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by Zane Austin Grant

9 Jun 2009

Sparky Taylor and Abby Mac at the Microcosm Publishing booth

Sparky Taylor and Abby Mac at the Microcosm Publishing booth

With the economy still tanking, I often wonder how small publishers who are trying to make enough money to put out their next book, or just break even are weathering the storm.  This year at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art festival (MoCCA), Sparkplug Comic Books sponsored a panel on Making Comics in a New Era that addressed this concern.  Small press publishing and DIY self-publishing have been essential components of the alternative comics movement since its inception in the 1960’s.  In this tradition, at MoCCA 2009, comics creators and small publishers were selling works that were reproduced on everything from their home computer printers to copy machines to outsourced offset printers.  Today, people have greater access to mechanical reproduction than ever before, even if this access is exclusive to those who can afford it.  Smaller print runs are not uncommon any more; I usually make 20 to 50 copies at a copy shop of my own zine, silk-screen the covers, and give them away to friends and people I meet. The economics of my work is understood to be ‘in the red’. 

This panel was more focused on reproduction at a bit of a larger scale, and, though they were clearly performing a labor of love and had other jobs on the side, could not afford to just sink the cost of every book they published.  The panel consisted of Alvin Buenaventura (Buenaventura Books), Mats Jonsson (Gallago), Tom Neely (cartoonist), Brett Warnock (Top Shelf), Julia Wertz (cartoonist), Dylan Williams (Sparkplug Comics) and was chaired by Heidi MacDonald (The Beat).  For the most part, those on the publishing side acted like the economic crisis had not much affected their sales.  One panelist reasoned that their confidence and satisfaction was mostly based on their own realistic expectations of how well a book was going to do.  None of the publishers were in the business to get rich on underground comics, and everyone seemed to agree that internet stores and conventions like MoCCA were increasing their scale of distribution.At the same time, the traditional distribution of comics has been centralized in Diamond Comic distributors, which has recently raised its minimum orders and consequentially excluded some smaller run publications. Panelists agreed that the rise of alternative comics stores, like Desert Island and Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, New York, and the need for an alternate distributor and indie sales representatives like Tony Shenton could make a positive change in their sales. 

Between the other panelists’ silence, Julia Wertz took the time to somewhat randomly and comically berate her co-panelists, saying “I just want to point out that my work was rejected by at least two of the editors on the panel, but now my publisher is Random House, so you can suck it!”  I suppose for some, moving to a traditional book publisher is another way to get around the current problems in distribution.

Pictured above are Sparky Taylor and Abby Mac tabling for Microcosm Publishing, who put out about twelve books and zines a year.  Since the change in the economy, they have started following the strategy of putting out more books at a lower price in hopes of increasing sale volume.  Sparky said she felt like their sales at the convention had been a little slower than previous years.

by Sarah Zupko

9 Jun 2009

Mos Def’s excellent new album dropped today and he ran through a smoking version of “Quiet Dog” last night on the Letterman show, rapping and drumming simultaneously.

by Rob Horning

9 Jun 2009

Robin Hanson, an economist who frequently writes about signaling—how cultural capital is deployed—notices this WaPo account of the flaws in customer-satisfaction surveys. It turns out that people are systematically biased toward giving people who are (in Hanson’s interpretation) perceived to have higher status a better evaluation.

Hekman [the study’s lead author] found that these objective measures of performance correlated with patient satisfaction reports only when the doctors were white men. For women and minorities, extra quality, accessibility and diligence not only did not result in better evaluations by patients—they produced worse evaluations.

As someone who, as a college instructor, was frequently rated by my “customers,” the study’s findings ring true to me. I could coast on my white maleness where my female colleagues couldn’t; they, meanwhile, were being told how unfashionable their clothes were and how they should smile more. I always resented the way universities would rely on evaluations in their decision-making, and the idea that teachers’ pay could be affected by it seemed like a great reason to get out of the profession altogether. Some evaluators will do their best to be objective but have their opinions colored perhaps unknowingly by their desire for what Hanson calls status affiliation; others will gleefully regard the survey as an opportunity to vote in a popularity contest.

Hanson seems eager to differentiate status affiliation from outright racism:

People usually invoke two explanations for such behavior:

1) Irrational or ideological racism or sexism.

2) Rational stereotyping that just happens to go wrong in these cases.

But a third explanation seems to me more plausible:

3) We prefer to affiliate with higher status folks.  If female doctors, black or female sales clerks, or latino golf club employees are considered lower status, then customers will be less satisfied with them even if they do exactly the same things.

