Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 'Beat It' To Death

Just when you were getting over the death of Ed McMahan or hearing about Farrah Fawcett, everyone went wacko for Jacko’s departure.  Not that there needs to be another “Michael Jackson Dead at 50” blog article—considering everyone and their siblings (Jermaine) are throwing in their two cents—but can’t people just chill out.  Maybe I have no room to speak here since I did gain some notoriety when David Foster Wallace committed suicide but I will nonetheless.

All the news has been talking about is Jackson this and Jackson that, meanwhile there are still things going on with Iran, North Korea, the Rep. Gov. of South Carolina, and some football coach got gunned down in his weight room.  It always seems that when shit hits the fan for the GOP, poof Michael Jackson dies, and guess what gets the coverage.  CNN, the big networks, ET Exclusives, number one on Twitter, it is big news but why does anyone really care.  I didn’t get all up in arms by the fact that no one gave a shit on TV when DFW offed himself and he was pretty much my God.  I don’t think toning down the MJ love will bother anyone too much.  Besides, these are the same folks that talked about how his dermatologist was taking him to Mexico to get his little Jackson bleached so it couldn’t be identified in a lineup.  And the last “megastar” you say, have people already forgotten Britney? 

But it is funny how celebrities always go in threes and how these three—McMahan, Fawcett, and Jacko—were at the top of their shitz in something.  McMahan was a part of the most viewed television program ever, Fawcett had the most sold poster ever—um, ger, by the way—and Jackson had the number one selling album of all time. 

But even though he was clearly the King of Strange as well as the King of Pop, his career was one of my first clear-cut memories.  At a year and a half, I remember without a doubt when the video for “Thriller” premiered and waiting for it beforehand.  I remember this because nothing before or since scared the piss out of me more than that video.  I wouldn’t even watch it again until I was 15—but then I did I saw what a little wussy I was as a kid. 

So now that the man with a million faces is no more, I will leave you with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog covering one of the Michael Jackson pedophilia trials.  Enjoy. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

David Sedaris Signed My (And Friends) Shit

Winston Salem—Just got back from a book signing with David Sedaris at the W-S Barnes & Nobles at about 2:15 am and wow. First of all, really nice guy, he is probably still there signing books—its about 4 in the morning now—which he started an hour before his scheduled reading, which lasted an hour, that began at 7 pm. And this all takes place in the middle of week where he does this same thing every night and I doubt he will be getting any sleep. But he was still gracious.

The reading was great, he read through three pieces—(1) a work of fiction in the form of an email about a girl who basically ruins another woman’s life and this is sort of an apology but is more of a means of her trying to justify her actions including steeling the woman’s husband and paralyzing her and then at the end we learn it was her sister; (2) a piece published in The New Yorker called “Author, Author?” that he read in part because it took place here in Winston Salem about his travels on the book circuit, the funniest part of which was from a reading he gave in a Costco or something in Canada that no one attended where he sat next to a sign that read “No Pictures” making him think of the fact that nothing made those shoppers happier than not taking that asshole’s picture; and (3) excerpts from his diary that included things like a girl working at a hotel who risked her job to take him to the hospital when he had a kidney stone and when he got to her car all he thought of was the fact that her car was filthy.

I have never seen a turnout for an author like the one he received. Something like 650 people showed up to get books signed and her him read. I talked to one of the girls who worked there—bless her and all those folks for staying through the night—and the only thing that even compared, she said, was when the final Harry Potter book came out, but “never has there been anything like that for a signing.” And even though it was clearly a long day and everyone wanted all kinds of things signed—I myself had seven books signed, one for me, two for the female companion, three for a couple we met there and went out to dinner and for drinks with, and one for me ma—he took the time to say a little something to each person who waited, asking questions and such. For example, he asked me if I’d seen Up—he is currently obsessed with it—which I have, and asked if I cried—I did get teary eyed—and asked about each of the people I was getting books signed for and also what I do and so on and so forth. I told him about the sports writing and he said I didn’t look like a sportswriter, which I always take as a complement, citing my hair and glasses.

If you get a chance to see him, here is his calendar of upcoming events, be sure to check him out. His books are funny even if they aren’t necessarily say Franzen’s The Corrections, but he makes up for being “middlebrow” with his showmanship and nobody does a better reading. He is sort of like the Truman Capote of his generation in that he is so damn charismatic you can’t help but like and root for the guy, even if he gets shit for the fiction/nonfiction distinction.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Eggers Shows How We Are Hungry

How We Are Hungry (HWAH), Dave Eggers’s third book, his only of short stories, published in 2004, after A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, a title that the book may have lived up to, and You Shall Know Out Velocity! (YSKOV!) and before What is the What, was also, coincidentally, the third book of his I have read.  I admit that the one I have not read is the “work of genius,” but after finishing this collection of short stories, I am already convinced.

Among other things, Eggers is very cool. If you aren’t familiar with Eggers, you probably should be, considering that in addition to the four books he has published, he also founded his own independent publishing company, McSweeney’s, which produces its own literary journal, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a monthly lit. mag., The Believer, and the DVD magazine Wholphin.  An amateur reviewer of the book sums it up nicely when he states “I didn't know much about Eggers besides the fact that hipper people than I adored him. Sexier, well-connected people.”  So, why has he received such attention from the literary community?  For one, there was a photo of him in GQ’s October 2007, 50th Anniversary Issue, filling out one of the obligatory writer spots in the spread, there was also one of David Foster Wallace, that celebrated the most stylish men around.  Part of his cool comes from the fact that he is the quote unquote “magnetic center of a literary counterestablishment,” making him popular among the hipsters, and having his own independent company means he doesn’t have to play by the rules of publishing houses; for example, as A.O. Scott notes in his New York Times review, Eggers “released [this book] with a characteristic disdain for the rituals of the publishing industry: no reviewers' galleys, no back-cover blurbs, no publicity.”

