Sunday, August 9, 2015

Whitman three pack comic book ads

As I've mentioned before, I didn't read super-hero comics as a kid. Besides being seen as an extravagant purchase, they were too violent for my mother's taste. When I was allowed to pick up comics, it was usually in the context of a long car trip. Howard Johnson's gift shops were always good for an Archie digest of some sort. Usually, though, it was a Stuckey's cheap breakfast stop and their spinner rack of Whitman three-packs.

Check out for a great gallery of Whitman three-packs

Every now and then there'd be a movie or toy tie-in title (as The Black Hole, above) that I'd be allowed to read, but mostly I was relegated to the safe cartoon titles such as The Pink Panther or Uncle Scrooge. They were still decent books to read, but unlike the bagged Marvel reprints, the ads in the Gold Key/Whitman titles would have the same advertising pages in them for years on end. Which is kind of disappointing to a child, since one had already read those five pages in another issue of a different book.

As an adult who uses these ads for collage purposes, I recognize that they were obviously all printed up in large runs ahead of time and sent out to gift shops and toys stores to sit until they sold. But I also noticed that the ads all go to the same P.O. Box, with various "companies" listed in the address for each mail-in coupon. Someone in New York had a lot of cheap items to get rid of.

(All scans are taken from Buck Rogers #12, dated 1981 and have been adjusted in the computer for clarity)

The first ad is for some sort of balloon toy called "Flipit." They all portray characters that were syndicated on local channels at the time (Frankenstein movies being played constantly on weekend horror host shows). Well, except for Super Chick, which I'm not sure was ever really a thing. They appear to offer all the fun of throwing your favorite cartoon character across the room, only to have him mock you by always landing upright. 

In the 70s there was a bit of a nostalgia craze for old radio shows, among other things. They were probably neat to listen to, but I imagine they had more nostalgia value for Granpa than for any child who grew up in the television era. I get the impression that this ad is trying to trick kids into thinking that radio shows are "cool."


This one is perhaps my favorite badly drawn comic-book ad ever. I spent many a time in the back seat of a hot car wondering what these things actually looked like. Note the hastily drawn Flintstones knock-off figures on the "Bubb-aLoons." And why are the creepy parachute guys called "poopa troopers?" Is that what they do in their pants on the way down?

This one is so "on model" that someone must have had artwork supplied by the manufacturer. Again, Looney Tunes and Woody Woodpecker were on afternoon syndicated shows at the time. Note that the actual size of the scissors doesn't leave much finger space. They look downright painful to use.

This is just odd. Obviously, it's a ploy to get you to check out the "Indian Heritage" catalog of dubiously acquired artifacts, but someone also left a check box for the "Solar Power Booklet" advertised as a Super Pocket Toy Value above. Some undiscovered genius out there could have solved the energy crisis by gambling a $1.50 on a science project booklet and saved the world from Big Oil, if only the listing wasn't buried in a coupon for Real Indian Arrowheads.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Michael Crichton's Timeline


Michael Crichton is one of those interchangeable authors who don't really have a style, as much as they have an agenda of sorts. For Crichton, it's usually a need to demonstrate the need for ethics in science and/or business. The success of one of his novels then rides on how much this theme interferes with the suspense of the fictional framework. At his worst (Rising Sun comes immediately to mind), dumb characters who require exposition bog down the pace of the book; when he refrains from assuming the poor education of his audience, however, these are quite satisfying thriller machines.

This one falls somewhere in the middle. We're given a number of characters who all have degrees rather than personalities, and who tend to explain various theories to each other when the narrative need arises. There isn't as much ranting about morality, however, leaving the reader to grasp the significance of the various decisions made by this novel's combination of greedy business exec and scientist.

For this is really Jurassic Park moved into Medieval Times. A corporation has been secretly using technology to develop a future entertainment empire based on recreating historical eras. They do this by sending people through quantum wormholes into parallel universes that sit along a different timeline. It's not really explained how this travel affects the timeline of the home universe, which it definitely does since messages are passed along the timestream. Perhaps Crichton thought that using up the first third of the book on explaining the theory, as well as setting up plot points, would be challenging enough for the modern reader.

The rest of the book takes place in the author's recreation of Europe in 1357. His descriptions really shine here, and are written with obvious love and interest in the time period. This setting provides Crichton with an almost ridiculous amount of obstacles for the heroes to overcome, on top of providing a "ticking clock" in the form of how long the explorers' batteries will last. He intersperses present and past time cliffhangers with expertise, never losing control of where anyone is at any particular time.

The only real problem here depends on your personal ability to ignore the silliness of the time travel science portrayed here. It only really exists in order to get his players into the past, and to produce technological problems for the people who stay in the present. It doesn't feel as integrated as the genetic and chaos math parts of Jurassic Park were. And as in that novel, it leads to a suitable end for a greedy lead character.

In the end, this is a good one or two day read, suitable for a palate cleanser in-between "serious" novels. If the action movies aren't good enough for you this year, perhaps this will satisfy your yearning. If given the choice, though, I'd recommend starting with The Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park instead. This is more like a watered-down but well made sequel than a summer blockbuster.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tolkien and The Pearl Author


Here we are at the beginning of Christopher Tolkien's quest to publish everything his father had written. Unlike the obsessive collections of unfinished stories and notes, however, this one features pieces that appear to be untouched and readable, if not drafts definitely meant for public eyes.

None of these translations are in a "modern style," or perhaps I should say that they aren't dumbed down as most popular presentations tend to be. They are in the language of a brilliant professor of linguistics who was hesitant to replace a perfectly good medieval word with an inaccurate, newer one. Happily, there's a decent glossary in the back for those of us who are a bit more uneducated.

The big draw here is probably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, being an Authurian tale that is usually given a quick gloss-over along with Chaucer in high school. Joseph Campbell also tended to cover it in his many books on heroic mythology. So, no surprises here as to the story, which leaves one free to just enjoy the language.

Tolkien does his best to adhere to the original alliteration and verse scheme, here and in the other two poems. There's a technical essay at the end of the book that explains his method versus the Pearl author's, but the lines themselves are self-evident in their structure. There's a bit of archaic reversal of our modern noun-verb-adjective word order whenever the syllablic accent count demands, but most of the challenge comes from the usage of technical terms for armor and such.


