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Our Mothers, Our Whores

29 Sep

I was born a male. I have lived my entire life as a male, and barring something unexpected I expect to die a male. It is not a source of pride, really, but an incontrovertible and undeniable aspect of who I am. I am a male, my astrological sign is Leo, I wear a size 11-1/2 shoe. These are simply facts about who I am.

I considered myself an “Enlightened Man” long before I’d even hit puberty. Owing largely to a strong maternal figure and a liberal upbringing, along with generally being more bookish than rowdy, I had a cadre of platonic girl friends at an early age (which, incidentally, endeared me in no way to the boys at school.) I was raised to respect women, to assume their intellect as I would assume any man’s. And for a long time, I thought I did this–even admitting an opposite sort of prejudice where I expect more from women than men, because I think women are generally smarter and better at constructing logical arguments. And so I went in my smug little way, happily traipsing along, silently denouncing the cat-calls of blue-collar workers and frowning disapprovingly at my friends’ misogynistic comments. Whatever vitriol being heaped upon men by feminists certainly did not apply to me, because I was an Enlightened Man.

Recently it began to dawn on me that I may have been, to borrow a French phrase, full of shit. There has been lots of warranted feminist outrage on the internet lately, from GamerGate to the wrongful termination of Jennifer Williams, to the #YesAllWomen twitter campaign, it seems like women are using the digital platform to take a stand for themselves. My gut reaction was to largely ignore these controversies because I didn’t think I should get involved. Surely I’ve never denigrated a woman or made her feel uncomfortable. I’m one of the “good guys,” the fellows that compliment ladies on their clothing and ask women for relationship advice and only look at their boobs for a few seconds rather than entire minutes. I believed I was supporting the fight for feminism by not diluting it with my testosterone. And then I decided to go against common sense and check the comments section.

I was absolutely stunned by the aggressive, angry responses I saw to these current events. Venomous, hateful threats of violence and rape. Denouncing what women wrote as divisive libel, women being called stupid and fake and sluts. Claims that women should take their grievances to lawyers or the police–I suppose to the Men Are Being Mean To Me Department, headed by Sergeant Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head–instead of bringing these discrepancies to light. It made me ashamed to have been born a male, and that’s when it dawned on me that perhaps I have been an unwitting misogynist all my life.

I have never physically hurt or threatened a woman, I don’t think I’ve even yelled at women. But I’ve definitely dismissed women for being “hysterical” or “crazy” when they complained about inequities. I’ve certainly leered at women inappropriately–and thought I was somehow better because I did it quicker than some other men. I’ve told women I like their blouse or hairstyle, never thinking that maybe women in specific and people in general don’t feel like striking up casual conversations based around the fact that you’ve been scoping them out. At a young age, I was taught that if you like a girl, go ask her out; the worst she could do is say, “no.” I wasn’t taught to respect others’ privacy and not to open a relationship by asking someone to entreat partnership with a stranger. The discrepancies between my thought and deed piled up. I considered myself a swell guy for considering most men idiots while regarding most women as geniuses. It didn’t occur to me that I was actually giving guys a pass while rigorously subjecting women to my expectations.

As it turns out, I am a male, and I feel all of the entitlement that men feel towards women–that they should be grateful for my existence, that they should be buoyed by my attention, that somehow I was doing them a favor with my condescension. I even considered my non-involvement in Feminism as some kind of benevolent acquiescence to women. “You go girls!” I thought in self-satisfaction, “Tell those nasty men off!” Never thinking that I might be one of these “nasty men,” or even that my non-involvement was more evidence that I marginalized women and their silly feelings. It’s both a comforting and terrifying thing to learn that I can have profound realizations about myself this late in life. It’s nice to know I can still learn and grow, but about what else am I kidding myself?

I find I am the subject of a lifetime of conditioning, despite my Ms. Magazine mom, and that my lifetime is but a sliver of societal conditioning stretching back to the dawn of humanity. We all come to accept some things as simply true: sex sells. Women work hard to look pretty and should be regarded for it. If a woman wears certain clothing, she wants you to gawk. These aren’t concepts I arrived to through careful consideration but by observing the world around me and being trained by the same concepts that train everyone else. We are all in this together, men and women, all of us educated from womb to tomb that boys like farts and girls like flowers, and never the twain shall meet. And, if you don’t get my point by now, that’s absolute bullshit.

