Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I love you, Christina!

I always thought that crushes on pop stars and matinee idols were beneath me, but I have a real thing for Christina Aguilera.

It isn't just that she's gorgeous, of course. If that's all there was to her, she'd be just another model or something like that. No; that girl has real R&B pipes. She has an eight-octave range, greater than most any other performer today. You know that trick where someone can shatter wineglasses with their voice? Christina Aguilera can actually do that.

The first time I heard a song by her on the radio, I was amazed that, in today's excessively image conscious music industry, a huge black woman could make it and produce a single.

When I saw a photograph of her, I refused to accept it, and I naturally assumed two things were going on:

1) There was some kind of 'Milli Vanilli' thing, where she was the "face" of a middle-aged black performer;

2) She used evil sorcery to steal that voice from a soul singer.

As for the first possibility, if it is true, it probably would have come out by now. And as for the second, I have yet to see the seashell where she would keep that voice around her neck.

So I have to assume that she's basically a female version of Rick Astley, a Jimmy Olsen looking dope that has an R&B voice as big as the outdoors.

During the first wave of jailbait pop tarts in the early 2000s, I made a prediction: after all was said and done, Christina would be the only one still around with a career. I'm proud to say that I was pretty much right...at least in the sense that she's the only one still around and known primarily for making music as opposed to being primarily famous as freakshow tabloid fodder. I have zero idea who she's dating or ever dated, for instance. Christina avoided the trap that the other members of her generation fell into: being famous for being famous, as opposed to being famous for still working.

I was always a little offended that she was lumped into the same category as the rest of the early 2000s pop tarts, because she sounds absolutely nothing like the rest. Listen to her CDs: they're pretty much soul and R&B songs with a pop edge, instead of being pop with a hint of soul or R&B.

Tragically, she fell into the Madonna trap of courting controversy and seeking attention instead of just letting the music sell itself, a strategy that was totally unnecessary with her talent. It's a shame that Dirrty was viewed as more emblematic of who she was than something like her Spanish-language album, for instance: despite the fact that she's half-Cuban (like me - and Cameron Diaz too, incidentally), nobody ever thinks of her as a "Latin pop star."

What can make a person happy?

It's amazing what can make a person just absolutely overjoyed.

I always looked forward to getting my first textbooks for a new college semester, because I love the sound of breaking the spine on a new book, for instance.

And when I saw the Verizon ad that use the jingle from the Big Red commercials, I was absolutely overjoyed for the rest of the day.

I'll admit, I loved these ads. I loved them because of their wholesome all-Americanism, like a Saturday Evening Post cover. I loved them because they showed couples in love, doing couple things like ice skating or camping. These ads must be depressing as hell to people that have just suffered a major breakup.

I always loved the "funny" couple in them most of all: usually a nerdy kid in a marching band with his bobby-soxer girlfriend or a Shriner that needs to run to join his parade. (Yes, in the 1988 ad, that was in fact the kid from "A Christmas Story!")

The amazing thing about these ads is how actually not-dated they look. The only notable exception is this one from 1994. God, doesn't it look so very "90210?"

...and possibly this one. It looks like the commercial was filmed in Jessica Fletcher's town of Cabot Cove.

These ads have to be the absolute pinnacle of advertising. I'm dead serious and not being either hyperbolic or sarcastic. They created a whole other reality, an alternate America, to sell products. A better America.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The most inexplicable cover ever

Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was originally intended to be sung by a male performer. Having a woman perform it totally changed the entire meaning of the song, and was, all in all, a pretty smart move.

On the other hand, the Beach Boys covering the Phil Spector-written “I Can Hear Music” was a decision so mind-bogglingly incomprehensible and confusing that I still don’t understand it.

There’s a certain genre of songs that are common to fifties/sixties girl groups, the song about sex told from the female perspective. The most typical is “Will you still love me tomorrow?” which is a tinpan alley song about the fear of sex and abandonment. The female perspective on sex is a lot more anxious, since the female gender’s got a lot more to lose.

“I Can Hear Music” was a song written for Ronnie Spector in 1966 about a woman losing her virginity. The first line is “this is how I dreamed it would be.” The song makes zero sense when sung by a male vocalist. A woman sounds sweet and innocent, whereas a guy singing the same thing sounds, frankly, like a total dork, the kind that weeps after sex.

What’s more, there’s nobody with a voice like Ronnie Spector in pop music: her voice was distinctive and overpowered what was around it. She was the last of the generation of pop music singers where their voices were bigger. For instance, I couldn’t – even on a bet – recognize the difference between, say, Kylie Minogue and Madonna just by how they sound. Like a Frank Zappa song, even if you never heard it before, you can always tell if it’s Ronnie Spector.

