Friday, December 10, 2010

Music, like any art, consists of component parts. At a base level is sound, traditionally made on instruments, turning into melodies, contrasting with others, turning into songs, given meaning by lyrics, collected into albums, existing in a cultural context, made by human beings. Over time, the idea of what constitutes "good music" has become increasingly complicated- the set of values of rock and roll put forth, the idea of the album as an ideal form, punk notions of integrity- have created a world in which one would pretty much need to be a genius polymath in order to excel. At the same time, the very proliferation of music in our culture has made the idea of music-making have a wide appeal. There is an idea that anyone can make music, which is true- but when the year-end lists get tabulated, people begin to talk about albums as timeless pieces of art.

In 2010, there are simply too many bands. Many people just want to make sounds, or play an instrument, or travel. Beyond any contemporary trends, I see things returning to a level akin to folk music, emphasizing home recording and peer-to-peer interactions. Partly I think this because it seems like the music-marketing apparatus has failed. Pop music creates monoliths in the shape of celebrities, and the thing calling itself "independent music" now standing in the center of a corporate circle-jerk hasn't really made anything that struck me as "good," according to the old criteria; existing, as it seems to, with the goal of only being "interesting," new enough to be used to sell the idea of cool.

In 2010, the music that struck me came from what could be called the underground, or simply the work of friends of friends. There are hundreds of undergrounds, and what was valued by people I knew when I lived in Olympia is irrelevant and dismissed by those I know in Baltimore. I pretty much ignored local music in Olympia, as it wasn't of interest to me, than the main producers of it seemed to possess a different sense of values and interests than myself. In Baltimore, home of "the best scene in America" according to a Rolling Stone article a few years back, the realm where it seems like the action is could be called noise music. It's not that I'm particularly fond of noise as an end to itself, but just that the realm of dissonance allows for freedom. None of my top albums are pure "noise records," but all come from that cultural sphere.

Which is funny: To me all of culture is one big "noise sphere," in terms of how much information there is to parse, with so little of it having any value. But these are the records I found to have value, that come the closest to succeeding in terms of the classic idea of an album, consisting of songs. Admittedly, past a certain point traditional notions of songcraft become negated, and I just mean that they have vocals and lyrics grounding them in something human, away from the pure abstraction of bent machinery. With the diminished expectations of little hype, things can simply succeed on their own merits, achieving one idea in a live performance and another on record.

1. Sun City Girls - Funeral Mariachi. (Abduction Records) Dante's Disneyland Inferno was reissued this year, and that record, with its epic scope, feels like a bid for immortality on Charles Gocher Jr.'s part, a concentration of what it was he brought to the band. Now he's dead, and with his contribution diminished, what exists is a tribute to a human being who earned said tribute by being a chaotic force. This is a major work in a year that lacked for them, but might not be recognizable as such without a deep knowledge of the band and their history of dicking around. "Dedicated to you know who and the souls who know." A great many couldn't deal with Dante's Disneyland Inferno, either, so I will stop acting like the lack of discussion of this album demonstrates the criticism industry's grand failure. Although: by coming at the end of their career, it cannot be trumpeted as "the next big thing," the way so many are interested in. I saw Sir Richard Bishop perform as part of Rangda this year, and while their record False Flag is not going to make this list, live they were a reminder of all the force he can conjure. On this record, force is subsumed into beauty.

2. Big Blood - Dead Songs. (Time-Lag) Big Blood were the best band of 2007, though I didn't know it at the time. They pressed a series of CD-Rs, all great, all offered online for free. This year, there are two more CD-Rs available for download, which could actually be better than this official release. This is the sort of behavior I so value in bands. This is their first official CD/vinyl release, but unlike Rain In England, the only purchasable Lil B album amongst a sea of free mixtapes, it's a pretty effective concentration of what makes them a good band. (I listened to a ton of Lil B as well, but none of his mixtapes are super-consistent, or of a manageable length.) These two used to be in Cerberus Shoal, whose final album, An Ongoing Ding, also dripped out this year, on a Japanese label, though I have only heard bits of it. A married couple making folk music and recording it immaculately, this album might not be better than their previous work, but it's available commercially, on Amazon even, and so this makes it "real" in a notable way. Although much of what I will go on to praise is not as tangible. Double standard.

3. Daily Life - Necessary And Pathetic. (Load) Christopher Forgues and Sakiko Mori's pop band, whose previous release, There Is No Solution Because There Is No Problem, I was asked to turn off at work, here make something more recognizable as a pop record. Specifically, it is a synth-pop record. Lots of drum machine. Crooning. I process this as being akin to CF's City Hunter zine in its vision of modernity, but this is a lot less abstracted. I listened to this record quite a few times, as November turns to December. I was talking this record up elsewhere on the internet and a dude responded by saying that anyone who cares about synthesizers has to hear this record. That struck me as crazy nonsense, but maybe this has got something to teach the people. Double standards, man: I like this sort of music when it comes from an unexpected place. There's a heft to knowing where this record is coming from that makes it hit so much harder than a band that is just making new wave in 2010 for some unfathomable reason.

4. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot, The Son Of Chico Dusty. (Def Jam) There are good songs that were made for this album that didn't make it, and bad songs that are still on it. A lot of the subject matter is that of an old man complaining about the youth. But it's still pretty great. I liked that Kanye West album too, but when I listen to that, I think "oh, this is interesting. This is ambitious." When I put this on, I am constantly reminded "oh, this is a really good song. This beat is really heavy." This record makes me think of the southern hip-hop ideal of driving around in a car with bass turned up, windows down. That Kanye record makes me think about celebrities. Even if I think about the phrase "30 K for a verse no album out!" like a mantra, Big Boi makes me envision a better world.

5. Humanbeast- Queer Marriage. (Gross Domestic Product) This record is available online for free, also. This band/couple/performance art project has an interest in bondage that I find fairly uninteresting. I don't understand why it's considered transgressive, or shocking, when it seems to me that's been in the public sphere since early '90s Madonna videos. But Humanbeast kind of remind me of Madonna also, with this record's addition of vocals. But really smart, both in their knowledge of building electronics and in their conceptual foundations. I saw them play two great shows, and this is their better release. They are a cool band. I remember, years ago, talking about the lushness of noise pop, how much sex there is, and also this soft womb: Humanbeast has a lot of the same ingredients reconfigured into terror. Putting on their clothes as the cops arrive. They make the argument.

6. Angels In America- Allergic To Latex. (Digitalis) This band makes me think of the glamour of junkies. They are not junkies, and they're not glamourous either. A pile of trash. An oil spill. Watching TV on a dirty couch. Heavy drum machine, murky vocals. Tank Girl comics. Inarticulate. Uncommunicative. Secrets. Saying a lot just by existing. Most of this tape is on the Free Music Archive. They've got a bit of a love for sleazy modern America and its gloss, but their aesthetic is that of caked on dirt. There are miles of empty space between these zones, and empty space is where I want to be. If industrial music evokes the dehumanization of factory labor pumping out plumes of black smoke, this is an a town with a Wal-Mart in it, these are the kids in the parking lot: An evolution of industrial music that is completely the opposite of Nine Inch Nails romanticism.

