Thursday, September 28, 2006

Not Quite an Exclusive on Iron Man the Movie

In the upcoming Iron Man film Tony Stark will be played by Robert Downey Jr. This broke on Ain't It Cool News moments ago; as of this moment, Newsarama does not have this up. I beat Newsarama to a story. The substance abuse thing is now inherent in the casting; smart stuff, and fun. You heard it here second.

Thomas Pynchon and Porn

Since Blogger is being wonkey this week, I thought I would just post a single fun fact I discovered today (in a free copy of the New York Post), a connection between two writers I read on a regular basis. Thomas Pynchon -- author of Gravity's Rainbow (my favorite novel), V, Mason and Dixon, and The Crying of Lot 49 (the last two quoted in my upcoming book) -- has a niece: porn star, porn director and sex columnist for the Village Voice Tristan Taormino. Taormino, for the record, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wesleyan University and has written and edited several books herself. You can visit her website here. Pynchon is her mother's brother.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Comics Out 27 September 2006

Four books grabbed me this week:

The penultimate Ultimates. Good but seemed a bit, I don't know, rushed? That's ironic considering the schedule. I love the book, but I only remember that it exists the week it comes out. Pop fun.

JLA 2. Brad Metzler is not the greatest writer in the world, but he has a unique dexterity at handling a large cast; that quality alone will have me on board for his whole run, I think. Not hating the art either; the layouts in particular are quite nice. Architechtonic, like the writing.

Batman. Superstar Grant Morrison continues to dabble -- just in this one book -- with total mediocrity. All Star Superman? Possibly the best book in a career of staggering genius. Batman? Clearly his worst, at least so far. If there was not a name on it I would have guessed Chuck Dixon. And did I mention the book will have a fill in writer and artist for, I think, two months? It's on Newsarama this week. Does anyone else remember when Alan Moore wrote a four issue Spawn-WildC.A.Ts crossover, and a three issue mini-series about Spawns's costume? Alan Moore returned to glory in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea (and LOST GIRLS, which I have in my house and will be blogging about soon); Grant Morrison isn't anywhere near as far gone as Moore was. I will cut him lots of slack. He has earned it. Batman, which I will continue to get, will not count against him in my mind.

Stan Lee Meets the Amazing Spider Man. A tribute to Stan Lee's 65 years at Marvel. It has a very nice ten page Joss Whedon story in it, but I would not say that the story alone, or the book as a whole, is worth the cover charge of four bucks. Only for Whedon completists.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

From Gershom Scholem's Kabbalah (Commonplace Book)

The most radical form that this view took was associated with the talmudic aggadah according to which prior to the creation of the world the whole of the Torah was written in black fire on white fire. As early as the beginning of the 13th century the daring notion was expressed that in reality the white fire composed the true text of the Torah, whereas the text that appeared in black fire was merely the mystical Oral Law. Hence it follows that the true Written Law has become entirely invisible to human perception and is presently concealed in the white parchment of the Torah scroll, the black letters of which are nothing more than a commentary on this vanished text. In the time of the Messiah the letters of this "white Torah" will be revealed.

Monday, September 25, 2006


Heroes is an atrocious thing pretty much from beginning to end (the only exceptions being a guy from Japan -- the only guy having fun and the only one who has read a comic book or seen a movie, apparently). Among the offences of Heroes: a text opening telling me nothing I have not seen before, a very boring "leap of faith" off the roof unresolved (typical) until the end of the show (also the obvious "dream" transition), a reference to the untrue cliche about only using ten percent of our brains as a suggestion about where superpowers come from, a crappy "hip" font for captions (like high school girls going though the computer font list for a fun way to make a school paper stand out), hitting me over the head with a big exposition stick (my father was like this let me tell you all about it; that's why we are brothers; let me list off all the things I have tried to do to kill myself recently even though you know about all of them already; my father left me his fortune), a bad emphasis on the word "hero" in the phrase "hero worship", a plot where a hooker with a heart of gold takes money from the mob to put her genius interracial child in a private school and they come after her, the cliche of the mad "artist" (only on TV and in high school do artists act like this); the psychic power not to paint the future but to paint news coverage of the future (the newspaper photo, the TV footage), the cliche of the kid who tells an amazing truth and the authority figure who understands it metaphorically (who ever did that?) and Asians who are conformists because, you know, they are Asians. TV is crap.

