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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Weepers into the Whimpering

Let's talk about some more odd 90s comics.

Seekers Into the Mystery was a short-lived Celestine Prophecy-esque item from Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC that remains best known for the literary fantasy comic Sandman. Various other Vertigo comics followed Sandman's clever writer/rotating artists/contemporary fantasy recipe. Grant Morrison's The Invisibles was my favorite, but we're gonna look at Seekers.

I know what you're thinking-"That's the kind of pulse-pounding action I want from my comic books!" To be fair, this low-key literary approach was pretty common in Vertigo titles. The guy on the left is a guru known as The Magician who's presented as being more or less God in human form. I alway though he was modeled on Yanni, but apparently there's a real life guru, Meher Baba, who's the model, although Baba, to his credit, didn't go by The Magician. Writer J. M. DeMatteis probably meant no disrespect to the little person community by his use of the term "midget," and artist Jon J. Muth probably meant to offset any such offense by depicting the character as roughly 5-6 feet tall.

Anyway, the comic centers on a wayward writer's quest for the mystical insights The Magician seems to offer. Things come to a bad pass when he visits an ex-girlfriend who has the temerity to argue with his newfound beliefs:

Nothing says "disrespect" like dropping someone's photo in the wastebasket. Especially if you've snatched the photo out of an admirer's hands, then hoisted it like you're gonna toss it across the room... only to primly deposit it, with your EVIL CLAWS appearing in shadow. And then little devils come popping out of the wastebasket. Artist Jill Thompson (the comic had a rotating team of artists) is really quite good, (see her work on The Invisibles, which we'll talk about in a moment, or her own Scary Godmother series) but here her talents are perhaps strained from misuse. It wouldn't take a lot of revising to make this comic suitable for Jack Chick.

Let the record show that I basically agree with everything she's saying here.

Again, insensitivity aside, I think she's right. The writer presumably thinks her argument has some persuasive force, or he wouldn't have his protagonist swooning like an overwrought damsel (although to be fair I've wept at women's feet a couple of times. Builds character).

But fear not, folks, the Pantied Skeptic is about to get what she deserves. What's that, you ask? A robust rebuttal?


More like a KNIFE IN THE FACE.

This comic's low-key naturalism had its limits.

 Dramaturgically speaking, I can understand why Dematteis doesn't want to turn his comic into Oxford-style debate, but anytime your counterargument is "You need a good knifing!"... well, I'm gonna say you lost the argument by default. This comic is a tacit admission that astral projection, recovered memory, and other mystical experiences are probably glitches in our neurological operating system rather than deeper truths. Now, I'm confident that there are strong rebuttals to this philosophically materialist line of thought, but Dematteis can't or won't mount them. He is, perhaps, a philosophical materialist in spite of himself.

Grant Morrison's Vertigo comic The Invisibles, which was in some ways a model for Seekers, also pushed a mystical worldview, but was captious (and postmodern) enough to incorporate counterarguments as threads in a shimmeringly ambiguous dialogic tapestry, rather than mere problems to polish off (with a knife). Invisibles remains in print. I've probably reprinted more of the late run of Seekers in this post than DC ever will (all takedown requests will of course be cheerfully complied with).

Now let's look at an independently published (ergo black and white) comic called Starchild by James A. Owen. I dipped into Issue #12 without reading any prior issues. What's that like? It's like this:

I enjoy this inscrutable, decontextualized worldbuilding, probably for the same reasons I enjoy John Ashbury.

Full size for detail enjoyment.

True aficionados of peculiar 90s comics will detect the influence of Cerebus, which was one of the most remarkable and influential independent comics, right up until auteur Dave Sim decided to use his comic as a bully pulpit for all his deep insights, like that women are terrible. Other cartoonists stopped imitating Cerebus's lush backgrounds, vertiginous panels,  and wide-margined word balloons once they realized Sim wasn't kidding.

I love the atmospheric top panel on this page; the sense of depth and shadow, and hair. I suppose the hairy guy was trying to say "Greetings, Starchild" when he got punched, but I like the idea of a fantasy comic with a hero named Starchi. That punch is the only rough-and-tumble in the comic; mostly it's very quiet and genteel, like this:

Much of the comic consists of bushy male faces pressed close together, whispering cryptically. Like Wind in the Willows, it's a fantasy that pushes the homosocial towards the homoerotic. The only female character appears in a prose-with-illustrations section safely cordoned off from the delicately masculine main narrative. All she does is
  • Not wear any clothing
  • Step out of the wood like a newborn faun
  • Let raindrops trickle through her fingers into a brook.
Starchi & Hairhead Double Digest. Ask for it by name!

