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Blog comic reviews

Best Comics of 2007

Better late than never! These are some of the best comics I read in 2007. Warning: this list is not definitive, nor is it objective. It’s like Fox News that way.

Cul de Sac, by Richard Thompson. One of the best comic strips since Calvin & Hobbes left the scene. This debuted last year, but Thompson has been drawing another strip, Richard’s Poor Almanack, for quite a few years in the Washington Post. The secret to his meteoric rise to the top of the syndicated heap? A unique, sketchy drawing style, likable characters, and witty dialog. The jokes never seem forced; the humor comes from funny conversation. Instead of waiting for the last panel to “bring the funny”, each exchange is loaded with humor. I find myself laughing at the setup just as much as the so-called punchline.

Lio, by Mark Tatulli. Although Lio was syndicated in 2006, the first book collection, Happiness is a Squishy Cephalopod, came out last year. Lio is a pantomime strip influenced by Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and maybe a little Charles Burns. Since I find it difficult to impossible drawing a comic strip without dialog, I admire Lio all the more.

James Kochalka’s diary comic. I’ve followed “American Elf” since his first strips were collected in book form. There is a calming rhythm to this daily strip. You can track where James’ interests change over the years. You can go to his website and read today’s strip for free! Kochalka has a warm, flowing drawing style that is immediately recognizable. I love his use of light and dark space. He is one cartoonist who knows how to use the entire panel as a work of art. Each panel looks good, and each page looks good.

Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch. You just have to read it. He’s been drawing the strip for a while now, but the book just came out last year. I’m sad to hear that he’s decided to retire the PBF, and can only hope he doesn’t pull a Watterson on us and disappear forever.

Incredible Change Bots, by Jeffrey Brown. A parody of the Transformers, everybody’s favorite robots who change into cars. Actually, this is part parody and part homage, because the story is as stand-alone as any episode of the original animated TV show. Better by far than the Michael Bay movie that also came out last year. This was made by a person who loves the Transformers and wants their robotic legacy to live on in our hearts and minds.

The Comic Strip Art of Lyonel Feininger (reprint of earlier work). Lyonel Feininger was only briefly a cartoonist, but the comics he made are like none I had ever seen before. His full-page strips made use of the space by plunging his characters into epic stories that spanned continents.

King Cat (reprint of earlier work), by John Porcellino. King Cat is a self-published zine John has been making for many years. The book reprints quite a bit of King Cat’s run, excepting the parts John deemed too embarrassing for anyone to see ever again. I got into King Cat when I moved to Portland, so it was fascinating to see the huge change in tone and style that King Cat went through. I have to admit, the two reasons I picked up King Cat in the first place were: the title and picture of a cat with a crown and scepter and John’s frequent mentions of the Beatles. I felt like I had found a good friend.

SELF-PUBLISHED COMICS!
Phase 7, by Alec Longstreth. My friend Alec makes a great comic which he writes, draws, markets, and distributes all by the sweat of his brow. This is the closest a man can come to having a baby.

Big Plans, by Aron Nels Steinke. Another Portland-based cartoonist (along with myself). Big Plans is a combination of longer stories and one-page strips. His drawing style is somewhat like James Kochalka in that there is a great use of light/dark space and a thick, brushlike line quality.

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Blog reviews

4 days is too long

wicker man
I don’t have much so say except that 4 days is too long a time to leave my blog neglected.

I will say that Christopher Lee is amazingly creepy in the original Wicker Man movie. Seriously, this movie is good if you 1) like pagans 2) think pagans are scary 3) think Christians are scary 4) like nudity 5) like hippy music. You must be in the right frame of mind to watch this film, as the concept is definitely of its time (the beginning of the 1970’s, when people were beginning to question the idea that love and drugs could save the world). In that respect I would put it in the same category of the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book, not the film). This must have been a sad time to live in, coming down from the collective high of the late 60’s, but it sure produced some interesting popular art.

Wicker Man is not as on the nose about the end of the 60’s, but it sets up a fascinating dichotomy between the rigid moral values of Christianity and the freewheelin’ spirit of paganism. The movie seems to land on the side of conservatism and Christianity in the end, but it does at least show (however briefly) that there can be an alternative.

Look out for those animal masks and Christopher Lee. Lord Summerisle abides.

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Blog history reviews

Buddy Holly and his Apartment Tapes

My Board of Trustees has informed me that this blog is in dire need of a youthful makeover. My esteemed colleagues voted yesterday on a measure that will undoubtedly make this blog the premier place for the young to go and “hang”, as they say. The Board, a group of twelve aging white men in matching suits, have been in the blogging industry their entire lives: a combined 14,879 years! They know a thing or two about keeping this blog relevant and “hip” to the “hippity hop” generation, and all those who will follow.

