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Reputation Culture

In his 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow posited a near-future economy in which cash and capital had been replaced by Whuffie, a reputation-based currency.   In Doctorow’s imagined ‘Bitchun Society,’ one’s worth is measured not by how much capital one has accumulated, but by how much one is trusted, esteemed, and beloved by others — all monitored in real-time by a system not unlike that used by YouTube, Reddit or Upworthy to surface or bury content.

Last year Black Mirror  showed us an eerily believable version of such a system in the episode “Nosedive.”  In ‘five-minutes-from-now’ future, Bryce Dallas Howard navigates a world in which Facebook likes are far more than tiny dopamine-bursts — the extent to which strangers, colleagues and friends Like and respect you is constantly adding and subtracting from a master score that is used to determine everything from employability to eligibility in the dating pool.  For many viewers, it felt a little too plausible; living a life that is sufficiently Instagrammable is already a source of genuine anxiety for many (an anxiety already transferred to the silver screen this summer’s film Ingrid Goes West).  The idea that one’s low follower count could have real world consequences is just too much to bear.

Average folks have begun to see some bleed over from social media into ‘real’ life: employers and educational institutions frequently monitor social media feeds of current or prospective employees/students, and of course the first thing one usually does after making a new acquaintance is comb through their Facebook page.  But we’re still a ways off from ubiquitous, real-time feedback and ranking of each other.

Unless, that is, you are a celebrity, media personality or prominent social media influencer.  Especially a female celebrity, media personality, or prominent social media influencer.  In which case, the daily struggle to control and shape one’s reputation has already become very, very real.

They’re Just Like Us

Musical rivalries are nothing new  — Mozart v. Salieri, Brahms v. Wagner, Stones v. Beatles — but the simultaneous rise of gossip rags and the visual culture of MTV in the late 20th century added a whole new dimension to such contests.  Whether one preferred Backstreet over N’Sync or Britney over Christina likely had little to do with the music itself and everything to do with how one felt about the performers as people.  And that had as much or more to do with what happened off-stage and out-of the studio as on- and in-  .

Over the last fifty years or so our understanding of celebrity culture has changed dramatically.  We moved from a culture in which artists and members of the media were private citizens who controlled what the world knew about them through the release of their art and carefully curated public appearances, to one in which everything about your favorite singer/actor/reality tv impresario is available to fans and haters alike, twenty-four-seven.  The watershed moment in this transformation was April 1, 2002, when US Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller published the first “Stars — They’re Just Like US” column.  A few years before the rise of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, culture vultures were treated to their first tastes of ubiquitous celebrity culture in the form of gas-station sightings, Starbucks trips, and bedhead shots.  Three years later Harvey Levin took the concept from a weekly column to an always-on obsession with the launch of TMZ (first as a website in 2005 and then as a trash-tv smash hit in 2007).

This new and increasingly intrusive celebrity culture allowed for the rise of an entirely new kind of celebrity — one who is Famous for Being Famous.  Kato Kaelin was perhaps the first, but it was another OJ-verse cameo character who became the Biggest, and by that measure at least, the Best: Kim Kardashian.  Her rise to the top of the cultural heap has been nothing short of meteoric:  from being the second-most-famous person in a sex tape with Brandy’s little brother Ray-J to one of the world’s most recognizable faces (and perhaps the world’s single most recognizable booty) in just 10 short years.

Kardashian is an artist.  Her art is not singing, dancing, acting (although she does act, on her ‘reality’ program Keeping Up with the Kardashians).  Her art is fame; her art is the art of reputation management.  But there is one crucial difference between the art of fame and all of the others:  fame is a zero-sum game.  Kim needs to win, and to win there has to be someone to defeat.  Every Face needs a Heel.

I Wish to Be Excluded

Enter Taylor Swift.

Swift has more Twitter followers than Kim Kardashian (more than twenty million more, actually) and a Google search of “Taylor Swift” returns tens of millions more results than one for “Kim Kardashian.”  Swift has over a billion plays on Spotify and, with two of the top twenty most-played videos of all time to her credit, Swifts total Youtube views exceeds the total population of the earth.

She also had, thru 2015, one of the most squeaky-clean reputations in the celebrity world.  A reputation built, in no small part, on a moment in 20xx.  The moment when Kanye West made a bitch famous — at least by his reckoning.

Would Taylor Swift still be one of the biggest pop stars in the world had this never happened?  Unqualified yes.  Did this moment completely alter both the public’s perception of her and the future trajectory of her career?  Also and unqualified yes.  Taylor Swift, an incredibly privileged white pop star, was suddenly given an opportunity to play in real life a role she almost always played in her songs:  that of the victim.  And she was having her feminist cake and eating it too, able to simultaneously portray both the striving-empowered-woman-artist and the helpless-victim-lady-princess.

