Friday, July 24, 2015

Promissory Notice

I'm pulling together some thoughts on the late E.L. Doctorow. In the meantime, here are some links you might dig.

Douglas Coupland has some thoughts on this business with Greece.

Locke Peterseim brings Sullen, Bitter, Grumpy and Cynical to Pixar's never-ending Inside Out party. Full disclosure: I was a puddle when it came time to say goodbye to Bing-Bong. And I'm completely on-board with Peterseim.
"'Cynical'? Oh, he's just up around the bend!"
"Follow your bliss" was a common bit of advice back in the 80s, when I was avoiding coming-of-age. Here's a fella doing exactly that. Make of it what you will.

And finally, Ahmed Best, the guy who played Jar Jar Binks isn't just a cool interview -- he'll kick your ass, if that's what's needed.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pan-Am Coverage

Watching CBC Television's evening coverage of the Pan-American Games has been a disappointing experience. What's worse, it's not (just) a matter of their reduced budget allowing for little more than a Handycam and Bixi bike. No, I've had to conclude the fault is almost entirely my own.

"Merde! Shot-put in 20 minutes!"

Canada's public broadcaster has endured sea-changes galore in my lifetime. I can recall the summer of '76 and the Corporation's coverage of the Olympic Games quite well, because my mother allowed me unfettered access to the television so long as I helped her shell peas and trim beans for canning. Back then, CBC devoted its entire broadcast day to the games, delivering the events in real time, and repeating the entire cycle again and again, until the dawn delivered a new roster of events.

Forty years later, evening coverage is limited to two hours, with a single host holding down a desk and clipping through our national accomplishments in the various events. Video coverage rarely exceeds the 90 second mark. The format works best with races, particularly the short ones, but short-changes the longer events rather badly. Just one example I would have enjoyed seeing covered the old-fashioned way: Canada's loss to the Dominican Republic in Women's Volleyball was reduced to three punishing volleys in 88 seconds, providing the viewer with no sense of either team's depth.

Of course, we are encouraged to go on-line, or store the actual event coverage via PVR, or, better yet, install their Pan-Am Games app on our phones. Alas, I opted for the least expensive cable package, so no PVR. As for the app, my phone already behaves like a Cockatoo on a speed jag -- the last thing I want it to do is whistle and chirp at every shot-put result and lawn-bowling victory.

That's just how it goes, when you're a man out of time...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Joining The Frygian Evangelists

Northrop Frye, coming into focus in 1929.
"There are winners and losers every time intellectual capital changes hands," says Michial Farmer. "The upside of that process is there are always figures from the past waiting to be rediscovered and repurposed for a new generation." By interviewing Claude le Fustec, author of Northrop Frye & American Literature, Farmer joins her in giving the Canadian man of letters a nudge toward contempo rediscovery and repurposing.

As do I -- to the extent I can.

When I was concluding my university studies in the late-80s, Frye's influence in theory circles was already well on the wane, as Derrida and Lacan were in the ascendant. Out of all his texts, only Fools Of Time was required reading -- for a course in tragedy and comedy. And our prof was among the more elderly cohort.

She was a spirited thing, however, entirely hip to the Reader Response revolution that was just beginning to flush out the Prescribed Archetypal approach favored by her peers -- she even required us to keep response journals she would later peruse (and grade -- she was apparently a little hazy on the course of implementation). But any appreciation of Shakespeare pretty much required an appreciation of Frye's appraisal of how the Bard's plays worked. In this, Frye was good at what he did -- thanks to him I finally learned that the Wheel of Fortune was something of magnificent narrative significance, and not merely a gaudy contraption of light and noise spun by the son of Polish immigrants in "America's Game."

But that's pretty much where it ended for me and Frye, until I moved to Toronto. I finished my studies in the University of Toronto, where Frye was still delivering lectures between doctors visits, in the final few months of his life. A classmate encouraged me to drop by, give the old man a listen, but I resisted. Nor is that a cause for regret -- even in his prime, Frye's delivery was a soporific (quibblers should consult the digital record).