And then Studio 60 came on only seconds later, and I remembered that Aaron Sorkin is God, and that everything is alright.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die

The message “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” is a cliché, and as such it has lost all of its imaginative persuasive force. We hear it, and write it off instantly because it is stale. In order to take it seriously, we need to hear it restated. It originally comes from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 8: 15: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun,” and has often be restated since. I wanted to collect a few versions of Ecclesiastes that I think are really powerful.

In Works and Days Ralph Waldo Emerson writes “Just to fill the hour – that is happiness. Fill my hour, ye gods, so that I shall not say whilst I have done this ‘behold an hour of my life is gone,’ but rather ‘I have lived one hour.’”

Walter Pater’s conclusion to the Renaissance is not to be missed; Pater’s five paragraphs will change your life. For Pater there are moments of exquisite pleasure, secular epiphanies: not to be alive to these moments “is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. … We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.” He advises us to devote our lives to art: “for art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” John Ashbery rephrases Pater directly in his major poem A Wave, in which he writes
We all have to walk back this way
A second time, and not to know it then, not
To number each straggling piece of sagebrush
Is to sleep before evening, and well into the night
That always coaxes us out, smoothes out our troubles and puts us back to bed again.
Italo Calvino, at the end of Invisible Cities, writes
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
My favourite, however, is from the title track of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album is a weirdly, endlessly stunning, absurdly accomplished tribute to Anne Frank; the song begins
What a beautiful face I have found in this place that is circling all round the sun. What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in the blink of an eye and be gone from me. Soft and sweet let me hold it close and keep it here with me. And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea. But for now we are young let us play in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.
The archaic three syllable “aeroplane” is matched by the way singer Jeff Magnum gives us a three syllable “every”: just as we are to count every thing, we get an extended word “every,” allowing us to count it as three things, to be alive to every detail.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Comics Out 20 September 2006

Grant Morrison and Jim Lee's Wildcats has been pushed back to October 4th, which is quite disappointing. On the plus side Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men is out today -- a book that has seen big improvements in recent issues. Overall the book is too conservative -- this makes sense because Whedon was brought on to "fix" Morrison's audacious but ultimately failed run. I remember when it was announced that Whedon and Cassaday's run would only be 12 issues. When they went for 24, I think some of the story got thrown together quickly -- much of the Danger Room plot was below par for Whedon. This is not a guy who lifts weak ideas from Terminator 3 (killer lady robot with a shape shifting hand) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (the holodeck goes crazy) on a regular basis; and we already had a much better done "darker"' Xavier in Millar's Ultimate X-Men. Not that those issues didn't have their moments, but, as I said, under par for Whedon. With this Hellfire club stuff he seems to be firing on all cylinders again, and John Cassaday -- thank god -- has returned to drawing backgrounds as well, which is nice to see.

Testament is also out today, and Marvel and DC's December solicits are up at Newsarama. Review. Recommend. Discuss.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

From Friederich Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols (Commonplace Book)

Emerson has that gracious and clever cheerfulness which discourages all seriousness; he simply does not know how old he is already and how young he is going to be; he could say of himself, quoting Lope de Vega: "I am my own heir." His spirit always finds reasons for being satisfied and even grateful; and at times he touches on the cheerful transcendence of the worthy gentleman who returned from the amorous rendezvous, "as if he had accomplished his mission." "Though the power is lacking," he said gratefully, "the lust nevertheless is praiseworthy."

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Mountain Goats' Fault Lines 3 (of 3)

Fault Lines also has a good example of Darnielle’s technique of a specific detail (often from the landscape) placed parallel to some romantic cliché: “Down here where the watermelon grows so sweet,” is also “where I worship the ground underneath of your feet.” P.T. Anderson uses a similar device in Punch Drunk Love: the film so powerfully subverts the rules of the romantic comedy genre that it manages (shocking, because so rare) to earn a hackneyed line like “I have a love in my life and that makes me stronger than you can possibly imagine.” Darnielle similarly works to earn the right to cliches.