I doubt it actually affected either’s level of outright fame, but for the most part this incident vastly improved Swift’s public reputation and damaged West’s.  West spent much of the next year apologizing — but no less a figure than President Barack Obama still thought he had been a “jackass.”

But in 2012 Kanye began a relationship with Kardashian and the two married shortly thereafter.  And at some point Kim, master of the celebrity narrative, saw an opportunity to seize, spin, and transform this particular tale — transform a princess into a snake.

In 2014 Swift released her best and most successful album, 1989, and was virtually assured of dominating the next Grammy-VMA award and press cycle.

On February 11 2016 Kanye debuted his Life of Pablo album at a fashion show at Madison Square Garden — and the following lines from “Famous” quickly became the most famous of his entire decade-plus rap career:

I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex

Why? I made that bitch famous

Just days later, Taylor denounced Kanye in her Grammy acceptance speech for album of the year:

At this point, Taylor is still clearly on top — she’s overcoming the patriarchy while winning Album of the Year, all while even many die-hard Kanye fans are openly questioning his sanity and quietly admitting to themselves that Pablo is far from his best work.

But Kanye feigned innocence:  he had checked all of this out with Taylor and she was like, totes fine with it.  Swift’s “camp” (everyone has a “camp” these days, I’m pretty sure that just means “PR agency” but I like to imagine that huge celebs have teams of super-fan millenials that hang around them and police their social media for them all day) denied it.

Unfortunately, it’s the new millenium, baby, and it has become oh-so-easy to save receipts.  In June of last year Kardashian granted an interview to GQ in which she seemed to confirm her husband’s story that he had gotten permission to use the lyrics — and therefore Swift’s poor-little-rich-girl act was just that, an ACT.  The following month, the controversy was at the center of an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and just after the episode’s airing, Kardashian dropped this ultimate social media bomb directly on Swift’s then-still-sterling reputation:

And just like that, the world was upside down.  Kim and Kanye were just super-conscientious people who wanted everyone to win.

And Taylor?  Taylor was a

snake

The entire internet had immediately turned on her, and Taylor was not pleased.  She posted the following missive on social media and then, save for a very suspect public dalliance with Tom Hiddleston, allowed herself to fade entirely from public view:

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Look What You Made Me Do

Swift had been on a pretty strict one-album-every-two-years pace for some time, so when she neglected to release a new collection in 2016, it was pretty clear something was up.  It’s quite possible that by summer 2016 she already had most of a new record ready to go — in my imagination it was a very adult and sophisticated return to folk/country, a 21st century Nashville Skyline.  But if she did have such a project near-completion, she obviously scrapped it when Kardashian posted that video.

She didn’t want to be included in the narrative.  But you can’t just wish your way out of a situation.  Kim had pulled off one of the greatest celebrity-feud victories of all time.  Now it was Taylor’s turn to seize the narrative back; and she wasn’t about to pull any punches.

Taylor’s Top Secret Plan to Take Over the Whole Damn World

  1. Delete Ur Social – In August, Taylor erased everything from her website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter
  2. Reclaim Ur Brand – Then she posted a few unusual videos — of SNAKES.  The very symbol that Kardashi-fans had taken to using against her.
  3. Build Anticipation for Ur New S**T – she also gave us an album cover image, a release date, and a countdown to the first single
  4. Drop Ur Single – Swift fans around the world stayed up late to be among the first to stream “Look What You Made Me Do,” and it immediately became the number one song on Spotify and the fastest-selling iTunes single of all time.
  5. Diss All Ur Haters in the Video – And just days later, during the VMAs, the event where it all began, she broadcast one of the shadiest videos in the history of casting shade.  Shade on Kim, on Kanye, on Katy Perry, on the media – even a touch of shade on herself.

This was one of the best-orchestrated publicity stunts ever.  She absolutely ETHERED Kim.  She destroyed the pop charts.  She took back the whole Snake-emoji thing to the extent that Kardashian had to start blocking the image on her own social feeds to avoid being overwhelmed with negative comments.

Now, to the music itself.  Many commentators felt “Look What You Made Me Do” did not live up to the hype.  It recalled, a little too closely, previous outings from Britney Spears (“Toxic”), Gwen Stefani (“Holla Back Girl”), and Lady Gaga (“Bad Romance”).  It was NOT subtle.  And it ended with a somewhat cringe-inducing fake answering machine interlude:  “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.  Why?  Cuz she’s dead!”

It’s not her best work but it will become one of her signature songs because it’s more than a song: it’s an Anthem.  “I Don’t Trust Nobody and Nobody Trusts Me” she sings in the bridge — Taylor’s reputation had, by this summer, reached its lowest ebb.  To earn it back, she’d have to give up on being the victim and become The Snake. The only way to take back was to own it, to claw her way back to the top of the cultural pile with no regard for who she stepped on on the way to the top.

