December 28, 2009

Happy Birthday Stan Lee


Stan Lee turns 87 today having outlasted just about every pioneer, except one of the men who hired him back in the earliest days of his career, Joe Simon.

It’s difficult to express with words just how important Stan Lee is to comic book artists, writers and filmmakers of my generation. He’s one of those creative forces in the medium who influenced every facet of comic book creation and storytelling in the 20th century.

The story by now is of course legend: Stanley Martin Lieber, changed his name to Stan Lee and along with several notable artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, and many, many others.
But Stan Lee didn’t just create innovative super heroes and memorably flawed human characters, -he created entire cosmologies, a series of alternate realities that had a concrete continuity (characters referred to past events and interacted with each other often moving around and stepping into each other’s titles and storylines unexpectedly.) This may not seem like much, but anyone familiar with stories from comics’ “Golden Age” knows how limited and unreal early comic books were.

Years ago my dear friend, the cinematographer Joe Zizzo said to me on a movie shoot something that I’ll never forget:


Everyone invents and is invented by their own version of New York City, whether it’s Jules Dassin, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee or Stan Lee.”

And that’s the thing about Stan Lee; he placed Peter Parker in Jackson Heights Queens, the Avengers’ Mansion was on Long Island, the Baxter building was in midtown Manhattan.

Clark Kent lived in some made up New York called “Metropolis” but Matt Murdock lived in Hell’s Kitchen.

That’s what Stan Lee has given to the world: a posture toward speculative fiction that approaches the rich potential of novels with characters that could be standing next to you on a subway train. Lee’s characters had tough jobs, they paid rent. They had all of the trouble that most comic book characters, up until that time, were incapable of having.

There are two things I’d like to thank Stan Lee for that often go unmentioned:

Stan Lee challenged the Comics Code Authority and ultimately forced it to reform its policies by pushing for stories about serious topics (In the most notorious case it was a cautionary story about drug abuse in an issue of Spider-Man in the early 1970s.) When faced with a series of editorial changes that would have rendered his story about the perils of addiction meaningless, Lee defied the CCA and ran his story without the Comics Code Authority seal of approval on the cover.
-They’ve been on the defensive ever since thanks to Stan Lee.

Lee also introduced the practice of including an entire credit panel on the splash page of each issue. This meant that for the first time the writer, penciller AND the inker and the letterer were credited directly for their work.
-Comic books are far too labor-intensive an enterprise for anyone to go uncredited.

There isn’t enough space on the internet to list and assess this man’s contributions to his medium, so I’ll just say thanks and hope that another dear friend, Ian Fischer didn’t take it the wrong way when I cursed him under my breath for getting to take a picture with Stan Lee at a convention.

Happy birthday Stan.

-SJ
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December 8, 2009

Happy Birthday Elzie



Elzie Crisler Segar 1894 – 1938

Today marks the birth of EC Segar, one of the most influential, if not the most influential comic strip artists of all time.

EC Segar was the mind behind Popeye, -a character that I, and many others believe, can be arguably called the first superhero of the 20th century. Needless to say Superheroes as we understand them today owe a great deal to Superman and the cosmology created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. After all, Superman is the character for whom all subsequent superheroes appear to be named. But it is important to note that Superman had a direct depression-era ancestor in Popeye the Sailor.

If we are to recognize that Popeye was among the first, it is important to look at what superheroes are at their core: Superheroes, regardless of their superhuman powers or abilities and resources are people who always fight back. Superheroes are people who fight back even when they are not physically able to overcome their adversaries. Superheroes are fictional characters who will risk life and limb to fight for others who cannot fight for themselves. Superheroes never quit. The psychological posture of the comic book hero was born of the Great Depression; an era when individuals (long touted as the strength of the nation) were again powerless against grinding poverty, joblessness and the banks. This era gave birth to the fictional defenders Popeye, Superman, and curiously, the equally fascinating -but very real- gangsters and criminals of the time, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde. 1919’s Zorro, and even much older legends like that of Odysseus and Gilgamesh certainly preceded him, but there is something about Popeye that sets him apart from the earlier incarnations of heroes in world culture throughout history. There is a quality of “noble bearing,” –and a humility and human fragility that sets him apart from Hercules, Maciste and other “strong men” of earlier myths. Popeye was born poor, he was uneducated, he was working class, and in the earliest episodes of Thimble Theatre, (the strip in which he made his debut,) he was a drunk. Clearly by the look of his early uniform he was not necessarily a Navy man (this changed during World War II,) but more likely part of the Merchant Marine. He was a working man, with forearms bestowed upon him by a presumably hard, working life.

The Spinach and its accompanying leitmotif in the animated cartoons are incidental to an understanding of Popeye as a paradigm from which many of the later heroes were intentionally or unconsciously patterned.

Popeye’s real power was much simpler. He fought back. Popeye always fought back. That was his strength, his “super power” and ability: an attitude of resistance. Popeye never took it lying down; he never let a transgression go unanswered. At Popeye’s core is the very American idea of a man’s insistence on dignity, not enforced by a gun -but by his own hands. It’s important to recognize just how significant this was to Depression-era audiences and the generations that succeeded them in our nation like my own.

The idea of a man who always settled all accounts and went to bed at night unburdened by the spite of a lingering slight is of course at the end of it all, a simple “power fantasy.” Over the years, many critics of superhero fiction have dismissed superheroes wholesale, pointing to a certain “adolescent” obsession with “winning” and being right. I would point out that those desires embodied by Popeye and other characters are born of real disappointment, tragedy and suffering in the 20th century and that these characters are more than just pabulum manufactured to exploit the longings of children.

For my part, Popeye and Sinbad are the first heroes I can remember reading about as a child. What struck me, sitting in a Bronx apartment in the early 1970s as the entire borough seemed to be burning down around us week to week, was how much these two guys traveled, and how far... How nothing ever kept them down. It’s interesting that they were both sailors.

Happy birthday Mr. Segar, and thank you.
-SJ
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October 13, 2009

Half Assed

I’ve often wondered what possesses a person to think they know what’s best for others. Egotism, stupidity, or maybe something else that has long gone without a name. Where does that particular audacity come from? It seems to run in the very genes of planners and designers who like to ignore the guidance and suggestions of engineers.

Hate is such a strong word, but I tell you I hate these fucking seats.


I’ve hated them since they debuted in New York City more than half my life ago in the “awesome eighties.”

New Yorkers have arguably some of the biggest, most diversely shaped asses in the Western world; why then did somebody ask some designer somewhere to come up with a one-size-fits-all seat on the INDs, BMTs and IRT trains in Gotham?

It’s a kind of retarded arrogance that occasionally grips municipal planning as a whole in New York in certain decades. The result in the 1980s was an “egg-crate” approach to designing a new number 1 train fleet for New Yorkers.

Only someone who doesn’t ride trains could have come up with a design this inconsiderate and this inhumane.

If you think I’m being too extreme in using the word “inhumane?” then you’ve never had to ride “the hump” either fully or partially while commuting from borough to borough. What is “the hump” you ask?
"The hump" is the raised partition that designates one “seat” from another (see above). These subway train seats are made of fiberglass and other composites and they are as hard and unyielding to the touch as Formica: Now imagine the crack of your ass, or part of your thigh riding the hump for an hour or more just because the person next to you is a fat jack ass… -Sorry, fat people are not the problem here, although they are often scapegoated for this tragic phenomenon that pits rides against rider, ass against ass for no good reason.

