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The Art of Art

29 May

On a trip to Venice, Italy, I visited the Palazzo Ducale, the Renaissance-era Venetian palace of…Ducale, I guess. It was definitely impressive, in fact it captured my mind (and about 1 GB on my camera’s memory card) days before I visited the actual structure. Once inside the palace, I was struck dumb by all of the ornate woodwork, gold leaf trim on everything, and depictions of Jesus paneling the ceiling. Lots of pictures of Jesus. Lots and lots of pictures of Jesus. Jesus up on the cross, Jesus down from the cross. Jesus doling out bread and fishes, Jesus standing gloriously outside of a cave. There were some images of the Virgin Mary and assorted cherubs, but–Jesus Christ!–there were mostly paintings of Jesus Christ. I thought about the guys who painted this stuff, it was probably their lives’ work to decorate the ceiling of the Palazzo Ducale. And here I am, about half an eon into their future, snickering at all the naked boobs.

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I figure the people who painted all of these Jesuses on the ceiling probably got really good at painting Jesus after a while. I remember seeing a documentary on Charles Schulz in the 1980s: a camera filmed his weathered hand as he drew perfect depictions of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy Van Pelt in ink without any pencil guides. I was pretty impressed at first, then my dad pointed out that I might have seen the ten-thousandth time he’d drawn these particular characters. Years later, while ruining page after page of my looseleaf notebook trying to come up with new graffiti styles, I noticed that I developed a different relationship, a sort of understanding with the letters I’d chosen to compose my tag. These phenomenons are what happen through regular practice, through routine. Any action performed over and over, day and and day out will become rote after a time. When you first learned to walk, you had to concentrate on keeping in one direction without falling down. Now you walk and fall down without even thinking of it.

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It seems like art in the Western world, specifically beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, is about self expression: we only paint Jesus when we want to. My friend Justin points out that it’s an outgrowth of the American Dream, that you can be whatever you want to be and live freely to throw paint buckets at a canvas. There’s certainly something to that, it appears as if many people get into art because they believe it to be contrary to the shackled, work-a-day world of regular pay and health benefits. There’s also the possibility that you roll the dice on Life As an Artist and come up with a financial boon. But is this something worth gambling over? You can make the most trite, banal song and license it to a commercial for lots of money. You can scribble a few lines on a page and upload it to the internet to be viewed by millions of people. Will someone stand before your work and regard it in five hundred years? What intrinsic value has been created outside of the temporal context of its creation? If financial gain is the objective, then I tell you that you’re better off at that work-a-day job collecting a paycheck.

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My impression is that, based on some of the modern art I’ve consumed, that a lot of people need to go back and paint some more Jesuses. So much output in the digital age is derivative, belying their creators’ lack of acumen. Paint your Jesus, write your essays, work on your robot conqueror every single day. You will get better at whatever you pursue, and you’ll understand new things about your craft as it continues to be exercised. Don’t talk about it, be about it. And once you’ve put in your time, paid some dues, then you know that when you paint boobs, you’re doing it as an artistic choice and not for some churlish idiot to snicker at.

Forget the Stupid Justice League Movie Already

14 Dec

Hey, there’s been some recent news about the long-rumored Justice League film, due out 2015! Isn’t that exciting? Haven’t you been waiting for a movie about the Justice League for like freaking ever?! You know the Justice League, right? That collection of DC Comics properties that includes Superman, Batman…I think Wonder Woman is in it…also the Flash and Green Lantern, and…that green guy. No, not Green Lantern, I already mentioned him. The other one. The guy that’s as strong as Superman plus he turns invisible. Also the guy with the wings, Hawkman is in it. I think that’s it. Oh wait, Aquaman, he’s got to be in there. Basically everyone from the SuperFriends except the non-white characters.

Wait, there’s more heroes in the League? You say that the Justice League contains every hero belonging to DC Comics, going back to 1938? Well, fuck me. There’s something lackluster about a specialized league that anyone with a talent remotely approaching a super power can join. They have two heroes with the power to stretch themselves like taffy. There are about four that can run faster than the speed of sound. And there are so many meta-humans with the power of flight, that their base of operations has to be held on a fucking satellite. Otherwise, they’d have to employ air traffic controllers, opening up a host of labor problems. There are more people in tights in the Justice League than the Ringling Bros. circus. And every time they hold a meeting, there’s a rift in the space-time continuum or something that spells imminent disaster for the cosmos. I mean, I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship, but it’s a coincidence worth investigating since the fate of the universe seems to depend on it.

Why Warner Bros., parent devils to DC Comics are so gung-ho for a Justice League movie, I have no idea. It’s not like their other attempts at comic books-turned movies in the new millennium have been successful excepting Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and, to a lesser extent, attempts to turn Alan Moore’s graphic novels into movies. Green Lantern was an irredeemable piece of shit. Superman Returns was almost as confusing as it was boring. What DC has proven is that when they have a lot of input into how one of their characters is represented in movies, the result is garbage. Only when more talented people take the ball and run with it, like Nolan did, are the results satisfactory. “Perhaps,” you begin, pushing your coke-bottle glasses up the greasy bridge of your blackhead-specked nose, “comics are already in their perfect medium and require no film representation at all.” You might be right, despite the cloud of halitosis you belched in making that comment. But Marvel comics has made a bunch of superhero movies in the 2000s that are entertaining and enjoyable. They even made a pretty good movie around their clown costume conglomerate, The Avengers, which collects a bunch of well-known Marvel heroes, many of them already established in their own films.

