Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The year is becoming unwound, and so it becomes incumbent to find a thread that went throughout the whole thing. Normally I try to couch such year-in-reviews in the context of pop culture released within the year itself, but this wasn't the best year for new work, at least of the sort I'm interested in. Most things I got excited about this year came from years prior, but the people who brought this work to my attention were productive and interesting to pay attention to.

For instance, Matthew Thurber released a cassette tape with two Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 songs on one side around the same time as Douglas Wolk posted a best-of mix on Matthew Perpetua's Tumblr account. "Noble Experiment," the final track off Strangers From The Universe ended up being sent to a great number of friends, and the Every Day/Fistful Of Dollars single is noteworthy as well. Gorgeous compositions, fast-moving, good lyrics. Later this year, Vice did a "1994" issue, where Andrew Earles called them the best band of that particular year. That issue was drowning in a retarded irony, but consider the superiority of this band to what is normally extolled by that magazine, and realize that the few songs off Mother Of All Saints that are actual songs blow it all away.

The out-of-print single I've been thinking about the past couple of days is Smog's A Hit/Wine Stained Lips 7". I think I'd heard A Hit before, on a listen to Accumulation: None, but I am bored enough by that record on the whole to have not really remembered it. The single is from the era of early Smog, dissonance to an effect of sadness and rage. When I had a roommate who would punch holes and throw records at the wall, he said that Bill Callahan was his favorite song-writer. I really enjoyed living with that guy. "Ex-Con," off the later Red Apple Falls, is a lot happier musically but still as good an example as any as to why Bill Callahan could find purchase with people like us.

Matthew Thurber made some good comics this year, to be certain. And I've written about them already. But, in a panel discussion, Jessica Abel brought up a similarity between Thurber's work and that of Jon Lewis. I tracked down the three existing issues of his Ghost Ship, from 1996, and they're great comics.

Thurber's remark was that Lewis was, like him, a big Sun City Girls fan, and it's worth noting that their Horse Cock Phepner is incredible. It's got all the denseness of writing that I appreciate about Charles Gocher, but in a pretty straight-forward rock and roll context. The way the sarcastic singing on a thing like their cover of "CIA Man" still allows room for thrilling harmonies, all while outlining conspiracy theories- A fine record.

In some ways, the Sun City Girls' combination of the esoteric and lowbrow comedy (and disinterest in questions of "morality" in pursuit of a seemingly spiritually gnostic reward) is analogous to the PFFR dudes, whose Final Flesh was the most conceptually exciting thing I heard about this year. It didn't quite live up to expectations, but "expectations" aren't really the point with a thing like that- It put forward a vision people are going to try to rip off and then fail to do so, if the rest of PFFR's work is any precedent.

Mississippi Records reissued a Dog Faced Hermans record, which was pretty charming, and Douglas Wolk wrote a Trouser Press entry that led me to listening to their later Those Deep Buds. My friends in Portland, Kill Rock Stars, reissued the first Raincoats record- roughly comparable to Dog Faced Hermans in certain ways. And sure, Odyshape is the better, weirder, album, but still this stands as a notable deed in a dull year. But what records: The Dog Faced Hermans are anarcho-punks who, by a certain point, incorporated enough of folk music to no longer be irritating.

Wolk is also a champion of Peter Blegvad's The Book of Leviathan, which is one of the finest purchases I made this year. Again, we find the esoteric made entertaining, a fuck-off intellectualism that's compelling and beautiful.

My year was fun and exciting, but there was little, really, to correspond to the virtues found in these bits of art: I don't know how anyone could hope to live like a Peter Blegvad comic or a Charles Gocher lyric. I know how people can live like The Raincoats: That music seems particularly open and personality-driven and free. All these things are types of inspiration.

I believe this was also the year I got really into Amps For Christ, another band where a gentle spirit prevails.

Thurber also championed, in a Comics Comics interview, Donald Barthelme, another favorite this year- I just got The Teachings Of Don B anthology for Christmas. I read Barthelme before this year, of course- George Saunders was talking up "The School" in The Braindead Megaphone, a Christmas gift from two years ago- but I read Forty Stories this year, and while that's not as wide-ranging as Sixty Stories, to some extent it covers a more straight-forward narrative terrain that I appreciate. I realized while paging through some of my favorite Barthelme stories how many of them seem like romantic comedies, of a sort- the comedy coming naturally and the nature of relationships grounding his work in recognizable emotions. The Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry collaborations could also be considered romantic comedies, as was pointed out in college, and Dash Shaw has talked about his comics in the context of that genre, rather than the sci-fi designation they most frequently receive.

As has been the case for the past few years, the best band to produce music this year was Big Blood, whose two albums from early this year, Already Gone I and II, are available on the Free Music Archive and I am listening to them now.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I loved Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mister Fox. The move into animation is a great fit for someone with such art-director instincts. By choosing to animate, the whole "films about rich white kids" thing melts away, because that all arose out of a want to build lavish sets rich in detail. The symmetrical shots moves into diorama territory. The director's style meets the animation perfectly, and the story keeps moving from set to set, with the style varying itself accordingly, to show how much it can handle, and it all adds up to something so purely enjoyable to look at.

Some scenes almost move too quickly. The dialogue, equally stylized, moves at a fast clip. You can't really bask in all the detail, all at once. The timing even seems a little off, without human actors to ground it. Partly this stems from how visually sumptuous the screen is at all times. There's a tension between the actor's performances and the animation, where I found all of the voices- so hard to distinguish from each other, compared to most animation. The "look" of the film is such that it sort of deadens character designs, especially considering that long shots are favored so heavily as a way to get in all the detail of the backgrounds.

The dialogue is so fast-moving and stylized that it can't all be parsed, especially while the mind is so taken in with visual detail, which makes it all the more distracting as the mind reels to keep up. Characters say the word "cuss" in place of profanity, which makes sense, but this little gag seems to have made the screenwriters more likely to have the characters fake-swear. It felt to me like the places where the word "fuck" would be the word in question occured here more than the actual word did in Anderson's other films. I could just think that because the use of the word here is so distracting as to be a Godard=level distancing device.

This is the film's great "flaw," if you believe in those. It's not the triumph of traditional craft seen in Up. There's tension between different positive qualities. It's so highly stylized that the styles push up against each other. The delight in cinematic artifice is balanced by this joy in natural beauty, evident in the fur of the characters and the various minerals that make up the backgrounds. It's this "flaw" that makes me want to watch it multiple times, focusing on different elements each time. I think that "too lavish" is an asshole's criticism, frankly. This film really invites asshole criticisms. The "twee/hipster" thing that Anderson's received since The Life Aquatic will come up again and again.

Watching it made me think of Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep, which, while live-action, had such a sense of itself visually as for that to be its motivating rationale for being. The "twee" criticism comes from the fact these things base their substance in style. It's the same thing as CGI extravaganzas, for a set of separate values. It's also what makes pretty much any kind of visual art work. It's how comics work, in a lot of ways. These movies are Souther Salazar to James Cameron's Bryan Hitch.

This film is such a triumph. For people who've been on-board with Wes Anderson consistently, this is a reminder that you picked the right team to be on. These are things worth embracing.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A few nights ago, while mildly drunk, I made a personal list of what I considered the best films of the decade. A list of top films seemed less daunting, somehow, than talking about the best music or comics of the decade. Films seem more singular to me, easier to consider as individual entities, seeing as how each film is a different combination of forces- screenplay, director, cinematography, actors, art direction, soundtrack. For all that music critics value the album, following bands' creative direction over an extended period of a time is a different thing. Animal Collective were maybe one of the most exciting bands of the decade for me, and their two best albums nonetheless have dud tracks, that after listening to I thought "oh, their next record will be really great, if it goes in a certain direction" only for the following record to be a different thing entirely than what my speculation conjured.

Talking about the best comics of the decade is even stranger. The feeling of "their next work will be amazing" still exists, but added to that is "when this serialized work is finished and collected, it will be amazing." In serialization, unfulfilled potential is even more of a disappointment. This decade was also one rife with reprints of much older material. It seems like the entire landscape of comics shifted over the course of the decade, to look at individual critic's best-of-the-year lists, year after year.

It's that shifting landscape that's interesting to me, in terms of making a "best-of-the-decade" list: What works were the most influential, when all is said and done? But that gets confused by comics' commercial nature: Some, when faced with the bar being raised, retreat completely. A list of the best work should consist of that which stands on its own merits.

All of this is preamble to saying that any list should include Paul Pope's 100%. There seems to be a whole school of comics following in Paul Pope's tradition of work primarily influenced by manga, but also influenced by European comics, Kirby and Ditko, and alternative comics. Most would acknowledge this school of comics by giving regard to Bryan O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim, a more popular work with more evident manga influence. But 100% is better-composed, I think. A one-off, not a franchise; a "graphic movie," in its own parlance, with its focus tight enough to have emotional resonance and payoff fairly quickly, with the small scenes extended over multiple pages all being fairly moving and effective, like the slow-motion bits in Spike Lee's 25th Hour. (A movie that made my list.) 25th Hour is an apt comparison point in another way, as well: Pope is also responding to post-9/11 New York. If a best-of-decade list should somehow tell the story of the years creating it, that's preferable, to me, to Scott Pilgrim's telling the story of 2000s Canadian indie rock becoming a dominant culture for twenty-somethings. (Note: I like Scott Pilgrim a lot and don't mean to dismiss it.) (Tekkon Kinkreet is also a big comic for this group, and that has some of my favorite drawings to look at, but it came out in Japan in the nineties. No. 5 could be up there if the whole thing was translated.)