But the main reason he comes off as someone you would just about die to meet at a bar is that he modestly captures the anxieties of a generation without being pretentious, for the most part, or preachy, and shit, the guy can write.  Everyone I know that likes Eggers has had a rough go at life and find his work soothing and his self-reflexive humor honest, while people I know that don’t like his work tend to be the of type that buy their whole wardrobes from Urban Outfitters who ironically think that “he tries too hard to be cool” or as Nicholas Taylor puts it in a review for PopMatters he’s a “too-cool, too-knowing, too-sarcastic edge of a smart-cracking wise ass.”  However, a few people whose opinions I respect have said that his self-referential, meta-style and his constant use of irony end up making his work “too cutsie.”  I too sort of think this at times during some of the pieces in HWAH and specifically in the section of YSKOV! aptly called “An Interruption" where Hand commandeers the narrative to go off on his own mostly unrelated rant, but even Hand’s absurd bit had its charm, and, for the most part, this stuff doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of his work and I sort of like some of the gimmicks despite themselves.

Conceding Scott’s point that the volume wavers between looking “like yet another late-postmodern grab bag of secondhand gimmicks and tried-and-true tricks,” readers must then begin “distinguishing one from the other” themselves “since Eggers excels at appearing at once utterly guileless and ultra-self-conscious.” With the task established, there were two stories in this collection that were self-conscious gimmick laden, “Notes for a Story of a Man Who Will Not Die Alone” and “Quiet”, making the latter almost unreadable.  “Notes for a Story” is presented in just that fashion, the bullet points of a pretty interesting story about a man planning to have a final farewell bash where he slips away naturally in the company of over a 1,000 people all there to see him go.   However, in this experimental form, it comes off as sort of irritating, especially in reference to its constant self-revision as it goes along.  But it was at least interesting.  Though the same cannot be said for “Quiet” that is in practically everyway irredeemable and is unnecessarily gimmicky. 

With “Quiet,” there are way too many layers of irony to peal away before much sense is made of the story, but here is the gist of it:  It tells of two friends who have met in Scotland and how their relationship changes for the worse after the past resurfaces and a friendship-ending event come to fruition while on the trip, loops back in on itself like John Barth’s “Frame-tale” that opens his book of stories, Lost in the Funhouse.  Eggers manages to one up Barth though on the postmodern douchiness scale though by making his endless cycle of a story much longer than his counterpart’s literal loop.  “Quiet” begins with the narrator, Tom, telling us that when he previously told this story, he concluded it with a conversation he had with  “the nickly shimmer of the moon on a black lake” that took place after the events the story explains transcribe.  It then gives us the entire conversation, which starts with the apparition (?) saying “You are a lucky one, Tom, to have Erin and others like Erin” (85).  We learn that Erin is a girl that he worked with, having gotten her a job where he worked after they first met, and has been pretty much head-over-heals in love with ever since.  For her, Tom feels “blessed.”  But the shimmer foreshadows in its statement, “I saw you and Erin by the shed… I was there,” (86) that everything may not been awesome between them, Tom and Erin.  First, Tom berates Erin into telling her information that he doesn’t really want to know about her sexual history that involved a three-way encounter with two of their co-workers, guys they were both friends with.  After bullying her, he experiences “road rage” that culminates in him hitting and killing a sheep.  Things don’t seem to be going smoothly when Tom seems to have a change of heart following a supposed near-death-experience.  Back on speaking terms, they decide to check out a lighthouse in the area where the infamous barn resides.  When the reader eventually finds out what climactic event took place behind the barn, at best one of the most gruesomely awkward sexual encounters ever written that was possibly even a rape, the reader is appalled as the shock of this “fucked up” scene sets in.  In a moment of uncontrolled, unrequited (Erin never gets wet) passion, Tom sticks his penis in her from behind while she tells him to wait.  Afterwards, once he says sorry, she tells him “Don’t be sorry. That would make it weirder.”  Tom, then, correctly observes, “Oh shit! This is so bad,” (112).  The whole thing leaves everyone feeling deeply disturbed, reader included, and it ruins the friendship.  Spending the last couple days in Scotland awkwardly touching her hair, after which Tom and Erin would never speak, he looks out the window and sees the “nickly shimmer on the bay.”  It ends when “it smiled, eyed me with an unwelcome knowingness, and began to speak,” (114) bringing the story back to the beginning where one turns to read the concluding dialogue. 

Another story, “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself,” mercifully omitted from the paperback edition used in this review, I guess he really learned to keep it to himself in the second go, also infuriates Eggers’s audience through its one pomo device: experimentation.  This “story” is so experimental it’s only a title followed by five white pages with only the title and page numbers disturbing the blankness.  A story that delivers absolutely nothing to the reader, literally, the postmodernist being weird for the sake of being weird.  Stuff like this tends to really annoy people and Ed Caesar, in his scathing review from The Independent, was so pissed off by the postmodern conventions that he wrote one quickly realizes that these pages of blank space “might be the best of the lot.”  Ouch.  Eggers, in an interview with Salon, tries to explain, saying, "There was a story there, seven pages, until a few weeks before we went to press. And it was a very personal and painful kind of story, and I thought it fit in the collection. But then I was advised that it wasn't such a good idea to put it in, and so instead I changed the title and left the pages blank."  But that really doesn't tell us why it was left in as blank space.  And his final words about the piece, "in a weird way it went from the most wrenching part of the book to what appears to be a quick gag," doesn't help his case against the charges that he uses irony as a crutch nor justify its postmodern weirdness.  