7. Salamander Wool - Lunarsophic Somnambulist. (Ehse) A folk record. No evil. Real pure: Which is not to say its for purists. Naive, almost? Free. Weird. Carson builds his own instruments, but there's a lot of guitar on this record. You can get this one for free as well, but I am proud to own it. The first time I saw this dude play a set, I hated it. He was just jamming. He continues to do sets like that, and sets that are completely thought out and planned to be mind-blowing. That's what I mean by purity, that's what I mean by freedom. These are good songs, though, once it gets moving.

I paid for all of these. Other records of note that folks I know made and the larger world ignored: Jenny Graf, Os, and her Marcia Bassett collaboration, Peradam. Lazer Zeppelin's cassette on Night People and LP on People In A Position To Know. Alex Body's "Chief Of Time And Frequency" on Night People. Russian Tsarlag "Unleash The Chain" tape that Discogs says came out last year. Lil B mp3s. Matmos, Wobbly, and Lesser's Simultaneous Quodlibet LP is better than Matmos' collaboration with So Percussion and Wobbly's collaboration with People Like Us, at least to my mind. Daniel Higgs' Say God and his collaboration with Twig Harper, Clairaudience Fellowship were talked about, but it is a wonder just that they exist and were put out by Thrill Jockey.

Best song I heard for the first time this year:


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Netflix has abandoned its "Community" features, which means that all of my compulsory ratings of movies I watch is now just myself, muttering into a void, helping only to aid a mathematical algorithm which seems to function pretty well already. Surely I have rated enough things at this point for my opinions to become predictable. Here's the latest things you could've already imagined I would have liked.

The two new Picturebox books, Powr Mastrs 3 and If-N-Oof, showed up earlier this week. Powr Mastrs is wildly self-indulgent, which I find funny. An 8-page full color bondage sequence, several short stories completely apart from the narrative, sequences that don't need to be as long as they are. It's well-drawn, well-colored stuff, and possessed of a willful defiance which I recognize the need for. Approximately a third of the book actually pushes the plot forward. If-N-Oof is super-straightforward and confined with accessibility, and ends up occupying a similar space in my mind to Taiyo Matsumoto's Tekkon Kinkreet. I laughed along with the audacity of Powr Mastrs but was exhilarated by If-N-Oof. The sequence where If goes out in the sun, moves to cover his eyes, and then the reader gets a first-person perspective spread of a hand shading the eyes from the sun? Shit man. It doesn't reward flipping through the way CF's comics do, as it's so much about pacing and sequence. There's a sequence which reads like a Mat Brinkman comic. The opening and closing sequences riff on a thing from Ninja, where clean lines and open spaces feels menacing and inhuman. Meanwhile, the rest of the book is varying degrees of expanded drawing, and the bits that seem closer to the size they were drawn are packed with detail.

It blew me away enough that, when I did a Google search for Coober Skeber 2, from Highwater Books in 1997, and found it for sale when I was only looking for scans, I ordered it. Chippendale's 3-page Daredevil comic ends up not being that good, but a lot of the other stuff is great, even though it comes from cartoonists I either don't really like (Ron Rege, P'Shaw) or have never seen anything else by. There's an uncredited Dr Strange comic, and a Spider-Woman comic by Magnus Johnstone, which I assumed was a pseudonym until I found the dude's website. He draws in a style similar to that found in coloring books, but in that comic, there's large globs of black for depicting things like water and hair, and breaking the page into panels plays off the linework really well. On his website, all of his black and white drawings are labeled as manga. I should try to interview this dude. He might be the same person as Mango Johnstone, whose website he links to, and which features pet portraits and mandalas.

That comic plays off the recent issue 1 of Strange Tales II that Marvel put out in a pretty interesting way, depicting how the past 13 years have changed things. Coober Skeber was unlicensed, a publicity grab by the underdogs, most of which had never been published before. Strange Tales II is Marvel enlisting alternative cartoonists to do short stories. But that is just a surface thing. In 1997, all of these cartoonists are dealing with the source material- comics from the 1960s through the 1980s- nostalgically. In 2010, the best comics deal with this iconography as a thing that's shown up in film, but that's based in comics. Dash Shaw's and Kevin Huizenga's comics do this the most explicitly, but it's arguably present in Rafael Grampa's piece as well. Shannon Wheeler's comic deals with Captain America as a symbol of American capitalist imperialism, which is pretty much the same thing. Frank Santoro's comic is maybe the closest to a Coober Skeber strip, except for the fact that the formal things it wishes to investigate are based in color, which means that, economically, it could only be printed by someone with money. (It's nostalgic for the blueline process of a pre-photoshop era.)

Somewhere between these two comics is this Punisher comic Richard Corben drew. In that it's from 2004, and it's fully a mainstream comic in a lot of ways, in that it's written by Garth Ennis, writer of plenty of Punisher comics, but it's presented as a one-off anomaly, labeled "The End," and that exactly is what it is, dealing with this character as iconography and brought to its logical nihilistic conclusion. It's pretty great.

I went to a Six Flags amusement park and realized that just naming roller coasters after comic book characters is the perfect thing to keep in mind. Thrill rides! You have to be a certain height to ride, but I think most people reach said heights at the age of eleven.

I've been watching a lot of horror movies this October. Ingmar Bergman's Hour Of The Wolf does not actually constitute a horror film, but that was the appeal for me when I watched it. I love Ingmar Bergman, but this felt pretty much exactly like all of his other movies that aren't the best. I am distracted by his use of Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow all the time. And Sven Nykvist.
Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant are actual horror movies. Isabelle Adjani stars in The Tenant, and I saw her in Nosferatu and Possession fairly recently as well, but none of these movies are similar to each other in any way, besides all basically being horror movies- but horror used as a thing to destabilize, and create unease. All of the horror movies I've been watching feel different from each other- Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is obviously unlike these movies as well, but it's completely brutal. All use scores that feature dissonance and atonality. That's the common link. I also saw Cronenberg's The Fly, and rewatched John Carpenter's The Thing. None of these movies are similar to each other. There's so many things to be horrified by! I have no idea what people mean when they talk about a movie being scary, but everything is rooted in anxiety.

I also saw Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. Garbage! I'm exaggerating: But man, that movie did nothing for me. I was talking about Possession to someone who hadn't seen it, and they brought up Antichrist, and I felt pretty certain that they were nothing alike, and I was just focusing on the wrong aspects of Possession. (Oh, the Possession I'm talking about is the 1981 Andrzej Zulawski movie) When I watched Antichrist I realized that they are similar, but Possession is a lot better, for no other reason than there's actual characters. In the credits of Antichrist there are 4 researchers listed! One for horror movies. One for psychology. Holy shit. Get it together, asshole. I am sure the fact that I seem like I am angry at Von Trier will be proof for some of how powerful the movie is. I am actually pretty ambivalent to it, but am holding up the fact that it seems coldly intellectualized for simplistic mockery.

It hasn't all been horror movies. I also watched the Martin Short/Charles Grodin comedy Clifford. It's great. I didn't really rate Martin Short as a comedian before, but his performance is incredible. Tom Scharpling talks about Clifford all the time. Or used to, I haven't really listened to The Best Show On WFMU in quite some time. Charles Grodin shows up in Rosemary's Baby. Martin Short plays Clifford as the spawn of the devil, but it's for laughs.