How will I proceed? Well, for one thing, I’m going to cut the crap. I can silently appreciate a blouse and roundly chastise my friends for misogynistic comments. I can attempt to regard women on their merits and not based on some condescending notion about their superiority. The problem isn’t that women aren’t running the world, it’s that women by and large aren’t running shit. That even well-respected women in positions of power can be called “emotional” for speaking their minds. And I might have counted myself among those who waved off women’s problems as “Woman Problems.” The one thing I know for sure is that women aren’t going to become equal by screaming into a vacuum that no man can hear. It will be up to us, menfolk of the world, to change our perception of women and how we treat them if we’re going to see true gender equality. If you believe in fairness and respecting others as you would want to be respected, then I don’t see how you could do any less. And if you don’t believe in fairness and think women should be seen and not heard, then go fuck yourself and throw yourself into the mouth of the nearest live volcano.

A Poem About a Bird

10 Mar

I spied a tweeting songbird

Hop along the ground

In all my years of watching birds

I’d never heard that sound


I listened to the songbird’s tune

A seductive note array

With stealth, I sidled closer

But the songbird flew away


I waited for that bird’s return

I stood for days on end

Eventually I up and left

Without my feathered friend


I waited for that bird’s return

I stood for days on end

I’d never heard that song before

And I never will again

Scene to Be Seen

5 Feb

I have had the arguable fortune to be involved with two “scenes” in my lifetime: one surrounding New York City Hardcore music, and another tethered to hip-hop’s international popularity. I wasn’t anyone important, you won’t find me in any oral retrospectives or graduate theses about these times, but I attended a lot of shows and developed a cabal of like-minded friends, with whom I could argue redundantly about our scene’s particulars. He’s wearing a stupid hat. She’s got the wrong shoelaces on her Doc Maarten’s. Ultimately, we united in order to process our scenedom–a scene within a scene. And the main thing that unified us was our collective dismissal of anyone out of touch or new to the genre.

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Apprenticeship is nothing new, indeed its traditions stretch back to humanity’s earliest days. There’s no easy way around it, you’ve got to pay dues before you can effectively talk shit. In the work-a-day world, this makes good horse sense: I wouldn’t want an untrained surgeon poking around my smelly bits, nor would I want a budding plumber to take his first whack at my leaky toilet. Job training is a place where a would-be professional can be humbled by his mistakes without pissing off a client, or worse, killing someone. Being part of a scene, however, offers no such luxury: one must take their lumps in full view of the old guard, who already sneer with derision at your existence. You clique up with other newbies, pay your dues together, and heap shit on newer, smaller fans of whatever a particular scene revolves around. Mind you, most music scenes last three years at best, so this cycle is reiterated at tremendous speed. It’s only a few generations of supplicants before a genre devours itself and becomes irrelevant.

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I wonder how important that kind of scenester apprenticeship is today. To be acknowledged at hardcore and hip-hop shows, I bought and listened to a lot of music, wore certain t-shirts and accessories, steeled myself for interminable discussions about every aspect of the genre in question. I paid those dues, often literally with actual dollars, and earned the right to wear a long-sleeved BURN t-shirt. Today, you could download all the music I’ve ever owned and read the liner notes from the album covers in a weekend. All of that arcane knowledge passed down from asshole to asshole is right there on the internet, free for the taking. Do scenes even exist anymore, or is culture something to be devoured and assimilated before going on to newer things? Really, I have no idea. The only scene I’m looking at joining in the near future is the scene of dudes about to get their first prostate exam. I hope there’s someone experienced in the waiting room to instruct me on the finer points of having a gloved finger shoved up my butt.

These Are the Crazies in Your Neighborhood

17 Dec

Back in my old neighborhood, there was a guy who lived in a private junkyard right next to an industrial launderer a few blocks from my house. He put together a makeshift shelter out of the body of an old Volkswagen Beetle and some dirty blue tarps. No one would have known he was there except that he had to make regular forays into the non-junkyard world to buy himself forty ounce bottles of Budweiser beer. Pass by the junkyard around ten o’clock in the morning, you’d hear the clanging of shifted metal as this guy hauled himself out of a scrap heap to panhandle. Pass by again around three in the afternoon, you might catch him shuffling back home through a hole in the fence, hauling a grocery bag laden with brown bottles of beer. I considered him a whacked-out wino, part of the natural scenery. He was only one of maybe two dozen drunken adults wandering thoroughfares from Main Street to Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens. You’d see them with their Army-issued field jackets and free t-shirts from various cigarette promotions, begging for change and openly drinking right next to the very bodegas that sold the brew.

