Chasing Gentrification

Nothing has really inspired me to want to write comics reviews the last couple of weeks, and it's really appalling for me to not have content for my own blog, so I want to write a bit about my neighborhood. This isn't, in any kind of direct way, about comics; and it's only really loosely about "retailing" like I categorized it, so maybe you won't care about any of this, and I'm going to put the rest below the jump....

I also think this is going to be a good deal more rambly than usual, for what that's worth -- I haven't outlined it or anything, but I've wanted to make a post about this for the last few months. See, a Chase bank recently moved in, displacing a number of small retail businesses.

Well, maybe I need to start somewhere way earlier than that.

(you might want to go open google maps and street view and look around the block, maybe, to make this easier to follow along? Maybe not, I don't know)

(Oh, and to start the earliest note here, Comix Experience has been in the same location since the day we opened, April 1, 1989 -- 23 years ago this writing)

So, the commercial corridor I'm on is Divisadero St., which, essentially, runs from Haight St (where Divisadero makes a small turn and becomes Castro st.), all the way down to Sacramento St., basically a 20 block stretch. Now, the Divisadero Merchant's association says that the neighborhood actually is Haight to Geary (14 blocks), but that seems unfair to the UCSF-side retailers.

The bottom end of this corridor, Haight, puts us between two neighborhoods -- the "Upper Haight" is like where Haight/Ashbury and all of the Hippie shit is/was, and there's a separate commercial corridor up there, six blocks on Haight from Central to Stanyan. At this point, the "Upper Haight" is nearly exclusively  "hip" clothing shops, restaurants, and Head Shops. And lots of street kids.

There's also the "Lower Haight" which is pretty much Scott to Webster (five blocks), but except right there at Haight and Fillmore, I'd say is not a "bustling" shopping street.

So, if you're looking at the map, I guess you can see that Divisadero is really between two neighborhoods, and part of neither?  There's also the notion that Divis is a major transportation through-street, being 4 lanes wide.

OK, so down at the bottom end of the commercial bits Divis, the first block is kind of strangely zoned/used -- the eastern side of the street is all shops (Head Shop, cafe, pizza, boutique clothing, flower shop, sandwich shop, copy shop, yoga studio, mexican restaurant, bar), but the western side really only has a single store front, which once upon a time was a magic/occult store (we still get people asking "where'd they go?!?!" a decade later!), and right now is empty. There's a church on the western side of the first block, and a space that's zoned commercial, but has never been used, and down on the Page side corner the little convenience store, but if you're walking on that side of the street, your brain isn't saying "stores!"

On MY block, from Page to Oak most of the "stores" are on the West side, with the East side being a lot less so (they run: Hair Salon, Thai restaurant, dry cleaner, orthopedic supply, pet food, gym, paint store) -- on my side, it's produce store, ME, upscale pizza, hotel, yoga, facial place, consignment store, game store, used cooking supply shop, boutique clothing, dry cleaner, cafe. Frankly, I think that Gamescape and I anchor the block, but I would think that, wouldn't I?

The next block along (Oak to Fell) is utter retail wasteland. Right now, it's three gas stations and now a Chase bank. Oak and Fell are the major east-west traffic paths to/from downtown and 101 -- each are one way streets with four lanes each (one goes east, the other west), hence the THREE gas stations! These are relatively safe, traffic-light intersections, but they carry a ton of east-west traffic, and, from my POV put a pretty big barrier for making Divis a truly good retail walking street.

On the other side of Fell, retail thickens back up again, but, up until a few years ago, this wasn't exactly a stretch of street that was too exciting -- for a good long time the Popeye Chicken's (the only other chain on the entire Divis strip) was the most commercial element of that section. That side of the neighborhood was heavily urban black, with a ton of government housing.

But, of course, with housing being scarce in San Francisco (we've never built the kind of dense rental housing towers that you'll see in a New York or a Chicago), and Silicon Valley minting millionaire after millionaire, of course here comes the gentrification.

It's been moving in that direction a good long time, of course, but I think it really solidified when NOPA opened in 2006 -- a really delicious, pretty upscale restaurant.  "NoPa" means "North of the Panhandle", though, if you look at a map, they really are much more "East" (2 east, 1 north), but "EoPa" doesn't sound very good.

(The "panhandle" is that eight block bit that juts off from Golden Gate Park, that's totally obvious when you look at a map)

NOPA, the restaurant, was successful enough that real estate agents, those paragons of fair naming, renamed the entire neighborhood "NoPa", which is how people refer to it today, though old timers like I just kind of giggle at the idea. BUT, the neighborhood really is kind of actively not urban and black like it was when I opened in '89. In fact, "Old Man Joe" (I never knew his last name), who used to hang out on the corner of Page street with his buddies, drinking beer and just generally watching over the neighborhood, died last week. I was pretty genuinely bummed when I heard. He was an awesome old guy.

So, the "NoPa-ization" (which, like I noted, really WAS in motion before NOPA moved in, but it's a convenient marker) of this neighborhood has also gotten a number of the landlords to think greedy thoughts. For example, we used to have a great vinyl record store across the street -- Open Mind Music -- who got booted when the landlord raised the rent way way up. Now Black Nose (A pet food place) is in the space, and while I hope they are doing enough business, we don't get the kind of crossover walking traffic from them that we used to from the Comics/Game store/Record store trifecta, that's for sure. Plus, we used to also have a medical marijuana place (it's now the gym) that I don't think hurt business at all.