Other than these two pieces, three if you count the one left out of the paperback, they all can’t be winners now can they, the rest of the book proves solid, some of it, dare I say it again, genius.  The success of the other dozen stories depends, in most cases, on Eggers’s ability to generate characters the reader cares for, and he does it almost immediately. In the five extremely short pieces --"What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from His Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust"; "On Wanting to Have Three Walls up Before She Gets Home"; "She Waits, Seething, Blooming"; "Naveed"; and "About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her" -- this task gets done to varying degrees of effectiveness, but each of them is not without some merits.  The first, "What It Means," for example, one part title, two parts story, takes a single idea -- in this case, how a traumatic event thousands of miles away can cause despair for one unconnected man as it makes its way into his life via his television set.  This piece, as well as "On Wanting" and "Naveed," are some the best in the collection.  They're exceptional because they take the familiar Eggers concerns of guilt and longing and and romantic ideals and solipsism, etc., and move them from global empathy of the theoretical  "Over There," as explained by John Freeman of The San Francisco Chronicle, in "Velocity," and in making them more personal by giving us an intimate portrayal that brings their concerns "Right Here."

Most of Eggers’s characters fall into the same category of good, pleasant adults that have yet to mature which causes those around them to underestimate them and in turn leaves them feeling empty and wanting.  Their relationships and friendships are easy rather than complex, one gets the sense that they wouldn’t stay in them for very long if they were complex, and they shy away from responsibility.   As a result, many of them are dealing with deeply embedded feelings of loneliness and grief.  These are the type of characters found in YSKOV! with the protagonist, Will, who has just come into a substantial sum of money, and his best friend, Hand, who set out on a trip around the world where they go to different countries, spend like less than a day, and just throw a bunch of charity in someone’s face.  My first experience reading, or hearing about, Eggers came out of a course on African fiction, when after the first class, we were given a snippet of the book that appeared as a short story somewhere and in class we talked about how the bit was so typically American abroad—throwing aid/money at people, throwing off societal structure, without learning anything about the people or country they are traveling through.  Obsessed with motion, they purchase tickets with an airline that allows unlimited travel for one week so long as they go in the same direction with each flight.  But with only a few days to get across the globe, they spend most of their time in airports or on planes, showing that even the quickest mode of transportation doesn’t keep up with them.  It pisses them off and they long for teleportation, we have been promised this for years after all.  Their generosity then is all about them in their need for adventure and need to feel they have a purpose. 

In HWAH too we find constantly-on-the-move characters like Will and Hand who examine the morality of their actions abroad because of that subtle deference between what they see as sympathy and what the locals they encounter view as sympathy/pity, all the while seeking for something actually worth seek.  It’s Kafka’s really central joke, as David Foster Wallace wrote in the essay “Laughing with Kafka,”—“that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”  With four of the stories dealing directly with travel abroad—“Another;” “The Only Meaning of the Oil-wet Water;” the previously mentioned “Quiet;” and “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”—many of the characters are just like Will and Hand; matter of fact, one of them actually is Hand.  After his part in YSKOV!, he reappears in one of this collection’s best stories, “The Only Meaning of the Oil-wet Water,” once again as a kind of sidekick who is that friend you know who if say falls into a gutter, Forest Gumps his way out with two Rolexes he just happened to, what dude, find.  Think of him as this generation’s Dean Moriarty, which would sort of make Eggers our Jack Kerouac.  In this story, Hand just shows up in Costa Rica, where he and his female friend, Pilar, mentioned in YSKOV!, whom he has known since his childhood in Wisconsin have a choreographed vacation together.

From the beginning, Pilar’s intentions are clear, the two have been flirting for years though Hand is “the only attractive old friend she'd never slept with” (23) and sees this time of surf and sun as the perfect opportunity to begin sexual relations.  However, as the words “oil” and “water” in the title allude, they don’t come together all that well. Their coming together sexually—hey, hey—has been long in the making and Pilar, at least, has been planning the whole thing for years.  It gets complicated, their hooking-up, as tends to happen, because of the baggage they carry with them—an easy connection to make here—for her, taking the form of insecurity and, for him, selfish attachments.  Because Eggers tells the reader early on “this story is not about Pilar and Hand falling in love,” (24) it is safe to assume the two do not become a long-term item; thus, the story has to sort out the reasons why it ultimately doesn’t last, something that is not overtly explored, which puts the task of doing so entirely through the clues within the story.  This is exactly why the postmodern-metafictional elements/”tics” critics universally hated end up not only working but prove integral to understanding the story.  Even though they act awkwardly, make out in a funny way, and say all the inappropriate things, they still end up sleeping together, and when the story concludes, this seems to be just the start of a wonderful relationship.  Wrong, it can never be as we know that this story is not about that; it is about, as much as anything, why they cannot end up working things out in the end, but only for those that know what to look for. 

