Sunday, September 30, 2007

Those Were the Days


It’s the last day of September, and October brings not only the debate I’m hosting about the Ivy League but my reminiscences on this blog about Brown — the start of a recap of my past twenty years, with an emphasis on philosophy and politics. So it’s worth first taking at least a brief glimpse at what went on in the eighteen years before that period.

One small window into my youthful mindset was my attitude toward Grandma’s house in New Hampshire, I suppose. The house where my father grew up, which my ninetysomething grandmother has only recently given up to move into an apartment, was a perfect place to play with toy robots and imagine a high-tech future but also a heavenly, vaguely Victorian-seeming slice of the past — and I definitely saw no contradiction in those backward-looking and forward-looking impulses, perhaps not even a tension, really. (Nor did I ever have much sympathy for the once-common view among some nerds that the futuristic “sci-fi” section in bookstores should be separate from the idyllic “fantasy” section — it’s all imaginary, even if the two sub-genres spring from opposite aesthetic impulses, generally things that could happen but that you hope will not, on one hand, vs. things that you wish could happen but definitely can’t, on the other, as Arthur C. Clarke or someone once said. The dorky name of the Comic Book Guy’s store on The Simpsons, the Android’s Dungeon, pretty much sums up their inextricable connection.)

Similarly, the house I grew up in (where my parents still live — next week being Mom’s sixtieth birthday, by the way) in Norwich, CT was in the middle of the woods but perfectly suburban-feeling (that is, safe and comfortable) and also, like most environments on the Earth’s surface, a perfect place for toy robots and Star Wars figures — even with all of Mom’s Colonial-era decorations. I didn’t believe then that we had to choose between admiring the past and imagining the future, or between nature and technology, and I still don’t, despite all the mopey intellectuals wanting us to make painful choices between such things, as they do between right and left or regulation of people’s private lives on one hand and regulation of business on the other.

So, for instance, a synthesizer-loving New Wave fan I may well have been by age twelve, but that didn’t stop me from loving the uber-nostalgic Mary Hopkins song “Those Were the Days” (“Those were the days my friend/ We thought they’d never end/ We’d sing and dance forever and a day/ We’d live the way we choose/ We’d fight and never lose/ Those were the days/ Oh, yes, those were the days,” etc.). I’m pleased to see (thanks to that nostalgia-fueling innovation, YouTube) that New Wave-era diva Bonnie Tyler liked the song, too — as did alternative rock band Crowded House.

And, as is often the case with kids (though we easily forget this as adults), I often thought when I was very young that there was a more direct, intentional connection between things in the world that I associated with each other than was really there, so the song was always vaguely linked in my mind to the Waltons-like nostalgic animated series by the same title (which took place around 1901 or so, as I recall) and to the (unrelated) comic strip by that title, which always featured two panels good-naturedly (but somewhat conservatively, in retrospect) contrasting how things were done in the old days vs. today, usually in an “Anything Goes” spirit gently mocking hippies, street crime, or other modern depravity. (Most people would be quicker to think of the All in the Family theme song also called “Those Were the Days,” but that was ever so slightly before my time.)

And the fact that I only seemed to see that comic strip in the paper when at my grandparents’ house did not, of course, strike me as a side effect of comic strip syndication patterns or the tastes of New England newspaper editors when I was a kid but rather as evidence that everything at one’s grandparents’ house is inevitably sort of old-timey (especially true if one pair of grandparents, along with Grandpa’s brother Milt, lived on a small family farm, with an almost Amish willingness to stick to familiar patterns), and that’s just fine.

In fact, the most recent time (or perhaps the time before) that my parents and I drove to New Hampshire to visit Grandma, we stopped at a big crafts shop and there was, I kid you not, a Norman Rockwellesque boy (who did not appear to have been hired for the job) about ten years old sitting on the porch of the place eating a hotdog and wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, surrounded by various Colonial-era and New Englandy doodads, and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe all the talk about the rapid pace of change is a bit overblown, and the past and future are always with us, which would be nice, since I’d miss either one if it went away.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"Cash Cab" Redux: Learning on the Streets


I don’t know whether our upcoming debate about the merits of the Ivy League will convince anyone those schools are useless (I’m certainly grateful my parents paid for my Brown education) — but there are alternative sources of knowledge.

I mentioned a while back that I was used as a “shout-out” (like a “lifeline” on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) on the rolling gameshow Cash Cab, that is, someone called by the contestants to help them answer a trivia question — and now Michael Malice has posted on his blog a link to a short videoclip of him and his piratical punker pal Tibbie X in action in the segment in question. Note how quickly Malice’s supervillain-like neurons work when he is asked to list politicians at one point.

It’s ironic that the question he called me for help on was one about famous Nietzsche-influenced murderers, since you’d think that sort of nihilism would be right up his alley (note, for instance, the vaguely-fascist armband he’s wearing in the scene, as he sometimes does just to prankishly frighten the normals, calling it his “yuppie stormtrooper” look).

The Cash Cab bit marks the third time, technically, that Malice has involved me in one of his TV adventures, with the most prominent being the time he was my accuser on the Style Channel show Style Court, a sort of People’s Court set-up where an accuser (in this case Malice) denounces a friend’s wardrobe (in this case mine). I successfully defended my wardrobe (despite wearing the nerdiest get-up I have, including my old Marx Brothers tie and glasses I rarely wear) by arguing that nerdiness is simply an honest, and thus admirable, expression of who I am. The judge took pity and declared me “not guilty” (as did the fashion jury, which included an actress from my mother’s favorite soap opera, All My Children).

But the judge was much harsher in rendering a secondary, unexpected verdict: calling Malice a nascent fascist/communist for applauding in-groups and reviling out-groups. Malice responded with a Nazi salute — almost certainly the only time one of those was performed in the Style Courtroom — and then things sort of broke down into a weird back and forth about both the judge and Michael having Jewish ancestors and whether that was funny, etc.

But it all got edited out — for some strange reason — as did what I thought was my wittiest line: “Your honor, Michael Malice has no respect for the authority of this style court!” I did manage to squeeze in a mention of my employers, a reference to an old joke of Andrew Clateman’s from our days on the Brown University Film Bulletin about a mythical hipster figure named Sebastiano, a joke about Star Trek, and even a one-sentence version of my “conservatism for punks” philosophy (all in a seven-minute segment while talking about clothes), so all in all, it was time well spent.

And Malice used the segment to plug a book about style by libertarian Virginia Postrel, who has since been diagnosed with cancer (breast cancer, for which she’s getting good treatment, causing her to be justifiably optimistic), as seems to happen a lot with people when the cursed Malice tries to help them, though I do not believe in dark magic.

P.S. In unrelated news, I see that Daniel Radosh has a swell op-ed in the New York Times today about why videogames aren’t yet as artful as movies, a subject of one of the Debates at Lolita Bar a while back. I wonder if NYT games reviewer Charles Herold, who defended games in our debate (and knows Radosh) will respond.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Is the Ivy League Superior?"


With one of the eight Ivy League schools in the news this week for having Iranian president Ahmadinejad speak there, now is the perfect time to have a debater who graduated from Columbia defend the proposition that the Ivy League is superior against a detractor who says the League is a big, pretentious waste of money. And so we shall.

Is the Ivy League superior?

Arguing yes: uptown computers-and-business whiz Perry Metzger. [UPDATE 10/3/07: David Robinson will replace Metzger (who replaced Bradley).]
Arguing no: downtown comedian, performance artist, and It Came from New York hostess Michele Carlo.

Join us — and bring all the Ivy-Leaguer and anti-Ivy-Leaguer pals you have — this coming Wednesday, Oct. 3 (8pm) on the air-conditioned basement level of Lolita Bar (266 Broome St. at Allen St., one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) — with Michel Evanchik moderating and me (Brown class of ’91) hosting.

(Please note that Perry Metzger replaces our originally-scheduled “yes” man, Richard Bradley, who has to go on a business trip. Note as well, just to avoid confusion, that the New Yorker is indeed doing a debate three days later on almost the same topic — featuring one man who has been a Lolita audience member and another, famous for tipping and blinking [and meeting ladies], who helped craft the opening arguments of one of our [female] prior debaters — but our debate on the Ivy League is [a] first and [b] free. I also notice, incidentally, that the same day as New Yorker’s Ivy League debate, they’re doing various panels that include David Byrne, Fiona Apple, Eugene Levy, Grant Morrison [my favorite comic book writer], and seemingly half the other pop culture figures I’ve ever heard of — but again, us: free.)