Maybe the most visible examples of "landlord greed" was the NW corner of Oak and Divis which is now where a Chase is. The space they're in used to be three separate retail store fronts -- a Cheese Shop which had been there for, like, ever, and a coffee/truffle joint that never actually really looked like a viable business to me, but they were paying the rent I guess. There was also a corner space that used to be the dry cleaners that moved onto our block, after they had their rent raised to the ceiling.

The corner space then sat open for at least two years... maybe it was 3 or 4? God, it was an ugly blight on the neighborhood, but the landlord wanted more rent than anyone other than a chain was willing to pay.

For a couple of weeks it looked as though a "Batteries plus" would go in -- a store that sells nothing but batteries... and my god doesn't that sound a lot like the  Saturday Night Live sketch about the mall store that sells nothing but scotch tape? But I guess a few people in the neighborhood complained (SF *is* NIMBY-ville), and the franchise-ee got cold feet and pulled out, leaving the blight for another year, and then finally Chase bank wanted the space.

Except, in order for Chase to make it a bank, out had to go the cheese shop and the truffle place. Too bad, so sad!

(Plus, understand, we have a Bank of America a block away, and a Wells Fargo ATM station right there as well, so it isn't like there's a paucity of banking options...)

See, the thing for me is that I'm not exactly sure what the thinking might be to enter into (what I imagine must be) a long-term lease for a physical banking space when it would certainly appear that more and more people are shifting to online banking... and when you have TWO other Chase branches within a half mile -- one is nine blocks away, the other is 10 -- well, it makes way way even less sense to me.

When Chase went in, there was a brief "Occupy" set of protests there, but it never really amounted to anything -- just a day or two of 2-3 cats standing on the street with signs.

Here's the thing, though, I think that the neighborhood kind of HAS responded, because whenever I walk by the branch, I never ever ever see any customers in there. Ever. All I see is 3-4 tellers milling about, talking to one another. Meanwhile, I go to the BofA around the corner at almost anytime, and there are people waiting in line there.

I've seen people in Chase's ATM foyer thingy, but not once in the bank itself. I'm fairly certain that someone MUST be going in eventually, but never in any hour that I've personally witnessed -- I walk past 3-4 times a week, maybe? Now, I don't know how commercial banks rate the viability of what they do, but, from my point of view as a retailer, they've got to be losing thousands of dollars a month in that location as it looks like very few people are using it.

So, this is what kills me: not only did Chase help to hurt the neighborhood by evicting (even if THEY didn't Do the Deed) two local businesses, and the potential for a third (if the landlord wasn't unreasonable), but they did it on a block that NEEDED retail in order to connect OUR block to the rest of "NoPa" -- now we've got this block long no man's land there where at least we had a trickle of people shopping at cheese and truffles.

Seriously, though, walk-by is the lifeblood of any retail business, and we need to be encouraging retail that brings more walk-by for everyone. I'm dreading what's going to go in at the old magic store, kinda... because I'm suspecting that Swankety Swank disappeared they way they did because the Rent Was too Damn High.

I don't mind if the neighborhood is, y'know, safe to walk at night (well, relatively... there's been a rash of grab-and-dash celphone robberies going on in the hood), but I fear that gentrification will eventually boot me out, as well. I have what I think is a very good relationship with my landlord, but with commercial space, at any moment I could have my rent tripled or just be flat out booted out, and there would be very little I could do about it. We're successful, yes, but mostly because the rent is affordable -- if I have to pay "NoPa" rents, I'm going to be in trouble, because there simply isn't enough daytime walk-by to justify THAT kind of expense.

And, y'know, I deeply miss the Church of Saint John Coltrane that used to be on our block, and were the first victims, I think, of being rent-increased out off the block. (They used to be at 351 Divisadero)

At the end of the day, I think neighborhoods depend on neighborhood businesses to give them character -- I despair when I go out of SF and hit one mini-mall after another, going from chain formula retailer to chain formula retailer. How gross! Do you guys even know what it is you've lost in most of this country? And, in San Francisco specifically, I worry deeply about the loss of the working class -- home prices in my neighborhood have gone up like 200% in the last 12 years, which is nice for my equity, I suppose, but not good for people trying to live here without tech stock options.

I worry about these things.

Anyway, thanks for reading this far!



"I'm the Kind of Father Who Takes His Son To See Zorro Three Times In One Week!", Not Comics - Batman LIVE!

Me and my spawn went and took a look at:Photobucket

Yup, gonna ramble on about it! Apparently if you are a bit of a strange duck whose only notable feature to your relatives is that you still read comics sometimes you get weird Christmas presents. Last Christmas I received two tickets to BATMAN LIVE and last Sunday I took my 5-year old heir to see what all that was about. This was pretty exciting because I don’t get out much and it didn't cost me anything. Well, it cost me a hair under £2 for a bottle of water which was all I could stretch to. Judging by the prices while Batman was fighting fake crime on the stage the real crime was taking place at the concession stand. Ho ho! Ba-da-bing!

I suppose I should clear up what BATMAN LIVE is; I thought it was going to be a musical, but it isn't. So no show-tunes to sing in the car on the way home I’m afraid. Yes, I realise BATMAN LIVE is yet another alternate media revenue stream for a DC IP and thus a money maker for a large corporation but since I had The Boy with me I decided to give my inner cynic the night off. Entertain me, I thought and we'll be okay.