Records: I downloaded Mayo Thompson's 1970 solo album, Corky's Debt To His Father, today, after learning of its existence. I'd heard a well-regarded Red Krayola record before, but didn't really get into it. My friend Owen Gardner pointed out that record as obviously being bullshit: "It's supposed to be a free jazz record made by people who can't play, which is the whole point of free jazz. Why would you want to listen to that?" I think we were discussing The Parable Of Arable Land. Owen likes other records of theirs, which I have not heard in their entirety. Anyway, Corky's Debt To His Father exists, and is pretty listenable. Mayo Thompson also produced Raincoats albums, which makes it clear he is on the side of the angels.

(Let me take this moment to point out that Fairytale In The Supermarket was not originally included on the first Raincoats LP, but was a single appended to reissues. Everything on the proper album is easily better than that song. Which I guess is fine, but it's hard to not want to skip to "No Side To Fall In." The rest of that record is so good I would want to hear the preceding single anyway, so it's fine. Their second LP, Odyshape, is even more phenomenal and its a shame its unavailable and never really talked about by anyone other than me and Owen Gardner.) (Look for Owen's drone record to come out on Ehse Records sometime in 2011! It might be boring, but I expect to get a free copy and listen to it at least twice!)

The final Sun City Girls record, Funeral Mariachi, is great. I say this as someone who doesn't really like Torch Of The Mystics, and is really into the spoken-word material that Charles Gocher provided. I also really like the stuff found on Grotto Of Miracles and 330,003 Crossdressers, which is what this is more in the vein of. Actually it seems sort of like an Alvarius B record with less prose and more Morricone influence. We all agree that Ennio Morricone is great, right? That's what I mean by accessible.

The new Matmos/Lesser/Wobbly LP, Simultaneous Quodlibet, is pretty great. Loose and improvised with a lot of fun goofin'. I don't have anything to say about it that is actually useful, or descriptive, but I am announcing it exists in the world, because I don't know of anywhere else that has acknowledged this. The cover is an image of Phyllis Diller, made from her possessions.

The new Fat Worm Of Error LP, Broods, has Mark Beyer cover art, and a lot of songs on their new CD, Ambivalence And The Beaker. The arrangements are completely different, and one who listened intently to both, and then saw Fat Worm Of Error play live, could probably work out how they operate. This would be a pretty big investment for one such as myself, who can't quite wrap my head around that band to the point of being psyched on it while it's playing for any extended period of time. I'm sure that if I lived up in Massachusetts and was seeing this band play regularly I would be pretty excited about it. As it stands I have two CDs that I process as sounding like post-punk bands without any sort of tightness or rhythm section. Specifically, when I hear them I think about the Black Eyes album Cough, but all the parts that have descended from Fugazi are removed.

There is nothing tying this post together. Nothing.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The drug experience Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void comes closest to is the moment when you've been high for quite some time and are now looking at your watch to see how much longer it will be before you can do something else more productive. There comes a point when you know that the rest of the movie will continue on much the same way it has already progressed, and there will be no scenes or performances to distract from the monotony. There continue to be shots that fly over space dividers in a blur, the same moments will continue to be revisited.

The second season of the show Delocated has been pretty incredible. I seem to recall the first season's shorter episodes as these unstructured strings, flitting about from things that were imaginative and surreal to things that felt too mean to be funny. The second season has each episode expanded to a full half-hour, each with its own individual sense of humor. One episode will get its humor largely from building up to an extended sight gag ("Mixer," the climax of which created some of the hardest laughter a TV show has brought about), while another will do an extended Face/Off riff that plays off watching an actor recreate another's mannerisms perfectly. I am missing out on the current season of East Bound and Down and the new Kids In The Hall series, and so can't make any definitive claims, but this is a very funny show. It seems to accomplish this really hard task, of communicating a sense of humor that seems too wild and free in its satire to ever be structured to narrative. It's funny the way some of my friends are funny- not in the Judd Apatow way of cracking a ton of jokes, "the funniest thing is just you and your buddies palling around" but in not taking anything seriously at all. If you are familiar with Jon Glaser and Jon Benjamin doing extended anti-comedy riffs on stage, you can maybe imagine the issue of how untranslatable that seems to a more palatable format. This isn't to say all the jokes land, but everything seems inherently funny and sometimes that then takes the plunge into actual laugh-out-loud gags.

More and more, it becomes clear that the idea of "indie" music in 2010 is a complete misnomer, and what it refers to is a culture of "the creative class." The mechanisms for the record industry when "indie" became a concept were completely different than they are now. Now I think the music press functions as part and parcel of an agenda of appropriation, taking what it wants and claiming it as a product. This is always how things always worked, music is a product in that records are available for sale- but now things move so fast that every new thing is just something to be consumed. This is an unclear way of putting it. What I'm saying is that the new webzines are written for a "creative class" of marketing people. That's who buys these records- Or who buys the most stock in them, by putting them into advertisements and Hollywood films. The purchase is done as part of their job. And the selling is done as part of the job of the music writer. Endless consumption, a snake eating its own tail. Everything is a job of selling the new- Listeners aren't necessarily being served, because old music is just as satisfying to discover. Sometimes, when a revival starts, canons are revised accordingly- Think of the bands being discussed when the eighties revival started. (Did The Pop Group have much cultural clout circa 1997?) Currently, music isn't even being sold on the basis of SOUNDING new, or futuristic, the way that people would talk about IDM ten years ago. It's just this weird world where The Arcade Fire are sold as being similar to Neutral Milk Hotel (when, actually, no, not at all), or Best Coast are compared to The Beach Boys (Again: Untrue) - An invocation of already popular reference points that does not actually explain what music sounds like, but positions it as an issue of "taste," but taste defined in the depressing way that Celine Dion 33 1/3 book did it- as a thing that people choose to fit their lifestyle expectations; a definition that completely neglects the fact that there are people who respond to weird music because it sounds new and alien and interesting and they're alienated from the rest of the dull culture. I have had a lot of conversations with people my age and slightly older about hearing Beck's "Loser" in 1992 and having our minds completely blown- despite the fact that people of the time would've considered Beck as related to Nirvana in some way, the sonics didn't bear that out to impressionable minds.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Aidan Koch is a lady who I'm fairly certain attended The Evergreen State College at the same time I did. She is my age, if not in terms of specifics, than in terms of generalities; which is to say, young. I have never had any conversations about her, but I can guess where she is coming from when I read her book, The Whale, published by Gaze Books.

Gaze Books' first publication was Blaise Larmee's Young Lions. I appreciate Blaise sending me another book after I wrote what most would consider a bad review. Like, I think it's a funny prank to keep sending someone work they're not really interested in, that isn't going to coincide with their interests. I support all pranks. Maybe eventually I will start evaluating the books on their own terms.

The Whale is a comic about dealing with the death of someone close. It is not as emotionally devastating as Anders Nilsen's The End, nor is it as formally audacious. It's not trying to be punch you in the gut with raw emotion. To me it is more about the feeling of the beaches of the Pacific Northwest, where the water is too cold for comfort and you just stand on the beach with your head empty.

What do we mean when we say "comics as poetry?" (When I say "we," I should point out that I don't think I would ever actually use that phrase, the same way that I wouldn't say "art comic" the way that people are using it nowadays.) When I read a comic like this, I think of it as being slight, but also sincere and direct. Does it flatter the work to put it out as a book with a spine? An actual book of poetry of this type would contain many more poems. You don't charge someone five dollars for a single haiku. (This comic costs ten dollars.)