 The above page is from Eddie Campbell's autobiographical Alec stories, serialized in Eddie Campbell's Bacchus comics, and it gives  a nice sense of the comics-as-jazz-poetry vibe that is Campbell's signature. I was perplexed by his work in the actual 90s, yet felt compelled to keep buying it, saving his work up for a day when I would be grown enough to understand. Today, it's probably the indy comic of the period that affords me the most pleasure.

Manga became a thing in the US in the 90s. One of the most important publishers of domesticated manga was Tokyopop, which went out of business as suddenly as it appeared. I'm not sure why...

But I'm pretty sure that hiring bored English majors to write plot synopses, and hiring non-graphic designers to do the typeface, didn't help.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 4.

90125, 1983.  Owner of a Lonely Heart and Leave It are the hits, as well as the tracks that find the most idiosyncratic middle path between radio-ready pop shlock and new-wave rethinking of same. The rest of the album sounds like Toto's forgotten B-sides. New guy Trevor Rabin seems to have bypassed seniority issues to become the band leader and head writer; his slick craft and harmonic cleverness annoyed old Yes fans who missed Steve Howe's folkadelic streaks and smears and strums, but it was the 80s now. People who like Toledo should check out the song Our Song, which is about how Toledo is the best city in the USA, and also music is magic. The music in the actual song sounds like a toothpaste jingle.

Big Generator, 1987. Laminated production quality makes everything sheen and sparkle. They don't seem to have worked nearly so hard on the material, though standout track Shoot High, Aim Low has a misty predawn quality that welcomes and envelops the irruptions of contrasting voices and guitars. Attempts to recreate the old Yes suites take a few pleasant chances, as on I'm Running; the title track is a gimmicked-up retread of Owner of a Lonely Heart. Holy Lamb (Song for the Harmonic Convergence) fulfills its subtitle. I got in trouble for arranging a screening of the bawdy Rhythm of Love video in my English class on some forgotten pretext.

Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, 1989. Not officially a Yes album, but a reunion of all the key members of Yes's finest lineup except the one who controlled the rights to the band name (bassist Chris Squire.) This album relies on prettiness, pastiche, fanciness and fussiness. Late-80s digital synthesizers and digital drums sparkle and shimmer and shine, while layers of acoustic and electric guitars create a glittery mobile sculpture in then-fashionable shapes and colors. Lots of work must have gone into the stratigraphy of overdubs that made this album what it is, but as with Big Generator, all that craft and skill can't compensate for banality. Bill Bruford, the member with the best taste and the most artistically rewarding non-Yes career, has revealed in his memoir that he took this assignment on the grounds that he be a well-paid hired hand, able to save his artistic first fruits for his jazz ensemble Earthworks.

But I LOOOOVED it when it was new. I had only become a Yes fan (on the basis of Close to the Edge) about a year before this album appeared, and I listened to it every day on the walk from the bus stop to the house, enjoying the way the high trees and cocky brick houses embraced the shimmery archipelagoes of arpeggios this de facto Yes was pumping out. It's music for walking around suburbs in the late 80s.

Union, 1991. Less a reunion than a shotgun wedding between two bands, each consisting of 4 ex-Yes guys and various session cats. An armada of session musicians swamps most of the album, rendering it a factory-fresh product. A solo guitar spot by Steve Howe rises above the rest, while Miracle of Life (not an anti-abortion/creationist screed as far as I can tell) hints at the next album's more dynamic sound, with an organ riff that I still burst out singing in weak moments. Otherwise, all the sheen of the previous two albums, with little personality.

Talk, 1994. Essentially a Trevor Rabin/Jon Anderson duo album. Invigorating commercial pop if you like well-oiled rock guitar machinery resting on a bed of cushiony synths and processed vocal harmonies. Rabin's predilection for bombast does no one any favors. A compositional sensibility undergirds the whole enterprise, shaping this bit to fit nicely alongside this other bit, balanced by another bit. The final big long thing seems like a demo reel of soundtrack ideas, and perhaps it worked, because Rabin makes Tinseltown soundtracks now. Takes shots at televangelists, because Yes knows no fear.