Well BATMAN LIVE entertained me and it was better than okay. What it is, I guess, is an “experience”. And you know what, it certainly was. The emphasis is on spectacle rather than sense and, yeah, some of it is pretty spectacular. It's largely a procession of set pieces strung together but since these are all pretty hectic, vibrant and dazzling that kind of works out okay. If you were expecting Henrik Ibsen you'll be bit disenchanted to say the least.  Apparently the story is by Geoff Johns, and Geoff Johns is the kind of adult who when questioned about BATMAN LIVE emits this kind of beige drone:

'…he’s an orphan. He’s experienced something that all of us can relate to – loss – that’s just a part of being alive and being a human.’

I like to picture Geoff Johns saying all that while wearing one of those baseball caps with a beer can on each side, the kind with a straw the goes from each can down past the peak into the wearer’s mouth. Maybe waving one of those big foam hands as well. But that’s how I like to picture him most of the time. So, instructed to pump up the proles for the multi-million dollar extravaganza Geoff Johns basically gives with the equivalent of:


"Yore gonna lhu-arn abaht lawsss!"

I guess that explains why a children's entertainment chooses to open with the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and then, almost immediately, with the death of Dick Grayson’s parents. That sure is a lot of tragic orphaning to front load your spectacle with. Still, that's the nature of the material I guess and kids kind of like that morbid fantasy about losing their parents and growing up to be as awesome as Batman or robin. It's mythic or something. Except for The Boy, who wuvs me very much and wouldn't ever want anything to happen to his dear old Dad! Doncha! Lemme chuch your cheekies! No, you can't have any sweets, what am I made of money!

After that it's pretty much all about Robin discovering his new guardian is Batman, donning the mantle of Robin and learning the difference between revenge and justice. Somewhere in there all Batman's rogues decide to gang up on Batman (because they don't like him, is why). That's pretty much your plot, oh yeah, and Robin teaches Batman to unclench enough to give Catwoman a Batkiss. Boilerplate stuff really. Nice and simple structure on which BATMAN LIVE hangs all the real reasons you went: the spectacle. There's illusions (box, lady, swords, etc.), dance routines (I liked the Berkley-esque nightclub hoops one), explosions (loud, startling), wire-fu (yes, you can see the wires. It's still impressive), trapeze artistry (that bit was really neat) and just a whole bunch of entertaining antics.

For comic fans there are numerous shout outs to the papery origins, name-checks for Julie Madison, a cop called Montoya but the finest of all these is a physical  call back to that Carmine Infantino Detective Comics Cover (the one with the house shaped like the Joker’s head: #365). This huge thing rolls out onto the stage and there are all these parts of it undulating in an unnatural way and you suddenly realise that the  hair and teeth are actually composed of performers. That's quite a remarkable moment so I remarked on it. The pop surrealism of the early comics is evoked with such moments as a security guard patrolling a bank which comes up to his shins and Harley and Catwoman colluding atop a miniature prison. The part with the giant table and chair was a bit puzzling but I liked the wacky goofiness of the image.

The main action unfolds on a (apparently) 100ft-wide, 60ft-deep performance area with a video wall at one end. It’s an odd set up which means the action has to unfold in a strangely constricted space. To the credit of the crew the area is used well allowing the depth to give some scale to the set pieces, scale which would probably be lacking in a more trad wider-than-it-is-deep stage. You can see from my use of technical terms that I’m about as well versed in theatre as I am in Monster Truck Racing, but, y’know, stick with me. I might have a breakdown and start hollering about Marvel’s treatment of Jack Kirby while rubbing mash potato into my face.


Jack Kirby - He Never Gave Up On Us.

Anyway this peculiar arrangement sometimes means one person stands quite a distance away from the other and the resulting conversation looks like two people reluctantly saying their drunken goodbyes in a pub car park come last orders. Most of the time though it’s okay. After all when someone fires a rocket launcher at a Joker balloon, which they do, I guess you need a bit of distance between the two. It also also enables the crafty misdirection of the audience's  gaze when characters have to go off-stage. Very clever.

Like I said at one end there's this big video screen and I guess this is the big selling point as it is more technologically advanced than real people moving about and doing stuff. Sometimes the screen shows comic book panels with art in that modern style which is okay but marred by random pen lines.


Mostly though it is used to illustrate scene transitions with a POV travelling down CGI streets or showing whatever techno-magic Bruce Wayne is making the Bat-Puter do. It's nice and all but I was rather more concerned about what the humans were up to. Because I enjoy seeing people doing this kind of thing. Every night on the stage (actually I think they were doing three shows a day) doing the same thing time after time, getting it right without going slowly insane. It's the kind of old timey awesome I like. What with the way things are going this kind of exhibition of physical artistry probably won't be long for the world. Mark me, in 20 years the only things people will pay to watch other people do are sports and *&%$ing. And that's only because *&%$ing will be a sport by then.

So, I was mostly watching the people. Now, BATMAN LIVE is starting its run in the UK before heading State-side in 2012 because they want it to be ship shape for the folks back home. This means we get to see it first and we get to see it with little touches like Alfred’s mic kicking in a beat after he starts talking (but he was unflappably in character and carried on regardless. Respect to John Conroy!) and a dancing waiter butter fingering a tray of glasses during some nightclub choreography. Fella made a nice recovery though and I’m sure no one noticed. And if they did they wouldn't mention it because it would be churlish. Actually I’m okay with stuff like that, it’s very human and in an odd way just makes the whole thing seem more genuine.