Do I think the comic, "The Whale," could pretty much be eight pages long and not lose much? Yes. When I think of what is being conveyed- a method of drawing, wistful melancholia stemming from a place of loss, a bit of metaphor- I think it could be gotten across in a minicomic, and a few of those minicomics could one day form a book that would make sense on a bookshelf and constitute a major work. In dealing with it, it is probably best to view it as a minicomic. Granted, it's priced a bit steep for a black and white minicomic, but is only a little more expensive than something with silkscreened covers would be. I can imagine such a swap occurring between people viewing themselves as equals with different design aesthetics.

Maybe it would seem as if I am talking about the Closed Captioned Comics folks with that last remark. Lane Milburn made a perfect-bound paperback for his last publication, Death Trap. Lane is a dude I actually have had conversations with, and I got the impression that he is dialing back such handcraft elements in favor of an emphasis on the craft of comics as a thing you read. With these modifications in presentation, Lane's book reads like a deliberate response to horror manga. It feels appropriate, a thing that makes sense with a real sense of itself. On the other hand, if Aidan's comic had been a minicomic with a precious and ornate form, I would probably be more psyched on it. I imagine most readers would feel the same way. But that's not how the book-publishing game works, I suppose, and until the people of Portland work out a way to steal photocopies, Gaze Books will have 1000 copies of The Whale for sale to interested parties.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I went to the Small Press Expo, in Bethesda, for the first time this past Saturday, with my roommate Adam. Enough people seemed excited to hear my name after seeing it on the internet that I thought I should get back to blogging. The show is overwhelming, constant fluxes of people. There were moments when crowds would clear and I would see tables I'd completely missed, previously obscured by masses of people.

There were less people I had met before than I expected. (I think the only exhibitor I've talked to before was Eamon Espey.) I thought Secret Acres was hoping to debut a collection of Edie Fake's work, who I know from Baltimore, but that didn't happen. Luckily, Edie is in the new Monster, alongside Roby Newton, another friend/former Baltimore resident. Also in that comic: Nick Thorburn of Islands and The Unicorns, a big Mat Brinkman admirer. Also, a lot of the usual suspects/hitmakers, who do great comics. Chippendale, CF, Goldberg, etc. Jim Rugg is in there, and he is really drawing the shit out of things these days, as his Rambo comic also feels really fresh and modern in its choices.

There were a lot of people saying "take this, it's free" and they'd hand you a business card, or a flyer for their website. Some of these had terrible drawings on them, and I had no interest in seeing how their sense of web-design compared. I didn't see any crazy comics coming out of nowhere. There were some folks who were printmakers, but they were just selling prints and t-shirts, not books or zines. Those are things you can mark up higher, I suppose. Kate Beaton had a line that went out the door. Like, maybe she was the only person with a line. Everyone else just had a crowd, or a conversation.

An exhausting show. When I got home I had been so inundated with social stimuli I couldn't even really read the comics I'd picked up. The next day, though, I read Renee French's H Day. It is pretty abstract, with the back cover copy maybe giving you the biggest clue as to what it is about. It's a cool book: The left hand pages are drawn in a minimal line style, with smudges, and are probably best read as quickly as possible, as a flipbook. This story is an abstracted body horror about migraines, as a head swells and contracts and has taffy pulled from it. The right side of the book is drawn in the soft colored pencil look of The Ticking, but here there's only a panel a page, making it more of a storybook, and the compositions change more- You can't read it at the same pace you read the opposite side. There are also other elements going on, chapter breaks, a section that is just weird cages. It's cool, the farthest out Renee has gone. The narrative is diminished and the anxiety is turned way up. The title seems unrelated to the contents, and I wonder if this is the same thing as the book titles previously attributed to Renee French working with Picturebox: Towcester Lodge, 44 Vessels.

I also got a copy of the Paul Pope THB Comics From Mars 2. I missed out on tracking down a copy of the first one because it seemed like it would be collected in Total THB, if/when that comes out. I don't think that's going to happen, looking at the contents of the new issue: It seems like the branding of these comics is just as a catch-all for Paul Pope. Which is cool. Talking to Frank Santoro he said that the stuff in the Cold Heat zines he wants to not have in the collection, (if that ever comes out) because he doesn't like the ending anymore. The issue 7/8 that would be effected looks really fucking great to the eyes of me, someone who didn't draw it, though.

There were some Fantagraphics debuts that will apparently be in stores this Wednesday- My roommate bought Prison Pit 2 but it seems like the new Love And Rockets sold out. There was a new issue of The Acme Novelty Library that I will wait until it shows up in a library to read.

I picked up some minicomics that were kind of old- Rumbling Chapter Two (great), the Tom Kaczynski Trans comics (nothing to do with the Neil Young album, although thinking about it I think that record plays into a lot of Tom's themes) (more autobio than I was expecting, although still good, thoughtful work), Stay Away From Other People (apparently Lisa Hanawalt is doing a second issue of I Want You, which I didn't know at the time, having just learned it from her website- if I had known I would have asked her who was going to publish it), the aforementioned Rambo comic. Were there new people doing quarter-sized, black and white minicomics? I don't think there were, besides people at Ian Harker's table (but I sort of suspect Ian is more of a comics history buff than a lot of other people).

I went to the Jaime Hernandez panel and it was packed. Gary Groth pointed out that most of the attendees weren't even born when the first Love and Rockets came out, and that seemed true, and mindblowing. The Fort Thunder panel was less packed. Neither was non-stop insighful, but the latter had some good anecdotes/color-slides.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I went to see Inception with two of my roommates. None of us thought it was very good as a movie. It seems like it would be a particularly next-level video game, and I imagine the people that would most enjoy it are people that are really into currently popular video games. This is the sort of nerd who would be very excited by the prospect of a follow-up to a Batman movie being a science-fiction movie, like I was, but then the truth of it is it's not really science-fiction at all, at least not in any way that involves ideas.

There is, however, a lot of exposition in it, laying out rules as if they were ideas; although the rules later change, and always seem arbitrary. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but not in a surrealist dream-logic way, or any cool kind of way, nor is it even hard to follow. It's speaking a language, unaware that its using the words its choosing incorrectly, the way that Scientologists or the kids in the movie Dogtooth are brought up.

It is not based on what dreaming is like, at all- which is odd considering that sleep and dreams are a profoundly human thing experienced by almost all of us. When the movie uses phrases like "dreams within dreams" I instinctively think of false awakenings because that's a real phenomena, but in this movie it just means some bullshit. The whole structure, which gives the movie its ostensible reason to exist, is not based on anything correlating to human experience, or is any kind of metaphor for anything. Basically, "That's not what dreams are like. That's not what the unconscious is like."

In terms of the language of genre, also, on a meta level, the movie says, about itself, "this is a science-fiction thriller" but then there's no consistency in terms of what those words should mean. It's not really thrilling, because it can't make you care about it, at all, and the rules change arbitrarily. The villains are personality-less dudes with guns, projections that don't make logical sense to be there at a certain point, and the thing that sets the story into action is this corporate espionage story which feels incredibly arbitrary.

Essentially, it ends up being an action movie with a conceit that allows for the fact that action is staged really badly because a lot of directors can't establish a sense of place, by creating nonsensical places. This works sometimes, with Escher-inspired "impossible architecture" but also allows for a runaway train to come out of nowhere.

There came a point where I was thinking "Maybe the ending will sell this to me" but oh my god did it ever not do that. It felt like a twist of the M. Night Shyamalan school, of trying to be a good ending but not really being satisfying.