The other school of comics most interesting to me right now would be typified by Kramers Ergot contributors and Picturebox-published cartoonists. But I can't really think of a clear masterpiece of that school of comics to be published this decade. I still think Gary Panter's Jimbo: Adventures In Paradise is the book to beat, and that was published in the eighties and is now out of print. Jimbo In Purgatory is a fucking crazy comic that I can't really read, only stare at. Brian Chippendale's Ninja gets the edge over Maggots, for its fully-developed sci-fi/fantasy/political world, and for being drawn this decade. Maggots is probably one of the best comics of the nineties, secretly. 1-800-Mice by Matthew Thurber is one of those books I think will destroy everything around it when it's completed. The top widely available Paper Rad product of the decade would be the Trash Talking DVD. There's a case to be made for Paper Rodeo being the best of this type of comic, especially using the criteria of influence. But I'm giving the spot to Ninja. This is, ultimately, an arbitrary decision: These are the comics I am most psyched to read right now. Here's what that comic has as specific strengths: It's huge both physically and in the size of the world it reveals, it's drawn as if possessed, it's filled with ideas- fantastical, political, and graphic; the action sequences are pretty much second to none; it's pretty readable, but only in small chunks because of how overwhelming it is. In the world of comics called "Fort Thunder" that get described as totally crazy, giving the award to the guy who actually lived at Fort Thunder and made the craziest comic is the representative move. Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure this is out of print.

I like Powr Mastrs and CF's work a lot as well. It's not done yet. The horror vacui thing in Chippendale's work is absent, in its space is a lot of clean lines. If Chippendale's frenzy is to depict noise, and activity, and dirt- as opposed to the cleanliness of development, a visual metaphor and comparison made outright in Ninja- CF's thin contours and geometric straight lines, plus occasional watercolors, more represent the beauty of nature. Chippendale is designed to read fast, CF's stuff is to be read slower. It's the difference between a bomb going off and spells being cast. It doesn't make a list because it's not done yet.

The other great, not yet finished comic of the decade is Anders Nilsen's Big Questions. Which I suspect will need to be edited before collection because when I read issues 3 to 6 in one go, it got a little repetitive and the pacing was weird. And some other issues have kind of stupid parts. (The bit about the allegory of the cave.) But oh shit the stillness. Was this the decade comics discovered stillness and nature? Comics have a root in gags, in the instantaneous and ephemeral. There's that R. Crumb comic, "A Brief History Of America," but even that is focused on forward momentum, like time-lapse photography. There's something to be said for manga's pacing, of stretching things across pages. I mentioned it when talking about 100%, and Pope is also a big influence on Dash Shaw, whose Bottomless Belly Button had pacing that allowed for bits of grace.

Kevin Huizenga's comics were filled with nature, and transcendence. They were stuck largely in the realm of thought, and self-consciousness: There's diagrams on one hand, and expressive craziness on the other. In between are short stories finding empathy, humor, myth... At this point I could actually just make a list of Kevin Huizenga's best comics, so numerous are his strengths. But the short stories are inseparable- "The Curse" is a highlight, but it's a part of a suite with two other comics that ground its wild excursions into territory he doesn't normally tred. "Pulverize," as part of Ganges 2, follows this weird opening overture of drawing to tell a simple story, filled with odd-detailed humor. "The Wild Kingdom" is just a crazy tangle of all sorts of stuff, an abstraction about how man and nature interact. What I said about Animal Collective being the most exciting band of the decade for the paths they don't go on to walk down again applies to Huizenga's comics.

My favorite Chris Ware book would be The Acme Novelty Library Report To Shareholders hardcover from 2005. This is one of those things where I can consider Jimmy Corrigan a nineties comic, and consider the Rusty Brown material being serialized currently as incomplete. This comic, again, is huge- comparable to Ninja in size, but not in content, but maybe in terms of scope: It begins with God creating the world, civilization coming into being, and in the end the world falls apart, and God goes on to create it again- But Ware's god is a bleak one, and in the middle is all sorts of satire about life in America and cruelty and lack of people understanding each other, and ruminations on changing seasons. Huge and terrifying, funny and moving. This is my favorite Chris Ware book.

(In the same way that I consider Jimmy Corrigan a nineties comic, I should mention that right now I am deeply enamored with Peter Blegvad's The Book Of Leviathan, which is also a collection of material from the 1990s.)

While talking about Chris Ware, I might as well talk about Daniel Clowes, whose "The Death Ray" in Eightball 23 really was a hell of a thing. A great superhero comic, or thing kind of about superhero comics, a rumination on adolescence, and about American foreign policy under the Bush administration as well.

The great mainstream superhero comic of the decade would be Alan Moore and JH Williams' Promethea. Every one knows how good JH Williams is now, and now he's drawing comics that are less ambitious. So this is a highwater mark, of sorts. Meanwhile, the script covers mysticism and enlightenment, and the kabbalah and all sorts of things. I am really fond of Top Ten and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 2, but this is Moore's America's Best Comics highpoint. A bonkers work of ambition and beauty. I like how uncontrolled it is, how every good issue wasn't necessarily good for the same reasons. Issue 8 was a thrilling comic of action scene, and issue 12 was super-clever. The whole book was thrilling and clever and well-drawn.

I thought I would list more mainstream superhero comics but at this point I am pretty exhausted and think the things I listed as the best would give someone outside of comics a good overview of the decade. I will list more comics, in the somewhat cursory fashion I did when discussing the Picturebox work earlier on. The Peter Milligan and Mike Allred X-Force comics (before it changed its name) was really entertaining. The Grant Morrison New X-Men comics jostled with it at the time of its publication, while also competing in my mind with The Filth which was running at the same time. By the end it wasn't so entertaining but parts of its first and second acts fired bullets just past my head. At this exact moment the Seaguy comic, one of my favorites at the time it came out, is not striking me as being as good, but certainly it was better than the Morrison output that followed at DC. Matt Fraction's Casanova then became the thing I read Grant Morrison comics for. Brendan McCarthy's issue of Solo was that, but better, and crossed with what I read those Picturebox comics for. I loved that comic.

I should also mention Renee French, Souther Salazar and Michael Kupperman. They're great.

And if a best-of-the-decade list is meant to include works of influence, it really should be noted that the Art Out Of Time book, edited by Dan Nadel, ended up spawning books for almost every cartoonist contained within its pages. When that book was first announced, I had never heard of any of them. The books it led to- that I read, which would be the Rory Hayes book and the first Fletcher Hanks collection- were incredible. Also, there's a part of me that believes that this book led to Matthew Thurber making more straightforward comics, which will lead to the greatness of 1-800-Mice, once it's done.

That is my list for people who didn't read comics but want to know that the decade was like. I await lists for people who did read comics but missed obscure stuff. Or I do a lot of expecting hugely popular things to not look as good in retrospect and look forward to being validated in my ignorance.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

For all the talk about how "comics" is a misnomer, there's certain trends in humor that seem to find their first expression through the medium of combining words and images. Jules Feiffer's Village Voice strip, with its neurotic Jewish male dialogues, is an expression of worldview that, when viewed with Feiffer's Little Murders, becomes this connective tissue that leaks down into Larry David. That, combined with Matt Groening's Life In Hell metamorphosis into The Simpsons, starts to define the 1990s. There's also Gary Larson's The Far Side, which was sort of dismissed as a comic but influenced a generation of people's sense of humor, like Ben Jones.

Lisa Hanawalt's I Want You combines this absurdist sense of humor, totally well-drawn, that you can read in Michael Kupperman's comics, and then jettisons the emphasis on cultural detritus, like 1970s cop shows and 1950s comics, in favor of looking at the self and interactions with other people and feeling like a creepy weirdo. This shouldn't make the comic seem derivative: It's a huge leap forward, in using that sense of humor for personal ends, as an expression of what the cartoonist is like in real life and how she feels about things. You feel as if you know her, and confident that she's much more interesting than the people that do autobiographical comics.

It's a great comic, and I hope Buenaventura Press can afford to print more issues, because her minicomics are harder to find. I want her stuff to keep coming out, and being encouraged, because even though it's a fascinating creative voice, it seems possible that she could do weirder and deeper work in the future. Hanawalt cites Renee French as an influence, and that's certainly someone whose work has changed over time into something different from what it was. I also recently got my hands on Shary Boyle's Otherworld Uprising art catalog, and learned that Shary was in her mid-thirties by the time she started doing the more fantastical work she's doing now. This isn't to say I'm waiting for Hanawalt to abandon her sense of humor and make serious work- I love humorous work, and think the sense of humor on display is inherent to Hanawalt's experience of the world- rather I'm trying to orient understanding of the nature of the consciousness on display by bringing up these artists rather than mentioning specific autobio cartoonists.

Monday, November 02, 2009

This interview of Peter Blegvad in the new issue of The Believer is phenomenal. Blegvad's work is fascinating: I'm more partial to the Leviathan comic than I am to the music of Slapp Happy but that both, and more, originate from the same man is mind-blowing. It's sort of astounding how much one can accomplish if one stays alive long enough and continues to work as an artist, especially if one doesn't limit oneself to one medium.

This coincides with my recent discovery that Gregg Turkington, aka Neil Hamburger, was an original member of Caroliner, edited the Sun City Girls' Midnight Cowboys From Ipanema tape, and ran Amarillo records (with its own vast catalog). This sort of thing really helps me connect the dots of various artistic activity. I imagine early issues of Bananafish would also help elucidate a lot.

Since living in Baltimore I've made the acquaintance of all sorts of accomplished types, one of which would be Daniel Higgs, whose own life and musical history maps a wide territory in its movement from punk to mystic. Then I discovered that in 1994, he was a part of the first show at Alleged Gallery in New York.

What's interesting about this stuff is that it really goes beyond any notion of a scene, there's nothing that can be pigeonholed. It's just individuals who end up in a variety of places, largely by virtue of staying productive while alive, and outlasting the immediate surroundings to go somewhere else. It's deeply inspiring for the way it reminds what life is, existing in time.

