Saturday, March 12, 2005

RIP Guy Davenport

Though he died January 4 I just now heard about it:

It would be an exaggeration to say that Guy Davenport changed my life but there’s no doubt that his work was a key element in my budding life-beyond-college. I can’t remember how I first heard about him--that’s been a good 25 years ago--but Geography of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form (and later to a lesser extent The Hunter Gracchus) were constant companions. Partly this was Davenport’s style which presented a sort of academic elegance without sniffiness though it’s always seemed a bit eccentric. Though it lacks the loose fire of more popculturally oriented writers, his writing isn’t dull even after second or third readings. (Though I read two or three volumes of Davenport’s stories they were almost uniformly too precious and thin to be of more than trivial interest.) But perhaps more important in the long run was that at that time Davenport’s work connected with other writers that worked--at least on my terms--in the same area: Borges, Greil Marcus, Roger Shattuck, Manny Farber, Dwight Macdonald, H.L. Mencken and a few others. Because all of these saw culture as a vast, interconnected web and were more or less incapable of writing about a novel without drawing in music and movies and politics and art from wherever might be useful. I hesitate to call this “interdisciplinary” because that term has the scent of dogma about it and because most of the interdiscplinary academics I know are anything but. This is still a fairly uncommon approach, or at least one that gets lip service but little else. Out of this ad-hoc group Davenport is clearly the most narrow-minded: It’s hard to imagine him reading Lovecraft or Chandler, for instance, or taking Hawks and Fuller remotely seriously. Then again, could any of the others have written as astutely about Pound? That may be one of the Davenport’s most lasting influences. I first encountered Pound in a class about modern American poets (hi, Hank Lazer) and immediately took to William Carlos Williams and Pound. (I disliked Eliot then and now, took years to appreciate Stevens and admire Frost but have never cared much one way or the other (or even a third).) Williams wasn’t a surprise but Pound? An arrogant, domineering man with vile political views who wrote possibly the most demanding poetry in English? Why should anybody care? Partly it was the poetry which is often undeniably beautiful but there’s also that same way of thinking in webs, that a 14th century Provencal poet absolutely matters today. Of course Pound probably would have dismissed yours and my opinions completely if we didn’t know about such a poet but just because he went to an extreme doesn’t invalidate the path.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

more on the list

I always wanted to be the kind of critic who makes slash-n-burn pronouncements, smiting the unworthy and hailing our cultural pillars. Problem is that’s not really in me. Sure I have the opinions and sometimes they go against the mainstream (Bergman? A simpleton. Saul Bellow? Tediously na├»ve.) but I’m just not that confrontational.

So I hesitated including a few of the items in my Don’t Like About Comics list. Do I really not like George Perez? (Meaning of course his work; I don’t know the first thing about him as a person.) Nah, his art is perfectly passable but it’s just not what fans think. His layers of detail and consistency of line are what grab the fans because they can see the effort on the page. For me it just makes everything static.

And what about Warren Ellis? He’s certainly one of the Good Guys, pushing the commercial limitations of comics, rethinking its possibilities, spreading gadfly information, etc. But his fiction never comes off as intended. I know the Fu Manchu character in The Authority was meant in an ironic way; I know that. But he still seems the usual racist caricature and try as I might I can’t find any ironic distancing or non-ironic commentary or anything there on the page. And The Authority vs. God? Great idea; after all the Fantastic Four did it too. Only Ellis is too much the SF writer to really pull that concept off. He just gives us a really big animal and calls it God. Not quite the same thing. The first two volumes of Transmetropolitan were a fictional fulfillment of Harlan Ellison’s dream to be a great social conscience. Only in real life Ellison actually tries to be a bully and the comics’ Spider is just annoying and self-congratulatory. I optimistically keep trying more Ellis work. Ruins meant to desecrate Marvel characters and I wish it had but it feels more like a village atheist mumbling. Tokyo Storm Warning had a nice idea that didn’t go anywhere and was burdened with confusingly opaque art (even worse because the guy was trying to be clear not artsy). DV8 consistently backed away from its edge. I do continue to read and often enjoy Planetary but again so much of the book is just presentation of ideas, not stories made from them. Global Frequency is stacked in my dining room and I wanna read it but….

I was also hesitant about using cliched critic terms but went ahead any way. So Leave It to Chance is “truly inept”? That really doesn’t tell you much but the book had three moments where the story comes to a complete halt while some character unloads him/herself of exposition. The heroine even finds out what the bad guys are intending through the hackneyed device of overhearing two crooks discuss it, which of course is what they all do (“By the way Bob, I know we already discussed the bank robbery for a week but let’s go over it again while playing pool.”).