Beginning with Pilar, shortly into the account she comes off as silly and playful, saying that she wanted to go to Nicaragua because it “sounded dangerous,” thinking to herself that “It sounded like some kind of spider. There it goes, under the table – Nicaragua!” (21).  However, as the reader gets to know her, it becomes increasingly clear that this was actually a lament over the suppression of her desires based on her self-consciousness that in the end proves debilitating.  As a result of her need to be liked, she plans out jokes to sound spontaneous, calculates every moment of premeditative sex in advance, tries to seem cooler than she believes she really is, etc., and ends up losing out on enjoying the moment for the fun that it provides.  For example, while out surfing for the first time, she can’t take pleasure in the act because “she was concerned that if she did [anything] wrong she would be laughed at or pointed at and removed,” and so, “she did as they did, even though, as often as not, they didn’t know either,” in failing to realize that “everyone was an amateur, everyone pretending at grace,” (35).  In other words, Pilar could never really give herself completely over to another because she is too concerned with appearance to find actual connection.  Hand, on the other… um, well, you get the idea, is more genuine but also has a hard time connecting because he is too self assured.  Possessing this persona that seems honest and sincere, he likes this person and how relates everything to it not how they really are.  Describing Hand’s work history, Pilar hits the nail on the freggin’ head, he likes things that are “well-paying”—i.e. self-beneficial—“low-commitment,” and like his jobs, he is “impossible to explain,” (20).  Impossible that is because as a master-manipulator, possible even unaware he’s doing it, he obscures the distinction between his wants and the one being manipulated, and thus they are in Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua.  Hand, therefore, works to have as little responsibility as possible so as to stay on his completely self-involved focus on personal gain since taking on more means losing a part of himself. 

Similarly, the story “Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance” also deals with characters who have long known each other but when it comes time to talk about something serious, social issues get in the way and they fail to connect.  Here, a young man named Fish drives a significant distance to visit his cousin Adam who has just attempted suicide by jumping off a hotel rooftop.  We learn of the things Fish wants to say to Adam about his repeated attempts to kill himself, however, he finds himself both literally and figuratively unable to say the things that need to be said because of the barrier, the locked hospital window, between them.  In the end, with all the things left unsaid still hanging in the air, it concludes with Fish shimmying up a tree next to his cousin’s hospital window and waving at him like an idiot not knowing how else to tell him he cares.

The protagonist in “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” is another character who has been similarly afflicted due to her lack of voice that has snatched away love and the wanted responsibility of raising children.  There is no way to describe this story other than brilliant.   In it, he wholly forgoes any cuteness or gimmicks or experimental styles, with beautifully lithe prose, Eggers takes one of Hemingway’s greatest achievements “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in the short story genre of which he was master, and not only attempts to update it, but following the same thread, tries to improve upon the definitive account of climbing this mountain, or any for that matter.  Hemingway’s story tells of a writer named Harry who develops gangrene he knows will kill him while waiting for his and his wife, Helen, to be rescued after getting stranded during a safari in Africa.  Eggers, on the other hand, tells a similar story but from a vastly different perspective. First of all, the story is told from a female perspective, who, like Harry, trying to put her life back on track after her sheltered living of procrastination and solipsism, seeing the experience as one of struggle to achieve something difficult.  She is really searching for something authentic her in the exotic having not found anything to validate her life at home, in the states, and now hopes that traveling and doing will bring about something monumental—i.e. a new self.

Reviewing his life in a series of flashbacks, Harry too wants this as he thinks of his talent as a writer that was wasted after marrying Helen and also the sick, hollow feeling of being alone.  Occasionally this makes him be nice again for a moment but then he goes right back into insulting the wife.  Eventually, you realize the gangrene is just a metaphor and it is really the marriage or being married to this woman that is killing him.  Rita is filled with a sense of urgency that is much the same as Harry’s, both of whom are middle/upper-class Americans who feel guilt and anxiety for wasting their talents, with hers revolving around her parents taking the foster children she was trying to adopt to keep her from the added responsibility. With little to do but wait for a plane that he knows won’t reach him in time, Harry spends most of his time drinking and bitching about the life he has wasted and the faults of his wife.  Harry, then, is ultimately pissed that living off his wife’s wealth has pulled him down the slope toward artistic decline and once free of her, he sees his problems ending there.  As such, he imagines the rescue plane getting there in time to take him to Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped summit he equates with fulfillment.  At first, Rita too, views the climb through romantic lenses, but unlike Harry who probably still wouldn’t write, Rita, after the deaths of some of the porters carrying their things, is eventually forced to realize that she cannot run from her problems that follow her even as she ascends to new heights.  Hemingway romanticizes the whole deal but in this age that doesn’t work.  More is needed than transformative experience to break out of the unromantic, guarded cells postmodern man finds himself, it just shows you what you’ve been living in.  Rita learns this the hard way after reaching the peak where she is still haunted by the unrelenting ghosts of the frozen dead lining the mountainside just like the boy Harry recalls whose frozen body had been half-eaten by dogs after dying on a climb.  And now on foreign land, the hopeless present and the tormented past, leaves them even more distraught and feeling alone.  The only promise is escape through change, otherwise, you die like Harry, living through so much, though only for a moment, never with any regard for the future.