Historically subway trains have had bench-style seating: flat seating surfaces that run entire lengths unbroken until they terminate in a banister or an arm rest. This in fact lets as many people sit down as can be comfortably seated. Apportioning seat widths according to some abstract average is not just stupid, it’s elitist. It’s elitist to award someone, somewhere the power to decide what is enough and what is fair for all the miserable somebodies who rely on the subway train every day of their lives.

-More than that, “the hump” starts fights.

Every single day for about 25 or 26 years, every morning, I see a person spilling over beyond the seat’s edge into the space of another, causing the other person to defend their area. Sometimes it’s not even just asses, my own shoulders exceed the width of these seats easily by three inches on each side. This means that in the best of situations, if I’m surrounded by two uncommonly small people on either side, I still have to hunch forward to keep my shoulders from intruding upon them. By the way, I’m only 5 foot 8: I’m below average height in New York City.

Why did this nightmare happen?

Because someone just thought they knew what was best for others. Someone decided that the flat benches wasted space and figured they could design their way to less crowded trains. Someone thought they could just be more efficient by forcing New Yorkers to sit differently: this someone can’t have ever rode trains, or depended on them daily.

Thankfully the complaints must have gotten up to the MTA board and City Hall over the years. Every new subway car since the late 1990s has featured the old bench style seating. You can see them on the L, 2, 4, 5 and 6 trains that have that automated creepy announcer that sounds eerily like the “Johnnie Cab” in Total Recall.

That doesn’t mean there weren't other dumb ideas proffered in the name efficiency. When Rudolf Giuliani became Mayor, an idea was floated to him: Standing-Only trains during rush hour. This is the kind of nonsense that happens when people don’t listen to engineers. I’m sure somebody must’ve had wanted to have said: “Why don’t you just stand around for the rest of your fucking sad miserable life, Mayor?

Michael Bloomberg, the current Mayor of New York was pitched the idea of standing-only trains at the start of his term. After consideration he decided not to recommend it to the MTA. The fact that Michael Bloomberg has been known to ride the train may have had something to do with it. Not that I think he’s worried all that much about commuters’ comfort during rush hour… I just don’t think he wants to run into any of them when they see the seats are all gone.

-SJ

August 13, 2009

Andy Kessler 1961-2009


It’s weird when you read an obituary for someone you actually knew. The New York Times managed to cover most of the bases, but it still felt like I was reading about a complete stranger.
I first met Andy at Westside Comics back in the fall of 1980 when I was only 12. He had a good seven or eight years on me, but he never passed up a chance to check out somebody’s “black book,” the sketchbook that all New York City boys who wrote graffiti (or aspired to “get up” beyond their own city block and onto actual trains) carried with them everywhere. Andy was a fucking harsh critic.
I wasn’t ever sure if Andy actually worked there or not, since I’d seen him fetch his skateboard from behind the counter more than once. Westside Comics was a “Mos Eisley port” of sorts for kids who had ambitions beyond vandalism. It was a very clean comics shop that had some very “dirty” comics in it, so the kids came from all over and from every walk of life. It was the place I went to for Vaughn Bode reprints, “adult” comic books like Heavy Metal, Epic, 2000AD, Cerebus, and magazines like Warrior and Cinefex. It became a “writers bench north” for a short while, until the store’s owner, a skinny bearded guy with a fucked-up wandering eye got wise and started chasing anybody with “writing” on their clothes out, whether they were in the middle of a game of Q*bert or not. Andy was there a lot, a "White" kid who passed for Latino because he was Greek. When kids got chased out of the store, he’d leave too, even though he didn’t have to and that’s one of the things I always remembered about him through the years.
I say I knew Andy, but everybody did back then, from Amsterdam Avenue, to 125th, to 180th in the Bronx, back down to Alphabet City, and up on over to Brooklyn. He made it a point to go up and approach people he thought were doing cool shit, but that’s not to say he was shy about his estimation of his own talents. Andy could talk some serious trash too. I saw him stun more than one kid into absolute silence, and the man really liked to argue.
Andy was the first community organizer I ever met, -before I knew what the word actually meant, although he probably didn’t think of himself that way, he was too down to earth for that. But I certainly did think of him in those terms often because he got people talking to each other wherever he went. I was from the South Bronx, where nobody rode a skateboard more than 5 feet’s distance thanks to the rotten state of the pavement and broken glass everywhere. Andy was one of the only people on a skateboard I knew of, outside of an eccentric “Rider” in my neighborhood who used to tag/write “Rib.” Skateboarding was something you read about in “Skateboarder.” Anybody who did it in New York City back in those days was kind of crazy.

After I graduated from the Calhoun school in 1986, I didn’t run into Andy anymore except for one day in the summer of 1988 by the Astor Place cube. He was watching kids skate… he said he’d fucked up his foot. He asked to see my sketchbook, which was full of academic drawings of human models in conte and hard charcoal. He really let me have it. With Cooper Union as a backdrop, he gave me all this shit about “conformity” and how “the world didn’t need anymore paintings of naked ladies.” As always, he was just more experienced and sophisticated than I was, due to the difference in our age, and I couldn’t put up much of a fight. He was hell to argue with when he was high, so I walked away without saying goodbye.

The last time I saw Andy was at a show a couple of years back in Williamsburg Brooklyn, I can’t remember exactly where, -a space north of the bridge off Bedford Ave. A good friend of mine named Ezra Talmatch had paintings in a show hung in a typical grey painted floor factory space that had been turned into a gallery… but a permanent wooden ramp had been built for the kids in the neighborhood to skate in. The place was packed, paintings everywhere.

But there was a grown man with slicked-back hair wearing dickies and a dark brown flannel work coat buttoned to the neck, catching air off the ramps. It was Andy.

He saw me and called me over. We shook hands and hugged. We talked for a bit, he mentioned wanting to transform more unused factory spaces around the city into indoor parks, so kids could skate despite the rain or the snow all year round; restating his lifelong mission as if he’d never told anybody before. We complained about Giuliani, Bloomberg. A kid interrupted him to ask him to sign his deck. Then Andy slapped me and Ezra five and abruptly tipped off of the lip of the wooden ramp, down and up, down and up.

I had named a family of characters after him in my 2001 story for “The Innertube Mothership Connection:” -the “Kesslars;” extraterrestrials posing as bicycle messengers on Earth. I never got to tell him about it, or show him the drawings for the series. I never got to tell him that there were no hard feelings about all the shit he gave me, here and there over the years… Well, no hard feelings that lasted.

Andy was flying through the air the last time I saw him, and for all the shit I’m going to read and hear about him over the next few days, about all the problems he had and people he pissed off, and everybody who loved him or envied him, that’s the way I’m going to remember him: in glorious flight.

-SJ
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May 21, 2009

Umberto Eco Versus Dan Brown


In this corner, writing out of the University of Bologna and the University of Oxford, Umberto Eco! Born on the 5th of January 1932.
His titles include: literary critic, “medievalist,” philosopher, semiotician, and writer of novels; best known for his bestseller, Il Nome della Rosa, (The Name of the Rose 1980.)

…The Challenger, Dan Brown born on the 22nd of July, 1964, his accomplishments include songwriting and writing bestselling novels.
Brown is best known for the novels Angels & Demons and the Da Vinci Code and of course his self-titled 1993 album, “Dan Brown,” which included masterpieces such as "976-Love" and "If You Believe in Love". He decided to become a novelist while vacationing in Tahiti after reading Sidney Sheldon's novel, The Doomsday Conspiracy. Brown’s books have been translated into over 50 languages!

