to back, there is an interesting overlapping undercurrent concerning the feeling in the 70’s that the Fortress of Solitude author (and thus all of alive at the time) were living in the shadow of “when the great things happened.” Letham seems concerned primarily (and to great benefit) with 60’s Marvel, but makes a few allusions to pop music of the time as well.
This is a subject area I have considered before. Everybody, from time to time, gets annoyed by the boomers who cut their music appreciation-al teeth in the 60’s and are more than happy to gleefully exclaim how it’s all been downhill from there. There is a perverse joy in letting you know that “your” stuff can’t hold a candle to “their” stuff. The interesting angle suggested by the articles is that the implicit tone of comics of the 70’s (both in the stories, the editorial citations, and the bullpen bulletins) seemed not just to clue you in on what you’d missed but also to point out that you’d missed it. This creation/promotion of the “legendary time” probably worked very well for Marvel for a while, but seemed to ultimately work against it (by making readers feel they were getting cold leftovers). This may be the beginning of the modern age of shortsighted comic marketing.
But this line of thinking also reminded me that the presence of a legendary past (that the new reader is invited to slowly become aware of) is one of the most exciting things about being an obsessive experiencer of any pop experience. I have often thought about one odd effect that occurs when someone really gets interested in an area of entertainment (pop music, Marvel comics, etc.) - the recent past looms disproportionately large in value like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover. Someone who got really into music thanks to Pet Benetar’s Love is a Battlefield playing at the roller rink would likely have, in the initial stages, tended to overinflate the significance of Quarterflash or Loverboy, and think of Journey, Foreigner, or Styx as bands with an illustrious history (close your eyes and imagine the unexpected wonder of hormones mixing with the thudding speaker system… Don’t Stop Beleivin’, Hot Blooded, and Babe seem transcendent). And there is always, as you look to the past to get “educated” on the history of your area of obsession, a tendency to devalue what is going on right now, because you are in the right now, the material is “common,” and there is no feeling of secret superiority in having access to the true great stuff.
This is the part of nostalgia that no one talks a lot about: faux nostalgia (or, more correctly, retro-pseudonostalgia - nostalgia for the illusion of a primary experience of something that was experienced after the fact). Lets face it… the comic that woke me up and got me first into the field that is my lifelong passion was Star Wars #39. You read that right, the first issue of the adaptation of the Empire Strikes Back. This, of course, is not entirely true (I owned many comics before – including the original Star Wars movie adaptation - and enjoyed reading them, and my fever really took hold slightly later when I bought Avengers 200) and the comic was not particularly bad (Al Williamson art, Tom Palmer inks, if I remember), but SW 39 is not exactly remembered as a trend setting stunner. But it was, ultimately, the comic that started it for me in many ways. All the stuff from just before had a glow of interest. Moon Knight seemed a mysterious and dim figure who’s early appearances were in magazines that were hard to find. You had but to peek back a few years to the Korvak saga, which just seemed so big. This effect of retrospective nostalgia may be more important in the comics industry than actual nostalgia.
Lethem specifically mentions this in “The Amazing…”
“In fact, I'd sentimentally rewritten my personal history, according to the dicta of the Bullpen Bulletin, so that until my research into the movie disproved it, I could claim (in Bookforum, two years ago) that 'the first romantic loss for a lot of guys my age was Gwen Stacy's death.' This was a retrospective fiction, I now see. Gwen Stacy was dead before I met her, which imparts a Gnostic eeriness to our sundered love.”
The impulse to engineer access to a shared history of prior greatness is strong. I’m sure some sociology wonks out there could say something cromulent about tribal identity, and the dance between societal assimilation and shared acceptance of carefully constructed fictions, but I won’t. I just remember being slapped in the face by Thor 300 with its intimation of rich history of Celestials and Gods, like I had just peered through a crack in the door into a jungle of ideas that seemed, in their elusive majesty, to be better than anything I’d ever seen.
