Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Comic Review -- Six Faces of a Dice

I just got an interesting new book from Canadian publishing house StudioComix called Six Faces of a Dice.



This black and white comic is written by Spanish author Juan Sepulveda and is illustrated by Argentinean artist Hernán Campos. This first issue, titled Face 1/6: Bitter Surprises, is apparently part of a larger six-part series (hence the name Six Faces of a Dice) each with a different style and theme, based on a collection of original short stories written by Sepulveda. Of Six Faces of a Dice, Sepulveda writes, “Puzzling arguments will arise on behalf of other genres and atmospheres that are dreamlike, surreal, and nightmarish, and will transport the reader to a different world where nothing is what it seems.”



The story of Issue One revolves around happenstance, betrayal, and fraternal loyalty (or lack thereof), and Campos’ artwork rises to the task of conveying the heaviness of these themes. The story has a number of settings and uses a number of characters that my be a bit foreign to American readers.

To begin, one of the main settings is a Spanish roadside brothel. This low-rent whorehouse is seedy, to say the least, and Campos' artwork does a great job of rendering the depressing atmosphere of the place. The brothel serves as a stop over for truckers, and, believe me, this place ain't no Stuckey's or Flying J. No ordinary "Lot Lizards", the women in this place are tarted up and are there for one purpose, and one purpose only. I don't know what Spanish law is regarding these establishments, but the one depicted in this comic seems to be out in the open, readily available.

Likewise, one of the more interesting characters in the comic operates in a world outside the normal American sensibilities. Kirill, a Russian citizen living in Spain, is a hitman whose background includes a stint in the Kosovo conflict. These mercenaries were responsible for untold horrors in the former Czechoslovakia and after the war, apparently some of them made their way to Spain. In Spain, they hired themselves out to do all sorts of dirty work. In Six Faces of a Dice, Kirill exists in an emotionless shell, hiring himself out to do the dirty work that others couldn't stomach. His face remains blank throughout the entire comic, even as he puts a bullet into an innocent man.

I was quickly drawn into the story because there seemed to be a number of unrelated things occurring at once. In the span of 14 pages, though, everything coalesced and all my questions were answered in an interesting and satisying way that made me want to hear other stories about these characters. The version of the comic I got suffers from a rather stilted English translation, which pulls a bit from the emotional impact of the tale, but Sepulveda has said that a new translation is forthcoming, and I am looking forward to seeing that. Even in this translation, the writing is powerful. The artwork of Six Faces of a Dice is very engaging and the pacing is fast enough to have kept me turning the pages.



Still, the comic points to a bright future for Juan Sepulveda and Hernán Campos, and I recommend grabbing a copy so that in a few years time you can show it to your friends and prove to them that you were there at the beginning.

More information about Six Faces of a Dice can be found here.
More information about StudioComix can be found here.

Steven Pinker -- Language as a Window into Human Nature

Two-Bit Comics -- The Badger #14

In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult. Thank goodness for my local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore! Each week I randomly grab a comic from the bargain bin (for 50 cents) to see what kind of bang I can get for my two-bits. These are those tales (also available at Pop Culture Zoo).

February 23, 2011 – paid 50 cents for:
THE BADGER #14
Published by First Comics
Written by: Mike Baron
Art by: Bill Reinhold





UF-DA!

It’s August of 1986 and proto-fanboys around the country are quoting Ripley from Aliens (“Get away from her, you BITCH!”); mom and dad and doing the white man’s overbite dance to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; Bon Jovi is, indeed, “Slippery When Wet”; William Schroeder, the second artificial heart recipient, dies after 620 days; and really ugly sweaters are still the rage on “The Cosby Show”. As the summer of ‘86 draws to an end, I’m a sophomore in college and First Comics releases “The Badger #14” (these two things are in no way related, I promise).

First off, let me own up to the fact that this comic really threw me for a loop upon my initial reading of it. Being issue number 14, there was a lot of back story missing, such as: who are these people, why are they doing what they are doing, and especially, what the heck is going on? I had to do some research before writing this column.

The Badger was a weird series, a black comedy that tackled some serious issues in its time. Its publisher, Illinois based First Comics, was in operation from 1983 to 1991 and produced a number of creator-owned titles including Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, and Mike Baron’s The Badger. At the time, Baron, along with artist Steve Rude, was riding high on the accolades from his series Nexus (the series eventually garnered six Eisner Awards), when he started writing The Badger.