(I had to look up the cast so I guess some of these names may be incorrect due to the tendency of actors to be injured/wake up in the Shetland Isles stinking of drink 5 minutes before the curtain rises in Sheffield/get a better part in a sit-com etc. So I apologise for any inaccuracies here.)

Everybody on the stage was pretty impressive at a base level with lovely clear diction, emotions effectively communicated, hitting their marks and all that stuff that looks easy and gets taken for granted but isn't and shouldn't. So I didn't. Hey, when I was a nipper I was once in a musical production of that biblical Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in the fiery furnace story and I was on stage for about 5 minutes and out back of the Civic Hall chucking my guts up for another 40. So, trust me, I have nothing but admiration for everybody up there from Batman to the people dressed as day-glo clowns hitting Batman with sticks. I thought everyone was simply marvellous, darling!


"Biff! Pow! The Bible's not just for kids, anymore!"

Because of the pace most of the thesps didn't get a lot to work with (even Batman!) but those that did knew what they were doing. Mark Frost playing the Joker seemed to be channelling John Lithgow so that was pretty great. He wasn't scary as such but he was certainly exuberant and he had more presence than a kid at Christmas. Alex Gianni played both Commissioner Gordon/ The Penguin and was neat enough as the latter but as the former he was pretty grizzled and great. John Conroy essayed a nice Alfred, one at once starchy but affable with it. Ah, but Emma Clifford as Catwoman was the stand out performance and brought feline dignity, a measure of self conflict and, yes, zest to a character that is often represented in the fan-mind as a pair of burglarising boobs. Jolly good show, everybody!

I would also like to take this opportunity to proffer, on the behalf of  every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom, apologies to the cast and crew of BATMAN LIVE for what probably appeared to be a subdued response from the British audience I sat amongst. Judging from the folk around me the show went down a storm it’s just that we aren't a demonstrative people. We also, it seems, aren't terribly good at picking up on the cues built into the show for applause.


"No, really, we were clapping on the inside!"

My son thought it was "AWESOME SAUCE!" but that isn't on the SavCrit scale so I’ll say the whole shebang from soup to nuts was VERY GOOD! Except for Catwoman who was EXCELLENT! Take a bow, Emma Clifford! Can’t you hear them. They’re cheering for you! Well, they would be if British people ever deigned to do such a thing.

BATMAN LIVE, I thank you and my son thanks you also.

Cheers and thanks to each and everyone of you involved in the production!

More Cowbell: Jeff on Things and Stuff.

At first, I was just going to write about Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Gingerbread Girl, but I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to say about it.  (Uh, things?  And, uh, stuff?) So, after the jump, Gingerbread Girl, X-Men: First Class (the movie), Star Wars Omnibus (Vol. 3), and more...things and stuff.

(oh, and don't forget to scroll down for the shipping list...and John's reviews...and Graeme's reviews?!  Holy shit. We need to learn how to pace ourselves.)

GINGERBREAD GIRL GN:  In an age where comics are taking their cue from movie and cinema, it's delightful to read Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Gingerbread Girl, a graphic novel about a mysterious twenty-something in Portland, OR and her odd affliction:  it's comics shot through with a big ol' dose of live theater, as every character breaks the fourth wall to address the reader about what they know about Annah Billips.  (I'm not much of a live theater guy at all, but more than once I was reminded of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (basis for Hello, Dolly?  I did not know that.  Thanks, Wikipedia!).)  Tobin's speeches are shot through with high-end whimsy -- "But of course that's all we really we want from someone," Annah's reluctantly smitten date says at one point, "Destroy a lover's mystery and they're less glimmering.  Throw breadcrumbs at pigeons and they'll flock to you in droves.  Throw a bread loaf at them and they'll scatter.  Crumbs of a mystique are just right. A loaf of explanation is too much." -- but they've still got nothing on Coover's delicious art, able to invest seemingly anyone and anything with charm and clarity.

Gingerbread Girl is a mystery of sorts, with the lead character believing she has a twin created from her own stripped away Penfield Homunculus, and everyone else trying to figure out if she's crazy or not.  As the above speech suggests, the graphic novel decides not to solve that mystery, but rather leave us tantalized on the edge of realization.  It's a fun choice, but one that left me feeling more than a little cheated.  I'm sure the idea is to make me look from the book's plot to its possible theme -- I'll take "narratives about narrative strategies" for $500, Alex! -- but I can't help but feel we could've gotten that and a more traditional nod toward conventional narrative climax.  One of the things this gorgeous looking book repeatedly reminds us about its main  character is that she's a tease.  It's a reminder the reader would do well to take to heart about Gingerbread Girl itself. Being teased is much more fun when there's little to lose, and $12.95 doesn't exactly grow on trees these days.  GOOD stuff,  I think?  Or maybe just at the very highest end of OK?  I still can't decide.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS:  The last thing I expected from this movie was to be reminded of Mario Bava, and yet as the film hit hour 35 of lovely visuals, paper-thin characters and a boredom that teetered on the edge of hypnotic, it was the reference point I came back to.  Of course, I expected a movie about a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Something-Or-Other-Because He's-Still-Magneto-To-Me (Michael Fassbender) recruiting mutants to fight Sebastian Shaw's Hellfire Club to have more than a dash of Brian Singeresque touches to it, so I figured there would be the usual queer subtext (tearful speeches by young teenagers about how they wish they could be like everyone else, young men with full lips and big eyes rubbing their bare arms).  But Matthew Vaughn turns X-Men: First Class into a sensual free-for-all, with ladies walking about in excessively cumbersome lingerie, diamond girls being tied to beds by the rails of the bed itself, excessively nude exploding female mannequins, and I'm not even getting into the whole Xavier/Magneto/Mystique triangle.