That’s the first reason that the Justice League movie shouldn’t be made: we haven’t seen decent representation of the heroes involved outside of comic books and cartoons. And let’s face it, only nerds and fatties watch cartoons and read comic books. The rest of the world will be scratching their heads wondering why a hero like the Flash exists when there is already an even buffer dude named Superman who can move at super-speed. Batman as represented in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy obviously doesn’t exist in a universe populated by other superheroes, and besides–spoiler alert for this movie that’s been out for six months–Bruce Wayne gives up the Batman mantle at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It would seriously taint an otherwise solid trilogy if DC dragged the same character out of retirement so he could fight space fish with Dr. Fate and Plastic Man. The implication of the article linked in the first paragraph is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Batman in the Justice League movie, tying it to the Nolan trilogy since Gordon-Levitt was in the last movie. But that strikes me as totally unnecessary and stupid. For one thing, this would mean that Bruce Wayne will not be Batman in the Justice League movie, which will thoroughly befuddle and irritate the average person who is familiar with popular representations of Batman. For another thing, it’s entirely unnecessary. The tale of Batman is timeless, it can be (and has been) told and re-told a lot of ways, provided the basic tenet–that the son of wealthy socialites deals with the trauma of having watched his parents get gunned down before him by dressing up like a bat–remains the same. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt could fit that bill well enough, particularly if he’s to be surrounded by other heroes in their technicolor dreamcoats. He would be a cog in the Justice League machine, so a fully fleshed-out character may not be necessary.

But even given that fact, a Justice League movie would only serve the highlight the fact that DC has made little progress ingratiating their characters with the general public. Where is the long-rumored Wonder Woman movie? How about an attempt at telling Hawkman’s fairly intricate origin story outside of a film that will have to squeeze in the characterizations of at least half a dozen super folks? Baby steps, people. This apparent need for DC to skip to the end of the story was the main flaw in the Green Lantern movie. Yes, as I wrote before, Ryan Reynolds was mis-cast in his role as Hal Jordan. But it might have been a serviceable movie had his character not gone from ordinary test pilot to a cgi space cop battling the oldest evil in the universe in the space of one movie. In the comics, Hal Jordan doesn’t even get contacted by the Intergalactic Nerd Cops until he’s dicked around with his new ring for a while. They might have stretched the Green Lantern story into two and three movies, instead of making one largely incomprehensible piece of shit. And that’s what we’re looking at in a Justice League movie in two years.

It’s the movie few people understand and nobody wants. Maybe if I thought they’d do the Justice League from Keith Giffen’s run in the 1980s, I’d get on board. That was a group of secondary heroes doing a kind of Moonlighting/Hill Street Blues type of thing, and the characters were evinced through dialogue with each other. I guess I fear that the Justice League movie in 2015 might open with Batman and Superman standing on the bridge of their satellite headquarters, then during the credits they get attacked by Starro the space monster. Twenty minutes later, they’re already on an alternate earth fighting Owlman and Ultraman. By the last half hour of the movie, they’re replaying the events of Infinite Crisis to a thoroughly bewildered and bored audience. But maybe I’m too pessimistic. Or maybe I ACTUALLY WATCHED THAT FUCKING GREEN LANTERN MOVIE WITH RYAN REYNOLDS AND I WANT MY GODDAMNED TWO HOURS BACK.

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.

Sins of the Father

18 Apr

For as long as I could remember, my dad’s evening commute included a one-mile walk from the 7 train’s terminus at Main Street, Flushing to our two-family home in Auburndale. Usually, he would come sauntering through the door, whistling some complicated tune and swinging his canvas briefcase like a happy grade-schooler handling his lunchbox. He’d maintain this jocular mood while walking up the steps to our second-floor apartment, then his happiness would disperse and he’d adopt his regular sour puss in preparation for what was to come–for very often, there was some situation involving my brother. Adem was caught cutting class again. Adem drank all the beer in the house. Adem punched the bathroom mirror, shattering it and lacerating his hands with the shards. In the ten seconds it took for my father to traverse the hallway between the front door and the door to our apartment, between his guises as Employed Guy and Punitive Father, you could catch a glimpse of the man in his natural state, unencumbered by responsibilities and ethics and harsh realities. And you know, I’m glad he had that much. Because as bad as my brother could be, there are plenty of dads who don’t get even that time to be themselves, to be absolved of their own anger and guilt and whatever other stupid feelings parents have towards their wayward children. For want of a twenty-minute walk home from the subway, other dads have no respite at all.

Take, for instance, Commissioner James Gordon, that well-known fictional character from the Batman universe. Doggedly devoted to his job and a high-minded concept of justice, Gordon is commonly depicted sympathetically by applicable funny book writers, sort of the “good cop” to Batman’s “bad cop.” But he is not without his faults, and along with his awards and trophies and commendations for stellar police work, Gordon is also the owner of one failed marriage, one second wife tragically murdered in the line of duty, a handful of crooked cops making merry on his watch, and other assorted failures and derogatory accusations. These hurdles, they wear on any man, even dads. And Commissioner Gordon is a dad, to his adopted daughter (in the current iteration) Barbara Gordon and his biological son, James Gordon, Jr.

