Comics of the Year — 2011

One of the more interesting ironies of the new century is that while comics have become more popular in this country than ever before, it is that very popularity that seems to be threatening the existence of comic shops and specialty stores. Most major comics publishers, including the big two, have begun aggressively marketing digital versions of their monthly titles, complete with “smart” readers that zoom in and out on panel transitions like DVD-extra storyboards. Somewhat overlooked amidst DC’s New 52 initiative is the fact that the publisher is now releasing its digital editions simultaneously with print copies. Batman fanatics don’t need to hit their saver bin for a first peek into the mysterious Court of Owls. In fact, digital subscribers can download, read, and post spoilers on an issue before the local comic shop even opens for business.

Meanwhile, publishers of book-length graphic novels, as well as the cartoonists and creators responsible, are finding that their works are being embraced by mainstream bookstores and online vendors. The New York Times has a “Graphic Books” best seller list that includes volumes from pioneering indie comics publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics. A backup story in Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12 addresses the painful realization that we’re likely never to see a staple-bound comic from the likes of Chester Brown, Peter Bagge, or Jessica Abel again. He includes a soundbite from a Daniel Clowes interview on NPR: “Nobody wants to sell some floppy thing that, you know, gets all bent on the shelf… No bookstore wants to carry it because the profit margin is so low…”

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Books Of The Year — 2011

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks & Rob Tannenbaum

I don’t know if he invented it, but writer Studs Terkel certainly perfected the concept of an “oral history.” He would go out and interview a wide variety of people who created or influenced an aspect of American culture, and piece together a book on that topic out of their own words. In recent years, two landmark works of oral history have been published — 1995’s Please Kill Me told the story of the rise and fall of punk rock in America and Britain in the words of the scene’s (surviving) participants, and 2002’s Live From New York dealt with the seemingly unkillable NBC late night comedy show Saturday Night Live. Marks and Tannenbaum acknowledge the influence of these two books in the introduction to their own (yes, I read the introductions to books), which gathers recollections from hundreds of artists, directors, executives, and on-air personalities (“VJs”) to explore the glory years (1981-92) of the revolutionary cable network Music Television.

MTV was a huge part of growing up for me, both through childhood and adolescence. In its early years (1981-85), my older sister and her friends would sit and stare at it for hours. It was a time for them to socialize, yes, but often they just watched, sometimes offering a little pre-Beavis & Butthead commentary. Occasionally, grade-school Holy Bee would join them as a welcome guest. Other times I had to sneak down after dark and hide behind the couch, half-listening as they talked about incomprehensible high school things, and watching images of Van Halen, Madonna, Lionel Richie, The Thompson Twins, The Eurythmics, and many others unspooling before my eyes as I peeked out through the crack between the couch and the wall. (I’m pretty sure they knew I was there now.)

Then, when my sister went off to college and my family moved to a rural area with no cable — no more MTV. As a result, there’s a noticeable gap in my knowledge of music and pop culture from 1986 through the first half of 1989. When people bring up the likes of Rick Astley or Frankie Goes To Hollywood (as they often do), I go a little blank. I wasn’t missing much, though. Evidently, ’86 to ’89 was hair metal’s time to shine, and the two biggest VJs were the absolutely odious Downtown Julie Brown and the pompous blowhard Adam Curry. (Want a quote from Curry straight from the book? “I called MTV ‘The Big M…’ I thought that was genius of me.” He’s serious. It’s on page 375.) Continue reading Books Of The Year — 2011

Favorite (non-album) Tracks of 2011

We saw this coming. Everything’s changed over the course of the last decade: the way we buy music, listen to music, share music. And although the Institute will forever and aye extol the virtues of the album, we’ve become increasingly aware that our so-called “bonus disc,” a typically 20-track compilation of our favorite non-album songs of the year, is often the finest mix in the best-of-bunch. My pal Uncle Isey is quick to point out that this is strongly suggestive of the 1950’s; we’re in a singles-era renaissance and one great track with popular appeal can go from an iPod commercial to an episode of Grey’s Anatomy to the cloud storage of a half-million Amazon customers in a matter of months. So it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that, for the first time, my picks for favorite non-album songs —  tracks from EPs, soundtracks, single releases, etc. — might just be my favorite songs of the year.

Welcome to the future, Idle Timers. These songs were bought online, digitized into tiny magic MP3 particles, and shared with Willy Wonka widgets on the world wide wonderland.

