Comics

*See Issue #129, -Ed: "Spider Island" and the Art of Social Media

Lasting Issues: The craft of Amazing Spider-Man lies in the subtle tango between story and backstory, writer and editor, as shown by the art of footnoting.

At the dawn of the 21st century, some of us are only now beginning to feel the wave of super-connectedness that comes from emerging social media technologies, some of us have lived in NYC all our lives, and some of us just read Spider-Man.

Add social media powerhouse Guy Kawasaki's @ AllTop to your TwitterFeed, or Reg Saddler's @Zaibatsu, or Calvin Lee's @MayhemStudios, and it will hit you like a wave. Social media is all of the internet, all of the time. As your social network tweets links they've discovered themselves, you're immersed in the world around you. More than the specials put together by news networks, social media is raw and specifically tailored to you. The media found by your social network, is media that matters to you. And if one user's tweeting offends, or worse becomes irrelevant, simply remove them from your feed. Social media is conceptually different from the micro-blogging that many stars use to inform their fans about lifestyle choices or breakups or hookups. It is the world, brought to you by people you trust.

That sense of super-connectedness (connectedness to both other people and to the world Out There) lies at the very core of Dan Slott's (@DanSlott) summer megaevent, "Spider Island", now wrapping up the first month of a three-month run (five-month if you count July's Prelude and November's Epilogue). The story, couldn't be simpler: a strange "spider-flu" spreads Peter Parker's unique superpowers to millions throughout Manhattan. As sole writer on the Amazing Spider-Man, Slott writes the central storyarc (appearing issues #666-673) of the megaevent. But throughout the months of the megaevent, the story will wend its way through a slew of limited series, one-shots and other titles (like Venom and Herc). "Spider Island" (#SpiderIsland, if you're searching twitter), is the story of New York, as much as of Peter Parker.

And yet what makes "Spider Island" so completely engaging (for me at least, sufficiently engaging to forego seeing Contagion and to set aside Deus Ex: Human Revolution), is the masterful facility with which Slott is able to entwine the story of New York and the struggles of identity production in the changing media landscape of the 21st century, by rooting both of these in the emotional core of Spider-Man itself.

The July issue of Amazing Spider-Man, issue #666 is not only a superb introduction to "Spider Island" but a superbly skillful introduction to Peter Parker and the State Of The Spider-Man. If you've not been following Spidey stories for fear of becoming shut out in too-much back story, if you've longed for more concise Spider-Man action since Sam Raimi's movie trilogy, then Amazing Spider-Man #666, "The One and Only" is the book for you.

In its pages, Slott unfolds the tale of Spider-Man on the day before Spider Island. Slott's first move, is simply sublime. He opens the story with Spidey swinging through his beloved Manhattan. In monologue Spidey considers how much things have changed for him. He's professionalized his super-heroing now. Instead of just stumbling into crime the way he did in the 70s and 80s stories, Spidey's now fully immersed in his masked identity. He's a member on two Avengers teams (Avengers and Mighty Avengers) as well as a member of the Future Foundation (the Jonathan Hickman, @JHickman, book FF) which has come to replace the Fantastic Four since the death of Johnny Storm's Human Torch.

But Spidey's rambling meditations are more than just a cutesy gateway into the character's legendary neuroticism. Instead, Slott makes masterful use of the genre latent within Spidey stories to mark out the rise of the character's popularity within Marvel's publication list. Creativity countervailing commercial decisions, Slott's storytelling is flawless in its assay of Spidey both as a character to love, and a commercial reality for its corporate owners.

Peter Parker too, has had a wake-up call in Slott's more-than-able hands. No longer simply selling pictures of his Spidey alter ego to a daily paper that abuses those to tell "Spider-Man Menace" stories, Peter has come to work for heavyweight think tank Horizon Labs, where he "reverse-engineers Spider-Man's gadgetry". Just as 60s/70s Spidey ran its course with Peter in high school and then in college, so too has 80s/90s Spidey run its course with the happy, small life of Peter Parker having married Mary Jane Watson. Slott's Spider-Man is a bold, new Spider-Man, one specifically retrofitted to deal with the super-connected reality of the 21st century social media landscape. This Spider-Man is a Spidey that's always plugged-in.

But there is a much deeper sense in which Peter Parker's (and Spidey's) story reflect the emerging social media-defined reality. And this sense relies heavily on the elaborate and skillful tango between Dan Slott as writer and Stephen Wacker as Senior Editor on Amazing Spider-Man. And again, this dance finds its roots in a classic Spidey books of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Together, Slott and Wacker have reinvigorated the editorial footnoting in Amazing Spider-Man.

You know the kind, Peter will mention "the new Venom", leaving you clueless as to the context. But a handy star appears next to "Venom" and it leads you to a useful footnote explaining that details can be found in Venom #4. (The current Venom is being written by Rick Remender, @Remender). Together with this classic style of footnoting is Slott's paraleptic style of monologue where backstory is filled in, in Peter's thoughts while he talks with other characters.

With these reinvigorated genre of the classic Spidey books, Slott and Wacker present a radical new take on backstory and continuity hell. In short, if treated right, backstory can enrich the experience of reading a comicbook story, rather than simply overwhelm readers. There's a sense of immersion you get when you read "The One and Only", complex backstory is something you feel you need to embrace rather than be inundated by.

But the emotional core of the story runs even deeper. In a stroke of genius, Slott has tapped the primal Spider-Man counter-narrative. For decades now, Spidey's fictive New York has been built as a place where a strange hero swings through the skyscrapers leaving the citizens of New York dizzied in his wake. Spidey was just about as large as New York, a big enough idea to make the Big Apple stop and stare.

And of course, there's been J. Jonah Jameson's campaign, almost from the beginning, to call out Spidey as (at best) reckless nuisance or (at worst) lethal threat. The genius of Slott's "Spider Island" lies in the ordinary people of New York inheriting Spidey's powers. But not one of them learned their responsibility by having their Uncle Ben's blood on their hands. Power, but no responsibility, "Spider Island" is very much the story of the erosion of the idea of genius. It is the de-spectacularization of Peter Parker, Spider-Man. And "Spider Island's" mastery lies not only in telling this emotionally moving tale from Peter's POV, but in multiplying the number of monthly titles to a point where Amazing Spider-Man almost becomes a second-tier story in the megaevent.

If the throwaway nature of the full operatic scope of "Flashpoint" left you cold, or the swollen, grandiose dramas of "Fear Itself" feels too much like nothing more than interregnum to ongoing continuity, then "Spider Island" is for you. In truth, "Spider Island" is for you anyway, whoever you are. Slott's masterful skill in wrestling with the turmoils of social media-oriented identity production is a sight to behold. But his being able to do that within the context of the continuity of a character's 50-plus year publication history? That's breathtaking.

* * *

Footnote: It's been a weird, strange rush writing this piece, the story of a disease that has wide-scale sociocultural impacts, on End Malaria Day. Malaria is unique among the diseases in that we possess sufficient technology and resources to eradicate the disease, but seem to lack the simple political will to take that first step. If you're reading this today, or tomorrow or on any day, please logon to the End Malaria Day website and make a difference in the ways you can. Or please, simply buy a copy of End Malaria, whose authors include Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, Sir Ken Robinson and more than 60 other of the world's most influential thinkers.

Music

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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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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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

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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