Let’s get it on! (BELL RINGS…)

All right, all right.
I‘ve only read three of Eco’s novels, and recently finished (yesterday) one of Dan Brown’s: The Da Vinci Code. I’ll give a little background before explaining that I will never bother to read anything Dan Brown writes ever again. Anyway:

Ecos’ novel, Foucault’s Pendulum was handed to me by a close friend Jay Park, back in my college days in the late 1980s. I tore through it fairly quickly because despite all the noise about it being post-structuralist, intertextual, and blah, blah –“Oh my God you haven’t read this yet?”-blah, blah… at the heart of it all, the novel was a story about friends who pulled a dim, thoughtless prank and then suddenly found themselves in over their heads. In this significantly pre-internet*, fake conspiracy novel three friends invent an underground scheme they call "The Plan." With references to the Telluric currents and even fabled and biblical weapons of the imagination like the Ark of the Covenant, their rumored age-old fake-ass plot takes on a very dangerous life of its own. Various cult groups and homicidal religious zealots look to kill them for more information about “The Plan” and the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. No one believes they made it all up; their well-played prank grows out of control to a horrifying tragic end. As you’ll see in my bare bones profile here on blogspot, it is one of my favorite novels. To me it is a deeply moving story about the ineffable qualities of those ties of friendship forged in early academic life. It illustrates the wonderfully secret and sometimes toxic life of booklovers who forgo the real world outside their imagination. This novel is also an eloquent and entertaining warning about the dangers of faith and belief.

Since about 2003 or so, several people (mostly folks I know only through jobs that I really hated doing) have recommended The Da Vinci Code to me as “something you’d like…”
-Nothing pisses me off more than when someone I barely know assumes that l’d like something I already suspect is a piece of shit lying in wait. I saw a TV interview with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks on Charlie Rose a few nights back about their new film Angels and Demons, their second adaptation of a Dan Brown book (Although it’s actually his first Langdon mystery/thriller). While I had never put down or disparaged Dan Brown’s work before (I really try to reserve judgment until reading something, but it gets tougher every year.) I have to admit I’d been going out of my way to avoid these books. People who are into Dan Brown's books, are really into them. Like, way too into them. When I worked at A.I.S. in the post dot com days on a graveyard shift, I worked with a guy who believed that The Da Vinci Code was a double-MacGuffin, or a fake story that was actually real. “Read it” he said, “It’ll change your life.”
Let me be clear on my feelings after now having read this asinine book:
If The Da Vinci Code changes your life, then I can’t imagine the colorless, vacuous existence you had before. The History channel is much more likely to legitimately blow a person’s mind, and even they frequently lift and glom from Dan Brown’s cosmology, such as it is.

I guess that what bothers me most about The Da Vinci Code is that, far from being a plagiarized work as is frequently held by its detractors (the conspiracy theories in it like accounts of the Prieuré de Sion among others, have been the central subject or subplot of many, many works of fiction, including comic books like Garth Ennis’s The Preacher) it is an example of what we can call grandiose mediocrity: shitty, unimaginative writing that tries to hide itself under the scale of the Byzantine plots it is describing, and legitimizing itself with claims of a basis in factuality. This is a not-so-new approach to an old formula used for many years by writers of political thrillers or spy novels.

Make no mistake, this may sell books, but it’s killing the very fucking idea of literature.

Every book Dan Brown sells forces another publisher to force another editor to force another writer to do something like this book. Worst of all, Eco’s glib remarks that he “created” Dan Brown don’t sit well with me. It lets the publishing houses off the hook for this drivel. While it’s funny to some readers to point out that Dan Brown could have easily stepped out of the pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, I’ve never thought that charlatans who exploit the superstitions of the “faithful” are harmless, especially when they are making so much money. In this way, after reading The Davinci Code with its extensive notes about how everything is stringently researched (Opus Dei, a real religious order not invented by Dan Brown but featured as the chief antagonist in his book, feels very differently by the way) is no different than the lie a “psychic” tells the world about his purported contact with the dead. As the “Mentalist” the Amazing Maxwell once said to me and my friend Michael Mejias over many, many drinks, “I’m a bullshit artist, I do tricks, and the trick is that I’m fooling you into thinking I’m actually reading your mind, -and not that I’m actually reading your mind.” He went on to remark that while he felt the actors in Hamlet had no responsibility to return after the curtain fell to assure the audience that they weren’t really dead, -people like John Edward really pissed him off. Telling the bereaved that you can talk to their dearly departed is criminal, it's fraud not entertainment or art. Telling readers that making their way through your bad writing is ultimately a process of discovery and illumination of mysteries is also fraud, no matter how many footnotes you plunk down at the end.

The Da Vinci Code is a "Scooby Doo" story for adults who can’t stop ordering shit off late night TV infomercials. It promises novelty, bigness, revelations, profundity but doesn’t even thrill because the actual writing is so damned bad. When I take into account the way Brown tries to distract readers from his juvenile plots and general weakness as an author with allegations of basis in fact, The Da Vinci Code goes from someone’s excusable guilty pleasure to a pretty indefensible read.

And now I will risk your ire by making a recommendation of this bad, bad, bad, book, albeit with a strong qualifier that should keep us both out of trouble… or maybe not:

If you think other badly written books like let’s say, The Fountainhead have something serious going on in them, (in this case other than rationalizing self interest and making it sound okay to be an asshole) then The Da Vinci Code is just for you.

For my part, I’m moving on to the remaining Umberto Eco novels I haven’t read yet to cleanse my palette. I feel I owe the man an apology for straying somehow.

-SJ

*but it should be noted that this novel opens with a friend trying to figure out the password of a deceased friend’s computer, so for 1988 or so, it still feels so very relevant and contemporary.
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April 26, 2009

One of the Imponderables: Propane or Wood/Charcoal


The origins of the act of Barbecue are impossible to trace… let’s face it, when the first cave dwellers lit a fire and a neighbor walked over with a piece of meat to see what was going on, dropping it into the fire by mistake… that was a barbecue.

I’m sure that butter-fingered hominid was later regarded as the smartest most important knuckle-walker around: the Bill Gates of his age.

Even the the word Barbecue has obscure, questionable origins. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first recorded use of “Barbecue” in English by the British buccaneer William Dampier in 1697. Etymologists maintain that Barbecue comes from the word “Barbacoa” from the language of the Taíno people of the Caribbean: the ancestors, along with the Spanish conquistadors and African slaves of today’s Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. These original Taínos were relatives of the Arawaka peoples of South America. In 1492, Columbus encountered five Taíno kingdoms on Hispaniola, now the modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti. The kingdoms are of course long gone, but “Barbacoa,” translated loosely as "sacred pit of fire" remained and evolved along with the hybrid cultures of the new world that would world forge much of the history of the next centuries in the Western Hemisphere.

There are hundreds of regional species of Barbecue around the world, from the American Southwest, Midwest, North and South to Hawaii, to Japan to the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, to scores of variations in South America.
All of them are awesome in my opinion, but there is a line of division that parses these fire cooked meat traditions made possible by advances in technology: Propane/Gas versus Wood/Charcoal.

As anyone who has watched any episiodes of Mike Judge’s King of the Hill knows, this is no cut and dry matter. I’m going to sidestep the Beef versus Pork strictures that divide so many Americans across the Mason Dixon line and from East to West and every direction in between. I’m also going to sidestep slow smoking versus high heat grilling or this post will never end.

Some people feel that the smoked “char” from wood chips or charcoal bricks is an integral part of the desired flavor of open fire cooked meat. Others have long wanted a way to get that primal taste of fire cooking, without the carbons and coal tar making their way on to their steaks and chops.
That’s not to imply that Gas or Propane Barbecue methods don’t also create particular tastes that don’t divide propane cooking supporters. Propane and Gas produce what some call "wet” heat, -vapors and steam are created that can change the texture of the meat which opponents have called rubbery or “too consistent.” But conversely, all agree this "wet" heat prevents grilled meats from drying out too fast.