Set mostly in Madison, Wisconsin, The Badger follows the adventures of Norbert Sykes, a Nam veteran who apparently had multiple personality disorder, The Badger being one of his more distinct personalities. Apparently, The Badger could talk to animals and had some sort of unexplained random empathetic connection to their sufferings. The Badger was also a martial arts expert and certifiably bat-shit insane.

Issue 14 is a self-contained story titled “Snake Bile Cognac”. It finds The Badger trying to avenge the death of a cobra who has been killed by Chef Herbert Ng on an episode of “Fabulous Foods” (hosted by Melanie Monk – I’m not making this up). Ng is on the show to demonstrate how he makes his famous Snake Bile Cognac (I’m not making this up) which he serves in his San Francisco restaurant, The South China Sea. This drink is made from a mixture of cognac and the bile sac of a cobra (I’m not making this up). The Badger is watching the episode when he sees Ng kill the cobra. He then reacts violently to this and packs his bags for San Francisco to get “Revenge for a snake.” There you go. This is the plot of this comic. A superhero wants to kick the crap out of a chef for killing a snake. I am not making this up.

A quick story synopsis now: The Badger arrives at Ng’s restaurant, has two pages of martial arts combat with Ng’s nephews (why does this remind me of a Bruce Lee movie), goes on a three day backpacking trip in the Sierras with Ng, saves Ng from falling off a steep rock face, loses a four page martial arts battle with Ng, drinks a cup of Snake Bile Cognac, hallucinates, eats a multi-course meal cooked by Ng, and then gets into a cab driven by Travis Bickle from the movie “Taxi Driver” (he even says, “You talkin’ to me”). That’s it. That’s the story line for The Badger #14. I am not making this up.

The plot and storyline aside, this is a seriously weird comic and The Badger is a seriously weird dude. Apparently, The Badger is a “legend in Martial Arts” who shouts “Uf-Da!” while performing his moves. For those of you who have never spent any time in the Upper Midwest, “Uf-Da” is a common expression used there as a catch-all interjection to express feeling of being overwhelmed. I lived in Minnesota for six years or so and heard people saying it all the time. Never, though, when they were kicking someone’s ass.

Next, remember that The Badger has arrived to beat up Chef Ng for killing a snake. Instead, they take a backpacking trip together. I have no idea why this happens. And if this wasn’t weird enough, during the trip, as they are crossing a log over a ravine, we get this scene:



That’s right, The Badger calls the bear back out of the woods. I guess to demonstrate to Ng that he can???? But then that’s it – the bear is never mentioned again.

But the best part of The Badger #14 has to be, hands down, the scene that occurs after The Badger drinks a cup of Snake Bile Cognac. After pounding down the drink, The Badger goes into a two page, black-background, unexplained, weird-ass hallucinatory reverie, culminating in his getting punched in the face by John Wayne.



That’s right. Punched in the face by John Wayne. Uf-Da! Chef Ng offers him some water, to which The Badger responds, “The Duke hits harder than anyone.” This is never explained either, and is never mentioned again. Seriously, I am not making this up.

All in all, though, as weird as The Badger #14 is – and it’s weird – I found myself enjoying the read. Sure it was confusing, sure it was random, but for fifty cents it was entertaining and was certainly a nice little distraction from the daily grind. I don’t know if I would spend more to catch up on the further adventures of The Badger (in 2007, IDW Publishing released trades of the old series), but I would certainly hand my copy of issue #14 to a friend, especially one who was down in the dumps. Of course, I would hand it to them by saying, “Uf-Da!"

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Parking Lot Movie -- It's About More Than Parking

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, I curl up in front of the TV and delve deep into the bowels of Netflix Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today I found, “The Parking Lot Movie” released August 6, 2010 and directed by Meghan Eckman.



In the parking lot we were dynamos. Whirlwinds. We were rulers. We had complete autonomy. We had it all in a world that had nothing to offer us.
Scott Meiggs
Parking Lot Attendant
1996-2000



This documentary is the perfect example of the possibilities of the medium. The film focuses on a little parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, specifically on the employees of the parking lot as they try to make sense of their existence, their profession, and the universe itself. By allowing these parking lot attendants to just talk about themselves and the lot, the film touches on themes of inertia, existentialism, socio-economic politics, and even the nature of art.

The film had a showing at the South by Southwest festival last year where it apparently was well received. The movie also ran on PBS as part of its “Independent Lens” programming. As I mentioned before, it is currently available on Netflix Streaming.