Perry may well talk about Columbia being the one Ivy where the Great Books are still central to the curriculum, so anyone interested in continuing the conversation started in my blog entry this week about the 100 most influential books should also drop by.

As I hope to start recounting on October 19 — the twentieth (!) anniversary of the 1987 stock market drop and of my first college journal entry (like a blog but on paper and unread) — I went to Brown, and though I ended up deliberately taking courses that incorporated some of the Great Books (and read some on the side), I have to confess that the complete lack of a core curriculum and the fluid-sounding willingness of Brown to let people craft their own majors helped draw me to that institution.

Also, I didn’t want to have to take French, after four years of doing so in junior high and high school, all the while knowing full well I’d probably never speak it well enough to be of much use. Quel dommage! I have, however, mastered the phrases “Vous etes le grand canard” (“You are the big duck,” though when I said it to actual French people once, one of them said, “He’s a canary?” so I may have it slightly wrong) and “Le velomoteur est rouge” (“The moped is red,” potentially more useful for travel purposes, since Europe is littered with tiny, tiny vehicles).

Anyway, whether you want to make a case for the Ivies, the school of hard knocks, Iranian extremism, Great Books, illiteracy, or France, I think Lolita Bar is the place you should be at 8pm on Oct. 3 (it’s also cheaper than that rooftop-party alumni event that I see Brown’s having the next night — every martini-drinking person there likely a professed Marxist back in the day — but more on that in three weeks, far more).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Batman vs. Hong Kong -- and Paul vs. Keyes


(This isn’t comic book news, mind you — it’s movie news.)

Batman is having a rough time, according to the movie-news site DarkHorizons:

–Hong Kong, the one location outside Gotham where parts of Batman: Dark Knight take place, is being slower to grant filming permits to the filmmakers than expected (perhaps they heard about someone dying recently during the shooting of a Batmobile scene).

–Batman, usually depicted as being as omnicompetent as James Bond, will be the screw-up who accidentally unleashes a sentient, malevolent spy satellite and hero-hunting robots on the world in another superheroic movie due out in the next couple years, Justice League (which will apparently feature all of the Big Seven except Aquaman, for those keeping score). That means the 2005 comic book miniseries The OMAC Project, written by Greg Rucka, is the model for the plot (and I pity the filmmakers if they tried to follow where the original comic plot went next, since the universe blew up, fifty-two new ones were created, history was revised, and things got a lot more complicated than you’d ever want in a movie script).

Since Rucka’s lesbian cop character Renee Montoya is slated to appear in Batman: Dark Knight — and a movie based on his crime comic book White Out is due out next year — Rucka is well on his way to being the latest comics-to-film hotshot, a la David Goyer or Frank Miller. (And then I can say I met Rucka back when he was just a writer of crime thriller novels that repeatedly featured murder victims based on my friend Scott Nybakken, for good or ill. Scott used to be a museum security guard, for example — and was familiar with the museum blueprints — so how could you resist offing him in fiction, even if you were a nicer person than Rucka?)

It would be pleasing to see Hong Kong welcome Batman with open arms after the way Batman contributed to Hong Kong commerce ten years ago when I was there: I visited during the week of transition back to rule by Beijing (after decades of robust, glorious, prosperous, free-market, non-democratic liberty under British rule) in 1997 with a tour group organized by the Claremont Institute, and as souvenirs I brought back about four Batman action figures to give to a few of my nerdy friends.

One still sits atop my bookshelf, and it bears this interesting, subversive text on the back:

This special, timeless and limited 1997 Hong Kong Edition Golden Batman figure commemorates the spirit of Hong Kong, who’s [sic] unparalleled rise to international fame and recognition echoes the dynamism of Gotham City, a territory Batman has sworn to watch over and defend.

Amen, Batman. Amen. Would that you could be in Beijing as well, perhaps rescuing athletes who collapse from communist air pollution at the 2008 Olympics.


Speaking of freedom-fighers, Bretigne Shaffer Calvert (who was living in Hong Kong at the time of my visit, come to think of it) informs me that Ron Paul will be among the few GOP candidates attending tomorrow’s (Thursday’s) 8-9pm Eastern PBS forum on issues affecting black voters, which sounds interesting — though I’ll be at a event about socialized vs. privatized medicine.

You can listen to the PBS forum on Ron Paul Radio, which I was on once — or, if you don’t have time for that, you can watch this video of a scantily-clad woman praising Ron Paul, sent to me by CuddleParty co-director Marcia Baczynski (CuddleParty was mocked on Saturday Night Live recently, by the way, their news anchor saying that the original name for clusters of New York strangers touching each other was “the subway”). The video seems like a good outreach idea, or at least more effective than confronting National Review staffers with 9/11 conspiracy theories in the name of the Paul campaign (albeit in a non-official capacity) — not the way to win over the neocons.

I notice that a familiar face who’ll also be at that PBS forum has now entered the GOP prez contest — Alan Keyes, the wacko who lost badly to Obama, putting the latter in the Senate in the first place (and who perhaps dreams of a rematch at the presidential level). Three strange and interesting things about Keyes:

1. He wouldn’t have been running against Obama in the first place if it hadn’t been for Star Trek: Voyager’s Borg hottie, Jeri Ryan, whose sex-club escapades with her Republican House-member ex-husband, after being revealed in their divorce proceedings, embarrassed him into dropping out of the race — though being a Republican married to Seven of Nine and talking her into kinky public sex pretty much made the man a god in my eyes, which is probably evidence I’m not the median GOP voter.

2. Keyes, far from being the public-sex-with-cyborgs kind of guy that the GOP needs, cut off contact with his daughter when she came out as a lesbian while an undergrad at Brown University, which is very lame of him (Brown also happens to be where Marcia Baczynski’s CuddleParty co-manager, Reid Mihalko, went, so there’s something about that place).

3. I actually wrote a fairly pro-Keyes article for New York Press a decade ago, before his reputation for nuttiness had really been cemented, and I will always remember the condescending but amusing caption the Press put on the cartoon accompanying my piece, which was meant to summarize the whole “fusionist” effort to combine fiscal and moral/social conservatism: “Gummint up, morals down!” I can’t pretend there’s a lot more to be said about it than that, really.

The 100 Most Influential Books


Since I wrote about my favorite movies in the last entry, I should tip my hat to literacy by noting that I stumbled across this list, inspired by a whole book on the  topic, of what are (arguably) the 100 most influential books of all time.  It’s both humbling and inspiring.

(You could do far worse than to simply read all these books and declare yourself an educated person — and perhaps Michele Carlo will make a point like that when she argues “no” one week from tonight at our Oct. 3 [8pm] Debate at Lolita Bar on the question “Is the Ivy League Superior?”)

I couldn’t resist asking myself who my twenty favorite thinkers on the heavily philosophy-oriented list of 100 are, and having done so, I have to give the biggest props to my main men (in no particular order):

•Smith (though he made a few pro-government arguments I shouldn’t just dismiss)

Second-largest props must be bestowed upon these ten (in no particular order):

•Voltaire (though I suspect his Philosophical Dictionary had more practical impact than Candide)

And I’d round out my favorite twenty with these four (in no particular order):


And lest I seem indiscriminate with the praise, rest assured that I’m so picky that I’m hesitant to endorse almost anyone else on the list of 100, save perhaps Newton or Bacon.

Mmmmm — bacon.

My thanks to the boss, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, for drawing my attention to the bacon alarm clock, and my thanks to Michel Evanchik and Lefty Leibowitz for indirectly making me aware of the 100 — by each pointing out to me this comic book version (this doesn’t count as a relapse into comics-reading!) of one of the books on the 100 list: Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

To get back to bacon for a moment, though: Shouldn’t they do a Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation and have it actually star Kevin Bacon as the husband?  Seems like a no-brainer.

