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The Dam’s Been Breached

February 8th, 2011 No comments

I wonder if Julie Taymor’s spidey-sense was tingling just before these unsporting reviews came out. Once the Times flouted the don’t-review-in-previews convention, the pressure on other outlets became too great. Here’s a Slate reviewer’s very different take on “Turn Off the Dark” that focuses on Taymor’s ego as the driving force behind this unwieldy contraption. (See post below for NY Times review.)

While reviewer Jacob Zinoman might be captivated by (yet ambivalent about)  Taymor’s effort to reconcile art to commerce, the reader of the review will likely say: “No, thanks.”

What I Love About Planet Earth

February 4th, 2011 No comments

This creature…

Researchers have sequenced the genome of the common water flea, Daphnia, shown in this false-color micrograph. About 35 percent of the genes are brand new to science.

Jan Michels/Christian-Albrechts-Universitat zu KielResearchers have sequenced the genome of the common water flea, Daphnia, shown in this false-color micrograph. About 35 percent of the genes are brand new to science.

About 35 percent of the genes are brand new to science?? (The creature has — ulp! — far more genes that we do.)

And the scamp — no larger than a grain of rice, but tastier — can do incredible things: create a suit of armor to ward off attackers, send hemoglobin coursing through its body when under stress, and of course that great trick: parthenogenesis.

Isn’t it only a matter of time before some high school student is bitten by a radioactive daphnia?

Deliberately Creepy, Now Dead

July 12th, 2010 No comments

comic american splendor

Several years ago, our house-hunting hit a weird snag. We found a stately home in a beautiful neighborhood, but I wanted nothing to do with it. I couldn’t get past the evidence that the man who lived there (solo? in such a large house?) was…kind of creepy. I never saw the guy, and I can’t even recall specifically what it was that made me so uneasy, but there it was. I don’t consider myself especially superstitious, but I guess I sort of figured that a weird spirit would be haunting our home.1

I thought about this episode as I was reading the just-published obit of Harvey Pekar of American Splendor “fame.” Pekar turned his drab life as a file clerk into a mid-size franchise, creating the American Splendor comic, a series of other graphic works (which he didn’t illustrate), and a movie based on the comic based on the life — starring the only-slightly-less creepy Paul Giamatti (whose role as John Adams in the HBO series was enough to make me pine for a small screen, black-and-white TV; was Adams really that dour and unattractive?). Even as a life-long comic book aficionado, I strode briskly past the too-real section of the local comics store, making a special effort to avoid Pekar’s unsettling slice of life.

But, as the obit points out, Pekar was in a sense a proto-blogger, capturing something about both his own experience and a broader, sad reality for so many people. That Pekar was able to mine this territory for hard-earned pathos, and to do so with such honesty for so long, was no small accomplishment. His quirky, deliberately unsettling laying out of his life’s story was, in the end, an act of courage and defiance.

  1. Quite sensibly, David didn’t get this at all. “He doesn’t come with the house,” he repeated over and over, as if talking to an idiot — which, in this case, I was.
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But Here’s the Problem with Wonder Woman

June 30th, 2010 3 comments

This story talks about yet another attempt to reintroduce Wonder Woman, this time with a new costume:

It’s a vast improvement, yes, but for all of DC’s effort to place WW in the Superman-Batman icon troika, it’s not worked yet, and likely won’t. Here’s why:

Her powers have always been a shadow of Superman’s. He’s all-powerful; she’s super-strong, but less so. He’s indestructible; she has some resistance to injury, but has to fend off bullets with her bracelets, for Pete’s sake. He can fly; sometimes she can, too, but then why has she relied on her invisible plane? And so on.

Powers aren’t everything, as Batman conclusively demonstrates. But heroes need their own act. And a magic lasso isn’t enough, unless she’s planning to join the super-rodeo. The new origin even sounds like a Superman knock-off: Her homeland (Paradise Island) and family is destroyed, and she escapes and is raised by…ordinary earthlings. Folks like you, me, and Idina Menzel.

Does Liking Superheroes Mean You’re Gay?

April 20th, 2010 1 comment

This article in last Sunday’s Times makes the connection.

I don’t know. As a life-long (well, until very recently) devotee of superhero comix, I had a complex reaction to the story.  On one hand, I found it did capture something about the escape that geeks and misfits find in the genre, and to the extent being gay makes one a geek or a misfit (by some process of self- or other-imposed exclusion), I guess there’s a connection. Over the years, I’ve had disturbingly detailed conversations about minor-key superheroes like Light Lass, Matter-Eater Lad and Duo Damsel1 with other gay men (few women, straight or lesbian, seem to have much interest — although one of my twin daughters is making me beam with pride at her ability to recite the Spider-Man origin story).2

Yet the story was by and large an annoying example of the kind of simplistic banality that’s found a home in the Styles section. Plenty of people, gay and straight, are (unduly) fascinated with superheroes, while many gays — including the one I live with — think the whole genre is no better than soap opera. A few years ago, a former (straight) student and I had a distressingly animated argument over who was the best Green Lantern3 of the several that have worn the powerful ring. David listened with the detachment of a good anthropologist.