More than that, though, Vaughn's tremendous sense of visual flair and attention to detail makes the movie just visually sensuous: it sounds goofy, but there's a scene where Magneto plucks a submarine out of the water, and the way the droplets spun off the propellers had me transfixed. There were at least a dozen more moments like that and I savored each one of them.

Unfortunately, the movie has just too much fucking stuff in it -- it's sodden, is what it is -- showing us not just the opening of the first X-Men movie where a young Erik pries at the gates of Auschwitz, but also the scene that comes after that, as well as what Charles Xavier was doing at that point.  We not only get their meeting in mid-action scene, but the CIA's decision to help them recruit mutants, a long recruitment sequence, Hank McCoy as both versions of the Beast, a long sequence introducing the Hellfire Club...none of it is bad, exactly (except for January Jones, who in her inability to smile, talk, drink or even walk convincingly I now believe to be the genuine embodiment of  the Martian Spy Girl from Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!) but there's just no fucking room for anything to breathe.  It's three good movies jammed into one exasperatingly long and dull one, with every dramatic conflict boiled down so much they might as well been bullet points on a Powerpoint presentation.

I think if I'd seen this movie while hopped up on prescription pain medication, I would've loved its horny languor. (If it turns out that Vaughn knocked up January Jones as the rumors have it, it won't be surprising at all.  In fact, what would be surprising would be if he didn't also impregnate the script girl, Zoe Kravitz, Rose Byrne's slip, and that kid who played The Beast.) But it was a slog and a chore to make it to the end of this movie and it really didn't have to be.  Somewhere between EH and AWFUL.

STAR WARS OMNIBUS, VOL. 3:  At Graeme's suggestion, I picked up a copy of this from the library way-too-long ago and have been poking through it at the rate of a few stories a week.  These are the Marvel comics from the early '80s reprinted, covering the period immediately following The Empire Strikes Back.  As I told Graeme on the podcast, the ESB is exactly where I jumped off the Star Wars comic wagon, in no small part because it became obvious that none of it really mattered:  nothing says "we've told the creators of our licensed product nothing" like a romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia and the infamous "Luke, I am your father" speech.

Did I say "nothing"?  That is a lie, I admit it -- what really says "we've told the creators of our licensed product nothing" is reading this volume in light of the events of Return of the Jedi.  The subtitle for this volume is "A Long Time Ago..." but it really should've been "George Lucas' Galactic Twincest Follies." There are no less than half-a-dozen disquieting scenes where Luke and Leia almost kiss or spend quiet moments pondering their unspoken, but strongly felt feelings for one another.  If only V.C. Andrews could've written that "Splinter of the Mind's Eye" sequel!

But Graeme is right in a lot of ways -- these stories, the majority of them by David Michelinie and Walt Simonson, with Simonson plotting and doing layouts with Tom Palmer doing heavy finishes, are a lot like watching the original trilogy over and over again.  Curiously, even though this takes place after Empire, the only real bits the talent take from that movie are Lando and the idea of a rebellion always on the run from a seemingly all-powerful Empire. Otherwise, it's a lot of impervious imperial bases that need exploding, blasters that need blasting, feelings that need trusting, and possible romantic triangles where two of the participants are siblings.  There's probably a good reason why Marvel's creative teams continued to treat Luke Skywalker as the untarnishable focal point -- my guess is Luke, young and orphaned and full of questions and potential, was much closer to the '70s Marvel hero archetype than awesome, dashing (kinda assholey) Han Solo -- even as Lucas threw a whole bunch of cold water on the idea of Luke as hero in Empire.

Ultimately, the story I enjoyed the best was the weirdest one -- the two-parter by Chris Claremont, Simonson and Carmine Infantino where an inventoried John Carter of Mars story is shoehorned into a Star Wars story.  I've always enjoyed Claremont's infrequent work on Star Wars (pre-teen Jeff would've told you that his favorite Marvel Star Wars issues were #17, co-plotted by Claremont, Star Wars Annual #1 with art by Mike Vosburg...and also Star Wars #38 with that awesome Michael Golden art, Claremont be damned) and here he gets a chance to let his ham actor instincts dig into a story in which Princess Leia crash-lands on a world suspiciously like Barsoom, and the swashbuckling hero suspiciously like John Carter gets something suspiciously like a space boner for her.  Strong, courageous, and the survivor of brutal torture, Princess Leia is Chris Claremont's idea of a hot chick and he makes the most of the first person narration by the Carter pastiche to talk about her brave resourcefulness and sad eyes.  In its way, the story is a better acknowledgment of Star Wars' roots than what Lucas went on to do in The Phantom Menace, though the airships here show a marked similarity to what is done there.  However, because these stories were written in simpler, far less ambitious times, there's not the thorough airing out of influences there could be, where we can really get the sense of just how much Star Wars owes to Burroughs' desert landscapes, exotic princesses, alien pals and low-gravity swashbuckling.  There's just a repurposing of art, a light feeling out of topics that will later become fetish (for Claremont, anyway) and then it's on to the next.