So: Propane or Wood/Charcoal?

I don’t know. I just like to eat.

Just invite me over so we can keep the mouth-watering argument going. I hope I never find out the answer, and that we all get to talk it over in each other’s company, in ever annoying detail, everywhere, across the world, for as many summers as our mortal lives allow.

All hail summer.

-SJ
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April 20, 2009

Reflections on a Cinematic Pioneer


Oscar Micheaux is regarded by many as the first African-American feature filmmaker, and the most prominent producer of so-called “Race Films” in the early decades of American cinema. Micheaux wrote and directed forty-four feature-length films between 1919 and 1948, a staggering body of work for any director in any time period. In my mind he has always stood apart as one of the very first Independent filmmakers as I understand the term today: (An auteur, generally a writer/director who is telling stories and operating independent of the marketing concerns, branding mandates and political and social establishmentarianist postures of a given studio system in a given era.)

Micheaux was one of eleven children of former slaves. This direct connection to the nightmare of American Slavery marks him as unique among all other filmmakers in history, and makes him no less special and remarkable though this distinction was purely an accident of birth. This observation has been the subject of many unresolved arguments concerning the greatness, historical importance (or lack thereof) ascribed to Oscar Micheaux’s films. This has more to do with the issue of race itself in our society, than with anything else. After all, what made DW Griffith unique was his own perspective, made possible by his own luck at being born who he was; where he was; when he was: if indeed we can call any of this luck at all in his case, or Mr. Micheaux’s. I find it hard not to think both of these men simultaneously, as one readily invokes the other in my imagination. I try to envision their conversations, what they would say, (to themselves and to each other) if they could see today’s world, its people, its culture -and especially its media.

Oscar Micheaux was first and foremost a writer, and somewhat of an anomaly as he was a novelist in an era when the theatre was the most common and logical path to filmmaking. At a time when most African-Americans owned nothing, and certainly had no means to create media or mass-distributed images of themselves to counteract the popular racist myths being put forth as fact about them in America, Oscar Micheaux formed his own movie production company. In 1919 he completed his very first film. He wrote, directed and produced a silent motion picture called The Homesteader starring Evelyn Preer. The Homesteader was based on a largely autobiographical novel of his own that recounted his experiences settling a piece of land in a predominantly White region of South Dakota. His first “talkie,” The Exile, revisited what would become increasingly prominent themes of entrepreneurship and the importance of self reliance in the face of adversity: be it racial oppression or a poorly chosen tract of uncooperative land. In 1924, Micheaux made one of his most important contributions to cinema history by introducing audiences to Paul Robeson, in the motion picture Body and Soul.

Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates, was a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It is often relegated to the realm of novelty by historians and critics who repeatedly point out that as a polemic, it would not exist without the object of its criticism. The implication here is one of “unoriginality.” I can’t argue with an intentionally narrowed judgment such as this: but I disagree with the critical focus on the film’s inspiration as its sole aspect that determines its significance or worth. I instead insist on pointing out that Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone and even Woody Allen owe many of the polemical possibilities of their cinema to Oscar Micheaux for using film (specifically in the case of Within Our Gates) as the vehicle for a larger conversation about culture, reality and the truth. Micheaux was the first to make a film in direct response to another film, by another filmmaker.

Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, often said that in the last years of his career, Micheaux was a desperate figure, often simply changing picture frames and moving props around on a set, rather than dress the scene differently or even change a camera angle lest he lose light: therein he presages Ed Wood, and every other independent filmmaker who ever ran out of money. Therein he presages me as well.

For what it’s worth, if there were a “Cooperstown” for independent filmmakers and American pioneers in cinema, at 44 films, Oscar Micheaux gets in on the first round.









Micheaux’s significance as a pioneer and innovator requires the nuanced consideration often lavished on his contemporaries and peers, but strangely absent from most conversations about his legacy.

-SJ

1930-2009

J.G. Ballard, a giant among storytellers, has left Earth.

For Crash, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise and Empire of the Sun, I am eternally grateful.

-SJ
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March 25, 2009

I Want to Help the Environment, But….

I was at my second home, The Home Depot, a few weeks ago. I have a room to paint and needed primer (there is no paint color selected yet, don’t bother me with details). I see this new low-odor, low-VOC version of an old friend, Kilz. “What the heck. They make good stuff.” Besides, the wife and kids like to sleep without smelly paint fumes (to each their own, right?). Of course it cost more, but that is the price you pay (apparently) to be good to Mother Earth.

I open a can to find the ingredients completely separated. No problem, I’m a tool hound. Cordless drill with paint stirrer coming up. So I stir. A lot. I put the lid back on and dance the paint can shimmy. The stuff never mixed thoroughly. The stuff either dripped and ran, or dried mid stroke/roll creating blobs.

This low-odor stuff smells. Odd. To me it was a fish smell. My wife smelled crackers. As promised on the can, any odor detected did indeed fade. From the room I was in. Apparently paint chemists have created a way for odor molecules to find another room. The rest of the house smelled terrible.

No water cleanup so I have to clean all my paint tools with mineral spirits and other volatile agents. The walls will need a sanding before real paint goes on. I got less than half the normal coverage. I used more than two gallons, where one should have been more than enough.

Green is a big, in-your-face buzzword these days. Everyone is on the bandwagon. While some are true innovations, such as building houses like they did before central AC to gain passive energy savings, some are just stupid. And I am talking to you “new environmentally friendly shaped plastic water bottle people.” I squint in my hallway because of the lame compact fluorescent. It is supposed to save me many dollars each year, except I keep turning on a table lamp with multiple incandescent bulbs to read my mail.

Okay I have a point. Saving the environment is a good idea. Really. Now that I have children it really does matter. But I am going back to acrylic primers and good old Benjamin Moore paint. I may even take that stupid bulb out. If anyone really wants to save the environment, they should go after the marketing genius that came up with the ridiculous toy packaging we have today. Multiple plastic shrink wrap levels and cardboard inserts and those DAMNED WIRE TIES. Just to show the kids EVERY SINGLE PIECE included in the package. “Wow! Polly Pocket sure has a lot of shoes!”

Why, when I was a kid (shut up), our toys came in a simple box with a painting on it. The toy never could do what the artwork showed and the many extra parts were required to come close, but by gum, you kept the toy in the box until it was shredded dust, further keeping the landfills empty. So let’s get the movement going! Get rid of the wasteful packaging! Save Mommies and Daddies sanity on Christmas morning!! Okay, I have an ulterior motive and I am using the Green bandwagon. Shoot me. But you use lead-free bullets, I live near a school.

March 19, 2009

Sadly, I Am Reminded that the Human Skull is an Inadequate Helmet.


The tragic news of Natasha Richardson’s passing last night inspired a flurry of emails, texts and IMs between myself and a couple of my boyhood friends who for lack of a better way of saying it, are bound by the fact that we like to do stupid shit together. Kenneth, ten years my senior, taught me how to operate the clutch array on a motorcycle when I was 15. My old friend Ernesto taught me how to snowboard in 2000.

I have been taught all of my form and procedure by hooligans. But as crazy as my friends are, they have never, ever let me do anything without wearing a helmet. Not that I’ve ever needed any convincing.