Another of the my-interesting-and-lonely-time-abroad stories is called “Another,” and though the title is stupid, especially considering it’s the frame tale, i.e. the first goddamn one in the collection, it is one of those great little eye-openers that really makes you reassess the homeland and the experience of foreign travel.  A couple of years back, the Hof-meister, went through a similar situation on a class field trip at the exact place the narrator has his own realization. Like the female companion, the narrator, in Egypt riding on horseback to see the pyramids, expects them to somehow transform his life, but to quote pretty much every kid that went on the pilgrimage to Gizeh and saw the pyramids from my former master’s program, “Hated it,” said in their best In Living Color voices.  But before she went with her classmates on said mission trip, I touched up on the old pyramid facts, which mostly consisted things I had read in some book on the original Seven Wonders of the World, and I really thought she would find herself in awe.  I was excited for her and I was spewing out knowledge trying to impress her, telling her the old proverb “men fear time, time fear the pyramids,” and all that was great, until I started looking into the U.S. Embassy’s tips when traveling to that country.  The government site basically concluded that you shouldn’t go unless you have to and not even then if you are female.  Shit.  Now I was a wreck with my worrying.  But I guess that it really isn’t a big deal and this amounts to scare tactics more than anything else, as I learned from my school’s pilgrims and from the narrator of Eggers’s story.  The narrator, “in Egypt, against the advice of [his] government… [unwise] with the poor state relations between our nation and the entire region,” (7) seems to have been drawn not there specifically, but away from home, finding “words like anxiety and depression… apt.”  But, of course, they don’t possess magical powers or anything and no one I know at least is really changed by visiting the oldest man-made historical monument.  Seeing this kids following their trips, it seemed they had come back from a rock concert more than bearing witness to a mass transformative experience—on their way back and shortly thereafter, they talked of nothing but the trip and once they got tired of cleaning their hookahs or smoked all their shisha, they were back here looking for jobs and dealing with the same shit that didn’t get worked out before they left.  When specifically talking about their disappointment over the pyramids, most talk about how they weren’t allowed to climb up on them or how they weren’t as big as they thought they would be or, like the narrator explains, they were constantly harassed by “the hawkers who work the Gizeh plateau—really some of the least charming charmers the world owns—were trying to sell me anything,” (8).  It turns out that the pyramids are more than anything, well, just boring, and what they really went on about and also what the narrator enjoys the most, is the movement/travel itself.

What is striking is that Eggers’s characters are always vividly real; especially true for those that aren’t even human.  As seen in “Quiet,” he writes the reflection of the moon into the story, giving it a voice, and elsewhere with say horses or the ocean.  But where he does this most brilliantly is in the story “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” my personal favorite, which chronicles the innocent yet wise spirit of a happy dog that loves nothing more than to run but is tragically killed doing what he loves.  (For an emotional, heartfelt review, see "What Really Knocks Me Out...").  I may be a sucker for dog fiction—see my review for Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, a somewhat similar tale featuring a dog as the protagonist—but I dare you to not find such fiction endearing.  It’s is touching to hear anyone say of what they are doing “Damn, I’m so in love with all of this,” (206) and was even more so in this tale.  This is a dog near and dear to my heart, much like one of my own, Cap n’ Crunch, who I could almost hear say “OH I’M A FAST DOG. I’m fast-fast. It’s true and I love being fast I admit It I love it. You know fast dogs. Dogs that just run by and you say, Damn! That’s a fast dog! Well that’s me. A fast dog. I’m a fast-fast dog. Hoooooooo! Hooooooooooooo!”  (205). Whatis great about both works of fiction is that we really trust these little guys and believe in their simple ambitions.  Plus we learn why dogs chase the squirrels the way they do—just saw Up in 3D and they deal with this in hilarious fashion—because “the squirrels have things to say,” (209).  And while this is going on, they offer us powerful critiques of the vain, wasteful lives of our species.  For instance, the story, and book, ends with the lines “everyone in the life before was cranky, I think, because they just wanted to know,” (218) which got to me as one who has his share of EXISTENTIAL MELTDOWNS.  Because that’s just it, I—like many of the characters in the book—just want to know, this dog though, he already does.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

After reviewing Warren Ellis and John Cassidy’s standalone crossover comic Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, I figured it was high time I checked out Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  To say this graphic novel is a masterpiece of the genre is understating it—it is of the best the genre has to offer and one of the best works of fiction of the last quarter of a century.

Published in 1986, the same year as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it was a time when the rules of superhero literature changed.  DKR marks a “turning point” in the genre, yes; but, as Dave Wallace (no, not David Foster Wallace) explains in his review for Comics Bulletin, “it's also such a significant milestone in the history of Batman that it has cast a shadow over all subsequent interpretations of the character.”  In fact, in his introduction to Miller’s book, Moore expresses a similar notion when he writes “[Miller] has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character's mythology... Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different.”

How so?  Well, Miller tells the story not of Batman’s coming up in the ranks as Gotham’s finest hero, but of “The Batman,” who has already risen and has moved on.  When the story begins, the Dark Knight’s 55-year-old alter ego, Bruce Wayne, retired his suit a decade before following the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, for which he cannot forgive himself for his part.  However, Gotham City has since gone to Hell as a heat wave brings with it tension and increased crime.  Obsessed with his own death, Wayne finds it ever more difficult to ignore the Bat’s nagging voice telling him that he is needed back on the streets.

The pressure becomes too much one night when Wayne relives the slaying of his parents when he catches The Mask of Zorro on TV, the movie he watched with his parents that night, and the image of his mother’s pearl necklace breaking (Miller’s addition to the character’s “bat-story”) comes back up to the surface.  Changing stations brings only more images of violence, highlighting words like crisis, attack, deaths, rape, and mutilation (24) and in a section that expertly illustrates his subject’s anxiety the wings start to flutter.

At first, the reader, like the eyewitness accounts in this passage, only gets glimpses of the ten-year dormant hero while people debate his existence, until Miller’s larger-than-life rendition jumps down on the scene, first to battle the supposedly reformed Harvey “Two-Faced” Dent, who is on his own agenda, that culminates at the end of  “Book One” in a creepy, 9/11ish “face-off” on one of Gotham’s Twin Towers, rigged, apparently, by the Joker’s henchmen with explosives to topple the buildings.