Oh, you don’t know about James Gordon, Jr.? You don’t remember when, as a baby, he was rescued by Bruce Wayne in Batman: Year One? That act of heroism is why then-Captain Gordon started trusting Batman in the first place. See, now you remember, but you didn’t remember before because James, Jr. appears in Batman: Year One and practically nowhere else. He figures prominently in the well-done graphic novel Night Cries by Archie Goodwyn–in which we actually see Gordon’s first wife separate from him and move to Chicago–but otherwise, we don’t learn too much about the lil tyke. We’re so intimate with Barbara Gordon that we can predict her menstrual cycle, but James Gordon, Jr. remains an enigma.

Until the story arc contained in Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding reading recent Batman fare because all of the established constants of the mythological world he inhabits are perpetually shifting as of late. Or maybe you never gave a shit about Batman and are asking yourself why you’ve read this much of my review. For the purposes of The Black Mirror, it’s only important to know that the usual Batman, Bruce Wayne, has taken leave and left his ward, Dick Grayson (aka Nightwing, aka the first Robin) to wear the Batman costume. Get all that? So where the Bruce Wayne Batman is all brooding and large swaths of black ink, the Dick Grayson Batman is more convivial and happy, preferring the high-flying trapeze routines recalled from his youth as a circus performer to wallowing in the filthy streets, violently separating miscreants from their teeth. Got all that? Any questions? Good. You should have questions.

So in The Black Mirror, you’ve got Dick Grayson playing Batman, trying to fill the shoes worn by his adoptive father, Bruce Wayne. You’ve got the bastard daughter of mafia boss Tony Zucco, now a bank manager trying to escape from the shadow of her biological dad’s criminal past. And you’ve got James Gordon, Jr., who approaches his poppa with an apparently sincere desire to reconnect with his family. The rub is that James Junior is a psychopath, he does not feel empathy for his fellow man, and is suspected by his dad of having committed several violent crimes. Intertwining all of these characters, The Black Mirror challenges the idealized nature of father/son relationships, affirming the dichotomy of being any member of a family and its contradictions. Parents are sometimes required to dole tough love, children need to be self-reliant and independent in order to prove that they’ve been raised with due attention. Dealing with members of your immediate family can sometimes be like looking into a mirror, a black mirror at that, a very similar reflection turned unfamiliar by obfuscating the features we expect to see.

And that, my patient readers, is where The Black Mirror fails. For while I was able to create an adequate metaphor for the story based on the title of this trade collection, Todd Snyder goes on for the entire run about how Gotham City is “hungry,” how it feeds on pain or whatever trite bullshit you want to assume about a city that’s positively famished. Sure, Gotham City is hungry, it’s also sleepy and sneezy and Doc if you sit and think about it long enough. You can apply virtually any metaphor on a fictional city, so why Snyder insisted on going to the long way around to describe its hunger is beyond me. It’s called Black Mirror, many parent/child relationships can be construed as each person being a mirror for the other, and sometimes that mirror is blackened in that we see things about ourselves that might not be pleasant. How does a starving city play into this? What does a corrupting, peckish city have to do with fathers and sons? Very little, I think, and Snyder doesn’t seem to care enough to draw even those parallels. It’s more like he wanted a noir concept to run through the series in order to tie the narrative together, but either didn’t see or care to acknowledge the lay-up concept. No matter. It’s disappointing to see an easily-fielded ball dropped, but it doesn’t mar this engaging story terribly. Check it out, Batman fans.

Punch Wood: It’s a Family Affair

16 Feb

My family never had a Game Night. We hung around with each other at times, and I certainly played games with my dad–Mille Bornes was one of his favorites–but we didn’t sit around as a family to roll dice against a piece of cardboard once a week. I think the main reason we didn’t do this is because board games suck. This fact can be applied to all board games, without exception, and any person who postulates otherwise is possibly suffering from a mild hysterical delusion. Board games are “fun” when pitted against “sitting in a room of uncomfortable silence;” if the latter is a likely option, only then does playing a board game seem like an attractive alternative. But anything else is better than playing a board game, down to arguing with loved ones about politics and scrapbooking. You might actually take away some memories, bad or good, from scrapbooking with your mother and Aunt Matilda. You’ll never remember a solitary thing you did while playing a stupid board game.

However it’s also true that I was not instilled with much familial “team spirit.”. We didn’t have a goofy sign with our surname outside the house, we took no yearly Christmas photos of us in a huddle dressed like a group of used car salespeople. I was given the option to join every manner of extracurricular activity: Cub Scouts, Little League, after school art programs–but unlike many of my peers, it was my option to do these things, they weren’t forced upon me as requisites. Given the choice, I opted out, and there was never any fighting or further discussion about it. I was happy to read and draw and concoct my version of the world within the angular walls of my attic bedroom. I don’t think it’s for me to say whether mine is an enviable or regrettable way to have grown up, but I don’t feel in the least bit angry or bitter about having missed the camaraderie of playing sports I don’t enjoy with kids I regarded suspiciously. My eschewing of team experiences were just some of the lustrous fibers that wove themselves into the wonderful, loveable tapestry that I am today. Don’t cry for me, Auburndale Soccer League.