We went snowboarding three weekends in a row this year already, spurred by the recession-inspired discounts offered by Windham Resort with the start of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend (I know we should have spent that weekend reflecting considering we’re all conspicuously Hispanic and we should’ve been thanking God for our first African-American president.) I went tear-assing down my favorite route called “Lower Wolverine” and wiped out repeatedly in spectacular displays of Newtonian physics gone horribly, retardedly, wrong. Windham’s near empty grounds that first weekend allowed us all to achieve speeds we’d only seen in X games footage and magazine photos. My sprawling dismounts left my whole left flank wrecked for days at a time, as well as the requisite wrist aches and knee soreness. My head and neck however were always fine, thanks to a very large and comical-looking black full-face Bell snow mobile helmet that I will not step outside into the snow without, -and also a washable foam neck brace I’ve had since a car accident in 1983.
I still take a lot of shit for that beige neck brace.

Bell helmets have saved my life twice. The first time: I went over the clip-on handlebars of my KZ 750, catching my left foot on the gas tank, smashing my head into the well of a steel support column for the elevated train line that runs along Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. The second time: We were testing an inverted fork on Ernesto’s GSX-R, which proceeded to cant and lock, performing a “stoppie” that flicked me on to my head in a parking lot. I only traveled ten feet. My knee caps hit the pavement a second later, in what I assure you is one of the most painful impacts I will ever be subjected to unless I’m someday headed to the moon tied to a giant rocket.
I don’t mean to imply that death or cognitive impairment from head injuries are absolutely avoidable. Here in New York City people are struck and killed by falling debris from construction sites, misaligned air conditioners and all manner of careless hazard. But it is still entirely acceptable to let persons, especially novices, engage in velocity and motor sports with no protection where a head injury is a calculated probability and not a remote possibility. I still see go cart tracks in amusement parks without available head gear. I still see kids on mini-bikes and those popular pocket racers without helmets: these are Two-stroke engine machines that while smaller than the family dog in most cases, can still easily achieve speeds of 40-50 miles per hour with their mufflers off. Add the rider’s diminished height on these replica cycles and I can’t think of a finer guarantee that you will be crushed by an automobile. I see people rollerblading, skateboarding all over the city bare-headed; which is ironic because we are all pretty much in agreement that bicycles, those familiar human-powered speed machines, are not to be ridden without helmets.

Years ago, I tried to track down one of the writers who’d had a terrific influence on me as a youth. His name is Bill Mantlo. He is responsible for, among many things, creating a licensed comic book series for Marvel comics called “The Micronauts” in the late 1970s and early 80s. Issues one through twelve of those comics made me want to become a writer in the fifth grade. Mantlo’s work made me take my writing seriously, even though all but two of my teachers across the totality of my education told me that comics were worthless; not an art form; not literature; not reading of any kind but a medium of sublimated masturbation for half-wits and the unsophisticated (I’ll write at length about this someday). I tried to track Bill Mantlo down in 1999 as I was producing my own first comic book action series “Marley Davidson,” if only to show him what his work had meant to me. It was widely known he left writing comics in order to practice law as a Legal Aid Society public defender… in my own home borough of the Bronx no less.
Eventually, I received a heartbreaking letter from his brother, thanking me for my kind inquiry and informing me that Mr. Mantlo had suffered a severe closed head trauma in 1992, the result of a hit-and-run accident while rollerblading, and that he had been in institutional care ever since. He is severely cognitively impaired and not expected to ever recover.

There’s no federal helmet law requiring motorcyclists to wear protection. Laws vary from state to state even though the United States Air force has long established that a blow sustained from a human head striking a table from a seated position can cause death. There are no laws governing what beginning skiers like Natasha Richardson should wear to protect themselves in case of a fall or collision. That’s just too bad. This isn’t a new or unfamiliar danger by any means.

Our brains and their functions are what make us… ourselves. Robbed of our memories, power of thought and reason, we cease to be sentient conscious human beings.

I hope that the untimely passing of Natasha Richardson, the scion of a proud acting dynasty, who wasn’t anywhere near finished with any aspect of her life, will draw some attention and maybe inspire some protective regulation on the world’s slopes where even children can still be seen falling and colliding with each other at dangerous speeds with nothing on their heads but protection from the cold.

-SJ
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March 13, 2009

“There’s No Coming Back From This”


…is what I am naming the latest U2 album; CD; recorded abortion; or what-have-you.

To say that I have been a fan of this band since I was thirteen doesn’t quite cover my relationship to their music. They appealed to me precisely because they were Irish, working class, politically aware, socially conscious, progressive lefties and unique sounding amongst all other bands of their time: the late 70s and early eighties.
U2 seemed to be beaming directly to me in my South Bronx housing project in 1981 with their deadly serious, but unpretentious and relevant music. Back when they had only one album recorded, (but about 8 or 9 b sides of their 45 singles and one-shot songs) I greedily ran out and bought anything I could find by them, bootlegged concert tapes or demos at long gone meccas for adolescent weirdos like me: “Freebeing Records”, “Finyl Vinyl”, and “Second Coming Records.” Of the places I relied on for dispatches from the outer reaches of rock music and records of hard core and Punk bands I wasn’t old enough to go see, only “Bleecker Bob’s” and “Thompson Street Records” remain standing today in New York City.
I’m going there after I write this post.

WLIR, an FM station that was unapologetically operating on the fringes of mainstream taste would play their music in heavy rotation. The Edge’s (prematurely) much derided note-riding and over use of digital delay went on to become the most copied style of guitar playing for almost twenty five years. For a band firmly operating within the “New Wave” of European rock music they had distinctly progressive tendencies that owed more to bands like the Beatles, King Crimson and Pink Floyd (listen to the production on “Boy” and “October” again some time and tell me if you think I’m wrong) than it did to the bands they publicly claimed to be influenced by (Punks like The Ramones, The Stranglers and the Clash).

U2 were just kids with a lot of talent back then. They were Irish white boys in their twenties whose listenership was composed of an army of smug, sophisticated kids scattered around the globe. They were creating a music that was distinctly theirs and no one else’s and I loved them. The red and black U2 patch on my MA-1 flight jacket started more conversations with random strangers when I was in eighth grade than anything I ever said or did. There was a time when fans of this band shared a common sensibility and political awareness.
Along with bands like the Jam, The Damned, The Clash, The Specials, The Saints and strangely enough, Bauhaus, The Misfits and Minor Threat, -they were the soundtrack of my early teenage days when the world was revealing itself to me in fits and starts beyond the beginnings of my own borough’s Hip Hop, which back then was too materialistic and apolitical for my tastes. After Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash cut “The Message,” I had to wait for pioneers outside of the Bronx like RunDMC, Erik B and Rakim and ultimately Public Enemy and NWA before I could embrace Rap openly and defend it as the intelligent, vital music I knew it was, with acknowledgement and my deep respect to the work of Afrika Bambaata.

I lined up to buy the LP for U2’s third album with the only other two classmates who were cool enough to even know who this band was. It arrived on a Sunday morning at a record store I’ve long forgotten on Broadway on the upper Westside of Manhattan somewhere in the 70s, -I want to say 77th street? The owner seemed annoyed and undid the boxes and took our cash on the street before opening his gate for business, angry that we’d made him sell his stock before he could list it for inventory.
The next year, I used all my money from a summer job to buy all of their recordings again, on cassette this time, so I could listen to them on my endless subway rides to and from school on a Sony Walkman.
“October” in particular, was an album I could not go without listening to every single day. I can still play it back to myself, from memory, note for note, in my own head from start to finish.

