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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008

Pictures ‘n’ Words: This one is about comic books. Do a search on Amazon for recent releases by the novelist Jodi Picoult and you’ll find her new novel Change of Heart is a hardcover bestseller, her last book Nineteen Minutes a paperback bestseller, and Wonder Woman: Love & Murder doing decently in the graphic-novel category. Picoult, an author of emotionally charged character studies, is the last person one might expect to be a comics fan, and yet there she is among a current crop of mainstream authors taking a detour into the world of funnybooks. Bestselling legal-thriller author Brad Meltzer writes Justice League of America for DC, African-American cult novelist Eric Jerome Dickey and crime novelist Charlie Huston write for Marvel. Filmmakers Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, and Reginald Hudlin ... actors Seth Green and Rosario Dawson ... all people who have better things to do, are coming out as uncloseted comics fans.


I don’t say this in some kind of attempt to legitimize comic books—with rare exceptions, they’re still the same disposable mental cotton-candy they always were—but rather to suggest that even bad superhero comics won’t necessarily turn kids into maladjusted, basement-dwelling mouth-breathers or worse, columnists for hippie socialist alternative newspapers. It’s actually possible to read comics and still make something of oneself.


This was not, however, the prevailing opinion in the 1950s. In the years between the fall of Hitler and the rise of Elvis, America was briefly gripped by a national hysteria over the effects of comic books on the hearts and minds of the country’s youth. David Hajdu, author of the excellent book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Positively 4th Street (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001), essays this period of nationwide madness in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008).


In the first half of the ’50s, comics were a major industry, with some 800 titles cramming the racks at drugstores and soda shoppes at its zenith. From a comics reader’s perspective it was a Golden Age, with journeyman artists producing some of the best and most influential work in the medium’s history. From anyone else’s perspective, however, the comics were a cavalcade of depravity, tasteless, gory, and catering to the worst parts of the adolescent psyche.


Enter psychologist Fredric Wertham, author of a shoddy but sensationalistic book on the link between comics and juvenile delinquency, and Senator Estes Kefauver, eager to grease his presidential aspirations with televised crusading against society’s ills, and suddenly funnybooks were as much a menace to our children as the godless Commies. Public burnings of comics became a daily occurrence, publishers circled the wagons to create a self-censoring body, and the Golden Age of Comics came to a crashing end, along with the careers of literally hundreds of writers and artists as comics companies folded or were driven out of business.


Even if one bears no love of comic books, Hajdu’s book, drawn from countless interviews and painstaking research, is worth reading for its fascinating glimpse of a peculiar period in our nation’s cultural and political history. We have an obligation to take notice whenever creative expression, even in forms as lowbrow as Tales from the Crypt, comes under fire from people who presume to save us from it. The Ten-Cent Plague is a well-crafted and poignant wake-up call.


Due Recognition: At the same time that David Hajdu reminds us of the villains of comic-book history, comics writer and historian Mark Evanier gives long-overdue props to one of the medium’s true heroes, artist Jack Kirby, in Kirby: King of Comics (Harry N. Abrams, 2008). From the 1940s, when he and partner Joe Simon created Captain America, until his death in 1994, Kirby was the preeminent comics artist of the 20th century.


Evanier, one of Kirby’s assistants during his most fertile period in the ’60s, traces the life and career of the man widely known as “The King of Comics” from his humble beginnings as Jacob Kurtzberg, a tailor’s son from a Brooklyn slum who realized a talent for drawing and spent the rest of his life producing and peddling his art to keep his family fed. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, Kirby worked in every genre known to comicdom until coming to work as the house artist for Atlas Comics, where he was paired with Stan Lee, who had once been his office boy but was now the editor. Atlas became Marvel Comics, and the Lee-Kirby team created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men and dozens of other heroes that went on to make the company millions.


None of those millions made their way to Kirby, however. As good an artist as he was, he was never a businessman. The more flamboyant Lee got the credit for the work while Kirby continued to eke out a barely adequate living through a per-page rate of pay, and was even forced by Marvel’s lawyers to disavow any claim to creative input. The situation improved a bit when Kirby moved on to Marvel’s competition and created his Fourth World saga for DC, a sweeping and bizarre epic of cosmic gods, interstellar hippies, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen—at least Kirby’s name was used to sell the comics, even if Kirby himself continued to receive sweatshop pay for his vision.