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Cynical?  Yes.  Calculated?  Very.  Petty?  Nothing has ever been more petty.

Brilliant?  The more times I listen to it, the more convinced I am.  Because if there’s one sentence that could sum up Taylor Swift’s reputation in 2017 it’s “Don’t Fuck With Taylor Swift.”

 

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Chrononauts #1 & #2 by Mark Millar and Sean Gordon Murphy with Matt Hollingsworth. Image, 2015.

Time Travel is such a bummer. This century’s great Time Travel stories — Primer, Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys, even the Terminator franchise — are all predicated on paradoxes, loops, on having the metaphysical vagaries of time travel figured out. After one issue, I was really concerned this was what Chrononauts would be like.

How easily I forget that just a generation ago, Time Travel could be fun. Marty McFly time-travelled in a DeLorean and got to invent rock’n’roll and ride a hoverboard. Bill and Ted had an Excellent Adventure and got to mess around in ancient Greece, Napoleonic France, and 1860s Washington without consequence.  By the end of Chrononauts #2, during which the rather bland bro-heroes had caused a mess of trouble in no less than seven centuries, I was fully on board.

Mark Millar’s trademark libertarian Machismo is all over this new series with Sean Murphy. The basic premise is – what if Franklin and Bash had a Tardis? If you’re worried too much about how Time Travel would work and how a bootstrap paradox could disrupt the entire fate of the universe, you may want to pass. But since you’re a comics fan, you probably learned everything you ever needed to know about time travel from Cable and Bishop in the Uncanny X-Men.

Yeah, I’m the kind of person who wants to see a moghul hoarde repelled by Apache helicopters, or a T-Rex get buzzed by an F-14 Tomcat. I’d stand up and shout that from the rooftops.

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Rebels #1 by Brian Wood and Andrew Mutti with Jordie Bellaire. Dark Horse, 2015.

Look around and it’s easy to feel like we’re on the brink of a sea change. There are riots in the streets. We grow weary of the police state. For now the conflict may seem small, isolated, distant. But revolutions do start somewhere.

Once upon a time a revolution broke out among a group of white property owners who didn’t want to pay their taxes. Brian Wood’s historical (Northlanders and now Rebels) and futuro-historical (DMZ) fictions frequently depict variations on this theme, of Free Men holding out against the forces of the Colonizer. In that context, even his brief stint as the scribe of Dark Horse’s last offical Star Wars series makes some sense — what is Rebels vs. Empire if not a Revolutionary War story gone to space?

But if Wood’s work are read as his own interpretation of the current political climate, their distinctly Tea Party bent seems increasingly out of touch with the Reality on the Ground. Yes, White Property Owning Men in America at present find themselves besieged — but not by a Big Bad Government looking to take away their guns and tax their Cadillacs. Rather, their McMansions are surrounded by an increasingly vocal chorus of the real majority, those huddled masses who fit every description but Straight White Cisgender Male, who clamor to take their own share of the dream — the American Way of Life that has been promised and remained ungiven since at least 1775.

I’m not faulting the historical accuracy of Rebels — the research is fastidious, the subject an un-mined gold vein of interest for American Studies nerds — only noting that Wood’s continued fascination with the great white hopes of history is starting to drain the relevance from his once biting political fiction.

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Thor #7 by Jason Aaron and Russel Dauterman with Matthew Wilson. Marvel (Disney), 2015.

“What if someone actually tried to make something optimistic?” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what Andy Greenwald asked of the superhero genre on a recent Hollywood Prospectus podcast. What if the radical idea wasn’t that superheros can be flawed, but that anyone could not be flawed? What if a hero’s Godlike powers were used not in a morally ambiguous battle royale with other heroes (see: Civil War, Batman vs. Superman), but used to, I don’t know, head off environmental catastrophe and dismantle vile corporate overlords who earn short-term profits off of long-term pollution, deforestation and mass extinction?

That’s kind of what Thor’s up to, and she’s the first one to really do it since Captain Planet.  Three Cheers for Nuclear Waste Cleanup!

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Zero #15 by Ales Kot and Ian Bertram with Jordie Bellaire. Image, 2015.

Is Ales Kot the most talented writer in mass market comics today, or just the best read?

William S. Burroughts once postulated a fiction that could be written and subsequently read in any order. His most famous novel, Naked Lunch, was at least partially assembled using cut-ups, haphazard reassemblies of original passages and textual samples.

All Art is Magical in Origin.

The many worlds theory suggests that every possible reality coexists eternally, causality functioning not as a chain but rather a fractal.

In one reality Edward Zero is a fictional super agent created by William Burroughs and based partially on his own life and that of fellow beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

In one reality Edward Zero is a real super agent who has uncovered, will uncover or is uncovering a global threat in the form of fungosporic virus.