Many of Darnielle’s songs are effective because some simple worn notion – such as the fact that possessions “don’t make us feel better about who we are” – is surrounded by a population of specific and intriguing details – Vegas, Russia, Belgium, England, vodka, chocolate, strawberries, watermelon, pudding, a cracked engine block, termites, jewels, an Italian race car. And as this list shows the details have subterranean links: we don’t immediately associate the watermelon that grows on the ground with the foods from the other countries, but the fact that we are prepared for it by the other foods mentioned is precisely what makes its position in the song effective; to compare a backbone to pudding would hardly be notable were it not for the fact that it culminates a series of food references that go from references to far away, to local produce, to internal organs.

This is not to suggest that the song is without powerful formulations of its own: “experts in the art of frivolous spending” is acute and forceful, as is the notion of a love that is neither merely an abstract concept, nor merely sexual, but something fragile that is kept safe by sex: the love “we swore to protect with our bodies.” But the real strong point of the song is the transition of this fragile love’s transformation into something “deathless” (a perversion of “eternal love” into something monstrous), a deathless creature, “stumbling” across a landscape (a West Texas landscape perhaps) so empty it is abstract – the hell-bound, deathless love is stumbling across a place that is merely “its beak ending,” a phrase that exists in exactly the place we would expect a specific place detail (especially from Darnielle, who is mad about places). The characterization of West Texas as a “bleak ending” is the song’s central contribution to the album’s ostensible subject: West Texas is a place where love goes to die; Darnielle's hateful stumbling love (going almost literally nowhere), unlike Yeats’ beast slouching toward Bethlehem, will not be reborn.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Veronica Mars essay update; other updates

Weeks ago I mentioned that I was invited to write an essay on the show Veronica Mars for an essay collection from BenBella Books. My contribution is about story structure and the season one finale. Now it turns out that the show's creator Rob Thomas is going to be the guest editor of the volume, writing an introduction to the book, and introductory paragraphs to each essay. Very exciting for everyone involved. The stamp of approval from the man himself.

Also a few more updates: Ping33 has his own blog (link on the right) on comics which is quite fun, Sara Reiss is doing great work talking about design and fantastically designed objects on her blog (just go to her website, link on the right, and hit the button for blog in the lower right hand corner), and has asked me to write a review of Casanova for their site in the next few weeks (when I do I will link to it as my blog for the week). Go check all these pages out; they are all quite good.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Mountain Goats' Fault Lines 2 (of 3)

There are four matching refrains in The Mountain Goats' Fault Lines in which he describes first himself, then his lover. In the first and the third of these each is compared to a damaged car. In the second, each is a damaged house. In the fourth, each has no spine. The damage in the relationship, their isolation from each other, is well communicated by locating the problem in each of them, separately.

There are two sentences in which prolonged length reflects subject matter. “Down here where the heat’s so fine, I’ll drink to your health and you drink to mine,” could be a complete sentence, a toast (this kind of thing is presumably why they are “drunk all the time”); Darnielle’s voice extends the line with four additions separated by pauses: “as we try,” “to make the money,” “we scored out in Vegas,” “hold out for a while.” These pauses and the multiple phrases, as well as the repetition of the same note on so many of the words in the sentence, emphasize the fact that he is trying to make the line, like the money, “hold out for a while.” Until this final phrase, each fragment fails to complete the “as” clause, and begs more information: “as we try” (as you try to do what?) “to make the money” (slight pause; what money? as you try to earn money?) “we scored out in Vegas” (where is the verb?) “hold out for a while.”

The second long sentence follows this same pattern: “It’s gone on like this for three years I guess,” which could be a complete sentence, is followed by “and we’re drunk all the time" -- the sentence could also end here -- "and our lives are a mess,” giving us a conjunction, and a longer complete sentence. This, however, is a song that is about a love that should die but will not; like the love, the sentence will continue long after it should have ended, as that initial conjunction is followed by two more to form a run-on sentence twice over: “and the deathless love we swore to protect with our bodies is stumbling across its bleak ending,” is certainly long enough on its own, lengthened in the same style as the earlier long sentence. Rather than stopping there, however, it is followed, without a pause, by “but none of the rage in our eyes seems to finish it off where it lies.” Like the money, like the relationship, these sentences are designed to “hold out for a while.”