I am aware that Family Game Night is an institution in many homes across America, one begrudgingly attended by teenagers who then turn around and foist it upon their own children, perpetuating a cycle that allows the board game industry to exist. One pitfall of playing these games is that the learning curves are so steep: games appropriate for all ages are often suitable only for infants and morons, while more adult fare like Pornographic Pictionary is too ribald for pre-pubescent family members to appreciate. Today, many Family Game Nights involve playing video games, often computer graphic-interpreted versions of popular board games which have the same inane pitfalls as their cardboard counterparts. Most other video games are either a non-stop bloody sex carnage, or involve repeatedly bouncing a pink bubble from one rainbow cloud to another while an anthropomorphized woodchuck cheers you on in Japanese. Enter Minecraft, a game that is simple and pleasant enough for small children to play, but also entices older players with action and challenges. And perhaps playing Minecraft is a better pursuit than racing your plastic token around a crummy picture against other members of your own family, because success in multi-player Minecraft involves teamwork.

I don’t mean to sugar-coat it and imply that playing Minecraft is primarily a team-based effort. You can certainly play it quite happily all on your own, and you can also spend time on servers slicing other players to ribbons with your pixelated sword (though you must then watch your back once your target respawns). I furthermore don’t intend to imply that Minecraft is the only or even best co-operative video game: many team-based first-person shooters require precise, military-style group maneuvers to effectively extract a maximum number of bloody deaths from the opposing team. But Minecraft seems to be an equalizer, a compromise between the many different wants and needs of a family unit. Watching families play Minecraft on YouTube, you see how easily each member falls into their supportive roles, depending on their proclivities: one person might spend tireless hours gathering resources (like the interminably boring job of chopping wood and replanting saplings) while another concentrates on constructing a sturdy home and establishing an animal farm. Even the hormone-addled teenager can satisfy his wanderlust and carouse the countryside defeating monsters, only to return and use his valuable experience points to enchant tools for the rest of his clan. Or, more than likely, get blown up by a Creeper and be respawned back at the family’s virtual stead anyway. Now there’s one way to make sure your kid is home on time.

One of my favorite things about families playing Minecraft is how variance in levels of immersion from each player can still result in a productive afternoon of playing games. When a family plays Monopoly, it’s usually one person who cares about playing and winning the game, and a bunch of other people who half-heartedly push their top hat or terrier around the board until the one person actually engaging with the game wins. In Minecraft, one member of the family can be very pro-active in killing zombies and collecting iron, while other members lazily tend to their wheat farms and home decoration, and at the end of a session everyone will have something to show for it. Most of all, they have the collective experience of having created something together, existing in an equalized playing field where the youngest member can defeat the meanest monsters. Mom and dad don’t have to worry about providing for the family in Minecraft, they can let the kids distill watermelon into life-giving potions while the adults go off on a journey to punch sheep. When the goals aren’t explicitly defined, the only thing left to do is have fun.

Or be bored out of your mind. I won’t pretend that Minecraft doesn’t have its limitations, but with a long list of potential activities and ever-expanding and updated software being provided by Mojang, Ltd., not to mention all the mods available for the game, you could play for a long time before it truly gets redundant. The virtual world is also a good place to commune over family issues that might be too touchy or painful to deal with in real life, as evidenced by the above video. Luclin at Minecraft Workbench produced this episode as a memorial to his son, Devlin, and it features the construction of a virtual remembrance while the family recalls memories of their lost member. Sure, that could–and almost certainly did–happen in the real world, where there would be real tears, real hugs, real warmth. But mourning on a Minecraft server carries different implications, a sharing of thoughts and words, the collective creation of something unique and wholly from one’s mind. A little easier on the old heartstrings, I think. For someone raised without a Family Game Night, and therefore is emotionally detached from everyone, it speaks to me as a good alternative to sobbing over a casket.

The Joystick is Broken: Watch the Way I Dance

29 Jan

In the initial parts of this rather muddled series of essays, I attempted to show how video games have been a communal function from their inception, beginning with crowds of competitors and onlookers thronging arcades and pizza parlors in the 1980s, and ultimately arriving at online co-op play of games of every type, sometimes including hundreds of people at once. There is another, lesser-known way that people share video games–one very much akin to the origins of video game spectating–and that’s when one records oneself playing games, sometimes with simultaneous commentary, for the benefit of people to watch later. This commentary can be aimless rambling on any number of personal or universal subjects, other times it is structured, scripted role-play and carefully edited video game footage. It seems to me like a new form of expression, one whose implications are interesting to consider as the format invents itself.

Many of life’s most perplexing problems were pondered by yours truly while he played Battletoads and listened to the Dead Kennedys during my junior high school years. Most video games, especially those made before the twenty-first century, are little more than sequential patterns that behave predictably. The first few times you play a game, it’s a matter of discerning these patterns and then anticipating their pitfalls on the next go ’round. By the time you’ve played a game a few dozen times, you’re barely even looking at the screen as the muscles in your hands react to pure timed memory, particularly on the first levels of game that often get played again and again. And it was in these zen moments, playing world 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. for the umpteenth time, that I would ruminate on my life’s deepest issues: at that point, mainly girls and acne. My mind would wander and I would consider events that had happen at school, or concoct complicated dramas involving myself and school crushes. Playing video games becomes a therapeutic, meditative experience at this point, an experience separate from the goal-oriented task of, well, achieving that game’s goals.