As for actual bacon, so beloved is it that, bizarrely, chunks of it were scattered via hot air balloon over Loch Ness once in a vain attempt to draw out the mythical Monster — with the organizer’s explanation being not some sophisticated rationale about the Monster perhaps being a plesiosaurus and thus liking a certain texture of meat, etc., but rather the simple, apparently trans-species statement that “Everybody loves bacon.”  Perhaps.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Conventions of 2008, Movies of 2007, and Blade Runner


I mentioned in my last entry that Iron Man kicks off next year’s (very busy) summer-blockbuster season, which reminds me of three other things all going on around that time, all of them in Denver, CO: the Libertarian Party presidential convention (in May), the annual WorldCon of sci-fi and comic book nerds (in early August), and the Democratic Party presidential convention (in late August). This odd confluence of conventions — so soon after people took note of the GOP’s loss of the libertarian-leaning “interior West” states in 2006 — will be missing only one thing to spark a Colorado-led cultural revolution: regrettably, the Atlas Shrugged movie (based on the Ayn Rand novel that climaxes with the escape of America’s capitalists to an oasis of unregulated freedom in Colorado), which was at one point scheduled for summer 2008, appears to be delayed again.

Who knows what subtle, positive effects it might have had on the minds of convention-goers of all stripes in Colorado if they had looked at the surrounding Rockies with Hollywood-induced laissez-faire capitalist lenses? (And don’t doubt Hollywood’s power to shape mass perceptions in this way — it’s about the only thing that still does.) There might have followed a reinvigorated Libertarian Party campaign, several capitalism-themed comic books, and an ever so slightly less-socialist and more Coloradoan-sounding Democratic Party. Instead, we will just have to hope Ron Paul unexpectedly dominates the GOP convention in St. Paul. (I suppose that collapsed bridge might remind someone of Atlas Shrugged.)


This year brought no film as epic as Atlas Shrugged would be, but a few of my favorite films this year did evoke struggles (of varying historical accuracy) against authoritarianism across different eras: The Lives of Others poignantly and claustrophobically captured 1980s East Germany, 300 reimagined (to put it mildly) Spartans as defenders of Western freedom and reason against the Persian horde, and Across the Universe shamelessly but pleasingly mythologized the basic 1960s story as one of self-discovery vs. boredom and militarism — with Beatles songs (the lesbian version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was my favorite number).

On a related note, I missed but heard good things about Rescue Dawn, about an escaped prisoner of war in the jungle, and Abduction, the documentary about Japanese citizens kidnapped by the deranged communist regime of North Korea. I expect that these films, when I do see them — as well as (the non-political) Zodiac, which so elegantly and creepily captured the flat, non-disco side of the 1970s — will stay in my memory long after fluff like Transformers, Live Free or Die Hard, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Spider-Man 3 has receded. I can feel them fading already, in fact (indeed, delighted though I was to discover Transformers‘ unmitigated, unapologetic similarity to the original cartoon show — complete with Megatron standing atop a skyscraper shouting “Prime!” — it still wasn’t as much fun as this short video of the Transformers breakdancing).

In just the past few days, by the way, I also got the chance to see — for the third time in my life — Blade Runner in the theatre (having seen it in 1982, when I was too young to notice its painful, Frankenstein-like moral tensions and merely hoped the nice cop would catch the bad robots, and again in 1991, in Seattle, when the Director’s Cut was released). The twenty-fifth (!) anniversary re-release of the founding cyberpunk film is barely altered from the 1991 version — which mercifully eliminated Harrison Ford’s stiff narration — but remains beautiful and well worth seeing on a big screen again. Absent the narration, it’s one of my five favorite films, along with Star Wars, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Casablanca, each of these five films bearing some resemblance to at least one of the others.

(Speaking of Star Wars, the Family Guy one-hour season premiere parodying it was hilarious and ever so slightly disturbing in its almost shot-for-shot faithfulness to the original, and the “casting” of imperious Stewie as Vader and whiny Chris as Luke was inspired — all that was missing was Chris whining about wanting to go to Toshi Station for some power-converters.)


Two strange stories about the breathtaking Blade Runner cityscape, the most amazing on film since Metropolis (which there was some talk of Ridley Scott quasi-remaking):

1. Katherine Taylor tells me that her friend James Sanders (who co-wrote the eye-popping, inspiring, incredibly dynamic Ric Burns documentary mini-series New York, which girlfriend Koli has been showing me, with its 1903 subway footage and the like) explains in his book Celluloid Skyline, about the use of New York City in films, that Blade Runner was always intended, until the final draft of the script, to take place in a future New York City rather than a future Los Angeles, and it’s hard now to see its Times Square-like signs and crowds as dwelling anywhere but here in the Big Apple.

2. Bizarrely, and in a schizophrenic, postmodern fashion after its creators’ own hearts, Blade Runner began life not as one novel/movie but as two — fused after a failed attempt by, of all people, William S. Burroughs to turn one source novel into a film. Alan Nourse wrote a novel called Blade Runner that had nothing to do with “replicants” — it was about a future of socialized medicine, in which the only way to get decent care is to hire black-market doctors and the kids called “blade runners” who sneak the doctors’ bags of scalpels and other instruments to them. Burroughs wrote an impossible-to-film treatment of the novel, attempting to depict hundreds of characters in minute, fractal detail against the backdrop of a postmodern megalopolis. Only the title and cityscape survived, tacked onto a new, simpler plotline taken (of course) from Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (you’ll notice the film gives no rationale for calling the cops “blade runners”). This is a film-production story so strange, it resembles something out of some of my more confusing dreams (and reminds me a bit of the almost-as-strange real-life story of Salvador Dali doing early set-design work on the movie version of Dune before Dali-influenced director David Lynch took over the project, leading to three increasingly-long, increasingly-awful cuts of that ambitious, doomed film).

However Blade Runner came together, I’m glad it did — and grateful to my film critic friend Kyle Smith for getting me into the movie. As if being a critic and novelist weren’t enough, Kyle’s now a columnist as well, launching the new gig with a linguistic-philosophical lament about overuse of the word “just,” exactly the kind of topic I like. I don’t always agree with Kyle about movies, actually — he didn’t like 300, for example, while I saw it twice — but even on those occasions, it is more enjoyable to watch him intelligently argue some position I disagree with than it is to watch most people echo my own thoughts (and if you never admire the thinking of people you disagree with, you’re missing out and probably a jerk to boot).


P.S. In other media news, my friend Nichelle Stephens, who blogs about cupcakes, will be on TV next week talking about Hostess snack cakes, while her co-blogger Rachel Kramer Bussel is quoted in this article about people fighting over whether to love or revile cupcakes (my friend Chuck has been urging a trip to the disturbingly-named restaurant Burgers and Cupcakes lately, so I think he’s on the love side) — and coincidentally or not, I notice the writer of the article calls cupcakes more “libertarian” than full-size cakes, since they’re individual-portion-sized. Blogger Seanbaby, meanwhile, has long had a whole website subsection devoted to very funny analysis of the old comic book ads for Hostess cakes.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Friends, Links, Monsters, Free Samples


My apologies for not blogging for a couple weeks — and for falling behind, as well, on blogrolling those who’ve permanently linked to me (below, right) and linking as well to numerous interesting acquaintances, for which I have at last created a big page of Acquaintances (I haven’t been completely idle).

And NOW I NEED THE IVY-LEAGUERS AMONG THOSE ACQUAINTANCES — because next week we’re doing a debate on the question “Is the Ivy League Superior?” and there’s a chance that George-editing, 02138-founding Yale/Harvard man Richard Bradley (formerly Richard Blow) may have to bow out to go on a business trip. An understudy would be highly appreciated — someone has to argue the “yes” position, defending the Ivy League, against comedian Michele Carlo (e-mail me at ToddSeavey-at-earthlink-dot-net if you’re willing and haven’t grown bitter toward the ol’ League after years of paying off those college loans — any old friends from Brown out there still love the place?). [UPDATE: We have our understudy! Here's hoping Richard comes through, though -- official announcement to come this week.]