But while Jack Kirby may not have gotten the respect he deserved from his employers, his fans knew better, and Evanier’s book is one for the fans. It’s a coffee-table-sized book, and while the $40 price tag may seem a bit steep, the book’s format is ideal for showcasing the master’s work, including original pencils, a gatefolded poster, and a lot of work never before seen by the reading public. Best of all is Evanier’s prose, which is affectionate but never obsequious, and gives us a vivid picture of Kirby’s passions and prescience, his fierce determination to keep working even as his health and eyesight began to fail him, and his sheer boundless decency. It comes highly recommended to anyone interested in watching the art of comics evolving in the hands of one of its greatest practitioners.

New in Novels
: If anyone reading this is a true geek, then I can describe S. M. Peters’ debut novel Whitechapel Gods (Penguin USA, 2008) as evoking an exciting and horrific mix of Alan Moore and early Clive Barker with shades of Grant Morrison and Terry Gilliam and you’ll immediately bum a ride from Mom to go buy it. For those less receptive to name-checking, Peters’ novel is an impressive entry in the recent subgenre of science fiction known as steampunk. Though no less techno-fetishistic than its older cousin cyberpunk, this sort of story concerns itself with imaginative technology of the Victorian era, all gears and levers and shiny brass rivets. Peters’ novel, however, takes all of that and plunges it deep into hell.


At the close of this novel’s 19th century, London’s notorious Whitechapel slum (in our world, home of Jack the Ripper) has been enclosed in an impassive wall and taken over by a pair of all-powerful entities: Mama Engine, whose colossal furnace belches ash into the sky, and Grandfather Clock, a gear-driven Big Brother. A small contingent of humans have formed a resistance movement, but how can mere flesh-and-blood hope to rise against an enemy that lives in every inch of the city and the very air itself?


For a first novel, Peters’ book is beyond impressive. From the first page we’re drawn into incessant nightmare, a psychotic fever-dream of horror and violation that makes us grasp at the faintest glimmers of hope as eagerly as any of the protagonists do. There are definitely shudder-inducing and often nauseating elements here, but as in any good horror tale, you’ll gladly take them as part of the ride.


This article first appeared here at Flagpole.


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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008


There is nothing noble about caring for a demented relative. There is nothing inherently humorous in the decision over whether or not to warehouse said elderly family member. While it may ease your moral compass to find a fancy (and expensive) assisted living facility, the reality is much less mechanical. There’s a crucial line in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages that does indeed resonate within such a situation. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing the sensible brother to Laura Linney’s angst-driven Annie Hall type, argues that high end does not necessarily mean the best care. “This is all for you”, he complains, pointing to a brochure loaded with color photos and various amenities. “None of this is for Dad. It’s all here to assuage your guilt.”


Indeed. While it manages to skirt the logistical issues involved in dealing with the diminished capacity of a loved one, Jenkins seems to think that she has the emotional issues all worked out. Using Hoffman’s quiet resolve as a contrast to Linney’s over the top tendencies, she fully believes The Savages showcases reality in all its whiny warts and all element. She’s wrong. 100% wrong. In fact, the key difference about this 114 minute movie and the real world is that after the running time has elapsed, everything’s resolved. Traumas have been aired out, problems dissected and shuffled successfully back into life’s loaded deck. Of course, in reality, it never ends.


Over the last eight weeks, my family has been going through a Savages like crisis. It began innocently enough with a phone call - an aunt who typically doesn’t stay in touch dialed to say that she couldn’t get my wife’s 96 year old grandmother to answer her numerous rings. The old woman had lived alone for nearly 31 years, and even nearing 100, she showed no signs of age-oriented complaints. The relative wondered if everything was okay. After all, she did hear that the nonagenarian had been in a car accident the Saturday before. Yet after a quick visit to the ER, she was treated and released with a clean bill of health. Everyone had noticed that her hearing had diminished over the years, and Grandmother frequently failed to respond to the phone’s ring. But this latest turn seemed odd - perhaps, even sinister.