And it wasn’t just my neighborhood, but every neighborhood I visited growing up. Times Square was littered with as many as a hundred stumbling, disheveled people, often sleeping openly right on the sidewalks. Friends’ suburban neighborhoods in Long Island each had their special crazies, often lurking around the local strip mall or panhandling at highway exit ramps. I called them bums, I called them drunks. I called them winos and homeless people and crazies. I paid them no more mind than a lamp post or a mailbox, these people were everywhere and I took it for granted that this is what society looks like. Where did they come from? How did they end up living in a small junkyard in Flushing? These were the kinds of questions I never asked. They may as well have been birthed right there in the gutter, weaned on cheap beer and raised by greasy rats.

Things are no better today. The homeless Vietnam Vets of my era have largely died off, to be replaced by homeless veterans from more recent conflicts. You’ve got junkies and schizos and people having loud conversations with antagonists visible only to them. There’s a guy who sits outside of my office and beats a stick against the bottom of a soup pot for hours at a time. You get used to them, let loose a little change here and there, but for the most part you blow by these people, since to stop and help everyone in need seems an insurmountable task. You might feel sympathetic, you might feel annoyed, but one thing people rarely think is that these people might be dangerous. What danger could a malnourished looney pose to a well-fed guy that’s got all his marbles? So we allow ourselves to become complacent.

Part of this complacency is borne, I think, of despair. What should we do for the mentally infirm? What can we do? We can lock them up and pump them full of Thorazine until their medical insurance runs out, then they’re back out in the wild. There are no miracle cures, no way to reason with someone who is perpetually hallucinating. We can intervene on our obsessive friends and family, we can commit our suicidal children, but there’s not a lot of help forthcoming for the strange dude lurking on the street. It’s assumed that there’s some dreary procedure in place to handle these outlying integers of society, but the fact is that there’s nothing satisfactory. Prisons end up picking up as much mental health slack as they can, and then only after someone has been convicted of a crime. Very often, that’s too late.

We live in a time that we can mitigate our anxieties with medication and indulge our narcissism in a therapist’s office. Many of us seem to accept the fact that modern life will drive you at least a little crazy. But why does this have to be the norm? Isn’t a society that drives you insane a failed society? And what about those without health insurance, do we accept them as regrettable casualties in the war to figure out what the hell we want to do with ourselves? Sadly, I have no answers, only more and more questions. Because the truth of the matter is that we’ve always had crazy people, and we’ve never known quite what to do with them. Maybe we should privatize mental health hospitals, make a business out of incarcerating the insane. But then I’d worry that I might ultimately be given a rubber room right next to yours.

George Lucas, You Are Worse Than Ten Hitlers

14 Dec

A while ago, I wrote this piece, in reference to George Lucas’ continued editorial meddling in home releases of Star Wars movies. At the time, I was kind of jocular about it, because, honestly, I don’t give a shit. I like the original Star Wars series, but I’m not hysterical over it. I never owned any of the toys, never considered following up on the expanded universe through novels and comic books, and though I did have a set of Star Wars bedsheets as a kid, I am fairly certain that these were requested by my brother, and not me–particularly since I was unaware that linens were something to be purchased. I figured the Fitted Sheet Fairy brought them or something.

About a year after the original Star Wars trilogy was released on DVD, I purchased it used from Academy Records on 17th Street. I had no plans to watch them right away, I merely wanted to own the movies in this format just in case I felt like popping them on. I was aware that Lucas had made changes to the movies–some slight, others major–and I didn’t really care. I mean, these are just stupid movies about space dudes in cloaks and giant bears wearing bandoliers waving around flashlights. I read a lot of the online vitriol against Lucas with a kind of bemusement, shaking my head at the poor souls who had invested so much of themselves into this silliness. So Greedo shoots before Han Solo. So Lucas added a bunch of cgi shit to Cloud City. So what? It’s not like the basic plot of the story is any more or less stupid than before. Star Wars is a space fairy tale, a story of wonder and whimsy and weird incestual overtones and maybe some religious dogma.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend asked to watch the Star Wars series. I hadn’t sat through the trilogy in many years, and I was curious to know just what George Lucas had changed from the originals, so we started watching them. Immediately, I was entertained by the small and large changes to these movies. For one thing, the graphics and sound were definitely enhanced from what I remember. But I was more tickled by the incongruous cgi characters hanging around with crude puppets, extra scenes of worthlessness that didn’t pertain to the story, and obnoxiously overdone explosions which stripped the original works of their charm. All the while, I chuckled inwardly at the fans whose childhoods were ruined by these augmentations, as if one should be proud that their childhood is based on a blockbuster space movie in which Carrie Fisher adopts an awful British accent. Then, we got to the final movie, Return of the Jedi.