Thanks to online video outlets like YouTube and twitch, gamers can now share these intimate thoughts with the world at large. Many of these videos are interesting thematic juxtapositions, as people talk frankly about something like bullying or depression while blowing opposing players’ heads off with a 10mm submachine gun. By adding this layer of soundtrack–their voices–to gameplay, there is created a unique piece of media, presenting elements of watching video games and listening to talk radio, but providing the full extent of neither. Often, the commentary is about events in the game, but it always spirals into any number of subjects on which the commentator wishes to expound. Watching how they play certain games and listening to them speak about particular subjects give the (perhaps illusory) effect of getting to know the person, in ways you might not know someone you merely have lunch with now and again. How people play games and complete puzzles is one of the factors in making psychological and psychiatric diagnoses, and in this way, these viewers of these videos become armchair therapists, offering their support (or derision) in commentary and public responses.

Not all commentators free associate, however, some role-play or even create elaborate dramas that are acted out within the framework of a game. This takes a few different forms: sometimes, the commentary is live and the player assumes the role of an in-game character. Other times, video game footage is carefully edited to present a scene that is voiced-over. In any case, episodes run about ten to twenty minutes in length and are uploaded around once per week (with a potential for higher frequency of episodes in the instances involving live commentary). A YouTube video game commentator will juggle three our four different “shows” at a time, either by playing through a few different games simultaneously, or by acting out different roles in one game, or they’ll do a little of both. Minecraft is a game that is very popular among video game commentators, for two reasons: Mojang, Ltd., the company that owns the game, has given express consent for video of its game to be uploaded to the internet. But the second reason is because Minecraft is a game that is what you make of it, and since everyone plays it differently, there’s merit in watching how disparate people deal with it. Some Minecraft players concentrate on the building aspect, others are more into adventuring. I wrote an essay about Minecraft, so I won’t go into detail about its many facets here, except to say that there are many.

I became clued in to the potential of this new form of entertainment while watching a series by a UK group that call themselves the Yogscast. What began as a normal Minecraft series, featuring two relatively funny guys figuring out how to play the game, subtly became a massive, fantastical drama, rich with a dozen fully-realized locations and a limitless cast of characters that could rival any daytime soap opera. Using various game mechanics and modifications, they’re able to display and exploit the best aspects of the game, making for a show that is as entertaining as it is tutorial (well, perhaps a bit more entertaining than tutorial). Based on their wildly popular YouTube channel, the Yogscast have created a little cottage industry all their own, with a legion of devoted fans who line up at conventions for a glimpse of their heroes in three-dimensional glory. It’s brilliant, I think, and the possibilities for this format are wide open. As computer graphics get better and actual, human actors more annoying, we will probably see more and more cartoon programming, where the only things actors lend are their voices. There’s every reason to think that these cartoons will increasingly be representations of popular video game characters, probably opening a bar together or moving in with their auntie and uncle in Bel Air, or some stupid thing like that.

Comics Worth Avoiding: Piranha Press

24 Jan

I have a confession to make: I never really liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I got into the comic book around 1987 because I had a crush on some girl who was into it. Wanting to impress her, I made an investment of time and money (the former mine, the latter my parents’) to get the first four trade editions of the comics and become an expert overnight. There were aspects I enjoyed, such as the unsubtle satire of Marvel Comics’ writing and the fact that it was independently-produced, but by and large I felt it was boring. The only thing oddball about the series, in comic book terms, was the title. The characters went through the same one-dimensional foibles and well-timed action scenes as any other dumb superhero book on the market, and did it worse than a lot them besides. But for an excuse to hang around this girl, I got into the Turtles and acted like a devoted fan. We even assumed the characters’ monikers as our nicknames: I think she was Donatello, I was Raphael.

The massive popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the industry-wide shit storm that followed has been well-documented and opined upon. I don’t want to do that. I want to relate my memories of the time, and to my recollection, virtually all of that black-and-white comics shit was awful. In the wake of the Turtles’ direct market success were dozens if not hundreds of sub-par, cheapo action comics, seemingly written by retards and drawn by spastics. I remember a direct Turtles’ knock-off about radioactive hamsters or something, a third-rate parody of second-rate satire. I recall a comic with the tantalizing title of Reagan’s Raiders. I didn’t take any of this shit seriously, and neither did anyone I knew. Maybe I was a little too young to appreciate this crummy renaissance of underground comix, and it was all enjoying robust sales and positive critique among the older high school crowd. But the prepubescent set that I ran with thought the black-and-white comic books revolution was a load of bullshit.

Even worse than these black-and-white action comics were the black-and-white “artsy” comics, each attempting to emulate American Splendor in its own way, most of them falling well short of that relatively attainable goal. If we weren’t buying Hamster Vice, we sure as fuck weren’t going to check out some girl’s maudlin poem framed by a bunch of doodles she made while chatting on the telephone. It was just a lot of garbage that got play during a brief sliver of time when speculating on comic book collecting was profitable and trendy. And that’s where I remember Piranha Press stepped in, DC Comics’ answer to the unasked question that was the chaotic landscape of comic books in the late 1980s. Again, someone more knowledgeable and capable than I can detail the wherefores and particulars of how the imprint began. I was only familiar with the title because (as mentioned before) my father worked in comic books and brought home every Marvel and DC title, every week. That meant I was taking crap like Secret Wars II and Piranha Press titles along with the Batman.