Then came their fourth album.
“The Unforgettable Fire” was the first sign that the egos of these then young men might have caught up with the unprecedented hype they were receiving. “The Hype” incidentally, was U2’s original name in Ireland and so I guess all things do come full circle eventually.
In 1985, I remember watching Live-Aid at my friend’s house (because we didn’t have cable in the Bronx back then, only HBO service) while their performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was cut off by commercial. Then U2 proceeded to waste the rest of their slot and quite a bit of the follow up act’s time (they may have bumped the Special Beat Service out of a chance to take the stage) by performing one of the most appropriately named songs in their catalog to date: “Bad.”
“Bad” was one of the first, inarguably self-indulgent songs U2 composed. At best it’s just preachy and condescending, but it also represents the beginning of a long insufferable period where Bono began screaming lyrics at me. “Bad” is long, ponderous, and well… just “Bad.” This song also marks the beginning of Bono and The Edge taking an almost Lennonist (the Beetle not the Communist) stance of pretentious superiority over their audience. As with John and Yoko’s “Revolution Number 9” they were trying something, their motives probably unclear even to themselves, but they insisted you listen to it, repeatedly until you “get” its profundity and appreciate the song.
I have never been able to stomach “Bad.” For their part, U2 included it on every EP they could, with ever longer, ever insufferable extended variations, live, remixed etc., ad nauseum from 1984 to 1986. I stopped buying their EPs during this time.

The three albums that followed, “The Joshua Tree”, “Rattle and Hum” and “Achtung Baby” were the records that tore them far from the insider audience that on the one hand chastised people for not knowing who they were, and on the other hand were dropping them in a juvenile response to their colossal mainstream popularity. These records/CDs established U2 firmly as an arena band on the scale of The Who and the Rolling Stones. It established them as crafters of songs that tapped into the very heart of rock and roll. But these records also contain certain songs that exemplify just how horrible and lackluster their songwriting could be. Their potential on the last of these albums was frightening.
I submit to you: “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” or for that matter “The Fly.”

Then came three of the worst records ever recorded by anybody, from one of the best bands ever to play Rock and Roll of any kind:
“Original Soundtraks 1”
“Zooropa”
and “Pop”
I responded with only two words when my then girlfriend Barbara, played the “Zooropa” cassette for me: “Holy shit.”
But it wouldn’t end there. Bono was concocting stage personas like "The Fly", "Mirror-Ball Man", and "(Mister) MacPhisto".

Give me a fucking break
.

The richest citizens in Ireland and the most famous rock band on the planet were attempting to point out the pitfalls of commercialism and the dangers of the media to me?

How
?

By becoming victims of their own distorted self image and collapsing under the sheer metric tonnage of their egos
?

For the first time, U2 did not possess the requisite sophistication that their music and lyrics demanded. They didn’t seem to understand the concepts they were attempting to communicate. They left their now immense global audience wondering:
what the fuck did any of this have to do with music?
Watching their multimedia concert clips of the “ZooTV” and “PopMart” tours was like being held at gunpoint by a fast talking idiot who was gripping the pistol backwards. You were just hoping it would all backfire in front of you.
I’ve always referred to “Zooropa” as “The Unforgivable Fire,” but I’ve always been too pissed off to laugh at my own joke. While I hated earlier songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Angel of Harlem,” I’ve never written them off as failures, simply as things U2 recorded that I didn’t like. But I have to insist that much of what U2 did in the 1990s pushes the boundaries of what intelligent people can bring themselves to call music.

Then in 2000, a baffling but eagerly welcome return to form, a return to seriousness; a return to making music for this band. “All That You Can't Leave Behind” was what many the world over had been waiting for since “Achtung Baby” first frightened, then impressed them in 1991 depending on which tracks they were listening to.

“How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” came in 2004.
At the age of 36, I knew U2 would never be my band again, I couldn’t own them like I did when I was a little kid. Nor would I want to. I was just impressed at how well they had gotten back on course, like they’d never done any of that embarrassing puerile concept rock in the 90s. Their then recent performance on SNL of “Elevation” was like seeing old friends again. Old friends I missed terribly.

Now this shit.

“No Line on the Horizon” is it for me. It is simply an inexcusable, indefensible waste of time. It's one of those rare records that is so bad it offends.

I don’t know what rationalizations go on in the mind of someone as accomplished and talented as these guys when they are faced with their own mediocrity. Clearly, they are no longer strong enough to say “no” to their own bad ideas.

But I am.

-SJ
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March 6, 2009

I Have Always Hated Musicals.


I know.
It’s a tired, boorish sentiment from a straight man, but seriously, I hate musicals… with five notable exceptions listed at the end of this post.

I should note that I’ve seen enough of them on film, but only three productions on an actual stage, “The Wiz,” “Sweet Charity,” (with Debbie Allen when she was looking ridiculously fine back in 1986 or thereabouts) and “42nd Street.”
Now these where all impressive productions in their own time, before the contemporary standard of special effects, wire work and puppetry that seems to dominate the premier Broadway shows of today. Interestingly enough, the current day standard of pyrotechnics, lasers, smoke effects and stunts are made to lure people like myself (what I sometimes call the 2nd television generation; raised predominantly on action and violence) to the theaters by Disney and others.
Well it’s not working:

I am not going to see “Phantom of the Opera” no matter how loud Michael Mejias says it is.

I have an extreme dislike for the idea of people breaking into song at what seems like random intervals (more on this later). On some level it really pisses me off. I follow a story, and suddenly it is hung up by a song and dance number that recycles the same bit of emotion, information or conflict over and over again, generally in a repetitive chorus like:
“You’re the one that I want,”
“I need this Job,”
or “Hello Dolly.”

I get it, “She’s the one that you want,” so shut up already.

I, like many people, was astounded to have enjoyed this year’s Oscar’s telecast as much as I did. It had more of the shit I hate in it, (song and dance numbers) than any other Oscar’s program I’d ever seen before in my life.
So what was the difference?
Even a troglodyte such as myself, appreciates song and dance when it’s done well, and with self-deprecating humor to boot… or maybe it was just Hugh Jackman channeling James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse… and Wolverine?

Being that Hugh Jackman is the first and only actor to play Wolverine (in three successful big budget movies already with a fourth one devoted to him alone coming soon), a character that single handedly raised Marvel’s fortunes in the 1980s and 90s with then-kids like me, it’s not crazy to assume that he acted as a bridge to get me over my hatred of musical numbers.
It’s not crazy, but it’s not accurate either.

After the Oscars were over, I began to think and wonder why is there such a clear divide between the fandom of action pictures and the audience that is devoted to stage musicals. These audiences are today curiously divided along straight and Gay lines, although that wasn’t always the case. Both action pictures and musicals employ a “show piece,” a segment or a phenomenon if you will, crow barred into a narrative: car chases and exploding corridors in action pictures versus the synchronous dancing crowds in musicals.

So the question I was left pondering after the Oscars was:
Is Hugh Jackman leaping into song in “Oklahoma” any stupider than Hugh Jackman leaping into the air as Wolverine and eviscerating swat teams to a guitar track?
I have to say I don’t have an answer for that question… or more honestly, I don’t like the answer that I readily have which is:

There’s no difference at all other than that of simple individual tastes.”

I realized that while I like music, I don’t like musicals and the reason is that the songs in musicals are almost uniformly terrible in my opinion, with rare exceptions like the score for “Chicago.” The songs in musicals are often constructed to simultaneously entertain and move the story forward, but don’t seem to do either effectively. Dennis Potter managed to do some pretty crazy stuff with musical numbers and the stage musical medium as a metaphor chiefly because he embraced its unreality as a device for the delusions of his characters within another medium: Television.

So on further reflection, I suppose I should say:
I don’t hate musicals... I just think they suck most of the time.”

…And what a relief that is. I can now say I love the five musicals I listed below without fear of contradicting myself, although I’m probably coming off pretty Gay.
I hope I’m also coming off as not giving a shit.
A fear of presumed effeminacy is a very stupid reason not to like something, or even someone.