So imagine hearing the same song emerging from the Prozac throat of a queefy, weedy white boy dweeb like Carl Wilson. The song was a girl-group pop song, and the Beach Boys covering it is like hearing Bobby Brown do the Rolling Stones. What's more...and this is something that definitely requires a lot of context...as surprising as it must be to the modern perspective, the Ronettes were the "tough girls" of rock, the Joan Jett of their time. Even in the sixties, the Beach Boys weren't exactly the Rolling Stones. They were something you could listen to with your grandmother.

Here’s what I find astonishing: I’ve seen people that only know the Beach Boys version! The most inexplicable cover ever is one that a great many people don’t even know it’s a cover.

Incidentally, I didn't really understand a lot of things about women and their behavior until I understood something: the fundamental anxiety about sex. There's an association in the minds of a lot of women between sex and fear. This is why women like predatory vampires, for instance: women are often sexually fascinated by things they're afraid of. This is also why many romance novels feature dark, sexually aggressive and untrustworthy giggolo type.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Now here's something that had potential...

There was one villain that had the potential to be one of the greatest Fantastic Four foes of all time...the Brute. Introduced in the last story arc of the Roy Thomas run on Fantastic Four, the Brute was an evil Reed Richards from the Counter-Earth of the High Evolutionary. Because he never gained superpowers and his Susan Storm was sent into a coma, he was always unbalanced and even more so when he discovered he could transform into the Brute - a primitive cavemanlike monster with the strength of the Thing, Reed's intellect, and troglodyte senses like Wolverine.

Unfortunately, the Brute never got a chance to really be a truly terrible villain because FF changed writers in the middle of his story. This was a shame because this story came hot on the heels of two really well plotted and outstanding stories, one of which was the Frightful Four threatening to execute the FF and having try-outs for villains, the first appearance of Captain Ultra, who like Flag-Smasher and the Alan Zelenetz Crusader, gained a new lease on life when he was one of the people inexplicably chosen to have a Marvel Universe Handbook entry. The previous one had the FF trying to save Counter-Earth by getting another world to become food for Galactus instead. It was the first time someone used Galactus in a new way: as a sign of the horrible moral choices involved when encountering a being like him.

Roy Thomas had been on FF for a couple years by the time he got to introducing the Brute, and the amazing part was, the Roy Thomas run was mostly just okay for the majority of the time, but by the end it made a really spectacular increase in quality and hit its stride. The George Perez art didn't exactly kill interest, either: though it's amazing to see him at an early stage and see that he drew exactly like John Buscema.

The trouble with FF is that sometimes it gets repetitive, reusing the same supporting cast over and over: the Black Panther, the Inhumans, etc. Roy Thomas at least, made an effort to give the FF a new, alternate supporting cast: the Impossible Man, Thundra, Frankie Raye, and Tigra. The Impossible Man was actually surprisingly entertaining. TV-addicted, everything was a game to him. It seems like he got the best lines of dialogue. He was a mischief-prone tourist on earth that thought differently from any human being and for that reason was often extremely dangerous. Roy Thomas made me believe the character had potential, and I have a well-documented allergy to magical midgets.

Roy Thomas's run ended just when he was juggling a half-dozen subplots, and the succeeding writers had to work to tie them up. If Roy Thomas was allowed to finish his FF run is one of the great What-Ifs of comics. These stories included: Reed, powerless, trapped in the Negative Zone while the Brute replaced him outside; a burgeoning love square between Thundra, Tigra, Alicia Masters and the Thing; Frankie Raye, who was terrified of the Human Torch and his fire powers; the Impossible Man lost on earth as a mischief-prone tourist; the kidnapping of Franklin Richards and Agatha Harkness. Unfortunately, not a single one of these stories were finished off neatly, with the possible exception of Frankie Raye, a character that later on, John Byrne really liked and used in a very big way.

Heresy Time! One thing I've always disagreed with is the idea that FF's core roster is fundamentally unchangeable. One of the problems with FF is, as the roster never really changes, the characters get locked into roles and never grow beyond them. Ben and Johnny will always be the brawling kids as long as Reed and Sue are there to play Mommy and Daddy. And I think this is a shame because FF has a real great supporting cast that could become major players for a while.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"That's no moon...that's a space station."

One of the great parts about Amazing Stories are the seldom-reprinted back covers, which regularly had some artist's conception of a future bit of technology. Since it's Amazing Stories under Palmer's editorship, they were wrong about nearly everything, of course...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Your Next Door Neighbor is a Dragon!