Next, in “Book Two,” Batman takes on a gang of anarchist criminals known as “The Mutants,” who are led by a maniac who is “a kind of evil we never dreamed of” (77).  These guys don’t really have a plan like Dent say and their only goal is to kill making them unpredictable and free to act in any way the story sees fit unlike the villains that have their own set of standards.  Batman, getting his own personal ass handed to him by the Mutant leader, receives some unexpected assistance from a new incarnation of the Boy Wonder, when a very young girl wearing that ridiculous outfit whom he saved in the previous chapter jumps on the foe’s back allowing Batman to take back the advantage.  By writing in this sort of young and innocent sidekick, Miller takes advantage of the character to explore reckless side of the Caped Crusader for his questionable decisions, in this case training a nimble little girl for his army of vigilantes

Gotham’s new, anti-Batman commission, who replaces the always extremely pro-Batman Gordon, has taken it upon herself to end the masked hero’s run of crime fighting, picking up on this endangering aspect of a decidedly do-it-yourself-attitude.  Not only has the city’s highest police official turned against him, but through a devastating media campaign, the public has as well.  With his satirical portrayal of nightly “news” programs, Miller digs into the questions of credibility that arise when a society is fed its news from both a biased viewpoint, a strangely accurate parody of Fox News’s “Fair and Balanced,” and the bias of the medium itself.  A striking example of his critique at work deals with media coverage on a few of the individuals inspired by Batman to take action against the world they see as broken.  The first in the series of incidents shows a man who starts shooting up a porn theater after he got canned from his job.  Detailing his inner thoughts, Batman is never mentioned, but on-air, the killings become “Batman-inspired” (89).  Then, after a mental defect dresses like the hero to kill someone who wronged him and the subsequent coverage, a man who “can’t say he approves of this Batman”  hears a scream and goes to help, something he wouldn’t have done had he not been reading about Batman at that instant; however, the panel ends, “nobody is hurt badly enough for this to make the news,” (90).  Stories are dictated by ratings which brings money, the only thing television is about—i.e. attracting more watchers—and its only aim make public discourse impossible.  In this regard, Miller delivers an outstanding critique of media bias that is up there with media theorist Neil Postman in effectively denouncing the over-simplification and dumbing-down of important issues that is televised journalism, the way as a culture, America gets its information.

This also extends to one of the two major conflicts, between Batman and his archenemy, the Joker, With the Joker, when Batman went away, the Man Who Laughs was unable to deal and wound up catatonic.  But with Batman’s reemergence, which he learned about when overhearing a nearby television, the Joker snaps back to reality, well, his version of it anyway, suggesting that without Batman, the Joker does not exist.  He then goes on a talk show that is clearly a stand in for Letterman, mimicking the program so ironic that nothing can be taken seriously.  The only one who is sincere here is the Joker, who tells the audience during recording that he’s “going to kill everyone in this room,” eliciting Dave’s sardonic reply, “now that’s darn rude,” (126).  No one takes any of it seriously—why would they—and the Joker makes it happen, first making out with an almost-Dr. Ruth to death and then laugh-gassing everyone else.  The Joker is all about TV, practically everything he does is to swing public opinion. 

The other major conflict, between Batman and his nemesis Superman, grows out of a similar critique this time focusing in on political leaders/issues.  Superman diverts a USSR nuclear attack by deflecting the missile into the dessert, which everyone thinks harmless.  Um, no, it was not.  Technology goes haywire—planes fly into buildings, cars stop running, TV broadcasts cut out, etc.—and what’s worse is the sky is covered in ash and smoke veiling the planet in an artificial night that accompanies your standard rioting/mass hysteria all resulting in a post-apocalyptic type world.  But Batman is there to put it right until federal puppet Superman returns under government mandate to stop Batman.  The resulting showdown is epic and as good as comic books get.

This is the super hero deconstructed and it is genius in almost everyway.  If you haven’t read it, shell out the $15 and prepare yourself for a literary masterpiece.  Gotham awaits.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crossing Worlds With Team Planetary Ends Up Going One-For-Three

Planetary: Crossing Worlds

Warren Ellis and his DC Comics subsidiary WildStorm team have put together Planetary: Crossing Worldswhich collects the three one-shot crossover tales—when characters from one comic interact with characters from another comic—of the series into this one edition; however, while the three separate works are grouped together in this volume for convenience, that doesn’t mean they are of the same quality.  In fact, of the three (1. Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World; 2. Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta; 3. Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth) inter-company crossovers, only the Planetary/Batman story is worth reading and is solely where the title here comes from. I will go so far as to recommend you just go ahead and skip down to that portion of the review since the first two sort of suck and not worth the focus of very much detail.  But, in case your interested, I have sections that discus them below too.  Looking at each story as it appears in the publication, the first two will be shot down like giant-freak-tadpoles-from-hell activated by human touch, before turning to the final piece and discussing why it was genius while the others were not.

Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World

First, there is this Planetary/The Authority nonsense that must be mocked before getting to the good stuff.
  The plot revolves around these gross, flying things that look like green sperm that are spawned by an enormous octopus-type-thing.  The Planetary and Authority teams must step in and save the world, as they are both wont to do, but they don’t even do so together, they never actually meet, although they do have some sort of alertness or sensitivity of the other group’s presence and they all are inherently distrustful of the each other—it happens when you get secrete societies of super humans together I guess.  But again, they don’t actually face one another or anything so the whole project feels like a waste on some level, which was only a minor letdown in this disappointing tale. 