I notice, by the way, that the man whose position won the audience vote at our last debate, Stephen Schwartz, has a piece on about al Qaeda losing in Iraq. But if you would prefer to hear about the Ivy League and radical Islam at the same time, there is a solution: read James Taranto’s column on the formerly hostage-taking Iranian president being invited to speak at Columbia this week.

I, of course, just want everyone to get along, no matter how snide or callous I may sometimes sound. On the other hand, who doesn’t love…

Brutal Monster Combat!

Sure, you could go see monsters fight in a movie (such as the upcoming Monsters vs. Aliens, which apparently is being rescheduled to avoid coming out at the same time as a James Cameron movie; or the upcoming Aliens vs. Predators: Reqiuem, which will probably look bad in comparison to a James Cameron movie; or one of the army of zombie movies this year, including The Hills Have Eyes 2, 28 Weeks Later, Resident Evil: Extinction, a scheduled Day of the Dead remake, or December’s I Am Legend with Will Smith).

But for real, live fighting monsters, you can’t beat the outlandishly-costumed, monster-themed wrestlers of Kaiju Big Battel, and I’m pleased to see they’ll be posing for those who would like to draw pictures of them, along with burlesque ladies, at one of Molly Crabapple’s Dr. Sketchy drawing sessions, something that reaffirms the wisdom of my decision to praise her in my recent entry about comic books.

The monsters are only committed to posing at this event (so they, like the artists’ models, can be drawn by anyone paying for the chance to do so) — but fear not, because the Kaiju site shows they’ll be fighting in NYC on Nov. 9. I saw them fight live once, and it’s essentially live Godzilla-type battles narrated by a professional-wrestling-style ring announcer (who I think was also a co-founder of the events), which is to say, it’s one of the coolest things of all time.

My favorite bit at that time was the conceit that a battered fighter who looked like a giant beetle dressed in a Captain America costume, named American Beetle, was so bloodied from prior bouts that he had to be in a wheelchair with i.v.s in his arms, but he was so buoyed by the crowd’s patriotic chants that he was able to burst out of the trap he’d been put in — a giant box of Lucky Charms — and defeat his leprechaun foe.

The event was full of marvelous comments from the ring announcer along the lines of: “Dear God! I can’t imagine that he would be so battle-crazed as to consider using the War Hammer here!! Brace yourselves!”

As for 100% real-life all-natural creature-combat, it’s hard to beat this footage of dueling giraffes, noted on the always-fascinating

General Reflections on Monsters and Half-Naked Women

There is an inherent appeal to monster-fighting and half-naked women for males — perhaps the reason football and cheerleaders go together so naturally in minds not already captured by the allure of Godzilla, as mine was at a young age. (It also explains this new video made by girlfriends of U.S. soldiers, if you were wondering Why We Fight.)

I visited Niagara Falls only twice in my life: the first time I constantly imagined what a cool battleground the area would make for giant monsters (and took care, as I always did in childhood, to note the height of local landmarks relative to the height of Godzilla), and the second time I mainly paid attention to my girlfriend, Koli, only occasionally thinking about what a cool battleground the area would make for giant monsters.

But always the message is there, the steady drumbeat, written in our instincts: find the monsters, slay them, and win the approval of the women.

Free Samples

As the preceding thoughts — and my Acquaintances page — strongly suggest, nerds are an important part of my social world, so while I’m at it, here are three items of potential interest to the three major factions of nerds to whom I cater:

I. For libertarians, a video primer on Ayn Rand’s philosophy (libertarianism with additional elements, some odd), Objectivism:

II. For sci-fi and comic book nerds: the Iron Man trailer, to keep you anxious until the film kicks off next year’s summer-blockbuster season, on May 2, 2008:

III. For skeptics (of the atheist, materialist, debunking, no-nonsense, anti-superstition variety), a link to a brief description of a cool but patently ridiculous Inuit god:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Thompson, bin Laden, Paul, Stossel, and 9/11

The two major video releases of this week were surely Fred Thomspon’s declaration of his presidential candidacy and Osama bin Laden’s declaration of his continued existence and his opposition to global warming and high taxes.

The very same night that we were doing our Debate at Lolita Bar about Islam, bin Laden was unveiling a new message to the West and Thompson was on Leno saying just enough conservative things to allow people to see him as the new Reagan if they so choose — and Republican primary voters are certainly eager to, so he may well end up being the Republican nominee and our next president.

The Republican candidate would have to be nightmarish indeed for me to prefer the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton: the Clintons tried to socialize a seventh of the economy last time they were in the White House, and they seem likely to try again; meanwhile, Hillary’s arrogance seems undiminished, and at least one of my acquaintances, who shall remain nameless, can personally attest to the Clintons’ willingness to use their small army of thuggish private detectives in ways that bend the law to intimidate their opponents. (And I’ll just briefly note that Bush gets treated like the Anti-Christ for wanting roving wiretaps to more easily follow terrorists, but the Clintons sought the same powers even before 9/11, pretty openly hoping to use them for routine tax investigations and the like, which didn’t seem to freak out the press and activists in quite the same way.)

I am still worried, though, that Thompson may (not so unlike Reagan after all) be better at rhetorically hitting the right notes than at proposing specific, drastic changes that will reduce the size of government. In particular, though he has admirably called for extending the economy-boosting Bush tax cuts, he also refuses (last I knew) to vow that he would never raise taxes.


Bin Laden’s newly-released video, unlike Thompson’s, promises Americans that if we all just convert to Islam and abolish democracy, we will pay no taxes at all, merely a 2.5% Zakaat tithe — but he also praises leftist Noam Chomsky (the linguist who has sold so many books to so many tattooed college students thanks to his history of bashing America while, for instance, defending the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communists who massacred a third of Cambodia’s entire population in the 1970s, about the most devastating political movement that has ever existed — but very anti-capitalist, which is what matters to the perverse [and boring] Chomsky). So, ultimately, even if bin Laden picks up some Al Gore supporters due to his newfound opposition to global warming, I think the embrace of Chomsky will hurt him at the polls with moderate and right-leaning voters. And there’s the mass-murder thing.

One amusing thing about al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq, by the way, is their willingness to be so frank about their goals that even, say, Noam Chomsky would have a hard time spinning them as some sort of “indigenous freedom fighters.” Calling them freedom-hating, democracy-hating mass-murderers probably sounds like Bushian rhetoric to some — but if you read bin Laden’s own words, he says they’ll keep killing us until, for instance, we make homosexuality punishable by the death penalty and stop teaching women to read. His willingness to talk about other issues that spring to mind — like global warming — shows that he’ll seize upon any issue that he imagines might give him traction, but it would be naive to think that the West bending on one or two small issues — tweaking our policies toward the Palestinians, for example — is going to make our enemies tolerate us.


So we can resign ourselves to a long, tough fight — or perhaps take the radically non-interventionist path preferred by one of Thompson’s rivals for the GOP nomination, Ron Paul, and just stay out of the Middle East morass altogether. As I’ve alluded to before, I am in the odd position of being something of an agnostic on military matters at precisely the juncture in our history when they do the most to determine many people’s political allegiances (and thus, in a way that many would find paradoxical, I find myself drawn to Paul as a first choice in the primaries but to the tough-talking Thompson, or even Paul-lambasting Giuliani, as a second choice).

I don’t expect any project run by a government, including a war, to go well, but neither am I comfortable with Paul’s almost Chomskyan talk of Iraq being an “illegal” war, drastic rhetoric that risks encouraging our opportunistic (and hardly law-respecting) enemies. But Paul — like bin Laden — takes a much clearer position on wanting to end taxation than Thompson does, and I think econ is much more clear-cut than foreign policy, so I’m still rooting for Paul, who’d do so much so decisively in domestic policy that I can’t let the already-ambiguous foreign policy issues drive me away from him, even if those issues now define his candidacy in many people’s minds.

(Speaking of domestic policy issues, my old boss, ABC News’s John Stossel, who Ron Paul once said he’d like to have as a vice presidential running mate, is scheduled to host what will no doubt be an engaging retort to Michael Moore and other fans of socialized medicine, next Friday, Sept. 14, at 10pm Eastern and Pacific, 9 Central and Mountain [I think] — so watch that. My own reaction to Moore’s recent health documentary appeared on HealthFactsAndFears, the blog I edit at work — and the Stossel Unit and my current employers, the American Council on Science and Health, each recently lost a friend and advisor on science/medical issues, Stossel associate Rick Rue passing away far too young and ACSH Advisor Saul Green, critic of alternative medicine, leaving us at a ripe old age, both now missed.)