My wife, sainted beyond the beatitudes of even the most liberal Pope, decided to find out what was going on. She grabbed her mother, got in the car, and drove to her grandmother’s house. An hour later, she returned with rather dire news. “We knocked and knocked. I called from the cellphone dozens of times. We yelled and yelled.” She didn’t have a key, so she couldn’t actually go in, but from what she could see on the outside, things did not look promising. There were no lights on inside the house, and from what she could decipher, the front room (dining and kitchen area) looked virtually unused.


At this point conjecture took over. Maybe she wasn’t released from the hospital after all. Maybe she was still in a room, being treated. We later learned that another aunt had fractured her pelvis in four places during the same accident. Maybe Grandmother was visiting her. Whatever the scenario, someone with access had to be contacted. We finally found my wife’s uncle, the man married to the injured aunt. He had a key to the house - but after learning what had been discovered, he didn’t want to go in alone. My wife and I jumped back in the car and drove over to the house to meet him.


Lots of things run through your head at this time - scenes from movies where bodies are discovered, corpses rotting with cops clamoring for clues only to realize the suspect has suddenly turned into a victim. You play out all your reactions at one time - the smell, the scene, the realization of death in all its unavoidable physicality right before you. You then prepare. As the trip nears its end, you wonder what you will truly do. The flesh may be willing, but the spirit is, at present, spooked pretty good.



When we arrived, the uncle was standing in the driveway. He bore the look of anyone faced with the potential of finding their mother-in-law deceased and decaying. There was a quiet exchange of words, a tentative placing of metal into a lock, and with the swing of a door, the three of us entered. It was funny - the first thing anyone heard was the collected sniffing of all our noses. Clearly, we were going for the aroma-based means of discovery. Nothing. The house smelled…like a house. Quickly, absolute silence was maintained. My wife called out. No response. She called again.


Faintly, from far away, we could hear a very weak voice. To make a long story short, we discovered Grandmother lying on the floor, the clichéd commercial tagline of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” playing in the back of our mind. She was alert but highly confused, thinking she was still in bed instead of splayed upon her vanity floor. Paramedics were called, assistance was attempted (she was disoriented but still very stubborn), and neighbors started nosing into everyone’s business. By the time we got her to the hospital, the concept was already out there - what do we do now? Where do we put this 96 year old woman once the doctors determine her condition?


That was indeed eight weeks ago. Since then, there have been conversations, arguments, arrangements, and agreements over Grandmother’s care. One son immediately suggested a nursing home. One daughter demanded she be sent back home. Assisted living became the equalizer, and it was here where art didn’t do what it’s supposed to. Instead of imitating life, it totally disintegrated it. If you believe The Savages, a few confrontations and a couple of clever bon mots later, and all your old people problems are wrapped up in an ironic package of self-examination and satisfaction. While writer/director Jenkins may indeed be right about how such a situation reflects on who you are inside, it doesn’t begin to address the deep-seeded sentiments that drive families to fight over what to do.



Dementia, or as the medicos mandate, “diminished capacity” contains a lot of loopholes that The Savages failed to address. When Phillip Bosco’s father figure smears feces on the wall, it’s nothing more than shorthand for what’s really going on. His moments of lucidity are often played for pathos, yet when a lost relative actually returns to reality, be it ever so briefly, it’s not a sad situation. In fact, many in the family view it as a ray of recognizable hope in an otherwise bleak personal landscape. The Savages does get one thing right - everyone involved has a desperate desire to see things turn back to some sort of normalcy. If Grandmother required a couple of minutes contemplation during the course of your week, her mental reconfiguration should keep to that schedule as well.


But what Jenkins completely forgets is how all encompassing these issues really are. Granted, in her film, the brother and sister had long since ceased contact with their father, a relationship with a woman in Arizona providing the locational limits. But once the mind has been marred, and the need for care is concluded, nothing can reestablish the borders. Over these last few weeks, Grandmother has gotten stronger. She’s fallen and broken her hip, but the surgery turned out to be a godsend. It fixed a badly arthritic bone, allowing a titanium rod to reestablish her physical dexterity. According to her doctor, she’s very strong and heals miraculously well.