Sometimes a movie is mediocre and people still say "it's worth seeing." This really didn't feel like it was worth seeing. It's not about any of the things it seems like it would be about. It's not really about anything. There's "cool visuals" but I think I would like the ones in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus more. I can't say for sure because I didn't get around to seeing it- because it's really hard to interest people in seeing movies that are "cool visuals" in that sort of style. What's funny is that it's fine. It's better than mediocre. But it's pretty emphatically not good. I haven't seen the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie yet, Micmacs, but what people are saying about that movie: That it's emotionally hollow and you walk out feeling empty, even though it's pretty- applies to this movie, which isn't really that fun to look at if you have a sense of aesthetics that prefers hand-made warmth to computer-generated sheen.

One of my roommates, in comparing it to other Christopher Nolan movies, made a list of all the ones that were better than this. Basically, the ones that didn't make the list were Insomnia and Following. This might be a better movie than Insomnia, in that it's more ambitious, but it's also more frustrating, and the performances aren't as good.

Apparently it's a lot like the other Leonardo DiCaprio movie this year, Shutter Island, which I haven't seen, and now have no interest in.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A proposed double-bill: Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky (starring Anne Carlisle) and Kathryn Bigelow's The Loveless (starring Willem Defoe), both from 1982. Liquid Sky, to me, is the cooler movie, in that I respond more to its sci-fi signifiers than The Loveless' rockabilly aesthetic, but both are essentially movies looking at subcultures, eroticizing them, and using fairly spare dialogue. Both are really cool, highly recommended, pretty weird, etc. I feel the only real piece of insight I have is noting their similarities to each other. The Loveless looks backward in time while Liquid Sky, while not set in the future, is a science fiction piece set in the time in which it was made. While The Loveless was probably shot somewhere in the south, Bigelow would've recently left Columbia University, in New York, and the fifties bikers look like punks in a lot of ways: Notably, the presence of swastikas tattooed on hands makes me view its nostalgia through that lens. Liquid Sky is made by Russians, but the cast is New Yorkers- Carlisle's other most notable role seems to be a small part in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Another NYC-oriented double-bill would be to watch A Thousand Clowns, directed by Fred Coe and starring Jason Robards, and follow it up with Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin. Two movies about struggling with male adulthood, both adapted from plays (by Herb Gardner and Jules Feiffer, respectively), both of which are pretty exhausting to watch. All the dialogue absent from the previously suggested double-feature is present here, and while it's all pretty funny, either movie by itself is a bit much to take in one sitting. Both of these movies are really relatable, and while A Thousand Clowns sort of has hope, Little Murders is a bleak point of view to contend with.

While the first set of movies proposed are all about style and subculture, the characters in the second set of movies are alienated from society to such a degree that subculture would not be a respite. Great stuff all around.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I've been thinking about moving away from the current template of this blog, as a place for my attempts to write criticism, in favor of a series of Q+A formatted interviews. In my mind, transcribing conversations with cartoonist pals would seem the best compromise between my imagined readerships, one-half comics-interested folk and one-half people I've encountered in physical space aiming to keep in touch. The thing that might serve as a deterrent is how, even if I were to just talk to people I talk to regularly, the presence of a tape recorder could make them think in terms of "talking to the press" and the whole endeavor sabotaged.

For now, though, here are brief reviews of comics I've enjoyed recently.

Hard Boiled, by Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow. The themes in this comic are really similar to those found within Grant Morrison and Chris Weston's The Filth, but this is much better. It's like the film version of that as The Filth attempting to be literature, which it turns out makes for much better comics. Formally, in its various approaches to action, it's like the Morrison/Quitely comic We3. Like, almost exactly- similar lengths overall, operating like movies but oriented towards a different kind of editing and drawing. Both have art influenced by Moebius but take it further into anatomical interest. Again, Geoff Darrow is better. (And this comic came out over a decade before We3.) Time gets broken down in a million different ways, all depictions of action, all action driving home this vision of humans as meat, this whole sweaty mess of life viewed on the picture-plane in perfect focus. All the flesh ripples and all the surfaces are cracked. Walls are a thing to write graffiti upon. In most ways this is the coolest thing you can do.

Wally Gropius, by Tim Hensley. This is the nerdiest thing you can do, like anagrams and math club. But the language being investigated is comics- This is drawn sort of to resemble 1960s "teen" humor comics, but in this bizarre way- almost no panel makes a point of distinguishing between ground and wall, everything just sort of hangs in space. Sometimes there are spots that employ perspective and their unexpected angularity is really stunning, despite the air of genericism at all times. Wally Gropius, the character, is a teen millionaire, but the comic takes the fact that comics are a commercial art as point number 1 to investigate commerce and wealth by extension- A large amount of the sound effects are allusions to currency or the rich. I get lost as to working out what the book's conclusion means thematically as an extension of what came before it. While the story ends, capitalism doesn't, the book persists on the shelf, timelessly, the same way that a new Richie Rich could be on the stands on the month. The ending is climactic for whatever it means, like the Bush administration winding down. Super-weird, totally compelling.

Lose 1 and 2, by Michael Deforge. These blew me away, as a one-two punch. The first one has this cover that's a self-portrait of the artist, covered in ink, sort of like the Paul Pope art book, but here it's a ton of cartoony deforming melty details. The comic inside is total anxiety infiltrated by having read a ton of comics- there's fun gags about dogs in college, and the Justice League paying for Green Lantern to go to art school, but the gist of it is this horror-comic trip to cartoon hell. It's kind of perfect as a comic book, a one-shot, which is what I first thought it would be upon it's release, and then the second issue comes out (WAY FASTER THAN THE SECOND ISSUE OF ANY ALTERNATIVE COMIC BOOK WORKING THIS FORMAT IN YEARS - for all the talk about how Crickets was trying to bring back the format, it fucked up by not having another issue come out for ages) and it actually is a semi-straightforward horror comic. I love the paper it's printed on, the way the black ink sticks to it- it's like the issues of Charles Burns' Black Hole, but made more appropriate here by the invocation of cartoon characters rather than just EC Comics. The second issue seems sort of like an Al Columbia or Renee French thing. I like this more than Al Columbia though, although part of that is the excitement of "whoa, this dude reads all the comics" recognition. I imagine that most of the people who would read the first issue are people who would recognize it and be creeped out by it, once they get past the level of "Is this irony? How comfortable to I feel about this person appropriating all the stuff he is?" It's more loaded than Paper Rad because I respect Peanuts and Bullwinkle way more than I respect Garfield, but I came to the conclusion to let it go and trust the artist. Garfield is used by Paper Rad because it's a ubiquitous thing in the culture, and Peanuts is used because it's a specific thing in the mind of a certain kind of comics nerd- using it makes you feel more uncomfortable because it's closer to home, but in a horror story discomfort is what's aimed for. I just listened to an interview where he said that two heroes/influences were Saul Steinberg and Richard Corben. Those are two completely different artists and it didn't feel like picking two opposite ends of the spectrum arbitrarily, so much as a useful hint at what's going on here. I hope he keeps making comics, because, while this is fully-realized work (especially for a dude that's twenty-two) I really want it to end up that he's actually going somewhere with this- because the first issue is such an all-encompassing, all-embracing piece of work, and then the second issue focuses on one particular thing. (In that interview he said he'd like to do an issue a year, which bummed me out as being kind of a noncommittal cop-out, although it's more realistic than saying two a year, which is what I would push for.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

My roommate from 2004-2007, Alex Tripp, just finished up his grad school thesis animation. I could not be prouder. He is one of the people I feel most artistically simpatico with, one of the folks that I feel like I can consider a peer without flattering myself. I have referred to him multiple times as being my best friend. Sometimes I use these phrases not to refer to the quality of the friendship, but the strength of them as people, and right now I feel like using such an accolade. This newly completed work is, to me, a clear triumph, and while I can nitpick (and have, in correspondence to Alex, where he responds saying he agrees with me), this is a great manifestation of a whole thing- this group of people that I feel like no one knows about, these people that I went to college with, that maybe don't view themselves as being a part of the same thing at all.