Perhaps I shouldn’t even joke about comparing bin Laden directly with American political candidates — so to atone, let me note that Paul is not only unsympathetic to bin Laden but voted for the Afghan war, though he now questions whether that was wise. Further, despite an erroneous report to the contrary by Michelle Malkin, Paul is not even sympathetic to the so-called 9/11 Truth movement, which claims the U.S. had advance knowledge of 9/11 (though many in the Truth movement like Paul — but then, as I noted in an earlier entry, so do a couple of living, breathing John Birch Society members I glimpsed at a Ron Paul Meet-Up, and that doesn’t mean Paul agrees with the JBS about everything — such as seeing Eisenhower as a communist agent).

If you want to hear really thorough criticism of the 9/11 Truth movement, though, the place to be on this Tuesday for the sixth anniversary of the attacks is at the World Trade Center site, where blogger Karol Sheinin — one of my co-hosts at the monthly Manhattan Project bar gatherings for non-leftists in New York media (a rare breed in need of succor) and, as it happens, a Thompson fan — will lead a protest against the 9/11 Truth people, a surefire formula for some interesting man-on-the-street conversations.

If Karol succeeds in destroying the 9/11 Truth crowd, I suppose it could cost my man Paul some support, but, in all seriousness, he has plenty of other, more mainstream supporters — though I was disappointed recently when I noticed he was being praised on a site called, which I at first thought must be a site dedicated to “fusionism,” the half-century-old effort to unite conservatives and libertarians, but turned out to be a site for believers in the scientifically unverified process of cheap “cold fusion,” so it’s a bit like being endorsed by the trade association for perpetual motion machine makers — but hey, Wesley Clark said during his presidential campaign that he anticipated faster-than-light travel being possible one day, and that didn’t seem to hurt him in the polls. Sigh.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: Comic Books!


I stopped collecting comics about a year ago, but that medium did a great deal to shape my brain over the years — from the moral example set by characters like the late Captain America to the rhetorical example set by the narration in Flaming Carrot Comics (which described the eponymous hero as “a dreadnaught of chicanery!”) — so it deserves at least a retrospective blog entry, indeed a big one.

To make this as useful as possible for the reader, I have organized this list not merely as a Top Ten list of my favorite comics — though it bears some resemblance to that — but as a roughly chronological list of comics anthologies that should help newcomers wrap their minds around this strange medium (each of these items being a single trade paperback or hardcover anthology, purchased, given, or dug out over the past year in lieu of my getting the more-addictive, magazine-sized monthlies that make up the bulk of the industry’s output). Buy them all to understand fully, or skip to the end of the list and buy the one I think is best — or the one mentioned after that, which lies on the horizon and may synthesize the best of all of these.

We have a lot of ground to cover and little time for nuance or technical precision — so behold:

multiple-earths.jpg1. Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume 2. DC Comics is in some sense the historical backbone of the American comics industry, born in 1935, when comics barely existed independently of newspaper comics supplements, and giving rise within three years to Superman, who remains one of the medium’s most popular characters and begot thousands upon thousands of superhuman-adventurer imitators, beginning in the 1940s/50s period referred to as the Golden Age of comics. At the end of the 1950s, DC retooled their characters, replacing the more old-fashioned mystery men of the Justice Society of America with the more hep (and today more familiar) Justice League of America (stars of the 1960s or “Silver Age” period and imprinted on young Gen Xers minds’ in the 1970s as TV’s “Super-Friends”).

DC eventually explained the differences between the heroes of the two eras through the mind-blowing rationale that the two teams existed on two different Earths, part of a multiverse of parallel realities, which DC has revised, destroyed, winnowed, and resurrected in numerous “Crises” over the decades, trying to get things just right (a perpetual nerd struggle I’ve described elsewhere). But through it all, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman don’t really change much. This volume of 1960s stories brings together characters from both of the first two DC Earths in various combinations — and contains a memorable scene in which Starman and Black Canary spend a night in the woods, waiting to see if the discarded flying skis of the villain known as the Sportsmaster reactivate and fly back to their master’s lair. This is good only for people who are already fans and see this sort of thing as being of historical interest.

jsa.jpg2. Justice Society, Volume 2. While DC was wasting time depicting things like flying skis in the 1960s, Marvel Comics had begun introducing more realistic, down to earth characters like Peter Parker and the often-bickering Fantastic Four — but by the 1970s, sometimes referred to as the Bronze Age of comics (when kids like me wanted their comics to be as cool and “serious” as sci-fi and thus tended to prefer Marvel’s mutants, cyborgs, and disgruntled secret agents to DC’s Boy Scout-like icons), DC was starting to realize they too could inject a little social relevance and almost-human psychology into their old characters. The old Justice Society was taken out of mothballs in a new monthly series written by Paul Levitz, today the president of DC Comics. In the stories collected in this volume, he depicted Superman’s feminist cousin Power Girl, Batman’s crime-fighting daughter Huntress, and an aging Robin who has become an anti-Apartheid ambassador to South Africa in his secret identity of Dick Grayson — all this and the death of the original Batman at the hands of the little-remembered villain the Soul Thief. The times were changing — but far greater changes lay ahead.

batman-year-one.jpg3. Batman: Year One. If the 40s and 50s were the Golden Age, the 60s the Silver Age, and the 70s the Bronze Age, it may be fair to refer to the 80s and 90s as the Dark Age, since “grim and gritty” became the standard of seriousness and quality, a wonderful example being this storyline written by Frank Miller (of Sin City, 300, and RoboCop II and III fame), retelling Batman’s origin in a downbeat, noir fashion that would be a model for the movie Batman Begins two decades later. I have not recently re-read the more-frequently-cited Miller miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns or the miniseries Watchmen (written by left-anarchist and self-proclaimed Glycon-worshipper Alan Moore of V for Vendetta, From Hell, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fame, much as he hates the film versions — to which a Watchmen film, from the same director who adapted Miller’s 300, will soon be added), but I suspect that as an adult I would now consider Batman: Year One superior to its better-known Dark Age cousins. It is subtler and far more human, cleverly focusing more on troubled cop Jim Gordon’s reaction to the arrival of Batman than on Batman’s heroics themselves.

The art, by David Mazzucchelli, is some of the best comics have ever seen — and the new anthologized version allows his work to be more subtly colored than it was in the original newsprint pages of the late 80s. A further joy for me is the fact that seeing Mazzucchelli’s art again twenty years later makes me think he was heavily influenced by one of the most tragically overlooked comic books in DC’s history, Thriller, which was drawn like a postmodern yet realistic-seeming mass of high-velocity speed lines by Trevor von Eeden (and written with ahead-of-the-curve brilliance by Robert Loren Fleming, who — in 1982, well before “cyberpunk” had entered the lexicon and mere months after Blade Runner — depicted a millennial near-future world saturated by cable news channels, obsessed with computers, threatened by Islamic terrorists, warped by genetic engineering, and fought over by such oddball characters as the nine-foot-tall cloned priest named Beaker Parish [get it?], the s&m-garbed villain Scabbard with a sword housed in the flesh of his back, and Tony “Salvo” Salvatorri, the life-respecting hitman whose flesh can be remolded to give him eyeballs in the palms of his hands when he’s possessed by his incorporeal sister, Angeline Thriller). Von Eeden left after about nine issues, sadly, and the series was soon over, after only one year. But I have not forgotten. For once, I was even moved to write to the author and get him to write a personal letter back to me clearing up a couple dangling plotlines — does that count as canonical, “in-continuity” story material?

freedom-fighters.jpg4. Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. This DC series from 2006-2007 is representative of whatever the current period, still too young to be defined or named, is. After a circa-2000 period when it appeared that glowy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-style nostalgia and reminiscences about the Silver Age in particular would permanently displace “grim and gritty,” superhero comics seem to have taken a 24-influenced turn toward very cinematic-sounding clipped dialogue, realistic violence and death, minimal narration (eschewing the old cornball bombast perfected by Marvel’s Stan Lee), and almost painfully high dramatic stakes in which no victories come easily, there is real reason to fear, and some genuine tension is generated for perhaps the first time in the history of the medium.