In one reality Burroughts and Zero are both the fictional creations of Ales Kot, a writer who works for Marvel Comics and Image. Their stories unfold month by month with the help of a different artist. The collage approach to comics making suggests that the issues, or even the panels within, can be reassembled and consumed in any order with no change in the fidelity of meaning.

In one reality all of those possibilities coexist eternally, causality functioning not as a chain but rather a fractal.

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Star Wars: Darth Vader #3 & #4 by Kieron Gillen and Salvador LaRocca with Edgar DelGado. Marvel (Disney), 2015.

Patton Oswalt famously noted that no one cares what Darth Vader was like as a kid. I believe that to be true, and I believe it to be doubly true that no one cares what Darth Vader does in his free time. But if you do, then this Buddy Comedy starring Yung Darth and a Generic Tattooed Hacker Chick, along with Dark C3PO, Machine Gun R2D2, Eyepatch Chewbacca, and a bunch of throwaway characters and locales from the prequel trilogy will surely feed your dark urges. While I’m patiently waiting for Star Wars to get good again (I mean those trailers are GD bootiful), I suppose I can stand to watch Star Wars get silly. This is some Christmas Special level buffoonery, and as a long term addition to the Canon it has about as much of a shot as:

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Archie vs. Predator #1 (of 4) by Alex de Campi, Fernanado Ruiz and Rich Koslowski with Jason Millet. Dark Horse, 2015.

Way too much Archie and not nearly enough Predator – as if the creators really feel the need to explain to me how these two disparate universes could collide.  Who cares, please get to the Predator decapitating Riverdale bullies and Jughead covering himself in mud in order to hunt the ultimate hunter! It seems like making this four issues long was ill-advised, because such length required actual plot and characterization to maintain, while the best Archie comics are a few pages long and the only decent Predator movie is like 88 minutes and most of that is without dialogue.

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Nameless #3 by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham with Nathan Fairbairn. Image, 2015.

I believe that one day Morrison/Burnham will be regarded as one of the great writer/artist duos in comics, and this little series will be slotted in between Batman, Inc. and the team’s inevitable masterpiece in some massive triple slipcase retrospective Omnibus Artist’s Edition that will cost 5,000 Galactic Credits. Morrison’s greatest work has been wildly original, and this is more of a mashup: Kirby + Kubrick, Umberto Eco + Paul W.S. Anderson, chaos magic + Ancient Aliens. But god bless anyone who can draw giant forboding Space Artifacts this well.

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Bitch Planet #4 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro with Cris Peter. Image, 2015.

So far this is my early front runner for Best Debut Series of 2015. It is both one of the most instantly accessible and fun action series out there — a riff on The Longest Yard set on an alternate future prison planet — and yet it remains poetic, salient and thought-provoking. It’s very sexy and violent, delivering “the exploitation tropes” without getting “male gazey” [2] It’s also very violent, very frightening, and yet very optimistic. The utterly paternalistic world it imagines seems never to have recovered from the Victorian era — but it’s mostly uncomfortable because it still seems so familiar. Basically the antidote to the Great White Hero point of view espoused in the Brian Wood comics reviewed above.

[2] Quotes from DeConnick’s afterward to this issue

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Southern Bastards #8 by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour. Image, 2015.

I came down quite hard on this title when it’s first arrived, criticizing it for the cliched pastiche of the Deep South it offered. The time has come to admit that I was totally wrong, because I see now that it is that very pastiche that allows this series to transcend from just a story to something like a myth.

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I think the best science fiction is unforgiving. Or just un-giving; it gives you nothing. It drops you into a future, or a past (sometimes you cannot even tell which) or a present which is so future-like or past-like or merely strange that it has become unrecognizable and it provides no maps or glossaries or dramatis personae to refer to.

The narrator in this situation is much smarter than you. Street smarts, because this is their world, and why would they stop what they’re doing to explain the inner workings of this world to you, an interloper, a casual reader who after all is only stopping by.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is in the Books of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe invents an entirely new vocabulary (borrowed entirely from now-forgotten middle and early modern English) for his world, which is the first thing one is left confused by, but it is the narrator, the diabolical and certainly unreliable Severian who really twists the knife, who toys with the reader, unspooling endless lies, concealing the terrifying truth in layers of half-truth; half-truth being twice again as baffling as no truth at all.

Wolfe’s novel is one of the far future written as if it takes place in the long-forgotten past; hard science fiction dressed as high fantasy, a world in which swords are lasers and ancients are aliens. In William Gibson’s The Peripheral, the near future is the deep past, the far future is still the far future, and both are very much the present. And Mr. Gibson isn’t much concerned if you, gentle reader, cannot keep up.