Zack Parsons’ “Your Next Door Neighbor is a Dragon!” is a book about a topic that I find interesting, weird internet subcultures, and it deals with a theme that I have always responded towards: sympathy and humanity for weird outsiders. It’s a comedy book about the weird and at times dysfunctional lives of outsiders, but never deals with stereotypes and with one exception, it’s obvious that Zack Parsons really likes everyone he writes about.

The moment I realized what this book would be about, what the tone this book would take, is when Zack Parsons, when doing research on people that use the internet to fuel their hypochondria, met up with a couple of women that run a website for people that are suspicious of the artificial sweetener aspartame. Both of them brought their own water to the diner where they met.

After a conversation where they went on about how Donald Rumsfeld was connected to the sweetener lobby, Parsons was met by one of the women, who frantically begged and implored him to tell other people in his book that artificial sweeteners are deadly.

Instead of laughter the moment provokes profound pity, because the woman here is absolutely and totally sincere.

That’s the amazing thing about the people that the writer speaks to: all of them are totally sincere. In a world where everyone is saying something to get something, the one uniting thing about everybody in the book is the way they totally believe their own bullshit and get absolutely nothing out of it.

The basic thesis statement of the entire book is that as a result of the internet, it’s easier to get support for believing weird things than at any other point in history. If you thought you were really a dragon back in, say, 1940, you’d keep it to yourself until you grow tired of people laughing at you, or receive time in a funny farm. If you believe you’re a dragon in the internet generation, you can find an FAQ and a message board where other people write about their experiences. You’re assured that you’re not alone and instead of trying to “cure” yourself and become a functional person again.

In fact, this reminds me about all my readings about cults. The difference between cults and regular religions is that “regular” religions teach people to improve their lives and deal with problems like (for example) grief, whereas cults make people dysfunctionally unable to interact with the real world, because they internalize a whole new language that is totally incompatible with dealing with the world. That’s why people become dependent on cults…because cults make sure the people in them only “speak the language” of the cult.

One characteristic of cults is that their responses to being criticized just don’t make any sense to anybody outside the cult.

For instance, when Ron Paul was criticized for having his newsletter contain obviously racist content, his response was “;libertarians are incapable of being racist because racism is a collectivist idea.” To quote Parsons: “Nobody knew what the fuck Ron Paul was talking about here except libertarians, who already loved him, so it was a pretty terrible defense.”

Don’t get the wrong idea from all of this. The book is a journalistic travelogue of admittedly interesting people, and is not about understanding why people do or believe weird things, the way Michael Shermer’s books are. This is a shame, because some of the most interesting insights come with the bizarre internet cult following around Ron Paul. It sounds strange that something like a political movement would be in this book, but most political movements don’t have their high point be the creation a blimp, either.

The high points included a disarmingly warm, honest 19-year old heavyset girl from a North Texas ranch that just happened to be into vore (the sexual fascination with getting eaten and digested), a guy in a trailer park who lived with his toothless redneck Mom, who not only believed he was really an Elf, but who also spent the majority of his time doing tricks; and a guy running a racist White Power website who was confined to a wheelchair and had extremely pleasant, polite interactions with his black neighbor. One of the moments where I just bust a gut laughing was when he met with an erotic slash fanfiction writer, and wrote their interaction entirely as the fanfic writer’s perfectly duplicated, amateurish writing style.

My favorite moment was when he meets a heavyset woman with a glandular disorder that gave her morbid obesity to the point she was nearly bedridden. She also happens to write homosexual slash involving He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. She shows up only for a little bit, but she has such a self-depricating sense of humor and was so obviously limited in life and disabled that she aroused sympathy and pity instead of disgust. This book doesn’t go for the easy “let’s laugh at the freak” stuff. The book is funny because it’s about funny people, not maliciously so.

My all time favorite interaction was this one, where the narrator meets a guy with self-diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, which was too good to not have in its entirety:

In the meantime, Andy was inspired by the news of my book and had started his own Great American Epic.

“It’s based on GoldenEye.” Andy said.

“The movie?” I asked.

“No, it’s based on the Nintendo 64 game.” Andy said. “The plot is what if 006 had the Moonraker laser from multiplayer mode and instead of faking his death at the chemical facility he kills James Bond and then escapes. But James Bond is really alive only he is burned by the laser and James Bond works with the Russians to get revenge on 006 who has been promoted to 007 – “

“I don’t think that’s how it works.” I interjected.

“Whatever.” Andy said, with irritation. “He could still be 006. The point is it’s like GoldenEye from the Nintendo 64, but played through in reverse by 006 with James Bond as the bad guy. And you know what the coolest part is?”

“That isn’t the coolest part?” I laughed.