My relationship to Return of the Jedi is a strange one, to say the least. I wasn’t old enough to see the original Star Wars in theaters, but I did see Empire Strikes Back when I was about five or six. I was too young to understand the plot, and took away from the film a fear of Darth Vader and a love of Yoda. I was eight or nine when Return of the Jedi came out, and not only did I understand the plot, but I loved the movie: I loved the space battles, I loved the creepy Emperor, and yes, I loved the Ewoks. They were pretty much targeted to my age group, so it was difficult not to. It wasn’t until years later, when I would obsessively watch the trilogy on VHS with my college roommate, that I came to understand how Return of the Jedi is kind of a let-down in the series. It’s basically a big-budget remake of the original Star Wars, with Ewoks (who were initially supposed to be Wookies) patched in to pander to eight and nine year-olds. Still, it was the most technically proficient of the three movies, and though it doesn’t stand alone as a great work, it closes out the story as we know it rather nicely. It’s always held a special place in my heart, as “my” Star Wars movie, far removed from the Disco-era’s shitty spaceship models and poorly-done mattes which are hallmarks of the other two films.

So I naively thought that Lucas wouldn’t fool around with Return of the Jedi. What’s to update? By the time that movie came out, Star Wars was a multi-million dollar property and the movies’ formula had been exacted. Sure, there might be some technical changes, but by and large I considered it a perfect movie for the genre, one which was both ageless as well as a contextual piece for the Reagan era. How wrong I was. Due to my familiarity with the movie, I was able to pick out the alterations immediately: a horrible cgi scene in Jabba the Hutt’s compound where a bipedal, female fish sings a song about Jedis as Jabba’s concubine is playfully dragged to her death. Ugly-looking tentacles issuing from the toothy sand pussy meant to end the lives of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Luke Skywalker. Every few minutes, there seemed to be another pointless addition to the movie, which either detracted from the tension and pacing of the original or padded out the film with useless footage. I found it all generally annoying, but it was nothing to get angry over. These are movies for kids, and as the theatrical version of Return of the Jedi pandered to my grade school self, so too should the DVD re-releases pander to eight and nine year-olds today. Maybe they want to see their sand pussies with beaks and tentacles, how would I know? The point of that scene wasn’t diminished, just its impact, which is sad but not unexpected from a champion of mediocrity like George Lucas. Still, I had to laugh at those who feel the home releases of these movies are “ruined.” Every change Lucas made to the movies made sense in terms of continuity with the newer trilogy, as well as technological advances and George Lucas’ softer sensibilities.

And then we got to the end of Return of the Jedi.

I can only assume you’ve seen these Star Wars movies, otherwise there’s no reason to have read this much of my essay. But to refresh those who may not have seen it in years, the end of Return of the Jedi depicts an Ewok celebration on their home planet of Endor (or one of Endor’s moons, I forget which) after Darth Vader and the Emperor have been killed and the Death Star blown up. During the celebration, Luke sees the ghostly images of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and his father before he went all black robot suit, smiling warmly at Luke as if to say, “Good job, bud.” There’s a song that plays at the end, a much lauded or hated song, depending on individual opinion. It’s kind of an Ewok chant that supports the action on-screen of Ewoks doing somersaults and dancing around in their stiff, costumed manner. In fact, here it is:

Well, they fucking changed the song in the DVD release!

Upon seeing this, I crossed over from the Light Side to the Dark Side of Star Wars fandom, from chortling at the whining pleas of those who would dress as Storm Troopers to joining their angry ranks, gathered at comic conventions, calling for the head of George Lucas. Why did you change this song? Why? Not only does it make the Ewoks’ scenes of celebration seem bizarre and out of sync, over the mild dirge that replaces the happy and annoying Ewok song, it also completely changes the end of Return of the Jedi from triumph to contemplative confusion. I’m not even mad at the stupid cgi scenes of interplanetary peace, though they look imported from another movie entirely. I’m okay with changing the original actor that played Darth Vader’s human ghost to the brooding dude from Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. That was all for continuity with the newer trilogy. But why change that final song?

Because, ladies and gentlemen, George Lucas is worse than ten Hitlers combined. Fuck him.