There were only two things I really enjoyed about this comic, the first, being the meta-line Jakita drops in reference to the suspicion that both feel toward their counterpart, where she lifts a linefrom Alan Moore’s Watchmen, click here for a review of that film/book, asking, “Who watches the Watchmen?”  Line used by Moore was also a reference itself, to Thomas Pynchon’s massive novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which I am currently reading, that I will say is roughly about paranoia (but trying to explain a postmodern novel like GR is an exercise in futility), when the book asks, “What have the watchmen of world's edge come tonight to look for?”

The other thing I liked was Ellis’s scathing portrait of an unnamed writer that one of the team members visited some 80-years before the plot of the story of unfolds that is clearly supposed to be H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft is obviously deranged, thinking that the eggs that are activated by human touch that eventually bring about the later action that almost brings the two teams close enough to meet, were actually negro eggs, he opts for shooting them with a shotgun rather than being forced to touch a black baby or whatever.  I guess it is probably pretty straightforward that I am not exactly to biggest Lovercraft fan, thus enjoying Ellis’s critique.

The issue’s major problem, on the other hand, consisted of trying to do too much with too little space for 50 or so page comic book.  It was way too ambitious in it’s undertaking, bordering on unrealistic.  Trying to pack the information of two comic book franchises into a single publication was just too brief to get much depth, with so much back-story killing the work’s flow—focusing on things that needed to be known to understand the story instead of really developing a solid storyline. 

Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta

This standalone features a Planetary from an alternate universe as they battle Justice League of America (JLA) members Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  Here, the Planetary team is more like their archenemies, the Four, who clearly represent the Fantastic Four, and to make this even clearer, like it wasn’t already obvious, Ambrose Chase, whose death before the storyline began created the opening now occupied by Snow who was the last of the trio to join the team, is back from the dead to match them up with the Four numerical.  JLA, then, takes the part of the normal Planetary team that is also, ugh, three in number fighting to stop the group’s world domination. 

The basic jist, plot wise, is that JLA is funding some drunken lunatic’s time travel research to use as a weapon against the previously mentioned Chase—his power has something to do with gravitational distortion fields.  The “smashed” physicist then gets sloppy and starts up the old time machine pulling some poor, green alien into the oxygen breathing planet we call Earth, and breathing, oh I don’t know, carbon monoxide or methane or hydrogen cyanide or something ambiguously mentioned, the guy ends up dying after only a few seconds as JLA basically just pokes at it.  The physicist is a huge dick about it and not only does this kill some unlucky unworldly creature apparently visiting our rock to check out the dinosaurs (although Wonder Woman’s hypothesis on how he survived our atmosphere 75-million years ago during the oxygen filled Cretaceous period is nonsensical), it also tips off Planetary that somebody is messing with the space-time continuum.  Chase then shows up blazing out of nowhere but his reincarnation is short lived as Superman rips off some of his fingers before throwing him into the time loop.  Nice to see you again, don’t let the bat-merang hit you in the ass on the way out.  JLA then uses the conveniently open doorway/portal thing that he arrived in to go to Planetary’s base on the moon so that they can all get it on as super villains and heroes always do.

Once on the moon, Snow, who is inexplicably bald, kills Superman immediately by flinging him out into space in a hey-check-this-out-way but not the other two to find out where they are holding Chase, oops, well we kind of threw him into another dimension.  The decision to keep them alive, of course, proves fatal but you have to have those final showdowns.  Separating them off, two endgames take place, one between a samurai looking Jakita and Wonder Woman and the other between Batman and cancer patient Snow.  Good wins out as per use and Snow and Jakita get themselves killed leaving the unmentioned Drummer presumably there on the moon to I assume masturbate to intergalactic internet porn.

One of the reasons the comic is so weak is that it is completely detached from the regular Planetary comic book team except in name alone.  The end result of this is that Planetary fans lose interest because these aren’t the characters they care about.  Not only that but the whole thing is pretty confusing considering that the issue not only develops an alternate universe but also challenges prior knowledge of the Planetary team.  A lot of stuff is going on here, too much stuff, and then there is the whole epic battle to get to after all that is said and done.  Again, as with the first crossover, ambition got the better of the writers and the work fails.

Same Bat-Time, Different Bat-Men: Planetary’s Team Meet a Cloud of Batmen

Warren Ellis and John Cassidy’s standalone crossover comic Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth ingeniously explores the evolution and legacy of arguably the most famous comic book character of all time, Batman, while remaining in the confines of the Planetary universe.  In this one-shot tale, Ellis’s team of “Archeologists of the Unknown,” consisting of super-humans Jakita Wagner, The Drummer, and Elijah Snow, working to uncover the “secret history of the world,” encounter the spectrum of interpretations and our various culturally ingrained images of the “Caped Crusader.”  The comic successfully not only engages the range of the one character that has changed repeatedly over the decades and kept both popularity and central concept intact, but also adds its own mark on the hero that needs no introduction.

The comic opens with the Planetary team arriving via helicopter in Gotham City to investigate one John Black who may have inherited superhuman abilities from his father, a survivor of Science City Zero that resembles the Weapon X Program from X-Men where mutants are unwillingly subjected to experiments.  At the local field office, they meet two Batman characters, Dick Grayson (Robin) and Jasper (an understated version of Batman’s archenemy “The Joker”), who are not as we know them in their roles as Gotham detectives, to exchange information on some strange homicides that have taken place in the city’s infamous “Crime Alley” where fans know the parents of Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne were gunned down in front of him as a boy which led him to a career of fighting crime.  However, this had not taken place in the Gotham the Planetary team finds themselves and there is no Batman.  So while the reader knows the significance of Crime Alley, ironically, having never developed a Batman in their universe, the team has no knowledge of the hero.