“No, no.” He said. “Check this out. The James Bond dude that wrote the books never even wrote a GoldenEye book. They just made it up for the movie! So now I can be the guy who wrote GoldenEye!”

“That’s borderline retarded, Andy.” I said.

The great downside to this book is that it has a frame story that is painfully unfunny and uninteresting, that makes you wish he’d just let these interviews speak for themselves. Let me give you a preview: it involves quotes from the Super Bible and belief in Super God. In fact, it’s best to skip the first chapter and the last two chapters entirely. I guess what Parsons wanted to do was tell a story like the Vietnam war memoir “The Things They Carried” which had obviously untrue things (like a girl that came to visit her boyfriend in Vietnam and so fell in love with the madness and pointless carnage that she went wild and wore a necklace of human ears) so that the person can feel the intensity of the experience. But it’s just obvious and telegraphed comedy totally out of sync with the rest of the book. It makes you wish he just tried to focus on what the books is really about, instead of him hot-dogging as Hunter S. Thompson.

Monday, March 1, 2010

No wonder nobody Challenges the Unknown much: it's the same crap over and over

Challengers of the Unknown is a comic about a series of four interchangeable men, all armed with their own separate hair color, who all come together to take risks because they survived a plane crash and came to believe they're all living on borrowed time. This leads to the most interesting and distinctive element of the series, that frankly makes it impossible to dislike: they have such an entertainingly matter-of-fact attitude to their own deaths, and a fate-tempting recklessness, that they come off as a little insane. The Challengers are adrenaline junkies that specialize in suicide missions, gleefully playing Russian Roulette with God.

Unlike other comics, this one has an anxious edge that borders on horror. Anyone with superpowers is a villain, and they use their powers in frightening ways. The stories have a background of subtle dread that really speaks my language.

The comic's first two issues are among the best comics I've read from that period - head and shoulders above most of the comics of the time. But by the third issue, you can pick out a formula that starts to emerge. The Challengers basically experience the same story over and over: like Scooby-Doo they split up, they find some weird unexplained phenomenon, usually a monster of some kind, and then, while being blackmailed into doing the bidding of a villain who wants an object that will give him superpowers, they experience four different stories where they experience four different monsters or locales. At the end, the villain acquires powers, and the Challengers trick him in some way where he loses those abilities. In the archetypal Challs story, there are usually "four magic jars" (or something to that effect) that we're left wondering what's in them. (SPOILER: Usually a monster, or maybe an evil mirror.)

This is a very basic example of how to tell a story. "Hey, it's a box. What's inside?"

As soon as the formula clicks in, Challengers becomes unreadable, because there's never a new kind of story, only plugging different numbers into the formula above. The scripter/plotter job on Challengers has to be the easiest gig in the entire world: it's less an act of creation and more like filling out a big Mad Lib. I guess that's the real reason that few people "challenge the unknown" much. Because it's the same thing over and over.

Worse, none of the four characters really have personalities of their own. They are absolutely and totally interchangeable. At least with Doc Savage's aides they had separate skills: Monk was a chemist, Ham was a lawyer, etc. But even that bare bones, primitive level of one-dimensional characterization is absent: the only place one knows that Red Ryan was a circus daredevil was the title page. He never showed any acrobatic ability. When did Rocky, "champion wrestler," ever wrestle anything? You'd think Professor Haley would have scientific skills that he uses, but he's generally no smarter than any of the others.

This is why I find it hard to believe that Challengers is in any way an antecedent to Fantastic Four. Anyone that says that doesn't understand what actually makes FF great: how interesting and distinctive the four lead characters were.

After the descent into a repetitive formula, Challengers isn't readable. I've often been told by people that like traditional Westerns that I "need to acquire an appreciation for formula." Personally, I think the sole function of formula is to prepare you to accept more formula, the same way that the only function of bad movies or books is to prepare you to accept more bad movies or books.

That said, Challengers starts off really, really strong, with two great stories - the second of which, the Ultivac story, has in my opinion, the best art of Jack Kirby's career. Ultivac is a giant robot capable of reading minds. But in a twist, he's actually a sympathetic creature that is trying to protect his own existence. The real enemy is revealed to be the greed of people that want to exploit a human robot for their own purposes.

To quote the Garbage Pail Kids movie: "Ugliness? Meanness of spirit and greed, these are real ugliness. To be blessed with...unusual features...is an adventure."

It's actually pretty shocking, because for the most part, traditional adventure comics of the 1950s are suspicious and distrustful of outsiders of any kind, who are usually malevolent instead of sympathetic. Take for instance the LSH hero Lightning Lord: the only singleton on a planet of twins, if he was in an Andre Norton sf novel (which always feature disabled outsiders as the main characters), or in the outsider-sympathetic Marvel comics, he would be a hero and protagonist instead of a villain. Being an outsider and standing out made him, in the 1950s, twisted instead of likeable.