Outside, 1995. Not a Yes album. A Bowie album that completely reprogrammed my musical interests. As a result, my engagement with the next few Yes albums was diffident at best. Anyway, Outside is a Twin Peaks concept album that recasts Leland Palmer with Chris Burden, and it blends musical vocabularies with the ambitious aplomb of prog rock in better days.

Keys To Ascension, 1996. Bland new live performances of old favorites. Guitarist Steve Howe sounds like he's straining to remember how this stuff goes, and the rhythm section is sluggish. Then there's some new studio material, with some peppy sections and nicely rubbery bass. If you're sitting on the fence about whether or not to smoke crack, this album has some things to say about that. I'm not sure how many potential crack addicts were buying 1990s Yes albums, but you can't fault Yes for trying.

Keys to Ascension 2, 1997. I can't help but think this might have been a really special album, but the sound is lacking. Guitars sound tinny, vocals sound strident. One gets the impression that the band is playing and singing as well as it can, but that there wasn't enough perfectionism in the sound engineering or mixing to capture and enrich what the performers were putting out. The best Yes producers (Eddie Offord, Trevor Horn) bound the band members' efforts in a rich broth. That doesn't happen here. Everything's too sterile and lit by fluorescents.

Open Your Eyes, 1997.  A side project converted into a Yes album. Various old Yes hands and session cats are parachuted in.  I complained about the sound quality on the previous album, but KtAII sounds like Pet Sounds next to this basement tape.  Which would be fine if this came out sounding cheerfully lo-fi, like Beat Happening or something, but of course Yes isn't about to do that. Potentially charming songs are undone by cheap ornamental effects. The cover art is just the classic Roger Dean logo from the 70s on a black background, and this spirit of not trying too hard pervades the album.

The Ladder, 1999. This time out they hired a proper producer for a change, and he got a pretty good album out of them, though sadly the effort literally killed him. A genuine spirit of enthusiasm and esprit de corps suffuses the album, and they perform with a verve they haven't shown in years. That said, I heard one song from here (If Only You Knew) on a soft rock station. It fit right in. Clearly, ambitions have settled, over the decades, into something more humble than the starry-eyed dreams of yesteryear.

Magnification, 2001. Working with an orchestra and an Emmy-award winning composer, Yes steers clear of the bombast and cheap prettiness that such a combo threatens, and produces some music that relies on restraint instead of the usual claptrap. Once I accepted that they wouldn't be taking advantage of the opportunity to channel Stravinsky (a key Yes influence in the 70s) I found that this one stuck to the ribs more than anything they'd released in many a moon. But only I bought it so they stopped recording new albums for a decade. Anyway, the last song on it, Time is Time, sounds like a lost track from The Yes Album 30 years before. A nice way to end.

But it wasn't the end.

Fly From Here, 2011.  I saw the boring video for the boring song with the new lead singer and passed on this one. The first Yes album I've shunned.

Heaven and Earth, 2014. Listened to a sample of this item with the NEW new lead singer. Sounded like an Air Supply tribute band that over-relies on synths. Pass.

To make up for punting on the last two Yes albums, here's a bonus round.


Symphonic Music of Yes, 1993. Should be titled Steve Howe with Bill Bruford and an orchestra that's not too proud. More Mantovani than Stravinsky. Only Mood For a Day, Steve Howe's beloved Jose Feliciano tribute, survives, because it gets a very different treatment, with a chamber orchestra adding sharp counterpoint instead of drizzling mayonnaise all over it like the rest of the album do.

Tales From Yesterday, 1995. My parents had a tribute album dedicated to Elton John that had an all-star cast. Yes's tribute album does not have an all star cast. It has once and future members of Yes, like they had to throw their own birthday party. Robert "has worked with some other prog rockers" Berry does a rendition of Yes's 70s signature song Roundabout that turns it all angular. Not my style, but I admire the willingness to take chances and reinvent a chestnut. Steve Morse's rendition of Mood For a Day doesn't reinvent; it's just lovely, like a fine cup of tea on a sunny, frosty day. Pickup band Stanley Snail (after Yes Lyric "Cold stainless nail" and featuring Zappa associate Mike Keneally) does a note-for-note of Siberian Khatru, and their fiery investment makes it sing. Other note-for-notes on the album just sit there. Original Yes guitarist Peter Banks demonstrates that he can still play sharp-edged but melodic rock guitar and will someone please hire him. (Poor Peter.) Spurned Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz improvises on a Yes melody as only a Swiss jazzman can. Steve Howe teams with Annie Haslam (of prog act Renaissance.) Phrasing has never been Yes frontman Jon Anderson's strong suit, but he sounds like Billie Holliday next to Haslam's cloth-tongued realization of Turn of the Century, a pretty if drippy retelling of the Pygmalion myth.