I thought this stuff was highly OK, and in some places quite GOOD, but I guess I prefer more Cosmic Twincest Follies far more intentional and far less accidental.  It was fun revisiting what so many of us thought Star Wars was, instead of what it actually turned out to be.

FLASHPOINT: LEGION OF DOOM #1:  "My name's Heatwave.  I've got a hunger... burning in my gut.  The only way to stop it... is to satisfy my appetite."

So begins the dumbest, most inept comic I've read in a while.  It's so bad I'm shocked Hibbs passed it over for his ever-increasing number of "I Have Read The Worst Comic I Have Ever Read" columns.  Here, Adam Glass and Rodney Buchemi treat us to a tale of  non-starter supervillain Heat Wave, who starts off the book incinerating one-half of Firestorm's secret identity because he wants to fight a guy whose head is on fire.  Then Cyborg shows up and awesome dialogue like "Didn't your mommy ever tell you not to play with matches, Heatwave?" "Sure did! So I burned her to death."  Then Heat Wave makes a train run out of control by...shooting it with flames?  Then Heat Wave ends up in prison where he proves himself to be a bad-ass by breaking the leg of a dude who must have shins made out of breadsticks.  Then Heat Wave gets manhandled by prison guard Amazo, which totally makes sense because Amazo is a robot with all the powers of the Justice League in an alternate universe where there never was a Justice League.  Then there's a Hostess cupcake ad, just like we had back in the '70s, except it's eight pages long and it's about Subway.  Then the awesome Legion of  Doom headquarters shows up but here in the Flashpoint universe it's a prison for super-tough criminals but for some reason Heat Wave is put in there, too.  Then Zsasz threatens Heat Wave. Then Clue Master turns up.  Then Heat Wave kicks a dude in the nuts.  Then, later in their cell, Clue Master clutches his stomach, coughs up blood, and then Plastic Man pulls himself out of Clue Master's mouth.  Yes, Clue Master was a mule used to smuggle in Plastic Man who on the last page is standing there grinning evilly, saying "Okay, you ready to blow this popsicle stand?" as one bloody arm still juts from Clue Master's mouth.  The next issue caption helpfully says, "NEXT ISSUE:  PLASTIC MAN!"

(Finally, I know why Jack Cole killed himself. Poor precognitive bastard.)

If you're the fan of the noise that's made when someone scrapes the very bottom of the barrel, this is the book for you. I actually hope this book has 100% sell-through for retailers, because I worry it will otherwise end up being donated to a hospital somewhere and make ill and injured children lose the will to live.  This book gets the seldom-used ASS rating which is actually overrating it by just a tad.  Please don't tell me you bought it and enjoyed it.

Away from the Shop #3: Jeff Talks Inception, Golgo 13, and (Mostly) Non-Comics

Here's another post from me about stuff I have not picked up at the comic book shop recently: a movie, an album, a dvd, and a TV series.  (Man, there's got to be a way I can wrangle a video game review in here, too.)  Since I recently spent over two thousand words writing about two comic books, I tried to make this quick, but...well, blabbity-blab happens, you know? (Blabbity-blab behind the cut.)

INCEPTION:  I'm from the icy formalist school myself, so it's not surprising I dug this. (Though I'm both surprised and pleased so many other audience members at my screening did as well.) Rather than bore you with any of my theories about the flick--I have a lot of 'em but I think they're well-covered pretty much everywhere else on the Net--I'll just mention how it's kind of a drag it took eleven years for someone to make a movie that feels like a legitimate response to The Matrix.  While everyone and their smaller-budgeted brother ripped off the bullet time, the tag lines, the soundtrack, and the fight scenes, this and Aaronofsky's The Fountain are the only movies I can think of that feel like they're engaging in a discussion with the Wachowski Brothers flick, or using that movie's underlying thematic concerns as a departure point for their own.


By contrast, I feel like I can sit down and watch Solaris, Silent Running, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Dark Star, good ol' apeshit Zardoz, Alien, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and see where the filmmakers are using the ideas of 2001 as a touching-off point for their own speculations about human nature and how it will fit into the larger pattern of the cosmos.  And all of these films came out in the same span of time--eleven years--as that between The Matrix and Inception.

Maybe I'm leaving out tons of examples and god knows, it's not like The Matrix didn't leak, like a canister of toxic waste buried in somebody's backyard, into every corner of pop culture. But clearly, Nolan took up the challenge of an action-movie-that-continually-points-outside-its-own-frame and I don't think it's just because he was the only one who wanted to do so--it was because he'd just made Warner Brothers a stupendous shitload of money and he had a highly bankable star that wanted to be in it...and the number of people in that particular position are very, very small.  Hollywood is now the kind of place where dozens of iterations can be squeezed out but none of those iterations can really comment on one another and I don't know why.  Is it because they're not so much variations on a theme as they are a bunch of people trying to rip off the same tune, and I guess commenting on a theme would be tacky?

Or maybe I'm old and really unable to think of good examples. I dunno. Anyway, I quite liked the flick:  seeing it and reading Scott Pilgrim v6 within 48 hours of each other gave me a very optimistic feeling about the state of nerd culture 2010 overall.


