Thursday, June 26, 2008

My ride in the Weinermobile

In January, when I get my teacher's certification, I'm leaving either to accept a teaching position with either the Peace Corps, or a "roadless" school district in rural Alaska (depending on who responds to my resume).

You'd think that fulfilling one lifelong dream (teaching abroad) would be enough.

Oh, no!

This year, I got to actually ride in the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile!

A dream since I was six years old. The current spokesperson for Oscar-Mayer is Magaly Estrella, a good friend of mine and an FIU student, so the Weinermobile was at the FIU parking lot.

For those that have never been in the Weinermobile, it was incredible. The whole inside had that new car smell. The interior was brilliant red and yellow, like a box of french fries, with rich airplane-style leather seats. You're even higher up than on most Grayhound buses; the windows are huge and panoramic, like a fighter plane. Even the glove compartments are sculpted to look like hot dog buns!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seven of Nine is responsible for Obama!

I was just thinking about this the other day: professional superbabe Jeri Ryan is responsible for the candidacy of my good buddy Barry.

Jeri Ryan filed divorce papers from her husband, Senator Jack Ryan. Part of the reasons she gave for wanting a divorce was how creeped out she was that her hubby dragged her to a swinger's club, where according to her divorce papers, Jack Ryan wanted her to have sex with him in public, and the place had plenty of whips and torture devices along the wall. During the campaign, the divorce papers came to light, causing the incumbent Senator to drop out.

It should be remembered that Jeri's husband's re-election was, basically, a sure thing. He was a well-liked incumbent, and he was running against some nobody named Barack Obama.

Who did the GOP decide to run instead? The craziest man in America, ALAN "AWESOME" KEYES, that's who! The guy that was in the GOP primary something like five times without winning a single state. Alan "No Chance" Keyes.

Of course Obama won!

Barry Obama is nothing short of the luckiest man in world history. Running against Alan Keyes is like being GIVEN a Senate seat.

Here's something else that's interesting: Republicans in general have to answer to a base of religious, family-values types. Sex scandals alienate this base, and finish GOP candidates, which is not often true for Democrats. If Bill Clinton had been a Republican, Monica Lewinsky would have finished him.

Maybe that's no longer true, though. After all the gay sex scandals (Foley, Craig, et. al.) last year when the College Young Republican chief that seduced several students, you could hear a sigh of relief from Republicans everywhere. "A straight sex scandal? Oh, thank God!"

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Englehart's Doctor Strange and the British New Wave

One of the best characteristics of good adventure comics and good comics writers, the most literate and intelligent (Englehart, Gerber, et. al.) is their ability to use their comics to have a discussion, to interact with the forces around them. If the nation is in malaise from Watergate, the comics should reflect that. If Christian fundamentalism has become a frighteningly powerful force in our culture, the comics should show that, too.

One of Stan Lee's greatest realizations was how Marvel Comics reacted to the antiestablishment, antiheroic strains of Modernism, just as much as Arthur Penn and Frances Coppola would take Truffeaut and Goddard, and from inside the studio system, start the American New Hollywood Cinema.

This characteristic, of responding to the greater world, is (mostly) lost now because of how comics writers have come to look at superhero and adventure books as being nostalgia-oriented. They view it as inherently for children (instead of for older children, intelligent children, teens, adults, and intelligent adults) and as a consequence write books with a lot less sophistication and credit to the reader. These writers also view comics as unable to have a dialogue with the bigger world, so they write comics about comics. I'm talking about writers like Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Jeph Loeb, and (at least post-1990) Alan Moore.

All this may sound a little weird when we're talking about fun, escapist adventure books. I'm not so sure, though. One of the interesting paradoxes about escapism is, the best kinds of escapism are based on experiencing emotions that we wouldn't ordinarily like to feel, but we enjoy in a story.

For instance, take Ben Grimm. He's an ugly monster, alone and alienated from the human race by his grotesque appearance, a character capable of great self-pity and who depends on his strength because he feels he doesn't have anything else to offer anyone.