Being over-familiar with the story, the real surprise for me upon reading this close translation was the inclusion of a long passage giving the symbolic interpretations of the pentacle on Gaiwan's shield. The points are compared to the knight's five faultless senses, his unfailing five fingers, and the five wound of Christ, among other things. Usually in these stories, we're expected to understand the allegorical mapping of events onto reality in an instinctive fashion, as above so below and all that. To be given such a precise amount of information reveals how important this particular symbol seems to be for the author, or perhaps for the sect that he belongs to.

The Pearl is the more difficult poem, and the more satisfying to work through. At it's heart is a dream-time dialectic between a father and his deceased, innocent pearl of a daughter about Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard, as given in Mark. The father (and narrator), even through his grief, expresses the worldly view that earning one's way is the proper and moral structure of things. His missed daughter has to point out that if that were true, then she would not have "earned" the right to live in the city of God. Grace wins out over judgement.

Before he wakes up, the narrator also give a long description of New Jerusalem, after Revelation, using lots of technical terms for precious jewels. There are probably all sorts of extra meanings for each level of the city given, defined by different types of gems used; unlike the pentacle passage however, we're not given any kind of decoding. Another type of communication lost to us moderns.

The Sir Orfeo poem is an odd transposition of Orpheus to the fairy world of Breton. It's a simple story, and a simple rhyming scheme. It's also not very satisfying to read after conquering the complexities of Gawain and The Pearl. I found it interesting that Faerie is presented as the land of the dead rather than Hel, and that Orfeo has a bit of a Ulysses-in-disguise homecoming, but there isn't much else in the way of story to recommend this over Virgil's older version. I imagine Christopher Tolkien meant it to be a sort of relieving bit of fluff to fill out the book, but it just comes off as something his father worked on in his spare time the way you or I would do a crossword puzzle.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lovecraft's Dream Quest of Nostalgia and Chastity

Haven't had much internet time lately, so it's time for a bit of catch-up with my attempt to read All The Lovecraft. Spoilers ahoy and all that. 


"These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love."
And that's how "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" ends. All along Carter only had to think on his beloved childhood memories to find the magical part of the dreaming that earth's gods have crashed and taken over for party purposes. It's fairly annoying, but not altogether surprising. Fantastic literature is infested with nostalgic visions of childhood spouted by author avatars who hate the modern world.

For me, the worst offender in this category was Jack Finney, whose Time and Again I threw across the room in frustration, after reading a few chapters of nonsense about how much better life was in the 19th century. I find this sort of worship of previous eras offensive in "realistic" authors such as Jean Shepard, also, but it seems somehow worse in a genre that promises a bit more thinking involved in it's presentation. We're told over and over again that the great solution to modern problems is to regress into childhood and visit the Hundred Acre Wood.

There's a worse, doubled regression to the Dream Quest. We not only have Lovecraft going on about the Salem of his childhood, but the common areas of the dreaming presented to us are given in Orientalist terms. Slant-eyed turbaned traders and dark-skinned slaves ride galleys across the oceans and space itself. The only thing more repugnant than "swarthy" people to Randolph Carter are the rubbery, tickling and sometime vagina dentata sporting monsters.

Which brings me to the core of this juvenile view of fantasy. There's a built-in implication that imagination and play are traits of children and not adults. Which is ridiculous. Mature adults DO play and imagine things, but differently from when they were younger, and usually about sex. Lovecraft, however, never allows himself to write about physical pleasure, but refers to it obliquely in horrific tones, as something done by barbaric or swarthy people.

This isn't something only in his writing. That tradition was already set in Victorian literature in the form of Stoker's Dracula and Machen's The Great God Pan. But it's something that is still stuck inside of genre fiction. What is Twilight's Edward Cullen after all but a modern version of a Lovecraft narrator, horrified at the modern world and avoiding sex? What is Star Wars if not a modern version of the Orientalist dreamland, with slaves and rubbery alien races, and a notable lack of women?

If there's a key to the success of this modern Hollywood style of fantasy storytelling, it's somewhere in the mis-conception that we have to become childlike in order to dream and feel wonder. Lovecraft may be the proto-type of the real American dreamer: someone who doesn't want to deal with the challenges of adult interaction, but only wants to pet dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alan Moore's Providence and re-reading Lovecraft


Every now and then I find myself accidentally in lockstep with a general trend. Partly due to my tarot card work, and partly due to being relatively poor and relying on Project Gutenberg for much of my reading, I read Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow right before the television show True Detective spurred the Goodreads crowd to dig through it looking for clues. After that, I've been making my way through a complete Lovecraft anthology, getting a bit mired down in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.


Most writers use dreams to give the reader a ridiculously obvious allegory of whatever problem the character is dealing with. In the introduction to Tolkien's translation of the medieval poem Pearl, it's pointed out that without the commonality of first-person narrative that we have today, using the dream-as-vision to illustrate an explicit allegory was a convention of the time. Unfortunately, we still seem to be stuck with this old literary tool, which has become a terrible cliche.
"Tales of the past required their grave authorities, and tales of new things at least an eyewitness, the author. This was one of the reasons for the popularity of visions: they allowed marvels to be placed within the real world, linking them with a person, a place, a time, while providing them with an explanation in the phantasies of sleep, and a defence against critics in the notorious deception of dreams." (J.R.R. Tokien & E.V. Gordon)
Lovecraft was a man of science with a deep need for fantasy, searching for a way to reconcile these two parts of his personality. He also appears to have been a skilled dreamer, able to take back entire sections of geographical dreaming with him to the waking world. His dream stories aren't allegories for anything, but actual attempts to translate the feelings and experiences into the real world. To my teenage self, who was starting to realize that most people can't remember what they did while they were asleep, Lovecraft was the voice of a fellow traveler in the dark.

As an adult, however, I can see the joins in the structural form. As a descriptive piece about a series of dreams, it's a fine and unusual piece of literature. As a novella, it seems a bit of a failure that drags on from mood to mood. This may be a result of reading it nestled chronologically among the other stories, where he expresses similar levels of weirdness without the length. Even with that in mind, there's still no getting around the distasteful trend of Lovecraft to portray villainous races of swarthy or turbaned others.

This was also a problem with reading Robert Chambers, but to a lesser extent. The pseudo-scientific attribution of racial characteristics doesn't seem to have become a trope of popular writing by his time (H.G. Wells was still warning against the arbitrary, bible-based division of race in his History of the World). The "other" in Chambers seems to be more of a function of the development of nationalism, which was still a relatively recent idea. And one that would lead to World War I, as he would write about in The King in Yellow.

