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.