Like I say, I don’t know the specifics behind how Piranha Press began, but I can guess that it was DC’s attempt to exploit the burgeoning black-and-white comics market. They probably appointed someone eccentric to head it up, and he hired a bunch of his friends, regardless of their talent and acumen. What resulted was a sporadic but runny stream of shit that spewed forth from DC like a million continuity reboots. DC was enjoying some great success in the adult comics market with graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, yet the stuff coming from its “funny books for folks what don’t like funny books” line was the most puerile, forgettable claptrap. There was a series called Gregory by Marc Hempel that was a study in wasting the reader’s time. And there was this ridiculous series called Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children that featured these rejects from a introductory creative writing class printed alongside grotesque–and possibly well-rendered–pen and wash drawings, however you couldn’t tell how good they might be because the black-and-white pulp printing turned them into featureless grey smudges. And I was ostensibly getting copies direct from the printer, not handled and shuffled around by some distributor or store owner. I’m guessing the hapless fools who actually purchased copies of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children thought it was a story interspersed with a series of Rorschach blots.

No comic exemplifies the backwards stupidity of Piranha Press and its low standards than Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn. I’ve hated this comic for years, but before writing this essay, I did a search online to see how many people agreed with my accurate and unassailable assessment of this junk. I was surprised to find mostly positive reviews of the work, describing it as quirky and innovative and a whole bunch of other shit that flat out does not apply. I like Kyle Baker, I think he’s a terrific draftsman, and Why I Hate Saturn is, for the most part, meticulously drawn and well-paced. The lettering is also kind of fun. But the story is so meandering and pointless that you end up wishing the words were excised altogether so you could flip through the nice pictures unmolested. It’s clear that the deadline was approaching fast while creating this book, since the last half of the story is jammed in the last eight or so pages. The comic, like Piranha Press as a whole, is a nice experiment that ultimately fails miserably. However, Piranha Press did sort of morph into the Vertigo imprint, so it did some good in the world.

Handling Vandals

3 Jan

Even an innocuous graffiti toy like myself feared the Vandal Squad. As explained to me, the Vandal Squad was a division of the New York Police Department specifically tasked with eradicating graffiti and its composers. The exact nature of this force wasn’t imparted to me at the time, but graffiti historians implied that it was a sizable group providing round-the-clock surveillance using cameras with night-vision scopes. I was even told that graffiti king SANE was blown off the Brooklyn Bridge by Vandal Squad helicopters that cornered him in front of his most famous piece, a story which is completely untrue. The most insidious aspect of the Vandal Squad was that they encouraged snitching: they’d set up a hotline where writers could drop a dime on their enemies and eliminate their own competition. Any arrest of a graffiti writer was assumed to be the result of snitching, and would lead to further arrests when the suspect was questioned. The world of graf was a scary place in the 1990s, beset by knowledgeable authority figures, rival crews, and increasingly dangerous spots. It was not the casual, social event of the 1970s or the highly technical permitted work of this century.

Though I was loosely a part of it, I largely ignored graffiti in the 1990s when reading up about the outlaw art because, well, I used to think graffiti sucked in the 90s. After pieces ceased running on the subway, hundreds of writers took to the streets to bomb walls and gates. It was no longer a matter of standing around at the subway layup and spraying the insides and outsides of a train car all night, in the 90s you had to move through neighborhoods and hit as many spots as possible–multicolored works were a luxury that the fame-obsessed could no longer afford. The New York graffiti scene on the 1990s is, to my mind, exemplified by big black-and-silver throw-ups that layered over one another on every billboard and on every handball court, in the COST/REVS handbills plastered at every crosswalk and on every work shed. Quantity, not quality, was the order of the day, and as someone who lovingly pored over the pages of Subway Art in the desperate hope that I could create something as colorful and masterful as DONDI, it was a little disheartening. Not disheartening enough to stop me from scrawling my tag on light poles around the neighborhood, but disheartening still.

From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 by Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri and Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004 by Joseph Rivera have helped rehabilitate my personal scorn for the 1990s graffiti era. I already wrote about the former book and described how it dawned on me that the late 80s era of graf was closer to my own personal experience than the 70s and early 80s graffiti heroes that I aped. Vandal Squad is a book I’d heard about when it was released in 2008, principally because of the writer-generated controversy surrounding it. I finally read it, and found it to be much more human than expected: it was not about a valorous defender of municipal property who sought to humiliate and destroy all writers, but a regular cop who was assigned a specific job and did it to the best of his ability. The book is full of humorous and eye-opening anecdotes about the underfunded and understaffed Vandal Squad, which, far from having a fleet of helicopters, only had one used squad car at its inception. The author makes no bones about being a graffiti aficionado, though it’s unclear whether he likes or dislikes it artistically. However, he does go down a hit list of writers he apprehended or with whom he had some dealings, effusing the same kind of gushing awe a fan might have after meeting their favorite celebrity. Whether he appreciated graffiti or not, it doesn’t seem to have stopped him from performing his duties, despite internal department conflicts and the unforgiving nature of the job.

Probably because Mr. Rivera owes no allegiance to writers, and therefore isn’t compelled to keep secrets of the graffiti world, there is a list of New York subway layups with brief descriptions and accompanying stories. There’s also a detailed glossary that, unlike most glossaries at the backs of graffiti books, actually provides some useful information. The book is also crammed with full-color pictures of graffiti, including several two-page tiled spreads of tags, throw-ups and pieces that probably wouldn’t appeal to an oblivious observer, but which will be a treasure trove to any fan. It was interesting to get this perspective on a graffiti scene with which I was tangentially involved, even though I was dubious about the author’s assertions that most of his arrests were the result of careful police work and not other writers talking out of turn. I mean, I’m sure the police work was careful, but how careful do you have to be when you’re spying on writers via satellite with thermal vision and launching nuclear police robots to apprehend any kid with ink-stained hands? I can only imagine how the Vandal Squad’s budget ballooned under Giuliani.