Also on my list: I really didn’t want to use “diversity” with its overly PC feel but it was appropriate. I don’t think comics should be more diverse for political reasons (though that’s there) or even because it more closely reflects our own reality. Mainly, I just want diversity because it makes better stories. Judd Winick has his heart in the right place but couldn’t possibly be more heavy-handed about what he’s doing. But just look at some of the current best-selling novels and think how much this could enrich even a limited genre like superheroes: Afghan boys (The Kite Runner), an autistic teenager (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), Greek-Americans (Middlesex), an elderly rural preacher (Gilead), black beekeeping sisters (The Secret Life of Bees), Indian immigrants (The Namesake), Japanese runaways (My Life with Kafka). And these are best sellers, stuff that appeals to large chunks of American bookbuyers. That doesn’t mean I think we need comics about Afghan superheroes, not because there shouldn’t be but because there may not be any writers capable of handling that right now. But a story about three black sisters in South Carolina who are suddenly doused with, uh, cosmic rays and gain superpowers? Now that’s something I’d pay to read.

Monday, March 7, 2005

stuff to read

Haven't done a links post in a while so:

Sonny Bono vs. Proust (yeah most bloggers couldn't resist this either but I've toyed with ordering the volumes from Amazon UK for months and now may have to make the final plunge)

great piece on electric Miles bootlegs

The Guardian on Crumb (Robert not George)

why we "like" food writers (because they're unselfconscious about writing about oysters "held hostage by a ruthlessly unctuous mayonnaise")

Marlowe for conspiracy theorists

the iPod as decline of civilization (and so was rock 'n' roll, jazz, the movies, the novel, free verse, chewing gum, etc)

interview with Cory Doctorow

Sunday, March 6, 2005

83 Things I Don't Like About Comics

Didn't feel like doing a full 100.