While I'm saying all this I can also point out how semi-strange it is that there's a They Might Be Giants song about one of the guys who co-created Wonder Showzen, and that I am really looking forward to Drag City's release of Vernon Chatman's Final Flesh in a couple weeks. They Might Be Giants were my first favorite band when I was in middle school, and while I've stopped caring, and find the fact that they're making children's records for Disney really strange, they did a CD to accompany the sixth issue of McSweeney's, which, while this happened after I'd stopped caring about them so intently, was still one of the first things I'd heard about that periodical. I would also like to salute McSweeney's for the fact, learned from their website, that their upcoming newspaper's comics section will contain a Savage Dragon page from Erik Larsen in addition to Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman: Right on. (Alternately, when They Might Be Giants showed up as voices on Home Movies it really solidified the way that show captured much of my childhood-through-college interests in miniature.)

And all these things I'm writing paragraphs about have never intersected in anything more than super-tangential six degrees of separation style.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Funkadelic album Cosmic Slop is pretty underrated. This is true partly because it's a Funkadelic album, and they're marginalized for all sorts of reasons, largely reducible to "too weird for their time." Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow is one of the all-time great album titles, and Maggot Brain gets some recognition. Cosmic Slop comes after those, as well as the fairly inconsistent America Eats Its Young. Funkadelic is also a band that kind of fell off as they went on, with their final record, The Electric Spanking Of War Babies, coming out in the eighties and being unable to avoid being marred by cheesy keyboards. So, Cosmic Slop might not look so good, coming after a double-album that's not so good, even though it's only not-so-good because it's a double album.

But Cosmic Slop is the first record with Pedro Bell album art! Awesome! And the album title is great, easily reconfigurable in my mind to form the phrase "cosmic slobs," which sums up a whole continuum of great activity and behavior, sort of like the "adventure hippies" designation that I think started off as an Andrew Earles diss and is currently being claimed by Lazy Magnet.

Maggot Brain is totally awesome, of course. But it's got a weird sequence: Spoken-word intro to a guitar solo, another freakout at the end, bookending some pop songs. All the parts are great, although I'm sort of at a loss for how they cohere as a whole, besides being of high quality.

Cosmic Slop is tighter in terms of being almost all songs: It opens with a groove, adds a chant, whatever: Mostly it is a record coming in and out of focus. Start with grooves, gets to songs, slides off. Vocals show up slowed down in deeper pitch. Vocal harmonies show up as these beams of light deep in album sides, maybe degenerated to noise in old vinyl or second-generation tape copies. Then there's more goofy spoken word. "This Broken Heart" is a version of an older song, and it's as straight-up and clear as the record gets, still weirder than the original version, and pretty much completely awesome, with it's simple stripped-down drum beat and vocals. The record might be up and down in quality on a song-to-song level, but that just keeps the groove stronger.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

I saw a little news story: Less pharmaceuticals are coming out on the market, because during the testing process, it turns out the drugs can't beat the control group placebo. Placebos, essentially, have gotten more effective, as marketing has become so prevalent that people have more faith in the idea of drugs.

Last night, I attended a lecture about radionics: Essentially a discredited form of science, which could also be considered a repressed method of alternative medicine. The lecture was interesting, touching on all manner of odd phenomena. I would point you to a wikipedia page, but that largely emphasizes the "this is not real" elements. It's worth noting that some people doing these practices have cited positive results. I'll also point to that story about the placebos, both to say "Hey, the human mind can trick itself into doing things" to explain away such positive results of radionics, and also to say "Modern medicine isn't as legit as it would like to be."

I think there's something tragic about these practices being so repressed- A great many Wilhelm Reich books have been completely destroyed. These ideas now just belong to this library of esoteric thought, uninvestigated, deplored. The idea that they were destroyed as harmful because they don't work is not satisfying. I believe last week was banned books week, and that usually applies to fiction found offensive, but those are things that have not actually been wiped from the face of the Earth.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, the music website Pitchfork is doing a top 200 albums of the decade list, building its own canon for an era over which it was sort of the dominant tastemaker. The list is as insane as their original list of the top 100 albums of the 1990s, with multiple albums by artists not really that notable. It's the multiple albums by the same artist thing that really strikes me as evidence of building an incredibly narrow hall of fame. Maybe it's absurd to think of canon-building as being akin to these other things I'm discussing, but it frequently amounts to the same thing: A discrediting of approaches in the creation of this heroic narrative written by the winners.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

That Simpsons Treehouse of Horror comic (issue 15) edited by Sammy Harkham and featuring a great many Kramers Ergot contributors ended up living up to all expectations. It is sort of similar to Brendan McCarthy's issue of Solo, which is to say it's kind of as good as pamphlet-format comics can get, now that the bottom has fallen out of that format, and the only way they can come out is through fairly mainstream publishing concerns. There's something about these comics, and the way they use and reconfigure this corporate-owned imagery for its own purpose, that's incredibly exciting. It's also rewarding, to those who've willfully chosen to be bombarded with it, and be in a place where it means something. Tim Hensley's one-page strip that opens the comic ends up being completely insane, while also really similar to dreams I've had in the past. I've also had dreams of watching episodes of The Simpsons that were really funny, and the Ben Jones strip lives up to that expectation as well. This comic blew my mind, repeatedly and cumulatively.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm in the middle of reading David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, the last book of fiction he completed before he killed himself, theoretically the work which came closest to his goals of creating sincere and moving literature. It was these stated goals that got me interested in reading his work, after his death, and my perception of them that has led me to be disappointed in what I'd read thus far. The detail and description is astounding, yes, but it gives way to this repetitious self-consciousness which is tedious even in his best pieces.

For the sake of argument, let's consider "good Old Neon" as one of the best pieces. I don't know how many people do, but "The Depressed Person" (from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) is highly acclaimed, and this seems like a more layered version of that story. Although maybe one of those layers is one too many, another bit of labored self-consciousness on top of a story that's already been repetitive. But that's what I wish to discuss, because I think those with a morbid fascination with DFW's self-imposed demise will find it particularly interesting.

It's about a man who's spent his entire life as a fraud trying to impress people, and then goes on to kill himself, and the story is narrated at the moment of death, finally outside time forever, the voice talking to itself as someone else, explaining everything in this epiphanic moment. In the end it moves on to bring the writer into it as a character, looking at a yearbook from 1981, as apparently the story was inspired by high-school classmate who killed himself ten years later. The self-consciousness plagues it, to the bitter end. And that's unpleasant, even if the point is that self-consciousness is unpleasant. It doesn't really make it any more beautiful.

Take, as a point of contrast The Shaggs' "Philosophy Of The World." Some people find it abrasive and hard to process in its amateurism. But here it is in the world, despite those things, a piece of music. For those who appreciate it, on its own terms, despite/because of its flaws, it's deeply moving. It has brought me to the edge of tears. In it, we find a lack of self-consciousness that some find unpleasant, but it's completely astounding, and knocks one to the floor. It makes the point about self-consciousness DFW struggles with all by itself, completely by accident.

Part of this discrepancy comes down to prose versus music, or unmediated voice as opposed to trying, in writing, to convey consciousness as it occurs. Maybe it's an unfair comparison. But maybe it would also be unfair to compare David Foster Wallace to Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, or Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories, and say that the latter two come out looking better for their joy in the place of anxiety.

The other notable reading material of the day would be an interview with Ray Kurzweil, on the Vice website, talking about the coming singularity with his typical fervor. He looks forward to a time when humanity has enough nanotechnology in their blood to make them as smart as they want to be, and as free from death as they've always wished to be. In Kurzweil's view, religion and its views of life-after-death are a stopgap measure, until the point where we can choose not to die.

But in Wallace- projecting his anxieties onto fictional characters for the sake of readers with the same feelings that they wish to see reflected back and explained- intelligence is at least partly a trap. Living inside one's head as a consciousness means being alienated from those around you, while this individuality itself is a lie, with the truth being that all of us are connected, and this idea which we know intellectually can't fully be comprehended is until upon the condition of death. (Or so goes the conceit of one short story.) And this point is important, even as it may be obvious, even as the story used to make it has its own set of flaws, etc. It's somewhat comforting, in the face of depression, or suicide, or a scientist's messianic belief in technology.

It might not be the Shaggs, but hey: The point of their album's title track is that everyone wants what they do not have, and this applies to those with technical acument and those with unmediated sincerity. You can never be, something something something, in this world.

Monday, September 14, 2009

After being disappointed in the TV miniseries The Corner, I held off on my plans to get into Homicide: Life On The Streets. Now, that The Wire is complete, and I live in Baltimore, and the public library seems to have some discs inconsistently in stock, I gave it a go. It has a distinct set of charms- so far unreliant on concepts of "grit," instead moving quickly from scene to scene, with dialogue that feels invested in poetry, and a romantic attitude that's missing in not just The Wire, but Law & Order as well, with these being the two shows I'm most reminded of.

(On Homicide the police spend a great deal of time eating crabs, in a way that seems almost labored now, but is that because 16 years ago, there were more crabs in the bay, and there status as working-class food actually made sense?)

Maybe the attitude comes from Homicide's emphasis on characters, giving actors room to shine with dialogue- The Wire is interested in organization as organism, and while the characters ended up incredibly fleshed-out over time, here in the first episodes the characters are being given plenty of room to breathe, being introduced almost self-consciously, introducing their quirks and being viewed, by those around them, as these distinct individuals, beloved for their strangeness, whereas The Wire's world of bureaucracy would crush such quirks, enraged. Law & Order is given over to procedure and scandal, and while there Richard Belzer plays the same character, he isn't given as much to do.