GOLGO 13 v1 DVD: You might remember me going on and on about each of Viz's "best of" collection that gave us a handful of adventures of Taiko Saito's tight-lipped assassin.  So it's not surprising that once I found out about this thirteen episode collection of a 2008 series by animation company Tokyo TV, I was all over it.

What is surprising is that I found out about it at all:  if I hadn't added the RSS feed for Japanator on an impulse two weeks before the press release, I never would've known. And once I did find out, that didn't help me much: the distributor Section23 films has had this as their incredibly unhelpful website for some time now. (Sometimes I think we should classify entertainment media the way we classify stars--anime is teetering right on the edge of brown dwarf status in this country, capable of keeping objects in its orbit but not emitting anything like visible light.) Instead of just forgetting about the DVD set after getting nothing but the same press releases over and over, I eventually realized I could pre-order a copy from Amazon.

So. This DVD set.  It's two bare-bone discs, the animation is cheap-bordering-on-shoddy, and the voice cast is decent but overworked. (Here's a tip for voiceover directors: if in the course of thirteen episodes, you let a voice actor do his Jimmy Stewart imitation for two entirely different characters? They are being overworked.) It's a little pricey, considering what you get.

And yet, that said, you'd have to hire an emotionless Japanese sniper to shoot this collection out of my hands. Each episode is brief, between 22 to 25 minutes tops, but from what  I can tell the stories are compact, faithful adaptations of classic Golgo 13 manga stories.  In fact, the very second episode in the set, Room No. 909, is an adaptation of "The Impossible Hit," the very first Golgo 13 story I ever read, hot on the heels of playing the awesome Nintendo game.


(And Jesus, if either of those two links ring a bell and you haven't read it already, check out Jog's amazing two part look at the character and his infiltration of America that the big J wrote back Two Thousand and fucking Five. As always, Jog is on the money, to the point where his idle speculations as to what stories might be adapted for this series are, if the coming attractions at the end of this set are anything to go by, very likely dead-on.)

Golgo 13 stories can go several different ways, and the time limitations on each episode here keep them away from the densely researched, ultra-wonk political stories (that ended up in the print collection) and keep them focused on more basic "who's Golgo got to kill now/how's he gonna do it" with a special emphasis on the "...and how is he gonna get away with it?" episodes.  I'm a big fan of the latter, probably because "The Impossible Hit" is just such a story--a savvy investigator realizes G-13 is the assassin he's after but he has only has so much time to prove it.  Three of the thirteen episodes on this disc are variations of this story and I found each one utterly satisfying. Golgo 13 is less like James Bond (although that's clearly a huge piece of his inspiration) and more like Batman--he's always prepared and he always wins--and the satisfaction of the story comes from seeing how, exactly, he's going to win even as the odds pile up against him.

Unlike Batman, you never, ever get inside Golgo-13's head, even when you follow the character in a story from beginning to end.  He gives up nothing, has no affiliations other than professional. Since the Golgo 13 series was created for, and avidly read by, Japanese salarymen, it's not hard to see G-13 as a specific idealized fantasy of the Japanese businessman--in this set, the template for each episode usually has the character fly somewhere (jumbo jets are to Golgo-13 what rain-slickened gargoyles are to Batman), get offered millions of dollars and begged for his services, dispatch his job with calm detachment, and then fly away after sticking it to the dudes at customs. (Because the episodes run a little tight, there's not always time to have him meet a woman and immediately bed her, but the producers are sensible enough to put that scenario in both the opening and ending credit scenarios.)  When put like that, it's pretty easy to see why Golgo 13 is so appealing to his target demographic. It's also pretty hard to see why any of the rest of us wouldn't find his stories unbelievably dull.

But they're not dull, for two reasons: first, the amount of research and funky technical twists give each story little surprises for the reader outside of the fomula. Second--and maybe this is really why Golgo 13 works for me, as opposed to Jog or Tim Leong or somebody--Golgo 13 is so devoid of personality, it's easier to see him as a force of nature or, more precisely, as the personification of death.  G-13 is like Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men--a hit man, a foreigner, a bit odd, and a few steps ahead of everyone.  If a half-hour TV show where you'd watch Anton Chigurh bump off somebody new each week sounds pleasingly perverse to you, then you get a fraction of the appeal this set holds for me.

Golgo also reminds me a bit of Michael Myers from John Carpenter's Halloween, which was refreshingly free of the teen morality of slasher films that followed in its wake. In Halloween, Michael Myers becomes obsessed with Laurie Strode just because he sees her at his old house.  All that shit that goes on to happen to her happens only because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  (That's also the reason for everything that happens in Assault on Precinct 13, which I also love.)  A few episodes on this disc pick another standard direction for a G-13 story--the person who hires Golgo 13 for a hit but tries to cheat him in some way--but that's as close as the stories get to a traditional "poetic justice" angle.  Really, the "point" of a G-13 story, again and again, is that Golgo 13 always kills somebody, whether they deserve it or not, and then gets away with it. Part of the stories' dramatic tension come from their continual bucking of the traditional "and in the end, the good guys win or at least justice is served" arc common in most of our pop culture.