I've been hard on Yes, but I'll always love them. Close to the Edge is perfect.  Goodnight.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Actually if you read the thing

I was at the Mint Museum the other day, enjoying their photo exhibit Women of Vision, centered around a lineup of great female documentary photographers, when a group of high school students came through.

The teacher, a gnomic woman old enough to be their grandmother, led them to a picture of two teenage girls in a piercing parlor who had just gotten tongue studs and were considering their new ornaments in the mirror.

"These girls just got their tongues pierced," the teacher thundered.  "Do they look happy?  Why would they do something like that to themselves?"

"Maybe it was for art, an art thing," a gentle voice said.

"What's artistic about getting your tongue pierced?" the teacher retorted.

They moved to a picture of a toddler pageant contestant, an infant with heavy makeup and big Loretta Lynn hair.

"Look at this girl.  This girl is two years old and she's dressed this way to be 'beautiful.'  Is that beautiful?  She's standing there wearing a wig..."

"Actually if you read the thing, it says that's her real hair," spoke a shy voice.

On to the next picture: a man in heavy winter clothing stands by a pair of severed reindeer heads.

"Here is a man who's hunting reindeer," the teacher said.

"Actually if you read the thing it says he found them, they had gotten their antlers locked in a fight and starved in the cold.  He cut them apart after he found their bodies."

I got the impression this was part of an ongoing conflict.  The girls had learned to respond to the hectoring sermonettes with close reading, fact-checking, and gentle counter-narratives.  Throughout, the teacher sounded like a brat on the edge of a tantrum, and the students sounded like endlessly patient caregivers.  Gives me hope for the future.  No boys involved in the struggle.  They probably respond by carving insults in desktops.

(I should mention that I'm sympathetic to the teacher's skepticism regarding "Beauty," but there were other photos in the exhibit that showed other sides of beauty.  Costumed revelers at Venetian Carnival, barely-costumed revelers at the beach, cheerful women meeting at the hair parlor... positive social functions exist for beauty.  I can't blame Teach for wanting to police the borders of her young charges' behavior and presentation, but her hasty generalizations and sloppy confabulating probably don't help her cause.)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

How We Ruined Everything Down in New Orleans

It was the 90s, and this is a story about my 20-something self.  He didn't much care for working hard and being responsible.  I do, so if you're a potential employer reading this, c'mon, gimme a break.  That said:

A friend (let's call him Tim) from New Orleans invited another friend (call him Glen) and myself to stay with him and attend a Nerd Convention there, where we would play live-action Vampire: The Masquerade (whatever that was) and hopefully meet girls girls girls.  Glen and I signed on to work as volunteers at the Con, in exchange for which we'd get discounts on our admission fees.

The event took place in a conference center, and the first day Glen and I went to mission control for our volunteering orders.  Boss Lady, a foxy, busty, stern young woman, assigned us to guard the door at a movie screening room, keeping out anyone who wasn't a paid-for Con attendee.  The guy running the screening room told us that, legally, we couldn't keep anyone out, though, because of the legalities of playing commercial videotapes in a hotel screening room.  Did we go back to mission control for a new assignment?  Nope.  We sat back and watched Das Boot, which someone had decided was a suitably vampiric film (well, Nazis, close enough).

That night (first of two, I believe) we started playing the Vampire game, which involved each of us wearing badges and running around the conference center, pretending to be vampires from different clans, because vampires have clans, it seems.  Each player's badge had a symbol on the front (my symbol, a cryptic glyph which I can't recall, meant nada to me) and on the back, a brief biographical note (I was playing a thief named Stinky with no clan and no friends).