I point to this series as an example in part because it’s the one I wanted to resurrect back around 2000, when I made a brief foray into comics-writing myself (penning three published Justice League stories). The contrast between what the Freedom Fighters originally were, what they became in the 1970s when I first saw them, what I wanted to turn them into circa 2000, and what they have now become is not a bad summary of the different eras in question. They began in the 1940s as authentic World War II-era patriotic heroes published by Quality Comics and, like a few comics companies (including Fawcett, which published the “Shazam!” stories, and Charlton, which gave us the Blue Beetle), were absorbed into DC Comics — and (fictionally) declared to be inhabitants of yet another newly-discovered Earth. Around the time of the Bicentennial in 1976, DC brought them back in a tough, weird, quintessentially Bronze-Age series that I saw at about age seven, in which these explicitly out-of-date characters tangled with a villainous version of Santa’s elves, suffering some real pain and angst in the process. I wanted to take that sort of mixed-eras weirdness up a notch by depicting them in the modern world but in a style reminiscent of the 1940s, with Thomas Nast-like symbolic covers, giant Nazi robots, and brutally-relevant politically-metaphorical plots that would, of course, subtly hint that Uncle Sam, a living embodiment of Freedom (a.k.a. Spontaneous Order, as against Authoritarianism and Chaos/Entropy), is basically a libertarian.

DC told me at the time that second- and third-tier old characters were of no interest, but the wheel has turned, the nostalgic geeks reign supreme in the comics industry these days as they seem to in Hollywood, and others have resurrected the characters, not surprisingly making them a bit more violent and left-wing than I would have but doing a fine job nonetheless and making them anti-authoritarians above all — and even surprising me by introducing, in the final pages, the same rather abstract idea that I had intended to: that Sam is a natural opponent of Chaos, now linked to two other terrible, dark forces in the DC Universe, anti-matter and anti-life — but that’s more than non-fans need to know, so on to the next item.

agents-of-atlas.JPG5. Agents of Atlas. A similar game of resurrection and updating is played by Marvel with their exquisitely-realized and very fun recent series that brings back forgotten heroes from before Marvel Comics was even called Marvel (it having previously been the less-popular Atlas Comics and Timely Comics). Now, such 1950s improbabilities as Gorilla Man, the Human Robot, Marvel Boy from Uranus, and agent Jimmy Woo — unflagging foe of the evil Yellow Claw — live again, with better writing, art, and fanboy-pleasing supplemental materials (including reprints of their ridiculous and mercifully brief original appearances). What a joy this collected miniseries is, and how cool the movie would be if Hollywood merely picked it up and declared it a script.

The success of this series may have helped inspire a little wave now occurring of Golden Age-revival series, including The Twelve (featuring twelve long-forgotten heroes from the days when Marvel was Atlas) written by J. Michael Straczynski, who created the epic sci-fi TV series Babylon 5 (which my girlfriend Koli recently rented without any urging from me, further evidence of her good taste — and perhaps evidence she has too much time on her hands while writing a novel, so someone e-mail me if you want to hire a nice lawyer/writer); a revival of the WWII Marvel team called the Invaders by Alex Ross (in the spirit of Roy Thomas, the nostalgic comics writer who also inspired Agents of Atlas); and Superpowers (also by Ross), which intriguingly picks up several discontinued Golden Age comics, from various companies, non-ironically continuing them each with the next-numbered issue, almost as if there’d just been a half-century delay in shipping (and I wonder: is there actually an eighty-year-old fan out there somewhere, still paying attention and thrilled that this day has finally come?).

devil-dinosaur.JPG6. Devil Dinosaur. One of the big reasons that all the cool kids in the 60s and 70s recognized the clear superiority of Marvel to DC was Jack Kirby, the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men — and the mid-70s comic that, heretically, I now think may have been his best work (he also co-created the world-eating giant known as Galactus whose failure to appear in his full, three-hundred-foot-tall, purple-armored glory was the reason, alluded to earlier on this blog, that I boycotted the second Fantastic Four movie — it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the face of God, squandered by Hollywood cretins).

Without Stan Lee to inject human-level plot ideas and dialogue (Lee was the subtle one! Stan Lee! Subtle!!) into the almost psychedelic kaleidoscope of Kirby’s cosmic ideascape, Kirby had a tendency to get a little weird, and the resulting material isn’t for everyone (a surprising number of my close comics-fan friends don’t care for it). Solo, Kirby created characters like Darkseid and the New Gods, the Eternals and the Celestials, and, in this series’ case, a red-skinned tyrannosaurus named Devil and his tiny, furry companion proto-human, Moon-boy, who in strikingly pre-modern and animalistic fashion urges Devil to fight to the death against various prehistoric foes — including ancient alien astronauts who, in their conflict with Devil, may be the source of all our Eden myths (and Kirby’s priceless text pieces imply — for what were likely ten-year-old readers — that this comic book may indeed be more important than myth, historical research, or even science).

Kirby’s typically grandiose and operatic dialogue finally finds, in the nine issues of Devil Dinosaur, a stage barbarous and uncivilized enough to make it all seem natural and disturbingly invigorating. Or, as a beautifully succinct recent review, brought to my attention by Jacob Levy (about the only person I know well who’s still reading comics regularly), put it: “Seriously? It’s an entire series about a giant, angry dinosaur kicking other dinosaurs and aliens in the face until they die and is, therefore, the perfect comic book.” Frightening perhaps but true. And the introduction to this volume reveals that Kirby created Devil Dinosaur as something of a pre-civilization analogue of his post-apocalyptic character Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, who Reason editor Nick Gillespie once told me he feared would be referred to in every issue of that magazine if he did not take a hard line against letting notoriously nerdy libertarians write about whatever stupid pop culture artifacts they want to (the way they do on their blogs).

godland.jpg7. Godland: The Celestial Edition. This one’s not by Kirby, but it’s a very faithful recent homage (both in script and eye-popping art) that takes Kirby’s brand of unsubtle, naive, outsider-art-like absurdity to the next level, with an astronaut named Commander Archer, transformed into an atomic-powered superhuman by a Cosmic Fetus Collective while on Mars, battling alongside his giant, talking, extraterrestrial dog against such bizarre foes as the floating-skull-headed junkie named Basil Cronus, the metal-plated aesthete named Nickelhead, and the sadistic sexpot Discordia.

The series does a great job of squeezing comedy out of carefully-deployed moments of greater self-consciousness than the unapologetic Kirby ever showed, in lines such as those of Discordia’s father, the masked Tormenter, as he contemplates crushing a foe in what are almost — but not quite — words worthy of Doctor Doom: “I fear I am once again forced to administer the cruelest of all tortures…legal action. Once more unto the breach of pain for — Friedrich…is this Glenfiddich or Glenlivet? Dishwater — ! I refuse to allow my lips to touch Glenfiddich when I am struggling with the extremities of my circumstances. Wait in your quarters until I call you to make breakfast! Biscuits and gravy!”

It all comes, in this massive volume, with an introduction by my favorite comics writer of all, Grant Morrison, who is smart enough to do avant-garde, metafictional series such as The Invisibles (about warring, time-traveling anarchists and authoritarians) but also smart enough to appreciate and be influenced by Kirby’s vivid lesson in the unfettering of the creative id. Morrison concludes his praise of this homage with the line “Godland is the new real.”

x-presidents.gif8. X Presidents. On a more overtly-comedic note, this Robert Smigel-penned, lunatic tale of America’s living ex-presidents gaining superpowers and using them more or less heroically, was recommended to me by Weekly Standard writer Mark Hemingway (who wrote this funny review of Al Gore’s low-rated Live Earth concerts and recently, with his wife Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, both of them among my fellow Phillips Foundation fellows, begot a daughter named Evangeline Plum Hemingway, who I am of course hoping was named not merely in recognition of her parents’ shared interest in religion but with a nod to the space-nun comic book character who inspired a song by Matthew Sweet — it’s entirely possible the latter is the case, though I haven’t yet asked [UPDATE! Mark writes that both his love of the Matthew Sweet song "Evangeline" and Mollie's fondness for the Emmylou Harris song by that title contributed to the name choice, though he was unfamiliar with the song-inspiring comic book, which also contributed to the look of Sweet's video]).

dr-sketchy.jpg9. Dr. Sketchy’s Rainy Day Colouring Book. In my grotesquely abbreviated mini-history of comics, I’m afraid this project is going to have to stand in for everything underground, offbeat, dangerous, and non-superheroic that I don’t have time to get into. As this book describes, with text, cartoons, and risque photos, cartoonist Molly Crabapple realized at some point that art classes usually involve the pretense that there’s nothing weird or sexual about drawing a naked person — but why not make the whole thing overtly sexual, in a burlesque way, and encourage people in the classes to depict it all cartoonishly to boot? And so her Dr. Sketchy sessions, now imitated in locations around the world, were born.