Obviously, this isn't escapism in that, for instance, people want to BE Tarzan, because of his freedom, physical prowess, and exciting life. But it still is escapism! The defining characteristics of that most escapist of all literature, romance novels, is that at the end one of the lovers dies of cancer.

The greatest adventure comics writer of all time, Steve Englehart, realized how important it was for his work to interact with the world around him. Englehart's CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON was about the malaise of the Nixon years, conspiracies involving corporations that usurp American democracy, and the ruthlessness of energy/oil companies.

At the same time, Englehart's DOCTOR STRANGE was the first time that the good Doctor was influenced by the counterculture-spirited, British New Wave of science fiction and fantasy writers, personified in the magazine NEW WORLDS and represented by writers like Norman Spinrad and Michael Moorcock, and had an influence on writers like Roger Zelazny and Frank Herbert. Briefly put, the spirit of the British New Wave was the following:

1) The importance of Jungian symbolism, and the reality and significance of symbol becoming personified or real. This was the first science fiction for which psychology was important. This is also the first science fiction for whichthere was significance to dreams and the collective unconscious. Also, where the events of the story in the outer world were identical to what was going on in a character's inner mind.

2) An emphasis on non-Western, non-scientific cosmologies and means of measuring time. The idea of the "multiverse" was new to science fiction but not to Hinduism. The idea of a spirit world where real consciousness happens, for instance. This was the first science fiction where

3) Hallucinogenic drugs as the secret of the universe, as seen in Norman Spinrad's stories about a "true" drug culture, or Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius.

4) A fascination with alternate sexuality, hermaphroditism, homosexuality.

5) A rejection of fascism, right-wing politics, Toryism, anti-imperialism, antiracism, and an embracing of radical politics and the counterculture.

6) A rejection of the escapist adventure story.

All of the above are present in Englehart's rock n' roll DOCTOR STRANGE, with the exception of #4, which couldn't be delved into because of the restrictions of the comics code. Sounds like the punchline of a joke, doesn't it? The Comics Code was at first a tragedy and then it became a farce. But apparently there are still some things that, even in the crazy 1970s (when Americans still had balls) a mainstream comic couldn't do. Englehart made up for #4 in a very, very big way with his sex-filled COYOTE, the main character of whom had a sexuality almost as oddball as Jerry Cornelius himself.

But hey, let's go down these one by one.

#1) Englehart was fascinated by representing symbolic figures. He featured Death heavily, for example, as well as Eternity. Englehart did not create either one, but the way he used them, as a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment, WAS new. In one story, Englehart has Doctor Strange go through every period of his life. Every period of his life taught him something. In other words, the external events of the story were related to the character's inner world and mental state. He could never win externally because the problem was internal.

#2) Everything about Englehart's work priveledged and valorized non-Western, Indian, Shamanistic and Chinese means of thinking. This is obvious enough, but what's interesting is how Englehart applied this perspective. The best example of non-linear thinking would be in Englehart's treatment of time in the battle against Sisi-Neg.

#3) HAHAHAHAHAHA. Oh boy! The biggest not-so-secret secret of the Marvel Universe is that Doctor Strange has a lot of great shit. Why do you think the Defenders hung around the Sanctum Sanctorum all the time? Englehart had to approach this subject very carefully considering how mainstream what he was writing was, but the best example would be DOCTOR STRANGE #6, where Englehart and Clea were in Central Park and a junkie approached them. "In my time, in my studies...I have dealt with many drugs to free the body and mind..."

#5) Fascinatingly enough, DOCTOR STRANGE was Englehart's least political work, though his works made Englehart's political leanings clear, along with his distrust of hysterical patriotism and corporate power. Doctor Strange had the fascination with Eastern mysticism, rejection of materialism, and distaste for violence that the counterculture had. There are only a few hints of politics. In DOCTOR STRANGE #11 the good Doctor encountered a figure that represented repression and authority, who wore a Nixon mask. There too was the villainous Silver Dagger, an insane, fanatical witch-hunter that ironically, was a student of magic. He wasn't as memorable as Gerber's Foolkiller, to be sure, but he condemned Christian religious fundamentalism.