I wandered around the halls a bit, and not much happened for me.  Most players were finding their clans and doing stuff together; they also seemed way more comfortable and familiar with this masquerade than I was.  Tim was all dressed up in his The Crow regalia (remember The Crow?  It was the 90s) and he was off with his clan, Glen was off with some other clan, I was on my own, my social skills were about the same as they'd been in the cradle, and I had no idea how to play this game.   Mapping the diegetic reality of the game onto the halls of this conference center took a facility, or at least a familiarity, with these Vampire games that I didn't have.  At one point I was strolling through the crowd when this one guy spotted my glyph, and his eyes went wide.  He begged me to come find him in Room such and such at a specified time.  Nowadays, well, nowadays I wouldn't be playing the game, but nowadays I'd do as he requested.  At 23, though, I really needed for this request to come from a girl, and it wasn't, so sorry, dude.  I went to the dancing room instead, because the Con had a dancing room.  I took off my badge, which officially signified that I was pausing my involvement in the game, and danced to 90s techno for the rest of the night.

The next day Glen and I did some actual legal volunteer work (in my case, watching the door of the merchants' room to make sure no one swiped anything) and then shifted to more work that mission control didn't realize was illegal (keeping people out of the screening room again, although this time we actually performed a public service, chasing children out during Fritz the Cat and Heavy Metal).

That night I don't think I bothered putting my badge on; I just didn't care about vampire games.  I cared about dancin'!  The dance floor got nice and friendly; in particular, my boy Glen was slow dancing with Boss Lady.   She'd been assigning us work during the day, but was getting quite cozy with the help by night.  Glen and Boss Lady were shooting off sparks, no question.  Meanwhile I told a woman I was dancing with about the (awful) screenplay I was writing, and she told me she was on the board of the New Orleans Film Festival.  I should have gotten her digits.  I didn't, because I was in a monogamous relationship with Akane Tendo.

Well, the next morning it turned out no one won the game because it had been designed such that Stinky was The Chosen One and whichever clan got him on their side would win, or something.  Too bad Stinky was out of commission.  I like to imagine he went to Nashville and became a professional dancer, avoiding the responsibilities of Chosen Oneship.

Also, Glen, who had been warned before about his tendency to speak without thinking, made the mistake of confessing to Boss Lady that we'd gamed the system and avoided doing real work, and she shot off some sparks of a decidedly non-romantic kind, and didn't give us our refunds, and I was glad because we didn't deserve them.  I went home and told my Goth friends that I'd played Vampire: The Masquerade in New Orleans, letting them think I'd been slinking around on Bourbon Street just a'reveling in the Anne Riceyness of it all.  They spit with envy.  Haw haw.

I apologize to New Orleans for screwing up the game, but maybe you should blame the designers who evidentially didn't provide multiple paths to success, because in reality There Is Always Another Way To Succeed!   Glen and Tim and I are all happily married to other Boss Ladies, so we all Won The Game, even without refunds, so Happy Endings all around!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 3

Going For the One, 1977.  Some bracing pop/rock, but mostly this one is like a counterfeit Faberge egg, dripping with pancake syrup.  It's so ornamental and sugary sweet,  one expects a few Disney Princesses to pirouette through.  The 16 minute closer, Awaken, is Tales From Topographic Oceans 2.0 with an energy and concision missing from 1.0.  Some fans, including the lead singer, regard Awaken as a high water mark for the band.  I prefer the shapeless, blissed-out expansiveness of TfTO.  If Going For the One had come out in the 90s it would be their best album of that decade.  In the 70s, it's a downturn.  Snappy cover art, though.

Tormato, 1978.  Some entertaining showbiz here, but half the time it sounds like they spun the radio dial and imitated whatever they heard.  for some fans, the chance to hear Yes take a package tour through pop trends of the late 70s is a selling point.  When Yes tries to make the music only Yes can make, though, it sounds like someone else's vicious parody of Yes.  It's the kind of thing that demonstrates the necessity of Punk.

Drama, 1980.  A Hail Mary pass, as they say in American Football.  Without the distinctive voice of Jon Anderson or the pseudo-classical kitsch of keyboardist Rick Wakeman, this represents the first of several times the band might have done well to continue as a trio.  Instead they hired a pair of clever younger guys from The Buggles (of Video Killed the Radio Star fame).  Cannier songs than the previous outing, and they mix in a soup├žon of new musical ideas ("new wave," synth pop, and heavy metal) with greater integration than the pastiche of Tormato.  The band Styx would have great commercial success with a similar blend, but it seems Yes's fans were underwhelmed (judging from bootlegs, Horn couldn't hit the high notes in concert), so this lineup marked the end of Yes.  At least for a while...