This post will be about a popular performer of rock ‘n’ roll music, Buddy Holly.

I don’t know much about the life of Buddy Holly. What I do know is that his music is as catchy today as it was back in the 1950’s. Some of my favorite songs are by him: Everyday, That’l Be The Day, Maybe Baby. Simple lyrics, sweet melodies. When a song of Buddy’s comes up on my ipod’s shuffle, it fits right in with the current music I listen to. I suppose the real difference is in recording quality; the songs do have an older production aesthetic. Just like music from the 80’s always sounds canned and tinny to me, Buddy Holly’s work sounds like it was recorded in the 50’s. This is not a problem, it just takes getting used to.

My only real problem with some of his music is that his band, The Crickets, sing backup vocals in the whitest possible way. You know what I’m talking about. They sound like the blandest, most clean-cut barbershop quartet ever. If I could strip away those backup vocals Buddy’s music would, I think, sound positively modern.

Which brings me to The Apartment Tapes. A little while before his untimely death, Buddy bought a tape recorder and took it to his apartment in New York City. He recorded 12 songs, plus an alternate version each of two songs (14 total). This is Buddy at his most relaxed. You can hear him trying new methods, new styles. The sound quality is amazingly good; I guess when you don’t have any overdubs the tape itself can sound crystal clear. There is something very present about these songs. There is no distance between the listener and the performer. It is the closest you can get to a ‘live’ Buddy Holly album. If I would compare it to anything, I’d say it makes the same impression as John Lennon’s home recordings when he was living in the Dakota building (also in New York, coincidentally). These songs benefit from a lack of studio futzing. They haven’t been altered in tone or speed to sound like a commercial record. They just are what they are.

I was first alerted to the existence of these songs when I saw ‘Juno’ last year. One of the unaltered songs is used in that movie: Dearest. When I heard it, I was floored. I knew it was Buddy Holly right away, but it sounded different from any of the music I’d heard already. I wondered why I’d never heard this before.

It turns out these tapes have never been commercially released. I did a little reading and found out.

After Buddy Holly died, his producer got his grubby, cash-stained hands on these tapes. He took exactly what made the tapes special and pooped all over it. Specifically, he hired a band to fill out the tracks. What came out was a sometimes okay, sometimes creepy version of each song. What I mean to say is, the vocals sometimes sound so isolated, so different from the style in which the band was playing, it really sounded like Buddy Holly was dispatching his vocals from beyond the grave. Later in the 60’s, some other producer had a crack at the songs. The results were a little better (they didn’t feature that doo-wop backup vocal that I mentioned before), but still not as good as the original tapes themselves.

For some reason, the original tapes remain available through other sources, but you can’t just walk into a record store and buy them. Why is this? There are lots of unreleased albums out there. My friend Alec recently discussed a Weezer album that never was. Brian Wilson’s epic Smile album was never released until he redid the whole thing a couple of years ago. I digress.

I’ll end this with a request: seek out Buddy Holly’s music and give it a listen. Go a step further and seek out a CD with those apartment tapes. You’ll find a musician who was not only good in his day, he is good to this day.

For the last word, I’ll turn to Bob Dylan. This is a great little aside from his Grammy acceptance speech when Time Out of Mind won Album of the Year in 1998:

And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him…and he looked at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.

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Blog fiction reviews

March of Morgan Freeman

march_of_the_penguinsIt’s a little-known fact that the award-winning documentary March of the Penguins was actually shot after the narration was recorded. A man who luckily had a digital voice recorder with him sat down to eat dinner with Morgan Freeman one night. Mr. Freeman, who loves penguins, launched into a two-hour long monologue on the birds. Mr. Freeman’s dinner companion recorded the whole thing, then edited out his own “uh-huhs” and the waitress’ interruptions (“More mozzarella sticks?”).

He then hired a crew to film penguins, edited it together, and released the movie. Morgan Freeman was unaware that a movie had been made until he saw a clip of the movie shown at the Academy Awards. He is reportedly pleased with the outcome.

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Blog reviews

For Your Consideration

The announced Best Picture Nominees are:
Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men
There Will Be Blood

I’ve seen all of these but Michael Clayton, and I think they all have a shot. I doubt Juno will win because it’s a comedy. The Academy, in its infinite wisdom, never picks comedies. Why is that? They are subversive, and they require an extra brain molecule to “get”. A good comedy, just like a good drama, will make an important statement. Comedies take it a step further and say something witty, as well.