We’re All in the Same Cult

12 Nov

I never get approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s one of my life’s sad truths. I see them often enough, standing outside of my local subway station, clutching copies of Watchtower and Alive! magazine. I’ve noticed them strolling around the neighborhood in pairs, ringing doorbells and attempting to spread the gospel. But somehow, I always get overlooked by these well-meaning weirdos, and honestly I can’t help but feel like I’ve been snubbed. Am I that obviously doomed to eternal damnation that I’m not worth their time? Or perhaps they don’t want me in their exclusive little club because I look like I’d be too difficult to shame. I know I dress like I’ve got nothing left to lose, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear the Good Word. Because honestly, that shit cracks me up.

There’s a tendency among smug assholes like myself to view the devout as a bunch of brainwashed rubes. It seems like the more fanatically followers adhere to non-secular rules, the more bizarre those rules are. It makes sense, I suppose: you can’t exactly half-ass snake handling or self-mutilation to please your ethereal alien masters. Spaced-out diatribes by Moonies and Hare Krishnas lead us to believe that behind the barricades of your average religious compound are a bunch of vapid airheads who have completely lost touch with reality. But that’s not necessarily true, as I learned from Kyria Abrahams’ memoir I’m Perect, You’re Doomed, which describes her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in late twentieth-century Rhode Island. You can be a wackadoo who believes that Jesus Christ is fascinated by your masturbatory habits and be really into The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

I learned a lot about Jehovah’s Witnesses from this lively and hilarious book, and the culture of shame that keeps meat in the Kingdom Hall seats. But I was more interested to learn of the familiar dysfunctional aspects of the author’s upbringing. She had a lot of the same stupid thoughts and feelings that any kid has, but all couched in this belief that these were the trappings of the mortal, and therefore inconsequential world. Where one kid might anxiously worry about their grades because they wanted to secure a good future, the author felt that it didn’t matter since she’d inherit the earth eventually anyway. However, she still experienced anxiety over the stuff she didn’t have, the friendships that were at once tenuous and vital, and the inability to actualize. These are things that all kids feel, whether they think that a hundred and forty-four thousand chosen people will sit at God’s right hand in Heaven or not.

And maybe that’s why I haven’t been approached by any Jehovah’s Witnesses, because I come across as an unapproachable jerk who will probably make trouble. Which, incidentally, I would. I mean, these people believe that they’ll inherit the earth and live in peace with lions and bears, for crying out loud. How awesome is that? One of my favorite parts of I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed is when the author was cruising around the neighborhood, looking for homeowners to pester with the True Word, fantasizing about which homes they’d occupy once all of the non-Jehovah’s Witnesses vanished after the Apocalypse. So essentially, after the Rapture, they can traipse into my apartment and see the copy of Answer Me! and various morally stumbling influences that would have made me a poor candidate for eternal life in the first place. Your sins always find you out.

Besides writing a worthwhile book, Kyria Abrahams also writes for and tweets hilarity from @KyriaAbrahams. Check her out!

Here’s Why the World Owes Me a Living, Part Two

8 Nov

Here’s why the world owes me a living: I never got to play in a plastic ball pit.

I think that our tendency to perceive successive generations of children as having is easier than we did is an invention of the twentieth century, because prior to that time American children were treated largely as small adults. There were no board games, no playgrounds, no mass-produced toys or even very much kid-friendly literature. Except for offspring of the wealthy, kids were expected to work as soon as they were potty-trained, often some of the most dangerous jobs to which their small sizes were best-suited. Then the new century dawned, and things changed–for a lot of reasons, really. Advances in hygiene and education happening simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution meant more healthy children and fewer job opportunities. Labor laws changed so that they couldn’t work anyway, and mandatory public education kept them off the streets during daylight hours. Children, in the 1900s, were beginning to be treated like children, and all manner of industries sprouted up that catered specifically to them.

