October 8, 2010

Another Year, Another Comic Book Convention.




Today marks the start of “New York Comic Con.” I’ll be in attendance this evening and all weekend, as I have been for the last five years, not as a fan but as a “professional,” a very kind acknowledgement by the convention’s founder, Lance Fensterman, that I’ve been published for 20 years now. I am not rich, and certainly not well known outside of my medium.

The world of comic books is diverse and bizarre. Today it is part transnational commerce, part entertainment, and partly art, although there was a (recent) time when it was judged uniformly as lacking any creativity or merit of any kind. Some, like the late Dr. Fredric Wertham even tried to blame juvenile delinquency and violence in children on comic books. As of 2010, comics characters of all types from Superman to Garfield have become the most successful brand extensions since the figures portrayed in the bible.

Take that, Dr. Wertham.

This weekend is a gathering of fanatics and readers, collectors and artists at the Javitz center in New York City. It will be crowded, wall to wall with people who love the medium I create in, as well as trekkies/trekkers, Star Wars fans, devotees of Tolkien, and various other outsiders drawn to the fellowship that their common love of particular genres of fiction has created. This is (after all is said, laughed about, and done,) a society. In past years, I had always felt estranged from the crowds, put off by their eagerness, and embarrassed by their enthusiasm, and when I was a kid, there were no girls at these things whatsoever (although it’s been noted that the very first Star Trek conventions were organized by exclusively female fans of Leonard Nimoy and George Takei in the early 1970s.) Only recently did I realize that my discomfort had more to do with the fact that I’d internalized the scoldings of my professors, the ridicule of my peers and replaced my own love, my own “fandom” with a kind of self-conscious reserve. I was never going to dress up as Captain Marvel, or Spider-Man, but why have I always looked down on the kids who did? Is it any sillier than some fat drunk bastard showing up to a Giants game in a Manning jersey? People at Comic book conventions don’t love the characters in their favorite titles any less than NASCAR fans love their favorite drivers: comic book fans tend to show it more, and by and large they’re not interested in appearing detached and “cool” about it.

Imagine if people still got this excited at gallery openings, at the premieres of sculpture, or at poetry readings? –When Mark Hamill (who in addition to portraying Luke Skywalker, also defined the voice of The Joker for an entire generation and now entertains millions as various animated characters on Metalocalypse and Regular Show) walks into a room at a convention, the response is deafening. That’s real love: undiluted, unmitigated and eternal. Why shouldn’t they show it?

I’m going to walk around the convention center this evening and try very hard to stamp out my ingrained shames and groundless misgivings about comic books, and take some pride in all those other fans whose only crime is loving something that I love too.

"Live long and prosper."
-SJ

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August 30, 2010

The Wiz. An Appreciation, 32 Years Later


There were no blogs when I saw this musical as a ten year old. There was only schoolwork, AM and FM radio, three networks and four local channels flying through all that atmosphere that our cell phone calls now occupy for the most part. Newspapers were the daily history of record, and if it didn’t get covered, it often didn’t “have” happened.
It was a different world in 1978. It was not a world in which a Black man was entertained as a candidate for any office higher than mayor, -other than as a cruel, insulting joke.

I bought the DVD release of the Wiz last year, one of the very few musicals I left off of my list of very few musicals that I love. Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark would be another notable omission. I’ve only gotten around to watching The Wiz again this past weekend, and decided that even with its four Oscar nominations; it has rarely gotten its due.
Among the motion pictures of Sidney Lumet, this is surely a standout for its aspirations, as well as its subject matter. For the most part, Lumet’s hopes (in as much as I can identify the longings of any artist) in cinema were previously relegated to the possible and the familiar in New York (E.g. 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon.) The Wiz is as much a work of Science Fiction as it is a musical, and that’s a very fundamental distinction in need of exploration and discussion because while The Wiz’s “inspiration” or object of commentary uses magic as its principal means of applying force or resolving conflict, Lumet’s film is speculative and “possible...”

Flying Monkeys were traded for motorcyclists this time around.

This re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz, is a fable grounded in “the real.” One of the greatest inherent fantasies in American cinema was the decades-long absence of Black people altogether, as well as their non personhood in history as expressed in the movies. From that perspective, hundreds of American pictures (If not all of them up until the mid 1950s) can be described as fantasies because there were no Black people in them, and they therefore referred to a “non-existent” America, for there has never been a point in the history of the United States where African Americans were not active participants. To look at all the films of anybody crucial to the history of Hollywood like let’s say, George Cukor; an unknowledgeable observer would think that African Americans were late-comer, rare, exotic immigrants and not citizens numbering in the tens of millions largely responsible for building the country for all of the centuries of its existence.

What Lumet’s film gives us is a Dorothy who is not a child, she is a (ahem) 24-year-old kindergarten teacher, in some ways she is the opposite of a child in character which is extremely important for this “adaptation of an adaptation” (this is no remake) that is being crow barred into post civil rights relevancy by Joel Schumacher’s script. The Wiz presents us with a scarecrow made of garbage; a Tin Man who is mechanical toy from Coney Island; and lastly a lion, exiled from the jungle and making his living as a statue in front of the New York Public Library.
These symbols and metaphors are as dependent on the subject of their allegory, the legacy of racial injustice in America, as they are on the original film by Victor Fleming (I doubt the silent 1925 version is remembered by many.)
For if the original Wizard of Oz attempted to reach the possible with the impossible; the Wiz attempted to reach the impossible with the unthinkable:

It is Diana Ross’s Dorothy who tells her teammates that they always had what they were always told they were lacking. It is Richard Pryor’s Wiz who makes the previously unspoken confessions of impotence, and explains the price of political bargains that bring the capable, and the mighty down the path of mediocrity and capitulation. These are much more profound insights and existential speculations than were ever implied in past adaptations of Frank Baum’s American fable about a Kansas schoolgirl living in a reassuringly all White pastoral society where even the economic strata’s bottom was populated by White characters only. Visibility is the mission of this picture, visibility and awareness; of the self, of each other, and of the world.

There are bitter sweet moments in this movie that are made all the more stinging and poignant by the decades’ passage of time since its release. Michael Jackson is sadly buried under all the elaborate costuming and creature effects; presaging in tragically prescient fashion, the very way he would later attempt to erase himself with surgery and chemical burnings. Jackson’s dancing, his kinetic almost superhuman grace is weighed down earthward by boxy fabrics and padded shoes that distract from his height and never succeed in telling you more about the Scarecrow’s plight than Jackson himself could have with movement. Curiously, the “Brand New Day” dance number in which the enslaved shed their heavy layers of monstrous subhuman make up to reveal a mass of variated, lithe, beautiful dancers of every description, draws your attention to Jackson all the more. The grotesque weight of Jackson’s makeup and disguise is made achingly tragic by all of those dancers in flight, -confident in their minds, -confident in their bodies and their very souls.

I pulled one simple message away from this movie as a child: “Dignity Is the Road.”

Today I wonder if two of its stars, tragically tortured by the unavoidable pressures that their meteoric talents and success brought, were able to hear what I thought they were telling me. I suppose I just find it hard to accept that I live in a world with no Richard Pryor in it anymore.

The original release of this picture was a “flop” I’ve always heard, an abject failure. That kind of industry news rarely matters to kids. Kids love what they love, and as a grown man I still love this picture. I can remember being blown back in my seat by the sets, stunned speechless by that skyline with five or more Chrysler buildings in it.

I have to ask people who see this picture now after so many years, with Lena Horne as Glinda the Good, how could anyone not love and revere this movie?
-SJ
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July 15, 2010

This Game.


I’m through writing obits and remembrances for the year.
I have relatives in the hospital who are fighting for their lives these past months. Bob Sheppard, Harvey Pekar, George Steinbrenner all died within the last five days and although none of these were young men cut off in their prime, I just want to write and think about something present, something alive, and maybe even forward-looking.
So it’s strange to pick a subject that is nearly as old as the country itself.
The National League beat the AL for the first time in 13 years this week.
-I’ve heard more than one person on my morning subway ride remark “who cares.”
Well, I still do.
PBS has wisely rerun Ken Burns’ epic documentary simply entitled “Baseball” every Wednesday night, in single episodic installments (as it originally aired in 1995.) It is a detailed and perceptive history of a deceptively simple game that more and more young people see as boring and obtuse with each passing generation.

I’ve never told anybody this, but I have to confess that when the last players’ strike hit, I really thought I might be done with watching Baseball. I have one childhood friend who has stuck by his disgust to this day, and refuses to watch or follow any series or even a single game. In the mid 1990s Baseball asked for a lot of my time and attention, and once again ungratefully reminded me,( as if I had even partly forgotten,) -that it was principally a business and as such, didn’t care about me and my hopes for it. Baseball, in that half year of 1994 on into 1995 seemed to say to me “I don’t even care if you’re not watching, I still go on.”
The weeks and months passed. “And yes,” I said to the old timers, the mustache Petes, the “old fellers” at the Elk’s Head bar in Williamsburg Brooklyn “This IS worse than the Giants and the Dodgers leaving New York.” -Because at least the Giants and Dodgers packed up and went some place to play. -At the very least those teams continued playing. The Bar’s owner, Joe Genna, a retired boxer and great, great man in my estimation asked me, “Why do you even care?” I told Mr. Genna, I’ve never had a reason, I just do.

Just who does have a reason for loving any thing or any body?

I attended my very first ballgame with a man who wasn’t my uncle, but was much more than that and considerably more than any kind of simple blood relation to me. Santiago Pomonti, was a hardworking, tough talking Venezuelan who worked long hours and liked to argue with people until the veins on his head pushed out at his porkpie hat, threatening to pop it off his head like a cork from a bottle. My first game; the very first baseball game that I can ever remember going to or watching, was at Shea Stadium. I remember that I was cold. Santiago had bought me a plastic Mets novelty batting helmet, and I poured my twenty or so toy soldiers out of their tattered plastic bag and into the helmet for the duration. Santiago allowed me to stand in my seat the whole game.
The Mets lost. It was a Saturday I think although probably not, and the Astros destroyed them 9 to 2. That much is etched clearly in memory.
That’s all I remember about Shea that day: -The loss, -Santiago keeping the lousy box score on a newspaper, -and the unwelcoming steepness of Shea stadium’s upper deck.
It wasn’t much of a magical memory. On the ride home, Santiago drove his forest green 60s era Volvo westward, talking a blue streak about the Mets and their significance, as New York City stretched its sky scraper arms around us as we descended from what must have been the 59th street bridge. The man loved to drive. The front seat of his car was his cigar parlor, and even seat-belted in, I slid around quite a bit as he drove up the FDR highway. Santiago talked about the New York Giants, the Polo grounds and he talked about Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers and Ebbits, and my namesake Sandy Koufax. He went on about things I couldn’t know anything about, things that had gone on before I was born. He told me about the Mets’ team logo, which was taken to honor the Giants, and the royal blue of the cap, in deference to the Dodgers of Brooklyn. I couldn’t understand why there was a National League and an American League, “didn’t both words mean the same thing?” I couldn’t understand why Black people hadn’t been allowed to do the things he was talking about for so long, -and about that, he said little.
Santiago and I were in the middle of a variation of Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First’ routine due to my inability to understand that the All Star game was not a game between teams per se, but between representative players from the two leagues when I saw it for the first time: Yankee stadium.
From the pale green wrought iron work of the Macombs Dam bridge, it came into view. It looked like a castle, with copper accents. I asked my uncle what were all the flags: “Pennants,” he said. I didn’t ask him what pennants were, I assumed they had something to do with the “ligas” Santiago kept trying to explain to me. I stared in wonder, it looked so creepy and old, and to my greedy child’s eyes, very nice.

“There’s no game today.” Santiago said, as I followed the ballpark with my eyes. I asked him every question I could think of about the Yankees and he grudgingly complied as we passed Jerome avenue and veered down further into the South Bronx.

My old boss at Kern-Rockenfield, John Kern, once said to me that baseball was a tough game to be bad at, meaning -not that it was easy, -but that it hurt deeply to fail at baseball in a way that it could not hurt in other sports. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years since he said it to me. It’s one of those things that has become “truer” with the passage of time.
The cruelest and most negative assessments I’ve ever been subject to as a human being, were for my baseball playing. I have no “natural” talents for this game. This game that requires an obsessive watchfulness, keen timing and a kinetic awareness of one’s physical position in space relative to actual moving and potentially moving elements and people on the field. This is where baseball’s greatest myths of fairness lie. All the exercise, conditioning and training were never going to make the average kid into a Reggie Jackson, not for all the wanting, sweating and praying in the world. But hard work, studious learning and diligence are indeed rewarded by this game, if only on a purely neighborhood level. Conversely, lack of effort off and on the field is punished and ridiculed. One’s failures become uniquely emblematic in baseball. My frustrations with the game’s fundamentals, throwing, catching and hitting, came early and have remained with me for life. Playing with kids who did it well, and who had already learned by closely watching others, and in silent monk-like drilling sessions meant there was no one willing to explain simple concepts like using one’s own mid section as a line of demarcation indicating when to flip a glove’s fingers up, or down to properly field an oncoming ball. Nobody, not one friend, not one kid in my old neighborhood ever took the time to explain even the basic rules of the game and its idiosyncrasies. I had to learn those things from watching the Yankees on WPIX and concentrating on the ramblings of Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White, who were as likely to talk about restaurants and vacation spots as they were about the game in front of them.
My memories of all my childhood friends who excelled at baseball are punctuated with vignettes of them tossing a ball up and down, fielding grounders by throwing a ball against a wall or curb.

I did none of those things.

I only played baseball when I was asked to. I have never, not once in my life organized a game. I gave no physical or instinctual part of myself over to it. I never put the work in. I learned, -much too late, that unlike our prehistoric ancestors, we actually work at skills to play any game, not play a game to work at those skills. It was a heartbreaking insight and one of those many things that go unsaid in application and go unexplained; like the infield fly rule, the ground rule triple, or why if a left-handed pitcher fakes to first base and turns and looks at third, it can be ruled a balk.
My memories of losing games I played in, of being relegated to a non presence deep in the outfield for my own sake, are lessons in humiliation that I will never be thankful for, even as I recognize their possible necessity.

If I ever have a son, my first words on the field to him will be:
“This game is a game of bad feelings and blame. It asks that you succeed on its terms, not your own. This game is a glimpse into all the unfairness, joy and disappointment of the world to come. Try to remember it’s only a game to people who lose.”

...and I'll try to remember to tell him, "I love this game."
-SJ
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May 16, 2010

Like a Rainbow in the Dark


Too many greats are passing in short succession. Last week it was Frank Frazetta, now it’s Ronnie James Dio, -whose name should have probably appeared in bold gothic caps on his birth certificate accompanied by flames. Such was the scale of this physically unprepossessing, diminutive man who sang with a powerful, outsized voice.

Ronald James Padavona, or “Ronnie James Dio” to reformed, or “lapsed” skids like me was born on July 10, 1942. He was a singer-songwriter in a type of Rock n’ Roll that many still insist contains no singing or songwriting in it, and it’s really for those who don’t like Heavy Metal at all that I write this appreciation of one of the last true gentlemen in 20th century popular music.

Along his career, Dio performed with bands with names like “Elf,” “Rainbow,” “Black Sabbath,” “Heaven & Hell,” and of course “Dio.” While all Heavy Metal necessarily sounds the same to those who are “deaf” to it, Dio was known for principally operating within the artistic sub-genre known as “Power Metal.” According to documentary filmmaker Sam Dunn, “Think Swords and sorcery” and you have a superficial but legitimate understanding of its lyrical content at least.

People have asked me, an avid listener of music whose fanatical tastes still range across the boards from folk music (Bob Dylan), to Country (Johnny Cash, The Cramps), to so-called lounge singers (Bill Henderson), to Garage bands, 70s punk, Ska (all eras) 80s Hardcore, Hip Hop and so on; What the hell do I see (hear) in Heavy Metal? While I could use an oft-recited but still inarguable cop-out like “who has a single reason for liking anything?” I choose to answer the question directly to people who hate this kind of music:
-Heavy Metal offers the world that dreams only imply.

...and you can quote me on that, friend.

All of the power and sex, adventure, horror, excitement and violence of our longing is made manifest in Heavy Metal music. This is why it appeals principally to adolescents, young adults and secondarily to people who feel a need to keep in touch with their youth and see an importance in remaining connected to the turmoil of their coming of age.

A few years back, Robert Halford, an aesthetic fellow traveler of Dio’s, came out of the closet, revealing himself to a notoriously homophobic audience and culture that he was and always had been, Gay. While many of us who grew up listening to Judas Priest weren’t surprised (Halford’s stage persona and mode of dress seemed straight out of New York’s leather-clad West Village culture in the 1980s) it was an unprecedented disclosure. While people argued about whether this changed everything or whether it even meant anything at all, I can remember thinking to myself: “Who better than a longtime closeted Gay man to speak to the youth of the world about anger, oppression and rebellion?” And that’s the singular, central thing about Heavy Metal, unlike any other of kind of Rock n’ Roll: It tells the listener to come on in and absorb some power, some courage, and some voltage. Dio and other singer songwriters in the Power Metal sub genre invited, excited and assured you, -whatever you’d been told, “there’s nothing wrong with you that is actually important,” -a necessary assurance amongst all the judgment, exclusion and nonsense of life in modern society.

Ronnie James Dio was not good looking. He was short. He was perpetually balding. None of this mattered to anyone. Ronnie James Dio showed and proved to me and the world that there’s more than meets the eye.
Sometimes you just have to listen.

-SJ
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May 13, 2010

Frank Frazetta Didn’t Paint Heroes



I can’t say exactly when I first saw a Frank Frazetta cover, but I’m pretty sure those were the earliest works I was exposed to, -his covers. For artists of my generation, he was always there, part of the squad of old master-like forbearers in popular illustration like Frank Paul, James Bama, and Alex Raymond except Frazetta’s work was darker and it was otherworldly in just about every calculable respect.

Frazetta’s Conan is still the definitive characterization of the barbarian: Always a brutal, homicidal would be-king at rest. Frazetta didn’t paint heroes; his sensibilities were too sophisticated and “knowing” for that. Frazetta had no innocence about him as an artist; it seemed he was barely holding back all the sex, fury and violence that were not allowed in the actual pulp novels, comic books and movies he was commissioned for. Frazetta painted protagonists; That in and of itself was a radical proposition and a welcome relief from the commercially established smooth-edged imagery that had at its core an insistence on clear, absolute differentiation between good and evil or the hero and the villain. Frazetta’s work was too nuanced and cavernous to entertain naive distinctions like those. His work was called “adult” at a time when maturity was not the number of an age, but the indication of certain knowledge of the world and oneself. Frazetta’s paintings and imagery demanded that one consider the world inside of his pictures. In a very real sense, he was asking viewers to step forth and meet his world and he made no attempt to make it a safe trip for anyone. Frazetta’s work didn’t reach out; -it asked that you make the effort to walk in.

He had an incredible ability to seduce and frighten with his imagery simultaneously. If you dreamed about running your hands along the body of some voluptuous princess in one of his paintings, you had to contend with the idea that you didn’t actually want to be where she was standing. Some of his paintings appeal vigorously to our erotic longings, -but all of them scare.

For illustrators however, Frazetta posed another type of terror: mediocrity.

I grew up in an era of explosive virtuosity among comic book artists. This was in the aftermath of the aesthetic contributions of Neal Adams and in the wake of the various innovations that he brought to comic book illustration. After Adams, the late 1970s and early 80s became an era of extreme accomplishment in pure draftsmanship exemplified by artists like Brian Bolland, George Perez, John Byrne, Milo Manara, Marshall Rogers, Michael Kaluta, Jim Aparo, Arthur Adams, John Buscema, Michael Golden, Walt Simonson and a few others working in mainstream comics. As an adolescent trying to investigate work that would offer useful examples to learn from, the greatness of these artists was strangely demoralizing. Some of these artists were better story tellers than others, some had strong cinematic sensibilities, while others could express a speed and violence that rattled the pages in your hands, -still others gave you an extraordinarily authentic sense of time and place, as did John Byrne whenever he showed us midtown Manhattan. But all of them were incredible masters at their individual style of execution, and on their own terms, they were arguably perfect... Unless you compared them to Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta was not classically trained, -but classically minded. While there were always gifted painters in the fantasy genre in the time of my youth and earlier, (scores of them shuttling between the world of commercial advertising on Madison avenue, like my personal favorite Basil Gogos) only Frazetta maintained a sustained and unique presence, expressing that haunting sensibility that communicated the disquieting notion that sex, fear, love, power, death, hunger, regret are all present, at all times whether we want them all there souring a “fantasy” or not. The living darkness in Frazetta’s imagery and his skill at moving paint were but the invitation, the psychological world within was the destination.

In my teens, as I wondered in frustration at the work of George Perez who could make debris and wreckage look beautiful, and John Byrne who had figured out how to draw liquid metal, and especially at Brian Bolland who drew so decisively and precisely it made me angry... There was always Frazetta. Even my gods, had a god it seemed, and that made me feel better. On Monday, Frank Frazetta died at age 82.

Frank Frazetta, who was still untouchable by greats like Boris Vallejo, Richard Corben or Gaetano Liberatore, always sat in some distant hall of heroes in my mind, working ever harder, year after year, sending us all turbulent dispatches from his imagination, until his mortal body and health began to betray him.

If Lovecraft, Blake, Donatello, and Rembrandt could have sired a child…

And so it goes. Another master of the fantastic leaves us to join his creations, ascending into a place in our imagination.

-SJ

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May 10, 2010


February 23, 2010

February 10, 2010

Good Night Captain.

Captain Phil Harris, 1953-2010


January 15, 2010

My Two Cents

Just saw Avatar. After all the rave reviews and people just about proclaiming it the greatest thing since sliced bread, I went in to the theater ready to be impressed. Here's my quick review:
Character development is about as thin as it was on Titanic. It is also just as predictable as that movie. The bad guys might as well wear appropriately colored hats or twirl their mustaches as they plan their evil schemes. The story is almost exactly the same as "Dances with Wolves", right down to the new language which was created for the movie which sounds a lot like a native American dialect. It was really pretty to look at, so it's got that going for it, which is nice. James Cameron used to write a screenplay and then push the envelope with special effects to fit that story. Now it seems as if he works the opposite way. He figures out what special effects are available and then writes a story to fit those effects. It's a great platform to show off the best in technology, but the story suffers greatly. If you liked DWW and are a fan of shallow character development and predictable plot points, then this is the movie for you. The IMAX 3D was very nice though (I guess they had to make it 3D to make up for the one dimensional characters), but it's DWW with bigger explosions and special effects.