The references to Vegas, Russia, Belgium, and England -- even the “Italian race car” -- are a Mountain Goats' trademark, examples of Darnielle’s peculiar fascination with far away places, exotic but abstract locations that are anywhere but here. He has a whole series of songs, a few on every album, whose titles begin “Going to...”: Going to Bangor, Bogota, Bolivia, Bristol, Cleveland, Georgia (his most famous song), Hungary, Jamaica, Kansas, Kirby Sigston, Lebanon, Maine, Malibu, Maryland, Monaco, Port Washington, Queens, Reykjavik, Santiago, Scotland, Tennessee, Utrecht. Wallace Stevens writes "The motive for metaphor shrinking from / The weight of primary noon ... // The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X." Darnielle's motive for metaphor, for songwriting, is to be elsewhere, away from the fatal, dominant X of wherever he is -- the Texas of All Hail West Texas, or the Tallahassee of Tallahassee (like All Hail West Texas, one of his best).

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Comics Out 13 September 2006

CASANOVA 4 is out today. If you don't have one, two, and three just dive in. This is my new favorite book. In the news ( Frank Miller was on NPR talking about the American flag, and Joss Whedon is taking over the much talked about Runaways (the collections of which I will be tracking down today, if I can). Review. Comment. Discuss.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Emerson on Curse Words (Commonplace Book)

My mother can never understand why her Oxford educated son talks like a truck driver. But I have Emerson on my side:
What a pity we cannot curse and swear in good society! Cannot the stinging dialect of the sailors be domesticated? It is the best rhetoric, and for a hundred occasions those forbidden words are the only good ones. My page about 'Consistency' would better be written thus: Damn Consistency!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Mountain Goats' Fault Lines 1 (of 3)

What Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is to the Western, what Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is to Batman comics, what The Sopranos is to the mob story, what Seinfeld is to the sitcom, what Punch Drunk Love is to the Romantic comedy, The Mountain Goats' All Hail West Texas is to the unrecognized genre of guy-in-front-of-the-college-dormitory-with-a-guitar songs.

The song I want to talk about over the next three posts is called Fault Lines, from All Hail West Texas. You can listen to half of the song on this Amazon page; just click on the "listen" link next to the song name. (Hearing half the song and reading all the lyrics, below, it will be easy enough to imagine the whole song). In the context of songs about West Texas the title turns on the word “fault” which associates a mistake with a landscape. The lyrics are as follows:
Down here where the heat’s so fine, I’ll drink to your health and you drink to mine, as we try to make the money we scored out in Vegas hold out for a while. We drink vodka from Russia, get our chocolate from Belgium. We have our strawberries flown in from England. But none of the money we spend seems to do us much good in the end. I’ve got a cracked engine block; both of us do. Yeah the house, the jewels, the Italian race car: They don’t make us feel better about who we are. I’ve got termites in the framework; so do you. Down here where the watermelon grows so sweet, where I worship the ground underneath of your feet, we are experts in the art of frivolous spending. It’s gone on like this for three years I guess, and we’re drunk all the time and our lives are a mess, and the deathless love we swore to protect with our bodies is stumbling across its bleak ending, but none of the rage in our eyes seems to finish it off where it lies. I’ve got sugar in the fuel lines both of us do. Yeah the fights and the lies that we both love to tell fail to send our love to its reward down in hell. I got pudding for a backbone but so do you.
The subject of the song is prosaic enough: a couple is frivolously spending the money they won in Vegas, but it cannot fix something that is fundamentally wrong with each of them; their love is dying, but still lingers, and neither has the strength to end it. But it has much to notice, as I will discuss next time.

For now The Mountain Goats have a new album out, Get Lonely, and will be playing at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on 30 September and 1 October; if you are there on 1 October you will see me in person.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Comics Out 7 September 2006

Grant Morrison and Jim Lee's Wildcats has been pushed back to 20 September, and that was the only thing I was getting this week (and I was very excited about it: Morrison said of it "I want to see beautiful people doing amazing things," and I thought, me too). Let me know if there is something I am missing.

On the comics news front Mitch, a frequent commenter here, has published his article "'Boston Legal' v. 'She Hulk': Heritage and Metafiction on Trial" at Silver Bullet Comics, where he is now a feature writer and reviewer.

And I wanted to say three things about last week's All Star Superman. First, I was stunned at how Morrison wrote a twenty-two page comic book that is essentially a rant by one character, but Morrison and Quitely worked in enough side-line craziness that you feel like it is an action book.