But I'm only three episodes in, and I'm not really planning on going the distance. (Seven seasons! They make that many for the money syndication allows, why isn't this on all the time? I feel the same way about Newsradio, and now, King Of The Hill.)

On a completely separate note, there are two new single-issue comics worthy of note. The first is the new issue of Matt Thurber's 1-800-Mice, which I've gone on about in the past. Picturebox pulled the plug on serialization after the first two issues, and Matthew self-published (I believe) a thousand copies by himself, to get him to finish the story for the eventual book publication. The new issue is four bucks, and is oversized, bigger than the Picturebox-published issues, bigger than standard-comic size. It looks great. I picked it up at the new gallery, Open Space, run by some of the Closed Caption Comics kids, who are really excited to have Thurber as one of the artists in their first show. (Which looks great.)

The other comic is issue one of Brandon Graham's King City- Which, funnily enough, is in a deeply comparable boat. Tokyopop put out a graphic novel of the first half of the story, then decided not to publish the second half, already mostly drawn. So, Image is republishing the Tokyopop book as single issues, at larger than comic size, bigger than the original publication size. Again, it looks great. When the serialized publication is done, the new material will begin with issue 7.

What's funny is that most comic shops probably won't have both comics on sale within them, and there's the possibility you wouldn't even find these books at the same convention, since their cartoonists move in such different circles. But they're pretty similar comics in a lot of ways: Well-drawn, underground-influenced weird fantasy comics out of step with general trends. King City is the one closer to the mainstream, 1-800-Mice is a little better. But King City is nowhere near bad. When I say one is better, I mean that it is better enough to make up for the price difference: King City 1 is $3 for 32 pages, 1-800-Mice 3 is $4 for 24. King City uses its fantasy elements to tell stories about young people's relationships without getting boring, 1-800-Mice uses its to talk about ecology and society without becoming preachy. It's that distinction in their interests that makes the one book the more mainstream (people care about relationships) while the other is more interesting to me (there's a larger world outside that). But both, like Homicide, or The Wire, are totally invested in their fictional worlds and exploring them with as much detail as they can. Also, both books have these amazing VOICES to them. Graham deals in puns and wordplay while Thurber's prose puts words against each other in this interesting way. The voice, also made manifest in the drawing style, puts together these elements in this way that then drives the narrative to the places it goes. It's weird, and it's funny, and there's really nothing in pure prose that does what the dialogue in these comics do, unencumbered by explanation. Both of them are pretty much as right on as comics get- both for the way they tell stories that are visually interesting and meaningful to their cartoonists, and for the format they tell them in (bigger-than-average single issue comics), both of which are decisions which put them out of step with the larger comics culture which somehow doesn't value what these dudes do. Not like they would complain- The back cover of King City discourages whiners, and Matt's attitude isn't suited towards that sort of thing. If you get the chance to support them, do it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Wednesday Comics newspaper-comic DC is putting out is not really a value in terms of quality, but it's valuable as a sort of equivalent to buying mainstream comics, in miniature. If you read mainstream comics like you read any other, as an aesthetic experience, for four bucks a week, you have a diverse sampling of approaches, sort of like if you were combing through a fifty-cent box and getting a bunch of different things that came out eight months ago. Maybe three of the strips are actually good, about that many are aggressively terrible, and the rest are sort of dumb, but charming if you're in a charitable mood. If you like superhero comics as an idea, that allows for a certain amount of leeway, if you're fascinated by crap.

Criticism is made easy by how much you see, right next to each other. It's interesting formally, as a collection of giant one-page serialized strips: It's like an early twentieth-century comics section, but filled with superhero comics. There's a different sort of rhythm at work than there is in 22-page comics, but it turns out that the people that know how to work one form know how to work the other. Others fail spectacularly.

Paul Pope's "Strange Adventures" strip pretty much rules. While Pope's done comics to feature extended action sequences when he's had groups of pages to work with, here he does what the other people successfully using the format do: Strips where each page is the length of a single scene, avoiding summary at the outset, and letting whole pages revolve around visual motifs.

I don't want to be so formal as to assign "rules" to follow, since the exciting thing about those early comics was that there were no rules established for what a comic was supposed to be, freeing them up to be both Krazy Kat and Little Nemo In Slumberland. But here, there's certain things that work and certain things that don't: A Kamandi strip uses the Prince Valiant technique of barely being a comic so much as a series of illustrations of lackluster prose. You would think that would be discredited by this point.

For some reason, no one in Wednesday Comics does the thing Jaime Hernandez did in Kramers Ergot 7, or Brian Chippendale does in Ninja and Paper Rodeo: Picking a panel large enough to allow for clear and solid compositions and then using that as the basis of a grid to fill up the page. This seems the best way to cover a lot of territory, in terms of plot forward motion, but maybe because of the nature of serializing a thing in twelve installments, no one wants to go that far. No one's really thinking in terms of "one-pagers."

The worst comics here are those that go from page to page, with each strip containing a single plot beat, functioning as a cliffhanger at the end of one strip and needing to be summarized at the beginning of the next. These strips tend to have other weaknesses: I stared dumbfounded at a Metal Men strip where it's revealed a bomb detonator was replaced by a shape-shifting superhero, because in the immediately preceding panel, the detonator is still clearly drawn, being pressed down: it's a terrible panel to panel transition, because there's no sense of time elapsing where the action could've taken place, no single panel where the detonator is not shown that would allow for unseen events to occur. I'm not mad at the plot mechanics, this is the sort of dumb thing that goes down in comics all the time, but formally it's completely fucked.

That's the odd thing about Wednesday Comics, is that the format doesn't really allow for fuck-ups to go unnoticed, and whenever some poor creative decision is made, a reader just wonders why. "Shouldn't they know better?" When cranking out serialized comics, it's easy to imagine people making bad decisions in the rush to do something else instead. But here, when a comic happens where the narration is peppered with deeply half-assed spanish (chicas, dinero, estupido), that narration is the point of the comic, it's completely in focus, it's all that's there, and it's egregiously terrible. Because it's weekly, the editorial focus just becomes getting it out, with no eye for oversight.

But Paul Pope's comic is good. The strips that are good, that work, seem like they should just be shown to the perpetrators of the failures: "Here is how you do something right." But that's assuming the people who aren't doing well have never seen Kramers Ergot 7, or Paper Rodeo, or a Little Nemo collection, or a newspaper comics section. Which seems like it would be impossible, or hyperbole. But the strips that fail the hardest are those made by people deeply entrenched in corporate comics culture, editors who've worked with the monthly format and aren't necessarily that engaged in history. I keep on harping on the Paul Pope comic as being good, but there are other winners that seem equally engaged in how comics work. The Batman strip by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso is pretty good, by which I mean it's executed well. It tells a story visually, panel to panel, clearly, and the plot keeps moving week to week, scene to scene. A lot of the characters based on already existing designs look kind of shitty, but it doesn't really matter when you look at the three panels of a dude falling over a table and realize that no one else in the comic is handling action that well. No one else is thinking about visuals in terms of comics, that sort of animation-style-emphasis on movement, so much as a display of style. The Flash comic, split into Daniel Clowes-strips and then telling a science-fiction story, also has humans drawn with these radically unappealing faces, but it's the strip with the best formal conceit, that allows for plot movement while also feeling like it's digressing enough to be a full experience.

The Mike Allred and Kyle Baker strips occupy the middle-ground in terms of quality: They're not very good because they're not trying to be, they're just dispensing their styles sort of perfunctorily, but that's still not aggressively terrible because the drawing does have its charm. They're professional enough and engaged in comics enough to not make the glaring mistakes some are making.

But on the whole, the comic has it's heart in the right place, in that it's letting the creators do whatever. It's letting superhero comics be comics, and work on their own as examples of the medium, rather than be put into a position where they're furthering this corporate-universe grand-narrative which is deeply depressing. The four bucks per week that go to the superhero reading experience in miniature is closer to a model of how comics probably should work, a better way of getting readers to buy things they don't care about than some event comic sold to them via hype. The fraction of comics I find appealing in this miniature model is larger than the fraction glimpsed in solicitation hype. Still, I've only bought issues three, five, and six of the series thus far, because buying crappy comics isn't really worth the investment, not when there's so much more to be found in actual bargain bins.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

As I was listening to the Need New Body record Where's Black Ben? just now, the thought occurred to me that it was what Baltimore music has collectively been going for without being aware of it. The trashy collage of the album art, the goofy sense of humor. All the things that the press talks about when talking about Baltimore music through the lens of Dan Deacon is here, in an unaffected way, but there's a vision wide enough to encompass all sorts of weirder music that doesn't get discussed. Where's Black Ben has this tremendous diversity to it, with its dissonant free jazz and its banjo-led songs, that, while neglected at the time as an album, feels close enough to a vision of an entire small city's diverse music scene.

It's got this energy, that starts with goofs, moves on to songs with a variety of strengths, and then into more abstract territory. There are a million bands each trying to do a fraction of what's on display here, and many more people whose overall personality would be better represented by making music like this than what they're currently trying to accomplish. It all coheres thanks to arrangement, of the record as a whole and as songs with complexity and dynamic movement.

The album is far from perfect, with all its annoyances, but it's great, lovable in how much personality is display, and what that personality conveys as being "about." I feel like it should be on a list of the best records of the decade, just somewhere at the bottom.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oh, that's interesting: The 33rd issue of McSweeney's is set to be a newspaper- with journalism, fiction, and a comics section. Called "The San Francisco Panorama." Putting up a fight for the format. It's interesting in part because comics have fought the same battle in recent years, but now print is in decline so much that the rest will catch up. I wonder if they can price it cheaply enough for it to be effective. Before that, issue 32 is set to have a story set in the future by Salvador Plascencia, last published in issue 22, with the first chapter of his novel appearing in 12.

