Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Gilded Age and The Myth of Competition

"A good many of these books are not of recent date, which does not make them any less informative and pleasant to read. It is a false analogy with science that makes one think latest is best." -- Jacques Barzun, Author's Note to From Dawn to Decadence
I'm juggling books this week, as usual. From the library, I have Northwest Passage by Scott Chandler, which is a graphic novel set in 18th century Canada. From my garage sale pile, I'm well into 33 1/3: Kick Out The Jams, which gives an interesting eye-witness account of the actual "concert" that the MC5 played before Grant Park turned into a war zone. Both of these I'll digest and write about on their own. The other book I'm reading is more episodic.
"Dramatic change and reform always captivate historians...And historians, who are usually liberal Democrats, dismissed a supposedly Republican era without examining labels."          -- H. Wayne Morgan, "Toward National Unity"
The Gilded Age is a collection of essays, edited by H. Wayne Morgan. This is the 1970 revised edition; the original book came about in response to an early 60s symposium. Basically, the writers here are tasked with re-examining the evidence and motives of post civil-war America. The title is an obvious nod to Mark Twain's popular parody of the time period.
"Republican centralism, promotion, regulation weres till new in American life. Far from being secure, the GOP ran for its life, and some commentators thought it would disappear like other third parties."
The editor's introductory piece does a good job of reminding us of all the cultural changes of the 1870s. The obvious interest to today's reader, and the topic of the first essay proper, is the rise of the giant corporation, which consolidated power among a few men, at a time when governmental power was seen as a thing to be avoided. The other important context of the time is the reversal of the GOP and Democratic parties' platforms from what they are today; the conservative Dems held congress while progressive Republicans fought to hold the presidency.
"Under most circumstances, the power and influence of the businessman were limited to the immediate environs of operation and seldom extended beyond state boundaries. Equally important, there existed among most businessmen of prewar days a nearly universal desire and a practical necessity for community esteem." -- John Tipple, "Big Businessmen and a New Economy"
 The first essay "Big Businessmen and a New Economy," takes an interesting look at the reaction against the newly rising corporations. Following the 14th Amendment, and the Supreme Court's interpretation of it as applying to legal entities, businessmen persued the benefits of consolidation. These new leaders considered themselves as protectors of the economy, using monopolies to keep wages high for workers and prices down for consumers.
"By bringing to bear superior economic force which to a great extent invalidated the tenets of the free market, the large organization put the big businessman in the favored position of operating in an economy dedicated to the idea of freely competing individuals, yet left him unhampered by the ordinary restrictions."
The United States was founded on a philosophy that assumed individual rights derived from natural law. As businessmen, individuals can govern themselves and agree to communal laws. The 18th century birthed the problematic existence of artificial individuals that didn't fit in to the scheme of nature, and so couldn't be governed by the common morality held by mankind.
"In the long run, the brutal realities of this cutthroat struggle were unpalatable to the public and big businessmen alike. But while the latter sought to shield themselves by erecting monopolistic barriers, the American people extolled the virtues of free competition and looked back fancifully to an earlier, more ideal state of economic affairs which, if anything, had been distinguished by a notable lack of competition."
This myth of competition is a hardy thing. In reality, war between economic entities leads to poor wages, cheap product and long working hours. Yet, one constantly hears rhetoric about the need to make America "competitive" again, in order to raise wages and open factories. Which is never going to happen in an unregulated economy.
"Somewhat paradoxically, they proposed to liberate competition by imposing new restrictions in the name of freedom. They were not too sure that unrestrained competition was the economic panacea they sought. Apparently it never occurred to them that to acknowledge the defective working of natural law against corporate immorality was an ingenuous admission that the sacrosanct principle of competition was invalid in the long run."
So, the people of the 19th century just didn't have the correct language to use. They were prevented from finding a solution in any kind of co-operative venture because of the built-in worship of individual competition. Letting individuals use their abilities to the fullest is the great American ideal, but if it leads to unfair leverage of power, what is one to do? Well, they passed the Sherman Act.
"The Sherman Act, even when bolstered by later legislation, failed to halt or reverse the combination movement. It made evident the ineptitude of any legislation that regarded competition as a self-perpetuating and natural guarantor of economic justice rather than an intellectual hypothesis without institutional support."
Despite many decades of intervening legislation, we still have corporations that threaten our supposed liberties with the usage of their own. Perhaps we need to finally grow up as a society and admit there should be limitations on our freedoms. Otherwise, we are giving up a public government that answers to our needs, to a corporate one that only answers to a board of directors.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mid-Century Sheridan Ave.