But concern has now stopped centering on her body (though the frequent stays in post-hospital rehab try to dictate otherwise). Instead, everyone is nervous over her growing disconnect with the truth. The more wistful want to believe that she will find a way back to our world. She recognizes faces quickly, and can carry on a conversation with ease. But then the disquieting comments start. She believes she is on vacation. She thinks nurses are out to kill her. She wants her husband, dead for over three decades, to return from a business trip and pick her up. She argues over the location of her wallet and purse, and is concerned about where she parked her car - though she hasn’t driven in over 10 years. It seems funny at first, the brain burbling in ways that suggest senility crossed with sitcom crankiness.



Of course, it soon turns trying. One of the things The Savages fails to fully explore (among many, mind you) is the cloud that crazy actually forms. For those emotionally involved, the lack of a clear connection to what’s going on is devastating. It’s like being told your parent or loved one is dead without getting a chance to grieve over the body. Instead, you must visit the wake every single day, screwing up the courage to see the once familiar family member stripped of what made them a viable member of the clan in the first place. Imagine how horrific it must be for a mother not to recognize their own daughter. Now reserve the perspective and see how well you sleep at night.


Oddly enough, none of this is remotely funny - at least not in the traditional sense. There can be some moments of groan-inducing gallows humor, and a bit of black comedy. But nothing about this circumstance screams laughter. Nothing about it is intentionally humorous. Instead, you chuckle to yourself over your reactions, for your approach and how life rebuffs you. You snicker under your breath as relatives wax poetic, though the last time they saw the subject of their verse was so long ago the blips seem buried in nostalgia. Jokes usually get the cold shoulder, or the critical eye. Everything is just too intense, too raw.


I had seen The Savages, several months before the Grandmother issue occurred. Back then, I found it self indulgent, petulant, and relatively unrealistic. When my own father faded and died, none of the clearly written quips found in Jenkins’ dialogue made it into my family’s conversation. There was no Rodney Dangerfield like one-liner about putting Pop in the garage since company was coming over. This latest bout with aging and mental atrophy didn’t rewrite my opinion of the film. Instead, what the real world makes abundantly clear is that fiction fails to fully capture much of its numbness, or nuances.


Drama is never as ‘melo’ as in your own life, and sadness sinks lower than any character’s confrontation with themselves. Some may celebrate what The Savages managed to make out of a ‘relatively’ shitty situation, but there is a truth that remains legitimately lacking. Movies based in actual events are supposed to provide insight. They’re supposed to provide guidance where personal bias blinds us. In this case, the movie pre-grandparental issues seemed specious at best. Now, they’re just downright ridiculous.


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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008
Oh, speed run culture, what hath ye wrought?
Current Guinness record holder iamchris4life missed onlyten notes in \

Current Guinness record holder iamchris4life missed only
ten notes in “Through the Fire and Flames”.  That’s just sick.


Have you ever gone to YouTube to watch other people play video games?  I do this every once in a while, whether it be to watch people far better than me at Guitar Hero do things with their fingers that make me feel a little funny inside, or to watch kids on Xbox Live screaming obscenities at his mother.  Pure entertainment, or signs of the decline of civilization?  It’s a toss-up, but the mere suggestion that we’re doomed isn’t enough to keep me away.


Every once in a while, I get sucked in by speed runs.  Speed runs are fascinating things, because they’re the epitome of somebody finding something that they’re good at and trying to be the absolute best at it.  It’s The King of Kong, playing out in parallel over hundreds of games.  There’s something almost poetic about watching someone finish Super Mario Bros. in five minutes or Metal Gear Solid 2 on extreme (extreme!) difficulty in a little more than an hour and a half.  This is especially true for games that the viewer is familiar with—it’s like reliving your past experiences, except much, much faster.


That said, it takes a special breed of player to play an awful game to perfection, especially when the player acknowledges just how awful the game is.  Enter Pit Fighter, for the SNES.


This is Pit Fighter.  Greeeeeat.

This is Pit Fighter.  Greeeeeat.


What’s wrong with this game?  Well…


The Gimp periodically taunts you.


You have to fight a huge guy in tighty whitys who enjoys bull-rushing you.


Copious forklifts!


And then there’s the matter of the ending, which I won’t spoil for you.  It’s actually the perfect ending for what precedes it.


What motivates someone to do this?  Is it pure masochism?  Is it the knowledge that you’re not going to have a hell of a lot of competition?  Whatever it is, it’s both revolting to watch and fascinating to ponder, which can mean only one thing:  Time to look for a speed run of Superman 64...