#6) Doctor Strange, under Englehart, were not stories about the exilaration of power. Doctor Strange was ineffective when applying power, because he managed to overcome obstacles by understanding and realizing their true nature. Yes, Doctor Strange was adventure, and yes it was escapist, but what's interesting is what Englehart could accomplish within the structures of traditional comics.

By the way, everything I'm talking about here goes a million for Englehart's COYOTE, which had the essence of his DOCTOR STRANGE and MARVEL PREMIERE work boiled down, but it was done in a different context...well, it's worth a post in and of itself!

Finally, it seems rather pointless at this point to point out that Englehart, like Spinrad and Moorcock, had a giant beard and did a lot of drugs in the sixties and seventies.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eye Candy!

Thought I might liven things up with some fun-spirited cheesecake and beefcake.

Have a look at Jelena Abbou. Even among models, she stands out. Did you hear the one where she went to court, and the judge ruled she was too fit to stand trial?

And for my lady readers (hey Malika, hey Melanie!) here's some beefcake shots of the fabulous West-African born Ulysses Williams Jr.!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The five most annoying comic book characters ever

5. Halo

My mentor and good friend, novelist John Dufresne, once said that "no children are interesting except your own."

That about summarizes my feelings about teenagers in comics.

Halo was supposed to be "sweet and innocent," but it's funny how "innocent" and "severely mentally retarded" overlap. Maybe it's the contrast between her and the very, very adult, experienced, and competent members of the Outsiders: Batman, Geo-Force, Metamorpho, Black Lightning and Katana. Halo feels like the annoying kid that interrupts the grownups when they're talking to say something stupid.

The worst part about Halo is how everyone on the team, even frosty-hearted Batman, just loves her unconditionally, despite the fact her (ahem) "cute" antics are a good argument for infanticide. Despite the fact her "endearing" bonehead maneuvers have on many occasions nearly gotten everyone killed. That's what makes "Mary Sue" characters of this type so unbearable. The louder the writer tells us how SUPERWONDERFUL a character is, the more aggrivating they become.

4. Starman

Never have I encountered a character so utterly worthy of a punch to the face. For the love of God, just LOOK AT HIM.

Starman reminds me of the movie JUNO, only removed of the humanity and unique situations that make JUNO such a great film, and all you're left with are lines like "That's one diddle that can't be undid, home skillet." The shallow attempts to be hip and ironic and intelligent, that fail because of how utterly forced it all is.

James Robinson is the guy you get when you can't get Grant Morrison. And at least once in a blue moon, not very often...Morrison occasionally makes me laugh.

Also: get a costume, you punk! (shakes fist)

Thank goodness for Geoff Johns, who realized how irritating Jack Knight was, and quickly shelved him away in JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA in favor of more interesting characters.

3. Plastic Man

This choice just speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Plastic Man, in the pages of JLA, is a character type called the "comic relief." In movies like THE GOONIES or ANIMAL HOUSE, the comic relief is the funny fat guy. But historically, in Children's cartoons, the comic relief are characters that we hate more than anyone else.

Plastic Man was never funny. Ever. His spastic, flailing, desperate attempts to get a laugh were never as funny as Batman was, accidentally.

2. Every Single Kid Sidekick Ever

#2 is an unprecedented 30-way tie between every irritating, useless kid sidekick (in other words, every kid sidekick). This includes every single original member of the original five Teen Titans, the Martian Manhunter's buddy Zoot,

The whole institution of the kid sidekick is one the least intelligent ideas ever. Wouldn't a hero be charged with reckless endangerment? And more importantly, what person would be insane enough to go into battle with a ten year old in buttercup yellow tights? What if something happens to the little scamp? Superheroes don't exactly live uneventful lives, after all. If the poor kid got shot or mashed into goo by a giant robot, it's the hero's responsibility and fault.