Which brings me to Providence, in which Alan Moore is strongly grounding this world as springing from the fictions of Chambers and Lovecraft (what, no Bierce?). We are shown the suicide booths and told about the predictions of war from The King in Yellow. And we spend some time with the characters from Lovecraft's "Cool Air." But we're presented these things through Moore's, and hopefully the reader's, modern, humanistic point of view. I was especially touched by the reclaiming of the "slatternly" landlady who speaks in a terrible Spanish accent as a loving companion of the cold Doctor Munoz.

I'm also excited to see Moore setting a theme of privacy and hiding as being central to American culture in some way. The desire to not talk about things and lock everything (and everyone) behind closed doors has often been a hindrance to social progress, and lately has become a weird obsession with the public media. It's also a common theme to Lovecraftian fiction. The indescribable horrors often seem to just be darker skinned people who speak other languages or women who enjoy having sex. As I've said before, as a modern reader, I often find myself on the side of the monsters. Moore may be implying that the Chambers-Lovecraft fictional world is the world of middle-class America, acting as if under constant siege by alien intelligences and locking its doors against the tentacles of foreign ideas.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Mysterious Strangers Within Us

(copyright 1979, Contemporary Perspectives, Inc.)

This week's thrift store find is a little booklet that is labelled on the title page as "A High Action Treasure Chest Book." Apparently this is the paperback edition (1981) of The Mysterious Strangers Within Us. Larger than a mass market, it's more akin in size to religious pamphlets or recipe booklets.

It's unclear whether this is meant as a pre-teen book, sort of a Scholastic knock-off for book fairs, or if it was an item for the check-out rack at the grocery store. Judging by Peter Blackton's tone, sprinkled with conversational questions for the reader (or classroom), I'm guessing the former. The illustrations and subject matter, however fit right in with the tail end of public fascination with multiple personality disorder.

The trend probably peaked in 1973 with the publication of Sybil and When Rabbit Howls, when there was a bit of a controversy over whether MPD was a "real" disorder, or whether it was created, along with alien abduction scenarios and memories of past lives, by over-zealous psychologists experimenting with hypnotism.

In 1979, this book isn't concerned with showing any scientific arguments on either side. The publishers are obviously just interested in putting out weird yarns for people to read. I would easily consign this to the recycling bin of outdated pop trends if it wasn't for the amazing talent of the illustrator, Donald E. Schlegel. Here's a sampling of some of his pages:

"Edward, you are an evil and terrible man!"

The first story is a re-telling of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a bit of a cheat. Blackton writes as if both characters shared the same body, but any reader of the original book knows that Jekyll actually transforms into Hyde, with both men having entirely different physical characteristics. There's also a cop-out in one of the illustrations being a still from the 1932 adaptation, probably reflecting the 1970s resurgence of classic horror movies.

"Instead she shouted at the great beast."

The next chapter tells of Mary Reynolds, one of the first documented cases, published in 1816. There's isn't as much theatricality here as there weren't personalities with different names as much as a regression into an infantile state. Still, Schlegel makes a great action painting here, showing Mary squaring off against a bear. I particularly like how he uses the frightened horse to balance out the composition.

"But this is your store. You live here, Mr. Brown..."

This next picture shows the awakening-from-fugue state of Ansel Bourne, another 19th century case. One day Mr. Bourne disappeared, set up shop in a new town under the name Ansel Brown, and then had a total melt-down in front of the public. Such was life before i.d. cards.

"This was not the shy and quiet Eve talking."

Our illustrator really goes to town on the chapter on Eve Black/Eve White. This is based on the 1957 book The Three Faces of Eve, later made into a fairly successful Hollywood movie.  It's hard to compete with the public memory of Joanne Woodward's performance, but Schlegel rises up to the challenge beautifully.

"This was not the quiet Eve her cousin remembered."

There is definitely a 1970s feel to the color scheme used here, reminding me a bit of LeRoy Neiman in his use of contrasts, but without the overt expressionism or abstraction that most commercial art was trending towards at the time.

"The world was becoming a far more beautiful place for her."
This last page is a wonderful evocation of the happy ending. The blue reflections in Eve's red dress are particularly good, perhaps reflecting the theme of integrating personalities. And the author even gives us a positive spin and happy moral in the epilogue:
"Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson's character, Mr. Hyde, a person's second self does not have to be cruel or vicious. Both of Ansel Bourne's personalities, for example, were very likeable. And although Eve Black was selfish, she was not all that different from some quite normal people."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Harold Bloom's Shakespeare


Sometime around '86 or '87, I remember the local library getting their first selection of VHS tapes to lend. On their own shelf, made available by a local grant, were the complete series of PBS/BBC Shakespeare performances from the 1970s. I wasn't yet old enough to check out movies, and the librarian scowled at me for even looking over the selection. A few years later however, after being gifted a VCR, I went right to it.

I found myself watching Shakespeare surreptitiously late at night. My parents are not at all the bookish types, and wouldn't understand a burning need to watch The Tempest, much less Peter Greenaway's weird, but brilliant adaptation, Prospero's Books. By this point it had become too uncomfortable to watch even generic Hollywood movies with them, anyway. A viewing of Batman Returns or The Blues Brothers would be punctuated with remarks made against "the jews" and "the blacks." An attempt to watch anything theatrical would probably just raise their fears against the possibility of having a gay son.

Being heterosexual, however, I can't even use the outdated stereotype to explain my literary tastes. Somehow, I just needed to voraciously search out and read books of a certain quality. Being alone in my quest for ideas in a conservative world of pre-digested media, my search was fairly hap-hazard at this point. I certainly didn't have a guide as good as Harold Bloom, the self-proclaimed Bardolator, to point me towards Hazlett or Bradley on my path through the Bard's works.

Bloom wrote this book at the tail-end of the '90s, the great age of Political Correctness. It's amazing in retrospect, to think on how much more repressed the Clinton years were than the supposed conservative times that came before. Some commentators see this as the obvious result of applying various modern -isms to American culture and education. David Denby's Great Books, which I read last year, interpreted this shift as a mis-guided attack on the "core" Western texts. Jacques Barzun, in his masterpiece From Dawn to Decadence, saw it as an error in historical interpretation, reminding the reader that every current identified as a historic trend has a smaller, but identifiable counter-current.

Bloom is also pained by what he describes as the interpretation of a text as a collection of words, rather than as the work of an author. However, he is fairly self-deprecating about his romantic views of how to read a book, admitting that he is an old-fashioned professor now, perhaps a bit of a Falstaff. Every now and then he'll start to go down the road of his "rivals," perhaps speculating a bit too much about how much of Shakespeare is in the play, and recognize his borderline hypocrisy as he does so.