While I'm linking to things: This is hysterical/infuriating. (Not the piece I am linking to so much as what it discusses.)
Big Blood, a band I've talked up multiple times in the past, have made their entire catalog available online for free. The "Already Gone" albums are their latest as of this writing, and I think they're great. The "Sew Your Wild Days" volumes are also a good place to start.

This has been a year, like the last few, where I've felt disappointed in most music released. Soon there will come the retrospectives of the past decade, which will reaffirm that the music most instilled in my head as "good" - 1990s indie rock- is out of fashion, and what is viewed as the heir to that tradition is largely boring. (This includes the work done by many of the highlights of that movement, a few years past their prime.) The things that I find interesting, particularly in the last few years of this decade, are usually coming from a background of electronic music, folk, or noise. Much of it will not be mentioned in these write-ups, and much of it was underrated at the time of its initial release. I've had my share of top ten list entries matching up with other people, but a few months later I've made late additions. Big Blood put out a ton of CD-Rs in 2007, which I think was the same year the Lazy Magnet album "Is Music Even Good" came out to the attention of no one. Get ready by hearing such records, so when the lists attempting canons come out with no mention of such people you can hold them in disdain.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Whenever I read the novels of Steve Erickson, I'm struck by a feeling of "guilty pleasure," thought to be outmoded by those with my general tastes. The books are acclaimed, blurbed by various writers held in high esteem, but there's still something embarrassing and corny about it. Luckily, the books are books, read intimately, by one person at a time, because if I were to read them with someone looking over my shoulder, or in something like a movie theater, I could not enjoy them for the constant cringing.

First, there are the sex scenes, or the way sex is discussed in general, in this half-pretentious manner. Words like "sensuality" and "eroticism" are used- It's not offensive or crass, but reads like a backrub from someone using scented oils, which to my mind is worse. He frequently writes these scenes from the perspective of female characters, and I feel a sort of displaced embarrassment for him, writing these things, which don't read as glaringly false in terms of ringing untrue so much as it feels, necessarily, like a pretense. When he writes the scenes from a male perspective, there's just this sort of goofiness at work. Maybe any writer lingering on such scenes is running these risks, and taking these chances, but he does it a lot (one book features a pornographer as a main character, another a dominatrix), and by making sex such a presence cheesiness lingers. In an interview where Erickson listed favorite authors, Henry Miller was mentioned, and maybe it's that influence of something I find really stupid shining through.

There's also this comfort-food aspect to the talk of film and music, as in Jonathan Lethem's writing: Yes, the writer is talking about these common signifiers that I, and many others, recognize and know about. His last book, Zeroville, is about movies and is filled with descriptions of scenes and figures not always named. I read these sections with a certain pleasure. Erickson is also a film critic, and I enjoy reading criticism, and when I find it in a novel I feel like I am being indulged, pandered to.

It's all very pleasant and comforting to think about- so are the sex scenes- but it's not really the central pleasure of why I read the books: There are magazines that place stories of people fucking pages away from record reviews and I don't read them because it's not going to culminate in something moving and transcendent. It's a collection of elements pleasurable in small doses, placed on top of each other and turned into something you don't really want. Nerds are great, but imagine the sort of person that dresses up in costume hitting on you while in costume. Even if they are attractive, my response would be "I'm sorry, I'm not that corny, I don't enjoy this. This is awful, actually, why is this happening? My brain is short-circuiting."

But there is the possibility that this is Erickson's desired effect, the brain short-circuiting. The plots are these apocalyptic dream-imagery things, moved forward by free-association and dream logic. Sort of like a David Lynch film, but it needs a different sort of immediacy, being a book. And so it's written in this revealing tone, to move you into their space, like you're naked with the author's finger touching your asshole, and he's staring into your eye. Moving into weird territory, rewarding at the end of it, and until then it's just heightened sensation.

The books are kind of great, actually, and there's no way to excise the flaws and have them work as well. I recommend them to all who are corny and retarded and embarrassing. That's most people, at least occasionally: either making bad jokes or laughing too loud or wearing unflattering facial hair or hats. What I view as "flaws" in Erickson's writing are really just mannerisms, a part of a personality that shouldn't obscure his intellect and skill.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

I have been house-sitting at my mom's house in Pennsauken, New Jersey. I take the bus into Philadelphia, and on these trips I find suburban sprawl hard to navigate. Most of South Jersey is undergoing this trend of development based around "upscale" shopping centers- The shopping center and its attendant large parking lots are a large part of my personal history and what I take as the quintessential New Jersey/suburban America experience, but these centers (elevated from the street, all major chains, with no room at all for small businesses) is something else. They seem to be multiplying exponentially.

But: Somehow, in riding the bus, I discovered a building labeled "JAIN TEMPLE" mere yards from my mom's house. In walking distance. (In suburbia, almost nothing is within walking distance.) I'm going to investigate tomorrow- Sunday, which doesn't necessarily mean "church services," especially for Jains (a faith where some believers do not even enter temples) but it seems like my best bet after I squandered today. This chunk of the post is for my friends, in case the sign that says "Jain Temple" is but a ploy to lure spiritual seekers to their doom. (A possibility that strikes me as more likely than their actually being a Jainist temple in Pennsauken, NJ.)

The rest of the post is pretty much just for Frank Santoro: I am around a bunch of 90s superhero comics and want to highlight Noelle C. Giddings as a colorist of note. She colored for Milestone, which for a while publicized in advertising that all their books had painted color, but her stuff looks the best, to me. Maybe it's the msot restrained. She colored Static and Xombi. Xombi's drawings are pretty stiff, but her work- which resembles watercolor, but might just be airbrush- lets some life in. Xombi was the Milestone comic that was "arty" in a Vertigo-ish way, and even though most Vertigo comics have crappy art, I still think part of Xombi's success is due to the way the colors are so loose. I don't have a lot of issues of these comics, and what I do have is frequently nonconsecutive. The later issues of Static look okay, they have a certain grace to them, but the first issue (the only one of the early issues, drawn by John Paul Leon I have) looks rad. The art is more cartoony than anything Leon would draw in the future: It's real loose, in a lot of small panels, and gives the color a lot of room to carry weight, and delineate form. But because the line-art is so loose and cartoony, the coloring is too. Even though it's painted, it's printed on newsprint, so it's not slick at all. It's sort of smeared: if a nose is drawn by just two marks for nostrils, then the coloring is then just a mark of the rest of the nose. Hair is drawn with chunky lines of black alternating with chunky lines of wavering color. It looks unruly. Another Static art tip is that some middle-period issues were drawn by Wilfred Santiago, later to draw porn, and then a graphic novel, for Fantagraphics. I only have memories of those issues, which I remember looking weird and super-minimal. Further along on the abstraction tip, but by that point I think it was on slick paper and I don't remember how the colors compensated. There's no scans on the internet that do what I'm talking about any justice, as what I can find isn't big enough to convey how idiosyncratic it looks. But on my last few trips here I've just stared at it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I was talking to my brother yesterday, and he mentioned an article he'd read. I haven't seen said article, and so can't link to it, but here's the heads-up: Corporations are changing their logos, due to the recession, to all-lowercase, in order to appear "friendlier" to customers. He mentioned Wal-Mart, right now the only thing that occurs to me is Pepsi, which I'd previously singled out for a new, stripped-down and bland design, which I was thinking of as a weird corrective to the perceived gaucheness of "cool" nineties branding: A willful lack of style to not chance anything. The mention of it brought to mind Daniel Clowes mocking non-capitalization in people's names in an old Eightball strip, but I guess Wal-Mart doesn't take it's marching orders from "I Hate You Deeply."

Meanwhile, in my mind I am trying to devise what I want the new canon to be for upcoming nineties nostalgia. The most recent discovery I've made from that time that I had not heard before was the Dog-Faced Hermans, who recently had their first record reissued by Mississippi Records. It would seem to make sense for Sun City Girls, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Helium, etc. albums to come back in print following being cited as influences, but the record industry is collapsing, so maybe that won't happen. (Although, it seems like in conservative times the back catalog gets milked hard and placed into deluxe packaging: Look at how many hardcovers the comics industry is pumping out in 2009.) Those bands have nothing in common with each other besides existing during the same time and being out of print. I'm really interested in seeing what are the things that come back into consciousness as nostalgia hits, since it seems like people never stopped talking about My Bloody Valentine.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

WFMU's blog pointed out that today is the thirtieth anniversary of Jimmy Carter's "Crisis Of Confidence" speech. I link to it so people can read it, but I don't have much comment on it. I'm halfway through watching Robert Altman's Tanner '88, and thinking about the way politics have changed: Eight years of the worst president the country ever had makes a lot of things seem somewhere between being quaint and being foreign. Even now, immediately on the other side, talking about the Bush presidency seems like both of those things. (A friend also bought a copy of the issue of The Believer with John Kerry taking up the whole of the cover, as messiah: So strange!)

And I woke up this morning thinking about the economy, and the way that, in some way, the existence of the internet is to blame for its collapse: The free content has done damage to the print industry, and the music industry, places for artists, our best and brightest. But there's also the way e-mail has replaced the post office, and probably led to the cutback of a great many federal employees.

Moreover, the whole concept of the internet as a place for content, for free, is a parallel to the actual downfall of the economy: A world where credit is more plentiful than actual capital ends up devaluing money, with nothing to back that credit up. Meanwhile, internet businesses subsist on advertising, in an infinite loop that probably does not lead to actual purchasing: But that's fine, the people writing for the internet aren't really getting paid, except for the exposure, designed to get them paying jobs in print, which the bottom is falling out of. "Credit" in terms of money ends up equal to "credit" in terms of recognition, and both end up being hollow when there's no actual monetary compensation.