So not exactly an ideal launching point for an adult history spent wrestling with the man's ideas. But when I began working at the book store, a co-worker lit up when I self-identified as Mennonite (because where else would I start?). Said he: "Hey, that's cool -- I'm Catholic!" Another less-than-promising launching point, perhaps, but after confessing to some ambivalence toward my religious heritage, my new friend admitted to similar misgivings about his, but said Frye's work reinvigorated his relationship to the religion his ancestors had bequeathed him. "You have got to read him, man. Seriously -- there is no going forward without Frye."

This struck me as odd -- I didn't know much about Frye the man, but I was certainly aware he self-identified as Protestant. If his theoretical POV had a catholic, if not Catholic, embrace, perhaps he was worth a closer look. So I committed my Sunday mornings to reading the copy of The Great Code I'd purloined from my father's library. Reading prompted note-taking, which prompted further, closer reading, which eventually prompted me to self-identify (when tipsy) as a Frygian Mennonite.

Prof. Farmer lauds Prof. Frye as "one of the most important writers on the relationship between Christianity and literature" -- a not-bad summary, but somewhat wide of the insight that seems to have taken possession of Frye's POV. One-sentence summaries are perilous, of course -- I can't do it, myself. But one insight Frye impressed me with is a sense of the immeasurably deep penetration the Christian narrative has achieved in Western consciousness. The comic cosmic narrative the New Testament writers espoused is, after 2000 years, inescapable -- at this point, western narratives embody or react negatively to this narrative, or work along the spectrum of these extremes. That's quite the "relationship," to be sure -- and Farmer and le Fustec do a terrific job of unpacking some of this as played out in US literature.

As they do touching on other elements in Frye's critical acumen. Looking over my notes, I see a heady variety of referential touchstones, sure to please listeners (such as myself) keen to play the egghead: Heidegger, Bultmann, Barthe -- "Rilke's contempt for allegory!" earns an especially enthusiastic emphasis from my ballpoint pen. And Derrida, of course -- I particularly dug the comparison of Derrida's late-in-life theory with Frye's earliest. It's just a suggestion on the part of Farmer and le Fustec, and a brief one at that, but it almost seems like Derrida's "end-point" is the rough equivalent of where Frye began.

Which, for you youngsters who've had enough of egocentric Reader Responses and Trigger Warnings for everything from The Great Gatsby to Bear In The Big Blue House, is precisely what recommends The Old Duff With The Odd Coif to your parched and starving brains. Take and read, kids; take and read.

"Read Blake, or go to Hell" -- Northrop Frye
Links: Michial Farmer's interview with Claude le Fustec podcastNorthrop Frye & American Literature, by Claude le Fustec, U of T Press page. Personally recommended: The Educated Imagination is probably the best place to start with Frye -- his public radio lectures are a compact and breezy intro to what he was about. If it's the religious impulse you're puzzlin' over, by all means dig into The Great Code and Words With Power. Farmer and le Fustec refer to Frye's notebooks, but, man, that's some heavy (and at times discomfitingly prurient) reading. Better to tuck into Marshall McLuhan & Northrop Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy, by B.W. Powe (U of T Press page). McLuhan and Frye were contemporaries, of course, but Powe successfully portrays them as ideological and theoretical antagonists -- the Catholic vs. the Protestant, for starters -- who used each other to sharpen and hone their particular insights into the human condition and human potential. Powe's a super-sharp purveyor of their era, and a judicious parser of their various interactions. He's energetic and readable, and his book is highly recommended. And I just read Alec Scott's survey today -- you might like it, also.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Rattling In My Brain Pan

The summer of 2015 is the closest I've come so far to shutting down my FB account. When everyone else is climbing to the top of the digital tree and shrieking at the top of their lungs, one's natural impulse is to join in -- or tune out, permanently. The second is probably the healthier option, but my daughters still use the platform, as do some friends I only ever "see" over there. So I put up what filters I can.

Perhaps the best FB feedback I've received of late is the assurance that I was not the only father reduced to a puddle of tears while watching Inside Out. It's hardly Pixar's most manic and perilous offering, but it does have emotional weight which it wields with a deceptively light touch.  

Friday, July 03, 2015

El Capitan, The Easy Way

It takes most climbers three-to-five days to climb the impressive face of El Capitan -- an activity that is not for the faint-of-heart. Now Google's new Vertical Street-View allows us faint-hearted non-climbers a chance to explore El Capitan from the comfort of ... well, wherever you happen to be reading this.

