(These images come straight from the source)
I see Zack Snyder is channeling Tim Burton's Batman for the Nite Owl character. Again, not quite what I think the story calls for. I really wish directors and costume designers would quit slapping plastic armor on every live-action superhero they see, especially in Watchmen. Don't they realize how stiff that makes their movements? Watchmen is about the real-world practicalities of superheroes, not this over-glamorized stuff.
Are those plastic nipples? And a belly button? Are these people taking design tips from Joel Schumacher now?
Well, this is much, much better. But then, Rorschach's costume is just a trench coat, a hat, and a black & white mask. I guess that's pretty hard to get wrong.
What the hell is Laurie supposed to be doing here? Seriously, has there ever been an occasion in the history of mankind when a person has had a practical reason to adopt such a pose?
I think the best we can hope is that these are merely promotional images that have little do with the actual look of the final film. Maybe it's a really clever plot point wherein the characters in the world of the film posed for fake publicity shots, but they are actually the authentic and practical human beings that we see in the comic book.
Or maybe Zack Snyder is making Watchmen into just another glamorous big-budget action film.
Why couldn't Paul Greengrass have been allowed to direct his version?
For the last few days Neil Gaiman has been writing on his journal about the benefits of giving books away for free online. The first major post was here, in which he wrote:
This is how people found new authors for more than a century. Someone says, "I've read this. It's good. I think you'd like it. Here, you can borrow it." Someone takes the book away, reads it, and goes, Ah, I have a new author.
Libraries are good things: you shouldn't have to pay for every book you read.
I'm one of those authors who is fortunate enough to make my living from the things I've written. If I thought that giving books away would make it so that I could no longer make my living from writing and be forced to go out and get a real job -- or that other authors would be less likely to be able to make a living -- I wouldn't do it.
And then in a follow-up post in response to a concerned bookseller's e-mail he wrote:
The books you sell have "pass-along" rates. They get bought by one person. Then they get passed along to other people. The other people find an author they like, or they don't.
When they do, some of them may come in to your book store and buy some paperback backlist titles, or buy the book they read and liked so that they can read it again. You want this to happen.
Just as a bookseller who regards a library as the enemy, because people can go there and read -- for free! -- what he sells, is missing that the library is creating a pool of people who like and take pleasure in books, will be his customer base, and are out there spreading the word about authors and books they like to other people, some of whom will simply go out and buy it.
Pretty cool stuff.
By the way, this whole discussion was prompted by Neil getting Harper Collins to put the full text of American Gods online for free. I've read nearly all of Gaiman's writings and I think this is his best prose work. So if you haven't already read it, go to the free online version and check it out.
I found this blog through Honzo. It's full of vicious satire that makes me feel small and shallow. Here are a few posts that were especially hard to take:
An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through "awareness." Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.
White people universally love David Sedaris. So if they ever ask you “who are you favorite authors?” you should always reply “David Sedaris.” They will instantly launch into a story about how much they love his work, and the conversation will go from there, and you don’t have to talk about books any more.
The number one reason why white people like not having a TV is so that they can tell you that they don’t have a TV.
They are always on the look out for the latest hot band that no one has heard of so that one day, they can hit it just right and be into a band BEFORE they are featured in an Apple commercial. To a white person, being a fan of a band before they get popular is one of the most important things they can do with their life. They can hold it over their friends forever!
White people love stations like NPR (which is equivalent to listening to cardboard), and they love shows like This American Life and Democracy Now. This confuses immigrants from the third world. The see the need for radio as a source for sports, top 40 radio and traffic reports but they don’t quite understand why people who can afford TVs and have access to Youtube, would spend hours listening to the opinions of overeducated arts majors.
Recycling is a part of a larger theme of stuff white people like: saving the earth without having to do that much.
Though they will never actually move to Canada, the act of declaring that they are willing to undertake the journey is very symbolic in white culture. It shows that their dedication to their lifestyle and beliefs are so strong, that they would consider packing up their entire lives and moving to a country that is only slightly similar to the one they live in now.