There's no justification for a kid sidekick, even in an ironic sense. There could be no justification for a kid sidekick. The sheer insanity of it automatically skews a comic young, when superhero books should be for older kids and something of a challenge. It's an automatic sign the writers aren't taking this book seriously.

Sidekicks aren't even necessary, either. What, Batman can't solve a mystery without Robin? The Flash can't run fast without Kid Flash? Captain America can't punch Hitler in the face without Bucky to tie his shoes? Because the sidekick can't be as competent as the hero, they can't contribute in any way to the solution of the problem. They hold the story back.

The very existence of sidekicks eliminates any attempt at verisimilitude, but it doesn't hurt that sidekicks are almost always annoying and detrimental. Robin is officially the shark-jump point for Golden Age Batman. Robin's introduction was an indignity it took even Batman decades to recover from, and get back his cool, dark, pulpy mojo.

Doc Savage had the right of it: sidekicks only work when sidekicks are adults that can consent to risks.

Finally, sidekicks fail at what they set out to do. All of them are austensibly created to be audience identification and wish-fulfillment for kids. But don't kids usually wish they were the hero? To quote the author of THE COMICS HEROES: "As a boy, how I hated Robin. He had the body of a weightlifter, and was clearly the best runner, the best ball player on the block. Imagine my delight to learn years later that he was a fag."

1. Kitty Pryde

Imagine this: you're John Byrne, Terry Austin, and Chris Claremont. You just finished "Dark Pheonix Saga." To your great surprise, word of mouth from it got around, so you have on your hands the best-selling superhero comic of the entire 20th Century, the first true "fan" comic book.

So, what do you do now?

The answer should be obvious: make every single story centered around some teenaged girl!

I am in no way exaggerating. For years after Dark Pheonix, every issue was about her. Every issue she took center stage.

Kitty Pryde, you officially killed the X-Men forever. During your ascendancy on the book, X-Men went from being a cool, fan comic where anything could happen, the 1970s-1980s version of THUNDERBOLTS, to being the most hidebound and boring comic ever. You made this happen, and X-Men has never entirely got its dignity back.
There are so many interesting characters in the X-Men. So many! Every single character got something to do, yet when Kitty Pryde started to take center stage in the comics, almost all of them were shoved the backburner, in some cases forever. For instance, right after Dark Pheonix, Banshee discovered he was a father. When X-Men became the "Kitty Pride Show," we never went back to that story. Ever!

Then you have Wolverine. Right after Dark Pheonix in UNCANNY X-MEN #, Wolverine had a fascinating moment, where he was given a fascinating conflict. Wolverine wondered if he was human or an animal, if he was too savage and wild and a killer to possibly interact with the human race, if perhaps he'd be better off running away and hiding in the wilderness away from everyone he loves.
See, isn't that interesting? That would potentially have been a story as memorable and on the level of the Vision/Scarlet Witch love story, where Wolverine grows and changes and his humanity is affirmed.

It wasn't all Kitty Pryde's fault for pushing Wolverine's story to the backburner, naturally. Wolverine's own popularity meant he was becoming a face on beach towels and action figures. But the fact there was so little room for the other characters to grow because Kitty Pryde had to be center stage certainly didn't help.

As a result of this, we get modern Wolverine: a cartoon character that, like Superman and Batman, won't ever meaningfully develop in any way.

It's also worth mentioning that Kitty Pryde had a negative influence on many other comics, so her evil influence seeped out from X-Men: Halo for instance, shows a definite Kitty Pryde influence as a kid incongruously and inappropriately present on a team of mature adults.

Finally, Kitty Pryde is not hot. Not. At. All. In fact, she pretty much put the ugh in ugly.