This is not to disparage any of the movies above. I enjoyed all of them immensely, and I think the craft of filmmaking is flourishing. Personally, though, I believe comedy has always been thought of as less than drama, partly because it doesn’t appear to take itself seriously. My defense is that just because you’re smiling doesn’t mean you aren’t serious.

Announced Best Animated Pictures nominees:
Persepolis
Ratatouille
Surf’s Up

I’ve seen both Ratatouille and Surf’s Up. I’m currently reading Persepolis in its original bound form.

Brad Bird is an awesome storyteller, totally in command of his talent. He makes animated movies that could be nothing else. This makes them special. He has also taken Pixar from making movies about “things” (toys, bugs, cars) to making stories as unique as their style of animation. I never thought I would champion computer animation, but Brad Bird’s pictures make the whole endeavor worthwhile.

Surf’s Up? What a strange choice. I watched it because it features Jeff Bridges essentially reprising his role from The Big Lebowski. If you want to see the Dude as a penguin, this is the movie for you. I did enjoy watching it, but it’s kind of lightweight for this kind of an honor.

Has anyone seen Persepolis yet? The graphic novel version is very good so far. The style is unique and suited to the story (although all her characters tend to look the same, so if you’ve got two girls of the same age, for example, it’s hard to tell them apart). I’d love to see the movie before the awards are given.

That’s my brief rundown on today’s announcements. Any thoughts?

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Blog reviews

Born Standing Up

I got the new Steve Martin book for the holidays and finished reading it last Sunday. I wanted to write about it, but not as a review. This is just my thoughts on a very important little book.

It is called Born Standing Up, but it should be called How To Be a Successful Comedian. Well, maybe not, because it is so specific to Steve. How To Be Steve Martin? Nah, I like the title as it is.

The point is, Steve wrote a great book about the artistic process. It is a memoir, but even the childhood stuff (dealt with in a perfunctory manner in other autobiographies I’ve read) is fascinating and well-written. The most relevant parts to me, however, and the parts that Steve seemed to stress the most, were how and why he created his stand up act, and how that was greeted by the public.

He was constantly performing. Even when he had a more conventional job (relatively speaking) as a television writer, he was refining his own material. I liked that he wrote specifically what ideas went into his act. I’m kind of amazed he could even pinpoint the moments of discovery. The funniest part is that, even after having these epiphanies, no one else seemed to notice. He would say something like, “I made this huge change in my act, but it would take eight more years for it to come to fruition.” That kind of determination is incredible, almost insane. You have to be pretty crazy to chase an idea for that long without any assurance it will be worth it.

The other thing I found interesting was how Steve really wanted to be a performer, not necessarily a comic. He started out as a magician, then added a little banjo playing, then added comedy as a way to extend the act. It was an organic process, not about demographics or marketing. As a result, he was flat broke for a long time. When he did hit, he was capable and ready because of the foundation he had built up to that time. It was the realization that his act essentially froze when he became famous that made him turn away from stand up. After all the years of experimentation, he must have felt hemmed in by playing the same jokes to huge masses of people night after night.

It was a happy surprise to read such a lucid, introspective account of this part of Steve Martin’s life.
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Blog reviews

Coincidence

It’s funny that, a couple days after my post about meeting your teachers, I read this story in the New Yorker. It’s a story by Jonathan Lethem about two bookstore employees who travel to the small town in which their hero, an obscure and seemingly out-of-fashion author lives. Beware the racy drawing that accompanies the story; it is not as racy as the story itself.

I certainly hope I don’t have to go through the kind of ordeal the characters in this story do to meet my favorite cartoonists, but maybe that’s par for the course.

Does a life of telling stories make a person crazy, or do you have to be born crazy to want to make a living that way? It’s a timeless question.

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Blog reviews

Don’t Forget to Vote/Old Movies That Rock

The Poll Poll is only open for another week, so keep those votes coming in. Currently there is a tie between Imaginary Numbers and Candy. I don’t want to exercise my tie-breaking vote, but I will if I have to. Also, if there is a tie I might just make a poll about Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter or the Mars rovers.

In the spirit of Halloween, I watched Halloween last week. It falls into the category of Old Movies that Rock (old movies, by my definition, are movies that have been around long enough to inspire 8 or 9 sequels and a remake). Here’s my mini-review of Halloween, a movie that each of you, either separately or together, should watch before you die.
Wes Craven is a pretty awesome storyteller. He has done thrillers (Red Eye), psychological horror (Last House on the Left), monster movies (Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing), satire (Scream), and slasher movies (this one). He makes movies that become bigger than just a film to see on a Friday night. They become part of the culture.