(CULTURALLY PIVOTAL INTERLUDE: The fact that this book combines indie comics, burlesque, and some background-music suggestions that seem straight out of my own punk/New Wave-influenced tape and CD collection is one big reminder that there’s a sort of default mode for indie culture in the past decade and a half or so, whether the medium is rock, comics, stripping, or acrobatic sideshow stunts: a sort of Weimar-like, not-quite-punk darkness very different from the old hippie vibe and, unlike punk, more sexual than truly aggressive. This burlesque vibe, I’ve come to realize, has led to a predictable [but for me still fun, since I guess I fit the demo] marketing niche that now defines one type of bar in New York City, which we might call “dive” [in contrast to sports/yuppie, martini/Wall Streeter, or lounge/dance]. Like a lot of people, I thought “dive” just happened by accident until I noticed that certain elements recurred too reliably to have happened without a very conscious marketing plan: shabby darkness, flirty bartenders who look like Bettie Page, and juke boxes that absolutely must contain Iggy Pop, Blondie, the Pixies, and various mid-century classics that were considered rough and dangerous in their day, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Again, I’m not complaining — don’t forbid me to re-enter Vasmay Lounge or anything — but it’s interesting that something so seemingly dangerous and organic [so natural-seeming when found on the willfully-shabby Lower East Side or in Williamsburg here] turns out to be as replicable and deliberate a plan as Disney World. But unlike a lot of authenticity-seeking hipsters, I like Disney World, so I’m certainly not going to complain about “dive” bars. Incidentally, if the Disney-owned Muppet Kermit the Frog were in fact to perform in a “dive” bar, it would probably look and sound a lot like this video, pointed out to me by Chris Nugent and noted a few months back by Jenny Foreit.)

alice.JPG10 A. Alice in Sunderland. This tour de force by writer-artist Bryan Talbot — a free-associative collage, in more styles and modes than can easily be counted, about the historical influences on Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, the northern-England town of Sunderland, and by extension all of us, as products of history and happenstance — should be Exhibit A if someone tells you comics can’t tackle subject matter with complexity, maturity, and sophistication. Amazing. Its web of Alice-influenced cultural references includes mentions, incidentally, of the perverse and fascinating book One Pill Makes You Smaller by my friend Lisa Dierbeck and the play Red King Rising by the aforementioned Grant Morrison. And Talbot also gave us the next item on this list…

arkwright.JPG10 B. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, which is simply my favorite comic book miniseries of all time (and few others even come close). This is it, the pinnacle of the medium, as far as I’m concerned — Michael Moorcock-influenced but better, and more coherent, than the work of that writer (including the introduction he contributes to my edition of this anthology, which rambles for two pages, as only a bitter British leftist can, about how conservatives are sucking the world’s blood dry, before he says a word about comics or Bryan Talbot), as I told Arkwright’s creator, Talbot, when I saw him in an appearance at the store Jim Hanley’s Universe here in Manhattan — where he found himself directly across the street from a rare Empire State Building suicide attempt that left a severed limb lying on the street, a moment not so unlike something out of the Arkwright epic, depicting as it does a multiverse where life’s little coincidences and history’s seeming-patterns are beginning to turn dark, chaotic, and violent, as evil Disruptors — acting through agents such as modern-day Puritans who rule a fascistic England — begin tearing apart the cosmos, forcing the one man who can travel between alternate versions of history, Luther Arkwright, to do battle with them, manipulating modern-day, alternate-reality versions of the Prussian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Roundheads in the process.

Written and drawn over the course of a decade, from 1978 to 1989, this series updates Moorcock’s brand of hip, serious sci-fi and heavily Victorian-influenced and lavishly detailed illustration for the New Wave decade, the plot echoing Thatcher’s election in its early stages and the collapse of communism in its conclusion, with the off-camera assassination of David Bowie, a Prisoner reference, and plenty of Tantric sex along the way. It’s everything a comic book should be and is one of my favorite works of art in any medium. It also — and for now you’ll just have to take my word for it — bears a closer resemblance to what I imagined creating myself when I was a teenager than anything else I’ve ever encountered (and has a sequel, which is even better-drawn, Heart of Empire).

(The closest thing to the even-more-grandiose comics I imagined doing before I was a teen may be the obscure but epic work of Jack Katz, though I did not read his immense First Kingdom series until spring vacation from college in 1990, when I willfully lost myself in the story for a week to avoid thinking about the recent suicide of a friend at college. I almost literally could not have asked for something farther removed from everyday life than that series, which was just what I needed — though, for the record, my favorite comic book back then was Nexus, the recently-revived story by witty [libertarian] writer Mike Baron and top-tier artist Steve Rude about a refugee-sheltering historian in the twenty-sixth century who is plagued by dreams of mass murderers and compelled to seek them out and execute them, dressed a bit like Space Ghost while he’s doing so.)

Not surprisingly, Talbot told me he was a big fan of David Bowie and the sometimes blonde-messiah-centered comics of Jim Starlin back around the time he started working on Arkwright, as was I (though I was a decade and a half younger). Arkwright reads a bit like David Bowie playing the role of Doctor Who, set in a Michael Moorcock version of the DC Comics multiverse (best of all possible worlds, in more than one sense of the phrase). I wonder if I should be troubled that several of the characters or media figures I was awed by in youth seem to look a tiny bit like what I might, as a teen, have considered idealized versions of me: Tom Swift (described in an earlier entry), Johnny Quest, Bowie, Starlin’s Adam Warlock, Arkwright, Sting, maybe Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Except I’m not a world-transforming messiah-figure…or am I?

TO BE CONTINUED…No, but seriously, when all is said and done, though, the Japanese may have us beat on all this stuff. While American comics have been stuck for decades in a mostly-superheroes rut, Japanese comics (manga, like that sold by my friend Ali Kokmen and other folks at Random House) cover as many topics as other media such as television do — indeed, a DC Comics editor, Scott Nybakken, and I watched two movies based on manga just the other day: Sanctuary, a political/gangster thriller about a young Yakuza and a young governmental aide ousting their elders, and Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence, the Blade Runner-like story of a cyborg cop tracking deadly “gynoid” sex-robots gone haywire (and, no, there are no sex scenes or eroticized tentacles in it, for the sick few who are wondering). Scott, by the way, won a coveted Eisner Award at this year’s San Diego Comic Convention, for his editing of a hardcover anthology of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic, and was quick-witted enough to get an autograph from surprise trophy-presenter Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s (a huge nerd) for our fellow comics-owning libertarian New Wave fan, Michael Malice.

Perhaps it’s juvenile even to think about all this stuff (though it’s not just me — take, for example, the comic book by Paul Auster or the case of critically-acclaimed writer Jonathan Lethem, now updating the very strange 1970s Marvel Comics series Omega the Unknown, which I encountered myself as a child, about a boy who may or may not have a psychic connection to an unreal android superhero named Omega) — and so, for good or ill, I won’t mention comics on this blog again for about a year, focusing instead on politics. About a year from now, though, as it happens, there will be a comic book miniseries coming out from DC that is likely to do about as good a job as one could ask for of synthesizing elements from all the items on the list above.