Second, I thought the subtle eyebrow thing was inspired: early on Lex says that people have been unconsciously trimming their eyebrows to achieve the "Superman Swoosh"; then, battling the Parasite Lex wipes his head, wiping of his left eyebrow in the process, which was apparently painted on; though it is concealed in several panels it is clear that over the next few pages he has no left eyebrow; then at the end his assistant lets him know and he draws it in again with a pencil -- but he draws it with a huge arch, so he is extra dramatic for his final evil speech. I think we are supposed to realize that he unconsciously shaved his eyebrow into the "Superman Swoosh" (he says other people have been doing it to justify the fact that he himself did it), and then shaved it off in a fit of rage. An amazing detail that runs through the whole book.

Third, I have heard people complain about Luthor appearing as a bit of a buffoon, not realizing how many times Clark is saving his life in the issue. I see the point but I think Morrison and Quitely are more interested in showing how Superman alters simple things like his posture to become Clark Kent (even though Kent towers over Luthor in this issue, for instance); the important thing is how Morrison and Quitely demonstrate how that could fool Luthor, which is quite an accomplishment. The "people don't realize Clark is Superman" thing is something in the past we just had to accept; now I believe it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

From Strunk and White's Elements of Style (Commonplace Book)

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning "combustible" is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means "not combustible." For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Hopefully. This once-useful adverb meaning "with hope" has been distorted and is now widely used to mean "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say "Hopefully I'll leave on the noon plane" is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you'll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you'll leave on the noon plane? Whichever you mean, you haven't said it clearly. Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon 4 (of 4)

The lone poet in nature is traditional and Harold’s isolation does not feel unnatural until, searching for his bedroom window, he draws a city full of windows. Harold, concerned twice about getting lost (its why he drew the path he strayed from, and why his forest had a single tree), cannot find his way home. The city is the only thing in the book that overwhelms the frame of the page, and a city without people cannot help but recall, at least for older readers, a post-apocalyptic landscape. The dragon was unnatural and fantastic (and its seamless incorporation further emphasizes that in the mind there is no distinction between the internalization of reality and the imagination); the moose and porcupine were at most somewhat peculiar but cute animals made by a child’s scrawl. Harold’s policeman, however, is disturbing (something I have felt since I was a child), partly because it is the figure Harold is most unable to render even in a cute cartoon form: he is a mockery of a human form, a scarecrow with spikes for fingers. The disturbing aspect of the policeman is emphasized because while we may have assumed that Harold’s animals moved to eat the picnic leftovers (though the moose has not moved from Harold’s initial lines on the earlier page, the still image keeps this ambiguous) – though we may have assumed that were this a cartoon we would see Harold’s figures come to life – it is sadly clear that his policeman is completely stationary and dumb: he is the only of Harold’s “creatures” we see fully drawn on more than one page, identical with his arm pointing on both. Harold’s journey – which has taken him from his thought and the blank page, to field, forest, ocean, beach, and mountain has led us past an empty house to an empty city and the mute and paralyzed figure of the Law that would impress any psychoanalyst. This moment is very much the culmination of the journey, though not of the book, as the bleak moment causes Harold to wish more firmly for home, and to remember the way there.

The final pages give us a triumph of solipsism (though the silence of the Law is already pretty good): Harold remembers his window is the one that frames the moon, draws it and the room around it, and goes to sleep. He anchors his room around a completely arbitrary point, one he established on the second page and which has been on every page since. His mental anchor is the changing, shifting source of reflected secondary light – the moon of the generous night of Whitman, Stevens and Ashbery. And it is also, at the end of an extremely internal story, that we find an additional level of internalization as for the first time Harold draws himself inside an enclosure: his discovery -- his creation -- of the right window is not simply finding the one with the moon in it, but finding himself of the other side of that window (the city landscape was especially imposing in part because the cold regular faces of the buildings had no openings).

Harold and the Purple Crayon is a child's version of Romantic poetry, raising all the issues that haunt every poet after Wordsworth: Wallace Stevens for Beginners.

(Postscript: I think I may have made a mistake breaking this discussion into four parts; if you felt at all lost, and are interested, go back and read parts one through four in order.)