...well, that's about it. There are a lot more DC characters than Marvel and that can't be a coincidence. In the past, DC attracted weirdo perverts that slip boys in tights, and in the present day with asshole "ironic" hipsters that think they're funny.

Worthy of honorable mentions: any character written by Keith Giffen, and Gravity.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Holy Blood...Holy Crap!

One of my more embarassing habits is reading popular (and unpopular) books of pseudohistory "nonfiction," which usually involves theories of Atlantis or Ancient Astronauts. Not because I take any of it seriously...heck, I don't believe in Yoda either, and I enjoy Star Wars just fine. As a kid, I loved these books for the spookiness and mysticism, and also because in general I had a much weaker grasp of reality.

Nowadays, though, I get ironic amusement from the paranoid-schizophrenia-esque leaps in logic, the ranting crackpot prose style, the bitter denunciations of conspiratorial mainstream scientists "out to hide the truth," the desire to combine everything into one explanation a la Matt Groening's "The Nation That Controls Magnesium, Controls the Universe," and finally the author's own autistic belief in the literalism of every story.

To von Daniken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? every myth was a minature documentary, and we all just think it's fairytales because it was really helicopters and flying saucers and atomic weapons, instead of fairies and dragons stuff. The idea that the Ramayana or Gilgamesh may just be stories, without any literal truth never crosses his mind. Ditto for the Atlantis guys: it never once passes through their skulls that Atlantis may have been just a story or a metaphor. How is it so many people are born without a functional bullshit detector?

HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL avoids most of the pitfalls of pseudohistory: first, it's obvious these guys don't really believe it. They themselves call it "just a hypothesis." No all-caps angry ranting, no self-righteousness. For once, the obsession with secret truth hidden in art and folklore is actually relevant: if you're looking for signs of a conspiracy, it stands to reason there'd be secret symbolism in things.

Only once does HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL give in to a pratfall of historical pseudofiction, and that's in a truly excruciating blow-by-blow treatment of the Parzival story, where the highly symbolic story is treated with such literalism that it makes me wonder if the writer might suffer from autism.

I must confess, I learned a lot of real history from this book, and it was just lightly "sugared up" with obvious fantasy to make it so you don't think you're reading a textbook. Thanks to this book, I can now spot the Languedoc on a map of France, I know who Godfroi de Bullion was and what he did, and I know tons more about that fascinatingly dark and unknown period after the end of the Roman Empire, when the West was divided by tribal chieftains like the Merovingians and the Visigoths. The chapters on the Cathar heresy as well as the Merovingians are fascinating in particular, but the reason history doesn't pay any attention to the Merovingians is not because of a massive coverup, but because they just weren't that important.

The most sympathetic figure in all this, oddly enough, is Pierre Plantard, the con-artist that forged the Priory of Sion documents most of their entire theory is based on. Pierre thought it might be a way to make some quick cash if he forged a set of documents and let everybody think he was descended from Merovingian kings. When the HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL writers came to their outlandish and controversial conclusion, that the Merovingians were direct descendants of Christ, Plantard was horrified. He was a con-man, but he was a good Catholic. So, Plantard was trapped in the situation of trying to backpedal from the significance of the documents he himself forged, yet never truly able to admit his deceit.

The guys that wrote HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL also wrote my favorite Doctor Who episode, "The Sontaran Experiment." Seriously, chew on that for a second: the guy who wrote this book also wrote a TV episode about a future earth where a rubberfaced spaceman that lives in a soccer ball and his pet robot torture astronauts.

Julian Perez Goes to the Movies: Indiana Jones 4

Here it is, my long-overdue review of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.

In short, I had a great time. It's a worthy addition that maintains the quality of the previous films. My anxiety about the return to Indiana Jones after all this time is dispelled, and I remembered why I liked this stuff in the first place.