The Onion News Network: Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early
I mentioned Micah P. Hinson once briefly after discovering a single song by him on a podcast. Since then I've bought his two solo albums and I'm happy to say that all of his music is excellent. Have a listen.
Diggin a Grave on 103.1 FM
She Don't Own Me on BBC Collective:
It's hard to believe this guy is younger than I am. The first time I heard him I thought he sounded like an old, weathered country/folk singer.
And just because this song is so brilliant, check out the studio recording of She Don't Own Me.
Whenever I've watched the Oscars in the past I've been very interested in the short film categories, even though I'm not at all familiar with them. Perhaps it's the fact that they are so unknown that makes that section of the awards unpredictable and exciting.
This year, with the help of YouTube, I've decided to familiarize myself with the short animated films so I can have some idea about what ought to win. I thought some of you might be interested in doing the same. Here are all five nominees for Best Animated Short:
I Met the Walrus
The full film is unfortunately not on YouTube, but you can see a preview here. It looks pretty cool.
Even Pigeons Go To Heaven
A very cute French film about a miserly man buying passage to Heaven. Watch it here.
Peter and the Wolf
Yes, it's another interpretation of the classic musical composition. It's mostly well-done, and the creators even tried adding new dimensions to the story, including a pacifist ending, but ultimately I found little in it to set it apart from the many incarnations that have come before.
My pick: Madame Tutli-Putli
Daniel's latest thing is spinning around in circles until he gets dizzy and falls down.
Sometimes I wonder: what did Erika and I do for entertainment before we were parents?
I finally got to see the Coen Brothers' latest offering last night. I had given up hope of catching it in the theater, but the Academy Award nominations popularized the film enough that it actually came to our little theater in Kirksville.
I've obviously been very anxious to see No Country For Old Men: Joel and Ethan Coen are my favorite filmmakers of all time, and for a graduate English class I even wrote a paper analyzing the depiction of American landscapes in their movies. As soon as I learned the premise of their newest offering I knew it would fit perfectly with the thesis I once spent a semester developing.
After finally getting to see movie, however, I had mixed feelings. Sure, it's a magnificent artistic achievement: brilliantly acted, directed, shot, and edited, No Country For Old Men certainly deserved all of the praise it's been given. The only things missing from it are those things that made me love the Coen Brothers: their snappy dialogue, their post-modern manipulation of film genre, and the element of the surreal or supernatural in their movies.
The movie in the Coens' body of work that No Country For Old Men most resembles is their debut, Blood Simple, which also featured a protagonist being pursued by a relentless killer in the midst of a barren Texas landscape. It similarly lacks the humorous dialogue of the Coens' other films, although if you look closely you can see the brothers begin to play a little with the film medium. In one scene the camera moves down the length of a bar and must move up and over a drunk man passed out across its path. The photographer of Blood Simple warned the Coen Brothers against this shot, saying it would draw the audience's attention to the existence of the camera. The Coens replied that this was the exact effect they desired.
Even such subtle playfulness with audience awareness is absent from No Country For Old Men. Many critics have claimed it is their best work because of this fact, but that playfulness is what made me love the Coen Brothers in the first place. With their three most recent films adapted from other people's stories, I would like to see them direct an original script more in the style on which they built their reputation.
Nevertheless, it's unfair to judge a movie against what I would like it to be, so I must acknowledge that in every way No Country For Old Men is an unqualified artistic success. The scene between Carla and Chigurh alone is worth the price of admission, and features the most inspired line I've heard spoken in a movie theater in a long time: "The coin has nothing to do with it. It's just you."
Post-script: After writing this I checked the Coen Brothers' filmography at Wikipedia, where I saw that one upcoming project is an adaptation of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. While I would love to see this, I still maintain my preference for original Coen Brothers stories (which we will apparently get in Burn After Reading).
Nude by Radiohead:
Sorry. I love the song, along with pretty much anything Radiohead does, but I couldn't bring myself to sit through this entire video.
