Friday, April 30, 2004

The Pixies Reunion Tour, April 28, Eugene, Oregon, McDonald Theatre
What a show. So I'd managed to score tickets to the second Eugene show on the Pixies 'warmup' reunion tour, their visits to smaller venues before a larger tour this summer. The show sold out in about an hour and it was only through luck I was able to get onto the website to get tickets. We knew it'd be tricky to even go with a 10-week-old baby to deal with, but fortunately my folks decided to make a visit up here this week and were the perfect babysitters. So, anxiety about leaving the boy for the first time aside, we were ready to head to Eugene.

But let me back up, in case you're not aware of who The Pixies are. They are to '90s alternative rock as the Velvet Underground were in the 1960s -- hugely influential, yet somewhat unheralded in their time. A big influence on bands from Nirvana (Kurt Cobain was quoted as saying of his own work, "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies. I have to admit it.") to Radiohead, Pavement, Guided By Voices and many more, their fire-breathing eclectic combo of surf-guitar spacey punk-pop was one of the most distinctive sounds of modern rock. Of course, just as they started to get known, they broke up, with frontman Frank Black going on to a solo career and bassist/backup vocalist Kim Deal best known as leader of the Breeders.

So that's the Pixies. We got to the McDonald Theatre just as doors were opening about 7:30. Completely sold out the 1,200-capacity venue, an old converted movie theater that is a great place to see bands in an intimate setting (we've seen Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams both do fine shows there in last two years). You can pretty much get yourself as close to the stage as you're willing with their open floor, and there's a balcony if you're feeling like sitting. Avril managed to persuade the burly door guy to let her bring snacks in with her poignant excuse of, "But I'm breast-feeding!" (Always a good way to defuse large authoritative men.) The crowd was good, a mix of college kids, Pixies fans from all over Oregon and even the rest of the U.S. and assorted freaks.

After a lackluster opening act, the main action started earlier than we thought it would at about 9:30 as The Pixies took the stage. For huge Pixies fans going way back like Avril and I, it was amazing to watch them come out and actually start playing "Planet of Sound." I had a big crush on smoky bass player Kim Deal and although she's the definition of a weathered rock chick it was still a charge to see her onstage, and although stocky, short and bald Frank Black looks like a gas station attendant, that man can wail and scream like a banshee. The real surprise for me was lead guitarist Joey Santiago, whose distinctive burbling strings really provide much of the distinctive Pixies sound. He was astoundingly good. The band in general sounded great for one that's been broken up for a decade, although they had played ten or so shows already on this tour to warm up before hitting Oregon.

The band wasn't much for banter but smiled a lot and just kept playing should've-been-hits from their five 1980s and 1990s albums, one after another -- "Here Comes Your Man," "Is She Weird," "Wave of Mutilation" and more. What a charge it was to see a crowd of hundreds of people all waving their hands in the air to a cultish song like "Gouge Away." Definitely a room full of Pixies fans, no poseurs here. Avril and I stationed ourselves against the wall at stage left, which was good as we didn't get jostled by the moshers up front (at 30-something we're too old to mosh). With the great gently sloping floor in the McDonald and being 6' 2" I could easily see the entire show without much problem. It was a ferociously passionate show as befits the Pixies, but the band were in great spirits and top form. I could lip-read Frank telling Santiago during the curtain call that it was a "great gig."

Highlights? It all rocked, but I thought the renditions of "Hey," "Tame" and "Debaser" were really fantastic -- these songs are where the distinctive "soft/loud" sound of bands like Nirvana had its genesis. I also geeked out at hearing "Monkey Gone To Heaven," one of my top five Pixies songs and one I didn't think they'd play. For the encore, it was grand to hear Kim take lead vocals on the plaintive "In Heaven" from the movie "Eraserhead," a Pixies live staple. Our ears rang afterward, and there was one hell of a logjam to leave the theater, but it was all worth it. Besides, knowing the Pixies, it may not be long before they break up again anyway.

Another fantastic thing is that we've ordered live discs of the concert from this new company DiscLive, which has been following the entire tour and producing limited 1,000-print editions of each night's show using some pretty amazing technology (they actually record and burn the discs during the show using a mobile studio and have them ready right after if you want to pick them up, although we didn't want to wait around because of the baby and it was after midnight, so they're being mailed to us). Great way of cutting off the illegal bootleg trade by offering "real" bootlegs at an affordable cost and what, according to accounts so far, is excellent sound. We can't wait to get the discs.

Best of all, baby Peter did fine with my parents and Avril and I realized that even though we're parents now it's still OK to "rock out" on occasion. It just takes a little more work is all.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Wow, this is cool -- the online comics magazine Indy has devoted much of its new issue to analysis and interpretation of the visionary graphic novel "City of Glass" by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik, based upon the novella by Paul Auster. This is one of the most unheralded comics of the last decade or so, and a visionary mind trip to boot -- an existential detective story that takes the idea of adaptation to new levels. "Glass" is an adaptation that only comics could do -- the flourishes, surrealism and vision of Mazzucchelli reinvents the novella without replacing it. "With this project, I think Paul (Karasik) and I thought of it not so much as an adaptation as a translation from one language to another," Mazzucchelli tells Indy.

Mazzucchelli takes the despair and symbolism of Auster's excellent story of a detective who becomes lost in his own missing persons case and dissects, mixes and reimagines it. It's the kind of work that comics are capable of when they expand beyond just the "Biff! Bam! Pow!" stereotype, and that's why it's so great to see "City of Glass" is finally coming back into print. It also turned me on to the vast and strangely beautiful work of Paul Auster, who's now one of my favorite authors. Fans of this adaptation or any groundbreaking comics should check this new "Indy" out, and of course grab "Glass" too -- well done all around.

...Posting will be at a minimum the next couple days, as there's a lot going on for yours truly.

My folks are coming into town for a few days to visit the bay-bee, I'm hip-deep in the annual 80-page Visitors Guide at work, and, one bright spot to look forward too in all the chaos, Avril and I are heading to Eugene tomorrow night to catch one of the sold-out shows on the Pixies reunion tour! Expect full report on the Subbacultcha goodness later this week.

I'll also try and do a review of some nifty Hellboy trade paperbacks I picked up last week and whatever else comes to mind...

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The end is here: Guided By Voices is calling it quits.

Man, Mondays start with a bang, don't they? "Gbv" as us fanboys call them have been one of the quirkiest, most enjoyable pure pop bands in America for the better part of 15 years now. They passed their peak a while ago, but it's still bittersweet to see the band ending, although frontman and the band's driving force Robert Pollard promises to keep making music.

I came upon GbV in 1994 when I was doing an internship at Billboard magazine, and found the EP 'Fast Japanese Spin Cycle' in the "freebie" bin of review copies. I'd never heard of Guided By Voices, but the album looked interesting, so I took it back to my NYU dorm room and gave it a listen. It sounded like music beamed from another planet, as if the aliens had listened to radio from Earth and tried to play it back their way. The song "My Impression Now" is what won me over, a quick (most GbV songs average under 2 minutes), jaunty tune about nothing in particular and everything all at once. GbV were never a message band — they were pop and rock at its most basic -- sweet sounds in great numbers.

After listening to that EP, I found a copy of 'Bee Thousand,' widely acknowledged by fans to be their finest hour. You know how lots of songs have a "good part"? GbV perfected the art of making songs that were all good part. While they had their share of klunkers, when they hit they made a song that sounded like a perfect mix of Beatlesque pop, Who rock and indie wacked-out low-fi style. "Bee Thousand" is the place to start if you've never heard them -- it's a masterpiece, a mix tape of "good parts" and Pollard's trademark surreal, wandering lyrics. Tunes like "Tractor Rape Chain," "Gold Star For Robot Boy," "Postal Blowfish" or "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" will infuriate anyone looking for pat answers in their songs, for folks who don't like music to get any more complicated than "I Will Always Love You." Yet the genius of Gbv is how they make the nonsensical words matter, with Pollard singing with conviction words that he's likely making up as he goes.

I mean, read this lyric, to the song "Hot Freaks," and it sounds like gibberish:
"i walked into the house of miraculous recovery
and stood before king everything
and he asked me to join him in the red wing
took me to pie land
said, "i'm a thigh man"
i will be eternally hateful

...Yet marry it to bouncy guitar, a brooding solo and heart-on-my-sleeves singing, and somehow it becomes one of GbV's most eerie, memorable tunes. What's it about? Hell if I know. You can make the songs mean whatever you want. And that rich mutability is what made Gbv my favorite band for a time, over a course of terrific mid-1990s albums that spun golden tunes. I love Pollard's gift for marrying off-the-cuff nonsense to meaning -- in the end, creating art out of babble. Guided By Voices might be the world's best dadaist band.

Guided By Voices released more than a dozen albums in the last 21 years, averaging about one a year -- and that's just their main output. Pollard is a man who's so prolific that a box set of just his outtakes ran to 4 CDs and 100 songs. See this discography. Pollard, never content with editing himself, also has released many, many solo CDs on the side in the "Fading Captain" series, which vary from as good as Gbv to indulgent fluff. I long ago gave up on GbV completism -- like most obsessions, it's easy to overwhelm you and it's not always worth it. GbV's biggest flaw was probably their inability to separate the great from the just OK.

The last few GbV albums had some good tracks, but a lot of meandering, pontificating filler, too. I had pretty much decided after their last, the mediocre 'Earthquake Glue,' I'd not pick up their next unless the reviews were outstanding. But I'll get their swan song this year for sure.

Their last truly great album was probably Mag Earwhig!, but their best remains the one-two punch of "Bee Thousand," 'Alien Lanes' and 'Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. They also have a very compact "best of" collection -- seemingly impossible considering the thousands of songs they've put out -- 'Human Amusements At Hourly Rates.'

I'll miss GbV, but I did get a chance to see them live once in an excellent show in Berkeley, and I could easily spend my remaining years just hunting down the albums they put out I don't own. But in the end it's better to know when it's time to end the band.

Rest in peace, GbV. The postal blowfish salute you.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

For some reason, I can't get that excited over the blockbuster movie summer of 2004. Last year I found great or good flicks in "X2," "Terminator 3," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Italian Job," "Finding Nemo" and more. Even "The Matrix Reloaded" wasn't totally worthless. But after reading both Premiere and Entertainment Weekly's summer previews, this season seems staler than most.

Of the "big" movies, I have to say only a few interest me. These days, I watch far more movies on DVD than in the theatre, so it has to be special to pull me out. Number one on my geek-watch chart is Spider-Man 2, since I was an enormous fan of the first, I've read Spider-Man comics for 20 years and besides, you can't do better in casting than Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and in this installment, the excellent Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus.

But after Spidey, the thrill meter drops a long way for me. I'm interested in Shrek 2 and the latest Harry Potter, but reviews will determine whether or not I actually see them on the big screen. Troy also looks very promising based on the trailer, and The Bourne Supremacy with Matt Damon is a sequel I'll definitely seek out -- the first was a truly smart spy thriller. Yet much of the summer's other overstuffed rides, like Van Helsing, King Arthur, Chronicles of Riddick, The Day After Tomorrow, Garfield, I, Robot, and the godawful-looking Catwoman and Garfield-- I'll probably wait for the videos. I'll admit the 13-year-old in me is curious about the sci-fi mashup Alien Vs. Predator, though.

A few lower-profile films are also looking good -- Michael Mann directs Tom Cruise as a vicious assassin in Collateral. Cruise is most appealing to me when there's a hint of scoundrel in his work -- as in "Magnolia," "Interview With A Vampire," or "Jerry Maguire." The usually funny Will Ferrell is back as a '70s TV newsman in Anchorman. The Door In The Floor is another heavily reworked adaptation of a John Irving novel (like "Simon Birch" was of "A Prayer For Owen Meany"), but the trailer wasn't bad and it's got Jeff Bridges, one of the most underrated actors out there.

And although it'll probably never come to my desolate corner of cinema-land in Oregon, Zach Braff, J.D. on TV's "Scrubs," has written, directed and stars in the very intriguing sounding indie Garden State. The trailer is fascinating and while a character-driven, quiet film like this will never top the charts, it might just be one of the best things going in the season of summer bombast. Another indie I'm interested in seeing is the controversial documentary by the man who ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month, Supersize Me.

Of course, you never know -- there's always a few surprises every summer. Remember last year, when Ang Lee's "Hulk" was going to be a smash -- that is, until people actually saw it. And who would've thought "Pirates of the Caribbean" would've cleaned up like it did?
So I got to fulfill one of my life's dreams by taking part in a spelling bee today. Unfortunately, I wasn't a contestant, but better still, I was a judge, as part of the newspaper's annual county bee. About two dozen kids grades 5-8 took part and I got to sit at the front with my editor Bart and ring a bell loudly whenever a kid misspelled a word, thus scarring them horribly for life. It was quite fun -- after watching the terrific movie "Spellbound" (which I reviewed here) recently it piqued my interest in the crazy, All-American phenomenon of bees. I have to applaud anything that judges kids on something less tangible than looks or physical brawn.

The words started easy ("tough" and "tangy") but gradually worked their way into the highly obscure ("ergot," "chonolith," "glioma," and the showstopping "otorhinolaryngology"). The kids did great, and we mean judges didn't make anyone cry. There were audible gasps from the crowd of parents and relatives as weirder words were unearthed ("gerenuk," anyone?), although in the end the winning girl took the title on the easier combination of "embroidered" and "aquamarine." It was funny to see the older, taller kids that I'd pick as winning lose out and that the grand winner was this too cute 5th-grader. I admit to taking some evil glee at "dinging" that bell out on the kids but we still gave them a round of applause anyway. And no parents were waiting afterwards to beat the judges senseless with a hefty dictionary, so all were h-a-p-p-y in the end.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

An entirely gratuitious cute baby Peter photo to close out the week with. Olé!

This week's 'Doonesbury' strips have been a fascinating turn for one of my favorite, long-running comics. In them, the character B.D., who has been serving in Iraq, was wounded and, it's been revealed, lost his leg. It's a dark turn for a "funny" strip but also well in keeping with "Doonesbury," which hasn't shied away from controversy over its 30+ years, taking on everything from AIDS to Alzheimer's to Vietnam, and somehow making us smile in the process.

This week's strips definitely arouse passion -- some papers, as always happens when a comic dares to say something, have pulled or edited the comic.

"Doonesbury" is a strip I've loved for years. Its liberal message has alienated some, but even when the strip has coasted, which it has a lot lately, I've fondly enjoyed the rich characters Trudeau created, characters like B.D., whom over the years of the comic have almost begun to seem like family to some of us.

There are too few worthwhile comic strips on today's newspaper pages. Many are neutered nonsense or strips like "Family Circus," "B.C." or "The Wizard of Id" that should've ended years ago. "Doonesbury" is not always a fine example of beautifully drawn craft, but I defy anyone to find another comic that makes more news or raises more tempers than this one. And that, in the end, is what a good comic should do.

Friday, April 23, 2004

I was asked by a couple folks to throw in a comment system on here, and since it's free what the heck. Although I imagine I'll be eternally shamed to see all these "0" no comments left tags blinking on and off at me slowly reminding me of my insignificance in the greatest cosmos and the impossibility of being anything more than a speck of dust in an ever more infinite series of larger dust bunnies, I'll give it a try.
So Tim at The Hurting manages to stir up the comics blogosphere with his recent posts, one in which he painstakingly relived the godawful 1980s DC Comics crossover series "Millennium" and used it as a satirical examination of comics fans' obsessive geekiness and compulsions, making some fairly spicy statements in the process.

Perhaps it was this quote that stirred 'em up: Comic books are the playground of the retarded. Whether your particular retardation is social, physical, sexual or mental, if you care enough to read this you are a retard. Reading “Millennia” brings this truth painfully alive for me. As un-PC as it may seem, it’s the diggedy-dang truth.

Heck, I chuckled a bit when I read that, though I didn't think it was the least bit truer than it is of any other hobby. Now, I dig Tim's writing, and I think his eviseration of some of these ungodly comics crossovers of the '80s (he did "Secret Wars II" a few weeks ago, which caused horrible flexographic flashbacks to bounce madly through my brain) are top-notch stuff. How can you not love a quote like I love reading crappy old comics like “Millennium.” It cleanses my soul, kind of like the self-inflicted scouring that medieval monks put themselves through?

I think in this post that fired some up, Tim did forget that sarcasm is much more of an oral medium than a written one. It's a phenomenon I see a lot as a newspaper editor too.

This blogosphere is a funny place. Although I've only posted in it a few weeks, I've been a reader for a year or so as it's developed, and seen a lot of great stuff. But one common theme in comics blogs seems to be this self-loathing, I-love-comics-but-I-hate-comics bag lots of folks have going. There's a lot of sort of ashamed-to-admit-I-love-comics rants going on. For myself, I went through that whole "Oh god, I don't want the world to know I read comics" thing years ago, then settled into my thirties with a healthy acceptance of one of my life's many obsessions. It's just not worth the effort to worry about what others think of it -- there's hobbies out there equally obsessive, from NASCAR to collecting china dolls to watching reality TV.

It's good to see the blogosphere focusing so seriously on the future of comics and whether we all are obsessive morons or not, although in the end I wonder how much of this sound and fury really matters? Yours truly and his meanderings included, of course. I've read comics for 20+ years now and weathered the good and bad, and long ago accepted that, like any medium, as the famous saying goes, 90 percent of everything is junk. But heck, I like to eat junk food, too. I just don't eat it every day.
I'm running ragged today with a work backload so rather than cutting-and-pasting my Kill Bill, Vol. 2 review here I'm just going to link directly to it on the newspaper site -- so here it is!

Thursday, April 22, 2004

All hail to the power of DVD. It gives movies a second chance. Take a movie like "Donnie Darko," an absolutely stunning, mind-bending trip of a movie, that received very little attention when it opened in theaters in September 2001 – possibly because part of its plot has to do with events disturbingly similar to what happened Sept. 11. But this gem should be ranked with other visionary 2001 movies such as "Memento" and "Moulin Rouge." Now, it's getting a second chance, with this excellent news about an impending theatrical re-release. I can't wait to see it myself, although a little irked that I'll probably have to buy the DVD again eventually too, but so it goes...
The plot of "Donnie Darko" defies easy description, but basically follows the tale of Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, "October Sky"), a peculiar suburban high school student during fall 1988. Donnie is being spooked by visions of a menacing 7-foot-tall giant rabbit named "Frank" who warns of the imminent end of the world. But this isn't quite like Jimmy Stewart's giant rabbit hallucinations in "Harvey." First-time writer/director Richard Kelly's movie is packed full of ideas and a sense of wonder that permeates every frame. From the strong soundtrack of '80s music from Tears For Fears and Joy Division to the eye-catching special effects to the richly-drawn characters and performances, it's clear this is a labor of love for Kelly. A strange hybrid of drama, horror, coming-of-age movie and science fiction, the movie demands multiple viewings to catch all the nuances. Fans of equally creative directors like Terry Gilliam ("Time Bandits") or David Fincher ("Fight Club") should rush to see this one. "Donnie Darko" is a movie that will make you think and stick with you long after the final haunting scene.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

For the absurdly obsessive Kill Bill fan in all of us: The Annotated Kill Bill. (Thanks to Franklin Harris for the link)
In praise of Scrubs: It took me a while to warm up to the charms of NBC's sitcom "Scrubs," but rave critical reviews and my former co-worker Rob (hey, Rob) persuaded me to start checking it out last year, and it's now firmly ensconced as my favorite comedy on TV today, beating out my sentimental-but-getting-old favorites "The Simpsons" and "Frasier."
At first glance "Scrubs" had the debit of being set in a hospital, which, to me, is almost as overused a television show setting as a law firm. It was also a "wacky" hospital, which wasn't particularly inspiring either.
But the quick, catchy wit, mixes of comedy and drama, humane characters and frequent doses of surrealism make "Scrubs" a one-of-a-kind treat. It's addictive and hugely funny. My wife Avril and I actually put off going to the hospital the night she was in labor back in February so we could watch the last 15 minutes of that week's episode (admittedly, her water hadn't broke yet).
Medical intern J.D. (Zach Braff) and his surgeon intern roommate Turk (Donald Faison) lead the cast at Sacred Heart hospital. We follow life at the hospital and its up and downs through J.D.'s eyes. The cast includes J.D.'s spacey on-and-off girlfriend Elliott, gruff hospital chief Dr. Kelso, the hospital's psychotic Janitor, and my favorite character, Dr. Cox. John C. McGinley gives an amazing performance as Dr. Cox, J.D.'s angry, sarcastic and irritable mentor. Cox has developed with surprising complexity over the show's three seasons and sometimes steals the entire program. There's also a ton of recurring bizarre characters and the show has had guest stars from Michael J. Fox to Dick Van Dyke.
"Scrubs" takes life with a surreal wink, throwing in J.D.'s mind's-eye view of things. The show has included musical numbers, bizarre imaginary fantasies and more. It's got lightning-quick jokes and writing, which frequently makes fans worry it's "too smart for TV." So far, it's still succeeding, although it's no smash hit. The show isn't afraid to get serious on occasion too, and in my mind it sometimes compares to the great early seasons of "M*A*S*H."
It's even got a great, eclectic soundtrack including music by The Old 97s, Sebadoh, The Shins, Guided By Voices and Colin Hay -- many of my personal favorites.
This fan Web site is also particularly good and gives as decent a quote as any to sum it all up: "Think of it as a mix of M*A*S*H and The Wonder Years with a dash of Malcolm in the Middle and a hint of Ally McBeal. "
This week is particularly sweet because it offers two new episodes, one Tuesday night as normal, one Thursday night as well. Check it out if you haven't -- it makes most of TV look even more like the wasteland it already is.
The inexplicable success of "American Idol" reject William Hung (the CD by the man who can't sing debuted at #34 on the Billboard charts last week) gets an interesting deconstruction in this piece and a spirited followup by the San Francisco Chronicle's Emil Guillermo. Is Hung's appeal linked to racism and the "me-no-speakee English" ethnic stereotype many Americans still have for Asian-Americans? You do have to wonder.
More than that, you have to wonder for the 40,000 people that actually bought copies of that CD.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Here's another golden oldie column, from 5/10/2000, written about how much I missed mowing the lawn. That of course was before we moved to the great Northwest where, during the rainy season (approximately September-June), the back lawn at our home grows 3 inches a day. I can actually watch it stretching, here from our office window looking back onto the greenery. Ah, be careful what you wish for....
Anyway, the column:

So here’s the thing about men and housework: we don’t particularly like to do it.
Cleaning the shower or mopping the kitchen floor is not my idea of a good time. The notion of dusting the window shades or wiping down the oven fills me with a soul-deep sense of ennui.
And yet, in an informal survey of employees at the ACTION World Headquarters, there is one cleaning activity men will happily leap up and volunteer for – vacuuming.
It’s true. The three men surveyed in this utterly unscientific and morally vacant poll all agreed that not only didn’t we mind vacuuming the house, apartment or flophouse where we dwell, but in fact, we actually liked it.
We like to vacuum because vacuums make lots of noise and vibrations, therefore convincing our small animal brains that it is fun, like race car driving or making scrap wood forts or blowing up pine cones with firecrackers.
Sure, we’re cleaning, but look at all the noise we’re making!
We males of the species are easily fooled like this.
We also like to mow lawns, because this task, too, makes lots of noise and vibrations.
Give us a task to do that involves lots of clanging and banging, and we men will boldly sojourn forth to the deed. Tell us to paint the house or pull weeds (unless we can use a weed-whacker that buzzes and spins like the devil), and we’ll feign sudden deafness or a really important thing that we have to do that just came up, you know, the thing that absolutely must be done now, sorry we have to go...
One of the things I miss most about my old house is having a lawn to mow. In my last house, a post-WWII era cottage in Mississippi, we had a grand, sloping lawn to mow, front and back. My roommate and I would actually argue over who got to mow the lawn, such was the effervescent joy we felt when mowing. I almost always won because it was, in point of fact, my dad’s old lawn mower that we were using.
Ah, mowing the lawn on a hazy, humid Southern Sunday morning – is there any finer pleasure in this life than pushing a little red mower back and forth, mopping sweat from your brow and taking gigantic swallows of iced tea with every lap around the lawn?
Mowing was no drudgery for me. I mowed as often as I could, while I’d only clean the refrigerator out if the mold within it began talking back to me. If one-sixteenth of an inch of new growth showed on our lawn, I would immediately drag the mower from storage and fire ‘er up.
I found the clatter of the blades a soothing tonic that led my mind to wander and thoughts to clear.
Our back yard in Mississippi was a long flat shape that eventually sloped down into a huge mass of bracken and bushes. The sloping hill at the back of this lawn was a grand challenge to mowing prowess, because you actually had to hold the mower back and keep it from roaring down the hill into the wild growth.
One time, I went mad with a mowing frenzy and decided to try and clear some of this bush from the bottom of the slope. A lawn mower, I learned, is not the best tool for this sort of thing. I pushed the mower into the foliage and huge splintery chunks of tree branch, old tin cans and damp leaves began shooting out shrapnel in every direction, until the mower made this WHAKAWHAKA-WHAKAcrunk noise, let out a wheeze and puff of acrid black smoke and ceased to operate.
My roommate suggested I temper my mowing enthusiasm in the future, as we worked to untangle several cubic feet of undergrowth from the battered lawn mower blades.
So, ladies, we will continue to mow your lawns and vacuum your carpets, but please, we ask one favor of you – just don’t tell us that it’s work.
Our illusions are easily spoiled, after all. Anything that makes this much racket can’t be a chore.
I checked out the phenomenal 'Kill Bill Vol. 2' this weekend and totally dug it, although it's a very different movie from "Volume 1." Look for a full review to be posted later this week. Today's my day off and it's baby time. Actually it's nearly time to take Peter to the vet (um, doc) for his 2-month-immunizations today which promise to be a baby-screamin' diaper-wettin' parent-stressin' good time for all! Wish us luck.
...Personally I think this could be excellent news for fans of good comic book-related magazines. The Comics Buyer's Guide was the first comics-related publication I ever subscribed to way back in the mid-1980s, but I must've stopped reading it 10-12 years ago. A weekly newspaper about comics might've worked pre-Internet but these days it seemed unneccesary and too expensive to subscribe to. Frankly I think a lot of people forgot it was even published. But changing into a monthly magazine might just be the best thing to come down the pike in a while, if they can maintain the old CBG's mix of solid comics reviews, essays and information in a monthly format. There's a real void between the two preeminent comics magazines today -- the fanboy, superhero-fixated but sometimes fun 'Wizard' and the erudite, thoughtful but frequently elitist and obscure 'Comics Journal'. Maybe the new CBG can fill that gap, informative without pandering. I'll definitely check out the first issue or two anyway.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Although they helped get me into comics nearly 20 years ago, I don't really read a lot of X-Men comics these days -- and there's about 98 separate titles these days to keep track of, anyway. I was reading Grant Morrison's New X-Men before his run ended and enjoy the wacky pop culture parody X-Statix (with art by fellow Oregonian Mike Allred), but the rest are mostly just lazy tie-ins, attempts to bloat the market and endless spinoffs and permutations of Wolverine in pointless teamups (i.e., "Wolverine/Punisher," "Wolverine/Captain America," "Wolverine/British Prime Minister Tony Blair").
Still, in all the dross, one thing I do like is Paul O'Brien's weekly X-Axis review column, which I get by e-mail. Even though I don't read 80% of the books he writes about, he's just a darn funny, thought-provoking and insightful reviewer. The Scotsman specializes in "taking the piss" out of some of the appalling junk out there -- whether it's writer Chuck Austen and his "complete inability to write a convincing human relationship" or the ridiculously out-of-place semi-soft porn covers on the "Emma Frost" comic book.
His dissection of what sounds like a truly hideous comic last year, Uncanny X-Men #433, is one of the funniest reviews I've ever read. Better him than I.
This week, he takes Marvel to task for its recent head-scratchingly odd tactic of having lame "pin-up" type covers that have absolutely nothing to do with the comics inside.
You have to love reviewers like O'Brien -- willing to plow through acres of bad comics so the rest of us don't have to. It's a shame that there are so many terrible comics, of course.
Today someone turns a whopping 2 months old!

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Courtesy of Jim Henley, a link to a nifty little essay from the UK Guardian about one of my favorite authors, John Updike, and his lifelong appreciation for comic strips.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Because you (well OK, Andy) demanded it, my review of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, which is still playing in a few theatres and highly recommended if you get a chance to see it. Another gem from the mind of Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich").

‘Eternal Sunshine’ a twisted trip through reality and memory
What if you could erase all your bad memories, just like wiping out an old videotape?
Remember that time you fell down the stairs in high school in view of the whole class?
Or the time your boss chewed you out in front of everyone?
Or that horrible, devastating breakup with the girl of your dreams?
The new movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” imagines that there was just that kind of memory-erasing machine, and what it might do to the fragile emotion of love.
Stuffed to the brim with heady ideas, “Eternal Sunshine” is funny and heartfelt, but it’s also twisted and oddball, and invites the kind of serious thought few Hollywood movies do. You have to keep up with it.
That’s mostly thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the inimitable mind behind such brain-twisters as “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” “Eternal Sunshine” continues Kaufman’s fixation with identity — who are we, and are we sure that’s who we really are? It grafts a love story to a “Twilight Zone” science fiction idea and creates a time-looping, dizzyingly creative movie.
Directed by Michel Gondry (director of many groundbreaking music videos), the story flits around in time like “Memento” or “Groundhog Day,” in a way that’ll definitely confuse viewers who aren’t paying attention. But it all fits together snugly by the end in a bit of scripting magic.
Joel (Jim Carrey) is a lonely, dull and quiet man who, at the beginning of the film, spontaneously meets an outgoing, quirky and opinionated woman, Clementine (Kate Winslet). The couple have fun for a year or so, but when the relationship goes sour, Clementine wants to move on.
In Kaufman’s quirky world, Clementine can do this literally, by going to the mysterious company Lacuna, Inc. and having all memories of Joel’s relationship with her erased from her brain. But when Joel finds out Clementine has done this, he decides to have the procedure done himself, tit for tat.
“Is there any risk of brain damage?” a worried Joel asks Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the procedure’s mastermind.
“Technically, it is brain damage,” he admits.
Yet memory erasing isn’t quite as easy as flicking a switch, and when Joel changes his mind in mid-procedure, things get really weird, unleashing a torrent of fantasy and reality as Joel struggles to hold on to all he’s got left of Clementine — her memory.
Fans of Carrey only in wacky “Bruce Almighty” or “Liar, Liar” roles, stay far away. Carrey is in his “serious actor” mode here, a far cry from Ace Ventura. He’s unshaved, disheveled and mumbling, in an impressive performance as a nobody who aspires to be more. Winslet matches him as the spunky, often obnoxious Clementine, one of her liveliest roles. They’re a great screen couple despite their differences.
The richly drawn supporting characters add another layer to “Sunshine.” You’ve got Kirsten Dunst as a flighty receptionist, Mark Ruffalo as a bumbling memory technician, and particularly nifty, “The Lord of the Rings’s” Elijah Wood as the anti-Frodo, a slimy weasel on the make. Everyone in the film has flaws, big and small.
“Sunshine” does dance very close to the edge of being too smart for its own good, and some viewers will likely feel it goes right over that edge.
The movie uses reality as a playground, and a good half of it is set right inside Joel’s mind, where images constantly morph as he undergoes the memory-removal process. Gondry is masterful in evoking the shifting landscape of the mind — in one scene set in a bookstore, we see in the background book titles fading and losing their words as the memory set there is slowly erased.
Gondry’s grainy, artsy cinematography shows a fine eye for detail, but it’s almost intrusive and overactive. The only clean surfaces seen in the movie are the recurring images of ice fields and sandy beaches.
But despite all the plot trickery and layered metaphors, in the end, “Sunshine” is a hopeful love story grounded in gritty, imperfect reality. Love ain’t perfect, Kaufman seems to say, but it beats the alternatives.
Thanks to that inventive script, a deep, grounded performance by Carrey and excellent supporting work, “Sunshine” manages to say something moving and true about the nature of love.
It’s the kind of movie you take a chance on, but if you let it, it will wow you. In a word, “Eternal Sunshine” is, perhaps appropriately for a film about the precariousness of memory, unforgettable.
(Rated R for profanity, adult themes. Running time 109 minutes.)
***1/2 of four.
In less bloody news, a glowing review of David Bowie's concert in Portland Tuesday, his first in nine years, makes me even more bitter that I wasn't able to make the trip. Gah.
...Sweet baby Jesus, what a morning. Fridays are usually hectic but this morning was one of the busiest news days in some time, with two major breaking news stories -- in one, three people were killed in an accident on Interstate 5 thanks to some moron driving the wrong way, and in another, a local 20-year-old kid was shot and killed in an apparent fight at a neighborhood park. This kind of thing might be typical in larger cities but in a small rural Oregon town it's rare, and so this a.m. the entire newsroom kept hopping to put out solid news on the topics. Stuff like this works better than coffee to get you going, grim as it was to cover.

Friday, April 16, 2004

As a journalist and editor, I can tell you that a really good headline makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over. Thus, the best headline I've seen in many moons, from this Village Voice article about the sundry sexual predicaments of Michael Jackson and "I Believe I Can Fly" singer and child-porn fan R. Kelly : "I Believe I Can Open My Fly."
I'm not sure who decided there was a need for a Punisher movie. The reviews aren't great so far (my favorite is this one, even though I can't speak French: ""Un désastre. The Punisher échoue sur absolument toute la ligne.").
Of all the comic book characters I'd like to see on screen, a gun-totin' vigilante wasn't high up there. The Punisher is far from my favorite character, although there have been some good stories involving him, mostly by Garth Ennis.
His story is pretty basic -- his family killed by criminals, Frank Castle takes up a one-man war against crime. Like Batman, except instead of pointy ears Castle wears a bullet-proof outfit with a grinning skull on the front. Oh, and he shoots lots of people instead of whacking them with a batarang.
Not the most subtle of heroes -- and I'd argue The Punisher probably isn't a hero -- but Garth Ennis has done some terrifically twisted, over-the-top stories that play up the insanity of one man declaring a war on crime. It proves even a somewhat goofy character can lead to good comics. His graphic novel 'Welcome Back Frank' is a great start for a handy introduction to the character. His current arc in the ongoing series isn't bad, either — it takes The Punisher entirely seriously, as a bloody crime thriller. The latest story has the character finally captured by the U.S. government. Their offer? Work for them. "Kill bin Laden," one wonk offers.
So the Punisher can work as a character. But this movie opening Friday, co-starring John Travolta, which is often a sign of creative desperation, doesn't inspire confidence. It's part of Marvel's strategy to milk their comic characters for all they're worth post-"Spider-Man". There've been great comic movies from Marvel lately but for every "Spider-Man" there's a floundering "Hulk" or "Daredevil."
The trailers for "Punisher" make it look like an indistinguishable shoot-em-up, a "Death Wish Part XXVII". The appeal to the mass audience of comic book movies is seeing the impossible, like a man flying or swinging on webs. Cool special effects draw them in, and good storytelling makes them work when they do. But The Punisher is a crazy man who shoots criminals. Not that different from a hundred other action movies out there.
I'll check out the video eventually, but "The Punisher" is likely to fade fast at the box office this week I imagine. It's the one thing the vigilante gunman can't beat -- audience apathy.
Today's movie review is the somewhat disappointing '21 Grams:
They say the human body loses exactly 21 grams when you die. Is 21 grams the weight of the soul? And what does that mean?
In the film “21 Grams,” the answer is dark. And this movie is dark. Pitch dark. It goes places that few movies do, dealing nakedly with issues of grief, addiction and loss. There are scenes that are hard to watch, but made riveting by the trio of strong actors at the core. Yet an overuse of style and melodrama sinks a promising movie.
Sean Penn is Paul, who’s dying of a heart illness and needs a transplant. Naomi Watts is Cristina, a young mother whose life is shattered by a tragedy. And Benecio Del Toro is Jack Jordan, an ex-con who’s found Jesus, a lumbering, wounded soul trying to do good in a flawed world.
The three have their lives intersect in unexpected ways, when Jack Jordan is involved in a horrible car wreck. The fickle finger of fate is shown to have a devastating toll on all of their lives.
In a distinctive stylistic move, “21 Grams” shuffles its story into fragments, hopping around in time. The plot resembles a cracked mirror falling back into itself, and we learn what’s happening in drips and drabs. It’s fascinating watching the pieces connect, but also somewhat indulgent of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also did the well-regarded 2000 Mexican movie “Amores Perros.”
Going non-linear with a movie’s story can work beautifully, as in “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento.” But the more I thought about “21 Grams,” the more arbitrary the decision to shuffle the timeline feels. It could’ve worked just as well told straight, and it feels like it’s all just showing off.
Great acting rescues the movie and keeps you emotionally involved in it as it unfolds. Del Toro won a deserved Oscar nomination for his turn, as did Watts, and with Penn, the threesome bring a visceral force to an over-the-top plot. Del Toro is fiery and frightening as the sinner who thinks he’s found redemption, and Watts shows us the aching core of rage in an unimaginable loss.
It doesn’t quite add up, though. Once you unravel the story, it’s really silly and melodramatic, and the characters make a few giant leaps in motivation that doesn’t work.
For a movie to be so unrelentingly bleak, it needs to have some kind of reward for the viewer at the end. It’s in the eye of the audience as to whether “21 Grams” really offers that lift.
While skillfully told, beautifully acted and gorgeously shot, something about “21 Grams” made it feel like empty calories to me.
(Rated R for language, nudity, very adult situations.)
** of four

Thursday, April 15, 2004

So Elvis Costello, one of my top five musical deities, has been recording in my old college town of Oxford, Mississippi the last few weeks, and now is playing two gigs at the great local bar Proud Larry's this weekend. It just kills me.
Although Larry's didn't have the greatest acoustics sometimes, I've seen a lot of awesome shows there and I can't imagine a more intimate venue to see E.C. play in. What a treat for Oxonians. His show up in Eugene's McDonald Theatre in 2002 remains one of the best I've ever seen by anyone, nearly three hours of all-out musical frenzy by one of the best songwriters of our time. I can't wait to check out this Mississippi-recorded new album, supposedly due out this fall sometime.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A couple of quick hit comics reviews from last week's shipment o' joy and that's it for this blog marathon day of posting:

Smax #5
This series by Alan Moore spinning out of his "Top 10" turned out so much more interesting, and funny, than I would've imagined. I nearly passed on ordering it and I'm glad I didn't. The policeman Smax returns to his homeworld to settle family business with his partner, Toybox, in tow. Smax's homeland is a world where fairy tales are real, populated by elves, ogres and fairies -- not exactly the kind of place that gruff, gigantic cop Jeff Smax would seem to have ties to. The comedy in "Smax" comes from juxtaposing Smax with the expectations of myth. It's the basic dragonslayer tale told with a wink, but it's also got some thrilling action and highly frightening moments. "Smax" has been one of Moore's stronger recent efforts, playing off his long-established love for myth and legend with humor and originality. The cartoony art by Zander Cannon is the polar opposite of Gene Ha's detailed, realistic work in "Top 10," but it works perfectly for the series. The dragon Morningbringer is like no dragon I've ever seen, a creepy many-eyed catlike beast. If the climax here in this issue is a bit less clever than the rest, it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the overall series. And you have to love a series that ends with a romantic ending revolving around incest. Great fun and a worthy spinoff. A- for the series.

The Pulse #2
I'm not quite sure where this new series from Marvel Comics is going, but like most stuff Brian Michael Bendis writes, I'm digging the ride. Continuing from the late great series "Alias" and the tale of former superheroine-turned-private detective-turned newspaper columnist Jessica Jones, "The Pulse" is supposed to be a blend of journalistic adventure and superhero action -- not exactly a recipe for success in today's comic world, but here's hoping it works. In #1, we caught up with Jessica Jones and her boyfriend Luke Cage as they accepted a job at The Daily Bugle and its new "superhumans" beat. At issue's end, a mysterious murder in a city park may turn out to be their first big story. In #2, we learn who the murder victim was, and it's a fascinating tale. "Terri Kidder," obviously a parody of Superman's Lois Lane, is a brand new reporter at The Daily Bugle. She's confounded by the superhero beat and expectations of her, and desperately trying to find a hot story to break. We follow Terri around on what turns out to be her disastrous final day at work. And that's it. Next issue, I assume the threads come together. Like I said above, "The Pulse" is pretty specialized and while as a journalist and comic lover I'm digging it, I can't say if it'll stick around. Bendis' natural, chattery dialogue is a pleasure as always and Mark Bagley's art as clean as ever --– but I wonder if this series has a real point yet. The "Spider-Man" ties are also kind of gratuitous here. I loved "Alias," but the sequel series doesn't quite have the distinctive voice that excellent book did. Grade so far: B
Here's a quirky little interview with Nellie McKay, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter who's got a fun little debut album, "Get Away From Me." I got a review copy of this a couple weeks ago and the review quote on it comparing her to "Doris Day meets Eminem" intrigued me. It's fun stuff, a little precocious around the edges but very hummable fun, and worth checking out if you're looking for something different than the typical teen pop.
Inspired by the volume of coverage of the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain, I've been re-reading Charles R. Cross's 'Heavier Than Heaven,' his superb biography of Cobain. Returning to it after a few years, I recall it's one of the best rock bios I've read -- a tragic tale, of course, but one told with insight, solid reporting and without judgment. Cross devotes a great deal of space to dissecting Cobain's childhood in Aberdeen, Wash., a tiny, depressed logging town. It's a perfect portrait of rural desolation. He interviewed more than 400 people and had access to Cobain's journals, and does a stunning job of bringing Kurt to life. He's both the hero and villain of his own tale, a kid whose world was ruined by his parents' acrimonious divorce and who straddled the fine line between art and insanity. "Heaven" is not a light read, but it's a strange and resonant one, even if you weren't a huge fan of Nirvana. A lot of message board posts, etc. I've surfed recently like to either classify Cobain as a martyred, troubled genius or a slacker loser who offed himself. What if he was both?
I've developed a theory that babies use their cuteness as a defense mechanism. Think about it -- if your baby looked like something from "Alien," would you be as cheerful about changing its diapers eighteen times a day? But when something is all pink and cute and adorable, it's hard to hold a grudge.
Take this weekend for example, when young Peter and I were having some father/son bonding time. He was freshly changed and fed and happy. I was lying on the couch and he was sitting on my chest doing his latest trick, which is breaking out in the most ingratiating little grins and smiles. I thought to myself, "This is the finest baby of all time," and all was right in the world.
That's when I noticed the viscous green ooze that had suddenly begun to leak forth from the plastic pants and onto my nice t-shirt. Yes, we were having what I deemed a "diaper emergency, defcon-1!"
So Avril helped get the leaky baby off my chest, I stripped off my t-shirt and repressed curses and outrage, and reminded myself that he's too darn cute to put in a sack until he's toilet-trained.
So Peter was changed, cleaned and still fairly cheerful about the whole thing. I had a new t-shirt on and we resumed our position on the couch. He smiled and made funny noises that were vaguely like primitive giggles. All was great in the universe again, me and my beautiful boy.
Upon which he spit up about a cup of white goop onto his outfit, my clean t-shirt, and the rest of the couch.
"... So .... damned ... cute," I muttered through tightly clenched teeth.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

In honor of it coming out on video Tuesday, here’s my review of “Kill Bill, Volume 1” back from last October. My #3 favorite movie of 2003 (right after “Return of the King” and “Lost In Translation” in case you’re wondering), I’m ready to see it again and introduce the wife to it. It might be a bit much for the baby at this point, though. And of course I’m counting the minutes until I get a chance to see “Volume 2” sometime this weekend...

‘Kill Bill’ a bloody, unforgettable ride on the dark

The very first line spoken in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked revenge thriller “Kill Bill” is, “Do you find me sadistic?”
It’s a question worth asking. “Kill Bill” is an in-your-face, sprawling and stylized smorgasbord of “chop-socky” violence, flashy villainy and clenched-jaw heroism.
It may well be sadistic and brutal, but morality aside, it’s also one of the most entertaining movies of the year, pure cinematic Jolt cola overflowing with a love for the power of the screen.
Uma Thurman is the unnamed “Bride,” an assassin who, in the opening scene, is beaten, shot and left for dead at her wedding by her former employer, Bill, and his crew of flashy, sexy and deadly assassins. It’s like “Charlie’s Angels,” the dark side. The Bride’s groom, her unborn child and many others are killed in the massacre.
The Bride wakes up after four years in a coma with one thought blistering her brain: Revenge. For the following 100-plus minutes of this film and presumably in February 2004’s sequel “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” she gets even.
This is a movie to experience with your gut, not your head. Tarantino, whose last movie was 1997’s understated “Jackie Brown,” has created a love letter from a film geek to his disciples, dripping in hip homages. There’s no pretense of philosophical depth here.
Is it bloody? Oh yeah. It still doesn’t touch my personal record-holder for gore tolerance, Peter Jackson’s zombie flick “Dead-Alive,” but the scenes of disemboweled henchmen, gory decapitation and crimson-soaked beatings aren’t for the faint of heart. But it’s a cartoony kind of violence, because at its heart, “Kill Bill” is a cartoony kind of movie.
It’s definitely not for kids (the “R” is there for a reason, despite the plentiful under-17 crowd that seemed to be at my screening), but it’s a ride you won’t soon forget.
A climactic, much-hyped battle at a Japanese teahouse between The Bride and an army of 88 fighters may be the most visceral and exciting piece of action on film this year.
As The Bride, Thurman gives the best performance of her career. The doe-eyed beauty has often been wasted in junk like “The Avengers.” Tarantino sees the steel in Uma’s eyes, and rewards her by giving her a sympathetic, fiery woman warrior to play, the best female action hero since Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2.” Uma gives a wounded soul to what could’ve been a faceless killing machine. She has to hold pretty much the entire movie on her presence, and she does it well.
The rest of the cast are mostly there to either be killed or threatened by The Bride, although ’70s kung fu star Sonny Chiba makes a memorable impression as a sword maker, and Lucy Liu has a feline menace as the leader of Tokyo’s Yakuza, or gangster clan.
But the real co-star of “Bill” has to be Tarantino, who thankfully doesn’t try to act here. His fanboy passion is in every scene, though. We see the familiar chronological shuffling of “Pulp Fiction” as the movie dances about in time, the soundtrack is filled with obscure pop hits, and film-geek homages pepper nearly every frame of what Tarantino gleefully admits is a hopped-up “B” movie.
But while he’s on fire for much of the film, a few of Tarantino’s far-out stylistic choices don’t quite work — an unnecessary Japanese anime animated flashback sequence, while technically gorgeous, stalls the film for several minutes. And there’s a dubious call to switch to black-and-white for part of one big fight scene (although it probably saved the film from an NC-17 rating — spurting blood is not quite so graphic in shades of gray).
The wisdom of the last-minute decision by Miramax Films and Tarantino to split “Kill Bill” into two parts is also debatable. It definitely would’ve been hard to sit through three hours-plus of this high-octane, ultraviolent ride without gasping for air. But making two movies where one was originally intended can’t help but come off as mercenary and money-grubbing.
Certain characters get the shaft in screen time in “Vol. 1” — namely the titular Bill, played by ’70s “Kung Fu” TV star David Carradine (Tarantino originally wanted Warren Beatty, which would’ve been a treat). We only hear Bill’s voice in “Vol. 1.” Likewise, assassins played by Michael “Reservoir Dogs” Madsen and Daryl Hannah show up only fleetingly.
“Bill” does lack the dazzling, profane and pop culture-laced verbal wordplay of “Reservoir Dogs” or the complicated moral heft of a character like Bruce Willis’ dazed and noble boxer in “Pulp Fiction.” It’s all about the action, the thrills.
“Kill Bill” can’t be totally judged on the basis of “Volume 1” — we don’t learn why Bill wants The Bride dead, we see little character development and the dialogue lacks the quotability of Tarantino’s best work.
But as a 110-minute trailer for “Volume 2,” it gets the job done. I’m ready to buy a ticket for “Kill Bill Vol. 2” right now.
(Rated R for buckets of blood, violence, language, you name it. Definitely not for kids under 13.)
***1/2 of four

Sunday, April 11, 2004

So I finally got the 300th and final issue of Cerebus today, in my monthly shipment of comic books.
It was, like most of Cerebus for the past 10 years or so, a combination of beautiful craft, comedy, infuriating digressions and incomprehensible gibberish. I closed the book and thought about what Cerebus meant to me, and why it failed in many ways.
For those not in the know, Cerebus was a comic book by Canadian Dave Sim, begun in the late 1970s and continuing 'til just last month. Over 6,000 pages in 300 black-and-white issues, Sim told the tale of the aardvark Cerebus, who began as a kind of Conan the Barbarian parody, but eventually it turned into a tale spanning decades in the life of Cerebus, as he became a politician, a pope, a lover, a madman, a bar owner and much more.
It was a fascinating tale, but also deeply flawed in a lot of people's eyes as Sim's controversial views on women, religion and more became a bigger and bigger part of the book over the years.

Cerebus in the end meant a lot more to me personally than it did as a work of art. I met my wife Avril because of it in 1992 — a Cerebus fan living in New Zealand, she had a 'hobby' of writing to interesting people who had letters printed in Cerebus, and one particularly oddball letter I had in there provoked a response from her. We became penpals, and she visited me in college in Mississippi in 1993, and we continued being penpals and close friends over the next several years.
One day in 1998, she had a green card and showed up on my doorstep in California, where I was living at the time. In the spirit of "what the hell" we decided to try living together. We got married in fall 1999, and in February of this year we had a bouncing baby boy together.
With her living in New Zealand and me in the Deep South at the time we met via letters, we never would've crossed paths without Cerebus.
It's weird to think about it, how fragile a thing in your life can be -- if I hadn't written that letter, if she didn't read Cerebus, if either of us lost interest in corresponding, where would we be today?
Not that I consider Dave Sim our "matchmaker." Sim would despise the notion I guess -- to boil down a very complex ideology, Sim now basically believes women are "voids" and that a Marxist-feminist conspiracy rules the world. That simplifies it but to many longtime fans some highly inflammatory remarks he had in Cerebus a few years back led Sim to be branded a wacko misogynist. Sim devoted more and more of Cerebus over the years to his interminable essay rants and less to the comic itself.

I don't want to get into too lengthy an analysis of Cerebus here, because for one I'd need to re-read most of the last 150 issues before I could come close to making a final judgment. After reading the final issue today, it was a bittersweet thing. Partly I'm just glad I'll spend the $2 on something else each month.
Sim is impossible to define neatly. Frankly the guy usually comes across like a grade-A ass in print (see this interview for an example). But I respect his accomplishments and the vision, even if in my mind and a lot of others it all lost focus as it went along.
Cerebus is kind of a frustrating failure. A creator can bring his life and beliefs into his work and most do. But in Cerebus the creator and the comic became indistinguishable somewhere along the way. I felt like the story of Cerebus and the goal of simply telling a story got lost somewhere around #200. Instead of letting the story flow organically, it became a very bumpy ride as Sim abandoned characters readers had grown to like, wrote longer and longer essays, and kept throwing in bizarrely incongruous things like parodies of Woody Allen, an F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway pastiche, and more. That stuff could've worked and had in the past -- Sim's "Melmoth" storyline from around #150 basically took 10 issues to show us the death of Oscar Wilde. But the last third of the story reeked of the moral and physical isolation Sim had driven himself into.
For a tiny group of us, Cerebus was a constant. The comic went from 30,000 readers at its height to less than 5,000. For those of us who hung on to the end, it's hard not to take stock of where you are now and where you were when you started. I would've stopped reading Cerebus a while back if it weren't for a slight sense of obligation and that damn fanboy urge to see how it ends.
It came a long way from the chummy, fan club feel the heyday of the comic had (circa #50-#120 maybe) to the lonely spectacle it was at the end, Sim telling us he lives alone with no possessions, devoted to the religion he's invented and donating all his artwork and possessions.
I am glad I've been reading Cerebus, even if the last several years have mostly been out of a sense of duty. Sim's work is guaranteed to spark an argument among comic fans (like here or here) There are defenders, too, and even a magazine planned just to examine Cerebus as a story.
It's a flawed epic to be sure, but I feel like I got something from the entire 300-issue spectacle -- even if it was just the realization that doing 6,000 pages of a comic book might drive a man crazy.
After all, whether Dave Sim likes it or not, without it I wouldn't have met my wife and we wouldn't have the fine little man we do today. Ain't it weird how life works?

If you're interested in reading Cerebus, it's been collected into about a dozen paperbacks, which can be found at most any decent comic store. I recommend High Society, Jaka's Story, Church & State or the first volume Cerebus as a starting point.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

If you're a fan of the movie "Lost In Translation" (and if you're not you really ought to do something about that, easily one of 2003's best, strangely romantic and memorable films), this blog features a host of interesting links and thoughts about the film. The site may be dead soon due to the owner's financial issues, but it's worth a look. I particularly like the bit about the Park Hyatt Tokyo offering a special Lost In Translation vacation package. Includes special "map to film locations." All for a mere 530,000 yen. Next, the theme park!
The Oregonian this morning has a cover story and interview with David Bowie about his concert Tuesday in Portland, his first in nine years. Which I'm not going to. Cue Charlie Brown **sigh*** Between the three-hour drive, $50 tickets and the baby, it's not really an option. I'm determined to see the man — whom my wife will attest I have a freakish fanboy geek devotion to — before I die. Since he's 57 now, he's probably only going to tour so many more times. Ah well, there's always bootlegs...

Friday, April 9, 2004

...One last one for tonight, just wanting to see if this works -- Here's a so-called "golden oldie" column from July 12, 2001 about our trip to Alaska:

Heading back to the place you came from

When I am filling out governmental-type forms and they ask you for your ethnicity, I am always tempted to bypass the standard “Caucasian” and to check off “Alaska native.”
I am not a part of the Eskimo race, of course, but technically, checking off that box could be true enough. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, of all places, where my dad was stationed for a few years in the early ’70s with the U.S. Air Force.
We moved away in 1974, and I never did go back until my wife and I went up to Alaska on our vacation last month.
We saw Anchorage, Denali and Seward, Homer and Talkeetna. We saved Fairbanks for last on the itinerary, not least because it’s 400 long land miles from Anchorage.
Fairbanks always assumed a kind of totemic image, in my mind, because it was my birthplace and because it was so very far away from everything else in these United States. It was a bit rare, to be born an Alaskan, and I always told myself that eventually I would have to see the place where I came from.
In reality, of course, Fairbanks is a fairly ordinary place. There are strip malls and apartment complexes and tourist shops, and a fairly charming downtown park with the Nenana River cutting a swath through it. But there are other places in Alaska, like Kenai Peninsula or Prince William Sound or even Anchorage, that are far more majestic than humble Fairbanks.
Yet it still exudes a pull on the imagination, when you look North and realize: this is the end of the line.
It’s the furthest north major city on this continent, and maybe in the world (Reykjavik, Iceland might win in a tie). The active mind can imagine the endless ice flows, swirling white into infinity, that sit just a few hundred miles away at the end of the land.
And the climate, of course – in June, we saw it at its best, but the winters in Fairbanks are bestial and raw.
The temperature variations in Fairbanks are some of the most severe on earth. In the summer the hot, dry rolling plains can top 90 degrees; in the winter, the Arctic wind will howl across frozen tundra and it could be 50 below.
The cars of locals in Fairbanks are easy to spot: they have dangling electric plugs attached to their front grills. The plugs are used in the winter at convenient power outlets placed around town to keep a car’s engine warm when not in use. If you didn’t use a plug in winter, your car would have the feel and consistency of a giant block of ice, and probably wouldn’t start if you lit a firecracker in the fuel tank.
But in June, the sun beats down with a needle sharpness, and you’d think you were in Arizona, except for the fact that unbearably bright sun just doesn’t go away at all, save for a few twilight hours in the middle of the night. Your eyelids feel strained and overburdened, because of all the light.
My favorite part of our visit to Fairbanks was attending the Midnight Sun Festival. The summer solstice fell during our visit to Fairbanks – the longest day of the year, which, in Fairbanks, clocks in at about 19 hours of sunlight.
Downtown Fairbanks, a street festival is held to commemorate the midnight sun. The town heads out to party from noon to midnight, the sun shining all the while.
The people of Fairbanks were happy and playful in the midnight sun, families and leather-clad bikers and military personnel. I felt like we humble tourists got a brief glimpse of the “real” Fairbanks then – of a place of bizarrely changeable weather and a sun that’s either always shining or perpetually dark – and how people can learn to deal with any strangeness if they love a place enough to call it their home.
I didn’t feel any huge swelling of the heart and stirring of the ancestral memory as I stood in Fairbanks – I guess I’m a member of the gypsy generation we all seem to have become part of, and home is a place you stay in between moves.
I’m not a real Alaskan – I can’t fish, small airplanes (the main mode of travel, off the tourist track) give me claustrophobia and I’ve never told a dog to “mush” in my life.
Technically, I am an Alaskan native, but Nevada County is the place I did most of my growing up in and its pine trees and red clay and slick granite have always rang truest to me.
But Fairbanks was a nice place to visit, and a place as good as any to call the place you were born.
Added a bunch of friends & family links to the side -- if anyone has a cool web site and wants to be added please drop me a holler. (All 8 people reading this, that is...)

I don't want to overdo the doting father thing (does anybody really care what color Peter's spitup was today?), but so far, seven weeks into this whole fatherhood gig, one of my favorite things to do is the bath ritual. He was a real kick during it last night, all wiggly and alert like a startled pink raisin, and barely let out a single squawk. The fragility of the lad becomes apparent when you're trying to keep him safe in an inch of lukewarm water and he's more slippery than a greased hog. But it's worth it when you get pics like this at the end.
Thursday is movies day, when the weekly entertainment publication Currents -- that's one of the things I edit -- comes out. I do a movie reviews column for it that I started about 2 years ago, thinking it would last a few months but it turns out there are a lot of movies in the world, and I'm enjoying playing with the movie review form. So anyway, this week's reviews included Hellboy, which I found a lot of goofy fun even though it's one of the few comic book movies I haven't actually read the comics for, and Shattered Glass which was just a superb little journalistic thriller:

We’ve seen men of steel, men dressed as bats and spiders, and even big green hulks, all working to save the world in comic book-inspired movie action.
So why not a demon superhero?
The colorful, lighthearted and fun “Hellboy,” based on the cult comic by former Portland resident Mike Mignola, opens in 1945, with an evil plot by the Nazis involving sorcery, science and an attempt to bring demons from another realm to Earth. But the experiment goes awry, and American G.I.s capture the thing that does pop through the Nazi portal — a tiny, red baby demon.
Skip to the present day, and this demon has grown up and is working for the U.S. government’s paranormal studies division of the F.B.I. The “Hellboy” (Ron Perlman) is nearly seven feet tall, almost indestructible and has a passion for smoking cigars and eating nachos. Despite his dark heritage, he’s a pretty good guy.
Hellboy spends his time fighting monsters for the government, but he’s kept a secret from the American public, forced to live in a secret federal installation.
Sixty years after his “birth,” the Nazis that brought Hellboy to Earth come back, led by none other than the famous Russian “mad monk” Rasputin (Karel Roden). There’s a plot to destroy the world by summoning unbeatable creatures, a herd of angry immortal Nazis and somewhere in between, Hellboy wants to win the girl (Selma Blair) he’s in love with.
It’s like a cross between “X-Men” and “X-Files,” with a dash of “Men In Black” thrown in the mix.
You can’t go wrong with cyborg Nazis, killer demons and big sci-fi guns. “Hellboy” is a fanboy geek’s dream of a movie, overloaded with bizarre characters and grotesque bad guys. While it’s not quite a perfect movie, it’s a solid entertainment.
Director and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro fills the movie with quirky, colorful details. He actually gave up the chance to direct the next “Harry Potter” movie to do “Hellboy,” and infuses it with a fan’s love while keeping the movie accessible to all.
Hellboy’s definitely at the obscure end of comic characters, somewhere between Silver Surfer and Shanna the She-Devil. “Hellboy” does a pretty good job of setting up the twisted, shadowy world these characters live in for the novices.
Perlman — best known for his turn on TV’s “Beauty and the Beast” in the 1980s and as assorted surly freaks in the “Aliens” and “Blade” series— is an inspired and utterly perfect choice as Hellboy. He actually acts under the latex and gives a refreshingly relaxed performance, wisecracking his way through danger and making Hellboy seem as normal as a red guy with a tail who shaves back his horns daily can be.
Hellboy is a enjoyable working-class hero. Unlike Superman or Batman, you can picture kicking back with a beer to hear Hellboy’s tales of wrestling beasts from the pit. You’ve got to love a hero whose catchphrase is a low-frills, “Aw, crap.”
The movie that surrounds him isn’t quite as lean as it could be, though. The plot itself is a fairly preposterous pastiche of H.L. Lovecraft-style apocalyptic witchcraft and demon-summonings that starts to run out of steam eventually. The movie falls prey to the cursed “multiple climaxes” syndrome.
I also would’ve liked to see a little more of the supporting characters, who, except for a colorless novice FBI agent (Rupert Evans), are all scene-stealers. I particularly liked Abe Sapien, a fish-man psychic, voiced by “Frasier’s” David Hyde Pierce, and the reliably smarmy Jeffrey Tambor as a blowhard FBI chief.
What lingers the most in “Hellboy” aren’t the slimy tentacled nasties, which do all blend together after a while, but the little character moments — a scene where Hellboy and a local kid share a plate of cookies, or the sight of Hellboy’s cluttered dormitory lair, filled with stray cats and candy bar wrappers.
These moments give “Hellboy” the same kind of emotional depth as “Spider-Man” or “X-Men,” so it’s not just empty spectacle. But it also has fun with the idea, and avoids the solemn pomposity that sank last year’s “Daredevil” or “Hulk” flicks.
We’re in the middle of a comic-book movie wave these days, and I couldn’t be happier as long as more of these flicks have the heart and humor of “Hellboy.”

Shattered Glass
Are all journalists liars?
If that’s what you believe, then “Shattered Glass” won’t change your illusions. But if you’re interested in a look behind the bylines and pressures that drive young journalists and the tale of one who went horribly astray, then this movie will fascinate you.
It’s the true tale of writer Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old writer and editor for The New Republic magazine and several other publications who set off a scandal in 1998 when it was revealed that many of his stories consisted of glaring fabrications. He was Jayson Blair before we knew about Jayson Blair, in other words.
First-time director and writer Billy Ray does an impressive job turning Glass’s specific situation into a metaphor for a culture obsessed with entertaining itself at any cost.
“Glass” is basically structured as a detective story. We meet Glass (Hayden Christensen), who’s a fascinating mix of bold storytelling skills, boy genius luck and insecurity galore (his favorite line when confronted is, “Are you mad at me?”). He’s a rising wonder boy under The New Republic’s editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), able to find fantastic stories about great subjects.
When the well-liked Kelly leaves, the less showy, principled Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) becomes the magazine’s new editor, and starts to have suspicions about Glass’s amazing bylines. What follows is a fascinating, twisted journey into the rat’s nest of denial Glass has forged around the truth.
Christensen atones for his wooden “Star Wars” acting in an excellent performance as a character we’ll all recognize, the butt-kissing rogue who wins people over despite their reservations about him. We never really understand Glass, but that’s kind of the point. He’s a void. But Sarsgaard is equally strong as Lane, a character who is nearly invisible at first but gradually becomes a tower of quiet strength and the story’s moral compass.
“Shattered Glass” makes what on the surface isn’t a thrilling subject into a compelling, well-acted and insightful suspense film. It’s one of the best journalism movies I’ve ever seen, the flip side of “All The President’s Men.”
I admit to some bias of my own in enjoying it so much, but I like to think it could be that way even for non-media buffs. It shows the bad and the good of journalism culture, and manages to make the dry business of hunting down sources and writing stories into high suspense.

Thursday, April 8, 2004

Ok then. I'm Nik, this is my blog, and there you go. I'm a newspaper editor somewhere in Oregon ( and live with my wife Avril and my amazing little 7-week-old monkey of a son, Peter Nicholas, and two aging peculiar cats, Kudzu and Luna.

I've been mulling over doing a 'blog' for some time now, but have always been vaguely embarrassed by the notion. A lot of friends and acquaintances do one (links will come up sooner or later) and I've been surfing a lot of media and comic book-related ones. I've written newspaper columns, many of a vaguely personal nature, for more than a decade now, and I guess when you boil it down that isn't too much different than this, is it?

I'm not sure what all I'll be writing on here or how often I'll do it or if this will become one of those sad little abandoned wastelands in cyberspace that are all rotting away in some digital purgatory... I'll probably write a bit about comics, music, the media (since I am one of the galdurn lib'rl media after all) and the boy as he grows and changes. If you're interested take a look now and then, I'll try not to bore you too much. No expectations or ground rules, that's one of the fine (and frightening, I suppose) things about the Internet.
There's a turkey running through the green grass and wildflowers that grow ankle-high in the hillside behind the house. Sign #1 you don't live in the big city!
*bang* this thing on?