There's no talking about this movie without mentioning how well it updated the Cold War era. Indy goes to malt shops, is suspected of Un-American Activities, and most intriguingly of all, the Nazi obsession with the occult is replaced by the Russian obsession with the paranormal: UFOs, psychics, ancient astronauts. One of the characters, the suitably hammy dominatrix Cate Blanchette, was hinted at being a KGB "Remote Viewer," a real-life program of psychics that used clairvoyance for espionage.

The Crystal Skull, and its bizarre unearthly properties, has the same sense of fear and otherworldliness that the Ark of the Covenant had (and the Grail didn't have).

Harrison Ford has a fantastic charm. He's still got it: he makes a look or smiles at the right time to make a line a lot better than it ought to be. Roger Ebert said that Ford "doesn't get older, he just frowns more." After 20 years, the character is still recognizable: he's still got the hat and whip.

Indiana Jones reminds me of Doc Savage: a character that started in the 1930s, transitioned to the War Years and fought the Hun, and then finally battled the Communists in Cold War, paranoia-filled tales. Some of Doc Savage's last adventures remind me of CRYSTAL SKULL, with Doc fighting the age-specific bugaboos of the time. One in particular featured Doc discovering the secrets of "Foo Fighters" (the pre-1950s name for Flying Saucers).

In that respect, they picked the single most obvious Indiana Jones story to do, except maybe "Indy finds Atlantis." Who ever tried to read von Daniken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? and thought, "hey, Indy should do something with this?" As a UFO and Ancient Astronaut obsessed kid that read von Daniken and THE TWELFTH PLANET and watched IN SEARCH OF... regularly, I even urged my Dad during a family trip to see the actual Crystal Skull discovered in the 1930s: how it was made is one of the great brain teasers of archeology.

For what its worth, I think the transition was successful: the paranormal elements had the same sense of fear and atmosphere that the supernatural elements of the previous stories did. There was one sequence in particular that was absolutely brilliant: Indiana Jones, fleeing from the KGB, ran and hid in a makeshift town about to be used as an atomic bomb test site. What I thought was interesting about this was, in a flash we realized that the Indy that bested the Nazis was no match for the atomic age.

Shia LeBouf was a very worthy sidekick, a great Dick Grayson to Indy's Batman. He gave us some of the more humorous moments of the movie, which was packed with humorous moments. The KGB and Blanchette are about to gun him down. His last words? "I like Ike."

Spielberg is my favorite action director (with the possible exception of the CITY OF LOST CHILDREN guy). He is still every bit the auteur film school nerd in love with Igmar Bergman that he was back in the day. 30 years in Hollywood haven't stifled his ability to show us something totally different. Spielberg shoots action better than any director I know: by actually moving the camera. By using what the camera shows and doesn't show in interesting ways. At no point during the film did I say, "gee, I've seen this before in a billion other action pictures."

Of all the INDIANA JONES movies, this is the one that brings it all together, and so it leads me to believe this may be the last one. The Ark of the Covenant shows up (like Shaft, the Ark has theme music that follows it around everywhere), as does Marian Ravenwood and the Citizen Kane warehouse. Likewise, there are references to the YOUNG INDIANA JONES series: they mention the episode where Indy was captive of Pancho Villa. And it seems Indy is now living in his Father's house from LAST CRUSADE, where we learn the loveable old coot kicked the bucket.

The Indiana Jones novels aren't directly referenced, but a big part of the story was Indiana Jones's background in espionage...something that was a major feature of the novels, but never mentioned in the movies until now. Likewise, Indiana Jones functions in this story like Doc Savage, a chief to a team of sidekicks, which was how he worked in the novels but less so in the actual movies, or even the comics.

And Cate Blanchette has a fantastic menace. She gives one monologue that is downright chilling, about the future of mind wars. It's strange, I can't think of Irina Spalkov without thinking about my Mother. Maybe it's because Mom's name is also "Irina." My grandparents were Estonian, but like my Father's family, they were antifascist pro-Communist true believers, and big time Russophiles, big enough to give Mama a Russian name (though they came to regret it and become disillusioned).