Note that these are all films:

West Side Story
Lower class White kids versus Puerto Ricans. Almost six decades later, this shit is still genius. It’s also a brilliantly directed film by Len Wise.

All That Jazz
This movie is so dark and so messed up, it’s almost Metal.I always hope he’s gonna pull through in the end,
then –ziiiip.

The Rocky Horror Show
A transvestite mad scientist. Do I even need to explain this one? Probably, but I won’t.

The Blues Brothers
Aretha does a dance number.The verdict? Totally bitchin’ my friends.

Planet of the Apes, The Musical
“Come on and rock me Doctor Zaius!”



Okay the fifth one has never been staged or filmed, it’s just a great gag from a “Simpsons” episode, one of the last ones with the late great Phil Hartman.

But you’d come with me to see it wouldn’t you?

Come on, admit it.

-SJ
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March 1, 2009

The 10 Best Animated Shows You’re Probably Not Watching:


This may be the nerdiest post I’ve ever written, so brace yourself or turn back now.

My friend and long time mentor at World War 3 illustrated Seth Tobocman once said that bad writing takes longer to reveal itself in comic books because of the novelty and spectacle of illustration to some degree, -and so it is with animation.
For every movie like the groundbreaking 3D animations “The Incredibles” or “Monsters Inc.”, you also have several more talking animal 3D flicks “written down” to the allegedly (and erroneously) simple mind of a child. On television, what separates a good animated show from an unimaginative one is its writing, regardless of who it’s written for.

South Park” is one of the worst animated shows I have ever seen… from the standpoint of its actual animation alone. As far as original television series go however, “South Park” is one of the greatest comedies ever produced for broadcast. This is due entirely to the force of the writing on that show. The show is clever, frighteningly original; offering the best commentary on modern world culture available anywhere on TV. If you are someone who has dismissed that show because of its crass humor, I invite you to watch a recent three-part episode called “ImaginationLand.” In these three episodes, Matt Stone and Trey Parker explored the notion that Americans have allowed Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to highjack our imagination, bringing our nation to the point of collective abject hysteria. Those three episodes are the most powerful and prescient example of social political commentary I have seen on television in the last ten years. It effectively deconstructs all of the post 9/11 state and right wing-sponsored fear mongering, as well as the ineffectuality of our advertising sponsored news media as a reliable source of factual information, and the herd mentality of the American voting public in times of war… but those three episodes are loaded with really disgusting jokes, so I doubt that many will recognize its brilliance. South Park is a great show. It has remained a great show by positioning itself as a program for those 14 and over, which speaks to a larger issue of who animation is for.

Animation is not just for kids, and it never has been.
The work of producers like Fred Quimby, Leon Schlesinger, Tex Avery and others from the 30s 40s in the Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes and the multitude of MGM canonical short works is an indication of the savvy, urbane potential of animated stories even when they are populated by furry neotenic animals.

The perennial problems of what determines American animation’s content and tone accelerated in 1954 with a book called “Seduction of the Innocent” by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, who maintained that there was a direct link between juvenile delinquency and mass media, (specifically comic books) in children. His efforts and advocacy led to a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry and the subsequent creation of the Comics Code. The chill effect that resonated throughout the media industry at the time resulted in waves of internal preemptive censorship at publishers but also Film and TV studios and the formation of “codes” and reformulations of “Standards and Practices” for any entertainment that might reach a child audience.
Much of the problem with the development of the animation created in the 1960s and afterward, especially programming made for Saturday morning television (The Flintstones was a prime time show in its initial run) was not the idea that animation had to be made “safe” for children but that children had to be “written down to.” There was a notion, in actual practice (if not in theory before the fact) that along with explicit violence, sexually suggestive content and certain other specific moral conventions (E.g. no one can be depicted as getting way with or benefiting from criminal activity) sarcasm, complexity, topical references, politics, irony and any kind of innuendo or double entendré had to be eliminated. In short, sophistication had to be excised from animation.

Animation was hopelessly mired in a strange world of kids-only entertainment after the 1950s despite the masterpieces being churned out by Disney. Animation progressively got dumber and dumber, (see the Al Brodax Popeye cartoons produced in the 1960s for an example of how “Standards and Practices” concerns allowed and emboldened hacks to create absolute garbage for kids.)

Just as Prohibition begot the mafia, and the mafia begot the FBI, censorship always inspires the subject of its control. The world of “Adult animation” was born in the late 60s and early 1970s in motion pictures. There were movies like “Fritz the Cat,” “Heavy Traffic,” and later “Heavy Metal,” “The Lord of the Rings” by Ralph Bakshi, as well as his “American Pop” and “Fire and Ice.” On television, Filmation studios’ “Flash Gordon” animated series and rare short run shows like “Thundarr the Barbarian” tried to challenge the idea that shows targeted for children had to be sophomoric and predictable. But even the writers of “Flash Gordon” were eventually forced to write in a pink baby dragon side-kick in later seasons, and Thundarr didn’t survive its second season despite featuring the art work and stories of great masters like Gil Kane, Alex Toth and Jack Kirby.

The 1980s ushered in a strange era of toy marketing wherein TV shows were created in order to promote action figures and play sets on store shelves. “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” was one of the more egregious examples of this strategy. Instead of creating good animated narratives and entertainment, toys were designed and then TV shows developed to promote them on Saturday afternoon and after school programming slots. That said, the 1960s and 1970s also brought us the Spider-man animated series, the Hanna Barbera or Ruby Spears productions of the various “Superfriends,” shows that while interesting adaptations of their comic book inspirations, fell far below the level of the latter’s complexity of writing. I was one of many children who wondered why Batman comic books were so great, and yet the Batman Filmation produced series on CBS was so bad.

The late 1980s and early 90s brought a number of groundbreaking shows and tremendous changes to televised animation. “The Simpsons” and also a now largely forgotten Saturday morning show called “The Pirates of Dark Water” eschewed the insistence that animation, even animation for kids, had to be written with anything less than skill and sophistication. Volumes could be written about the Bruce Timm produced “Batman, “Superman” and “Justice League” shows in that decade.

Today we have “Family Guy,” “King of the Hill,” “American Dad,” “South Park,” “The Boondocks” and surprisingly after all these years, “the Simpsons,” enjoying massive audiences due to the quality of the writing on those shows. Interestingly most if not all carry parental advisories. As in years past, we still see absolute dreck developed and televised for kids. In most cases they’ll just have to get older before they can see reruns of all the great animation they are missing. Thankfully not all the writing in animation for kids today is mediocre.

As someone who loves animation and their narratives of impossibility, I felt the need to champion certain shows that are being ignored by the mainstream. So here are my ten selections of shows, -regardless of whether they are adult targeted or kids fare that exhibit a level of sophistication and excellent writing that I don’t feel are getting their due, either critically or in terms of their Nielsen data.



“The Venture Bros.”
A truly postmodern, almost fanboy-centric show, it chronicles the adventures of two dopey teenage boys, Hank and Dean Venture, their insecure super-scientist father Dr. Venture and the family’s bodyguard, Brock Samson voiced by Patrick Warburton. Beautifully modeled and animated, this show requires a level of political, media and cultural literacy that would stymie readers of The New Yorker. Thankfully it’s going into its fourth season, even though you’re not watching.

“Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends”
A show in which imaginary friends become physical beings the instant a child imagines them; unfortunately for the friends, the children eventually outgrow them. Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends is the place for abandoned imaginary friends seeking a new home.
A beautiful, smart show for kids with a vector-based look that refers to the “splash” layouts of the 1960s in Warner brothers’ cartoons.