Part of the reason I want to see these movies is because I know the cultural reference but not the place where it originated. Is this what The Simpsons has done to us? We know so much about culture from the jokes made about it, but not from experiencing it firsthand. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing necessarily, it’s just a thing.

A masked guy kills babysitters on Halloween night. There’s the story for you in one sentence. It’s the details that make this movie, though. The scene in which you see the escaped lunatics milling around in the rain at night, lit only by a car’s headlights? Terrifying. The fact that Michael Myers seems to be somehow superhuman? That bit could have been overdone by other directors, or simply seen as careless filmmaking. Here, however, it serves to enhance the killer’s reputation. Halloween is told like a campfire story, exaggerations and all.

I can see why the studio wanted to continue the story, but I’m not interested in seeing the sequels. I love the insulated feeling of this movie; sequels generally broaden the canvas. It would dull the horror. I also like the ambiguity of the ending. I like the intentionally unexplained details, pieces left for the audience to work out long after the movie is over. It implies a bigger story without boring us with it.

One piece of advice a writing professor gave me was that the author of a work must meet the audience halfway. The author doesn’t force-feed the audience, but wants to give enough to sustain. I picture a mother bird feeding her babies. The image makes me laugh, because, according to the analogy, the story is regurgitated food that the audience devours. I’m digressing.
I was pleasantly surprised by Halloween (picture me sipping tea and exclaiming to my bridge partners “How lovely! He hacks up the first babysitter, then strangles the second!”). Seriously, though, I thought it was well-made. Hurray for scary movies.
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Blog comic reviews

Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson

Here’s a great new comic that’s got a real edge to it. I love the sketchy style, and the way the children all look so hideous. This, I think, may pick up where Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip left off when he started working on The Simpsons. (If that reference doesn’t make any sense, check out the Childhood is Hell collection, then look at the material he got into post-Simpsons. It’s still good, just different.) Anyway. Richard Thompson has apparently been around for a while, doing good work in the D.C. area. Now that he’s syndicated, those of us on the other side of the country get to read his comics, too. I will be looking forward to reading this comic strip.

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Blog comic reviews

O Robotman, Where Art Thou?

Today I want to mention briefly the great, great modern comic strip that is Monty. I’m including today’s strip for those of you not in the habit of reading Monty.
Everything about this is good comics. The funny mouth Monty has in panel 2. The seated woman’s prattle about herself. Her husband’s skinny, skinny legs and the way he’s holding one of her shopping bags. I start to giggle before I even read a word of dialog.
monty sunday
Here’s a little little back-story on Monty. Monty was originally called Robotman. Now, Robotman was an “idea” cooked up by the suits way back in the heyday of corporate cartoons. Robotman was conceived as a cash-in for toys, books, games, and, the most lucrative market of them all: comics. This would have been in a similar vein to the Transformers. You know, a toy that has a Saturday morning cartoon. They had the concept, the licensing deals, and the character design. All they needed was a physical human hand to crank out 365 jokes per year, forever. The man they initially chose for this venture? Bill Watterson.
monty daily
Watterson, a man not known for his business acumen, turned the syndicate down. He later achieved lukewarm recognition for a short-lived comic strip about a boy with an active imagination. Jim Meddick was chosen (and accepted) the Robotman gig. And the rest is history.

Well, not very well known history. For one reason or another, Robotman failed to achieve the success for which was was conceived (for the conception of Robotman, imagine here four white men in business suits performing a pagan ritual in a skyscraper conference room. Coffee will be served). I grew up in the 80’s and kept pretty good tabs on the new cartoons of the day. You could say I was “childlike,” but you could also shorten that to say I was, in fact, a child. Robotman the marketing machine died a dismal death. Robotman the comic strip, however, kept running. Meddick probably had more creative control over the characters now that their original reason for being was wiped away. He introduced new characters, created bizarre, geek-based storylines, and eventually killed off Robotman. He didn’t literally kill the character; he just wrote him out of the strip.

Jim Meddick wrote Robotman out of Robotman.

Shortly thereafter, he was allowed by the syndicate to change the name of the strip. It should be noted that this was the strip’s third name change. First it was Robotman, then Robotman and Monty, and finally, Monty. Shed of it’s original meaning, Meddick has essentially created his own comic strip while drawing the comic strip itself. I can’t think of another comic where that has happened, exactly. Sure, new characters are born into existing comics all the time. But to morph into something entirely different while being published all along? Fantastic.

I just have to congratulate Jim Meddick on creating a great comic strip out of the shell of a mediocre one.

For more information, just check out this website. It has great information about Monty, as well as a section on Calvin and Hobbes.