Most of the time, though, he sticks to what is in the text, and how the plays relate to each other. The theme of the book is the great line of character drawn from the early comedies to the late romances. To Bloom's point of view, this peaks in the creations of Falstaff, Hamlet and Cleopatra. He does go a bit into the possible influences, primarily Marlowe's ever-hovering shadow, but is more interested in how the plays influence us. It's almost a chicken-or-the-egg feedback loop, this seeking out of quality in Shakespeare, who is seen as creating the quality of personality in modern literature (if not our very selves by Bloom's Falstaffian fanboy thesis.) He pulls it off however, as all great magicians do, through great charm and leading of the eyes.

Of course, some would call this mis-direction rather than display of skill. Bloom would remind us, however, that we are living in a time of visual domination when reading Shakespeare takes instead, a great auditory skill. Instead of admiring the tricks of a great writer, we should be paying attention to what is actually being emoted through the words of our inner actors as we "hear" the play. I would apply this lesson to our teacher as well as to our subject, and recommend the reader to listen to Bloom's humanity instead of reacting automatically to his arguments.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Giving up on Marshall McLuhan


I was sitting in the Lincolnwood Town Center food court, under the vast ceiling of cloudy skylights, broken televisions and support beams, eating my processed food, when I realized that I was actively hating this book. I'm not sure that's ever happened before. Sitting in such a bland environment, I wasn't even sure where my frustration was coming from. I just knew that I really wanted to throw my book at something, possibly one of the many cell phone vendors hawking their service plans down below. Two birds with one tome and all that.

This was surprising, in a way. I've suffered through a lot of pretentious prose before, in the name of understanding an important book. Hell, I've read The Bible in two different translations all the way through, which is something more than most "Christians" do in their lifetime. But I don't think I've ever read such a obfuscated, hollow book before.

The writing style reminds me of both Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac. On the one hand, like Rand, McLuhan will counter an argument by claiming a new use of a word, entirely different from the way that normal people talk or write. On the other hand, McLuhan doesn't believe in editing, giving the effect of an amphetamine addict vomiting his thoughts all over the page. There's nothing wrong with designing a compartmentalized, cross-referential book. Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which I'm also reading, does this in a clear and useful fashion. But that's not really what Understanding Media does.

Those of us who work in retail know of a certain type of repeating customer, one that is just functional enough to walk into a store and not scare everyone, but who can't quite get enough coherent thoughts together to be sociable. That's this book. It doesn't care if the person listening gets any information and may not be able to express anything anyway. The medium and the message are both failures, whichever one is supposed to be carrying the other. And that's the real core problem: there is no great revelation gained from reading through the entire text.

In the end, one doesn't care about new forms of media carrying old media, or arbitrary distinctions of "hot" or "cool." Really, I just wanted to pat this crazy old man on the head and say, "it's all right guy, it's just the 21st century, there's nothing to be scared about." But I guess the talk shows and magazines of the 60s needed a harmless prophet of electronic doom. After all, media people love presenting stories about themselves. Otherwise, they'd have to discuss equal rights or something.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

More than meets the eye


Recently, I've read two very different takes on mid-century design, Thomas Hine's Populuxe and Stephen Bayley's Sex, Drink & Fast Cars. The first is a well researched coffee table book that tends to avoid any social implications of mid-century consumerism (any assertion that white suburbanites were running TO the suburbs for convenience rather than from racist fears should probably be backed up by more than just strong feeling.) The second is a series of essays focusing on automobile design as a function of class expression. So, we have writings on American middle-class and British high society, with both intersecting at the end of the 1950s with the introduction of the Ford Edsel.


Both authors posit the theory that the Edsel was just too "feminine" in design for the intended male target audience. In a world of phallic missile design (perhaps culminating in the early 60s Jaguar), the Edsel struck some viewers as having a design feature reminiscent of the female sex organ.


In a consumer society largely driven by the taste of housewives and their monthly magazines, car buying was probably one of the few bastions of "expression" available to the office-bound husband. As I've said before, one of the themes of the early 20th century was the search for masculinity within a shifting American culture. Once males developed this mid-century world of sports and automobiles, it became fiercely exclusive, keeping everyone in their proper Good Housekeeping roles.


In our new century, there seems to be a tendency to give the still vast female consumer audience "feminine" versions. In the geek world that I work in, there has been a small, but vocal (if not always coherent) group of men who feel threatened by the incursion into the previously masculine world of comics and video games of stories based around female characters. This response seems to be at its loudest when the characters deviate from the traditional male fantasy pulp tradition.


Which brings me to the weirdness of Hasbro's announcement this week of a major push to the "female" Transformers in their toy line. It's meant to be marketed to female fans, but obviously the company is hedging their bets and providing characters that all seem to have 1960s hourglass figures. And, of course, there is a lot of pink involved.


Now, why can't Optimus Prime, or any of the other "male" robots be re-presented as female?  Are trucks too masculine a form for a female robot to change into? Or boomboxes? Or automatic weapons and rifles? They can even be pink, if that's what tests well in the market.


Perhaps we should just take it as a matter of progress that they don't turn into pink refrigerators or vacuum cleaners. Though I think macho, gun-toting giant robots, painted in glistening chrome and matte black, that turn into hair dryers or purses would be fun. Let's have some gender-bending Hasbro! 


"And if all that isn't peculiar enough, the whole street is lined with good, macho stores, okay? Except that Danny has them all dressed up in fairy lights and lace curtains.
Gentlemen, this street is a shameless transvestite." -- Doom Patrol Vol. 2, #35 (script by Grant Morrison) 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Bargain Bin Review: AV in 3D!


This week I'm reviewing something a bit more fun, courtesy of the ten cent pile at one of my local junk stores. From that now far-away world of 1980s black-and-white comic book publishing, I present AV in 3D #1.

There was a resurgence of interest in analogue 3-D in the mid-80s, with many small press comic book titles jumping on the bandwagon. Ray Zone became the go-to guy for overseeing the separation process needed for the blue-and-red goggles to work effectively. Unfortunately, aged pulpy comic book paper doesn't hold the true tones over the years. Outside of viewing the pages under direct summer sunlight, the best way of experiencing the 3-D here is to scan the artwork and adjust the color in the computer. This isn't a knock against the original work put into the comics, but a friendly word of warning to my fellow scroungers of old paper.

It's also a little sad to see the proud list of distributors listed inside the front cover. This vibrant, competitive world of specialty distribution would soon come to an end with a serious of terrible business decisions leading to a lock on the industry by Diamond Comics.