I apologize for the fact that I didn't do any research to write this post, and am going to speak in a language of simplified abstractions because of that.

The internet devalues other things besides money: Like ideas. And sex. Personal interaction. Spirituality, probably: It seems like that would follow a general coarseness brought about by the rest.

But of course, the genie can't be put back in the bottle, pandora's box can't be closed, and Obama can't say: "Here is my new economic stimulus plan: The internet will no longer work, forcing everyone back into situations where things have material form and value, and the exchange and trade of content will create an economy no longer built around abstractions." (If I were seriously advocating this, I would also have to acknowledge the problem in the plan of the cost of material and distribution taking a toll on the environment.) But in such a situation, it seems the main place jobs would be lost would be the place that jobs seem to be growing right now: Those technicians building the infrastructure of the internet, working out ways for more effective image searches and whatnot, which strikes me as a field with a narrower worker base than that of content producers. But more importantly is that there's been no large-scale WPA to work on the infrastructure of the material world, where there should be an even broader pool of people to select workers from.

In this abstract computer landscape, there's an ever-shrinking elite left with a desirable skill-set: Soon only mathematicians, dealing in abstraction, will be able to get at the real money.

Friday, July 10, 2009

I sort of freaked out over The Lexie Mountain Boys when I lived in Olympia: Playing songs over the radio, showing the MySpace page to travelling bands coming through town, recommending friends to listen to them.

This was all based on the band as pure sound, despite them being, on a pretty large level, a performance-art project. Costumes play a part of it, but the main thing is presence. Since moving to Baltimore, I've seen them multiple times, and they're sort of inconsistent, which makes sense, considering it's all improvised. But on record they're always compelling. As pure sound, the harmonies interlocking: it seems really feminine, in a great way. It's redolent of pagan ceremonies and campfire jamborees, but when it's pure sound it becomes this thing very infinite: Every singer is going for it, going the distance, out into space, and existing in harmony with the other members, while still being free, and not held back at all. They go into space, and then become it. Some kind of cosmic vagina at the center of all things, free from any bullshit of modern cultural expectations, totally fascinating to behold.

I also know these people, now that I live here, and I really feel like they have the right spirit. (This also holds true for the dudes in Lexie's other project, Crazy Dreams Band) There's a friendliness (as in the harmonies) as well as a lack of uptightness (spacefaring) that, while it makes the music compelling (or mysterious, and occasionally frightening to the uninitiated), makes them great people to have around at a barbecue or house party or whatnot. Someone, elsewhere on the internet, described them as the people skinny-dipping at 3 in the morning, and that was just based on the music they make, but those are the sort of people that I want to have around me, whose friendship I value deeply.

Whartscape has begun in Baltimore, and I am not attending, because most of the acts play out all the time, and not all of them are as standout phenomenons as these projects, either musically or as people.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Kazimir Strzepek's The Mourning Star 2 really works for me. It functions sort of like a 1980s black and white fantasy comic, but with the revelations of twenty years worth of craft development behind it. Rather than be published in serialized pamphlets, it comes out as a book, which gives the fight scenes room to breathe- a trick some people learned from manga, but here, the way that action plays out feels more influenced by Mat Brinkman comics. Partly I could be picking that up from the book's square size: post-nineties, comics don't need to be taller than they are wide, and I think the squat size keeps the action moving, while also feeling really intimate, and just fun to hold in the hand.

The book also starts off with the story's presumed villains, which makes them approach sympathetic-character status, in a way similar to how CF's Powr Mastrs comics move between characters working at cross purposes. Sure, at the opening they might not be seeming likable, but when a never-before-seen character shows up, doesn't speak, and brutally murders people seen sleeping next to their wives, the fact that they're parts of the ruling empire depicted as antagonists to the rest of the main characters doesn't seem to matter as much.

(Oh, speaking of CF- the Mark Lord tape on the Rare Youth label is pretty great. The Mark Lord stuff has this techno/industrial beat moving the noise into a more pop direction, where Kites - on Peace Trials and the occasional tape- had folk music and clear vocals as reference points grounding the chaos.)

In another strain of influence, there's something of Jeff Smith's Bone in the character's dominant cuteness, as something anthropomorphic but unrecognizable. But that comic didn't work for me the way this does, seeming to exist in a harsher world. Partly the post-apocalyptic setting, and the focus on survival, serve to move it away from the tropes of fantasy that I find tedious, but it also moves the book closer to its real formal strength: The contrast between the cute and the brutal powers the book. The way the cute, uniformly well-designed characters look when suddenly cut in half. The way the square shape sits nicely in the hand and keeps you moving through the action sequences quickly. The way Bone and Fort Thunder are reconciled.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The new issue of Jordan Crane's comic book, Uptight 3, is not very good. One story, the first part of a serial called "Vicissitude," works out a new art style that stands as a development from stories in the last Uptight. In it, Crane's printer's training gets worked into black and white, with greytones. It looks really well-designed, and there's a break from the standard grid pacing I've seen in all of his comics. But: It's called "Vicissitude." Story-wise, it's in really well-travelled territory, about people in their twenties, committing infidelities. It's the sort of thing that would be embraced by a "graphic novel" audience, theoretically, upon completion, if it went anywhere. There's no guarantees it's going to go anywhere. And I really don't understand why this is the sort of comic you would serialize. There's no real intrigue to get a reader to read a future installment. Really, none, besides seeing Crane work in this style more. Granted, the style looks great- I will single out the panels featuring sex scenes and raccoons, but this is pretty dull stuff. I guess it's sort of standard for alternative comics of this type to serialize stories like this one, but maybe that's why the format is dead.

The comic also reads really fast, partly because of the punctuation-less dialogue. It works in Ben Jones comics, (including Cold Heat) and Achewood, because it's kind of inherently funny, but I think it speeds up the pacing: Like the panel is only the length of someone saying something, caught between breaths, and doesn't include the pause that follows a period. The only thing to slow you down is looking at the design work, but that's going to get you looking at it in the store, or looking back to it after an initial read. Maybe it'll be good when completed, but holy shit do I ever not want a comic called Vicissitude on my shelf.

The second story is for kids! And it's pretty much unreadable. Drawn in this light and feathery style, displaying pretty active detailed backgrounds. It's a sequel to The Clouds Above, but that comic was done in color- And looked gorgeous, with color to determine composition and delineate space. It was also printed at a panel a page, which made the pages not be overworked, as well as slowing down the speed with which it was read. Why is this sequel in a black and white comic? I understand Jordan wanting to do this kind of comic book format, but Eightball had stuff printed in color when it needed to be.

There's no economy for that, so do a comic that works in black and white. Vicissitude, art-wise, works in black and white. Ideally, the whole comic would work like that. But then, if the comic was just Vicissitude, it would be an issue of Optic Nerve, and people hate that comic these days.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I haven't seen much talk about this news of Sammy Harkham editing a Simpsons Treehouse Of Horror special- if Ben Parrish hadn't e-mailed it to me I wouldn't have really known about it- but I am really excited about it. A collaboration between Kevin Huizenga and Matthew Thurber would never seem like a good idea except in this specific context, where it shines brilliantly. I really love the fact whenever mainstream companies give this venue to more idiosyncratic artists- in this case it'll end up being one of the cheapest places to find work by these people. This is the comic I am most looking forward to, until that Brendan McCarthy Dr. Strange thing gets solicited.

The news of Will Sweeney being in the comic is exciting, also, as he just made one of the best animated music videos I've seen in some time. And his actual comics won't be readily available cheaply until Picturebox does that Tales From Greenfuzz collection. Will Sweeney, I believe, is also a member of the band Zongamin.

Or wait, this new Jacob Ciocci video I just saw is pretty good. I really think that Jacob is underrated as a cartoonist, by the way- His videos are widely-acclaimed, but I think his approach to comics is pretty cool, and... his part of the Paper Rad Kramers Ergot 6 piece was edited out of the Ware anthology, despite being the climax. It seems like people maybe view it as hippie stuff, dismissively, in contrast to the gags of Ben Jones which are more relatable to humor comics traditions. But his style looks great, even in black and white, like in the last issue of Paper Rodeo: the way there's no borders, how it just streams and approaches collage seems pretty difficult, but it reads great. It looks related to the collages he does, but it's narrative enough that when you read it it feels really free, and melty, and sort of pushes forth this idea of "letting go" which the characters espouse. I like how there's sort of a narrative, or sense of forward motion, in this video too, and it's likewise abstracted.

While I'm linking to videos, here is a USAISAMONSTER video made by Imaginary Company, featuring some limited animation of Kevin Hooyman drawings. Jacob has also done Flash animation for Imaginary Company. And Matthew made a totem pole for the final USAISAMONSTER show in New York City a few months ago. That brings this post full circle.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

This weekend, in Baltimore, there was a festival of ten-minute plays. There were around twelve plays, around that length, for a bill of entertainment running around two hours. The work was, on the whole, pretty strong, with only one or two pieces that had one anticipating the end to their brief running time. A lot of people I don't associate with strong work really excelled, doing work that was darker than the more frivolous work they usually produce: A near-twenty-minute-monologue, about the inevitability of human extinction due to exponential population growth, was written by a guy who largely makes puppet-show music videos for self-consciously "fun" bands. Dina Kelberman did a pretty piece that ran through her normal themes, but for a more sustained length than usual, and with more visual panache. One actor involved said that the whole festival felt like it marked a highwater point for a certain set of Baltimore energies.

But the two threads, running through the majority of plays, from a variety of different playwrights- (although pretty much all would be in their mid-to-late-twenties) were the apocalypse, and characters not doing what to do in their lives. "The apocalypse" is a broad term, and one some involved would question- one playwright, Evan Moritz, described his piece as being about "the housing collapse," although it starred two characters scrounging for food. Others were more blatant than such ambiguities. Other plays were about apathy, or inability to make decisions, which, when taken in conjunction with the apocalypse thing, paints a pretty bleak picture of where the Baltimore mindset is at.