That seems like splitting hairs to me—racism, sexism, income inequality, class bigotry, and so on are better justified if they can be displaced and relabeled as status concerns. Ideological racism is precisely what this study describes, the systematic association of status and better performance with otherwise irrelevant characteristics. The close association of status with race and gender and so on is what makes racist ideology seem perfectly rational, excusing us for our prejudice. And that association is justified, in a tautological sort of way, through surveys and such that seem to instantiate democratic participation. Hey, we’re voting! We matter! But in that spirit—that voting is about boosting our own self-esteem—we vote as a way to express what we would like to be affiliated with, not what we have decided about the matter at hand. If we have no comprehension of the matter at hand, so much the better; our ability to vote our ego becomes that much easier to countenance. 

Democracy is all well and good, but it seems to be evoked at times to justify and glorify something altogether different, when uninformed people are invited to rate the performance of those whose work they aren’t that qualified to evaluate. Such surveys, popularized by shows like American Idol, end up having the function of negating the idea that objective standards are relevant, and promote the idea that status and popularity are always trustworthy proxies for quality. This durable species of capitalist ideology is a close cousin of the kind of market-think that views price or brands as always-reliable signals of quality. This shifts the responsibility for perpetuating status-quo inequities onto ordinary people, making it seem the natural order of things and an expression of the people’s choice. So, any time we cast an ignorant vote, fill out some comment card or cast a vote on So You Think You Can Dance out of some vague and unquestioned impulse about their “talent”, we strengthen the grip of this ideology.

by Bill Gibron

9 Jun 2009

I wish I could take credit for the label. Instead, I first heard it from fellow critic Dawn Taylor. A Portland, OR staple low these many years, her press previews are frequently interrupted by what the journalistic gang there have dubbed “Screening Rats”. An easy definition of said staple is those consistent members of the free movie crowd who manage to make their presence known in ways both fascinating and unfortunate. They are the proposed backbone of the process, the wonky “word of mouth” Hollywood wants and caters to in order to supplement their marketing. But in reality, they are nothing more than the pests the nickname suggests - scavengers taking up space at a scenario supposedly reserved for journalists and other “invited guests”. They don’t earn disfavor by figuring out the shell game. They get cursed for how they abuse it.

It what will clearly be an ongoing series addressing these iconic individuals, SE&L has decided to start a dictionary of sorts, a glossary given over to identifying and calling out these particular people. While we’ll try not to be mean, rest assured that almost every description here comes from factual personal experience and anecdotal truth. There is no embellishing, or exaggerating. Instead, a limited blog feature can’t fully contain all the various subsections of each category discussed. Hopefully, we will cover the basics before moving along. Perhaps you will recognize a few of the types talked about as well, including the first felon on our movie ‘Most Wanted’ list:

The Regular

You can spot “The Regular” right off the bat. They have the standard Regular regalia - portable chair, knapsack filled with paraphernalia and foodstuffs, movie-sponsored t-shirt, umbrella (in case they can’t get into the theater and it rains), and of course, an attitude of entitlement. These are the people that make the screening process a chore - the one’s who believe their constant obsession with free movies has somehow “earned” them the right to dictate - and participate - in the entire press process. They’re the people who stop you in the mall and dumbfound you with intricate questions about plotting and characterization. They’re the group that crowd around the critic’s row to “say Hello” and chitchat before the lights go down. They’re the voice that screams from the back of the theater whenever the studio representative asks for quiet, addressing said staffer by name. And they are the ones who make up at least 60% of the audience at every screening.

They have the scam down pat. They know which trade publications to read, which ad rags to follow for free ticket info. They pass along extra invitations and brazenly ask the press what’s coming next. They will use you to get in, sneak into morning press-only previews under the guise of some silly excuse, and wonder aloud why you don’t vouch for them when an issue comes up. They may even wonder how they too can get a “cushy” job like reviewing films for a living. They rarely cause trouble once the movie starts, and have been known to stop the talkative and cellphoner in their inappropriate tracks. But that just fuels their desire to “fit in”. Some have been doing it for decades. Others are just now learning the ropes. In reality, they are the sticky floors of the entire movie critic process. They will always be there - and they are almost always fairly annoying. 

The Narrator

Unlike The Talker, who simply wants to share their view on everything (no matter how pointed or off the wall), The Narrator is its own unique - and obnoxious breed. They are the aural subtitles for the visually impaired, a person - typically in their early 20s or over 60 - for whom every onscreen element has to be expressed in bland, matter of fact terms. Talk about having no internal monologue. They will watch the logo and state “Oh, this is a Paramount movie”. The above the title credits will roll and they will flatly mention, “Eddie Murphy and Thomas Haden Church are the stars.” When the director’s name arrives, they will offer up an oeuvre or state with limited enthusiasm “Who’s he?”

As the movie progresses, they will point out the plot turns (“He needs her help.” “She feels left out.”) and if anything thrilling or frightening happens, they will anticipate the terror (“The killer’s hiding in the closet”) or break out the straightforward scripting denouement (“She’s the murderer.”). By the end, they are commenting on the sets (“That’s a big apartment”) or other production subtext (“Couldn’t they get a real horse?”). Remember, the Talker just wants to get some things off their entertained chest. It’s like a group hug with commentary. The Narrator needs to verbally recall the film fact for fact less they forget something and marginalize their overall moviegoing experience. The fact that we get to hear it to is icing on an already rotting cake.

The Cackler

In the world of obsessives, the Cackler comes right after the apologist, two away from the fanatic and three away from the basic fan. For this lover of the onscreen talent - typically a comedian or comic actor, though it doesn’t always have to be - everything is funny. Not just the jokes (or what sadly passes for same). No - EVERYTHING, literally. If the star says “good morning” to their co-workers, they snicker. A raised eyebrow earns a guffaw. A standard one-liner is greeted with the kind of laughter one expects from an audience with late great Richard Pryor, and the sloppy silent comedy or slapstick puts the Cackler into absolute stitches. They are often masked by other Cacklers in the crowd, or a film that is actually witty and hilarious. But more times than not, they are braying away, donkey style, amid the stunned silence of an otherwise bored audience. To call them a plant would be defamatory to botany.

The Gourmand

Ah - the Gourmand. They are truly a rare and repugnant breed. Convinced that a free ticket to the movies means they can load up on indecently priced concessions, these prized pigs will load up on every available item at the snack bar, find a way of working themselves into their predetermined seat (usually right behind you) and then proceed to tie on the feedbag like starved thoroughbreds on the way to the glue factory. The typical ten course meal consists of popcorn, butter, salt (yes, those are three different menu items in the Gourmand’s purview), diet soda, candy, nachos, jalapenos, pretzels, bottled water, and whatever new novelty item (pizza, ice cream bites) the theater has decided to stock. All throughout the movie, they are munching away like a woodchipper chomping through a recently found member of the Witness Protection Program, grunting and groaning in unison with their jaw movements.

And it can be worse - lots worse. Some theaters are foolishly located in malls where the food court offers even more stomach churning delights, and per agreement between the two, ticketholders can actually go to a McDonalds, or a Sbarro’s, buy a gross of quick fried fattiness, and bring it into the screening to sup upon. As the various smells - body odor, feet, fresh cut farts, and honey roasted chicken - mingle, your gag reflex starts working overtime. But the absolute worst has to be the Gourmand subset known as The Experimenter. This is someone who will take popcorn, cheese topping brought from home, and a handful of pickled peppers, and literally let the mélange steep about six feet away from your nose. As the vinegary vileness fills the air, you pray that a sudden angina attack will force the almost always Lark-bound behemoth to leave the handicapped aisle, corned crap conveniently taken along for the grueling ambulance ride to follow. 

The Family Man/Woman

This is an easy Screening Rat to spot - just look at the soiled biological offspring they’ve decided to bring along for the ride - be it R-rated or not. Yep - these are Child Protective Services social nightmares, guardians who give up common sense over the saving of the price of a night at the movies. These are people who believe kids need to see bloody slaughter, sexual deviance, gross out comedy crudeness, and any number of naked body parts, just so they don’t have to part with $10, plus parking. They scoff at suggestions that their crying child be taken out of the theater in order to avoid disturbing the “adults”, and wonder aloud why anyone would question their baby’s need to nurse - right there, during the final frightshow plot twist. These are the morons who change diapers on the stadium seats, feed their wee ones gobs of sugar, and then wonder why they go apeshit for the entire running time. They will gladly get their Hellspawn to shut up, but may give you a damn dirty look in the process.

Unless of course, we are talking about a family film or animation screening. At that point, you might as well buy the semi-automatic and have it surgically attached to your temple. You see, parents, weaned on decades of using movies as a means of babysitting their brats, believe that the cinematic scenario is sacred. Kids are entitled to do just about any dag burn thing they want, since the experience was - supposedly - tailor-made for such unnecessary outbursts. These are the DNA donors who think nothing of having their kid sing along to the songs in the film, even when they can’t possibly know the lyrics or the melody. They encourage shouting and silly comments, claiming that it’s just the juvenile being same. And since Johnny or little Mary can act like a ‘tard in public with little regard for etiquette or manners, Mom and Dad can do the same. Nothing says “shame” quicker than a family unit fake frugging to the knock-off nostalgia hit from the ‘60s stuck on the end of another CG-nightmare.

by PopMatters Staff

9 Jun 2009

It Might Get Loud
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White
Opening: 14 August 2009
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics


Plot summary: Rarely can a film penetrate the glamorous surface of rock legends. It Might Get Loud tells the personal stories, in their own words, of three generations of electric guitar virtuosos -– The Edge (U2), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and Jack White (The White Stripes). It reveals how each developed his unique sound and style of playing favorite instruments, guitars both found and invented. Concentrating on the artist’s musical rebellion, traveling with him to influential locations, provoking rare discussion as to how and why he writes and plays, this film lets you witness intimate moments and hear new music from each artist. The movie revolves around a day when Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge first met and sat down together to share their stories, teach and play.
[Sony Pictures Classics]

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