5. Total Warr – “Jamie” (Weezer cover)

Total Warr is a Parisian band with an affinity for cute aminals and charming pop hooks. They’ve released a pair of EPs since their formation including this year’s bubbly singalong-friendly Please Never Come Back Again. They’re also responsible for reminding us how good Weezer used to be… with this cover of a blue-album b-side.

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 9: What’s Up? Cereal Killers, Vampires, And 12 Inches Of Snow, That’s What

#77. “Connected” – Stereo MCs
Connected I was most certainly not. I lost my first real job in January of ’93 before I even worked a minute. I was all set to be a lot boy on evenings and weekends for Enterprise Rent-A-Car (drawing upon my recent experience as an employee of Stephanie’s Detail – see previous entry.) Right before I was scheduled to start, I received a panicky call from their office manager. It seems they thought they were hiring someone already in college, and a quick review of my paperwork showed I was still a scum-sucking lowly high-schooler. The job was yanked away from me without much in the way of apology, even though they were the ones who made the mistake. Who’s laughing now, Enterprise Rent-A-Car? I went on to bigger and better employment later that year in the field of home video entertainment, and your crummy rental company…is, according to my notes, still going strong in its same location. Still…I think the moral victory was mine, as I was soon able to earn my gas and CD money without having to pick dragonfly corpses out of the grills of Ford Festivas.

I think the confusion may have sprung from the fact that I told them I would need Tuesday and Thursday evenings off for my Algebra II class at Yuba College. Yes, folks, I was taking another stab at that elusive math credit, this time via night class at our local community college.

#78. “Man On The Moon” – R.E.M.
I won’t try to convince you that this was R.E.M’s best all-around song, but it’s certainly my personal favorite. A sprightly, melodically-perfect tribute to late comedian Andy Kaufman, whose provocative, confrontational anti-comedy broke barriers in the 70’s, it reminds me of the times I would try to rock the establishment boat in minor ways. I was not much of a joiner. You can page through the yearbook and not see me participating in any sport, or as a member of a club. As Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” That, and I valued my personal time away from school. And I was lazy. And a poor athlete.

I raised my profile by trying to be amusing in various semi-subversive ways. I was given an Opinion column in the school newspaper, which was desperate for content that year, and then had it taken away when I informed its readership that the rag they were holding was an embarrassment to student journalism, a biased mouthpiece for the administration and “popular” kids, and should be used as birdcage lining or fish-wrapping material. And I forget which student council wonk handed me a microphone and told me to drum up business for the charity snack sale one lunch period, but my remark that “whatever lucky so-and-so finds the toenail I hid in one of the Nutter Butters gets a prize” set off a mild disturbance and I was relieved of my sales duties. All of this tomfoolery eventually ended up with me onstage as Master of Ceremonies for the Senior Showcase, but that’s a story for a later entry. Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 9: What’s Up? Cereal Killers, Vampires, And 12 Inches Of Snow, That’s What

Excerpts from the Journal, Shanghai 2011

Sometimes first impressions are all we get. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in China, let alone Shanghai, so these reflections, formed after just four days, may kick around in my head for quite some time.

October 8

Second-story window view in the Jade Buddha Temple

Striking how much more intimate and compact these areas of devotion are. Western culture has us accustomed to expansive cathedrals and architectural feats to touch the heavens. Shanghai’s glorifying praise is to twenty-first century money — skyscrapers that stream colored lights like a nightly fireworks display, populating the Pudong, an army of freakish sentinels of finance and prosperity. But true temples? Religious devotion? Wooden buildings of two or three stories, a series of rooms holding statuary of no overly imposing size, carpeted in red cushions for brief periods of kneeling, incense burning, or admiration. Beautiful, intricate, but somehow secretive. Perhaps a remnant of private worship before the government made it okay to be spiritual again…

October 9

I joked with Benett this morning that we may have found the cure for his insomnia/involuntary early rising: cigars and alcohol.

My roommate is a fifty-four year old ex-New Yorker who has been living and teaching drama in Los Angeles for over a decade now. He’s enthusiastic, adventurous, and charming. His approachability (or apparent need for female company) had led to dozens of offers for “massage? sex massage? sex?” Always in that order. That, and the ubiquitous pressure by street vendors to sell watches and bags, is all we are ever asked in the streets. Continue reading Excerpts from the Journal, Shanghai 2011

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 8: Automatic Hatred For Stone Temple Pilots

My research tells me that the biggest smash hit of the summer of ’92 was “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap! Upon listening to the song now, I have to admit I have absolutely no recollection of it. I must have heard it multiple times, but tuned it out (which doesn’t seem difficult.) That summer also saw the release of the Madonna song which gives this blog series its title. Is it on the playlist? Nope.

