Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chris Ware delivers more body-blows of depression

I read Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth a couple years ago, having seen excerpts in various cities' alternative weeklies. It was a thing of beauty, very well done, dense and deep, but also profoundly sad, being full of parental abandonment and alienation and so on. Somehow I soldiered through. Later I read Quimby The Mouse. What the fuck was going on with the cat's head the mouse wheeled around in the little wagon?

After that I just couldn't bear to read anything by Ware, because it was all so very, very sad. I had also encountered some of his 'doing this is miserable work, I hate it' material in a comic compilation (McSweeney's Issue 13) which put me off. It was not exactly Vince Neil griping about groupies and sub-par craft services table spreads, but still...you don't have to mentally re-live the placing of every slab by slaves to appreciate the pyramids ('they didn't have Alleve then...'). You don't have to almost die from heroin addiction and come back to enjoy the work of Iggy Pop. You don't have to personally get shot to pieces and then drown on Omaha Beach to enjoy a bar-b-q on Memorial Day. It's clear Ware has immense talent, and he's not laying about resting on his laurels, but forgive me for wanting more art and less artist in this case.

Later I encountered an essay he'd written about Frank King (Gasoline Alley) in a Drawn & Quarterly comp, which introduced a collection of King's strips that completely changed my view of what Gasoline Alley was all about (what it had been about was it was one of the old people strips I always skipped on the comics pages). It turns out Grampaw's comics were beautifully illustrated (these were Sunday strips, with the color) aimless celebrations of the world around us as it underwent great changes (the characters also underwent changes, as King allowed them to age, unlike the Family Circle kids who will keep on adorably fucking up the English language until Bil Keane gives up the ghost). Some of the strips were quite inventive and even experimental, as in a strip where the world is inverted and Skeezix lives below the surface of the lake. So, again, if you fall victim to assuming the old comics were all knuckle-dragging Bazooka Joe efforts, well, aren't you ignorant?

I felt I was ready to take on The ACME Novelty Library 'Report To Shareholders' a couple weeks ago, and I picked it up at the Monroe County Public Library, which has a really great graphic novel section. It sat on the table with the pile of books I'm currently not reading. Eventually I dove in.

Some have complained that it's very difficult to read, and it kind of is, as it's full of old style kid comic-book type ads with very small print, featuring headers like 'YOU CAN NOW MAKE MORE MONEY', 'Break into SURGERY', and 'Other Men have Read and Profited from this FREE Book About LUST'. Some pages have 10x the number of words you'd find on the page of a novel, PLUS all of the painstakingly drawn panels (and Ware doesn't miss the opportunity to point out that the comic book artist has to do 10x the work of a novelist, who can describe a scene with a few choice phrases). The thing is, nobody ever read those ads in the old comic books, so nothing's stopping the reader from plowing ahead, picking the eye-catching title here and there. Further, the densest page doesn't come close to some of the printing mayhem to be found in the novel 'House Of Leaves' (or, for that matter, the no-one has read this book, not even the author: 'Only Revolutions').

Jimmy Corrigan is in this book, as is a hapless wage-slave from the future, and Quimby, and the slow-witted and not-at-all-loved-by-Dad 'Big Tex', but the most engaging story line follows toy (mostly action figures) collectors Rusty Brown, his pushover friend Chalky White, who Rusty takes advantage of throughout the book, and the more minor character Putty Grey. Alert readers will spot Ware's 'COLLECTORS: A Guide', which describes general principles and the six basic types of collectors (among them: 'the Reparationist, who is in search of those items long ago thrown away, either by an irate parent or, sometimes, even oneself, in a regretted brusque urge toward speedy maturation').

Such collectors are, too be generous, not so well understood, and to not be generous, are despised as pathological examples of wildly misdirected obsessiveness. It would have been easy to have been repulsed by the characters, but I found myself very much drawn into their story. When Rusty, a middle-aged man living with his mother who mistreats what's probably his only friend discovers his mother threw away his collection of antique cereal boxes, I was surprised to find myself genuinely feeling sad, commiserating with him as he sat on his bed clutching his toy Kermit the Frog (reminding me of my childhood love of the Muppets, and of Jim Henson's death ).

Chalky gravitates toward church and family normalcy, and could easily have become a 2d caricature of the weird fear-driven herd patriotism following 9-11, but then there's his profound love for his daughter, Brittany (Oh my God, they named her Brittany), who's deep in teen angst, and drifting away. A particularly inspired strip shows Chalky writing one of those contemptible Christmas Family Update Letters while, in parallel, Brittany tearfully recounts the year's major developments in her diary. Sad, so very, very sad! (But also kind of funny.)

After reading the ACME Novelty Library, I read 'Pizzeria Kamikaze' by Israeli artists Etgar Keret and Asaf Hanuka. It's about an afterlife for suicides. It felt like light reading somehow, even though it was all black-and-white and about people running around with holes in their heads or, in the case of the suicide bomber bartender, parts of their faces missing. There's even a bit of an upbeat ending. Joy!

I am not sure what graphic novel I will take on next, but it might be a while before I can recover and go back to Ware's work (which I nonetheless recommend and hope he continues to put out, as painful as it is for him).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

ChatterBlocker: A Great Idea if this was 1978

I read blogs like Lifehacker and others of their ilk, chock full of their Hints from Heloise, Bottom Line Personal hints for the not-yet-elderly.