I recall being perplexed and more than a little lost in Gibson’s incantations before. Even his most famous work, Neuromancer, is far more densely woven than its pulpy title and reputation suggest. In the case of the Peripheral, it took me hundreds of pages to feel like I had some semblance of a handle on what was going on, which I think was very much the point. I had been staring at a literary Magic Eye; nothing but empty signifiers, nothing but static lines, but when the picture finally came clear, in was in stunning Three-Dee.

***

In the future the world is shit. Flynne lives in an exurban waste land where fun is drones, guns, and artificial meat, and work is drones, guns, and artifical meth. She gets a sweet gig playing videogames for pay, and then everything goes to hell when she sees something that perhaps she shouldn’t have.

***

In the future the world is really shit. Wilf lives in a London disassembled and reassembled by nanotech, totally depopulated by a series of little apocalypses, and currently ruled by asinine kleptocrats with a fondness for Victorian opulence and weaponized everything.

***

Wilf lives in Flynne’s future until he doesn’t, because Wilf and his friends have, on a lark, decided to go and change the past. Now Flynne lives in an alternate history over which the aristocrats of a now-altered future have an unsettling degree of control. Physical time travel is impossible, but information flows freely in both directions. Some clever 3D printing and telepresence technology allows Flynne to travel to the future-that-is-not-her-future by inhabiting a Peripheral.

***

Things get considerably more complicated from there.

***

Besides the sense of total disorientation in the first two hundred pages reminding me more than a little of Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, the unnverving realism of the time travel mechanics in The Peripheralreminded me of another un-giving scifi masterpiece: Shane Carruth’s Primer. In Primer, the audience is given little help in unraveling the numerous potential timelines that begin to unspool the first time Abe turns on the time machine. Carruth’s unmvoing camera is a constant reminder of how much we are not seeing. And the overall sense of unknown (even moreso, the unknowable) is shared diagetically by Aaron and Abe, who quickly realize that though they can discreetly alter the past, they can sufficiently foresee the butterfly effects this causes in their own present and immediate future. It finally dawns on them that they have changed things too much and can never go ‘back to the future,’ so to speak.

In The Peripheral, by contrast, radically changing both the present and the future is not such a bad thing. Just as he did in his recent trilogy of present-tense science fictions (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History), Gibson here uses the useful psychological distance of genre fiction to examine the dystopia that we already inhabit: radical inequality, mega-corporations, environmental catastrophe, abandonment of military veterans, pacification of the citizenship through technology, surveillance societies, the explotation of the third world, and the third-worldification of just about everything — these are all facets of our own lives in 2015, and Gibson merely does us the favor of holding up a funhouse mirror, a mirror that amplifies our flaws but does not, it must be said, fundamentally misrepresent them.

Gibson’s protagonist Flynne has the advantage of being able to really travel to an even more horrible future, which inspires her to try to make real changes in her own timeline. Barring a sudden radical change in our understanding of temporal physics, the best we can do in our own fractious timeline is to travel to the imaginary dystopias shown to us by visionaires like Gibson — one hopes there are some close-readers out there for whom that glimpse at one possible set of outcomes is enough. If not, I’ll see you in a few years at the nubbins counter at Hefty Mart. I’ll be the one cradling a 3D-fabbed smartweapon and distrusting everything.

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End Of Year Pull List

I don’t think I have it in me to do any year end Best-Of lists this year. I didn’t read enough comics in 2014 to really feel like I am qualified to survey the landscape of material and pick out what was really good. I loved Twelve Gems, Battling Boy, and Seconds. I didn’t read any serious comics at all, unless you count mini-comics, which I take kind of seriously. In which case the best one was…that Noah van Sciver one? Did the Lizard Laughed even come out this year?

Rather than create a subjective list of comics that I think are better than other comics, I have created an objective list of comics I actually read on a monthly basis. I doubt this represents the best of what is on the shelves at your local shop. It doesn’t include a single DC comic, because I’m just fed up with those, and I don’t think there are any comics from publishers other than Marvel and Image. For reasons known only to my compulsive lizard brain, I used to try to be “fair” with my pull list and get something from every publisher I could. Now I don’t really care so I just buy the comics every week that I want to read, and Image happens to publish most of them. Did my consumer demand direct Image’s editorial choices, or was my weak soul destroyed and then reformed by Image’s sly marketing? I think I know the tragic answer.

Without further ado, these are the books I’m reading as of December 2014, in no order other than the order they were on my coffee table:

Saga – I think the drug-addled space wrestler storyline this year really pushed this title into overdrive.

All New Ghost Rider – The only comic that made me cry this year.

Secret Avengers – Avengers + Spy Stuff + Literary Allusion = Catnip for my Brain

Zero = The best looking comic almost every month, even though it is illustrated by a different person every time.

Tooth and Claw – Added to my pull list after one issue, because FLOATING CITIES FULL OF ANIMALS WHO ARE WIZARDS. And Kurt Busiek.

Stray Bullets – The Killers miniseries reminded me of a Harmony Korinne movie crossed with a Paul Thomas Anderson movie crossed with a Tarantino movie but significantly more fucked up.

Silver Surfer – If Whimsy were a vitamin, Allred and Slott’s Silver Surfer would be 800% of your recommended daily allowance.

Captain Marvel – Now that Guardians of the Galaxy is mostly an advertisement for itself, this is the best choice for fans of the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe.

Thor
Unreasonable comics fans: so Thor’s a girl now?
Normal people: Yeah Thor’s a woman now. She picked up the hammer and…GO.
Unreasonable comics fans: does she kick as much as the dude Thor?
Normal people: So far she is kicking more ass than the last Thor. You get that whoever has the hammer just is Thor so it doesn’t matter if it is a man or a woman, right?
Unreasonable comics fans: So, is it like, sexy Thor?
Normal people: *rage blackout*

The Wicked + The Divine – How early is too early in a career to remix one’s own body of work? Let’s use the Bob Dylan rule and see…he was like 14 or something when he ‘went electric’ and changed the game so…yup, checks out, McKelvie and Gillen are totally allowed to sample their own ideas from a few years ago and blow them up all super-sized and make a comic that is as much about Miley Cyrus as it is about the true nature of the human soul.

Rat Queens – Roc Upchurch draws the coolest characters in comics. Please read this book and fall in love with sword and sorcery medieval high fantasy all over again.

Manifest Destiny – for the history nerd in all of us.

Iron Fist: The Living Weapon – This is both a perfect adaptation of Mortal Kombat into comic book form and possibly the most personal Iron Fist story ever told. Very winning.

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The most important holiday on the capitalist-utopia calendar, Cyber Monday, has come and gone, and that can only mean one thing:  most of the fall TV shows are either on hiatus, about to be on hiatus, or already cancelled.  That means I finally have chance to catch up on a bunch of hour-long serialized dramas, because that’s definitely how I should be spending my precious few hours between sleep and toil every day.   Here are my very scientific findings:

Constantine
Constantine 
I watched the series premiere of this, and quickly fell asleep trying to watch the second episode.  I am not a die hard fan of the Hellblazer comics (although I have a fat stack of ‘Blazer trade paperbacks I picked up in sort-of anticipation of this program and have yet to read), so I can only evaluate it on its own merits and not on how it stacks up vs. the Vertigo series.  My conclusion: this is a pile of hot garbage!  It does have a lot of pretty awesome special effects, and the pilot had one or two decent ‘scares,’ but hardly enough to sustain my attention.  And I wasn’t alone — as of this writing, NBC has suspended production on the series, which is not quite an outright cancellation but it’s certainly a sign things are on life support. GRADE: D-
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Arrow
Arrow hit some real peaks last season, with the interwoven story of Oliver’s escape from the island and his confrontation with Deathstroke in Starling City delivering the series’ most satisfying and ambitious arc to date.  By comparison, season three is so far floundering.  ‘Five years ago’ timeline Oliver is now off the island and working for Amanda Waller in Hong Kong, which means there is very little drama left in the flashback sequences.  All we wanted to know for most of seasons one and two was how Ollie would escape the island — now that that has been resolved, it seems like there is no tension left and really no reason to chart the rest of Oliver’s journey back to Starling City.  In the main, present-tense storyline, there are several promising threads unraveling:  Roy Harper has developed into a full-fledged sidekick, even adopting the Arsenal moniker, but continues to struggle with the after effects of the mirakuru experimental drug, which puts Oliver in the position of becoming more and more of a father figure for Roy even as the latter gains even more self-confidence.  Oliver’s sister Thea has returned to the city, ostensibly to reopen her nightclub, but in reality she’s developed ninja techniques and is working in cahoots with Malcolm Merlin, the Big Bad from season one, back (of course) from the dead.  And, in the most delightful but underutilized plot device of all, Queen Consolidated is in the process of being absorbed by billionaire super-genius Ray Palmer (aka, The Atom), played by failed-Superman Brandon Routh.  For existing fans of the show, this season still has the enjoyable characters and relationship dynamics (Oliver-Felicity-The Atom love triangle, anyone?) to obsess over, but plotwise, it really seems to be spinning its wheels.  Of course, with the 20+ episode seasons of all of these comic book inspired shows, it’s no surprise that the first halves of seasons are usually full of filler.  GRADE: B-
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The Flash
What do you love about classic Flash comic books?  Is it the affable, nerdy, do-gooder attitude of Barry Allen, one of comics’ most beloved heroes?  Is it the crime-solving and detective work inherent in Allen’s secret identity as a forensic scientist?  Is it the Flash Facts, little bits of science (or pseudo-science) frequently thrown in to explain the Flash and supporting characters’ remarkable powers and gadgets?  Is it the somewhat goofy lineup of rogues such as Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and Gorilla Grodd?  Is the sheer joy of imagining all of the things you could do with superspeed, undoubtedly one of the most excellent of the classic comic book superpowers?  If you answered All of the Above, you should probably just go ahead and watch the Flash because it captures the vibe of the comics upon which it is based better than any comic-to-TV adaptation I can think of.  GRADE: A-
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How To Get Away With Murder
Superstar defense attorney Annalise Keating removes her many layers of makeup and her wig, turns to her husband, and utters the phrase that reverberated around the world: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”  That was the stinger at the end of one of this show’s early episodes, and it was the moment that solidified the show as yet another obsession-worthy Shonda Rhimes Special.  Just as Kerry Washington’s white hot charisma powers Scandal, much of the joy of HTGAWM comes from simply basking in the intensity of Viola Davis as she rips students to shreds, blows the tops off of courtrooms, and frequently displays heartbreaking vulnerability.  For me, an even bigger pleasure comes from watching the sexcapades of Keating’s very young, very hot, super diverse, and full-on hilarious team of junior associates.  If you like backstabbing, double-speak, network television’s most explicit boy-on-boy action, and this haircut:
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you will love the hell out of this show.  GRADE: A+
Gotham
I love the comic strip Garfield minus Garfield.  By removing the fat orange cat from the strip entirely, and leaving John Arbuckle alone to contemplate his meager existence, Garfield minus Garfield creates something entirely new through the art of omission.  It takes something mildly funny and recasts it as something profoundly dark.  Gotham, which could just as easily be called Batman minus Batman, does the opposite and recasts something profoundly dark as something *very* mildly funny.  This is a tune-in-every-once-in-awhile-if-the-episode-title-seems-promising kind of show.  Recommended for fans of Batman: Forever.  GRADE: C-
Scandal
This season just makes me want to toss off my all-white winter wardrobe
 Scandal -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.
curl up on the couch with some fried chicken in my Uggs
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sip on a nice, modestly sized glass of wine
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and watch it over and over and over because there’s a decent chance that this is the best season of Scandal yet.  GRADE: A
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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
This series received an injection of buzz and fresh ideas when Captain America: Winter Soldier came out in the middle of its first season and completely changed the show’s status quo.  Suddenly a show about a lame bunch of do-gooder government flacks became a show about betrayal, secrets, and life on the lam.  As the second series has begun to pick up speed, it seems like Agents is failing to take advantage of the excitement and tension inherent in the Hydra storyline.  Coulson’s crew are already back on the right side of the law, with access to seemingly unlimited resources — not excitedly the underdog scenario that was promised in season one’s final episodes.  The one saving grace of this season has been the action sequences.  The fight choreography and special effects this season have been pristine — too bad you generally have to wade through 30-40 minutes of blah storytelling to get to them.  GRADE: C+
Brooklyn 99
 The funniest traditional sitcom currently on TV — in fact, maybe the only funny traditional sitcom currently on TV.  Immature gross out humor, a cast in which ‘competent white males’ take a backseat to actually competent women and men of color, genuinely lovable and delightfully flawed characters, and this face on a weekly basis:
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GRADE: A-

Saturday Night Live
This has been a season full of lame hosts and totally lacking in breakout stars among the cast.  Michael Che and Leslie Jones have been delightful but underused.  Pete Davidson seems promising but has yet to develop any memorable characters — besides himself on Weekend Update.  It seems like Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam are keeping the show afloat most nights with their broad repertoires, but they’re so overused that it’s just starting to seem like schtick.  The best parts about this season have been Kyle Mooney’s weird little segments and digital shorts — he’s the one writer/player who seems to have a distinct voice at this point – and the last run of musical guests.  Prince, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson/Mystikal brought the house down over the last few weeks.
GRADE: C

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PicMonkey Collage

Ms. Marvel Volume One by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona.  Marvel Comics (Disney), 2014.

Muslims are portrayed in American popular media all the time.  Any action and intrigue fueled show or movie, especially any with a hint of the spy or military subgenres mixed in, probably has a ton of Muslim characters.  They will be men, usually dark of skin, almost always mustachioed, often heard yelling or ululating while firing assault weapons, and always, always, the bad guys.  Sometimes they are explicitly identified as Muslim, sometimes it is only strongly implied.  But the association is pretty clear, from Homeland to 24 to Iron Man to Person of Interest:  Muslims are Bad Guys.

Pretty big bummer if you’re a teenage Pakistani girl living in suburban New Jersey, and all you really want is to fit in at school without abandoning your culture or offending your parents (too much).

And that’s exactly the situation Kamala Khan finds herself in at the beginning of Ms. Marvel, the Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona that debuted earlier this year.  In the very first pages of the book, Khan is confronted by ignorance and prejudice of the most irritating variety — people who treat her as a token Muslim, and assume that the few little factoids they know about Islam apply to every adherent, and people who ‘concern troll’ her because they assume that as a Muslim woman, she must be horribly oppressed.  Khan is trapped between a bunch of white people who want to exoticize her and a cadre of more strict Muslims who think she has become too Americanized.  Like many a Marvel comics superhero before her, she seemingly can’t catch a break.