The narrative of “The Parking Lot Movie” relies almost exclusively on interviews conducted with present and former lot attendants. This self-described “ragtag group of fractured poets” wage a daily war against boredom, isolation, drunken college students, and the self-inflated egos of car owners who feel that parking their expensive machines is a right and not a privilege. Scott Meiggs, one of the attenants who worked in the lot from 1996 to 2000, gives a great summary of the sensibilities of the group of attendants working in the lot. He says, “We were all capable of some things but we didn't achieve it because we were too arrogant.”

Having worked in the service industry for years in my younger days, I completely understand this attitude. In cities all over this country, local bars, restaurants, coffee shops, book stores, and even parking lots are way stations for overeducated individuals who are having a hard time fitting into the “system”, are overwhelmed with the responsibilities of the American Dream of success, and feel that they are entitled to the rewards of self-expression but have no idea what to say. So these individuals take these service jobs which give them a vantage point to confirm their disgust with everyone else. The tagline to “The Parking Lot Movie” is, according to their press release, “It’s not just a parking lot, it’s a battle with humanity.”



While the movie could easily have descended into keeping its focus on this sort of hipster rant, what redeems it, ultimately, is the fact that many of the interviews are with attendants who have left the lot and are now able to reflect upon who they were at the time, the attitudes they expressed then, and the wisdom they have garnered since their departure. In a way, this is almost a coming of age story, because while these young men still carry much of their misanthropic disgust with the entitlement so many Americans seem to have, they seemingly all have come to the realization that wallowing in that disgust is ultimately destructive to the self. As Gray Morris, and attendant from 1991-2002, says in the movie, “That’s what that job does to you. It makes you think that the fucking gate being broken is important – that it’s worth getting into a fight – that it’s worth getting into an altercation because someone broke a piece of plywood.”

“The Parking Lot Movie” will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in the service industry. Fans of the non-documentary movies “Clerks” and “Slacker” will enjoy it as it speaks to the same themes. It moves along fast, has some seriously funny moments, and does a great job of really providing a sense of place. There is a lot attendant rap video at the end of the film, which the director included because she wanted to end the film with “more pizzazz”. In my opinion, it could have been left out.





Friday, February 18, 2011

Two-Bit Comics -- Steeltown Rockers #1

In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult. Thank goodness for my local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore! Each week I randomly grab a comic from the bargain bin (for 50 cents) to see what kind of bang I can get for my two-bits. These are those tales.

February 15, 2011 – paid 50 cents for:
STEELTOWN ROCKERS #1
Published by Marvel Comics
Written by: Elaine Lee
Art by: Steve Leialoha



I was just starting to have some respect for you.

It’s April, 1990 and from the TV comes the face of some strangely alluring bald woman pleading with America that “Nothing Compares 2 U”, while folks everywhere shell out their hard earned cash to see “Ernest Goes to Jail” on the big screen. The Hubble space telescope is launched, Emma Watson (Hermione from the Harry Potter movies) is born, and Jim Pencak bests Purvis Granger to win a Pro Bowling tournament and pockets $28,000 in the process.

It is four months before Sadaam Hussien invades Kuwait and suddenly there on the comic racks, capturing this zeitgeist, is the first issue of Marvel Comics’ six issue mini-series, Steeltown Rockers.

Apparently in 1990, Marvel Comics decided that their reading audience needed a break from its superhero offerings and offered a gritty real-life drama about young men and women trapped in an economically depressed small town trying to break free from its confines through the power of rock and roll. Editor in Chief Tom DeFalco tapped the talents of Emmy nominated actress (for her 1980 role on NBC’s “The Doctors”) Elaine Lee to script a story about Johnny Degaestano’s dysfunctional life and rock star dreams, and Eisner Award winning (for his inking of Mark Buckingham’s art in Fables) Steve Leialoha to channel the hybrid love-child of Frank Miller and Archie Comics and pencil this tale.

The result was Steeltown Rockers.

Right from the beginning of this book, you know you are in trouble. Take a look at the cover. Under the masthead, in-between these thick fuchsia squiggles (is fuchsia really the color of gritty small town rock?) it reads “Sometimes a small town band has to play a little louder to be heard”.

When I first read this, I felt that I wanted it to be a profound statement. The more I thought about it, though, the more of a cheap, platitudinous cliché I realized it was. This realization set a tone for the rest of my reading of this comic.