On some level, it’s just harmless fun that loses some of its appeal with too much analysis. When I first moved to Philadelphia, two of my (again, straight) friends and I co-hosted a Halloween Superhero Costume party in honor of Superman’s 50th Anniversary. While I dressed as the quite justly overlooked Chlorophyll Kid4, one co-host was MegAchiever (Battle Cry: “Name something you can do better than me5 and you will have named something totally irrelevant in life!’) and the other was The Generic American Hero, whose costume prominently featured a product bar code.

The best story I’ve read about comix and the people who love them is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon’s own love for the genre bursts through this enthusiastic and beautifully written novel. If I were to engage in the current ego reinforcement program of the blogosphere by listing my ten favorite books (why 10? and who cares?), this would be one of them.

  1. Formerly Triplicate Girl, until one of her selves was destroyed by Computo.
  2. In her version, though, Peter Parker was renamed “Beelzebub.” I expect a visit from the Department of Human Services any day now.
  3. Alan Scott
  4. With the ability to make plants grow at amazing speeds, of course.
  5. Excluding grammar, apparently

Captain America vs. Anti-American Ideals

February 10th, 2010 No comments

This story alerted me to a recent flap over the legendary Marvel Comics hero, Captain America. It seems that the Tea Party Movement, not widely known for its sense of humor or its tolerance for self-deprecation, took offense at the latest issue of the comic. It featured this panel:

The protest drew a friendly exchange between the Star-Spangled Avenger and his sometimes-partner superhero, the Falcon, who happens to be African-American. After Cap says that protest is “some kind of anti-tax thing,” the Falcon (half) jokes that he wouldn’t be welcomed into the crowd of “angry white folks.”

The Tea Party leaders were steeped in anger, and Marvel has now pulled the controversial scene and response from future printings. (It didn’t help, either, that the writer has well-known progressive tendencies.)

Why were these folks boiling over? Part of it was the Falcon’s statement; the Tea Party, which consists mostly of a bunch of angry white guys, doesn’t want to be thought of as a bunch of angry white guys. Beyond that, though: Who cares about what Captain America thinks? He was create as a super-soldier by the U.S. government during World War II (comic book heroes never really die, even when they do), and the Tea Party, after all, is the product of an anti-government movement. Shouldn’t they be happy to be dissed by this guy?

My guess is that some higher-up in the organization has been following Captain America enough to know that, at least since the 1970’s, Captain America has found a way to accommodate his origins and his ideals — he believes in American ideals of justice, fairness and equality — and has become a critical patriot whose support of the government can’t be assumed. During the Watergate era, he even briefly shed his identity and assumed the character of “Nomad.” Although this was a critical and commercial disaster — Nomad even tripped over his cape — since that time, Captain America has stood as a rebuke to the kind of easy patriotism that leaders often cynically invoke. But he’s also stood against hate and fringe groups, including neo-Nazis and now…the Tea Party.

They might not have been crazy about the use of the verb “tea bag” either.

How’s that withering, dead-on thing workin’ for ya?

The Legion of Super…Somethings

February 8th, 2009 No comments

As a kid, I was the kind of voracious comic book reader who would haunt the local store in anticipation of my favorites. At the top of the heap was “The Legion of Super-Heroes,” a 30-century group of teenagers whose clubhouse was a retro-future looking space ship impaled into the ground.

Legion Clubhouse

Cheesy, no? Well, so was the whole Legion, really: They started with a powerful trio but soon expanded to take in about thirty(!) heroes, with increasingly absurd super powers. This tendency reached its apogee with characters with the (unfortunately) self-explanatory names of Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad (from the planet Bismoll). By this time, the powers seemed little more than elaborate parlor tricks.

Somehow, the subject of the Legion was recently exhumed through a series of e-mails among friends; two of us went on about distressingly obscure tidbits (“Triplicate Girl became Duo Damsel after one of her ‘selves’ was killed by Computo…”) while the others peeled away from the list at increasing speeds. But it did get me thinking about our political equivalents in the spaceship-challenged 21st century. Here are some examples, drawn exclusively from the Senate. See if you can guess their secret identities (answers at end of post):

Pork Boy:   Can derail any piece of legislation by crying “Pork!”

Clueless Kid: Confuses foes by making increasingly inscrutable references to such events as “little green doctors pounding on [his]  back.”

The RINO Lasses:  Frustrate their party by joining their powers to prevent filibusters.

Shadow Lad 59: Hovers menacingly just outside of Washington frightening Republicans, the humor-challenged, and really everyone else.

The Triangulator: Confounds Democrats and Republicans with political gyrations to the left, right and center. Can’t be defeated by any known enemy.

Clayface: Destroyed enemies with unearthly death gaze:

Henry Clay

By the way, after the writers ran out of uses for Matter-Eater Lad’s power (this took about two issues), he became…a Senator. Apparently his new power was the ability to suck every molecule of oxygen out of a room.

Answers: John McCain, Jim Bunning, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe,  Al Franken (OK, not officially a Senator yet), Arlen Specter, and Henry Clay (OK, he’s not from the 21st century, but his outfit is very a la mode).

Scoring:   6-7:  fivethirtyeighter;   3-5:  wonk-in-training;  0-2:   amazed you’re still reading