Anyway, on to the comics. These are all four-page short pieces meant to introduce the reader to the titles published by Aardvark-Vanahein in 1984. These are all creator-owned, and per Dave Sim's philosophy, non-edited. And, of course, all 3-D separations are by Ray Zone.

First up is a Ms. Tree four-pager by Max Collins and Terry Beatty.  Collins is now best-known for writing Road to Perdition, and has had a long career of writing hard-boiled crime stories. This is lighter fare, opening with a half-panel shot of the titular character trying on a bathing suit. Terry Beatty isn't the only artist using the 3-D effect for cheesecake purposes, but this is the only story that seems to feel a little guilty about it. The story itself is a fairly standard catch-a-crook tale involving a movie theater hosting a 3-D film festival. Not great, but not terrible.

Next up is a Flaming Carrot short by Bob Burden. Burden's rough art style and wonderful imagination are one of the delights of the 80s. Here, for no particular reason, giant moons invade the Carrot's Dogpatch-ish world and kidnap Sponge Boy. This is the essence of super-hero comics, boiled down to a series of events that hover on the edge of surrealism. The 3-D just makes it all weirder.

After that we get a normalman snippet from Jim Valentino. Here, we're getting into the realm of cartoon-y parody where people are hyper-muscular or hyper-curvy. Not really a story, this is more of an introduction to the concept of a comic-book nerd living in a world where everyone else is a super-hero. And another opportunity to provide the reader with 3-D cheesecake, which was probably more impressive in the pre-internet and anti-sex 80s.

Bill Messner-Leobs uses his few pages to give us a beautiful Journey interlude. He uses the 3-D process to enhance the feeling of being in a forest, with leaves falling outside the panels and birds flying overhead. The story involves a pair of tribal brothers who are looking for the source of some purloined maize and run into a crazed European settler looking for revenge. A nice change of pace from the usual in-yer-face action required by the format.

We also get a Neil the Horse story from Arn Saba. This is a retro-cartoony piece in which various comic-book characters are on the run from the funny animal police. They jump in and out of each other's books, breaking the fourth wall over and over again, 3-D style. A clever and cute use of the short amount of space provided.

The last story is an interesting failure from Dave Sim (and I'm assuming the ever-talented Gerhard, who isn't credited). It appears to be a few pages from a larger dream sequence in the regular Cerebus title. The aardvark flies around and through windows for a few pages. It doesn't really work as a stand-alone piece and doesn't give us any intro information. There's a big egotistical assumption here that everyone already reads Cerebus, which is a bad decision to make in a publisher's sampler. But, Sim's the boss and there are no editors, so in the end all one can say is caveat emptor.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Colette's The Shackle (L'Entrave)


Much of the literature of the first half of the 20th century seems to be obsessed with the question of what masculinity is, or how to reclaim it, in the face of burgeoning middle-class luxury and the de-romanticizing of war. Out of the pantheon of core English Lit titles, James Joyce's Molly Bloom may be a lone attempt at looking at the feminine side of the problem. In America, bored housewives finally found a kindred spirit later in the century with Betty Friedan. In France, however, the leisure class already had Colette.

Not to say that Colette focuses solely on whatever feminine culture was in those heady, between-war years. The Last of Cheri is very concerned with the question of French masculinity, portraying a young man brought up in the world of coquetry who is very out of place among his war-scarred peers.

L'Entrave pre-dates the Cheri novels by a few years and portrays a more typically masculine type as a counterpoint to our heroine Renee Nere. Renee is recovering from the end of an affair, portrayed in The Vagabond. She's inherited a bit of money and so doesn't have to work as an aging actress, retiring to a small building in Nice.

She's become shackled to a neighboring couple, an attention-hungry girl, he a brutish boy, both the type who like to fight violently before making love. Besides May and Jean there is sometimes the addition of Masseau, the opium-addicted older man who comes in and out of the story like a Greek Chorus. Or perhaps like Cassandra, hiding wisdom behind senility.
"This will last as long as you like, and no longer..."
Upon fleeing this stifling life to Switzerland, she finds that Jean is pursuing her in the hopes of an affair. As a divorced, middle-aged woman, Renee sees this on the surface as a way to avoid loneliness, as long as the relationship doesn't reach a serious level. And so the conflict of the story arises from this acquiescence, as both sides fall into the master/mistress relationship.
"No, I don't agree with you."
And for the author, it seems to be inevitable that neither side can fall into their roles comfortably, as long as the ideas of love or marriage are pushed away. Renee is never fully feminine as she tries to influence the seriousness of their relationship, keeping her hotel room as a caveat to independence. Jean, meanwhile, is never fully masculine as he doesn't control the affair, doesn't have a kept woman to come home to. The tense moments in between the time spent in bed come to a climax in an exchange wherein Renee fully admits to not supporting Jean's position, when as a woman (or as his woman) it is expected that she support him.
"You spend your time putting Jean opposite you. That's the attitude of coition, no more."
This ends the affair, and seems to be the natural ending point of the novel. However, it then goes on for a bit while Renee can't force herself to let go and claim the independent hotel life she intellectually desires. She then ends up being lectured to by Masseau, who accuses her of desiring Jean selfishly, rather than as a woman should by not "wanting" at all.
"The hand of my master fell heavily on me."
And so Renee ends up going back to Jean, and he takes his turn lecturing her about treating all men as her enemy, just because of her bad history and divorce. They become a couple again, but this time it is on his terms. The reader is left to meditate on their role reversal, on Jean's active maleness being anchored by Renee's new passivity.

Which makes this a curious read for someone living a hundred years later and across the ocean. There has always been a certain genre of "women's fiction" where obedience is seen as a natural virtue. Some may even see this as a progenitor of the current wave of post-Twilight pop fiction. Having worked in bookstores, I see it more squarely as a part of the Christian fiction tradition which churns out Amish romance novels and calls to make your marriage "fireproof." But Colette doesn't seem to be a part of conservative culture, even for her time.

And given that most of the book is beautifully written and full of psychological insights that come through even in translation, the last few chapters seem hasty and didactic. As a reader, I have to wonder if Colette felt that her novel wouldn't sell without a moral ending, or if she really did morally feel at this time that her character Renee had somehow become a bad example. It definitely hurt the novel for me, and I'm not sure I would recommend this beyond having a curiosity about Colette's earlier writing.

Unless you're down with the "bonnet rippers." To each their own, as they say...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Silence of the Lambs re-read


"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green." -- Sax Rohmer, The Mystery of Fu Manchu
"Dr. Lecter's eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center." -- Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs 

Reading this right after Red Dragon was interesting. There seems to be a quick leap of writing skill for Thomas Harris, but in reality there is almost almost a decade's lag time between novels. Somewhere in there, he's cast out the more imitative parts of his voice and developed a lean yet descriptive style. This is a well-oiled pop novel machine.

And I put this squarely in the pop novel tradition. There's a tendency for Harris to cover larger topics, such as Clarice Starling's career difficulties in a masculine society, but most of the book is dedicated to the movement of plot and the presenting of a certain kind of spectacle. The bits of human relationship are overshadowed by the fantasy of Hannibal Lecter.
"You'v given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling."
For as much as this is a progressive 1980s novel, it still centers around a feminine, intelligent and demonic presence who chides Clarice Starling for having a modern, post-evil view of the world. Ensconced in his dungeon, Hannibal Lecter is an interesting variation on the Victorian villian, though not the Moriarty aspect, but the Fu Manchu one.

The actual plot of the book revolves around Starling and Jack Crawford's attempts to capture "Buffalo Bill" before he kills the daughter of a U.S. Senator. Upon close reading, it's evident that most of the independent breakthroughs come through luck rather than skill. Everything else comes about through the subtle machinations of Lector's ability to manipulate people and push them into various directions.

He usually accomplishes this by analyzing people and preying on their weaknesses, but our heroine doesn't have any obvious ones, or any that he can amuse himself with. Instead, he pulls out a memory that represents her inner strength, the successful rescue of a beloved horse that was going to be killed for fertilizer. This was accomplished under cover of the bleating of lambs being slaughtered, and so the "Silence" for Clarice won't come until her mission is fulfilled.

This is all quick, pop psychology of course, but it works within the genre, here. A large part of crime novels are always concerned with "how" the serial killer became a monster. In Silence of the Lambs, we have the monster denying any how for himself, yet having the power to see the motivation of heroes and by-standers. A nice, polite figure of Satan for the end of the 20th century.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

More 100 Greatest Marvels


Here's another Marvel collection that I picked up for collage purposes. This is much better than the last one I tried (#9-6). Like that paperback, this one contains four "classic" reprint stories, meant to countdown the best issues ever. So in here we get #25-22.

First up is Uncanny X-Men #141, the often reprinted "Days of Future Past" opening number. It's the end of 1980 and the height of the John Byrne/Chris Claremont run of issues. Everyone probably knows the story now, which has the newly introduced Kitty Pryde possessed by her future self. There's a terrible apocalyptic timeline to be prevented, all hinging around the assassination of the apparently popular Senator Robert Kelly by, um, The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

This is fairly ridiculous stuff, but John Byrne's art really sells the "reality" of the piece. Even a bus being drawn by a team of horses seems somehow plausible as part of the future run-down environment. On the whole, Byrne's realism tends to keep Claremont's wordiness at bay, though there are a few purple prose filled captions. He also goes too far in having Professor X feel sorry for Senator Kelly. Byrne makes it pretty clear in the session scenes that the presidential hopeful is a slimy demagogue; forgiving the choice to sell a politic of fear undermines the X-Men's moral mission and shows Xavier to be a stereotypical knee-jerk liberal.

The second story is a reprint of Fantastic Four #48, "The Coming of Galactus!" Much like the Byrne/Claremont pairing, at this point Stan Lee's wordiness has been toned back a bit, letting Jack Kirby's storytelling shine. It's quite amazing to see the leap of quality between this and the earlier Marvel issues. Using a simple six-panel layout, Kirby crams in much more storytelling and visual invention than we get in today's wimpy computer-edited comics. And what IS that on the penultimate collage page, some weird combo of hair drier/vacuum cleaner/space ship that Galactus drives around? The apocalypse is here, and it's drawn by Kirby.

We also get a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #1, with two stories by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. The first, presented in the usual six-panel grid, gives us the prototypical Peter Parker story in which he does a great deed and instead of receiving adulation, is hounded by the public. For the third part, where he's tricked by The Chameleon into taking the fall for a crime, Ditko crams everything into a modern nine-panel grid. It's curious, and makes one wonder whether this is a response to having less room on a deadline, or a change of format for a story with less drama and more action. While not as good as the FF story, it's all a lot of fun. There's something particularly adorable about that way Ditko draws a loving Aunt May happily pawning her jewels to keep from losing her house.

The last entry is the Frank Miller drawn and written Daredevil #181. I know a lot of people hold these Miller issues up as some sort of high watermark of comic book culture, but to me this just looks like an amateur artist barely squeaking by. His human figures have poor anatomy, perspective is out of whack in many panels, and there's a barely recognizable helicopter. It reminds me of Rob Leifeld's later work on The X-Men. He does know how to hide his illustrative flaws, using a lot of dramatic shadows and tiny panel tiers, but there's no getting around the awful tough guy dialogue. This is told from a slightly mad villain's point-of-view, so it may be meant as parody, but there's no sign of that in the artwork. The story actually climaxes with a fairly pornographic panel of Electra being skewered and lifted into the air. The whole sequence screams of "look at me!" and while showing the importance of the event, fails to portray the supposed emotional impact of tragedy. A failure of an issue, but an interesting one.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Red Dragon re-read


After watching the excellent first season of Hannibal, I decided it was time to re-visit the Thomas Harris novels that inspired that series. They're also very easy to find at your friendly neighborhood thrift store.

This isn't high literature. As a writer, Harris wavers back and forth between a generic, stripped-down pop novel voice and his own developing, more descriptive style. Its these descriptions that make the book work so well; character can be revealed by the random viewing of the mundane:
"In the pharmacy where he bought the Bufferin, the contraceptives with their illustrated wrappings were in a lucite case on the wall behind the cash register, framed like art."
 That would be Will Graham, the apparent protagonist and insecure stepfather. He's a riff on the magical Sherlock Holmes type, who can intuit and reconstruct motives from the barest of clues. Unlike Holmes, however, Graham is very open about his mental states, always on the brink of an emotional breakdown.
"The reason you caught me is that we're just alike..."
And so it falls to Graham's nemesis to be the cold and calculating one. As Moriarty was presented as the opposite, but equal, shadow to Holmes, Hannibal Lector is the other half of this narrative equation, not giving Will useful information as much as verifying the serial killer's point of view. Using Lector as a foil, Graham can keep his emotional distance from the crimes, even as Hannibal taunts him with the policeman's fear of lost humanity. He that gazes into the abyss and all that.

This isn't the main conflict of the novel, however. It isn't even a conflict between Graham and the Red Dragon serial killer. The story is really about Francis Dolarhyde, the abused child who grows up to murder entire families. After inadvertently falling into a normal sexual relationship with a blind co-worker (yes, yes, letting the obvious symbology slide) he is presented with the opportunity to give up the Red Dragon motivation and be reborn into a new life.

It's a neat twist in the plot, and plays well until the first ending of the novel. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end with this resolution, giving us a second "shock" ending. The explanation for the surprise comes from something Hannibal does back in the beginning of the book, but it takes so long to explain all the in-between events that all momentum is lost. It also feels like a cop-out, leaving Will Graham without an actual stopping point in the story, just giving us one more event that happens on the way out. As a character seeking closure or change, Graham, and the readers, deserve better.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Greatest Marvels of All Time. Says so right in the title.


I picked this one up at a thrift store for a quarter for collage purposes. For reading purposes, that's also about what this book is worth. For their 40th anniversary, Marvel had some sort of survey asking people what the best issues "ever" were. This paperback collects the nine through six highest rated out of a hundred.

Number nine is the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, which was only a year old at the time. It's possibly the worst issue of anything that I've ever read. In this iteration, Peter Parker's science nerd vocabulary has been replaced with a "normal" teenage range of "cool" and "no way!" He has inane conversations with his family and friends, gets mildly bullied for pages at a time by the usual stereotypes, and eventually gets bitten by a spider that gives him powers. The artwork is as bland as the script (if there was one) giving us long sequences of nothing punctuated by random close-ups of character's eyes. This is the comic book equivalent of being stuck on a bus full of suburban high school kids on their way to the mall.

Eight is the first issue of the Uncanny X-Men from 1964. This is also bad, but in a different way. Instead of boring dialogue, Stan Lee typically doesn't know when to stop. His characters have to comment on every action being performed in every panel as well as think furiously about their inner turmoil. The Jack Kirby art on this is just passable. Obviously, this is just assembly-line fare designed for young boys who want to fantasize about fighting evil. Or in this case, Magneto, who doesn't really seem to have a well-thought out agenda outside of showing off his weird abilities: "BUT THEY'RE MAKING NO MOVE TO SURRENDER! PERHAPS THEY NEED ANOTHER  DEMONSTRATION OF MY POWER!" Really, he just needs a good infomercial to take over the world.

The seventh entry is The Avengers #4, in which Captain America returns to the world of trademarked characters. Kirby's art is again pretty lackluster, but also again, there aren't any big ideas for him to illustrate here. The plot makes no sense, racing from page to page on the strength of ridiculous events, with Stan Lee having Captain America exclaim "I MUST HAVE BEEN FROZEN IN AN ICE FLOE, AND THEN FOUND BY SOME ESKIMOS WHO THOUGHT I WAS A SUPERNATURAL OBJECT!" Apparently, he's never experienced a hangover before. Oh. And Cap's creepy Bucky obsession starts here, too. As Iron Man says "I NOTICE IT TOOK A THREAT TO THE BOY TO BRING YOU INTO ACTION, FELLA!"

The last piece is the infamous Amazing Spider-Man #121, in which Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacey dies because being happy is "not what Spider-Man is about." It's beautifully illustrated by Gil Kane, who really knows how to get the most  out of expressing paranoia as floating heads and bad memories. The story, by Gerry Conway, seems to revolve around the fact that Osborne's son Harry decided to take an acid trip. This is apparently such a morally offensive thing to do that his dad turns into the Green Goblin and kidnaps Gwen. So there, kids, see how drugs will harm your loved ones? Spider-Man fails to save her from falling off the Brooklyn Bridge. leading the way for hundreds of issues worth of angst and Mary Jane.

Comics, kids!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

H.G. Wells and EC Comics


I spent some time flipping through a facsimile of the 1920 edition of H.G. Wells' Outline of History. It's fairly useless as a history book, but still interesting as a presentation of a certain archaic, yet academic, point of view. Wells defers to "expert" opinion, even when it conflicts with his own (which leads to a inclusion of Piltdown Man, even with the acknowledgement that the jawbone doesn't match the skull).

There are two beautiful essays in here. The chapter on natural selection is one of the best things I've read in the realm of science writing, elegantly presenting the simple idea of change over time. The other deals with the mis-understanding of the idea of races of man, pointing out that the arbitrary division of humans into three categories derives from the bible and not from scientific inquiry. For anthropology, there aren't pure and unchanging races, but general groups that often share each other's characteristics.

The largest problem with the book is that Wells follows a common error of this period: after presenting the possible "Aryan" ur-language group, he assumes that there was an actual Aryan people who were the ancestors of the 20th century's dominant Europeans. Everyone else then gets lumped into their typical stereotypes. Semitic people are good at commerce and Africans don't develop a real language. Oh, and the Japanese apparently use their feet to pick up objects as chimpanzees do.

There is also a weird assumption that all pre-historic peoples were strictly patriarchal, going so far as to mention local goddesses only in an aside about gods having wives just like men do. It's especially weird when looking at all the included illustrations of pre-historic art. There are an awful lot of sculpted women found at archaeological sites at this time, and they don't seem suppliant at all.


This is another entry into the world of books about EC Comics, not really a history of the company but more of a presentation of each individual artist. There's a chapter for every worker at EC (even giving colorist Marie Severin a few well-deserved pages) drawing from interviews in various fan magazines. There are some new art pieces caricaturing the old staff, and a good assortment of non-EC and personal art showing the range of each illustrator. And every talent presented has a story reprinted after their chapter.

As always, the artwork is astounding, and it isn't surprising to hear every artist express a love for drawing comics that kicked in when they were children. Upon reading the stories however, one sees how much of this talent was wasted on second-rate storytelling. It's fascinating to see how mainstream comic books haven't changed at all in over fifty years. Most of what is presented falls into the realm of fantasy revenge stories or "message" stories that hit the reader over the head with a moral. Outside of the Ray Bradbury adaptions, where his voice still comes through on the wordy EC pages, these comics would be nothing without their amazing illustrators. If there's a nostalgia here, it's one for a world where craftmanship held a priority, even for mediocre commercial art.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Not hearing the Call of Cthulhu


I'm starting to wonder whether H.P. Lovecraft is one of those things, like super-hero comics or Bruce Springsteen, that one has to discover by a certain age. I'm about a third of the way into a digital copy of The Complete Lovecraft, but I'm not seeing the genius that others insist is there. By 1928's The Call of Cthulhu, he's learned how to properly structure a story and shock his audience, but his writing style isn't anywhere near his predecessors Edgar Allen Poe or Lord Dunsany.

Part of the problem for me is that his intended audience appears to be people who are massively afraid of non-Anglo Saxon "races" mixing with, and diluting, civilization. Even in Cthulhu, a large part of the language assumes automatic horror associations with swarthy natives. From my point of view, what is actually happening in these stories is that the majority of the world has thrown in with an ancient power in order to overthrow their easily-fainting masters.

For there is a lot of fainting in these stories, if not outright death by fear. When reading a number of these in succession, it comes off as a silly device. Sort of a way of having not to deal with describing the indescribable horrors. Which is sad, because he is really good at going on about impossible geometries and such. In past anthologies, the better stories that I've read are the ones that try to describe the feeling of lucid dreaming. Some of that appears here, and later in The Mountains of Madness, as the heroes venture into territory that doesn't conform with normal physics.

In the meantime though, there's a bit of slogging to do; a lot of purple prose that attempts to make me care about the narrator's impending loss of sanity. Perhaps if I was a typical 1920's American, I'd care more, but for now I'm on the side of the monsters.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Heroes & Monsters and James Bond


"Well, it's certainly not writing for the fans, or for an audience of any sort, really. I write primarily for myself. It's largely if there's something that I want very much to exist in the universe and it doesn't. Then, rather than wait around for somebody else to make it exist, then it generally seems to work better if I do it myself." -- Alan Moore

I picked up a copy of Jess Nevins' Heroes & Monsters this week at the local thrift store, thinking I would just give it a quick read-through to see if I had missed any arcane material in Moore & O'Neill's League series. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book goes well beyond a play-by-play recap of who appears in what panel of each page. Nevins presents some interesting insights into the backgrounds of the main characters and their derivations in popular culture, never shying away from the more unpleasant aspects of Victoriana. The included essay on the history of "yellow peril" characters is itself worth the price of the book. Plus, there's a fun interview with Alan Moore, showing some of his associative ideas, and his willingness to work with great illustrators as O'Neill, rather than just dictating to them.


"Now he proposed to kill the sting ray because it looked so extraordinarily evil."
Speaking of unpleasant aspects, here's the always problematic James Bond for me to deal with. I've been going through a pile of 1960s Playboys, partly for entertainment and partly for collage purposes, enjoying the old Ray Bradbury stories and Shel Silverstein cartoons. Nothing really goes with the Playboy package of soft-focus nude photography, cocktail recipes and high masculine fashion more than the appearances of Ian Fleming's reluctant spy.

The March, 1960 issue features "The Hildebrand Rarity," which has been collected in the recent Quantum of Solace anthology. Here, readers would have encountered it right after finishing Dr. No or Goldfinger. Bond is on a working vacation in the Seychelles, happily hunting fish with a harpoon gun, apparently to the consternation of some of the locals who don't share his enthusiasm for swimming with barracudas and sharks.
"It's damned silly. Everybody moans about how poor they are here although the sea's absolutely paved with fish."
His native friend, Fedele Barbey, does poke fun at him a bit for his colonial attitude, but this is part of the gentlemanly image presented in all the Bond novels, irritation at others' not being up to the same standards as the "civilized" world. It's a weird mixture of nobility and racism. Later on in the story, when he meets the villain of the piece, it's not enough to describe Milton Krest as a ugly American, but he has to be German on top of it.
"So that was it! The old Hun again. Always at your feet or at your throat."
It's also not enough that Krest is an annoying bully, he also abuses his wife, beating her with a sting ray tail. Apparently, even the natives don't sink that low and have made such things illegal. Bond doesn't do anything about this however. Typically, he spends most of the story being indecisive about what the proper course of action should be.

Eventually the dead body of Krest is discovered by Bond one night; he's been killed in an ironic way that the old E.C. comics editors would have been proud of. Not wanting to compromise his identity, or put blame on either of his ship-mates, the German is dumped overboard. Interestingly, we never find out exactly who killed the man. Instead, there's a wonderful tense series of passages where the remaining characters all have to converse without revealing any suspicion of guilt.

This is a very odd entry in the James Bond series, very in-active, but very typical in that the hero is presented as a reluctant participant. For all his snobbery, the character still comes off as fascinating, due I think to Fleming's honesty (and his writing talent). If a conservative gentleman was placed in the position of moral compromise over and over again, he'd probably be an over-compensating Playboy. As a modern reader, however, I'm not sure that Bond is still the male power fantasy that audiences are looking for.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Gentlemen by Bob Gendron


This entry in the 33 1/3 series is the first one that I've come across that covers an album that I'm actually familiar with. This is partly a matter of timing, as much as a matter of personal taste. The 1990s were the first time that I had any kind of an income that allowed me to actually own an album on CD (having only recently acquired a player) as opposed to checking out the clunky, over-played cassettes from the local library system.

"Indie-rock doesn't handle sex too well, particularly when openly discussed."

I picked up the Afghan Whigs for the same reason I would later latch on to Portishead: I was an R&B kid in a punk rock world.  There were a few vocalists left on the radio, but they were mainly of the squeaky, shiny Mariah Carey mold. All the post-Nirvana rock bands were equally cleaned up and made safe for the masses. This is a culture, after all, that had been recently shocked by George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."

So, I probably shouldn't have been surprised to find out that no one else bought Gentlemen when it came out in 1993. As author Bob Gendron points out, Greg Dulli gives us a break-up album, but one wherein the songs portray the typical rock'n'roll male attitude of excess and blame as being responsible for the situation. The woman may have done him wrong, but he's no better, and is probably addicted to the cycle to boot. Not really what the whiny, girl-allergic fans of Candlebox or The Offspring wanted to hear.

"There was a panel during [the 1993] College Music Journal Festival that I believe was actually titled 'How Do You Market the Afghan Whigs?' We were so fucking weird."

It takes a bit of slogging to get to that point in this book, however. There are a lot of great stories about the band, and some insights into ideas that made it onto the album. There is also a long track-by-track analysis that spends too much time telling the reader what the lyrics are saying in each song. Gendron obviously loves the album, and his enthusiasm is very apparent in every chapter. This may be a bit off-putting to casual listeners, who were probably not expecting an English 101 style examination. Be prepared to learn a lot about the Whigs, but also be prepared to just nod your head for a while until the author gets on with the next bit.