G. Willow Wilson is the perfect person to write a character like this, because like Kamala Khan, she does not easily fit a stereotype.  She is a proud Muslim woman — a proud Muslim white woman from New England who converted to the faith in her college years.  She lived in Egypt and wrote incisive journalism about the Middle East for outlets like The Atlantic Montly before venturing into comics with acclaimed series like Cairo and Air.  She recently won the World Fantasy Award for best novel with her debut, Alif the Unseen, a recasting of both Hackers and 1,001 Nights in the context of the Arab Spring.

Throughout her work, Wilson has been concerned with portraying the beautiful diversity that exists within the global Islamic community.  After all, the Muslim world today extends from suburban Detroit to Morocco to Somalia to Albania to the Levant to Iran to Bangladesh to Indonesia, a billion unique voices spread around the globe.   It is absolutely refreshing to open one of Wilson’s comics and see a world in which Islam is not a monoculture.  Often times American politicans or people in the media pay lip-service to the idea that Islamic Fundamentalists do not speak for all Muslims just as Christian Fundamentalists don’t speak for all Christians.  But Wilson actually digs in and shows that reality on every page:  here are the debates about faith and assimilation which exist within Muslim families, here are the class and race divisions that exist on the Arabian Peninsula just as much as in the US or Europe, here are the reasons some women choose to wear the hijab and some don’t, here are young people being both young and people regardless of the color of their skin or their family’s religion.

Besides Wilson’s empathetic and revelatory storytelling, Ms. Marvel features dreamlike art by Adrian Alphona, who previously co-created Runaways with Brian K. Vaughan.  Readers of Runaways will remember Alphona’s tight, animation influenced style and his ability to create unique, expressive characters without relying on costumes and special effects to set them apart.  This is a wonderful resource on Ms. Marvel, where the supporting cast of non-superheroes, and the non-superhero part of Kamala’s life, are really the focus of the story.  Along with Ghost Rider, which does a similarly wonderful job of portraying the rich multi-culture of East L.A., Ms. Marvel has quickly become my favorite Marvel series, and one of the reasons I still read superhero comics at all.

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I was just going to eat this medical cannabis peanut butter bar and catch up on Gotham (it’s not good, which is fine by me, a connoisseur of ‘meh’ television), but when I signed into Hulu I was greeted with an AVENGERS TRAILER, and now I feel that it would be irresponsible for me (a connoisseur of ‘meh’ internet punditry) not to provide some Hot’n’Ready Takes:

  • No Vision, which is absolutely bogus, I swear somewhere in the rumorsphere we were promised Vision, my favorite-ever Avenger and, obvy, a shoe-in for key player in any Ultron-centric tale.
  • No Hank Pym either, as far as I saw. Is Ant-Man Hank Pym in that Ant-Man movie no one wants to see (prediction: it will be six times bigger than Guardians of the Galaxy, another “no one wants to see that!?” film). If there’s no Hank Pym, who invented Ultron? More importantly, if there’s no Hank Pym, who’s dating Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp?
  • Did you know that the Wasp and Havok (that would be Cylcop’s little brother, who shoots his super-eye beams out of his nipples instead of his eyes) had a child together, who they raised for five years, until those five years were wiped from reality in order to preserve the greater good, or some-such? Kind of like that episode of Star Trek when Picard lives out a whole lifetime on some idyllic vineyard planet with Margot Rose. See kids, that’s the kind of original, but still ripped off from Star Trek, storytelling that you’re missing if you’re not also reading the comics.
  • Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the Wasp’s super-powers were to always be wearing tennis whites and firing the maid for stealing petty cash even though you know it was probably the twins, Chip and Brad, when they were home from Choate last weekend? But no, her superpowers are actually based on the insect, not the awesome/horrible people who invented gin and tonics at five o’clock.
  • What the trailer DOES have is Hulk Buster armor. APPROVE.
  • It also has Mark Gruffalo looking hecka emo. Someone give Dr. Banner a hug please? Maybe he’s angry because everyone acts all tense and scared around him all the time. Like, could someone please throw this guy a bone? Although it would suck if he Hulked out mid-coitus.
  • Oh. My. God. Thor dropped his hammer ON THE GROUND. Shit is serious, ya’ll.
  • Why are these all these B-roll clips of ballet dancers thrown in here? It’s like a 90 second trailer for a superhero action movie. How could anyone think three seconds of out of context ballerina shots are a good use of that limited time?
  • We are dangerously close to approaching peak Spader. *sigh* I miss Boston Legal. That will always be MY peak Spader.

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