In May of 2008, my aforementioned favorite comics writer, the Talbot-influenced and Kirby-influenced Grant Morrison, will write a seven-issue miniseries for DC called Final Crisis, harkening back to the aforementioned multiple-Earth stories but with a more sweeping and catastrophic scope than ever before — and he promises, with Kirbyesque grandeur, that the series will open with an image of the character Anthro, the First Boy and will end with an image of the Kirby character Kamandi, the Last Boy. Morrison says it will be the Lord of the Rings of the DC Universe, the “final” multi-series crossover story, and — in all seriousness (he’s a mystic) — his attempt to use the self-referential complexity of the fictional DC Universe to make that universe become — in real life — a sentient being. Don’t say you weren’t warned — maybe you should just read that if you don’t have time for everything listed above (or at least read The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, please). In the meantime, I will do mundane, earthly things like analyze the presidential primaries, though it hardly seems as important.

P.S. Plots to conquer and/or destroy the civilized world are not just the stuff of fantasy, it’s worth remembering. My friend Chuck Blake sent me an article from a Posner-esque book on Global Catastrophic Risks (pointed out to him by Marie Huber), and the article’s Introduction section has one of my all-time favorite opening paragraphs for an academic-type article:


All else being equal, not many people would prefer to destroy the world. Even faceless corporations, meddling governments, reckless scientists, and other agents of doom require a world in which to achieve their goals of profit, order, tenure, or other villainies. If our extinction proceeds slowly enough to allow a moment of horrified realization, the doers of the deed will likely be quite taken aback on realizing that they have actually destroyed the world. Therefore I suggest that if the Earth is destroyed, it will probably be by mistake…

Tenure, or Other Villainies would also be a good title for a nineteenth-century academic murder mystery.

Appendix A: The Case, in the Form of a Timeline for Nerds Only, for Seeing the Period of the 80s and 90s as “the Dark Age”

1980 Dark Phoenix

1980 Trigon

1980 Darkseid-focused JLA/JSA team-up, also drawn by Perez

1982 Great Darkness Saga

1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths kills many, destroys the multiple Earths

1986 Dark Knight Returns

1986-87 Watchmen

1987 Batman: Year One

1991 X-Force (orgy of fangs and armor follows)

1992 Image Comics

1992 Death of Superman

1994 Zero Hour (an insane Green Lantern tries to destroy the universe)

1997-2003: lighter, postmodern period of diminished sales for Marvel/Image crowd and higher profile for Grant Morrison’s JLA and other Silver and Golden Age-respecting retro material — but ended by Donna Troy’s death, which along with Morrison’s New X-Men run roughly marks the start of the “Intense” (or somesuch adjective) current period of violent deaths and surprises with more realistic, cinematic dialogue

1999-2005 America’s Best Comics: more nostalgic than dark; times have changed

The Dark Age was an attempt to shake off, once and for all, the legacy of goofier, lighter, more juvenile comics that for many people will forever define the medium, the inspiration for things like this odd circa-1970 public service announcement about the evils of sexism, featuring Batman, Robin, and Batgirl, pointed out to me by Dimitri Cavalli.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Adam Smith on Labor Day: On Currency, in His Grave, and in Our Minds


A few months ago, around the same time this blog really got rolling, I toured the Scottish nanotech industry (as I will recount in more detail very soon) and found time to visit the Edinburgh grave of Adam Smith while I was at it. Patricia Short, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News who was also on the junket (another one of those interesting people from the class of ’68 I keep meeting), told me that if I like Adam Smith I should be pleased to hear that his face now appears on British currency.

I was so delighted — saying that I’d love to have a piece of currency with Smith on it — that Patricia offered to mail me one, and so she has. But while I’m grateful, I’m a bit embarrassed to discover that Smith appears not on the two-pound note, as I thought she’d said, but on the twenty-pound note, so I definitely owe Patricia a favor and may now have to consider getting a tiny frame for the Smith note.

Today, when Americans are celebrating labor, seems like a good time to remember Smith fondly and to recall that his motivation was not, as the vicious, ignorant smears of the modern left would have it, to make the rich richer or the poor poorer but, quite the contrary, to liberate humanity from the poverty created by the ludicrous inefficiencies that anti-market laws inevitably create. To make a long theory short, every law that prevents a trade that property-owners would otherwise have made (to their mutual advantage, as judged by themselves rather than some third party or higher authority) or that forces people to make a trade they otherwise would not have (because they do not see it as advantageous to themselves) is, in essence, forcing humanity to do things the hard way — wasting time, wasting resources, wasting effort, wasting labor.

It is no kindness to humanity to pass laws that mandate, say, a perpetual monopoly on the hauling of goods for low-paid truckers if in the process the laws bankrupt a bourgeoning teleportation industry that might have eliminated the need for trucking once and for all and liberated human labor to be used for more efficient, productive, modern ends (no matter how much the initial layoffs in the trucking industry might disgruntle the truckers).

Even Smith, alas, was not a perfect free-marketeer, taking it for granted that some services were naturally governmental functions — but it’s important to note that these assumptions by Smith were not logical outgrowths of his economics theories but rather careless afterthoughts. He did not have the benefit of being able to draw upon two more centuries of free-market thought, such as the insights of founding “Austrian school” economist Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, who has himself graced Austrian currency.

The Austrian school’s key insight was that the economic value of something is subjective (in the limited, individualistic, conventional sense of the word, not the sweeping perspectival/relativist sense). That is, while a symbol for “twenty pounds” or “five dollars” may appear on an object’s price tag as the intended selling price, there isn’t some cosmic — or even material — quantifiable, “correct” price for an object that indicates its real value (the way one might test something to find its real mass). I may value an object — say, a first-edition copy of the hundredth issue of Fantastic Four — at $5,000 simply because it has some great personal importance for me, while you hate comics and would value it at only $1 (or perhaps slightly less than whatever you thought you could get in trade for it — though you’re under no “rational obligation” to want to bother investigating its resale value and may even value it at $0 or even a negative value if you’d rather not have it placed in your hand, obliging you to find a trash receptacle for it).

The whole medieval, Catholic-church notion of a “just price” is economic nonsense. Or as Buckminster Fuller might have said (had he addressed the topic), value is a verb, not a noun (at least epistemologically speaking — some mind has to do the valuing). The long deductive road from this insight to the moral/rational necessity of embracing anarcho-capitalism will have to be left for another day, but for now I will just conclude by saying that the opposite assumption from that of the Austrians would be the belief — like that held by Karl Marx, most labor unions, and even (in some early passages of Wealth of Nations) poor confused Adam Smith himself — that an objective, universally-recognizable “amount of value” is somehow imbued in objects when they are produced. If that were the case, we’d have no need for individual purchases on the market to reveal (or in some sense create) the value of things and could just look at how much sweat and steam and electricity went into making them. That’s the labor theory of value.

But if the labor theory of value were true, it would follow that more value is created when seven hundred people struggle with tweezers for a year to build a computer than when five people do it in seconds flat on an assembly line. And every time a labor union or a regulation or a Marxist insists that humanity preserve current inefficient labor arrangements instead of discarding them in favor of newfound efficiencies, they are in effect making us all work with tweezers and slowing real progress. And that, in a nutshell, is why socialist economies don’t achieve futuristic lifestyles as quickly as capitalist economies do — and why every shackle placed by government on the operation of the free market is, in effect, keeping us closer to the caves and farther from the stars.

It was hard enough to get bad, anti-market laws repealed in Smith’s day, when we hadn’t yet developed a long, tragic tradition of leftists — and young, creative intellectuals in general — reflexively despising capitalism and cheering on the governmental leviathan as it regulates and taxes everything around it to immobility or death. Now, the most destructive force on Earth, government, has most of the intelligentsia acting as its eager (and morally self-congratulatory) apologists, the Adam Smiths are once more rare, and the poor all over the world suffer for the elite’s inability — and often fierce unwillingness — to understand economics. But when I look at my twenty-pound note, at least, I’m pleased and even a bit hopeful.

(Sidenote: Our pro-Islam debater this Wed. [8pm] at Lolita Bar, Stephen Schwartz, got his political start as a pro-labor left-wing activist before turning more neoconservative and converting to Islam, so it might be interesting to chat him up about his views on unions if there’s time left over after hearing about religion, immigration, and foreign policy.)