There are many offshoots of this discussion: the altercation between those with militant immersion in the now vs. classicists, the discussion of faulty memory as a means of creating selves that we are more proud of (see the Leifield part of this post
), and the reason that these types of obsessive interest patterns tend to burn out over time (leading to lack of interest, and even “quitting” once you get to familiar with the mysterious past). But I’ll stop here, and simply remember those wonderful times when the first issue of Micronauts seemed intriguing, and my excitement at striking gold and finding Star Wars 38 (the strange and wonderful Michael Golden issue) at a local 7-11. If I hadn’t had these feelings then, I wouldn’t be reading comics now.
OK – if there is anything that can get me blogging again, it’s a new TV season. I’ve been doing major catch-up work with reading comics recently, I read the new Harry Potter, I’m almost finished the Dark Tower books, and there is more TV on the horizon than I can watch. So much to talk about.
So, PRISON BREAK then. I saw the first hour of the show a few months back and really liked it. When I watched the two hour premiere Monday, the bloom was a little off the rose, but I still felt it was solid entertainment. What changed? Most likely, when I first watched, I was propelled through the show (due in no small part to the big revelation before every commercial break structure) and didn’t really stop to smell the roses of implausibility. The second time through, I knew what was going to happen, and had more attention to spare in order to look around. This is not really a criticism of the show… it was propulsive enough to carry a Jaded viewer like me the first time through, and if it doesn’t hold up as well on repeated viewing – so what. I liked the second episode better in the 2 hour premiere (the part of the show critics have been hardest on – uniformly everyone says the 3rd episode, which I haven’t seen yet, is better), which bodes well for the show. I like the cast, the show moves fast, and I remain quite entertained. Bottom line is, this probably won’t turn out to be the next Great (note the capital G) show, but will be solidly fun.
I’ve also seen the pilots for Invasion and Night Stalker. INVASION seems quite good, but I faded out near the end of the hour. The show starts very strong and has some nice cast elements, but the last third of the episode starts working a little too hard for its exposition. One has to wonder if, due to its subject matter (hurricane aftermath), the show may be pushed back, even to spring, but there are some interesting elements, and I liked the prior Shaun Cassidy produced shows, so I have a good feeling about it.
NIGHT STALKER performs the opposite trick. When the show starts, everything feels very flat. Stuart Townsend looks positively comatose, and his “partner” (who I have only seen previously as the head cheerleader of the urban-school-where-the-white-girl-cheers-were-stolen-from in Bring It On) doesn’t work in the role at all. But a few things happen along the way. First, the actual horror scenes are pretty good (the werewolf at the end is a bit cheesy, but when the show is being subtle with the horror, it works). Second, Townsend begins to wake up a bit. It seems it must have taken a few days of filming to get comfortable with the part, but he actually begins to bring something to it by the end. Third, the what-happened-in-Vegas reveal really pumps up the “over arc” of the show – I didn’t think they would come clean with this stuff until later in the season. So, the pilot got better as I watched it. The show bears watching.
I just finished reading KRAMER’S ERGOT 5 and, much as in my review of DRAWN AND QUARTERLY 5 (wait, that might not be up on this site... I’ll have to think about reposting it), I was not that impressed. Many have gushed about this anthology, but besides the Kevin Huizenga (which was kinda neat), and “My sexual History” (which was fascinating, until the comprehensiveness made it boring) I really wasn’t into much of it. Some of the other material was nice to glance at, but was not readable in any clear sense. This is likely just me placing demands on the art that the art was not created to fulfill, but pthuut... I seek narrative when I read comics, and precious little narrative was present. If I could crack the reason why this stuff was lost on me, I also could also figure out why most minicomics leave me cold. P.S. another thing that bothered me was the excellent high grade color reproductions of a lot of unfinished black (often pencil) and white art… I just seemed like a seventy-five dollar frame holding a seventy-five cent poster you got at a garage sale.