1. That diversity in comics is far behind even television. Mainstream comics has about six gay characters (five after the last issue of Wolverine), several more blacks, women used for window dressing and just a bare token or two Asian, Hispanic, etc. Even despite the inherent conservatism of most comics fans this is somewhat mystifying. I see a greater percentage of black readers in comics stores than trade stores (possibly a result of where I shop and the stores where I’ve worked but probably not entirely wrong) and mainstream comics seem to have more openly gay creators than say studio film directors (“more” in actual numbers not just percentage). But comics--even a lot of indies--are a WASP world.
2. that the above is even remotely controversial among comics readers
3. that the “mainstream” is superheroes.
4. that comics distribution is a monopoly (Justice Department meet Diamond)
5. that comics stores are designed (intentionally or not) to repell anybody but fans and especially anybody without a y-chromosome
6. that most genres are commercially dead. Just for one of many instances, I’d love to see a serious comics series on the Napoleonic War; if even mall bookstores can stock Cornwell and O’Brian, PBS have a successful series and there be an Oscar-nominated movie from them then surely somewhere there is a market for something similar, just as there must be a market still for Westerns or comedy or romance or whathaveyou.
7. for that matter that we’re stuck with “comics” and not something a tad less frivolous
8. people who think “comix” is an improvement over “comics”
9. that we’re also stuck with “graphic novel” when so few are even novellas
10. Marvel’s creative treadmill. Their 60s glory days are pretty much recycled in their main books but again in the Ultimate line (yes Ultimate Dazzler was a joke but Ultimate Carnage is just sad) and Marvel Age or whatever they’re naming it this fiscal year.
11. Marvel’s continual renumbering, not because it’s a pain for collectors (which isn’t me anyway) but because it shows a fundamental uncertainty about what they’re doing and a contempt for readers
12. again with Marvel: their poorly designed trade books (can’t they hire a professional marketing designer or even somebody who’s ever shopped in a bookstore that didn’t primarily sell comics?)
13. one more: Marvel’s dumb science. Yep, comics thrive on pseudo- and non-science but stuff like “solid sound” is too senseless.
14. that even when I’m making a list like this it’s more about superheroes than indies
15. stories that should take an issue or two spread out over five or six. Yes, partly the result of market demands but also just bad writing and editing.
16. attempts to be “cinematic” (boy, talk about an inferiority complex)
17. George Perez (do we need another Norman Rockwell?)
18. Alex Ross (Marvels was OK but the characters in his work look like they’re slumming from TV movie adaptations)
19. that trade stores shelve all comics together instead of in the sections where they actually belong. Why is, say, Joe Sacco’s Palestine among the Spider-Man books instead of in History or Current Events?
20. that manga is exploding and it’s still pretty much all the same stuff. Where are serious samurai manga (other than Lone Wolf and Blade of the Immortal) or yakuza or salaryman or political thrillers or sports stories or mah jong or any of the hundreds of genres that actually already exist in Japan.
21. that despite manga success black-and-white is still perceived as not saleable
22. that Tokyopop is flooding the market so badly that they’re likely to destroy much of the advances that manga has made
23. that so few European comics are published in the U.S.
24. Alejandro Jodorowsky (ludicrously dumb film director, even worse comics writer)
25. Warren Ellis (a pretty good commentator/critic, quite pointless fiction writer)
26. Kevin Smith (decent if immature film director but pretty hopeless in comics)
27. online commentators (can’t be called critics) who mainly talk about whether they’re planning to buy upcoming comics
28. that I actually enjoy reading some of the above
29. the Golden Age (it wasn’t)
30. The Golden Age (did we need a comic based on the premise that Joseph McCarthy was right?)
31. Leave It to Chance (truly inept)
32. Comic Book Villains (while I’m kicking at James Robinson--who admittedly did some decent Starman and WildCATS stories but this film is just embarassing)
33. art that looks like it was done on a computer whether it was or not
34. continual visual references to Kirby; it’s time to move on (except for things like the last few issues of Priest’s Black Panther where there was an actual point)
35. heroes fight then team-up (then next time they meet they fight again...)
36. strange revamps
37. that death seems to be the only “serious” event most comics writers can imagine
38. Straczynski’s 9/11 issue of Amazing Spider-Man (classic kitsch or just grossly misconceived?)
39. Action #775 - A good example of how most superhero writers are utterly incapable of dealing with any real moral issue.
40. that everyday characters in comics live in worlds where people fly and shoot energy beams from their eyes, aliens invade, demons attack cities and animals talk but writers still have them say things like “Did bullets just bounce off that man? I must be losing my mind.”
41. typographic symbols used for obscenities - It’s always a distraction and not in a good way. Come on, you people are professional writers. If you can’t write around this then find another job. (And don’t pull that “realism” argument: Think of how many tougher-than-nails gangster movies, films noirs, Westerns and horror movies had not a single no-no word.)
42. early Image
43. Jim Lee (now merely passable but his early work is some of the most childish ever published by an incorporated company)
44. Kyle Baker (sorry, just don’t get it)
45. Dan Brereton (looks like rough drafts)
46. Michael Turner (heroin chic lives)
47. fumetti
48. writers who use blunt statements instead of realizing them (no matter how many times characters say Sue is the most powerful of the Fantastic Four that won’t make it true)
49. the current atmosphere of star creators (as much as I’d like to see more Miller Batman there are easily dozens of writers who could do as well or better but wouldn’t sell as much)
50. the stereotype of comics readers as overweight losers
51. and nevertheless Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons isn’t entirely inaccurate
52. Fantagraphics’ collections of pinup drawings (even Jack Cole’s aren’t that interesting)
53. that toys (well really “toys” since nobody plays with them) sell so well
54. Catwoman’s recent aviator goggles (why?)
55. that the loudest people on cell phones are invariably at comics stores
56. that there are dozens and dozens of comics websites but almost nothing that can be called journalism (even if many blogs are quite worth your time)
57. that so many comics artists seem to have learned to draw from other comics instead of, say, the world outside or even non-comics artists
58. Darkseid (especially when I learned the name is pronounced darkside and not darkseed: this guy is supposed to be dangerous? Scary?)
59. Professor X: Creepy authoritarian in the comics, almost a fascist in the movies.
60. the rape in Identity Crisis - Meltzer et al crossed a line they weren’t prepared to cross.
61. oversize and oddly shaped comics and TPBs
62. letter columns (except the one in Powers)
63. prices (yeah, opera is expensive too but at least those last three or four hours)
64. that so few classic comic strips are available
65. that I can’t read Miracleman/Marvelman
66. the unnecessarily high prices on DC Archives and Marvel Masterworks (due to low print runs and aiming at collectors)
67. Ivan Brunetti (fratboy tantrums are not satire)
68. Garth Ennis when he lets his weakness for the grotesque override common sense
69. Jim Mahfood (not his drawing but his satirical attacks on the easiest targets in the laziest manner)
70. “manga style” when it’s not actually manga
71. pretty much everything from 1988 to about 1994
72. “grim” and “dark” stories because they so rarely are
73. everybody who’s seen the huge blockbuster films from comics (or even indies like Ghost World and American Splendor) but won’t actually read a comic
74. that even though the most successful (artistically and commercially) movies based on comics are the ones closest to the source Hollywood still feels the world isn’t ready for John Constantine, the LOEG, Elektra, etc.
75. despite the above two that comics fans still get excited about movie versions
76. “everything changes” and “nothing will be the same” because it’s never true
77. series that are cancelled without being finished
78. that book collections have to be “subsidized” by first releasing monthly issues (which may or may not be true though I’ll admit that the arguments for it make sense; still an instant classic like We3 should have appeared in one big lump not three small ones)
79. hardbacks
80. the tiny size of newspaper strips
81. that I can buy Archie digests at my grocery store but nothing from any other company
82. that nobody else even pays attention to Archie except Tony Isabella (bless him)
83. crossover stories