By the time I became cognizant in the early 1980s, my parents’ generation must have thought that bratty fucking kids were running the world. Relatively speaking, we were. In 1880, the average family would bring in just enough money to cover rent, food, and some needle and thread to mend worn hand-me-down clothing. In 1982, I’m sure my parents spent a full third of their income in Transformers toys that I broke within hours of pulling it from the box–sometimes as I pulled it from the box. I was being so consistently entertained by cartoons and kids’ shows and movies that I became almost completely inured to it, watching hours upon hours of television and absorbing nothing but the nagging need to get more Transformers. The world was my oyster, and still I would not know what it was truly like to be obscenely coddled because I never got to play in a plastic ball pit.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: those little pools of hollow plastic spheres that you see in McDonald’s playgrounds and Discovery Zones. It’s important to note that McDonald’s PlayLands were not always foam-covered jungle gyms and ball pits. When I was younger, these recreational spaces were made of porcelain and stainless steel, and consisted of various tooth-chipping devices dressed in the McDonald’s commercial characters of the day. There was an Officer Big Mac climber, which was entered via a claustrophobic, entubed ladder that led to the interior of his head, a Mayor McCheese merry-go-round, which was one of those self-propelled turntables that my family referred to as “the throw up machine,” a Hamburgular swing set where you swung from his outstretched, criminal arms, and a few other implements of whimsy and torture. Around 1987, at least in my area of Queens, these PlayLands changed, partly to suit McDonald’s new commercial campaign that didn’t include this colorful cast of retards. It was also a softer, gentler playground, all colorful and plush and safely contained by waxed rope nets. Of greatest interest to me was the plastic ball pit, which I believe to be the best simulation of swimming in a pool without needing to get wet. I believe this to be true, but have never experienced it myself, for when the ball pit arrived at the local McDonald’s where I grew up, I already surpassed the height requirement that would allow me entry to the damned thing.

Indeed, I was too tall for ball pits everywhere, from Chuck E. Cheese to Action Park. Should I get rich, I intend to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool with hollow plastic balls so I can capture this missed experience. But really, I will never be able to fully capture the experience of being a kid in the generation after mine, all stuffed with Fruit By the Foot and Sunny Delight, staying indoors and watching hours upon hours of original kids’ programming on Nickelodeon because my mom found out how many registered sex offenders lived on my block, being shielded from any instance where a woman’s naked breast or the implication of sex might pass my circumference, and shucking my shoes to play in plastic ball pits with other favored children. It’s made me a harder, colder person than those from the generations following mine, and perhaps that’s for the best. When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll know to contact Inspector Gadget and won’t waste time trying to get service on my smart phone.

Maus vs. Watchmen

24 Oct

There are two graphic novels that get mentioned in circles where people do not read graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These two titles are considered more “literary” than your average comic book fare, and for good reason. Maus did earn a Pulitzer Prize, among other acclaims, and Watchmen is the only graphic novel to receive the Hugo Book Award. The two works are very special, and couldn’t be more different: Maus is a roughly-drawn, black-and-white memoir, while Watchmen is a full-color superhero story with some social commentary. Why, then, do both of these books get bandied about by smarty-pants comic book snobs? You’d think that fans in general would eschew one or the other, being that they are so contrasted. It would be like if your two favorite foods were chocolate and parsley.

The main thing that Watchmen and Maus share is that they’re in their perfect medium: comics. As straight text books they would be too complicated, as cartoons or movies they lose all of their frozen-frame nuances. Maus is primarily the retelling of the author’s father’s experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Europe. He does so by portraying the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other ethnic groups as various animals. In the second book in this two-part work, the author addresses the reader directly, in human form, but with a mouse mask obscuring his face. This is a gimmick that would not work in written form, it would make absolutely no sense. Watchmen is even better-suited for the comic book format since it is at once a commentary on comic book history and the superhero genre, as well as an engaging narrative about a compelling cast of fictional characters. There is even a comic book within Watchmen, a pirate-themed title called Tales of the Black Freighter, the events of which parallel occurences in the main tale, in (what has since become) traditional Alan Moore style. Indeed, I worried about how this might be handled in the Scott Snyder film version of Watchmen; to have a meta comic within a movie isn’t very meta at all. Happily, they excised it from the movie altogether and instead told only the surface story, leaving the unworkable comic book commentary in the book where it belongs (there was a butchering of Tales of the Black Freighter in horrible cartoon form on some DVD editions, but we can pretend it didn’t happen.)