If you want to see Radiohead moving in slow motion, I recommend watching the infinitely better Street Spirit video, directed by Jonathan Glazer:
Christopher O'Riley - Karma Police
Daniel Johnston - Walking the Cow
Ben Folds Five - Brick
U2 - A Sort of Homecoming
Ani DiFranco - Napoleon
The Flaming Lips - Okay I'll Admit That I Really Don't Understand
Brian Setzer Orchestra - Let's Live It Up
Sufjan Stevens - Dumb I Sound
UNKLE - The Knock (Drums of Death, Pt. 2)
David Bowie - Battle For Britain (The Letter)
Another video from The Animation Show (although there's no animation in it, so I'm not sure why it was posted at that site):
I saw a link to this over at The Animation Show.
Adjustment is a spectacular short film that absolutely everybody must watch. I would like to describe what it's like, but I think the work speaks well for itself, and it's only a few minutes long anyway. I'll just say that it is a phenomenal bit of film making that does things with live action and animation that I've never seen before. Also, the animated bits are perfectly woven into the story for maximum emotional effect.
I could go on, but it would be easier for you to just watch it. Promise me you will.
My school canceled classes yesterday for snow, which gave me a nice chance to be at home and catch up on some reading. I got all the way through the first 17 issues of Y: The Last Man. I've been wanting to read the series for a while, but I had to wait until the final issue was published this month to start it.
You see, even though I love the medium of comics, I have no patience for the serialized format in which most of them are published. Y: The Last Man is a limited, 70-issue series with a single story that has taken six years to tell. I don't understand how a reader can wait that long to get to the finish. And Y is even better than most, because it goes at a fast pace and has exciting plot developments in every issue. Other series have demanded far more patience from readers.
Take Dave Sim's Cerebus. It was a 300-issue series that ran for 25 years! It's very impressive that a single creator can see that kind of project through to the end, but I can't help thinking how frustrating it must have been for fans to read it in monthly installments. In one issue early on Sim takes a break from the main story to create a trippy dream sequence after which the main character wakes up, takes a long leak that lasts several pages, then goes back to bed. I love the audacity of the scene, but I can't help but think how angry I would be if I had waited all month to find out what happens next in the story, only to see Cerebus literally pissing away an issue with no plot development.
But here's the thing: what is infuriating in a monthly comic book works fine within a 250-page graphic novel; conversely, the plot twists and cliffhangers that make serialized stories exciting are tiresome in a book-length work. I would just as well see publishers give up monthly comics in favor of original graphic novels. I think the format would encourage not only better storytelling, but more original stories, once creators no longer have to force out yet another new take on a series that's been in publication for 70 years. I think a switch to exclusively book formats would also be the key to setting comics alongside prose novels and films as a legitimate art form.
Unfortunately, I don't see this happening anytime soon. The sale of the monthly floppies are the comic book industry's bread and butter. This business model that keeps the industry alive also keeps it from growing beyond the small niche of comic book fans it has carved out. It's a vicious cycle.
Until something changes, I'll keep on with my own habit of only reading limited series after they're finished. I can't wait for 100 Bullets to end next year so I can finally start it.
This is kind of the last minute, but before you vote in the Presidential primaries (assuming you have not yet done so), pick a candidate who matches your views and values. A novel idea, I know! But with news organizations focusing mostly on candidates' personalities and war chests, I get the impression that too many people are clueless about what candidates actually stand for.
I made up my mind some time ago to vote for Barack Obama, even though the perpetual longshot Dennis Kucinich has traditionally matched my views most closely.
Today, however, I went on SelectSmart.com, a site that asks questions about your political views and lets you rate them as high or low priorities. Check out who my closest match is:
It makes me feel even better about voting for Obama, knowing that he may actually be the best fit for my political views, and not merely the best of the candidates that remain.
Now you try it. How well does your candidate of choice match your positions?
Björk - An Echo, A Stain
David Holmes - No Man's Land
The Good, the Bad & the Queen - History Song
The Seatbelts - Fantasie Sign
Indigo Girls - Joking
The White Stripes - 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues
Pink Floyd - Any Colour You Like
Gorillaz - New Genious (Brother)
Janis Joplin - Move Over
Bob Dylan - It Ain't Me Babe
It's February and I'm ending my media fast. Did I miss anything?