Nuthin' to it...

The other easy way.
Anyhow, thanks for indulging. I'm hoping to get back to original(ish) content next week.

Friday, June 26, 2015

DEVO's Freedom Of Choice by Evie Nagy

Today's post is a bit of a "gimme" -- you know by now that I'm a sucker for the 33 1/3 publications, bad or good. In my estimation Erik Davis' treatise on Led Zeppelin's fourth album rates an "11 out of 10" (it truly is "one louder"). Most of these books are fair-to-middling. Nagy's is exceptionally good, however -- well-researched, plenty of juicy quotes from the people involved, first-rate reportage. I'd give this book a "9 out of 10."

Anyway: the elder daughter graduates this week, so activities and thoughts are a tad askew.

Devo's Freedom of ChoiceDevo's Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A four-and-a-half star rating, actually. Evie Nagy appears to have had unfettered access not just to the usual trove of archival goodies, but to the band members themselves, including Robert Casales ("Bob 2"), who died shortly before the publication of this book. In Nagy's hands, Freedom Of Choice is both centrepiece and launching-point for a considered exploration of Devo's musical, aesthetic and thematic modus operandi. This is a punchy and engaging survey of a band whose influence was much deeper than anyone originally suspected, and continues to spread to this day.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

We took a day-trip out to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, an experience I'm still processing.

No pictures, however, as per the injunction. Walking toward the building that now protects these ancient carvings from the elements, it seemed the least we curious two-faced interlopers could do was turn off our cell-phones and leave the cameras pocketed.

We were fortunate to catch the coat-tails of a tour receiving a lecture from one of the park guides. The explicit significance of the petroglyphs, to the people who carved them, and the people who now return to them on various sacred quests, is a matter of considerable debate, as well as meditation and mediation.

The Ojibwe Learning Place on-site refers to the petroglyphs as "the teaching rocks." Many of them appear to refer to agricultural, medical, and life-cycle practises. Viewing these through my usual haze of poorly negotiated Anabaptist/not-so-Post-Modernist sensibilities, I was struck by just how deeply ingrained these indigenous concepts must have been. The people who gave shape to their expression worked with diligent observation of the materials at hand and the space they were in.

To give just one example, there is an indentation at the top of the slope where iron is clearly an element among the soft marble. When the snows melt, the sediment turns red, and runs in a rivulet down a narrow crevice on the face of the slope. The petroglyph carved on either side of this rivulet/crevice appears (at a superficial reading) to depict the menstrual cycle -- an apt metaphor for spring.

This "white" boy, the father of daughters, was struck by the obvious veneration these people had for what is truly elemental to human existence. I can't begin to contrast this with our culture's squeamishness toward the subject. We seem to be profoundly alienated from something (here's that word again) elemental. That can't be healthy.

More to be said, I'm sure -- or left unsaid, perhaps. It is a place well worth one's consideration.

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Would Reader's Digest Ever Condense SF Novels?" The Bitter Musings Of An Aging Reader.

Did you know Reader's Digest still publishes "condensed books"?

Man, those suckers used to be staples in weekender cottages and suburban bathrooms. I recall years when my parents returned from the annual Children's Hospital Book Sale with cartons full of these volumes. Reliable door-stoppers like Herman Wouk were rendered to more palatable page-counts. Quite the service, really.

Just a little tidbit of information I discovered this morning, since the question of their existence came to mind whenever I picked up something by Neil Gaiman.

It's not him -- it's me.
I've just pushed past the halfway-mark of American Gods, so the likelihood of completion is very high. But picking it up and opening the book is only always a conscientious decision on my part -- akin to picking up my guitar and practicing scales. Once I get rolling I usually find myself enjoying the activity. But more than 30 minutes of it is difficult to manage.

I'm not entirely sure what's going on, here.

A big part of it is readerly preference: as with Stephen King, I suspect a reader either loves Gaiman's work, or is indifferent to it. I've read (heard, rather) Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and pored through the first two volumes of The Sandman. He's clever with concepts, steers pointedly clear of prosaic pyrotechnics, yet still manages to evoke the surreal -- all very good reasons to become a Gaiman devotee.