There are some things that I think are evident- one is artistic influences and progenitors, the other is a sort of technical or formalist bravado, the other is a masssive amount of anxiety about being alive in general and modern times in particular. The modern times thing comes through in the influences and the obviously being made digitally thing which is a part of the formal aspect.

I write this now in Baltimore Maryland, a place that has plenty of artists that probably share the same influences and anxieties as Alex and I but are not as successful as communicating those fears and fucked-up feelings as Alex is here- in a piece called Pratfall Origarch, which I kind of named despite the fact that I meant Pratfall Oligarch, because Oligarch is actually a word.

What's funny also about this group that exists only in my head is how the narratives at work were originally wildly ambitious, that that come out a little unclear and abstracted and just are able to communicate really weird feelings- Bryan Fordney's Get Got and Bee Bog, despite being more clear/traditional in their visual storytelling, are still freaking the fuck out in such a way that they require multiple rewatchings with the brain filling in gaps.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Blaise Larmee sent me a copy of his debut graphic novel, Young Lions, for review. There's an excerpt, taken from the opening pages, up on the Arthur blog, and what's there covers a decent amount of ground. The drawing is appealing, in a fake-CF style, while the story concerns itself with young people that consider themselves to be making art. There's little bits in that opening that suggest these characters are meant to be mocked, and are not meant to be objects of reader-identification. Or at least, that's what I hope, despite there being clues that is the author's genuine milieu.

That post I link to when I use the phrase "fake-CF style" is Blaise defending his right to draw in a style that readers will identify with that artist. There's a long comments thread where some dudes get mad at biters. It's worth pointing out that the drawing in Young Lions is appealing in its evocation/invocation of a stolen style. It's all human figures, sometimes stripped down to something that approaches contour drawing, or capturing a background as minimalistic as possible. Sometimes there are no backgrounds, just a character in space. The vibe is that every panel is drawn from life, and if it isn't; but is just able to capture a sketchbook's casualness and energy, that's impressive.

In Young Lions, we get kids talking about art as magic. This comes up in that conversation about people using CF's style as well, but it seems more appropriate there, partly because of the fantasy element, but partly because CF is just a really great storyteller, and in his narrative voice you can feel a spell being cast, drawing you into the fictional world. (This is why I associate CF's comics with the songs off the Kites record Peace Trials, actually, because of voice and incantation.) There is no such spell being cast in Young Lions, sad to say. All the characters' talk seems to just be ego.

There's a part of me that reads the drawing style as an indication of "taste," with the implication that the artist has the discretion to not draw a straight-forward boring autobio comic about twenty-something hipsters. This encodes a type of critique over the scenes where the characters listen to High Places and "Love In This Club." This could be a misreading on my part: One of the allures to this style of art is that it looks easy. It could be used here for the same reason Jeffrey Brown chose to draw his comics the way he does: The simplicity might just mean simplicity, it might not mean "magic." This might just be a dull comic done by a former art-student who took his four years to learn what looks good, rather than the meaning that makes things ACTUALLY good. It could just be a variation on an Austin English comic.

To read it as literature, rather than a collection of drawings, is to think of the book in comparison to the Tao Lin type stuff I've derided fairly recently, and afterwards saw described as "Generation Zzz." This is sleepytime literature for today's over-medicated youths. People who like that sort of stuff, (or Austin English, or David Heatley, who blurbs the comic) and view certain kinds of art as just being "cool," but don't really appreciate the psychedelic component of it, might like the way Young Lions looks on their bookshelf.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I finally got around to getting a copy of Picturebox's collection of Mat Brinkman's Multiforce strips. This comic is awesome, a masterpiece of a very particular type. I'm amazed by its ability to read like what it is: An early twentieth-century newspaper sunday strip, drawn and printed in the twenty-first century, after decades of creative movement. You read it like you read Krazy Kat or Little Nemo, page-by-page, taking in the design. But, since the heyday of those strips, a newspaper comics page no longer has just one cartoonist represented on it. Rather, there's a variety of different comics, printed smaller. This sort of thing was addressed in Daniel Clowes' Ice Haven, and more recent Chris Ware strips, but here it's more organic: A huge cast, existing at a variety of scales, moves throughout the book. Sometimes the focus is on them, sometimes it isn't.

While Paper Rodeo was the first publication since the rise of the comic book to use the newspaper format, Mat Brinkman was, I think, the only cartoonist in it to present an ongoing serial in every issue of it. (Seth Cooper's Zissy and Rita might be the other.) This collection ends with the strip in issue 19- an issue seemingly no one knew, at the time of its publication, was going to be the last. I don't think anyone reading it would've known that was to be the last Multiforce, either, but what's funny is that it is a satisfying conclusion, with all sorts of narrative threads wrapping up, but in a way you don't really notice. This reflects the narratives at work within Multiforce itself, or real life: There is always so much going on that climaxes and anti-climaxes can get confused.

When the last issue of DC's Wednesday Comics came out, a few months ago, everyone knew it was over, and complained about how, in general, the endings were week. This expectation comes from the years since the golden age of newspaper comics. Comic books seemed better, more mature, when they started to have arcs with conclusions, after years of ongoing tedium. This is part of literary expectations, or cinema expectations, but that's not what comics are.

Think about the glory of a huge sunday strip, then contrast it to the idea of a "graphic novel," printed smaller. For instance, people who work at Fantagraphics have said the idea behind the new Love and Rockets formatting is because, in the eyes of the public, since Maus, comics seem more serious if they're smaller than comic book size, closer to the size of a novel. Despite the fact that art tends to look better larger. In the same drive towards diminishing the art, think about how, post-undergrounds, during the alternative comics era, printing things in black and white- a decision done for economic reasons- came to be a standard for "alternative" comics, and the "seriousness" of artistic intent that comes with being "alternative." Paper Rodeo was printed in black and white for the same economic reasons, but Multi-Force was a reaction, in a lot of ways, against a whole school of thinking about "literary comics." It's obvious in that it's a comic about monsters fighting, but that it's ending was not even noticed as such is another argument for this. Even though the comic is super-narrative, there are noticeable chunks that go by without any "plot." Again: Like life. So somehow this thing, which maybe wasn't always impressive in its original newspaper context, is revealed as a masterpiece, one of the best comics of the past decade, comparable to Brian Chippendale's Ninja despite being a hell of a lot shorter. A sneak attack of the highest order.