#68. “Human Touch” – Bruce Springsteen

Few artists are big enough to pull off the release of two new albums simultaneously. Guns N’ Roses had pulled it off the previous fall, and in 1992, Bruce Springsteen followed suit. The difference was, Use Your Illusion I and II were essentially two parts of the same big album. Bruce had recorded an album – Human Touch – and then, while insipiration was still running high, kept the tapes rolling for a hasty follow-up. Ironically, the afterthought album – Lucky Town – was to most people’s ears the superior one. Human Touch was polished and labored, whereas Lucky Town was loose and spontaneous. The biggest bright spot on Human Touch was its title song, an understated plea for making an emotional connection with someone. It’s a song I would come back to for solace in later, darker years. At the time, the video was just a constant presence on MTV all that summer, and I didn’t pay it much mind. (Pointless Note #1: Bruce’s E Street Band was on hiatus, so American Idol’s Randy Jackson plays bass on this song.) (Pointless Note #2: See above for correct use of the term “ironically.” It doesn’t mean “amazingly” or “coincidentally.” The more you know…)

If you’re a Spingsteen fan, don’t bother trying to turn a younger friend or relative on to him if he/she is below a certain age. The appeal of Springsteen is a very adult appeal, lost on anyone who hasn’t experienced a certain amount of real life. As a budding music nerd, I owned 1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. years before their themes had any true resonance for me.

#69. “Tears In Heaven” – Eric Clapton

Originally recorded as part of the soundtrack to the film Rush in late 1991, “Tears In Heaven” became the official Downer Song of 1992 as the centerpiece of Clapton’s massively successful Unplugged TV concert/album. When we weren’t debating over The Cure and Depeche Mode, Stephanie and I were agreeing on the awesomeness of Clapton. She had the Rush soundtrack cassingle of the song (see earlier entry for discussion of “cassingles”) months before Unplugged became the soundtrack of the summer of ’92. (The TV episode, that is. The accompanying album didn’t come out until late August. There’s a noticeable lack of crowd reaction in the video when he begins the number, because it was a brand-new, unfamiliar song at the time the show was taped.) An ode to his young son that died after a fall from an open high-rise window, “Tears In Heaven” was shamelessly manipulative and maudlin – but damned if it didn’t work. A testament to Slowhand’s songwriting ability, which is often overlooked in the rush to praise his virtuosity.

#70. “Remedy” – The Black Crowes

As the summer wound down, I needed money. The only person more obsessed with raw capitalism than me was Stephanie. Her father was a part-time salesman at one of the seedier used-car lots in Marysville. In fact, the only thing seedier than this particular lot was its associated used-RV center immediately adjacent. Some of the flagship Winnebagos nearest the street were OK, but as you penetrated deeper and deeper into the lot, the vehicles began taking on a distinctly Cousin Eddie “tenement-on-wheels” appearance. Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 8: Automatic Hatred For Stone Temple Pilots

Justice League #1

DC Comics unveiled the first issue in its “New” DC Universe (DCnU) yesterday, with the release of Justice League #1. Penned by fan-favorite Geoff Johns and featuring art by comics icon Jim Lee, this first installment in “The New 52,” the highly controversial and hotly anticipated reboot of DC Comics’ decades-long continuity, sets the stage for a new origin of one of the oldest superhero pantheons in pop culture. In an era where superheroes are big business, and the vast majority of comic book character introductions are being made via media other than comics, this fresh start has the opportunity to revitalize the DC canon. It has the potential to give a new audience the thrill of experiencing the magic of comics alongside generations of long-time fans who have been glowing in the burgeoning interest and exposure of their favorite stories. Instead of fresh, this first issue feels terribly stale. Comics, courtesy of inventive storytellers like Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and Geoff Johns himself, had been the inspiration for a decade of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. If this one issue is any indication, however, DC would prefer that their movies, cartoons, and video games influence the comics instead.

Continue reading Justice League #1

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 7: Cure-ination & Urination On Prom Night, and A Sad Interlude

First, A Sad Interlude…

#63. “Jeremy” — Pearl Jam

Jumping ahead slightly from where I left off, in the late summer of 1992, MTV began airing a video that kind of made all of us in the Yuba City area shift uncomfortably whenever it came on — it served as a reminder of the events of early May. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” was the last narrative (non-performance) video Pearl Jam would make for the better part of the decade. It depicts the violent suicide of a misfit child in front of his classmates. Thanks to some oblique editing, the video can also be interpreted as the “Jeremy” character shooting those classmates, which is the scenario that played out at Lindhurst High School on May 1, 1992.

Eric Houston did not have the fortitude to off himself, despite being a self-confessed miserable piece of shit. Instead he came to Lindhurst High School, about nine miles away from where I sat in Creative Writing at Yuba City High School, and began shooting. He killed three students and a teacher, and held eighty-five more as hostages late into the night, before being led meekly away in handcuffs.

It was the third day of the L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, so when an announcement came over the YCHS public address speaker stating that all students should go “straight home” after 6th period, I assumed that it had something to do with the tension and unrest that had been all over the media, and humming through the school, for the past couple of days. It had been a year of student protests and sit-ins for a variety of (mostly petty) causes — the infamous “Codom Man” incident was still fresh in everyone’s minds — so I genuinely believed that the YCHS administration was trying to defuse some kind of uprising by a group of mostly middle-class high school students acting in solidarity with disenfranchised inner-city African-Americans 400 miles away. As it turned out, it was the deadly situation rapidly unfolding at LHS to which they were reacting. Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 7: Cure-ination & Urination On Prom Night, and A Sad Interlude

Make Me a Mixtape

Hey Buddy: Win this Bearded Brian Bobblehead!

…and win this limited edition Brian Wilson bobblehead!

First off, let me thank Jimmy Chew for talking me into this year’s The Giant Race half marathon. And even after I said I’d run it, his incessant “have you registered yet?” reminders ensured that I got a bib number before it sold out.

Of course, it’s been a good long while since I’ve run any kind of marathon, full or half, and getting my legs up to speed has been a drag (especially since my old marathon training team has either moved to the east coast; given up running shoes for a bicycle; or just opted for the most sane alternative to running which is, simply, not running).

When training alone, scintillating conversation needs to be replaced with music. The iPod Shuffle figured to be a great running buddy: it’s lightweight, clips to my shorts, and holds two gigs of tunes. What really sold me was the way it could auto-fill itself from your iTunes library, guaranteeing an exciting randomized playlist and miles of “guess the artist” fun.

I went from thinking this was a clever little device, to thinking it was stupid, to thinking it was cleverly sadistic in the span of three runs. Granted, it’s been pulling from over 35,000 songs, but this miniature robot prankster somehow manages to jumble in as many forgotten spoken word tracks, bluegrass banjo disasters, and instrumental lullabies that it can find on my hard drive. Instead of having fun being surprised by a song and wondering, “who sings this again?” I yank out my earbuds wondering (sometimes audibly, which can be embarrassing if there are other runners about), “what the hell is this and why was it on my computer?”

Continue reading Make Me a Mixtape

Grant Morrison’s Supergods

It should be an easy question to answer, a simple topic to elaborate upon. I love comics, and I love talking about the medium. And despite the fact that some of the best, most literate expressions of this artform have nothing to do with superheroes, I can’t ever deny the deep-seated passion I’ve had for capes-and-tights adventures since my first Avengers so many decades ago. But – why superheroes? What is it about this mythic cross of science fiction and fantasy that had not only enthralled me from a young age, but has also turned into huge business, dominating popular culture in movies and video games in the twenty-first century? Should be simple to answer. Shouldn’t it?

Grant Morrison, one of the most renowned and respected comics writers of our day, is far more equipped to tackle this subject than I. Thankfully, at least, as his new book Supergods shows us, I wasn’t wrong in thinking that there is no simple answer to the question. I’m just as thankful that the exploration of superhero culture, in his capable hands and guided by a life similarly captivated by the genre (as well as being twisted through years of genuine chaos magic and intense psychedelia), is a tremendously fascinating and rewarding one.

The "demigod" begins his journey to "pop deity"

Supergods explores the history of superheroes, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman in 1938 through the modern era and the infusion of superheroics into the “real world,” both in Hollywood’s forays into more realistic portrayals, and the advent of real world superheroes, like Portland’s Zetaman and Atlanta’s Crimson Fist. As each decade and each era is explored, Morrison beautifully connects current events with the responses of popular culture, demonstrating how the world of comics, and superheroes specifically, became both accurate reflections of the times as well as prescient oracles of developing fears, dreams, and ideals.

Continue reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods