San Diego Con: Heady Stuff

Shawn O'Rourke

, by Shawn O'Rourke - Comic Con is like Mecca for pop culture geeks.

San Diego Comic Con has come and gone, and as always it was an amazing event. The con isn't just your normal comic book convention; it is a nexus point. It is the place where hundreds of veins of popular culture overlap simultaneously for the tens of thousands of people who make the trek from all over the world to enter its walls.

There is something literally for everybody. Science Fiction fans are offered an unending supply of Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon Five, Farscape, and Battlestar Galactica merchandise and autographs. Fans of Anime and Manga have the chance to watch hours of their favorite movies and receive countless free books from their favorite publishers. Gamers can play all day, play testing new CCGs or enjoying old favorites like Magic: The Gathering. Movies buffs will be more then placated with the Spiderman 3 and 300 panels, that offer the fan the chance to see the stars and ask the creators questions.

San Diego Con is literally the trip to Mecca for the fanboy. While all of the things mentioned above were exciting, the one aspect of the Con that I found most interesting were the panels dedicated to pushing the limits of the various mediums represented. San Diego has numerous panels that discuss the new and exciting ways that creators are seeking to explore the boundaries of the science fiction, fantasy, and comic book worlds.

One of the highlights of the con was the panel The Seven Spiritual Laws of the Superhero. The panel featured comics legend Grant Morrison and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, discussing their new project to create a superhero that was more reflective of the spiritual needs of today's society. Morrison and Chopra offered a fascinating look into the long history of graphic storytelling and discussed how comics have the power to alter the reality of the world. They explained that comics are microscopic realities where the superheroes are manifestations of human potential. It is their goal to create a comic book line that uses superheroes as vehicles to open reader's minds to new levels of spiritual and emotional understanding.

Chopra told a fascinating story about meeting a spiritual guide who had a scroll that had his entire life written on it. In the story, he explained that everyone has a destiny and that a person must come to terms with their place in the world. Morrison likewise reflected on some of his spiritual beliefs and the way he incorporates them into his storytelling. Just being in the room and listening to these fascinating individuals talk made me feel like perhaps that there was still some magic left in the world. It also reminded me of Alan Moore's argument that writers and creators are the new magicians of this world. Hearing Morrison and Chopra talk made me realize the accuracy of his comments. Interested? Check out their line at Virgin Comics.

When it comes to higher criticism and greater artistic exploration of popular culture, the Comics Art Conference (CAC) is a lynchpin at San Diego. The conference was founded by Peter Coogan and Randy Duncan, as a way to bring scholars, fans, and creators together to increase study, commentary, and dialogue about the comics medium.

The CAC has worked with some of the legends in the comics field, including Scott McCloud and legend Will Eisner. The have tackled subjects as varied as the legacy of Jack Kirby, the sociopolitical commentary of Art Speigelman, and the portrayal of women and minorities in comics. The CAC clearly offers a wonderful forum for the intellectual study of the comic book medium.

I was able to go to most of the panels the CAC hosted this year and was thoroughly impressed with them all. The focus of the first session, Myths for the Modern Age, was on the book of the same title that follows the tradition of Philip Jose Famer. Years ago, Farmer wrote a biography of Tarzan that treated the fictional Lord of the Apes as a real person inhabiting our world. The collected writers in Myth for a Modern Age, expanded on that idea by writing a series of stories that wrapped all of the major traditional characters together in one concise narrative. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Captain Nemo, and Doc Savage, just to name a few, had all of their histories tied together in a way that explains their incredible abilities and their relation to each other. The book allows aficionados of these landmark characters a chance to explore their stories within a new contemporary and united narrative.

Another panel delved into the mythology of Superman and studied the ideal that the character personifies. The Supervillain, from Antagonist to Protagonist: Celebrating the Supervillain in Today's Comics, had numerous writers discussing the evolution of the primary villain archetypes. A panel on comics as a postmodern narrative had presentations on Promethea, The Invisibles, and the Marvel and DC Universes, that offered dynamic new ways to see how comics alter and reflect the world around us. These are just some of the of panels the CAC hosted that offered a myriad of interesting new arguments about comics and pop culture. The cofounder, Dr. Coogan, also reminded viewers that they are accepting proposals for papers and presentations for next year's Comic Con.

Monkeybrain Press, publisher of the aforementioned Myths for the Modern Age, had several titles that tackled the subject of higher criticism of popular culture. Their booth also had selections from Benbella Books, which has an entire line of books that analyze pop culture phenomena. They have a compilation of essays where scholars study various aspects of the hit show, Lost. There is a intellectual study of Star Wars, and an investigation on the necessity of James Bond in the 21st century. As a History major, I have seen the derision and disregard of certain elements of the scholarly community when it comes to questions of popular contemporary culture. These publishers help ensure that that mentality is not allowed to completely dominate the field of academic investigation.

San Diego Comic Con offers fans an unparalleled access to all their favorite aspects of popular culture. However, due to its size and the numerous panels that are being presented, it requires a person to pick and choose carefully what they want to see, as it is impossible to see it all. Among the numerous layers on which a fan might interact with the community, one is to watch the panels that discuss new ways of shaping the medium or new ways of looking at old subjects. They may also speak with the writers and publishers of books that delve into the cultural history manifested by popular mediums. I would definitely recommend to anyone who attends the con next year to take a moment to watch one of these panels and maybe find something they had no idea they were looking for. Popular Culture in and of itself is fine, but it is always interesting when one is offered a new way to engage with the TV shows, movies, comics, and characters they love.

Comic-Con 2006

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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