I profoundly, deeply, viscerally hate the sound of workplace chatter. In Indianapolis, when I was outside at lunch or the beginning/ends of days, sometimes I'd hear a train braking, and it made an extended whining sound that it seemed would never end, and I'd think 'this is actually much better and more interesting than listening to my cube-neighbor on the phone with a salesweasel'. The biggest laugh from 'Office Space' for me: "CORPorate accounts payable, Nina speaking. JUST a MOment... CORPorate accounts payable, Nina speaking...etc" Workplace chatter may yet drive me to a Kaczynski Kabin in Montana.

So when I heard about ChatterBlocker, I was eager to give it a whirl. The idea behind ChatterBlocker is that it reduces the sound of workplace conversations using various forms of preferred noise: flowing water, chimes, bells, jumbled up voices.

Some companies make white-noise generators which are hardware solutions to the problem. There are also the noise-canceling headphones from Bose. I have a set, and they suck because they DON'T cancel out the sounds of people talking.

I downloaded it, and it sat on my computer for a couple weeks (I fail G'ing T's D). I finally tried it yesterday, first trying a pre-set involving water flowing. Instead of being relaxed, it made me tense, and it was hard to stay in my seat because I felt like a nearby toilet needed to have its handle jiggled.

Other presets featured male or female voices, saying random things. This one was disturbing because I have eavesdropping tendencies, which is part of the reason workplace chatter vexes me so. Hearing this jumbled, sliced and diced chatter, I couldn't help but try to extract meaning from it, only to fail and be frustrated.

Finally, an 'advanced' mode is like ACID: the early 90's ambient edition. The user can choose various soothing instruments and sounds (some plucked string instrument, bells, blocks clacking together, etc) and mix them together in search of the magic recipe for relaxation. It's a lot of work, going through all the permutations. Fortunately, a lot of people have been working on this problem going back at least to 1978, the year Brian Eno released Ambient One: Music for Airports. That airports are still profoundly miserable, noisy places (even the 'Admiral Lounge' areas can get overly crowded to the point where it takes a lot of complementary booze to cancel out a room-full of Junior Achievers on cell phones, and children failing to be entertained by the big-screen TV) is a testimonial to the ambition and audacity Eno must have had to have even taken on the project.

While I was conducting these experiments, my wife was in the other room, and she made some remark along the lines of 'WTF is that noise?'. On hearing what the fuck it was, she agreed that it somehow managed to create rather than relieve tension.

At this point I remembered actually I do have Aphex Twin's 'Selected Ambient Works Vol 2' on my iPod, along with several albums by The Orb (there's a new, 'deluxe' version of U.F. Orb out there now btw). So apparently what I need to do is group these tracks together as a playlist w/ iTunes, then listen to my iPod on the failing-to-cancel noise headphones (earbuds fail blocking out outside noise).

If an iPod and 90's ambient music is not at your disposal, you can always call in sick and work from home when the noise gets to be too much. Maybe a plumber can help you hack your toilet into a nice ambient noise generator. Good luck submitting that expense report.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

For Sunday: A reading from the book of Miles Davis

Open your Autobiography of Miles Davis (with Quincy Troupe) to p 380, please, for 'The Dinner at The White House with Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles'.

At the table where I was sitting, a politician's wife said some silly shit about jazz, like 'Are we supporting the art form just because it's from here in this country, and is it art in it's truest form, or are we just being blase and ignoring jazz b/c it comes from here and not from Europe, and it comes from black people?'

This came from out of the blue. I don't like questions like that because they're just questions from someone who's trying to sound intelligent, when in fact they don't give a damn about it. I looked at her and said, 'What is it? Jazz time or something? Why you ask me some shit like that?'

So she said, 'Well, you're a jazz musician, aren't you?'

So I said, 'I'm a musician, that's all'.

'Well then, you're a musician, you play music...'

'Do you really want to knew why jazz music isn't given the credit in this country?'

She said, 'Yes, I do.'

'Jazz is ignored here b/c the white man likes to win everything. White people like to see other white people win just like you do and they can't win when it comes to jazz and the blues b/c black people created this. And so when we play in Europe, white people over there appreciate us b/c they know who did what and they will admit it, but most white Americans won't.'

She looked at me and turned all red and shit, and then she said 'Well, what have you done that's so important in your life? Why are you here?'

Now, I just hate shit like this coming from someone who is ignorant,but who wants to be hip and has forced you into a situation where you're talking to them in this manner. She brought this on herself. So then I said, 'Well, I've changed music 5 or 6 times, so I guess that's what I've done and I guess I don't believe in playing just white compositions.' I looked at her real cold and said, 'Now, tell me what have you done of any importance other than be white, and that ain't important to me, so tell me what your claim to fame is'.

She started to twitch and everything around her mouth. She couldn't even talk she was so mad. There was a silence so thick you could cut it with a knife. Here this woman was supposedly from the hippest echelons of society talking like a fool. Man, it was depressing.

Ray Charles was up there sitting with President Reagan, and the president was looking around to see how to act. I felt sorry for him. Reagan just looked embarassed.

Man, they should have written down something hip for him to say, but they ain't got nobody hip nowhere around him. Just a bunch of sorry motherfuckers with plastic smiles, acting all proper and shit.
A reading from the book of Miles.

In which I tell people more successful than myself what to do

This is a brief one:

Patton Oswalt - Please license your 'I'm going to fill your hoo-ha with goof juice' routine to Gilbert Gottfried. Maybe get somebody to do an animated short with him providing the voice. Comedy Gold!

Quentin Tarantino - In a future film, make sure there's a graphic torture scene where the background music is 'The Rockafella Skank' by Fatboy Slim (aka 'Right About Now, the Funk Soul Brother'). In a year or two, it will have the forgotten or, if remembered, remembered disdainfully status 'Stuck in The Middle With You' had when you made 'Reservoir Dogs'.