What's funny is I walked away from the festival going "OK: Don't write about the apocalypse anymore," despite the fact that, in embracing such darkness in material, the artists represented in the festival turned out some of the best, most mature work I've seen from them. And then, with that resolution in mind, I myself no longer knew what to do, what to discuss.

Because talking about such things has produced some phenomenal work, particularly in this decade. Kevin Huizenga has ruminated on total collapse from a number of different angles. The book I'm reading right now, Margaret Atwood's Oryx And Crake, is from still another angle, and she has other books in her bibliography also working as investigations of such territory. In some ways, this post is a follow-up to my last post, about the feelings caused by reading The Men Who Stare At Goats the same day I saw Up, and the fun-romp nature of the latter, but Up is Pixar's follow-up to the artistic high point of Wall-E.

And then, in the middle of all these thoughts, I stumbled across this horrible thing: A song called "Making Love," designed to explain to children why they shouldn't be scared by the sounds coming from their parents bedroom. It's horrifying, nauseating, and so aesthetically revolting that I am made to bandy about the term "pure evil." I recommend clicking on that link, to experience the horror.

So I called up my good friend Alex Tripp, to tell him about that song, and discuss the movie Up. In the course of that phone call, he informed me of something I hadn't heard about: Robert Zemeckis' plans to make a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to be done entirely in 3-D CGI motion capture- Along the lines of his Polar Express or Beowulf. This pretty much made my head spin, giving me something I couldn't wrap my mind around: A movie that would so fully miss the appeal of seeing humans and cartoons interact with each other, because all would be animated. Another big chunk of the appeal of Roger Rabbit was the way cartoon characters associated with different animation studios/corporate monoliths interacted, but I don't think there's any chance of that being recreated, let alone with the new era of CGI characters sprouted from Dreamworks and Pixar.

Basically: These were ideas I couldn't understand, that seemed so wrong on the face of it that some neuron shouted "EVIL" and "THE END OF ALL THINGS." That I really wanted to talk about, but couldn't, because I'd sought to remove such end-times terms from my artistic vocabulary.

The only solace to be found, really, is in craft: If seeing things so disagreeable makes me feel that way, then the only response left would be to make things more aesthetically pleasurable. I was already thinking about such things: I haven't made a video in a year, and feel the urge to do so, with these novels done, and then I found this blog which made me realize how good even crappy movies can look, in a way that made me want to venture towards it.

But that's still not really having anything to say, just realizing that I would want to execute it on a very high level. That's barely a thought at all, and I'm left again thinking of how I don't know what to do. An existential crisis brought on by a song called "Making Love," and the idea of a sequel to Roger Rabbit.

The only inspiring thing is this Lazy Magnet box set. Lazy Magnet, Jeremy Harris of Providence, made one amazing record, Is Music Even Good, that Corleone put out. But he's also made a ton of CD-Rs and self-released cassettes, and he just put out a box set, collecting much of that material made from 2004-2009, with liner notes by him with an intro by CF. It's pretty inspiring, on the whole. It's not as singular an achievement as his actual record is, but it's a different kind of achievement, a document of a restless creative force. In the liner notes he highlights a specific song, "Species Wide Mass Suicide" (which appears on the Corleone release) as being one of the best songs he's ever written. I will refrain from quoting the lyrics to simply state that it feels the pressure to create, hard, and that song is indeed a high point of a record I think is an actual masterpiece.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Oh, man is not made for the cognitive dissonance that comes about from the day I had. Whereas last year's new Pixar movie was attended, in my life, by listening to an interview with CF that left me feeling deeply inspired, today I watched Up and read Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats- which goes back and forth between the sort-of-amusing and conspiracy theories that leave you feeling awful.

Up is pretty much great. It starts sad, to give emotional underpinnings, and then starts moving fast. It ends up containing genuinely funny material. It feels like less of a curiosity than Wall-E did, more like a normal movie, but well-crafted and strongly executed in a way that I doubt any other summer blockbuster would be. In some ways, it might be more satisfying than Wall-E: Wall-E is sort of more deeply sad, to a point where it even creates a sad ending that it then avoids in a swerve. Up has emotion underpinning it, but moves according to "fun romp" tradition, and allows for a more cartoony world. Lots of fun.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is not terribly well-written: It's all over the place in its subject matter, in a way where it does this paradoxical thing where it ends up not being convincing of things you already know to be true. Certain things are covered in such a cursory or haphazard manner where characters start to seem made up even though they clearly are real. But then there's the conspiracy theory stuff, which doesn't really jibe with what the rest of the book is about, but still feels like evidence of a really horrible evil... I don't know know. It's written so poorly that the whole thing feels like it's only going to convince utter crackpots, despite being about real and interesting things. The book, ostensibly, is about the CIA's use of new age and psychic practices, remote viewing and such. The CIA used remote viewing during the cold war to try to monitor the soviets- but that's not really talked about so much as some tangential figure who went on Coast To Coast AM and ended up inspiring the Heaven's Gate cult to kill themselves.

They really should not have been consumed in the same day, two things each lying on the extremes of my interest in cultural consumption. The universal humanity and humor of Up, that makes you want to engage in the world and being understandable, contrasting against the way a book of conspiracy theories puts one's thought into a spiral of half-digested information as concentric circles around a void of sheer terror. Go see Up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I recently checked out Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives from the library. It has since been returned, with only its first section read, and I am left to wonder why that book found the praise it did. Certainly, some of the praise- the comparisons to Marquez and Borges- feels like it comes from a place of racist oversimplifying. The Marquez comparisons have more to do with the amount each received by their respective generations, and most longer reviews (not the kind of thing to run on book-jackets) would grant that Bolano has nothing to do with magic realism. The book-jacket statement that "This is the sort of novel that Borges would have written" feels like it has only the most specious involvement with Borges, or novels. Here is a novel about writers (Borges talked about books) running around having sex with each other (That's what a novel is, right?).

As near as I can tell, the book is successful for how easy it is to read: It's compulsively readable, tales of the soap-operas of youth. But there's a lot of it: At over 500 pages, it feels like "You like books? Here's 500 pages of stuff to read; that's a book, isn't it, by definition?" It disregards content. But then, the content- about poets- allows for lots of name-dropping and reference points. It feels like preaching to the converted, or pandering, for a book to be so much about books and authors, but some people love being pandered to.

Granted, I only read the first section of the book, written in the form of a journal, but any skimming I did did not point to seismic shifts in terms of subject matter.

Meanwhile, I recently found myself employed at a job that had a comic book store within easy walking distance of it. I found myself there on lunch breaks, combing through quarter boxes. That is where I found Bernie Mireault's The Jam Urban Adventure Color Special, from 1987. That's a pretty good comic, for what it is: 1980s alternative comics in a superhero mold, roughly comparable to a bunch of comics from that era, but maybe nothing modern. The closest thing would be Madman, I guess, but these days that comic mostly stumbles on, with none of the weird vigor (or density of plotting) seen in this comic.

There was a Jam/Madman crossover comic in the nineties, that I've never read, and after that for a while Mireault was doing some backup strips in Madman. Those backup strips felt pretty markedly less ambitious: Silent comics, marked by (I think) a six-panel grid and some (I think) painted coloring. That was about a guy called Dr. Robot, who ran around in a big robot. He also did a comic around the same time called High Hat, which was about a guy in a top hat smoking joints. I guess he gave up, at least in terms of writing. They're alright to look at, I suppose, and maybe that was how he was pushing himself, towards painted color that felt designed for either glossy stock or computer monitors.

This Jam comic has flatter colors, that fit nicely with the brighter than newsprint paper. I think it looks great, and it reads well, a little clearer than the black and white issue of The Jam from a year later found in the same quarter box. The coloring really focuses the compositions, while still allowing for hyperactive layouts or delineations of architecture. A really cool comic.

Poking around the internet, though, I see pages from newer, yet unpublished work, and it, in black and white, doesn't look that good at all, actually: It has that sort of generic black and white boom comic look, inspired by underground comic's sense of style and texture, but with this frozen stiffness of Jack Chick tracts, or seventies Marvel comics. There's this grey-toned slickness that removes detail, rather than gives it room to breathe. It looks really bad. Oh well.

Monday, April 27, 2009

For the past several years I have been engaged with what would like to refer to itself as "the counterculture," loosely stated, a variety of people involved with "the arts" on a DIY basis. This group defines itself at least partly in its opposition to certain mainstream ideas, and places a great deal of its self-worth in its support of others in their community.

A large part of this group sort of prides itself on having "no rules," but the other has some certain guiding principles. I am interested in coming up with a list of said principles, specifically because I don't think there's really any kind of self-governance enforcing such codes, and a lot of people are shittier than they probably should be. (These rules can be picked and chosen from, and certainly a number of them are designed to implicate myself.)

So, okay, rules:

-Produce work, of some sort. Especially if you are going to offer criticism.
(Alternately, some would offer "don't criticize at all," but fuck those people. Their work, by and large, is awful, and so they have fear.)
-Don't produce bad work out of some misplaced desire for wealth (I would add "or the acceptance of your peers")
-No more coming to shows claiming to have no money with alcohol clearly in your possession as evidence of what you spent the last bit of your money on, with the implication being "I am going to trash your house, and you should feel grateful that I am here at all, as an audience member."
-No charging people admission cost when they have no money.
-Don't secretly have a trust fund.
-While attending shows, try to pay attention to work being presented, rather than attend to socialize. Except for art openings, because that's what that is for.
-No conspicuous consumption.
-Try to have as little a sense of entitlement as possible, besides what's outline in the Crass song "Do They Owe Us A Living," which I know from the Soft Pink Truth cover.
-Don't eat fast food, processed food. Try to avoid certain additives to the best of your ability.
-Don't shop at chain stores; steal from them if need be.
-Don't steal from your friends.
-Walk, ride a bike, or take public transit rather than use a car whenever possible. In event of tours, vegetable oil is the preferred fuel.
-Grow your own vegetables.
-Don't eat meat.
-Don't smoke: it encourages tobacco companies. (I don't think anyone treats this as a rule, the coolness of smoking really wins out for most people.)
-Don't do hard drugs: All cocaine has been brought into the U.S. by way of deeply-fucked channels.
-Don't frown upon those that do drugs.-Don't be racist, sexist, or homophobic. Others would say, maybe just implicitly, "or be religious" but I think that's fucked up.
-Here I would say "vote," others would say "don't vote."
-Be politically active in some way above and beyond voting.
-Try not to spend a ton of time on the internet, especially w/r/t social networking sites.
-And while I wish "don't have a cell phone" was a rule, I know it isn't, anymore.
-I also wish "when choosing culture to consume, prefer things you expect to be good over kitschy crap" was a rule but it really isn't.
-"Don't watch TV" is the rule instead, which I consider generally unfair and simplistic.
-"Don't download music illegally" is a not a rule at all, but hey, why not consider it?

Anybody else with rules to add, please use the comments thread. I'm probably taking a lot of things for granted.

I'm not even interested in subculture, really, so much as I am in general self-governance and trying not to be an awful person. (I personally eat meat, and processed food, and like those things. I am working on trying to compost and grow my own vegetables, though, and it was nighttime gardening, combined with a conversation about people not paying for shows but showing up at beer, that brought this post on.)
Until next time, be a hippie, and also a punk.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Rest in peace, respect is due: to both Jack Cardiff and J.G. Ballard. The former, the cinematographer for Powell And Pressburger, whose technicolor Black Narcissus work is a real mindblower, and the latter, whose spirit combined with life experience to form a worldview I can't quite relate to but nonetheless evoked a specific something of the twentieth century.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

If memory serves, this time last year I was hoping that Free Kitten's Inherit would sound like the Magik Markers album Boss. I think this hope was buoyed by them both coming out on Ecstatic Peace and having female singers. Now I am listening to the new Magik Markers record, Balf Quarry, on Drag City, and thinking it sounds like Free Kitten. This paragraph is inscrutable to all but a certain kind of nerd.

Other records to come out this year so far to be disappointing compared to an artist's older work include pretty much everyone that's not Black Dice. (And I guess despite my problems with the new Animal Collective record, it's still an interesting evolution and a little bit cooler than Strawberry Jam was.) Apparently there is going to be a new Lightning Bolt record coming out in a couple of months.

The reviews for the new Swan Lake album, Enemy Mine, are interesting to read for how a press release can skew critical thought. The argument being made is that it's a more cohesive record than their previous album, Beast Moans. Swan Lake is a band with three different songwriters, each with distinctive voices. On the new record, their tics are ever more pronounced: Dan Bejar does this theatrical style of singing which gets in the way of melody, which has been a problem for me on probably every Destroyer record released this decade. He doesn't do this on New Pornographers records, and he didn't do it on Beast Moans. Carey Mercer's songs on that record were little drips into the murk of recording. On Enemy Mine, his vocals are mixed as high as they are on Frog Eyes records, and are just as unlistenable for them. The Spencer Krug songs are the only ones that aren't distastefully obnoxious, and end up sort of operating on a last-Wolf-Parade-album layer of being basically bland. But I was maybe the only one who liked Beast Moans.

The new Akron/Family record has its moments, like a noisy instrumental called MBF, and it doesn't have anything as ugh-this-sounds-like-Phish-or-something as the last album's "I've Got Some Friends," but it doesn't seem like the peaks are as high as that record either. Maybe I should listen to it more. But the initial song has this bass sound that really makes it seem like jam-band lite jazz. What a weird case that band is: I saw them after their Angels Of Light split came out. Sure, that is still their best record. But they blew me away, totally transcendent, in the basement of the Eagles Hall in Olympia, Washington. Approaching religious experience, sure. And my interactions with them really painted them as world-class dudes. To this day, I have no reason to believe they're not world-class dudes: They are good friends with the Lexie Mountain Boys, and one member quit the band to live in a buddhist monastery. But they've become increasingly jammy, and the last tour schedule was really disconcertingly lame: A few dates in hippified zones like San Francisco, Austin, and Denver, each, and no shows anywhere on the east coast besides New York. Total jam band niche audience style, like they would rather play Bonnaroo than do the sort of shows that impress the hell out of everyone in attendance. They're not on Young God anymore, and maybe not even acting as Michael Gira's Angels Of Light backing band. I would still like to see them again, on a tour with Fire On Fire and Lexie Mountain Boys, playing in places that would be appropriate. God, this new record really is boring on the whole.

Oh yeah, Fire On Fire: Their first official album came out in the last days of last year, but I don't think it's available in stores, maybe only through the Young God website? That album's fine. Normally I like Big Blood more, but these are good songs, and I can't help but feel like they're fighting the good fight of what once was the toast of the underground.

Speaking of "freak folks," or "new weird americans" (were those things synonymous or not?) I wonder what the next record will be like from the guy who once called himself Wooden Wand? The last album was done under the name James Jackson Toth, and released on Rykodisc (through Slim Moon, former runner of 5RC, who rereleased the awesome Harem Of The Sundrum and The Witness Figg), and sounded like Tom Petty. The new one's coming out on Ecstatic Peace, (who put out the also pretty great James And The Quiet) under the name WAND, and I have no idea what it will sound like. Probably it will continue down on this road of blandness-as-artistic-maturity. (See also the Mirah record that came out this year, and remark to yourself that holy shit it's been ten years since You Think It's Like This But Really It's Like This. Maybe she was always kind of bland, but it was also charming and interesting, then.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oh great news: Criterion is releasing Last Year At Marienbad on DVD this June. I wonder if they're utilizing the new prints that toured just recently? Anyway, this movie is amazing, far superior to Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, and probably my favorite film of the French new wave. It's great that more people will be able to see it in a decent form. (It's also going to be on Blu-Ray disc, which no one I know has, but I'm vaguely aware has superior image quality.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

There are certain signifiers that are everywhere these days, designated at this moment in time as arbiters of quality. By themselves, however, they're meaningless, and it seems as if in a few years time it will be these things that will again be rebelled against.

In comedy, there is this certain presentational style, of young males with shaggy hair, that can be vaguely associated with indie rock, that seems to short-circuit and circumvent the quality standards of reasonable snobs. I've talked about this in the past when talking about how the HBO show Flight Of The Conchords isn't funny at all, and I feel the same thing applies to the MTV sketch show Human Giant and approximately half of the cast of Saturday Night Live. (I also dislike the American version of The Office, which a lot of people like, and feels like it might fit this mold as well.) It feels like a mutation of the idea of "alternative comedy," like no one noticed that no one on The Comedians Of Comedy tour was traditionally attractive. What's disconcerting about it is how it misreads the idea of "taste" and makes it into something class-based. (That might be where the whole thing comes from, but it's really to be avoided.) Tim And Eric deliberately avoids this stuff, and while their show has its own weaknesses, it really makes it feel like its own voice.

In comics, it seems like the old model, where people gave far too much credence to mediocre auto-bio comics, has been largely abandoned, but these days I really feel like silkscreen covers make more of an impression than they should. The comics of Juliacks are really cool and distinct, but man: There is a zine rack at Atomic Books, made up of stuff that would be super-compelling when I saw it at The Olympia Comics Expo, that on closer inspection is not as powerful as things I want to give my dollar to. When you see a whole heap of the stuff it really makes you just want to pay attention to cool drawing again.

(Speaking of cool drawing, let me go on a tangent. My friend has a portable hard drive with a bunch of downloaded comics on it. He was talking shit on "comics made by graphic designers," which I then discovered, when looking at what was on his hard drive, that he was specifically talking about the work of this guy Jonathan Hickman, which I think he'd obtained accidentally. But holy shit is that stuff awful, deeply dull to look at. Comics made on Illustrator, like Achewood, but without the flair for dialogue, just that flat talking-head presentational style. Also on the hard drive were issues of the Geoff-Darrow-drawn Hard Boiled and the complete run of Sam Kieth's The Maxx. I am all for people trying to find their own voices but it's weird to look at those, back to back, and ask yourself why you would ever make the choice to read the Hickman comic, let alone make comics in such a deeply dull way. No one making mini-comics is making those mistakes, and they're not doing that weird over-rendering color thing that mainstream comics do, so they're a little smarter. I think that both of these trends are the autotune of comics, and will just make everything from this era badly dated in ten years time.)

In music, the signifiers are much the same as they've always been: Acoustic instruments still indicate sincerity- but the one that's really bothered me is the way keyboards and 4/4 house kick drums are supposed to make an audience dance. It feels fascistic as a death march to me. I should also point out that currently lo-fi production feels really "in" in a way that is totally fucking with critical perception, and that I feel really bad for any critic who ranked The Vivian Girls (who, according to all gossip I have heard, are awful people) on their best-of-2008 list. That's sort of interesting, because I sort of feel like a lot of these things have to do with the feeling of money implied by the decisions being made, and they're using traditionally "poor" sound. But maybe it's only appealing at this point in time because it's not actually "poor" in terms of money involved, since it's cheaper to just record on computer, rather than an analog four-track. I'm not trying to do a thing where I half-remember The Psychic Soviet, so I'll cut short this line of reasoning. This post is very negative, but it's meant to serve as prophecy that in time everyone will see past such artifice.