Once on location, Black’s powers are confirmed—he can travel and send matter from one dimension to another—when they find one of his victims split down the middle, the missing half sent to another reality.  The murder, however, may have been accidental; it turns out Black has been having seizures causing him to loss control of his power, projecting a sphere of energy that shifts all within its radius into a parallel world.  By pursing Black, the team causes him to panic, making the seizures worse, triggering a dimensional jump taking them to a different universe.  As they chase Black through the new Gotham, they have their first encounter with the city’s finest—Batman.

Batman does not assist, however, in their effort to catch the fugitive, finding themselves at odds with the hero who wants to deal with Black personally.  This incarnation of the Caped Crusader presents Frank Miller’s rendition from “Batman: Year One” who holds his own in a fight with Jakita who has topnotch hand-to-hand combat skills as well as super strength.  Meeting few challenges, Jakita, is, well, uh, sort of turned on, saying things like “Tell me you’re single,” referring to him as “leatherboy” and calling herself “Mistress Jakita” during their exchange.  But then Black seizes again and off they go a-sliding. 

While the team and Black remain the same throughout the jumps, Batman changes forms in each multiverse, a phenomenon that goes unexplained, this reviewers only complaint.  Now instead of a guy that makes her weak in the knees, Jakita is face to face with a version that repels her, literally, when the Adam West TV version from the 1960’s fends her off by spraying her with Bat-Female-Repellant in a can, nodding to ridiculous things like Bat Shark Repellant used to his advantage in a surfing contest.  This absurd satire of West’s portrayal, with his overly formal speech and unsculpted physique, cools her jets abruptly.  The parody pulls no punches, the Drummer compares him to a “transvestite hooker,” something the next makes him pay for uttering.

Following another seizure, they now have to deal with Miller’s massive, imposing “Dark Knight Returns” rendition of “The Batman” as he calls himself.  Grabbing Snow, whose super power manipulates temperatures, rapidly sucking heat from areas he chooses, must give him a severe ice cream headache to escape.  Despite his unfamiliarity with the Bat-Story, unaware of the irony, Snow self-referentially calls himself “Mr. Freeze,” scoffing the gritty Batman’s third person remark.  Upon recovery, the bat-mobile, more tank than car, ripped straight from Miller’s 1986 work, creates distraction and The Batman flings bat-projectiles/grenades before knocking Drummer out of the pane with a single punch to the face.

Reaching Black mid dimension shift, Batman morphs into the iconic Neal Adam’s 1970’s creation—brighter in color than the Dark Knight but still more intimidating than the West intimation—intending to cart him off to the authorities.  Snow and Jakita reason with this version, telling him Black’s history involving his the death of his parents resulting from the Science City Zero project, background with which Batman sympathizes.  Dealing with a character that believes in redemption and favors preventing crimes rather than vengeance for them, this is the Batman that transcended the campy, kitsch idea of West’s Batman that began the dark, dramatic portrayal that now defines the character image in our collective minds, Batman appears on the verge of handing over the fugitive, when another dimensional change brings another interpretation.

The empathetic Batman showing compassion for a fellow orphan gives way to a different sort of hero.  The “new” Batman proves less reasonable than his predecessor, in whose pink-gloved hand is now a gun that this version is about to use to enact his own justice on his captive, saying “Crime doesn’t pay.  Crime mustn’t pay.  Ever.”  Hmm.  This version, tough to identify, turns out is Bob Kane’s original, from 1939’s Detective Comics No. 27.  Pre-back story, the murdered parents bit came later, this Batman has no moral objections to firearms as the orphan renderings make clear and thus has no reason not to fight fire with fire if you will.  With this scene it also becomes understood that their motivations are different and so must be dealt with diversely, to the team’s frustration, having to piece together a new strategy for negotiations every few pages on a case-by-case basis.  Although, something connects them, as the Drummer points out, which has something to do with that particular alley.  The reader knows that this is where Bruce Wayne watched his parents’ executions but, of course, Planetary has just pieced together the clues to come to this realization. 

Illustrating how much the character has evolved over 70 plus years, the original and perhaps most significant revelation, is the shortest lived in the book as they cross worlds as soon as the Drummer shares his insight.  After seeing Batman in all his known forms, the creative team behind Planetary leaves its own fingerprint on the character by creating an ideal Batman in his platonic form that melds all the previous versions into one.  With this new incarnation, recalling his past after the team discovers his motivations, Batman sympathizes with Black and uses their similar tragedies to soothe Black whose freaking out has set all this in motion.  Relinquishing his captive to Planetary after they bond, Batman looks on as Black and the team teleport back to their own reality.

The reinterpretation of the superhero motif in this self-conscious depiction shows great respect for the hero ideal that was obliterated in the 1980’s postmodern comic masters like Alan Moore and Frank Miller who damned them as unnecessary.  Working at a time when people long for nostalgia, the genius of this comic is seen through the work’s study in why and how the character of Batman still appeals to such a diverse mix of people living in different historical times over a long period of time. Despite the different looks Batman has adopted in changes to survive both inside the comic books and within the genre reflecting the constantly changing world at large, something still remains the same.  At their core, each rendition shares a balance of the drive to bring criminals and empathy of those who’ve lost their parents including his alter ego that a fan from any era can recognize as distinctly Batman. Thus, it works where the others had failed by toning down the scope covered in the 50 or so pages by making it about a comic book character that any reader would have at least a base knowledge of and confining it to one section of that character’s history, Crime Alley, even though it is found in alternate universes.  The story then flows and is successful in that it becomes personal as they deal with one character and his pursuit of justice in the fate of one criminal, instead of that of the world.