It's a clear evolution of Brinkman's earlier work, collected by Highwater Books as a volume called Teratoid Heights. That had the same eye, for following around little well-designed characters as they navigated spaces, maybe with something of a spooky vibe prevailing despite also being kind of funny. Here, as in Ninja, the camera is pulled out a little, and while once we might've seen monsters going through tunnels now there's sets of dudes on trains, or in battles getting smashed. The way that perspective changes, from panel to panel, to show what needs to be seen, is really impressive, specifically because it doesn't seem like it messes up: It's always clear, which sometimes seems imsane. It makes more sense when you know how the thing was assembled, as pages drawn in pencil, turned darker over the course of xerox shrinking and collaged into huge pages- but that's another artistic decision that couldn't be foreseen.

This comic is epic in scope. If you've read any of the interviews with David Simon, where he talks about The Wire as analogous to old Greek tragedies, distinct from Shakespeare, where the fates don't befall the characters because of flaws within themselves, but because they defy the gods, larger than themselves, which in The Wire are bureaucratic organizations, you sort of get a glimpse of Multi-Force's vision of a collapsing society. But here there really are giants, with maces, on rampages, and everyone going about their business is sort of liable to get crushed unknowingly, as part of this apocalyptic vision. I like the fact that, in the second strip, in little gags outside the comics main thrust, there's a dude saying "dude chill out we're all part of Multiforce." Then, at the top of the third strip, there's another back and forth between two other characters: "Can I join Multiforce?" "What is it?" All that the title refers to is a grand society of monsters and demons, but it's phrased in the form of a team. In between those two dialogues I just mentioned, there's a bit where a character stops "upholding the law," with hands raised, and exhales an anarchy symbol. There's a slew of implications there that then get borne out as the comic goes on and large-scale destruction ensues. Multiforce ends up striking a balance between a couple of types of art I was super-excited by a few years ago and found irreconcilable: The fantastic visions of Paper Rad and associated artists, which recontextualized cultural detritus into spiritual quests, and the super-realistic human crime stories found in less underground venues. What's funny, then, is how much it predates, and inherently understands, despite never once wearing it's intelligence on its sleeve in terms of the way that dialogue reveals ideas in a lot of other work. That all its accomplishments go down in twenty-two pages is mindblowing. (Of, if you prefer, mindflaying.) Listing all the comics this is better than would be unfair and exhausting. Multiforce rules.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I don't know how long you're going to be able to, but go here and vote for Neon Knome. Ben Jones' latest stab at TV-pilot format is another clear step up from a dude who's been at the top of his game, being ripped off by people several steps behind him, for a while. EDIT: The show lost to a bit of maybe-misogynist garbage, but you can still go to that link for the time being to view Neon Knome.

In other news, this episode of Judge Judy has seemingly gone viral, but I link to it because I personally know all involved, I lived with them and was moving my things out of the house at the time this was filmed, and I will decline to comment any further.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The time has come for a brief survey of contemporary literature, the bit of it I can see, from my vantage point as one who does not read as much as he would like to but feels nonetheless aware. In 2010, the David Foster Wallace essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" comes to its twenty-year anniversary. In that essay, Mark Leyner, hip at the time, comes under fire, and a future movement of radically sincere writers is postulated. It is fair enough, I think, to trace a certain strain of influence, from Wallace to Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's literary journal. There is a type of short story found in McSweeney's that seems something of its trademark, a type that Wallace himself actually had published in its pages: This is the sort of story where the goal, explicitly, is to move by emoting clearly, but does so in a voice that denies much of the awareness that was what Wallace gained notoriety for. It shuns intellectual fireworks in favor of a voice that is "dumb": Many of the narrators seem actually handicapped.

In the latest issue, 33, a George Saunders story is published, "Fox 8," that seems to be the logical conclusion of this whole trend. It's a good, effective, piece of fiction. I don't wish to spoil it, so it will have to suffice to say that it is narrated by a fox, ends with a straightforward plea for humans to be nicer, and that you can pretty much discern where it's going a few paragraphs in. It's good enough to make a reader think "this is what literature is like in 2010," in a way that is actually weird and discouraging if that reader also fancies himself a writer, because of this deliberate shunning of many signifiers of intelligence that occur within the mind of the writer. There's linguistic pyrotechnics, of a sort, interesting turns of phrase, but deliberate choices have been made to limit the vocabulary used. If stories were paintings, imagine Donald Barthelme with his color palette greatly reduced.

I like this stuff pretty well. It's by no means the worst thing I am aware of.

Let me preface a discussion of the actual worst with a tangent: There's also this tendency found within McSweeney's to publish fiction written by celebrities of a certain stripe. "Hip" celebrities: In 33, it's James Franco, a few volumes back, Michael Cera. Miranda July could also be included in this category. I don't want to dismiss their endeavors out of hand. I just want to acknowledge the aura, informed by television, in a different form than Wallace talked about in 1990. These people make "indie" films that get talked about as "twee" and while there might be a certain lineage to the voice of the Saunders piece that dates back to 1980s Beat Happening records, there's also the bit of knowledge that gives permission: That of Delillo's "most photographed barn" that gets brought up in the same essay.

The actual worst would be this writer Tao Lin, whose writing style is shared by his friends, according to an ANP Quarterly interview that filled me with disgust about a year ago, and a self-promoter via the internet. If I find the "TV/indie movie celebrity" aura around McSweeney's a weird portent, imagine how I feel about people on the internet commenting on Hipster Runoff. If I find smart people writing stories in a faux-naive voice for deliberate effect to maybe be even more limiting than the limits it places on itself, extrapolate that to guess how I feel about dudes writing in the a post-concussion mild-trauma state at all times, when it's used not to move a reader towards empathy and awareness, but to communicate a bored depression to those already sympathetic.

Luckily there are plenty of other writers out there, published and unpublished, not working in these modes, inside the U.S. and out. Plus there's books written years ago that are widely available. My first concern is for how high-profile works dictate the future, in terms of their influence on young writers and publishers' abilities to market them. Maybe with Saunders at the apex and Lin as the nadir we can collectively move on. My second concern is for those who confuse the two, but that is only in the present, and time will make these distinctions evident.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

JD Salinger is dead, and while I expect most news outlets to write headlines referring to him as just "Author of Catcher In The Rye," the briefest eulogy I would give him amounts to "May no one graffiti 'fuck you' on his tombstone."

There's a certain self-conscious backlash around that book, one cited by too many folks that don't seem like big readers as a favorite. Yet that self-consciousness leads to citing other books- Franny And Zooey, Nine Stories- as being better, but remember what got these people interested enough to read those later works in the first place. The Catcher In The Rye is uniquely strong piece of high-school assigned reading, in that it's one of the few works of literature that an adolescent can understand. In college, I heard people on the bus talking about Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as a book they were rereading and getting a lot more out of from an older vantage point.

The impact that book made at the time of its release was deeply powerful, cited as part of an epiphany by Bruce Jay Friedman. The voice of the novel was inspiring in its immediacy, to the people of the 1950s. That "I can do this" realization is attributable to any number of works of art of the twentieth century, but it seems like the best idea-virus we could ever hope to spread, an inspiration to the spirit in the face of adversity. Friedman went on to become a novelist, as well as editing an anthology called "Black Humor" that contained within its pages some of the most interesting folks in mid-twentieth-century fiction, the folks that would midwife postmodernism in literature. This is almost a tangential connection, but it's worth noting the way the writers would all move in different directions to the point where the idea of an anthology containing them all could not effectively be said to document a movement of any kind.