“The Marvelous Misadventures of Flap Jack”
I don’t know how to describe this show. It’s for children, but it might be the most subversive thing I’ve seen since “The Pee Wee Herman Show.”
It’s about a kid whose mother is a whale. It has to be seen to be believed.
Seriously.

“Chowder”
Another kid’s show: Chowder is a young child who is the apprentice to a chef named Mung Daal, who owns a catering company serving the fictional city of Marzipan. The show combines traditional 2D animation with stop-motion animation and puppetry. It’s pretty wild looking and legitimately funny for anyone.

“Batman: The Brave and The Bold”
James Tucker, one of the long suffering storyboard board artists/ animators/ modelers/ Directors/ writers/ producers on the Batman animated series, Superman animated series and Justice League series is the producer of this new show which features Batman teaming up with other characters from the DC Universe (as in the comic book showcase of the same name.) The show is much lighter in tone than previous Batman animated shows. Strangely, like the Filmation CBS show, Batman does not appear as his alter ego, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. But even with the renewed kid-friendly approach, its tone is even-handed and pretty serious although the aesthetics and design of the show harkens back to the Adam West live action show… and did I mention Diedrich Bader is the new voice of Batman?

“SuperJail!”
A show so good, it ought to be illegal. Totally not safe for the kids... and so what?
I feel really bad enjoying this animated show; it’s like laughing at a car crash.
Superjail is built inside a volcano, located inside a larger volcano and run by the “Willy Wonka”-like Warden. Superjail exists in an isolated reality, where time and space are somewhat fluid and can change at the whim of the Warden. At the start of every episode a criminal named Jack Knife is brought to Superjail by the Jailbot. Every episode inevitably leads to a spectacular psychedelic bloodbath prison riot, while Jack Knife escapes in the confusion to be caught again in the opening of the next episode.

“Ben 10” and “Ben 10 Alien Force”
A main character in a kid’s animated show named after the poet Tennyson. Nice. Ben Tennyson finds a mysterious, watch-like device, called the Omnitrix, which attaches itself permanently to his wrist and gives him the ability to transform into a variety of alien life-forms, each with their own unique powers.

“Metalocalypse”
A show chronicling the exploits of a death metal band called Dethklok.
This show is the most important critique of the new facism and the mass cult of celebrity that our media and the military industrial industrial complex thrive on. It is extremely violent. It is frequently funny. It is always profound, even when it’s trying to be sophmoric.

“The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy”
(Originally Part of the “Grim & Evil” show)
One day, The Grim Reaper loses a bet to Billy and Mandy, two children from Endsville, a typical suburb (an homage to the “The Seventh Seal”). The Grim Reaper has to be their best friend "forever and ever": Two little kids with “Death” at their beck and call. It’s the sickest kid’s show I’ve ever seen considering any mention of mortality is generally off limits for Saturday morning TV.

“The Secret Saturdays”
The opening theme music alone is worth the watch.”The Saturdays,” are a family of cryptozoologists who work to protect undiscovered and mythical species from the human race and vice versa. The look of the series is influenced by 1960s-era Hanna-Barbara action series such as the Herculoids, and Jonny Quest and features an interesting use of washed out color plates that remind me of what it was like to watch color animated TV shows on Saturday mornings when I was a kid… which is to say I watched them in black and white, on a tiny Sony TV monitor.



--Honorable mentions that have recently bitten the dust:

“Frisky Dingo” (and the spin off series “The Xtacles” has also been scrapped)
This was a very slick, sophisticated show that followed an extraterrestrial would be conqueror and single parent, “Kill Face” as he threatened to drive the Earth into the sun for ransom. Episodes revolved around his attempts to market and promote the planet’s doom while running afoul of “Awesome X,” the most believable billionaire superhero ever brought to screen. Thankfully, seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD. Hang your head in shame for not watching this show.

“Fairly Odd Parents”
While this is not a show that was unsuccessful in its intended demographic, I do believe that this show should have had a longer run than it did.


-SJ
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February 25, 2009

Philip José Farmer


1918-2009

February 23, 2009

Praise and Requiem for my Smoking


I won’t have had a cigarette in four years come next month. I recently mentioned this to a co-worker who remarked through clenched teeth that, if I had in fact quit permanently, I couldn’t have ever been a “real” smoker. Not for nothing, but I’m nearly twice this young woman’s age. I was sneaking cigarettes after math class back when her mother was deciding on whether or not to have an abortion.
I know, too harsh. If I still smoked, I’d say I’d need one about now...
But I don’t –and so I don’t.

I shouldn’t say I was a smoker. I should say: I loved smoking.
I really loved it.
When I was in college, I smoked Lucky unfiltereds, at the rate of a pack and a half a day. At Cooper Union in the late 1980s, you could smoke in class. All my professors were shameless cigarette moochers. You could smoke in the metal shop. My friend Patrick practically smoked in his sleep. I used to smoke while I ate.

Did I mention that I used to love smoking?

I have fond memories of riding between subway cars on the number 2 IRT northbound train with my best friend Michael Davila, lighting up menthols on school nights if we didn’t have anything stronger. Smoking was something we did to take the edge off. It was our decompression from our days at a private school to the ironically lower P.S.I. of our South Bronx neighborhoods.
I was a nerd, I was an artist, I was a brainiac, but even at 12 years of age, walking up-street with a lit cigarette in my swinging fist, I was no one to fuck with. I scared older, tougher kids because they were scared of cigarettes and by extension freaked out by me. I knew this, and I figured it beat fighting all the time.
I knew this and I figured, “let this be my thing.”

A girlfriend once waited for me outside my high school, in a miniskirt, combat boots, fishnet stockings and my battered leather jacket. She was lazily smoking a cigarette leaning against a building’s corner on 81st and West End Avenue. My friend Jeffrey spotted her from a window and leaned over to me and whispered “Your girl is all day punk rock trouble.”

Fuck yeah momma.

I’ll never smoke cigarettes that taste like the ones of my adolescence. That taste of freedom, that taste of delinquency, that taste of procrastination… that taste of getting away with something isn’t an ingredient found in any cigarette I can buy today.

I occasionally have dreams in which I’m smoking. They are always the dreams in which I am being “cool.”

It’ll kill you.
It’ll stain your teeth and make your burps smell like wet ash trays
It causes all kinds of cancer

But it looks cool.

It makes doing average things look cool.
It looks cooler than anything else you could do.
That’s the thing that can never be taken away from smokers: it’s cool.

Smoking is fucking cool.

The more dangerous they say it is, the more “TRUTH” ads they put out there, the more likely they make it seem that smoking is something Darth Vader would do…
-and that is fucking cool, my friends.

About four years ago, when I was about to turn 37, I was struck with a very bad flu that nearly turned into pneumonia. For three weeks, I fluctuated between getting better, and then sinking back into sickness at night, breathing with great difficulty. At times it felt like I was under water. I quit smoking altogether about a week after pulling through.

Although I had stopped smoking for months at a time and for a full year during the 1990s, I was always white-knuckling it. From 1995 to 1999, I’d drink obsidian pints of Guinness at a bar called The Pageant and bum half a pack off of my good friend Mark Cassar in one single night.
Today, I can’t bring a cigarette to my lips without feeling a little nauseous, a little put off. Today, a cigarette tastes like a cigarette, -and only like a cigarette and nothing else, and I am left wondering why?
Perhaps it wasn’t the actual smoking itself that I loved after all, but some ineffable state, some dimension I stepped into as a youth whenever I bathed myself in the mercurial light of a match and drew in the sinful, sexy blackness from the end of a cigarette.

I think I was “cool” once upon a time.

I think I was in love with something harder to pin down and describe, something looser and more abstract than the cigarette smoke I drew in...

But I sure did love to smoke.

-SJ