What interests me is that these two wildly different books get mentioned so often during discussions of the genre. We’re certainly not suffering from a dearth of graphic novels, high-falutin’ or otherwise. The obvious answer is that these were two of the first graphic novels to treat the genre seriously–not the first, but two of the first (he wrote, trying to stave off a lot of angry comments by comic book nerds). These books came out in the 1980s, which is an important decade for comic books for two reasons: one is that the model for comics distribution changed so that publishers could ship books directly to comic book stores. This affected comics because it connected the fan base more securely to publishers, who were no longer jockeying for position on the same racks that carried People magazine and Newsweek. But the other thing that happened in the 1980s, the thing I believe is more profound than and may have contributed greatly to the creation of a direct distribution model, is that baby boomers entered the middle class en masse, and started to pine for their younger days when they’d read Silver Age comic books, safely nestled in their nuclear fallout bunkers and dreaming of Russian space dogs. Or something like that. My father, one of the aforementioned baby boomers, had tomes upon tomes collecting various comic books and comic strips from his childhood, and throughout my time growing up would regularly bring home newer editions. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that I was seeing something relatively new and unique to my parents’ generation, who had grown up squirreling comics in the bottom of their clothes closet, only to have them thrown away by mom during freshman year away at college. For my part, this reference material gave me the opportunity to learn about Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and EC’s The Vault of Horror. I was able to read an entire year’s worth of Popeye comic strips, then put that aside to look at the origin issue of Plastic Man.

As mentioned before, I don’t buy “floppy” comic books, I prefer the collected trade editions and standalone graphic novels when it comes to my panel stories. I think this is partially owed to the fact that there were so many comic book books around my house when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that it might be weird to own and pursue such things. My dad is very literate, always reading two and often three beefy books at a time, but that doesn’t stop him from poring lovingly over old issues of Donald Duck or the collected Barney Google strips. I think that this is a somewhat modern mindset: many of my peers do the same as I do, ignoring floppy comics and waiting patiently for them to appear as inevitable trade editions. So you might see me reading The Epic of New York City on the subway, or you might see me reading Vertigo’s Preacher comic series. Arguing whether or not comic books are actual art or should be taken seriously is dead, you either think comics are worthwhile or you don’t. Now the discussion turns to: what are the greatest examples in the medium of notch-bound graphic novels and collected trade editions?

The answer, apparently, is Maus and Watchmen. I’ve recommended these books many times, the former for people who have never read a comic book or any sequential art beyond the Peanuts comic strip, and the latter for people who have fodt memories of reading funnybooks as a kid, but haven’t so much as cracked the four-color cover of a comic in decades. Each seems to serve its purpose, both books routinely impress their readers. In fact, the persistence of these titles as viable books is a testament to their validity. You can go back and read the first issues of Spider-Man and learn of his origins, his awkward teenage gawkiness and struggle to use his powers wisely. But you could never appreciate these comics without the context of their production. Watchmen and Maus, both works fixed in specific times and real places, endure long after we stopped giving a shit about The New Teen Titans and their decidedly yuppie angst. Which is the better title? That’s impossible to say, for while they can be compared on basis of genre, they can’t be compared on many other levels. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say Watchmen is the better book, because it is printed in color. Take that, Spiegelman.

Punch Wood: Mods and Rockers

16 Oct

There was a game for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System called Wizards and Warriors. It was a decent side-scrolling platforming game, where you played a knight (the titular warrior, I suppose) who jumped around slaying monsters and ultimately, perhaps–it’s been a long time since I played the game–a wizard. Along the way, you could gather power-ups to enhance your character, like a temporary high jump to get over obstacles, or the ability to fire bolts from your steely lance. There was one power-up, the Cloak of Invisibility, which was the most useless extra, to the detriment of gameplay. The problem was that the cloak didn’t merely make you invisible to enemies, but to your own eyes, so you’d invariably steer your sprite into a bottomless chasm or jutting spikes or some other hazard. Anyone who’s played the game will tell you they got this power-up a few times, then passed over it like poison for every subsequent playing. “Why did they put this shit in the game?” I remember thinking, “Someone should tweak the code to make it work.”

I had neither the experience or the gumption to do this myself, but eventually there would be a big community of people who modify video games, or “modders.” They make “mods,” which can be anything from extra levels in a classic Super Mario Bros. game to new items and types of gameplay for newer titles. Many video game developers release a tweakable version of their proprietary code, allowing independent fans to create new quests and textures, extending the shelf life of some games far beyond the fifty or so hours provided upon purchase. It’s happening with a lot of titles these days, but I don’t think it’s as ubiquitous and pervasive as with the game Minecraft. There are mods to adjust the basic performance of the game, and mods that completely change the entire gameplay. No longer can you necessarily mine and craft, instead you will survive and fight hordes of speedy zombies and other players while looting abandoned towns and military encampments. There are so many mods, from the ludicrous mods that add blocks made of shit, to amazingly complicated mods that allow you to set up entire rock quarries and create solar batteries for your jet pack.