Yesterday, I decided to try out the bike route between my apartment and the beginning of the lakefront trail.
The official Chicago bike map, already out of date.
There are new bike lanes on Albion, going east and west, which is somewhat dangerous. Albion has always been a narrow one-way street; crossing west over Sheridan just confuses everyone on the road. Going towards the lake is fine, drivers expect you to be moving in that direction. There's a little bit of a route south on Winthrop after that, which leads one through Loyola's campus.

The few blocks between Loyola and Osterman Beach are lined with Four Plus Ones, a local developer's attempt at providing cheap apartments. They are weird little 1960s holdovers, and have never been popular with the neighborhood. Like the mid-century high-rises a few blocks to the east, many of them have had their colors muted, but they still display that modern sensibility in their concrete block screens or swoopy canopies.

5817 N. Winthrop

The above example isn't a four-plus-one (it has five real floors, which puts it into a different zoning category), but it still has the original powder blue brick, balcony railings and canopy swoop from 1966.

There are other bits of the past hiding, if one knows where to look.

1061 W. Rosemont, alley side

6230 N. Kenmore, canopy detail

At the lake shore, one gets to see an ongoing procession of mid-century high-rise madness. To get the full effect, pretend that all these buildings are in yellows and blues rather than the new conservative schemes.

Beach Point Tower, Erwin G. Fredrick, 1954

detail of 5757 N. Sheridan, Loewenberg & Loewenberg, 1961

The balconies of 5757 and a side view of Horizon House, Arpen Group, 1965

mid-century face-off
The south facade of Horizon House, showing its geometrically arranged waterspouts.
On the left is the north Hollywood Tower.

Hollywood Towers South, Solomon & Cordwell, 1962

My final stop was Osterman Beach. This was originally part of a landfill project completed in 1958. A new beach house, with concessions and free wi-fi, went up in 2010. Instead of tearing down the 1960s facilities, it's been given a face-lift quite in contrast to the new muted tones of Sheridan Ave.


It's a nice stretch of beach, with a bit of shade here and there. Not a bad place to stop for a hot dog and watch the gold coast folks coming down to the trail turn-around. Perhaps I'll see you there next time...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Back Issues with Issues: The Transformers #1

cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz (
One of the wonders of 1980s pop culture is that Marvel comics used Bill Sienkiewicz' talents on so many secondary titles. 1984 was the first year that I was allowed to read comic books; in retrospect I seem to have picked things that Sienkiewicz did the covers for: Rom Spaceknight, Starriors, Star Wars, Micronauts, various movie adaptations. Also, I was brought up in a very sheltered manner, so I didn't have the background to pick a super-hero title.

Cybertron, before the fall, rendered by Frank Springer
So, other than the Star Wars movies, which are meant to be in media res, this was my first chance at getting in at the beginning of a story. 

wordy stuff by Ralph Macchio, from Bill Manto's plot

As a beginning, though, it's a lot of back story. It's kind of fascinating to see this sort of retro-fitting going on. Marvel was hired not only to publish a comic-book spin-off, but to come up with characters to fit these robot toys that Hasbro had picked up the rights to. And, since these are "boys" toys, to give them a reason to be endlessly fighting.

Megatron doesn't like sissy peace-niks

As the "bad guy," Megatron is a hawkish sort who believes that the pursuit of peace is a weakness. He envisions a future for Cybertron in which its technology is used to power a vast war machine. By launching some sort of rebellion against the utopian government, he starts a thousand-year conflict. Basically, he's already met his goals and created a military-industrial complex. Optimus Prime is just there to give encouraging speeches to the liberals.

Boy, can that robot give a speech. He could be President some day.

Eventually, the war-that-never-ends causes a spaceship full of both political parties to crash land on Earth. In an "ark." Four million years ago.

Ah, the futility of conflict.

And this ark does not carry "two of every kind." It carries combatants, for its role will be the re-activation of the war, rather than mere preservation of species.

All good leaders have the ability to speak in exposition.
And this brings up a weird question: Can we define gender in a species of toy robots? The original line-up presented here were all referred to as "he" on the packaging. The later animated series would give them all "male" voices. We could probably discount the question entirely, if this was just going to be a story for 10 year old boys about mechanical soldiers. But the writers bring in a human sub-plot:

It's not easy having a Tea Party dad.
Someone in Marvel management decided that the robots would need a human sidekick, so we get Buster. His main characteristics are a love of reading and not being able to repair cars. The is mainly a set-up to form a dialectic against his father, who owns a garage and doubts the value of a formal education. He has a red-headed girlfriend named "Jesse" (girls in boys' stories are ALWAYS redheads), and an overweight comedy-relief friend named "O." No mother. No mention of why there is no mother.

Meanwhile, Optimus Prime is still catching up with the plot
Instead of questioning the writing, however, I'd rather take a moment to praise the art. Long before "widescreen comics" would become a hip term, Frank Springer solves the problem of dealing with such a large cast by arranging his pages in tiers of horizontal panels, and then using vertical panels when needed to convey quick actions. It's also interesting to see him drawing all these guys as giant versions of the toys. Later issues would match up with the simpler animation designs, taking away some of the more alien aspects of the robots.

Autobots aren't the best decision makers.
One of the other cute things here is the explanation of WHY they transform into earthly things. Apparently, our robot friends are a bit species-ist and can't wrap their heads around non-mechanical life. So, they've been "upgraded" to be able to mix with the locals. Like boom boxes and Volkswagen "beetles." Oops.

What geeks daydream about on the commute to work.
So, reading this again as an adult isn't a terrible experience. There is a lot of expository dialogue, and there's the whole weird "males only" vibe, but I'm not intended audience for this anymore. The odd thing about this comic book is that it reminds me of many current titles that DO cater to adults rather than 10-year-old boys. It's as if the current DC and Marvel writers are still replaying this father-son reconciliation, but for whiny, middle-aged men. Maybe they realize that any female cast members would just tell them to grow up and get over it.

"Where are your fancy book-words now, boy?"
The 1980s were a very sex-divided decade in retrospect, so it isn't surprising to see comic books from the era being written specifically for boys or girls. Personally, I remember my younger years as a time when I'd read and absorb ANY story. But, there was also the threat of being caught partaking of something from the girl's side. If I wasn't so bookish, and had to rely on TV or comics for my fiction as most children did, I wonder if I would have turned out more normal as an adult, looking to become a father myself?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book Review: 33 1/3 Unknown Pleasures

"The title Unknown Pleasures in all likelihood refers to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a divisive, drawn-out autobiography of the author's willful, self-absorbed youth."
Before reading this book, I had to go back and re-listen to the album as a digital feed. Although I'm a big New Order fan, the Joy Division era always seemed more of a curiosity than anything that deserved more than a listen to the singles collection, Substance.


And my instincts were confirmed. Unknown Pleasures is a fairly amateur collection of songs. It's obvious that the band could still barely play their instruments, and Ian Curtis' voice sounds like a muppet parody of a rock singer. As with most celebrated pop albums, all the power here is in the production.
"Martin used that digital delay not as a repeat echo delay but to make a tiny millisecond that came so close to the drum it was impossible to hear. I would never have thought of doing that. Nobody else would. I don't know how he could have possibly envisaged the final sound." -- Vini Reilly
And so producer Martin Hannet becomes the uncelebrated hero of Joy Division's story. Chris Ott writes a lot about the studio technique that props up this album, but heaps most of his praise on the band members. And it's fairly overwrought praise given that he also documents how amateur they were at this point. The real breakthroughs wouldn't come until after Unknown Pleasure's release and the band started falling apart.
"The older, wiser (and admittedly commercial-minded) Anderson calmly explained the dilemma to Brandwood: 'They just can't play.' His dismissive treatment of Joy Division betrays a staid expectation of airtight, virtuosic material aimed at the radio, but in his defense the group were stifled by the unfamiliar, imposing situation, and sounded tentative working outside the comfortable, self-determined world of their rehearsal room."
In other words: ability isn't the standard for rock music. Which is true to the extant that it's a performance art that relies on an undefinable quality to please the audience at a concert. An album, however, surely must have harsher standards applied to it. Especially if it's going to be held up as an item of importance itself, rather than as a cultural artifact.
"If you played higher up the guitar, it was easier to hear yourself, 'cos your equipment was so crap." -- Peter Hook
The book really is more of a mini-history of Joy Division, rather than a discussion of the recording itself. Ott takes the trouble to point out various bootlegs and compilations that are worth hunting down to explore the evolution of the band's sound. The author is also fairly good at discussing the influences, whether they might be Black Sabbath's grinding bass sound or Ian Curtis' obsession with the holocaust "memoir" House of Dolls.


Joy Division in retrospect, seems to have started out as a conceptual art group that revolves around this book. Other punks, notably Siouxsie Sioux, were wearing Nazi armbands as a form of confrontation with the elder generation, but no one else seems to have used the imagery in such a theatrical way.


"'3-5-0-1-2-5 Go!' Curtis shouts, using a concentration camp identification number as a morbid alternative to '1-2-3-4!'" -- on Warsaw
Ian Curtis' need for theatricality comes through in the later (and best written) parts of the book. With the band on the verge of actually making money from being pop stars, Curtis seems to fall into the romantic, lead singer role, writing moodier lyrics and ignoring his marriage responsibilities. Too much has already been made about his epileptic seizures and subsequent medication. Chris Ott takes a middle ground, showing his self-destructive behavior while acknowledging the possibilities of barbiturates influencing his personality.
"We were on speed, Martin was into smack." -- Bernard Sumner
At times this book really grates with its hyperbolic descriptions of the music as, for example, "without parallel in its beauty, resonance and terrifying volume" or the crowning of Curtis as "a lyrical genius." In fact, by giving a solid cultural context of this album's arriving at the height of disco and the formation of Public Image Ltd., Ott inadvertently fails to make his central argument for it's importance in the rock pantheon. Which is fine, I wasn't looking to be converted, just to have some things to think about. And in that, the book succeeds.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Back Issues with Issues: The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man

Well, I paid a whole dollar for this comic, I might as well get some mileage out of it.

Action-packed cover by John Romita, Sr. (

In 1983, you could mail in your Kool-Aid proof of purchase points for this nice little item put out by Marvel Comics. Kids across America were building Kool-Aid stands in the hopes of earning enough credit to get this little collector's item, I'm sure.


It was either that or a lovely inflatable companion for those long, hot summer nights.

Never judge another man's fetish.

Besides advertising the scads of branded product that young children dream of, there are two stories in this comic. Both of them, interestingly, illustrated by long-time Archie artist Dan DeCarlo.

Thrill as Kool-Aid Man fights the enemies of sugar and corn syrup!

The writing is credited to Jim Salicrup, who provides a lot of bad puns for the dialogue. In the main though, this is very much a DeCarlo book, with a lot of great visual storytelling. Today's creators could take a cue from his ability to compress time. Such as this panel, where he introduces the main characters and their personalities while leaving room for the word balloons.

The nerd, the groupie, the jock and the druggie. John Hughes, take note.

In the second story, he has a bit more room. Here, he uses the basic Archie-style six panel grid to do the introductions. Today, this would be a six-issue mini-series with flashbacks and family drama.

If they step into that helicopter, we're talking multiple Mann Act violations.
Much like Cap'n Crunch has to fight The Soggies, the bad guys here are called The Thirsties. Don't laugh, this is the same decade in which GI Joe and He-Man cartoons declared themselves "educational," after all.

insert rimshot here
The Thirsties come off as silly mischief makers, existing more to prepare the way for Kool-Aid Man than to be a real threat. The real nefarious part is played by our wall-hating hero. Why does he never charge for his never-ending supply of red fluid? Is this a case of "the first taste is free?" Is he really some sort of Lovecraftian entity, preparing the way for his masters by getting children addicted to his alien blood?

Kool-Aid Man, intergalactic drug dealer.

Man, comic-books are an unwholesome medium. Frederic Wertham was right, let's all go play some innocent Atari video games instead.

Children, I'd like to tell you about The Matrix

"They had come from the stars, and had brought Their images with Them"

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review: 33 1/3 The Piper At The Gates of Dawn

"To those who have grown up in the era of the CD and the easy availability of just about any sort of music from the back catalogue, I should explain something about 1975."


I'm not sure why I picked this one up. I like The Floyd, but this has always been a problematic album for me. It's a fairly cartoony representation of it's time. As with most rock albums, the sound of it is more important than the actual performance. All the guys have terrible nasally voices, which makes Interstellar Overdrive the best song by virtue of being an instrumental. Many of the tracks (like Scarecrow or Bike) have a brilliant song structure, but suffer from the naive worship of country and innocence typical of British fantasy.

"I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes for a finer future, her middle-classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery room wall. Old hippies, housewives, civil servants, share in this wistful trance; eating nothing as dangerous or exotic as the lotus, but chewing instead on a form of mildly anaesthetic British cabbage.
--Michael Moorcock, "Epic Pooh," 1989

I think I pick these type of books up because they fall into the auto-biographical realm more than that of actual criticism. When discussing popular music, authors rarely mention the technical elements and instead focus on cultural or personal impact. Here, we have someone who fell in love with the album after the 1967 momentum had disappeared. So, it's more about his personal journey to learn about what affected his childhood tastes.
"It was an event, a discovery. One moment I was looking at distant constellations, the next I was hearing a voice, like the sound of Apollo astronauts hailing the president from the moon, but more remote..."
There are some new interviews here with the recording personnel, which serves to balance out Rogers Waters later rants about being treated as a singles band (despite his obvious willingness to be a rock star). Overall, though, if you've read Nicholas Schaffer's Saucerful of Secrets, you won't find any new history here. This is mostly a nice afternoon read, a revisting of that younger time when certain albums were still new and fresh.
"Piper has served as a form of musical escapism for many people across time, and an escape from 1975 was most welcome to me"

Personally, I find escapism to be a ridiculous thing; one can't really avoid reality. The best works of art give us new maps to help find our way through it. But, everyone has to start somewhere. This particular author started in outer space and ended at a pair of gates where a strange piper played a strange melody.

"So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard of it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever..."
-- Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows, 1908 (as quoted by the author)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Day At The Ravenswood Manor Garage Sale

So, today was the official start of the Chicago garage sale season. I decided to go hit the big Ravenswood Manor to-do. It's a fairly affluent neighborhood, full of giant bungalows and snuggled against the Chicago River. And it's easily accessible by train.

or by tiger.
I seem to have been the only one that took the train. When I arrived, there was a ridiculous procession of SUVs and mini-vans. I'll never understand why people think they need to drive such giant things everywhere, much less drive at all. Surely, not everyone out today was going to buy a whole truckload of furniture.

$3 worth of books!
But then, I bought a whole backpack's worth of books, so what do I know? After spending the first hour passing up boxes of baby clothes, baby toys and kid's VHS tapes, I finally found a few garages with actual adult things for sale. Mostly, these consisted of boxes of Whoopi Goldberg movies and 90's rock cds. I had no idea that so many people had purchased Sister Act II. The pile of 33 1/3 books (with the PKD and Adrian Tomine randomly thrown in) was a nice surprise for me, and gave me a brief false hope about the taste of middle-class America.

$1! and just like the cars that real Native Americans drive!
This lovable, clunky Buddy L car was from one of the few families that were selling anything older than the last five years. They were an older couple who had obviously just cleaned out their basement. There were some larger Tonkas and great old board games, but I wasn't up for taking anything home that wouldn't fit in my bag. 

A few other homes had vintage stuff for sale, but they were overpriced. In our internet age there should be no reason why anyone should be convinced that their damaged Archie comics would be worth a dollar each. Also, lining up in lawn chairs while chugging down beer and blasting jock rock is not going to keep patrons browsing through your collection of vintage Journey albums.

$4! ouch!
I finally ended up buying some comics from another table; at least, for having $1 boxes, these were bagged and boarded. More than I would usually spend on collage material, but I've actually been looking for a copy of that Kool-Aid Man promotional comic. It's one of many odd promos I've seen ads for in old issues, but haven't handled in person. The Transformers #1 is as close as I'll get to nostalgia, but toy tie-ins are always cool, anyway. The X-Men/Teen Titans just promises loads of Chris Claremont/Marv Wolfman soap opera dialogue.

In the end, I didn't take away a ton of loot, but I learned more than I needed to know about the listening and viewing habits of those in the higher income brackets. The people of Ravenswood Manor once spent many nights watching Titanic on VHS and listening to REM's Monster on CD. And now, so can you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Review: In The Flesh

Having moved on to the Israeli graphic novel shelf at the local library this week, I read Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds, which was all right. It's a well illustrated story of characters sort of stuck in a malaise. But Modan is kind of a big name now and comes highly recommended, so I was more taken by surprise by this:

This is a collection of odd character vignettes that are arranged to progress slowly towards (or through) surrealism. Like anything else that uses a bit of uncanny juxtaposition, these are meant to evoke the more uncomfortable aspects of our inner selves.

"The Fun Lawn"
The closest analogue to these stories that comes to mind would be the sad interactions that take place in Todd Solondz' Happiness. Sexual interactions fail to bring people closer, desire being one of the factors that keep them apart.

Some of the visuals sound a bit clunky when described out loud. A one-night stand with a girl who has a detached head or a bar scene full of flirtatious young people with paper bags over their heads may be too didactic for some. Shadmi's linework, however, allows one to believe in the little vignettes until they play out, much as a dream allows us to take weird events as happenstance.

"Granpa Minolta"
And that progressive acceptance of the weird allows for some wonderfully creepy visual communication. The sexual threat of the adult world that preys on youth is perfectly summed up by giving a stereotypical grandfather a giant camera for a head. Adults are often monsters to children, after all.

"Pastry Paradise"
Thankfully, for a book that deals with many strange and cold sexual scenarios, Shadmi is very good at drawing people. Not models, or action figures, but ordinary people whose changing bodies can sometimes reflect the way personalities will alter during a relationship. And if we can't trust our physical selves not to betray our deepest hidden desires, what of the environment we pass through every day?

Satisfaction Av.
This is the true dream state, then: a world that reflects our needs back at us, taunting us with the knowledge that bad decisions will again be made. Not the best place to live, but some of us don't have a choice.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Aunt Jenny is your new BFF

Today I picked up a great Spry recipe pamphlet from 1949. Spry was the brand name for the Lever Brothers vegetable shortening product. They were already making soap out of vegetables, so why not get people to eat it, too?

Food should always be in natural colors.

There seems to have been some concern about the unhealthiness of eating fried foods. To help erase any worries from our minds, they enlisted the help of "Aunt Jenny" in a series of comic-strip ads that ran in all the "women's" magazines, and are re-used here. Comic strips were prolifically used in advertising from the 1940s, and I try to keep an eye out for fun examples. Enjoy!

"Pastry-making and communism give me the willies!"

"I love to watch my husband eat while I diet!"

Remember, beating is for children, not for eggs.
Another marriage is saved.

Not every housewife masters the concept of "digestible" food.