One of the great additions the Ultivac story was that of June Robbins. Here's an interesting historical footnote about the story: computer operation and programming in the beginning decades was a mostly female, "pink collar" profession, like secretary work. In fact, I like to tell people as a joke that my Grandmother was a computer - and by computer I mean the original definition, a woman with good math skills that double-checks the calculations of engineers. Many of the major figures in the early days of Computer Science are female, like Grace Hopper. It's often hard to believe today, where Computer Science majors are 90% male (I am not making this statistic up, by the way, though this should be obvious to anyone that has ever been around a computer science or IT department - maybe they should stick Twilight posters on the walls of the classes or something).

In fact, I'm getting my masters in Information Science, which includes the technical aspects of information organization work...metadata, electronic database management, etc. I've often heard an extremely sexist (but funny) comment that this line of work is just library science for men. I've also heard of Masters IS students referred to as "guybrarians."

The first Challenger story was likewise really strong, and it forms the Challenger formula: they find a magical box, which they open each section, each of which contains some bizarre creature from the elder world. One really effective scene has them draw straws - and the winners are thrilled when it's their turn. And Kirby deserves credit for creating monsters and menaces that are really fearsome. The strength of the first Challenger story is based on individual images: things like a giant hand that emerges from the sea and crushes a ship underneath.

Like Roger Zelazny, who only wrote two books that I really like yet I count myself a fan of his because of how great those two are (Lord of Light and Amber), I can consider myself a Challengers fan despite the fact that they have an astonishing ratio of bad stories to good ones.

Here's my advice if you find Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase form: check it out from the library, read the first four stories, and give the book back the next day.

You have to respect a villain

A friend of mine and I were having a conversation about villains in fiction, and I said that one thing that is required is to have an effective villain is someone that at some level you respect.

This is because while heroes can be scrappy underdogs, villains must create fear and be powerful and threatening and competent. Has earth ever been attacked by a technologically inferior race, after all?

For instance, why aren't Islamic terrorists used as often as Nazis are in movies? I can't recommend Inglorious Basterds enough, by the way: it takes a movie like this to remind us what scary werewolves the Nazis were.

A lot of the press spends time wondering why suicide bombing takes place, calling it "senseless" and "insane." I just don't get this, since the phenomenon is perfectly comprehensible: the overwhelming majority of people between age 15-30 have a deathwish, even in the United States! And if you can go and take people with you, especially hated enemies, so much the better! The majority of people in the world, even in the Industrialized West, are savage, killer chimps that lust for violence and the murder of their tribal foes. This is normal, and being any other way is extraordinary. This is why the press makes such a big deal about being mystified about the motives of suicide bombers: it's nothing but sheer denial of something they know damn well.

Think about all the people in your High Schools - the morons, the Beavis and Butthead types (the majority of boys, basically). How much convincing would it take them to go down in flames and take tons of people they don't like with them?

This is why suicide bombers aren't featured as enemies. Not because their mentality is totally incomprehensible, but because it is totally understandable, and it's a little juvenile.

One person that has almost never been featured as a villain in fiction is George W. Bush, despite his astronomical unpopularity and history of clear villainy. Why is that? The reason is that, even if you are one of the people that used to like the guy, you have to admit he is a frequently tongue-tied, inarticulate man that is a poor planner and intellectually non-formidable (and only in the United States and perhaps Australia, can that obvious liability possibly be seen as a strength). He stumbled into the presidency by an accident of history. He doesn't arouse fear and is impossible to take seriously.

Someone like Bob Roberts, the villain of the movie of the same name (and the Simpsons parody, "Sideshow Bob Roberts," featuring Sideshow Bob running for mayor, arguably the greatest Simpsons episode ever made) is charming, funny, articulate, and unlike George W. Bush, his business ventures are actually successful. He masterminds a conspiracy and is in bed with corporate interests. And he's actually not a bad singer and guitar player either. In other words, he was a great foe because he was everything that Dubya wasn't: smart and scary.

Now take the Chinese, for instance. They're natural villains. One good question that fans of pulp ask themselves is, why haven't we seen Fu Manchu in a while? The answer is that Fu Manchu won. China is a respected power again and the British Empire that he hated so much no longer exists.

Remember that giant screen at the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics? That was a technical wonder. If the Olympics were ever hosted in the city of Doomstadt, Latveria, that's the sort of thing that Dr. Doom would create just to show off. These are bad guys you can take seriously.