Good Lord! *Choke*: Supernatural Superheroes

12 Aug

I mentioned already that one thing I like a lot about crappy horror comics from the 1960s and 70s is that they consist of encapsulated, one-off stories that don’t involve superheroes and their stupid fucking personal dilemmas. However, I was lying when I wrote that. Horror comics (and their nearly identical cousins, war comics) would routinely showcase heroes and serial stories in an effort to get people to buy the stupid things on a regular basis. In the post-Golden Age era, I think the first hero team created solely to deal with supernatural and monster-sized threats was Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, who debuted in a decidedly non-horror comic, Showcase number six. Consisting of four daredevils with no super powers, the Challengers would take on any job too dangerous or weird for usual government task forces and agencies, which implies that until they came on the scene we were totally vulnerable to countless attacks by inter-dimensional squid and gigantic beasts made entirely from atomic energy.

There were often regular serial features included in these horror comics, almost always to bad effect (and quite often, only in the DC titles). Dr. 13: The Ghost-Breaker was featured as the last story in issues of Ghosts from 1980-1981, questionably chronicling a character who debunked hauntings in a comic titled If You Don’t Believe in GHOSTS We Challenge You to Read True Tales of the Weird and Supernatural. Johnny Peril, an “adventurer of the weird,” was featured in issues of The Unexpected. And most of these DC horror comics were hosted by some forgettable Vampira reject (no dis to Cain and Abel), a throwback to EC Comics’ trio of witches that hosted their horror titles. But there is one group of superheroes who, though they arguably did not debut in the pages of any horror comic, are the best defenders of humanity against supernatural forces bar none. And that group of heroes is known as the Doom Patrol.

I first became familiar with the Doom Patrol when I was in my first year of junior high and Grant Morrison had taken over writing duties for a resurrected version of this weird team’s title. I was unaware of their legacy at the time, though it didn’t impede my enjoyment of the series under Morrison’s authorship one bit. I read it for a little while, until my dad quit working for DC Comics (for the second time) and I stopped thinking about the Doom Patrol. I forgot about the series completely, in fact, until the late 1990s when I began creeping my way back into comics by way of trade collections and saw it in a burgeoning section of Vertigo titles at Cosmic Comics on West 23rd Street (now Manhattan Comics under seemingly new ownership). I remembered having enjoyed the series as a pubescent pre-teen and vowed to pick it up again sometime, after I’d waded through The Preacher and collections of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Having already tested the comic years earlier, I felt sure that I would like it, unlike my hit-or-miss attempts at reading DMZ or Ex Machina.

And then, I forgot about it for another eight years.

Eventually, I read through Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol and loved every weird, surreal minute of it. It was, and remains, the best self-aware comic–yes, even better than Morrison’s Animal Man and John Byrne’s She-Hulk–and this title is truly the only one of its type. There are plenty of superhero teams with weird abilities that secretly keep the space-time continuum in check, but how many of them also have issues dedicated to complete parody and satire of other genres? I read through the entire six paperback run of Doom Patrol in about a week, then re-read it, then did something I could never have done when I read the first issue in 1987: I went on the internet and did a search for “Doom Patrol.” And there, I made a startling discovery: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol wasn’t the first one, in fact it wasn’t even the second or the third. The first Doom Patrol series began publication in 1963, a few months before John Kennedy’s brains splattered his wife’s dress in the back of a convertible in Dallas. At that point, being who I am, I determined to read the original series and learn more about this strange group of freaks that saved the world so many times from unseen and incomprehensible disasters.

Then, I forgot about it for three more years.

About a month ago, I was poking around that venerable New York institution The Strand, and I discovered volumes 1-4 of the DC Classics Archives edition of Doom Patrol at a very affordable price, and I quickly snapped them up. I am no stranger to the Silver Age of comic books, having learned long ago to read these titles with my tongue planted firmly in cheek when regarding the patently obvious pandering and ridiculous pseudo-science that is their hallmark. I began reading these hardback editions, and you know…I started to like them. Really like them, not just in a detached, ironic way. The Doom Patrol were freaks, yes, and their stories formulaic and largely predictable (though I could never have predicted a villain as stupid and weird as Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man), and yet there was something more real about these odd characters, more real to me than billionaire Bruce Wayne or zit-faced Peter Parker. The action is telegraphed: wheelchair-bound leader Niles Caulder gets a distress signal and sends the team out to deal with some incorrigible disaster. But in between the action, there are quips, quarrels, self-reflective statements that make these fictional mutants seem much more human. There’s even a marriage and an adoption within the series, a rare Silver Age moment where there’s a change to the plot that isn’t wiped away by the next issue. I think the best example of this kind of chicanery was when the Doom Patrol set out to find a group of atomic mutants bent on destroying the world with their eerie mutant powers (which consisted of them shooting rays out of their eyes and/or limbs). The team splits up to cover more ground, and in doing so two ancillary members of the group, Mento and his adopted son Beast Boy (later Changeling, then Beast Boy again) discover the Abominable Snowman. The creature starts to attack, but Beast Boy thwarts the Snowman by showing him a picture of Alfred E. Newman of MAD magazine fame. It’s a little aside that has nothing to do with the immediate story but which sets the tone for the series nicely.