Saturday, March 5, 2005

comedy viewing

It always seems like it might be cool to get a cold because then I have a couple of days off work to just read and watch movies. Only catch is that instead I end up sleeping most of the time and otherwise not really wanting to concentrate on anything particularly demanding.

So I watched The Girl Next Door (Luke Greenfield 2004) expecting, or at least hoping, for mildly amusing comedy. But it turns out that the DVD’s ad for There’s Something About Mary wasn’t entirely an accident because like that film Girl is basically a romantic comedy aimed at guys. Though in this case it’s not romantic and barely a comedy. One of the behind-the-scenes bits has one of the creators claiming that this is a “realistic” look at high school which means he’s either completely deluded or pursuing a peculiar marketing angle. Girl is really another variation on Risky Business (complete with a sex scene in a moving vehicle) but with even less imagination and charisma (and RB was pretty bad anyway). There’s nothing to the film except getting characters from point A to point B and to that end nearly everything else has been tossed out. So neither of the leads are given the slightest hint of romantic backgrounds/history that would complicate the sudden love affair and actually they even seem to be different characters at different points, probably the result of three credited (and who knows how many uncredited) writers not any sort of, y’know, character growth. (Imagine what Bunuel or Lynch could have done with this.) Elisha Cuthbert’s character is so severely underwritten that there’s nothing the least bit human about her and it doesn’t help that Cuthbert’s acting abilities apparently are solid enough that she’s able to memorize her lines. In fact the only thing saving the movie from being a total waste are the two squabbling nerd buddies who would have been more interesting in the foreground, maybe like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead version of a cliched Hollywood comedy. (And whoever writes that first I get an idea fee of 1.5% of the gross.)

Actually the week before I also watched a couple of “dumb” comedies: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner 2004) with the also-ampersanded buddies-in-the-title Starsky & Hutch (Todd Phillips 2004).

Harold & Kumar is easily the strongest of the three, though it’s still not worth going out of your way to see. Interestingly, even though it’s blatantly non-realistic H&K does provide a romantic complication for its lead and a reasonably clever resolution, something totally missing in The Girl Next Door. The H&K filmmakers go from non-sequiturs to gag-reflex gags to almost-elaborate set pieces with a true comic sense and nicely pitched performances by Kal Penn and John Cho.

On the other hand Starsky & Hutch misfires pretty much from the start. Instead of reworking the material, Phillips and his writers really just made a long episode of the TV show with a few winks and nudges to show that they’re ironic and comic. Except that why not just watch the show and add your own ironic comments? Really, even if you're humor-impaired you couldn't do any worse and it would also be much shorter. But then Phillips made the lame Old School and a Phish documentary so he’s clearly not the brightest bulb in Hollywood. (Though I do like somebody's completely oblivious comment on the IMDB that the original 1975 TV show was in an age before terrorism. Of course, I instantly imagine a movie where Starsky and Hutch have to clean up a fragment of the Baader-Meinhof gang loose in California to hook up with the Weather Underground.)

Friday, March 4, 2005

10 Things I've Done That You Probably Haven't

Mine are pretty mundane compared to many in the blogosphere but:

1. talked to James Brown’s parole officer

2. watched four movies in theatres in a single day

3. on that same theme: had three blood tests in one day (everything turned out fine)

4. followed the Tiananmen Square protest march in D.C.

5. boarded a commercial flight by waving at the pilot and having him open the plane door

6. shaken hands with George Wallace (I was about 12 and not proud of it then or now)

7. published a political expose that resulted in death threats, smashed car windows, phone taps and an FBI investigation (admittedly it was college politics involving spoiled frat boys but otherwise real enough)

8. received 90 free CDs in one month (the main perk for being a music critic)

9. played music on a radio show that prompted somebody to phone claiming the station was off the air (a Merzbow track) and another that had somebody walk into the station and offer $10 if I would break the record in half (Killdozer’s cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” and I didn’t take the offer)

10. contributed artwork to Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces