Thursday, March 31, 2005

MEDIA: Magazine Maelstrom

Before we commence, don't forget to enter my super-nifty Jay's Days Giveaway contest -- see details below. April 15 is the deadline!

We now return to the regularly scheduled post. Man, do we subscribe to a lot of magazines. This was brought home to me during the wife's recent month-long vacation, when I saved all the magazines for her to read. The stack was almost a foot tall. I'm a magazine nut -- actually majored in journalism with an emphasis on the field, but after an internship in college somehow ended up in newspapers instead. We need to winnow the subscription field a little, but there are admittedly some pretty good ones we get --

Entertainment Weekly The magazine gold standard for me, the one I look forward to the most every week. Smart, sassy and well-written most of the time, with a good deal of variety in its entertainment content. It's mainstream, sure, but very good mainstream coverage. I've actually been a subscriber since the very first issue in 1990 with the exception of a year or two in college when I was too broke to renew. And they haven't even given me a gold watch.

Time I took up Time again to follow along with the 2004 election mostly (and what fun that was). I get annoyed by Time's frequent frothy substance-free red state "lifestyle" covers (the recent "Who was Mary Magdalene" jumps to mind) but generally enough content to justify their low "media member" subscription rate I get. I like it better than Newsweek or US News & World Report.

Comics Buyer's Guide Wayyyy back in the early 1980s I was a subscriber to this for some years, back in the pre-Internet days of comic fandom. It was a lot of fun, but like a lot of readers I drifted away from it for my comics news fix. While I still buy Wizard with a guilty downcast eye frequently and read The Comics Journal whenever they're featuring someone I'm interested in, CBG is the most "amiable" of the comic mags in my mind, without snobbiness or rank immaturity. Its audience seems to be mostly aging fanboys with an emphasis on silver age and obscure comics. Anyway, they redesigned last year from a weekly newspaper into a monthly magazine and I took a flier on a year-long subscription. Still on the fence if I'll renew, though -- it's expensive, for one thing, and the writing is often really bland, with reviews that say little but "this is good." Great columnists, though, but there's the ubiquitous price guide taking up half the book (admittedly filled out with interesting factoids and reviews). If the subscription were about half the $40 annual rate, I wouldn't think twice about renewing, but that's a lot of dough for a mixed-bag magazine right now.

The New Yorker Our most expensive magazine subscription but well worth it, even if half the time I never seem to get the entire issue read. Best in-depth reporting and feature profiles of any magazine I read.

Parenting (or is it Parents, I never recall) - I of course being the perfect father need no reassurance of my parenting techniques (consisting mostly of repeated tickling and a couple diaper changes a week), but for some reason the wife insists upon it.

Blender While the decaying dinosaur of Rolling Stone ambles along, this U.K.-inspired magazine from the "Maxim" publishers has taken the lead in great music coverage. I'm nuts for the info-packed, snarky feel of UK mags like Mojo, and this is the American equivalent. Sure, lots of scantily-clad ladies for the lads, but also surprisingly diverse coverage of everyone from the Britneys to Bright Eyes to Elvis Costello to the Flaming Lips. Anybody looking for a fun music magazine should read this one.

Premiere Not as comprehensive as Entertainment Weekly, but good Hollywood coverage and profiles. A cheap subscription and good in-depth articles, which usually makes it worth reading every month.

Giant Our newest subscripton, because they offered an insanely low $7/year rate. This new magazine bills itself as "the #1 entertainment mag for guys" which is usually a huge red flag, but I picked up an issue at a newsstand and was surprised by how much I liked it -- it's far more intelligent and lower in testosterone than "Maxim" and "Esquire" and the like. The issue I read actually contained references to Nabokov and a feature article about good ol' British pop legends XTC, and an interview with Ethan Hawke that was actually quite fascinating. It's a new magazine so I felt bound to give it a little support, to help it stand out from most of the brain-dead "men's mags" out there.

Spin Got as a free subscription for some credit card points thing -- Spin is better than it once was, when it was all attitude, ultra-trendy and woefully poor writing. Columns by Dave Eggers and Chuck Klosterman earn points in my book. Still terrible reviews, though, and frankly, if it weren't free I don't think I'd be reading Spin. The problem with Spin is, I've never really felt like it has a compelling reason to exist.

Columbia Journalism Review OK, this one's mostly for the job, but it's a very good journalism "insiders" zine.

Whew! I need to go read a magazine and take a break from this typing!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

COMICS: Jay's Days Giveaway!

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It's contest time here at the redesigned Spatula Forum! In honor of my one-year blog anniversary April 7, today kicks off the Jay's Days Giveaway. I've known Jason Marcy since 1992 or so, when we were both novice cartoonists in the small press game. Jay started out doing a goofy superhero parody called Powerwus, but for my money he really found his own voice when he started doing raw, funny and honest autobiographical comics. He wasn't the first person to tell his life story in comics, of course, but for my money he's one of the best. Jay is a bit of a neurotic guy, filled with self-loathing, big dreams, worries and passions. Pretty much like all of us, in other words. Reading his comics over the past decade or so, we've all watched him struggle in love, work and family, seeing him go from a single guy to a married father. Jay's carved out a nice niche for himself in the field of autobio comix -- not as insanely freakish as Joe Matt, younger and more optimistic than Harvey Pekar, but grittier and less whimsical than James Kochalka.

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Jay's work has been in minicomics such as "Tales of the Petro-Canada Man" and "Aaaargh," and the last few years in the nice graphic novels "Jay's Days." Last year's "Jay's Days Vol. 3: Rise and Fall of the Pasta Shop Lothario" is his most mature, heartfelt and accomplished work yet, taking on Jay and his wife Kris' leap into parenthood. Having just become a dad myself, I really empathized with Jay wondering if he's good enough, ready enough to take on raising a kid, wondering if he'll ever "hit it big" in his career. Jay worries and whines a hell of a lot, but he never becomes too annoying (of course, I don't have to live with him, eh?).

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So, now that I've introduced the man, I'd like to share his work. Here's the contest: In the spirit of Jay's confessional style, let's have the Jay's Days Most Embarassing Moments contest! Jay's work is all about telling us the sordid details of his life. So Spatula Forum readers, if you were going to write an autobiography, tell the story of your life, what would the title be? If I bought your book, what would you call it? Then, e-mail me your title to nikdirga @ The winners will be picked from the most original, funniest and whatever the co-judge, my wife, likes the most. Feel free to tell us more about your imaginary autobiography if you want -- dust jacket copy, perhaps?

Thanks to my old pal Jay and Ron and Astor over at Landwaster Books for helping provide cool prizes. There will be three prize packages, including copies of Jay's Days Vol. 3 and Vol. 1, plus samples of Jay's rare early minicomics work and daily Internet strip! The deadline is April 29 - tax day, easy to remember, so have fun! Comment if you have questions, and fellow bloggers, be a pal and link to the contest!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

LIFE: Easter makeover

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And on the third day, Spatula Forum rose again. How's that for a hideously insensitive Easter reference? Anyway, in case you're confused by the new look, I got bored of my old Blogger template after nearly a year using it and wanted something a little less blocky and cleaner. Found this fine template over at Blogger Templates and dig it. Plan to tweak it a little bit here and there but generally happy with it. Comments or whatnot invited.

Yesterday we took Baby Peter on his first Easter Egg hunt. He was as interested in chewing on sticks and grass as he was in picking up plastic eggs, but what can you expect from a 13-month-old?

Gack. Am battling a minor cold and coughing like a Turkish sailor in an opium den. Monday, I'll post that groovy comics giveaway contest I've been threatening to do for a while. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

MUSIC: Gabba Gabba Hey!

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Watched "The End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones" last night, an entertaining look back at the punk rock forefathers' 20-year career. I'm a fan of the Ramones' 1-2-3-4 go! adrenaline-infused punchy songlets, and enjoyed this retrospective of their career. It's definitely tinged with tragedy, though, as three of the four founding members have died in the past five years -- two of cancer, one of an overdose. It's hard not to have the movie feel like a requiem. The directors' main mission is to give some respect and props back to this seminal, but long-overlooked band - you can make the case for everyone from the Clash to Green Day having gotten tips from the Ramones. Testimonials galore in this documentary, which also boasts a lot of nice archival live footage (not as much as there could've been, though).

The Ramones were like a Silly-Putty mirror image of a band like the Beatles, cartoony looking, signing about the KKK and pinheads and sniffing glue, yet professional and hard-working. You've got shy Joey, the lead singer, flaky Dee Dee, hard-assed brains Johnny, and drummer Tommy, who's booted from the band after challenging Johnny's authority and replaced with a never-ending Spinal Tap-esque series of new men on the skins. Lots of interview footage, even of Joey who died in 2001 (Dee Dee died in 2002, at the end of filming, and Johnny just last year). The band is all sharp personalities, the spark that lit the fuse of their uncompromising, raw music. The main focus of the film is their "peak" years of 1975-1980 or so, as the band desperately strove to break big, yet never really did. Like the Velvet Underground, they're one of those groups that became legends much later on. The Ramones puttered along until 1996 or so, but they really made their mark in the late 1970s.

It's a pretty well-done music documentary, although not the best I've ever seen -- the storytelling is pretty straightforward and doesn't dig tremendously deep into what made the Ramones tick musically. One thing I felt was missing from "End of the Century" was a sense of fun -- I listen to the Ramones when I want a pithy kick, a shot of energy, yet you come away from "End of the Century" feeling like the band was a bit of a downer, with Joey and Johnny bitter enemies (over a girl) for years, and Dee Dee lost in his heroin daze (the sequence of him leaving the band in the 1990s and becoming a white rapper may be the saddest/funniest part of the entire movie). The Ramones are a fun band to listen to, but it doesn't feel like actually being a Ramone was any fun (which might well have been the case). Still, "End of the Century" is a nice rocket ride paying well-deserved homage to one of the great unsung bands of our time. Gabba gabba hey!

Friday, March 25, 2005

COMICS: Quick Comic Reviews!

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Spider-Man/Human Torch #3 (of 5)
The last thing I thought I needed was another Spider-Man cash-in miniseries, but at the rate it's going, Spider-Man/Human Torch might actually be one of my favorite comics of 2005. This proudly light-hearted, old-fashioned superhero comic actually revels in the 40 years of Fantastic Four/Spider-Man comics history, rather than trying to be "hip" and "modern." The five self-contained issues simply follow the friendship and rivalry of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four's youngest member over the years, with each issue stopping in at a different point in their history. This issue checks us in what would be about 1974 in "real" comics time, just after the death of Gwen Stacy in "Amazing Spider-Man." Writer Dan Slott has a fine touch on humor with being too goofy (see: "JLA: Classified" below) and moments of character that ring utterly true. The friendship between the two young superheroes, one an outsider and one a public idol, has rarely been done as well as it is here. Ty Templeton's brightly colored, fluid art is a real treat, too. And my god, how can any Spider-Man fan not love a comic that includes the swingin' '70s relic, The Spidermobile, the villainy of "The Red Ghost and his Super Apes," and to top it all off, a nice riff on those insanely silly Hostess Fruit Pie superhero comics ads of the era? Simply the most fun I've had reading a comic in a good while, and writer Slott continues to show why his star is on the rise. Grade: A

New Avengers #4
I'm still enjoying this. Like most of writer Brian Michael Bendis' work, it's weak on plot and strong on characterization and dialogue. The banter and camaraderie between the disparate characters shoved together here is the highlight for me, with the Spider-Man/Luke Cage dialogue a real treat. Still not sure where it's going, and worried it'll collapse in the next few parts, but enjoyable enough superhero team fun for me. And the most controversial claw-wielding "New Avenger" finally makes an appearance at the end of this issue. For what it is, this works for me, and is better than any of the "old" Avengers comics of the past few years for certain. Grade: B+

Shaolin Cowboy #2
I wasn't nuts about the first issue of this Geoff Darrow production, but part two is a whole lot better. Really, this experimental, beautifully drawn and utterly insane comic should've been released as one graphic novel, rather than two incomplete parts. In part one, mysterious cowboy monk encounters huge group of bad guys, proceeds to fight them all in Darrow's gorgeous, painstakingly detailed art. That was pretty much it, so I wasn't really into picking up #2. But I did anyway, and in this issue, we learn the violence is a plot by the evil King Crab, a... crab... angry at the monk for eating his family. Much violence ensues again, with the highlight being a man/crab kung fu battle that has to be seen to be believed. It's clearer now to me that Darrow doesn't mean this to be taken seriously at all, making it a lot easier to just bask in the glory of his art. The story apparently wraps this issue, and I'm not even sure if there'll be an #3. But overall, it's recommended as totally off-the-wall exploitation crab-fu fun. Grade: A-

JLA: Classified #5
Goofball superhero comedy, in part two of Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire's "I Can't Believe It's The Justice League" storyline. What with the DC Universe's increasing grimness lately, it's nice to see a superhero comic all for laughs, and I've got a soft spot for the "comedy" Justice League of the '80s this series revives. Still, this issue seemed a little "off" to me; the Marx Brothers type comedy got a bit shrill and over-the-top, with a little too much shouting and flailing of arms. A few scenes also lacked clarity to me. But any comic that ends up with the heroes accidentally banishing themselves to Hell is OK with me. Grade: B

Thursday, March 24, 2005

POLITICS: Death before dying

If anything, the sordid Terri Schiavo mess illustrates how effective the radical conservative takeover of America has become lately, and how hideously ugly it is when politics intertwine with deeply personal matters of life and death. The Republicans in Congress seem far more concerned with smut on TV, steroids in baseball and interfering with states' rights than in doing anything substantive for the nation's welfare. Moderates have been marginalized as Tom DeLay does his merry little dance for the cameras.

I am a firm believer that we all should have the right to die if we choose. I live in the only state to approve doctor-assisted suicide, and I simply don't think the federal government has any role in telling you or I we can't make those decisions for ourselves. Of course, the tricky part of the Schiavo case is she's brain-damaged, and the two poles of her family have been battling it out for years over what her fate will be. It's a wretchedly ugly mess, which has no possibility of a "happy ending" for anyone. I pity both the husband and the parents, who have been swept up in a cable news-powered, politician-hijacked whirlwind beyond their control.

But when right-leaning bloggers like Andrew Sullivan are pointing out the incredible hypocrisy behind the politics of it all, there's something rotten in D.C. Sullivan manages to distill this issue nicely in a few sentences:
"So it is now the federal government's role to micro-manage baseball and to prevent a single Florida woman who is trapped in a living hell from dying with dignity. We're getting to the point when conservatism has become a political philosophy that believes that government -- at the most distant level -- has the right to intervene in almost anything to achieve the right solution. Today's conservatism is becoming yesterday's liberalism."

It's sad to see the moderate wing and fiscal conservative elements of the Republican party be stomped into the dirt as their party is kidnapped. States' rights, once a principle of conservatism? Thrown out the window if the federal govt. doesn't like what the states are doing, as witnessed by their repeated assaults on Oregon's suicide law. I don't want to be told how to live - or end - my life by the likes of John Ashcroft or Tom DeLay (who, coincidentally, is under investigation for numerous improprieties -- gee, do you think inserting himself so prominently into the Schiavo business is his way of diverting attention from his own political and legal problems?). Fortunately, some Republicans are voicing dissent -- but the question is, do they have the spine to truly take on the extremists who have taken over their party? Is it too late?

The whole Schiavo business may end soon, or it may drag on for years to come. She can't tell us what she wants (and the ultimate moral of the story might be, for god's sake get a living will made). "Death with dignity," we call it here in Oregon. Man, there's not much of either in this affair right now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

MOVIES: Ladder 49 review

We meet Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) on the worst day of his life.
A firefighter in Baltimore, he responds with his crew to a huge warehouse blaze, with people trapped inside. In the course of rescue work, Jack gets separated from his team and is unable to get out of the burning building. “Ladder 49” starts with this harrowing sequence — and then backs up to tell us how this man got here.
Over the next two hours, we go back and forth between Jack’s terrifying ordeal and learning who he is — looking at his 10-year career as a firefighter, from a wide-eyed rookie to a married father with children, an experienced old hand who’s seen the best and worst of the job.
“Ladder 49” nicely combines pulse-pounding fiery action with characters you care about, good performances and a solid feel for drama and comedy. It’s got heart.
And it’s far better than the overwrought 1990s movie “Backdraft,” which tossed in insane arsonists, fire investigators and family bickering. “Ladder 49,” for the most part, sticks to chronicling the life and times of one firefighter, the highs and the lows. You really get a feel for a fireman’s job.
It’s anchored by a very sturdy performance by Phoenix, one of my favorite young actors. Phoenix is one of those actors who at first glance doesn’t appear to be doing a lot with the role, but who grabs you with his subtle presence. As his boss and mentor, John Travolta chews the scenery as usual, but he reins it in a little to create an appealing supporting role.
Director Jay Russell has crafted what I’d almost call a “feel-good movie” about death-defying work. He’s clearly out to pay tribute to the men and women who do the job (although there’s no women firefighters seen here). He stages action excellently, and really makes us see the camaraderie between Jack and his blood-brother co-workers.
As “Ladder 49” progresses, though, it gets darker, as the real toll of fighting fires becomes apparent. It takes some unexpected detours, and digs deeper than the typical action blockbuster.
I’m uncertain about the movie’s ending, which tips the movie’s balance a bit too much toward melodrama and canonizing firefighters. Firefighters are heroic, without a doubt, but they’re also complicated human beings. Making them into flawless icons drains any chance for dramatic development in a movie. “Ladder 49” comes close to that pitfall.
But most of the time, “Ladder 49” walks that line competently. Even if it stumbles a little in the end, it’s still a compelling look at how firefighters are made, and why they do what they do.
*** of four

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

MUSIC: LCD Soundsystem

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I'm a white guy, so I can't dance. I'm not a huge dance music/electronic fan - my knowledge of the genre pretty much stops with Moby - but great reviews made me decide to pick up LCD Soundsystem's self-titled debut CD on a whim. And I'm enjoying the heck out of this beat-packed, propulsive "dance-punk" album so far. The two-CD set compiles the album proper on the first disc, with the second disc featuring seven previously vinyl-only singles. LCD is basically James Murphy, an East Coast hipster who splices together influences from '70s ängst-pop like Can and Kraftwerk, '80s Talking Heads and a dash of punk-rock sound into appealingly bouncy, droll electronic jams. It's great fun stuff, riding in on that enjoyably retro dance-rock wave including bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Killers.

The dry humor of Murphy's work really helps dispel that "too cool for school" aura that puts me off most club-type music. His monotone David Byrne-esque chant/singing is mannered and catchy. The leadoff track, "Daft Punk is Playing at my House," is all tongue-in-cheek bravado, with a pounding rhythm and yes, a cowbell solo! On disc 2, Murphy goes for all-out comedy in the great "Losing My Edge," all about a self-proclaimed hipster's loss of relevance ("I've never been wrong. I used to work in the record store"). Other songs like "Yeah" (featured in two versions), "Movement" and "Disco Infiltrator" continue to play with Murphy's outsider-looking-inside viewpoint, where stark beats expand into machinated walls of sound. A few of the tracks venture into different territory, notably the White Album Beatles homage of "Never As Tired As When I'm Waking Up." LCD Soundsystem ain't deep, but if you're inclined it'll get you dancing. And if you're a sad old white guy like me, you'll bob your head and look quite absurd as you drive along listening to it in your Subaru.

ETC.: Catching up

Geez, does Blogger have a case of the slows lately or what? I've read that 30,000 to 40,000 new blogs are being created a day, which is a lot of damn blogs when you think about it. Of course, 29,990 of those will never be updated again after the first two posts, but that could explain the strain free sites like Blogger are facing lately. I can't complain too much because gosh darn it, it's FREE using Blogger and I've been generally happy with 'em, but hopefully they'll catch up with the blogging spree soon and have less issues...

Realized my posting last night may be the very first time I've ever put my picture on the blog. My apologies to the sensitive. So much for the Witness Protection Program. Please be alerted the camera adds 200 pounds, removes my hairline, adds wrinkles and makes me look like a combination of Nic Cage and a dead Elvis impersonator. The boy on the other hand is actually 150% cuter in real life.

In the spirit of radical renovation have decided to copy other blogs and use a headline to indicate what my postings will ramble on about. Am considering a full template revision just in time for this lil' ol' blog's first anniversary which is coming up April 7. Where has the time gone?

Monday, March 21, 2005

LIFE: Return of the Boy

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Hurray, I have a boy again! After an arduous epic journey from New Zealand that encompassed 12 hours on a plane, 3 hours in a car, another 8 hours in a car, the family is finally all reunited here in Oregon. Baby Peter is terrific, his walking has accelerated to light speed over the past several weeks and he has learned how to open the bathroom door. In our absence our landlord also waxed the kitchen floor which has resulted in many amusing pratfalls for mother, father and baby. Peter did not forget who I was (which was my constant worry) and all is back to the usual chaotic kind of existence. Regular blogging to resume as baby time, work and so forth allows.

And if you haven't had enough rambling about Baby Peter, check out this column I wrote for the paper recently.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

ETC.: Bloggus Interruptus

Wow, I rock! Thanks a ton to Dave over at Yet Another Comics Blog, who for some crazy reason chose me as the winner of his "Spider-Girl casting contest." Free comics! See what five minutes of typing instead of working will get you, kids? Anyway, check out my entry and the other fine ones here.

I actually am planning my own nifty comics-related giveaway contest starring an old small-press buddy of mine for sometime before the end of the month -- still ironing out a few details, but watch this space for updates, it'll be groovy fun!

That's probably my token blogging for the rest of the week, unless I find a little more time. Wife Avril and Baby Peter are returning from their nearly monthlong New Zealand trip Friday, hurray, and I'll be driving down to California to pick them up in San Francisco. My bachelor interlude is nearly over, but truth be told, it got a bit old after the first week. Anyway, I'm scrambling at work to get ahead for a few days off, and dealing with a complicated home situation involving a melting water heater, vacationing landlord and possible death by electrocution. (Long story) Anyway, blogging hiatus to be expected for most of the week. Go read Hulk's blog instead for your hit of Net wisdom.

Friday, March 11, 2005

COMICS: Doonesbury and the Duke

Pop will eat itself. So this week's "Doonesbury" strips by Garry Trudeau feature the odd spectacle of a fictional creation paying homage to the suicide of the real character who inspired him. Of course, I'm talking about Duke, taking on the bullet-propelled farewell of Hunter S. Thompson. The whole week's worth of strips to date can be found here at the official site and I encourage you taking a look.

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Strip absolutely and 100% copyright all those people it's supposed to be copyrighted to.

The sequence this week has the uneasy feel of a satirist trying to be sincere, and it doesn't really work. A shame, because "Doonesbury," going for about 79 years now, has been on a high lately, with the great sequence about longtime character B.D.'s wounding and leg amputation in Iraq.

But this week, Trudeau stumbles, clumsily mixing Ralph Steadman-type art with the wacky character of Duke, who has long since grown far, far away from the inspiration of Thompson back in the '70s. The last few decades, Duke has mostly been a kind of penny-ante dictator in various American-occupied territories, from Kuwait to Samoa to China, a kind of highly exaggerated and malicious parody of the American id, all greed, decadence and lust for power. Originally, Duke was actually a Rolling Stone writer with crazy drug habits, much like Thompson (who reportedly absolutely loathed Trudeau's take on him). But just like "Cerebus" started as a Conan homage and ended up worlds away, so has Duke in the "Doonesbury" realm.

Suddenly having him addressing the death of his "maker" is a stretch, even for a strip that often breaks the fourth wall. It doesn't really work at all for me; the sensible thing to do would have been either to ignore it, or "retire" Duke (who for me has always been one of the less interesting, more one-noted "Doonesbury" characters anyway). Retiring Duke isn't really an option, so I guess Trudeau felt he had to tackle it. Pretty much a no-win situation for him, and a speed bump in the strip's usually successful journey. Both Thompson and Duke probably deserved better.

COMICS: Quick Comic reviews

Blood of the Demon #1

The Demon is one of those DC Universe mainstays who works well as a supporting character (particularly back in Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing") but is a hard sell on his own. This latest series try is driven by plotter and artist John Byrne, and features my old small press buddy Will Pfeifer on dialogue. It's a decent start for this potentially fascinating character, an immortal man, Jason Blood, who has been bonded with a demon since the age of Merlin. The demon Etrigan and Blood share a "Jekyll and Hyde" type relationship, although Blood is hardly an angel himself. Anyway, this first issue is pretty solid as these go, with some of Byrne's strongest art in a long time (he's well inked by a fellow who only goes by the name "Nekros" - a demon himself?!?), and Pfeifer's sharp dialogue helping dim the hokey edge Byrne's solo work has had lately. Unusually graphic and bloody for a mainstream DC comic, with head-choppings, torture and so forth, but that intensity works well for the story. The plot is basic - Blood is captured by mysterious foes, escapes, and returns to get revenge — and I'm not quite sure where it's all going. Like most first issues lately, it's not self-contained -- but it's got me interested enough to return for #2, which I never thought I'd say about a "Demon" solo comic. Grade: B

Ultimate Fantastic Four #16
The Negative Zone storyline, part four, things finally pick up after a rather excessively drawn-out first three chapters. The Ultimate FF meet the new version of old FF foe Annihilus, and he's a suitably creepy alien overlord. I rather like Warren Ellis' new take on Annihilus, who has always been a villain that looked cool but didn't have much more in the way of a personality than "die puny humans." This Annihilus is genuinely freaky and more crafty, with artist Andy Kubert giving him a slight redesign that plays up his alien nature. Still, overall this storyline feels unnecessarily padded, although this is the strongest chapter so far, and it promises to pick up for the final two. I'm still considering dropping this book after Ellis' writing ends with #18, though - so far, the "Ultimate" Fantastic Four don't come close to the depth of the original articles. (Minus a point for that goofy expression by the Thing on the last page - meant to be horrified, it just looks plain silly.) Grade: B-

Thursday, March 10, 2005

MOVIES: Hating Huckabee's

OK, here's an existential video review for you --

‘I (Heart) Huckabee’s’
Billed as an “existential comedy,” “I (Heart) Huckabee’s” has a lot on its mind. Unfortunately, it’s like listening to a drunken college freshman corner you at the bar to tell you all about his first philosophy course and how “wicked cool” it all is.
And it’s a shame, because director David O. Russell has a quirky and promising style, with the great Gulf War movie “Three Kings” and the Ben Stiller comedy “Flirting With Disaster” to his credit.
But he overdoes the quirk in this muddled, wanna-be philosophical mess, which features dialogue like, “Say this blanket represents all the matter and energy in the universe, OK? This is me, this is you, and over here, this is the Eiffel Tower, right, it’s Paris!”
Jason Schwartzman stars as Albert, a young environmentalist who seems to be losing control of his life and searching for meaning. He retains a bizarre firm of “existential detectives” (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to investigate his life.
Toss in a money-hungry department store chain publicist (Jude Law), a confused firefighter (Mark Wahlberg), a supermodel who seeks enlightenment (Naomi Watts), and you’ve got a swirling, self-indulgent comedy about whatever the meaning of “is” is.
Its defenders might tell “Huckabee’s” haters that they “don’t get it.” But the truth is, there’s not much here to get. It’s like one of those Jack Handey “Deep Thoughts” skits on “Saturday Night Live” come to life.
Russell simply tosses everything he can think of in the pot. “Huckabee’s” wants to be a movie about ideas, which is laudable, but the ideas lack coherence and the story gets lost in the mix. It boasts the same striking visual sense and directing flair as “Three Kings,” but none of that film’s emotional impact.
Around the time two characters start having ridiculously silly sex in a mud puddle, I began reading a book and occasionally glancing up at the screen.
Intermittently, there’s amusing scenes, and the gem of the idea about a young man desperately searching for truth is solid.
There are a few bright spots among the strained performances, particularly Law as the shallow, cynical store publicist, and Wahlberg as a dazed firefighter who’s so committed to environmentalism he rides his bicycle to fires. But Schwartzman, as the lead, is just irritating and lacks presence.
I enjoy many of the quirky, intellectual movies “Huckabee’s” strives to emulate, such as “Being John Malkovich” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” But those movies have a healthy sense of humor and absurdity tucked in with the moralizing, which “Huckabee’s” lacks.
For a movie so dependent on the brain, “Huckabee’s feels awfully empty-headed.
* out of four

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

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Well, we're past the halfway point of Avril and Baby Peter's monthlong trip to New Zealand to visit her family. Still missing the heck out of the boy pretty much every minute (and the wife too, ahem), but now that the end is in sight and their March 18 return draws near, I'm trying to wallow in my bachelor lifestyle a little longer since it'll be history before too long. Why, I haven't made a beer can pyramid since college! And that movie "Super Size Me," where the guy eats nothing but fast food for a month, really makes it sound a lot worse than it actually is.

One of the things that makes this trip easier for us all is the miracles of modern technology. Avril's able to send me e-mails and photos pretty much every day (like the one of Baby Peter frolicking in the sand on a typically gorgeous NZ beach, above), and even a few short movie excerpts. Even 10 years ago, we couldn't have done that, and leaving New Zealand would've felt a lot further apart than it does now. I can't interact with the boy, of course, but at least I get to see him regularly and feel like he's still around. (Of course, when gets back and promptly starts playing with the knife drawer and pouring milk on my comics collection, I may start wishing he was permanently outposted to some remote South Pacific island...)

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

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"... Your own life while it's happening to you never has any atmosphere until it's a memory. So the fantasy corners of America seem atmospheric because you've pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you've custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one."
—Andy Warhol

So still wife-less and baby-less until the 18th, I had a day off yesterday and took a trek up to Eugene to check out this Andy Warhol exhibit at the University of Oregon's museum. I've always enjoyed Warhol's bright pop art, and having a show of nearly 100 screenprints less than a hour from home was worth checking out. I'm no art critic, so I can't tell you exactly what is about Warhol that grabs me in any sort of eloquent fashion. On the one hand, you're looking at copies of copies of pictures of soup cans, Mick Jagger, shoes, Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and the like – there's no reason that these images should have any more depth to you than a picture of a squirrel in the newspaper. Yet Warhol works, somehow - it's a soup can, but the very act of staring at it makes it both a soup can and an open-ended object to you, getting you thinking about whatever art makes you think about.

Again, I'm no art critic and don't have the vocabulary to explain my appreciation for Warhol that I wish I did. I guess part of me has always liked the sunshine colors of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein because they remind me a bit of comic books (Lichtenstein even more so, obviously), and their knack for appropriation as communication. They were samplers before sampling took over music, mix-tape artists. Does it mean anything? Well, like all art, I guess it means whatever you want it to, and there's room in there for everything from Da Vinci to Keith Haring. I just like soup cans and Hollywood stars, really.

"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, there I am. There's nothing behind it."
-Andy Warhol

Saturday, March 5, 2005

I am all out of words after a week of writing and editing and so forth, so let me linkblog a little for your Friday edutainment:

The Oscars have a billion viewers! This is the figure we always hear, and I admit like most I accept it without really thinking about the likelihood of 1/6th of the planet really caring whether Alan Alda wins Best Supporting Actor. This nifty little piece in The New Yorker recently does a good job of putting that myth to rest. (Of course, we'll still hear people talking about the Oscars' billion-person audience for eons to come, but you and I will know better.)

• I've been merrily immersed in the DVDs of the HBO series "Deadwood" lately, and have worked my way up to the final disc. This is the best HBO series since the first few seasons of "Six Feet Under," a stark, profane, morally complex and lyrical Western that just builds in power over the course of the season. The second season starts soon on HBO, which of course we can't afford right now, so I have to wait another year or so to see how it all shakes out. I love the idea of Westerns, but few in practice really grab me. Many of them lack a kind of primal rawness to show how life was really like back then, feeling more like glossy historical reenactments than anything else. "Deadwood" doesn't spare on the mud, the feces and blood of life before air conditioning and cable TV. "Deadwood" also features more swearing than any TV series I've seen in my life, yet it works. The vile, hugely charismatic saloon owner Swearingen manages to raise the word "cocksucker" to a kind of art over the course of the series. Check it out.

• Ever heard of "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman"? It was the #1 movie in the country last weekend, shocking a lot of pundits. It didn't get a very good review from Roger Ebert, and naturally this was taken as evidence of racism by many. Ebert writes a cool essay responding to these complaints. Eloquent as always, somewhat sympathetic to the detractors yet holding firm on his own well-reasoned views. I wish people could separate their politics from a review of a work of art, but it ain't always so. (Kudos to Ebert for not sinking to a "my best friends are black" type response by pointing out that he is, in fact, married to a black woman.)

Friday, March 4, 2005

For our Thursday video review, let's all go to 'The Village':

‘The Village’
“The Village” opened big last August, earning $50 million in one weekend. It fell just as hard, losing more than 67 percent of its audience by its second weekend.
Bad word of mouth, perhaps?
“The Village” is M. Night Shyamalan’s latest twisty thriller, with some grand ideas wrapped in a bunch of malarkey.
It’s set in an undetermined time, in a small village near some ominous woods. People talk in whispers and live in mortal fear of “Those We Do Not Speak Of,” mysterious monsters they actually spend quite a lot of time speaking of. Nobody in the village enters the woods, lest those they don’t speak of attack them.
But one intrepid villager (Joaquin Phoenix) is determined to defy the conventions, and go into the woods. The secret of these woods won’t come easily, though.
Moody and ominous, “The Village” features some great filmmaking, but flourishes of excellence don’t make up for a movie that never quite comes together. It’s so serious that it becomes hard to take seriously.
M. Night is dangerously close to being seen as a kind of one-tricky pony, whose movies are more gimmicky puzzles than solid storytelling. I quite liked “The Sixth Sense” and the underrated “Unbreakable,” but “Signs” and its limp ending fell flat. “The Village” is even less inspired, and its plot riddled with holes.
It’s a series of moody moments strung together without any sense of the big picture.
I did quite like Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance, as a spunky blind girl with surprising inner strength — although as written her character isn’t all that deep. Adrien Brody is merely embarrassing as a kind of “village idiot,” while Phoenix exudes a nice quiet strength as the movie’s ostensible hero.
It’s not entirely M. Night’s fault, but the fact is, people now watch his movies trying to figure out the “twist,” rather than absorbing the story. That’s no way to watch a movie.
“The Village’s” climax may be fairly predictable, but at its heart it’s saying something interesting about our society.
Shyamalan has big goals for his movies; possibly too big for his own good. Rumor has it his next film is an adaptation, of Yann Martel’s quirky novel “The Life Of Pi,” which could be just the twist his stalling career desperately needs.
** of four

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Hey, it's March, and once again, time for that timeless tradition I started just last month, Books I Read. Here's what I read in February, and what I thought of 'em. Not the biggest month for me, but two of the books topped 600 pages, so whaddaya gonna do?

“Bluebeard” by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the few novels of his I hadn't read. An interesting book about a painter recalling his life, it's not Vonnegut's best, but as usual offers some great insights into life, the universe and everything. A bit strange in that it didn't include any fantasy elements, as most of his work usually does.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” by Susannah Clarke. An 800-page monster of a novel about two magicians' friendship, battles and falling out in 19th-century Victorian England, I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like a cross between Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman and "Harry Potter," set in a world where magic is real but dormant. Some really compelling scenes of magic and mystery, and a great imaginary history, it gets borderline pretentious in parts (full of footnotes, and Clarke insists on using odd archaic spellings throughout, which doesn't quite work) but overall, a good yarn. I'd read a sequel, if one materializes.

“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell, about the power of intuitive thinking. Gladwell writes some fascinating reporting for "The New Yorker" and did the great "The Tipping Point" a few years back. "Blink" is compelling reading as well, but not quite as cohesive as "The Tipping Point." It feels more episodic and the central thesis is made and explained in the first few pages, so anything after that is just repeating the point. Yet Gladwell layers on tons of interesting factoids and trivia, touching on everything from Warren Harding to "New Coke" and art history in showing how split-second decisions and first impressions matter.

"The Final Solution: A Story of Detection" by Michael Chabon didn't really impress me too much. A short novella about the 87-year-old Sherlock Holmes (never named, but that's clearly who it's meant to be) and his final case, in World War II England, it was inconclusive and the mystery hard to follow. Beautiful writing, as with all of Chabon's books, and a nice tone poem, but really not much "there" there on this one.

"Gilgamesh: A New English Version" by Stephen Mitchell. I don't go in for ancient poetry much, but this library book intrigued me, and is a really interesting new translation of the ancient Assyrian poem with a good essay about it beforehand. My sole exposure to "Gilgamesh" was in English class and Jim Starlin's underrated comic-book sci-fi adaptation "Gilgamesh II" a while back, but this did a nice job of bringing this dusty old tale to life.

"Strange Fascination: David Bowie - The Definitive Story" by David Buckley. I'm a frickin' gigantic David Bowie fan, with more than 50 CDs and bootlegs in my collection, but had yet to find a truly well-written biography of the man. Those I've read were either too sleazy and gossipy or absymally out-of-date. Enter "Strange Fascination," a remarkably good look at the man's legendary career up to the year 2000. Buckley focuses on the music rather than sex and drugs (although there's plenty of that here), showing Bowie's development as an artist and the legions of musicians influenced by him. Extraordinarily good, critical and thorough at nearly 700 pages, and the first book about Bowie to join Nicholas Pegg's mammoth "The Complete David Bowie" as "essential" in my library for Bowiephiles.

"Hard News: The Scandals At The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media" by Seth Mnookin. Yeah, I'm sick of hearing about serial liar Jayson Blair too, but this book, which calls the Blair affair a "journalistic suicide bomb" in the heart of The New York Times newsroom, is fascinating stuff, delving deep into the culture of the Times and showing Blair as a symptom of a more general disfunction created by editor Howell Raines. Full of meaty gossip (and boy, Raines comes off as everything I try not to emulate in my own job as an editor here), behind-the-scenes newsroom information on how the Times works and the realization that every paper, from the humble dailies like mine to the giants of the industry, have the same problems with ego, incompetence and fatigue.