I liked the first four volumes so much, I went and found the final, fifth volume, where the Doom Patrol actually sacrifices their lives in order to save a remote fishing village in Maine (under stupidly complicated circumstances, take my word for it). How many comic book series end with the protagonists dying? However, no comic book series ever “ends,” as evidenced by the subsequent versions of the Doom Patrol that continue to the date of this writing. Having read only two authors’ work on it, I am far from an expert, but in my opinion the Doom Patrol are the best bunch of supernatural superheroes, or perhaps superheroes of the supernatural, in comic books. If only they’d been building superintendents, they’d be supernatural superhero supers.

I can’t end this without addressing a bit of controversy: the contention that Marvel Comics bit the idea for the X-Men from DC Comics’ Doom Patrol, and the lesser controversy that the idea for the Doom Patrol came from Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Those uncanny Marvel muties debuted three months after Doom Patrol, suggesting that a direct cribbing is unlikely, yet a salacious rumor persists that shadowy double agents of Marvel overheard Arnold Drake pitching the idea for Doom Patrol and scurried back to Stan Lee to divulge this million-dollar notion. Except it didn’t actually make DC a million dollars, so clearly the concept was wielded more effectively by Kirby and Lee. Whatever the case and its thin premises, I don’t think it matters who came up with the idea first. Sympathetic uglies have been saviors of luscious damsels throughout literary history, and if these guys hadn’t thought up the idea, some other loser eventually would have. In conclusion, comic books are for nerds and if you’ve read this to the end then you definitely are one.

I Am Not a Graffiti Artist. I’m a Graffiti Bomber.

10 Aug

The way Blade tells it, the early days of New York subway graffiti were a cake walk. You’d post up in the train yard or at a layup Friday and Saturday nights, drink beer, smoke weed, play the radio and paint the trains all evening with no fear of serious reprisals. Big productions were the norm in those days, growing quickly from crude tags to whole car masterpieces by 1975. Competition was thin, style was in the process of being invented, and while the meeting of two or more city teens is never without its prevailing tension, the New York graffiti scene was a collaborative effort, pursued by pubescent runaways and prep school students alike, mastered by young kids of every ethnicity and from nearly every corner of New York City. Lee spent entire weekends at layups, sleeping in darkened subway cars under a fine mist of spray paint. Skeme stole from his mom’s apartment in the dead of night to paint trains, then returned to tell her all about it. Graffiti was kid’s stuff, a rite of passage so insulated from working society that it seemed unassailable. A victimless crime, except for the rush hour victims who had to stand asses-to-elbows in marked train cars the next day.

Then graffiti blew up. There’s probably no other event or artifact that can be directly linked to graffiti’s mainstream exposure more than the seminal documentary Style Wars by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. Around the same time, there were other efforts to show people what was happening to New York City’s subways: the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant practically dropped the graf scene in everyone’s laps, while SoHo art galleries clamored to show spray painted canvases in their cramped, hot spaces. Rap music gained exponential popularity in the early 80s and partially brought graffiti into the limelight as a matter of course. We can look back now and say this all culminated in 1983, with the big screen debut of Style Wars and its subsequent airings on public television. In an instant, everyone knew how these graffiti writers were getting over on the transit authority, and they wanted in on the fun. Suddenly, available space became severely limited.

The graffiti that followed, the last generation of subway writers whose work ran regularly on the lines, was the ethical foundation for my early understanding of graf. You pick yourself a name and then put it up as much as possible, as big and ubiquitously as you can, using as many different styles and media as you are able to comprehend. It was a given that you’d catch beef, that ultimately you would get fame the fastest by going over someone else, and that by doing this you could become more revered than if you’d painted one massive, colorful production that might run for five working days. Cap taught us that. Graffiti and violence were almost synonymous to me, and the writers in my generation (the early 90s) were more respected for their daring and visibility than their can control. While I was too young to ever effectively write on the subway, graf having been defeated by a new MTA policy and seeding of stainless steel subway cars that could be easily washed, I knew well about this tough aspect of graffiti’s history. It wasn’t enough to be a talented artist when I was in high school. You also had to know how to intimidate others and get physical if necessary.

Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri’s book From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 is the best account of this final generation of New York subway graf that I’ve ever seen. Packed with dozens and dozens of photos of pieces, tags, and throw ups that ran during the era, it easily tells the story of a scene that grew in numbers by a factor of ten and resulted in everyone going over one another, jockeying for position as Kings of the Line. It shows how “retired” writers came back to reclaim their titles, and how even they had to eschew masterpiece productions that might take all night in favor of two-color bombs more suited to the fast pace of late 80s graffiti. Unconsciously and without apology, the book shows page after page of styles cribbed directly from Dez and Dondi and past masters of the rolling stock. It is the last gasp of a movement, and anyone interested in pursuing the history of graffiti cannot do without this book. For every writer today who thinks there should be unity, every person who thinks that Banksy stencils should be protected and Saber AWK should be allowed to redo his Guinness record-holding piece on the L.A. river banks, this book has the answer: you’re wrong. Any retard can pick up a marker and scrawl something on the wall, or a truck, or the outside of a subway train. You imposed a stylistic standard on the medium that most practitioners of the art don’t recognize, and that’s your bad.

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