Think, then, of the way Salinger's vision developed, away from the angst of young people, and into this kind of mystic spiritual searching. Buddhism, meditation- these were not popular subjects in 1950s literature. There is a documentary about the beat movement where the person who introduced the beats to these ideas was a 17-year-old girl named Hope, who ended up undergoing electroshock therapy. Here it is, in The New Yorker, in a Jewish sophisticate intellectual milieu. It seems to make sense now, but this can't be the case historically: In all likelihood it's with Salinger that these ideas start to proliferate.

With Salinger we find a major force for mind-expansion, not in a sixties drug culture way, but for general spiritual inquest and expression of contemporary voice. Later, in the 1990s, there'd be a zine called Bananafish, edited by one Seymour Glass, which would document the noise underground which has come to be a major influence on contemporary art, exciting people with the same appeal of freedom.

That's all with only four books in print. They ended up popular enough to be issued as pocket paperbacks, priced to move around six dollars, approximately the size and cost of the sort of cassette tape one could order through the mail after reading about it in an issue of Bananafish. He's dead at 91 years old, and would that I could live on so long.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Noel Freibert gave me a copy of his latest comic, "My Best Pet," and I asked him if he wanted me to review it. He was noncommittal, and I said that I can only write about things that haven't had much said about them. While I've only seen one review of the comic, that review set off a big back-and-forth between critic and artist, where Noel explicitly stated his aims. Luckily, there's some things that went unsaid, which is great, because maybe my writing about this will get more people to give me comics for free. This is to be a positive review, absolutely tainted.

Anyway, Noel's comic is one of the first "actual comics" he's done. The work he's done in the past I'll characterize as "artist's books" for the sake of distinction: Fully silk-screened books, lots of layers- some of it is almost storybook format, but pretty heavily formal in its use of colors on top of each other. His mini "Entertainment Catalogue" is an example of this: It's all a hand shape and some text, using various masking effects, all advertising a yet-to-be-printed comic called "The Blue Hand." He's a pretty good silkscreener, as the three-color cover shows. There's a distinct 1990s Providence influence in how the colors play against each other in a way designed to avoid "paint by numbers" effects- the use of one color as a fill for another's line is deliberately avoided. It looks good. Here, the interiors are in black and white- as they were with his comic in Closed Caption Comics 8, with which this forms two parts of a trilogy. These are straight-forward comics, playing by the rules, using a six-panel grid. Without the multiple colors, the line drawing is pretty simple- there's no blacks, the line never wavers from a default that looks like it could be done in a ballpoint pen. (The exception being a shadowy figure on the first page and a slightly thicker line used for one character's word balloons in one all-dialogue sequence.) It's a pretty effective horror comic- EC is the reference point but the plotting is driven by dream logic more than a sense of ironic cosmic justice. This makes it disturbing beyond the "shock" animal cruelty violence that led to criticism. Despite all the exposition, the actual cause behind the events depicted is unexplained, attributable to just a pervasive evil, that exists outside the comic's basement purview.

Lane Milburn's side, "Feeble-Minded Funnies" does the same thing that annoyed me in his contribution to Closed Caption Comics 8: Being the most on-the-nose thing fucking EVER. In CCC 8, some orc-monsters in a ruined world find the miniatures used to role-play with and talk about their significance. Here, a creature called Pukeball tries to get people to read his art comics. It's pretty stupid, a gloss of commentary on Mat Brinkman comics to make it obvious. There's a Chris Cornwell comic that did the same thing and was similarly a bummer for me. We get it. Anyone who would read these comics doesn't need them. They're written for an imaginary audience that needed the existence of Multi-Force explained to them by something not as well done. The other comic here depicts basic human urges as monsters fighting. It's the same thing, basically: The self-explanatory explained. He either needs better concepts or more faith in art for art's sake, because this particular vein is very much the sort of comic you'd imagine an art student making. (On the blog there's pages of comics thrown out and abandoned, and it really wouldn't surprise me if that stuff was better but he just thought that these comics were "smarter," somehow, than that stuff.) It also reads, ironically, like the work done by a dude whose only interests are in comics and monsters and things like that, and this is him trying to justify that interest. I do congratulate him on his winning a Xeric grant and hope that the resulting published work is less self-conscious.

Monday, January 11, 2010

RIP Art Clokey, creator of Gumby.

Today David Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp showed up at the Baltimore Public Library and I was able to read it. Normally I try to avoid writing about things other people have already discussed at length, and that book's been talked over by pretty much everyone except for the artist himself. It's incredible for its control over various drawing styles and color use. Of all the masterpieces of graphic novels of the past decade, this is the book that is probably the best-looking, all the way through, in its sense of design. It's also the most thematically thought-through. I could run through it all right now. It's all been discussed, and it's pretty much all readily apparent when you read the thing. It's an approachable comic, if you're keyed into its concerns of art-making. It's a very "comics" comic, in terms of how important it is that you read it visually, but there's enough indicators in the actual prose on page to make it clear that's how it's supposed to be to those not necessarily initiated, like mainstream literary critics. It's a game-changer, a standards-raiser for American comics, to be certain. I look forward to seeing it be processed and moved past by others. It's moving and charming in the midst of all else. It's not pretentious, I don't think, despite the way all it's themes are mirrored and repeated on so many levels- I think the word people are looking for is "baroque."

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Shaky Kane's A-Men, the single issue collecting work from Deadline magazine which showed up at Atomic Books a few days ago. This comic is super-dense with references, but they're never explained as such, and there is none of the thought-out doubling found in Mazzuchelli- instead, it's this intuitive procession of free-association, that's not "moving" so much as it is "interesting" as a document of an artist expelling things from his mind. Like, the comic is called "A-Men" as a riff on religion and superhero comics, and while the whole thing is drawn in a Jack Kirby style the actual comic most evoked is Judge Dredd. It's about religion as fascism in some kind of British sense. There are all sorts of other references that aren't as important to "decoding meaning" so much as enforcing what's there. The plotting is super non-linear, and the conclusion anti-climactic. Plus there's two one-page things about Elvis thrown in, and other separate pages with their own various design approaches. I liked it, it's well-drawn and bonkers in the comic book format I respond favorably to. It's inarticulate in a way that seems like it corresponds to the amount of vision at hand. It's not a thing to be "processed" and then built on, the way I read modern comics, it's a weird early nineties cul de sac of cultural processing as an end in itself, it's own meager reward.

If you, like me, saw that Art Clokey had died and thought about Paper Rad, then I guess you understand appropriation as a means of understanding. That lesson is based on the symbols being dealt with- that's why there isn't "continuity" between Shaky Kane and Ben Jones. These are people who don't make work as a closed-circuit, they're dealing in a bigger pond, and ponds are not a stream flowing through time the way that influence works. Imagine reading that strip from Kramers Ergot 6 about Seinfeld and Smog in 2027, trying to know the foreign tongue of the past. This could be why Ben Jones is describing his new work in the context of Yuichi Yokoyama. Of course, Ben's more influential than Shaky Kane ever was. It's 2010 and the future is hard to understand, with our best chance at knowing the present being to think of it as a sum of the past's collection of dead-end narratives.

Friday, January 08, 2010

I have largely disavowed the practice of personal writing on the internet. So it will have to suffice to say that I had a great 2009. Too much talk of it would seem like bragging, or name-dropping, or some sort of disagreeable practice. But I had a great year, despite the lack of much of the media consumption that drives both this blog and my own conception of my life. The last year was a good one for living. If anyone reading this was around me personally during the span of that year, thank you. Those were good times.