And yet, no matter what the medium, I get impatient reading him. I don't, finally, invest myself in his characters. Once I've finished American Gods, I will almost certainly be finished with Gaiman.

Which is kind of painful to admit, because I pretty much adore the man's concepts. A war between the ancient pagan deities our ancestors imported from the homeland and the modern pagan deities we've created since is a kick-ass concept. But 500 pages is roughly 250 more than I'd care to read on the matter.

Blasphemy, I know. Gaiman's faithful don't just embrace the original content, but everything extra besides. They hardly need my aging eyes and addled brain among their august ranks. But if, say, Reader's Digest were to focus their quarterly efforts on Gaiman's catalogue, I might just join both companies.

Post-Script: Maybe Neal Stephenson is another "condensed books" candidate? And, hey: check out what this woman does with RDCBs. Pretty cool!

Friday, June 05, 2015

I Will Make You Reapers Of Men: The Gospel, According To Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

Part 1, Part 2. And now ...

12 figures in mourning; 14 including the Shadow's sons.

If the superheros of the '80s seemed to be suffering from Messiah Complexes, it was little wonder: most, if not all, endured a death-and-resurrection story-line. Spider-Man took a two-week dirt nap, in J.M. DeMatteis' psychonautic 'stravaganza, Kraven's Last Hunt:

And, of course, rumours of Batman's final demise were greatly exaggerated in the concluding chapter of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Soop might have won by a heart-attack, but Bruce Wayne's ticker returned to form once the body was committed to the earth.

But in both these cases, as in most others, the "death" in question was a ruse: Spidey got tranked by Kraven; Bats staged his own take-down, with one of those death-faking drugs common to serials of all stripes.

Was The Shadow's death a similar narrative sleight-of hand? In the final issue of The Seven Deadly Finns, Andrew Helfer gave readers of his letters column this to look forward to:

Readers searching the forthcoming pages for some glimmer of hope were treated to glorious scenes of The Master's corpse being subjected to indignity and abuse in increasing measure -- bounced down a Himalayan mountain:

Riddled with bullets, while being used as a shield:

And finally decapitated by a helicopter:

While writer and artist ramped up the irreverence toward the title character, The Shadow's grieving agents were abruptly changing their tune and pointing their attitude in the opposite direction.

In the preceding episodes, The Master may have proven himself, again and again, to be a hard man, reaping where he had not sown, and gathering where he had scattered no seed.* But now that he's removed from the narrative, his disciples discover, for the first time, how pathetic their lives were before being enlisted in The Shadow's service, and how much worse they've become since his death. The betrayer feels this absence most keenly of all:

Wait: "My Little Pony"?
The agents decide to address the Shadow-shaped void in their lives by taking up his Uzis and committing themselves to his ways. It is a less-than-seamless transition.

The work continues apace, albeit via ever-chaotic means. The agents are faced with a singular crisis of identity -- without His, they don't have one of their own. Not one that agrees with them, at any rate.

The Shadow's head is eventually re-animated, his identity and unassailable self-regard very much intact. When joined to a Robocop-like body, he finally becomes the killing-machine he's always considered himself to be.

The Master's final act on the final page of the final issue is to recruit yet another of society's rejects. His sons' reaction is altogether reasonable:

The Shadow as Christ-figure is rich with ironies. For starters, his behaviour is pretty much of the Messianic variety that Jesus' original audience was hoping for -- ruthlessly violent toward all oppressors, and even the occasional innocent bystander, in the aim of re-establishing a more agreeable order. For these messiahs, transformation, if it occurs at all, is strictly superficial -- a precondition that's perfect for comic books, and cause for lots of impious fun when staged by the likes of Helfer & Baker.

For me there is a deeper and more pleasing irony present, in the Shadow-Messiah's most defining characteristic: his meta-cluelessness. His followers ascribe staggering powers to the man, and while he does prove himself a capable tactician as well as adept improvisor when the need arises, his continuous monologue of self-narration is frequently at odds with the larger narrative on display. Consider again how he kills Artimus Finn, the last of the "Seven Deadlies," unintentionally, by merely taking an elevator to the next floor:

The Shadow narrates the story as one where he is finally in charge of all fates. The story we read suggests his fate is assisted by no small dose of . . . luck? Or perhaps by an over-arching narrative design, of which he is -- by design -- ignorant? By this point, I start to wonder if Baker & Helfer weren't gearing up for a po-mo meta-meta-reversal, a la Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck.

"Are you IN ... genius?"
Jesus in the Gospels was, of course, a master at affecting meta-cluelessness. To take just one example from his Sermon On The Mount, here is how he cautions his listeners against considering themselves more compassionate than their Heavenly Father: "Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?" One imagines jokers like Helfer and Baker giddily spinning this insight into absurdist comedy -- "Or, if he asks not to drink of the cup, is never the less..."

But then this is indeed how the gospel writers (of Matthew and Luke, at any rate) very intentionally frame the proposition of God's perceived deficit of mercy. Whether one registers this frame ironically or not depends upon the ears of the listener.

The beauty of the Helfer-Baker Shadow-Messiah story-line lies in the reflection of the fun-house mirror they hold up to the canonical gospels. It's ridiculous fun, minus the ridicule. And that is why, in my near half-century of reading comic books, this series remains my favourite to date.

Pester your local independent comic book store for copies. Or go Amazon. Or grok on the HD glory of their digital enhancement via comiXology.

Scan of the original -- not a Comixology capture.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Jacobean Slapstick: Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

(Continuing from Part 1)

A telling exchange occurs in the second chapter of Shadows & Light, Andrew Helfer's first six-issue story-run for The Shadow, rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. It follows the conclusion of the previous issue's cliff-hanger, Cranston-Shadow commenting on the hair-raising escape with a blithe near-indifference. Mavis, a newer recruit who has just pulled his fat from the fire, snaps:

It doesn't seem like much -- it's possibly the quietest moment in a story bracketed by considerable flash and snap -- but it's remarkable for two reasons. It distinguishes Helfer's vision for the title character from his predecessor's, and it marks just how long a view Helfer had for the story-line he'd only recently set in motion.

Howard Chaykin's resurrection of the Shadow posited Cranston as an uber-Alpha Male, against whom no regular human could offer anything but superficial resistance. Helfer retains the Shadow's uncanny powers of persuasion, but makes it clear it has limits -- limits which Cranston-Shadow is aware of, thus making him reliant on agents who, of their own free will, choose to call him "Master." Their limits are the hero's limits, also. Good thing he has a "contingency plan" for when things get unruly.

By the time Kyle Baker takes the artist's chair, "unruly" is becoming the norm. Agents are getting increasingly uppity:

And circumstances seem to require "The Master" to initiate contingency plans with greater frequency. At one point, The Shadow fires his Uzis on yet another washed-up loser he's recruited, fully intending to kill the man -- The Shadow doesn't recognize him, because this is the first they've met. The master-disciple relationship is off to a rocky start -- best initiate another contingency plan.

Cranston-Shadow's chess-piece maneuvering is looking decidedly rusty. Fortunately, his chosen nemeses -- an Irish-mafia family named the Finns -- possess no chess-playing skills whatsoever. Here the six surviving Deadly Finns "mourn" the first Finn the Shadow has dispatched, a lethargic and indulgent slug -- Errol, who represents "Sloth," of course.

Perhaps this is the moment to explore how Kyle Baker enlivens Helfer's scripts and story-boards. This is the next eight(ish)-panel page:

Reading Helfer-Baker back in the day left me with a distinct sense of on-the-fly improvisation. Reading them 25 years later, it's clearly nothing of the kind. Baker's literalist approach to Helfer's story-boards provides a comic framing that is the cool precursor to Seinfeld, which was still a half-decade to come.

That sense of improvisation was probably encouraged by Baker's skills as an artist, which he freely admits were rudimentary at the time. His characterization does have a childlike simplicity, but it contributes to the cheekiness of the humor. Facially, Baker's characters either speak with closed mouths, or howl with enormous gawps. All figures have an absurd plasticity, including The Shadow. Only when he appears as Cranston does Baker bother to render him remotely realistically, penning him in rough approximation of the Chaykin style.

This is not the preferred representation, however -- for The Shadow, or (one senses) for Baker or even Helfer. Although Baker's Shadow can still muster a threatening mien, more often than not the cloak and hat take on a swaddling characteristic, suggesting their implied threat and mystery mean more to the (often shrunken) man within them than to the world at large.

In the 80s, the Brooding Hero was on the ascendant, thanks to Frank Miller's surly Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But no-one did "brooding" quite so petulantly as Helfer-Baker's Shadow. Thus is our near-anti-hero transformed from fascist with a rocket launcher to puppet-master of dubious qualifications.

The villains are certainly "bad guys," selfishly committed to the propagation of their representative vices. But in their pitiful defensive improvisations they become as humanely sympathetic as the Shadow and his agents. It's as if we're watching a Chuck Jones cartoon show, with the roles reversed: Wile E. Coyote is catching and roasting every Road Runner in the desert.

By story's end, The Shadow's manipulations appear to be largely victorious -- the Finns are all felled, and dozens of their minions are mowed down by the Shadow himself. Throughout the bathetic romp, Cranston-Shadow recites his own chorus of triumph and self-glorification, made ironic by his evident lack of awareness. He remains a deadly presence, to be sure, but much of the triple-digit body count is unrelated to his activity. It's like Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" has gone psychotic.

The Seven Deadly Finns concludes in the manner of all great story-arcs: our hero is betrayed by a follower, killed by a villain, then . . . six issues are devoted to the physical abuse of his corpse, while his followers grow ever more erratic in their behavior.

End-note to follow. If your appetite has been whetted, you may read these adventures in print, available at Amazon, among others. Or, take the more highly recommended route, and get the digital editions, brilliantly recolored in high definition, at Comixology, here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Promissory Notice

Not to worry: I've still got Shadowy thoughts -- life is just getting in the way of their expression. Go here for the three-page lead-in to the splash page of the first Helfer/Baker free-for-all: The Seven Deadly Finns. I'll do my best to explicate by next Friday. Cheers.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

To my surprise and delight, the movie is as unhinged and intense as advertised.

It brought back memories of 1981, when I persuaded a friend that if we acted mature, we'd be mistaken for 18-year-olds, and allowed into the Restricted Adult fare that was The Road Warrior. The matron in the ticket booth took pity on us, and let us in. And our minds were blown.

Fury Road out-furies that movie by a very wide margin, and even manages to scorch out most of the sad and curdled memories from my one and only viewing of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Most, but not all. Honestly, the scenes that brought me right to the edge of my seat were those quiet interludes between the 30-minute chase scenes -- scenes when the actors started talking. Would Miller keep the pontificatin' down to "You're out there among the garbage," or would he succumb to a lengthy "Time counts and keeps countin'... etc"?

Good news: all pontificatin' is super-brief. Also simplistic, fueling the sort of gender-politics flame-wars that get ignited over such things. And, sure, it's a little rich to suggest women would never fuck up the planet as badly as men have, but within the framework of the film, it's an argument that persuades. What we see in 110 minutes of car chases is the masculine id completely freed of feminine tethers. Who does not feel genuine horror while watching all this feral masculine energy bear down on a truck full of girls? Just a glance at today's news headlines more than confirms that this scenario plays itself out in real time, again and again.

So, yeah: it's a message movie. And if you're feeling the thrill, you're getting the message.

Locke Petersheim pens my favourite review, over here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Shadow As Silli-Putti: The Resurrection! And Second Death! And Second Resurrection! And Final(?) Death Of A Pulp "Hero!" Brought To You By: Andy Helfer & Kyle Baker!!

Truthfully, the initial resurrection of Lamont Cranston, aka, "The Shadow" was brought to us by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin was still gathering kudos for his hyper-stylized and (to one, somewhat fixated, way of thinking) sexualized American Flagg! when he picked up The Shadow for DC's "Suggested For Mature Readers" line of comics.

Flagg was set in a nearly-conceivable future, 50 years from the then-present (2030); Chaykin's Shadow plucks a character from the 1930s and deposits him abruptly across 50 years of history into contempo-1980s NYC. In Chaykin's hands, the fascist tendencies of the title hero are brought to the fore. Although present-day characters act as an ineffectual chorus, complaining of the man's brute behavior, it is an incontestable fact that the man and his methods are right at home in this supposedly more enlightened age.

If Chaykin's stylistic and thematic template strains, or perhaps signifies the sort of growing rigidity that frequently consumes a successful "breakout" artist, we nevertheless owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for pulling the title character into the age of continuous Soft Cell airplay, and introducing rocket launchers and Uzi machine guns to our hero's arsenal.

Chaykin's deal with DC was for four issues; he moved on to more enticing projects, while DC passed the script and story-boarding reins to Andy Helfer, whose concepts were engagingly rendered into the brown acid stylings of Bill Sienkiewicz.

"Mature readership" still very much suggested.
Helfer had a remarkable eye for the long story-arc. Consequently there was no way he could completely buy-in to Chaykin's conceit -- the sum of which, once expressed, can only be repeated until boredom sets in (the Achilles Heel to all pulp writing).

At the outset of his six-issue run with Sienkiewicz (Shadows & Light) Cranston-Shadow is still a grim and imposing figure. His team of operatives, however, expands to include increasingly eccentric, erratic, even pathetic characters -- most notably the pharmaceutical expert (and indulger) "Twitch" Twitchkowitz, and his paramour Gwen, a fired nurse and retired wrestler.

"The Master" might retain his unassailable and perversely beguiling sense of entitlement, but to the reader his wisdom and overall game-plan look increasingly suspect.

Sienkiewicz's star was really taking off by this time -- and so did he, to other projects (including Elektra: Assassin). Helfer followed Shadows & Light with a one-off, Harold Goes To Washington, penciled by Marshal Rogers and inked by Kyle Baker.

Harold ties up some loose ends from the earlier story-arc and does a little ground-work to situate the next, but struggles to find its "tone." It is a morbidly weird and unsettling narrative failure, frankly. But something must've clicked, because Rogers disappeared, and Helfer and Baker launched the next 12 issues into the giddy ether, doing stuff that nobody has seen -- till then or since -- in comic book pages.

Still "Suggested For Mature Readers"

Next: Bathetic Romp? Jacobean Farce? Or...?

Monday, May 11, 2015

"I think we've learned a little something about human nature, haven't we?"

Back in the '80s, most of my favoritest people in the world were in the habit of watching David Letterman.

A life of late nights, free of regret.
No such habit for me. Not that I was ignorant of his shtick (how could I be?). I'd watch, alright -- sometimes several nights in a row. Then I'd flee.

His guests were frequently unknown eccentrics, with dependably strange, even alarming proclivities. But it was Letterman's behaviour that rattled me the most.

To wit: here we have 17 minutes of television history, from 1982: Put-On Artist Andy Kauffman re-connecting (and how) with wrestler Jerry Lawler, arguably another variety of Put-On Artist:

Winner-by-a-melt-down, David Letterman -- Put-On Artist, nonpareil. That was several degrees cooler than I cared to get comfortable with.

"Cooler than being cool is ice-cold," said OutKast, in 2003 -- probably the same year I discovered that yet another pair of my favoritest people in the world had established a nightly habit of watching Letterman -- my parents.

What else to add, now that he's retiring? I wish him well, I suppose -- to roughly the same degree I once wished he hadn't been quite so universal in his appeal to my late-adolescent peers.

H/t to Scott Dagostino for the found footage.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Bellowvian Vapours

Saul Bellow seems to have been blessed with more personality than he could responsibly deal with -- he, and anyone who spun into his orbit.

A week or two ago, my usual daily clicks were linking up with quite a number of "My Time With Saul Bellow" accounts. Quite a number, but so very little to differentiate one from the other. I'd say Lee Siegel embodies the extreme -- by the midway mark, my body was in a permanent muscular clench thanks to all the cringing his admissions induced, and it didn't let up until I closed my browser and refreshed my coffee -- but even the normally steely gaze of Martin Amis turns hazy with nostalgia as he meditates on the man he met, the man he knew.

"Zachary Leader met Bellow only once. That was in 1972, at a party near Harvard, where Leader was a graduate student and Bellow was being awarded an honorary degree. Leader says that Bellow seemed bored, and he remembers nothing of what Bellow said. In the genre of Bellow biography, this counts as a credential." So says Louis Menand, as he warms up to his review of Leader's new biography of Bellow, the stimulant to this public resurgence of memory. Menand's gaze does not get blurry in the least, not when staring at Bellow and his foibles, nor when appraising the man's work -- and Leader's. And for that, "Young Saul," his review at The New Yorker gets my recommendation.