According to Google Reader I have 3,836 unread items. I know most of that is stuff that doesn't matter one bit. I think I'll just go back and read all the items by people I know personally and skip the rest. I really doubt there's anything meaningful or important in it all. There's something therapeutic about selecting a folder of over 400 news items and clicking "Mark All As Read."
I also resubscribed to all my podcasts. I have no idea how many of those I missed because I mostly chose not to download past episodes (I picked up a few of my favorites, but that's it).
So what have I learned from all this? For one thing, it seems the world will keep turning even if I don't update myself on every news item of every day. Also, it seems that most of what I read is of absolutely no consequence and I'd be better not to burden myself with it.
I'm hoping to change the way I keep up with news from now on. I want to do better at filtering out the stuff I don't need. I think I'll unsubscribe to a lot of blogs and only download podcast episodes that I think I really want to hear. It's been nice this month to feel no obligation to read or listen to anything, and I want to maintain that attitude while still staying plugged in to the news.
So be honest: is there anything of vital importance that I missed this month? (News items I heard about from other people include: Heath Ledger dying, Matt Blunt not running for re-election, and Dennis Kucinich dropping out of the Democratic Primary).
Click on the image to supersize it.
This is one of several strips in which Nemo and his friends display awareness of their existence as comic characters, make specific reference to the artist, and manipulate the page they are on. Grant Morrison and John Byrne did stuff like this in the 1980s they were praised as post-modernists. When Winsor McCay did it in 1907 such a label didn't exist yet.
It's a pretty cheap trick, but entertaining nonetheless. I like the way it plays with cartoon logic: as the characters move from the left to right panel in each row the letters must change to stay consistent with the "Little Nemo in Slumberland" title that stretches across the entire row. Notice how even the letters in the characters' switch back and forth to maintain that consistency.
I think I've given up the idea of scanning all the Little Nemo strips and posting each one on its 100th anniversary. I just don't want to commit to a project like that right now.
I'm still not done writing about Little Nemo, though, because I keep finding examples that show what a visionary Winsor McCay was. Here's one from January 27, 1907. Click on the image below to see a full-size version (thanks to elfortunawe for the suggestion about uploading these scans to Wikimedia Commons).
This strip isn't particularly outstanding in terms of story, but what really grabbed my attention is the three-panel sequence at the bottom. Notice how McCay uses the entire tier to create a wide view of the staircase, which the characters climb as they move across the panels. It's a technique I see often in the comics by some of my favorite characters, and I always think the effect is striking.
First of all, it allows the artist to create an impressive establishing shot without sacrificing the space he needs for story and character development. Second, it gives a feeling of continuously flowing time. Normal panel transitions, such as those in the top tier of the same page, tend to chop time up into discrete moments. By using the bottom three panels to show the same characters moving across a single landscape, it feels like a single unbroken sequence, and gives the impression of unbounded time.
Like I said, I love the effect this type of panel sequence creates and have observed its use by some of my favorite comics creators of today. It's never really occurred to me to wonder who invented it. I can't be positive that Winsor McCay was the first, but I think this makes a strong argument. I'd definitely like to know if there are any earlier examples.
I have a few moments to myself tonight and I thought I'd write a bit here (a novel idea, I know!)
My media fast is still going. I have to admit that I don't really miss all the blog posts and podcasts. Once in a while I'll think, "I haven't read anything by ________ in a while" and then I remember that I'm on a fast. Most days I don't even think of it because I don't have the podcasts on my iPod and I don't have Google Reader showing up on my homepage anymore. Seeing how little I miss it all, perhaps when I go back to those things I'll try to cut down on the number I subscribe to.
So how have I been filling my time? I'm actually not sure. I suppose I'm spending more time just playing with Daniel or talking to Erika, without the constant background noise. I've also been quite busy at work, but I've discovered other ways to procrastinate.
I've also realized that I have gradully been losing interest in blogging lately. I just rarely have anything I feel is worth saying. I'm not sure if that's because I have so many other things going on or because I'm just bored with it.
I mentioned a fleeting interest in starting a new blog devoted wholly to publishing scans of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo strips exactly 100 years after their original printing dates, but I've decided against it. I'm gung-ho about McCay now, but that will probably fade by the time I finish reading the collection I have. I think that's why I've never found a consistent style or content for this blog: it's hard for me to sustain interest in just one thing for a long time. In the meantime I may scan the best pages of Little Nemo I find and post them here with some commentary on why they're so great. If you're not a fan of early American comics, tough luck for you.
And on a final note partly related to this media fast of mine (and partly in keeping with the hodge-podge nature of this post) I have made it my personal goal this year to not view or hear a single campaign ad. I think I can actually do it: I listen to no commercial radio and I have no TV service in my home (what few shows I watch I download). The more election cycles I see the more I realize that campaign ads (and most television reporting, for that matter) pretty much do the exact opposite of informing and educating the public on who candidates are. My best advice for anyone this election year is this: whatever you're listening to watching, just turn it off and you will be a much better informed voter.
I'm sorry for the curmudgeonly tone. I think reading and watching 100-year-old artifacts may be making me feel old beyond my years. I'll try to be in a better mood next time you hear from me.
When I wrote about Winsor McCay last week the images I found of his comics were nowhere near big enough to even read, much less demonstrate the quality of his work. I decided I needed something better, so I did my own scan.
My scanner is too small for the book I have, which already prints the comics at a smaller size than their original publication (the comic strip once filled an entire newspaper page). I was able to scan a page in two images and Photoshop them together. So here you go: a scan of a Little Nemo comic that is big enough to read online (click on the image to see the full size version):
This is one of the earliest Little Nemo comics, from the first year of publication. It improved a lot over time (especially when McCay got rid of the lines of narration running under the panels) but there are some things I really like about this one.
I think the reason I like old books, comics, and movies, is that it gives me a feeling of connection with the past--a feeling that is heightened by Nemo's little journey forward through time here. It's strange to think McCay's distant future of 1999 is our very recent past. And how remarkable that he refrained from dressing Little Nemo in outlandish futuristic costume--the 99-year-old Nemo actually looks like he fits in our era!
I also think this page shows McCay had very strong page layouts from the start. I like the way the panels increase in size, descend down the page, and then decrease again in such a way that the two bedroom panels are the same size. It's a technique McCay employed throughout the series that causes the world of Slumberland to seem expansive compared to the "real" world.
I'm pretty sure that the first run of the Little Nemo strips is in the public domain, and it's a shame more of them aren't online. I've thought of starting a blog that reprints them all exactly 100 years after their original publication date but I'm not sure I have the time (and the huge files would start to take up a lot of bandwidth over time). Perhaps I'll just post occasional ones here until I lose interest.
One of my Christmas gifts this year was the new hardcover Little Nemo collection. Previous volumes of Winsor McCay's comic strip masterwork have been either incomplete, prohibitively expensive, or both. This book is the first full-color reprinting of all the Little Nemo strips from 1905-1914 (it omits a brief revival of the strip that occurred in the 1920s--I assume because the copyright on these later works has not yet expired). It's a wonderful volume, and very reasonably priced at $30 ($20 at Amazon). I simply can't recommend it enough.
For those who don't know, Winsor McCay was a pioneer of comic strips and animation. He was an extremely talented artist who often rendered intricately detailed drawings completely from memory--it is said that he could look at an object once and reproduce it perfectly on paper.
McCay practiced his art primarily in newspaper comics, a very new medium at the time. He produced a number of strips, but the one he is best known for is Little Nemo in Slumberland, which was later cancelled and reincarnated for another paper as Little Nemo in the Land of Wonderful Dreams. This story about a boy who visits a fantasy world in his sleeps gave McCay freedom to illustrate the most fantastic and bizarre stories he could imagine. Published only on Sundays, each installment of Little Nemo was a full-color, full-page spread crammed with richly detailed illustrations. To do the strips justice they must be viewed in a large format (the book I have is as tall as DC Comics' Absolute volumes, and still doesn't compare to the original print dimensions). Take a look at these sample pages and you'll see that Winsor McCay made the most intricately detailed comic strips to ever appear in a newspaper (click on each image to see a larger version that still doesn't do it justice).
That's not all. Winsor McCay was a pioneer of not just one, but two new 20th century artforms. He apparently claimed to have invented animation, which isn't strictly the truth, but very close to it. At the very least he created the style of hand-drawn animation that later defined the genre and directly influenced Walt Disney.
McCay's first films used his Little Nemo characters to demonstrate the kind of motion that was possible in animation. Here is an example, embedded within a comical live action film:
Next McCay produced Gertie the Dinosaur, credited as the first original character created for an animated film:
Though still drawn in a simple style, these films demonstrate elegantly fluid motion. They are particularly remarkable when you consider that this was before the invention of cel animation. That means that each frame had to be drawn completely on a single piece of paper, background and all (McCay sometimes had an assistant draw the background, but for the characters he drew every frame himself).
Winsor McCay's later films grew more complex and still look very good by today's animation standards. The Centaurs features characters who are very lifelike and realistic-looking:
But I think McCay's greatest achievement in animation must be his propaganda piece on The Sinking of the Lusitania. It is so realistic in every detail that it's hard to believe this is from the early days of animation. Just visually speaking, it's better than anything you'll find on TV today.
I've decided to do a media fast again. The first time around I cited spiritual reasons, but this time it's more psychological.
Tuesday night I got back from a busy Christmas vacation full of long car rides, hurried meetings with relatives, and lots and lots of sweets. Whenever I was in the car (which was often) or sitting around or rocking Daniel to sleep I filled my time by reading, listening to podcasts, watching TV shows on my iPod, and checking blogs. By the time I got home last night I was exhausted.
After Daniel went to bed I decided to relax in the bathtub. Normally when I'm soaking in a hot bath I like to read something light and entertaining, like a comic book. I went into my study to pick something, and there was absolutely nothing I felt like reading. In fact, the thought of reading at all made my head hurt.
I realized that just as my body is overloaded by the constant flow of cookies, candy, cinnamon rolls and the like, my mind is hyperstimulated by the constant information I've been feeding it.
So I've decided to physically and mentally purge my body of junk food. As I return to a normal diet of healthy food I'm also going to deprive myself of the podcasts and blogs that have become my daily feed. I'm going to do it for a month.
When I first settled on the idea I wondered if I could really do it for a whole month, considering how much it bothers me to go a single day without the latest news. I'm constantly checking Google Reader for any new updates, reading every headline that comes up so as not to miss anything. It's actually become a task in itself, clicking on each line, getting my count of unread items back down to zero. Could I really stand to let hundreds (maybe thousands) of items go unchecked?
But then I thought of what Thoreau wrote in Walden:
If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, -- we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.
Does it really matter if I miss reading what Hillary Clinton's campaign staff said about Barack Obama, or what piece of legislation President Bush vetoed this week? If a truly important event happens I'll hear about it somehow; and if whatever is left is no longer being talked about in February, then it probably didn't matter in the first place.
So I'm cutting myself off. Goodbye for now, blogosphere. You may hear from me (perhaps I'll have more time for writing), but I won't be hearing from you.
This is my obligatory year-end top ten list. These are probably not the ten best things to be released in 2007 but they're the ten that I have enjoyed the most.
I must confess that I never got into The Colbert Report, mostly because it went on the air right around the time that I found myself too busy for TV. I even had to quit watching The Daily Show because I couldn't keep up with the 30 minutes per day it demanded. But I like the idea of Stephen Colbert as a TV pundit, and when he is at his best I think he's both funny and viciously satirical (like when he was a guest at the White House Correspondents' Dinner).
Because I don't get to see Colbert on TV anymore I leaped at the chance to read a book written in the style of O'Reilly, Coulter, Hannity, et al. The text of the book is a lot like what I've seen of the Report: most of the humor derives from Colbert's bloated ego and self-righteousness. It's funny and there are some great lines, but too much at once can get a little tedious.
What's really great in the book is the stuff that works only in the print medium: the graphics, charts, and the design of the book itself. I love the way the book parodies this particular genre of non-fiction, from huge portrait on the front with name and title in huge letters (above the name is a blurb that reads, "From the author of I Am America (And So Can You!)") to the back cover picture that shows Colbert enjoying the book in hand. It's these little bonuses that really make the book fun to read (I definitely recommend picking up the physical book instead of the audio version).
Larry Gonick has apparently made it his mission to distill all human knowledge into comic book form. His works so far include the Cartoon Guides to Chemistry, Physics, Statistics, Genetics, and of course the Cartoon History of the Universe, Books I, II, and III. The Cartoon History of the Modern World picks up where the latter left off, and although the title is slightly more modest, it is no less ambitious.
As you would expect, a comic book account of all known history is not exactly in-depth, but it is a very decent survey of the major historical events of our world. What Gonick does best in these volumes is show what was happening simultaneously throughout the world during a given period. For example, you may know all about Spain's colonization of South America, but do you know what was happening in China during those same years? Such a broad perspective becomes particularly relevant in this volume as the search for new passages to India spawned a global economy for the first time in history.
The other great thing about Larry Gonick is his sense of humor. Every page is a mix of straight facts, cartoony sight gags, and witty commentary. Gonick is not afraid to wear his political bias on his sleeve and criticize both historical figures and modern historians. In this volume he takes several opportunities to get in little jabs at George W. Bush, drawing comparisons that would be better left to the reader to make. He doesn't call out our president by name, but makes strong suggestions, as when he says Machiavelli's The Prince must be used as a guide book by certain leaders today. Such interjections feel out of place, and when someone reads the book 15 years from now it will seem dated. But I can forgive Gonick's occasional indulgence in contemporary political commentary because the rest of his history is as enlightening and entertaining as always.
The premise of Michael Chabon's new novel is one of the most interesting that I have seen. At the end of World War II some people were interested in creating a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees in Alaska. Although it was still only a territory at the time Alaska had a non-voting representative in congress who managed to block the effort. This is all true history. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union Michael Chabon imagines an alternate universe in which that non-voting representative died in an accident and the movement to create an Alaskan Jewish settlement succeeded. Fast forward to 2007 and the temporary settlement is about to revert back to the state of Alaska and the thousands of Jews who live there will again be displaced.
This is not the plot of the novel. In an act of Tolkienesque ambition Chabon has invented a 60-year history of this alternate reality to use as the backdrop for the novel. The story focuses on a detective in the settlement who is solving one last murder before his department is turned over to the new local government. For the most part the novel adheres closely to conventions of the mystery genre: the murder of a nameless junkie gradually unravels to reveal an international conspiracy involving multiple governments and the Hasidic mafia. It's all done very self-consciously, and Michael Chabon has some fun playing with genres. The protagonist is a cross between two stereotypes: the hard-boiled, down-on-his-luck detective and the neurotic, self-loathing Jew--a combination that makes for some very dark humor.
Bu what makes the novel really enjoyable to read is the richness of the world Chabon has created. At every turn the detective's travels provide an opportunity to explore the cultural mingling of Jewish and Eskimo cultures that make up a society unlike anything that exists in the real world.
7. Sweeney Todd
I've been looking forward to seeing this ever since I heard Tim Burton would be directing. It's about time Sondheim's masterpiece was brought to screen, and Burton is the perfect fit to capture the horror and humor of it. For the most part, the film did not disappoint. It's visually spectacular, and while the lead actors are obviously not Broadway singers they pull their parts off well. There was really only one thing that kept my enjoyment from being complete: the film omits the iconic Sweeney Todd theme that opens and closes the musical. It's an exciting piece of music and I was really looking forward to seeing that song brought to screen more than anything else. I can see why Burton may have thought it didn't fit in his movie, and the rest of the movie is good enough to make me want to see it again and again, but that one glaring omission will always leave the movie less than perfect in my mind.
Political satire has thrived the last several years, thanks to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the wealth of material that pours out of Washington every day. Before Comedy Central got in the game, though, there was The Onion, and when it comes to lampooning news media and American culture they are still the best. In 2007 they added to their website video content from a fake 24-hour news network that features headline news, In the Know (the obligatory talking heads program), Onion-SPAN (with minute-by-minute coverage of congressional procedure), and Today Now! (a morning show with sickeningly perky hosts--the preview is so perfect in its satire that it had me in stitches). The Onion News Network is irreverent, often offensive, and almost always hilarious. In a brief segment they can pinpoint exactly what is wrong with TV news far more effectively than a thousand editorial essays. Just take a look at this video (contains vulgar language, obviously):
I briefly wrote about Gogol Bordello once, and I'm not sure I have anything more to say about it now, except that this riotous album continues to bring no end of joy to my life. It's some of the most wildly energetic music I heard this year, and I highly recommend it.
The gorgeous, oversized, hardcover, leatherbound collection of Neil Gaiman's Sandman continued this year with the second installment. This is the part where the series really gets good: Season of Mists has always been one of my favorite Sandman story arcs because it reveals the full mythological world that Morpheus inhabits, and is a very entertaining story besides. To me this is where Gaiman really established his voice in the series. But enough about that. The story is old; the packaging is what's new. The improvement in the color reproduction isn't as dramatic with this volume by this point in the series the original production values had improved considerably, but there are still plenty of other incentives: new introductions, scripts, conceptual sketches, and a Sandman story from a Vertigo sampler that has never been reprinted until now. On an even more geeky and anal-retentive note, the Absolute edition prints the occasional stand-alone stories in the order of their original publication, amidst the larger storylines, rather than lumping them all together as in Fables and Reflections.
Any time Alan Moore publishes a new comic is cause for celebration, especially when it's an original graphic novel. It's hard to believe, but the greatest writer comic book writer of all time has chosen to publish his life's work almost exclusively in monthly installments that are later collected in trade paperback form. Depending on your reckoning, the Black Dossier is only the third or fourth work that could truly be called an original graphic novel (although, given its content, I think the term multi-genre novel may be more appropriate in this case). I recently finished writing a more complete review of the Black Dossier, which you can read here.
Ratatouille proves once again that Brad Bird is one of the best directors working in animation today. This movie had me grinning from beginning to end. It's a very sweet story that has the boldness to go against the trend of sharp-tongued pop-culture-reference laden computer-animated films that dominate theaters today. It is a timeless story with an innocently romantic view of Paris that recalls 101 Dalmations and Lady and the Tramp (back when Disney made good movies). Ratatouille is almost flawless in every detail, and the ending absolutely melts my heart. I was beaming with happiness all the way home from the theater.
1. In Rainbows
Radiohead's latest album drew plenty of press this year for its revolutionary business model that allowed consumers to download the music for whatever price they saw fit to pay--including nil. It was a particularly exciting announcement given that Radiohead had given no clues to their fans that a new album was even finished until a week before it was to be made available. This event alone would probably be enough to land the album on my top ten of the year, but on top of that In Rainbows is simply a great album. Radiohead continues to blend electronic and organic rock, but this one is a little more subtle than their previous releases. The band holds back a little on the arrangements and lets the songs stand on their own. I've been a fan of Radiohead since Pablo Honey came out and while the band's sound has gone through multiple evolutions and my own taste in music has changed considerably, every new album the band records re-establishes their place as my all-time favorite band. Whether they're reinventing rock and roll or the way music is distributed Radiohead consistently blazes a trail for others to follow.
I normally can't get to all the things I want to see, read, or hear in the same year they are released, and I reserve this space for things I expect I'll enjoy and probably would have made it on the list, time and money permitting.
This year I actually did pretty well. I got a lot of money for my birthday and went on an online shopping spree in November to get lots of comics that were released this year. I was also able to get friends and family to babysit so I could make it out to the theater a few times. Still, there is one thing I'm very disappointed I didn't get to see:
No Country for Old Men
A new release by my all-time favorite filmmakers that has been hailed by many critics as the best movie of the year? You can bet it would have been on near the top of my list. As much as it pains me, I'm going to have to wait for the DVD on this one because I'm returning to Kirksville tomorrow and there's no chance of it coming to the theater there.