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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008

I was surprised to discover that Thomas Frank, the Baffler founder and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God and other left-leaning cultural critiques, would be writing a regular column for the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. I learned about it when he wrote about the Obama “bitter” crisis for the paper on Monday. His new gig is especially striking considering that he has derided the page so thoroughly in the past, making it a go-to source for conservative nonsense when he wants to make a point about some typical piece of disingenuous right-wing rhetoric. Now he’ll be sidled along next to it—if only he could know what else was on the page and debunk it as it appears. And you figure the perch was something Frank really couldn’t turn down; it’s too prominent, too tempting a place from which to polemicize. He can serve as a fifth column, preparing the way for the hoped-for takeover of business culture by sensible minds—people who see the futility of creating asset bubbles and the evil of suppressing unions and wages, who are willing to denounce the marketing racket and question the imperatives of consumer-driven growth at all costs, and so on.


But you have to wonder, What is Murdoch, et. al., up to here? It’s a move that seems akin to the NYT‘s printing Bill Kristol’s risible columns, which are fulsome fodder for liberal tut-tutting and so make a certain sense of the NYT‘s presumed readership. But Frank is no hack, like Kristol; Frank’s columns are not so easy to laugh off, nor are they rote recitations of the current state of the ideology he is supposed to represent. The WSJ used to have Alexander Cockburn write a token lefty column for its editorial page back in the 1980s, as Kathy G notes. But unlike Kathy, I don’t believe that the editors at the WSJ “see the writing on the wall, and they know they can’t ignore liberals anymore.” This does not strike me as an attempt to give credence to or acknowledge liberal readers, but maybe I underestimate the attraction Frank might have for people who otherwise wouldn’t bother with WSJ. Maybe it will drive some traffic their way on the Web, as his Monday column was probably more widely linked than the customary tripe. But maybe the editors recognized a kindred spirit, not in ideology by in rhetorical technique. Far too often, liberal polemic is earnest, self-righteous, humorlessly urging some borderline condescending concern on readers for those who can’t speak for themselves. Frank is not that kind of writer; like kindred spirit Barbara Ehrenreich, he seems to delight instead in sarcasm and the kind of haughty diction that frequently enlivens Marxist critiques while eschewing the sort of punning triviality or jargon-laden turgidity that sometimes undermines more-contemporary leftist discourse. Here’s a typical sample, from Monday :


Ah, but Hillary Clinton: Here’s a woman who drinks shots of Crown Royal, a luxury brand that at least one confused pundit believes to be another name for Old Prole Rotgut Rye. And when the former first lady talks about her marksmanship as a youth, who cares about the cool hundred million she and her husband have mysteriously piled up since he left office? Or her years of loyal service to Sam Walton, that crusher of small towns and enemy of workers’ organizations? And who really cares about Sam Walton’s own sins, when these are our standards? Didn’t he have a funky Southern accent of some kind? Surely such a mellifluous drawl cancels any possibility of elitism.


Note the ironic rhetorical questions, the juxtaposition of played-out words like “funky” with colorful, near ostentatious ones like “mellifluous.” Not to mention the absolutely perfect put down of the lazy media coverage of Clinton’s campaign stage management. It’s sardonic, unapologetically smart and allusive, and it verges on downright mean-spiritedness, and that’s what links it to the WSJ’s customary editorial voice, which is often sharpened with contempt. Frank, too, often seems nearly contemptuous, which is a great asset—it conveys confidence in left-wing ideas that you don’t walways see, and suggests strongly (just like Economist “leaders” frequently do)  that you’d be stupid to disagree. Some misinterpret this rhetorical strategy as elitist, but it strikes me as just a refusal to wheedle.


Still I don’t think regular WSJ editorial page readers will be dismayed by Frank’s columns, but perhaps they’ll recognize the tone and delight in its flamboyance.


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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Nada Surf's Ira Elliot really loves the Beatles and blood sausage.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Screech, unfortunately.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Abbey Road dude. C’mon.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Trek. No, wars. That’s a tough one. There’s lots of great treks but only two great wars. Feel me?


5. Your ideal brain food?
Blood sausage.


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