In this way, good ol' Golgo 13 embodies the Nietzschean conception of the übermensch in a lot of different ways--he really is beyond good and evil--and so is a certain kind of boogie man for middle-aged guys like me (and maybe those Japanese salarymen) who've spent the majority of our lives coloring within the lines. Just as horny teens find some relief in having a masked figurant uphold and avenge their childish puritanism and sexual squeamishness by jamming a pitchfork through a couple rutting in a tool shed, so too does Golgo 13 offer guys like me a world outside morality without the accompanying terror of total nihilism


Anyway, if that's the kind of thing you like to think about while people get neat little bullet holes right in the center of their forehead, this is the anime set for you. The Anime Network has the first episode up for non-subscribers to watch (probably U.S. only), although I should warn you it's not my favorite. (In fact, it's probably my least favorite, after the one with the mafia mistress.) But it'll give you a little bit of the flavor.  Believe me though, the one where Golgo 13 has to commit the hit in a crowded stadium filled with police and somehow get away, or the one where a counter-sniper is hired to prevent his hit, or the violin string episode, are much, much better.  GOOD stuff.

WEEDS, SEASONS 1-4: Edi and I had the first two seasons lent to us and figured, ehh, why not?  (I've already resigned myself to going to my grave before she gives the thumb's-up on Deadwood.) This show drives me crazy because it is madly uneven--I don't think ever watched a show that could deliver so many interesting little bits of character and nuance and then just flush it all away with a flat bit of stupid shtick--and kinda crazily ambitious:  there are eight core characters, jammed into episodes that run under half an hour.  (The first season, in fact, has episodes that average 22 minutes, which is just insane with a cast like that.)

What I thought was cool about the first half of the first season is how its set-up mirrors the superhero template perfectly:  newly widowed mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) turns to dealing pot as a way to keep her and her kids in the expensive sheltered community of Agrestic, and her attempts to balance her secret identity as a pot dealer and her life as a full-time mom/member of the community is very much in the Peter Parker/Clark Kent vein. Fortunately, we don't get an origin story for *how* Nancy gets into pot dealing, so the show starts at a spry clip. And underneath all the light quick-moving scenes is a really terrific performance from Parker, who manages to make the contradictions of the character work--the first season is at its best when it seems to be a portrait of someone processing grief in very odd ways, someone more likely to laugh in shock rather than cry and possibly driven by guilt to manufacture her own self-destruction.

Spider-Man as a middle-aged drug dealing mom?  I'd watch the shit out of that.  Unfortunately, the show not only burns through the secret identity thing pretty quickly--I think nearly everyone knows what she's up to two-thirds of the way through the first season--it also ditches any of the ideas it sets up about the suffocating existence of life in a suburban community where everyone needs to have a private life, whether they want one or not. The rest of the season spends as much if not more time with Elizabeth Perkins' character  and her plight (she's a controlling ultra-bitch who gets cancer) that feels like Jenji Kohan, the show's creator, never expected to get her pilot approved and had to recycle material from her old ultra-bitch-mom-gets-cancer  screenplay.

Additionally, as the seasons go on, the creators decide toy with darker and darker comedy with shakier and shakier results--rather than using Weeds as a light empowerment fantasy, the show insists on having Nancy come up against harsher and harsher realities of the drug trade which would be fine if: (a) those realities didn't always end up turning into goofy fantasies themselves; and (b) if Nancy had more to bring to the game than her beauty and sexuality. I'm a little disturbed and bummed that a show created by a woman with a female protagonist has that protagonist get out of most of her problems by turning most of her enemies into gooey, protective doofuses if she just gets the chance to blink her big doe eyes at them for long enough.  (And I won't spoil the fourth season finale for you, but let's just say it takes that concept one unfortunate step further.)  It reminds me of the problem I'm having with the Buffy Season Eight Twilight story (the last time I checked in on it) where the fate of humanity appears to hinge on who Buffy chooses as a mate.  We have more genuine opportunities for female heroes and protagonists than ever before, but for some reason their ultimate destinies keep leading right back to their ovaries.  It bums me out.

PLASTIC BEACH: I only downloaded this recently so admittedly I'm at the height of my love affair with this album--not only is it a concept album, it's a concept album that's a sequel to another concept album, the Gorillaz' previous release, Demon Days.  Maybe there's someone else who's done that and succeeded (I'm sure someone will try to tell me either The Kinks or The Who in which case I should just say now:  No.) but it's news to me.

The thing I appreciate is Demon Days, also a fave of mine, did a pretty good job in its fabular, conceptual way, of pointing out what an amazingly good job our culture has done of flushing the world down the toilet.  Plastic Beach actually has the courage to not let that be the last word on the subject, and return to a trash-filled, culture-strangled world and see what's left--unsurprisingly, the first third of the album is mostly hip-hop and frontman/producer Damon Albarn crooning about how his love's eyes are like "factories far away." The plastic beach is both literal--all the trash and detritus threatening to choke the world--and figurative, pop culture itself, of which Albarn & Co. are aware of themselves as  producers and consumers ("Superfast Jellyfish" is this stellar song about the crap passed off as instant food but also about the crap of instant culture.)


But the most amazing thing about Plastic Beach--well, right after "Some Kind of Nature," that somehow works as both a terrific Lou Reed song and a terrific Gorillaz song--is that Albarn doesn't leave things bleak.  The album ends on a note that has faith in nature to evolve and process all the plastic, to find a new way to live and grow.  Unlike Demon Days, where I'd finish each listen of the album nodding my head to the music and depressed as hell, Plastic Beach gives me something like hope, and not in the pre-packaged easy-to-unwrap way.  It feels like something that's been earned, by both the people making the music and the people listening to it, and that's an achievement that feels way too rare these days.