It’s a curious business model, to create a framework and allow users to change their experience as they see fit. Imagine you went to see a movie in the theater, but were able to change the level of violence within to suit your tastes. Or picture yourself reading a mystery novel and you’re able to change the ending per your findings throughout the text. That’s sort of like what’s happening with Minecraft, though I suppose since it doesn’t offer a linear story with limited options, adding various “to do lists” to the mix makes good sense. Without any mods, what you’ll do for the most part in Minecraft is mine, smelt, and build, with a little hacking of archer skeletons and occasional forays into the Hell dimension for potion ingredients. The addition of a mod or two can increase the number and type of creatures that spawn around the land, or add new weapons, or change your avatar so that it looks like a character from the My Little Pony cartoon. Yes, I’m serious.

The Minecraft modding community is part of what makes the game’s fanbase so rabid and growing exponentially. By rights, popularity for a game which mostly entails wandering around empty spaces should have petered out a long time ago. But as long as people are still interested to mod this game as they see fit, interest will be generated among veterans and new players alike. With mods, the game that is all things to all people can truly have something for everyone, possibly even those who didn’t think they liked to play video games at all.

Get Minecraft and see for yourself at!

More Shitty Movies That Are Great

11 Oct

I shared some of my favorite movies once before, and if you’re so inclined you can check out my prior offerings. But just to recap: I’ve been watching crappy horror and sci-fi flicks for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a venerated tradition, passed down from parent to child, and one I’d like to pass down to you since kids are assholes who can’t appreciate true cinema, or anything not fully-rendered in computer graphics that leaps off the screen like projectile vomit.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971

If you’ve never seen a Godzilla movie, this is not the one with which to start, because it is hands down the most tripped-out and darkest film in the series. It carries a strong ecological message thoroughly diluted by surreal cartoon segues and inexplicable scenes, like when the human protagonist goes to a night club and hallucinates that everyone’s got fish heads. I don’t mean that they’re holding fish heads, I mean that their human heads have been replaced with oversized heads of fish. Then, the Smog Monster–a gigantic, shuffling turd with eyes–steps up to a smokestack and pulls a righteous bong hit (which makes his eyes glow super-red…totally). Another unusual thing about this movie that isn’t canonical with the series is that a lot of people die after whiffing the Smog Monster’s smoky farts. That doesn’t stop the survivors from whooping it up on the slopes of Mount Fuji as an Armageddon Eve celebration. The DVD version allows for English and French subtitles, but I suggest you watch the dubbed version if only to hear the awesomeness that is the theme song.

18 Again!, 1988

There were few kids-as-adults type movies that hit theaters in 1988: Big, Vice Versa, Like Father, Like Son. But there’s one that gets overlooked…okay, so all of them get overlooked, besides Big because it was the only one that didn’t seem like a made-for-TV movie. But the most overlooked one is 18 Again!, starring Charles Slattery and that irascible, cigar-chomping vampire George Burns. George slips into a coma and is visited by his grandson, played by Charlie, and then through some sequence of events that I forget they trade spiritual places, so that George is an old man in a young man’s body and Charles is…I guess some old guy in a coma. The movie is worth seeing for Slattery’s crummy George Burns impersonation, but I’ve always been tickled by the fact that this was probably George Burns’ easiest job ever since he spends almost the entire movie lying in bed, feigning sleep. This is acting? I sleep at work all the time, no one has offered me any Academy Awards. I don’t recall a whole lot of the plot, but it’s an 80s comedy movie so you’re bound to see some tits.

Rappin’, 1985

The inclusion of hip-hop into mainstream American culture was not completely organic or seamless. There were a lot of attempts, both credulous and ludicrous, to bring rapping, deejaying, breakdancing and writing graffiti into places beyond American urban centers. It’s difficult to stand here, decades after the fact, and determine if these attempts actually aided hip-hop’s emergence into the spotlight, or if they were symptoms of a growing cultural awareness of what was going on in the South Bronx. It’s not difficult, however, to spot an impostor, as we do with the movie Rappin’ starring Mario Van Peebles and featuring Kadeem “Dwayne Wayne” Hardison of A Different World fame. The movie is about Mario’s character, newly-released from jail, seeking to rehabilitate his beleaguered neighborhood by winning a rap contest. He proceeds to succeed in his endeavor by delivering some of the shittiest, corniest rap lines this side of “Rappin’ Rodney.” It’s worth watching until the end credits, when the entire cast kicks verses about their roles in the movie, essentially reiterating what you’ve just watched. In fact, you can fast-forward to the end and spare yourself the pain of watching Mario Van Peebles try to act hard in a mesh tank top and sensuous Jheri curled hair.

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