Monday, June 29, 2009

Do Not Adjust Your Self

Sorry for the interruption in service this past week - I suspect that the next couple of weeks will be like this as I attempt to get everything off my plate that's currently on it. Whether that means stuffing it down my throat or throwing it under the table, headway will be made.

In the meantime, I have the third (and most complicated) chapter in my struggles with Manga lurking incomplete in my drafts folder. Unsurprisingly, it's proving a little difficult to sum up almost three decades of thoughts on this remarkable culture that I know so little about - so that will likely go into the same holding mode as the fabled Pink Floyd reviews.

At any rate, I recommend that you track down and watch Virtuality, the new show from Ron Moore. It covers space exploration, virtual reality and reality shows, plus more. It's pretty good. Caution: it ends on several cliffhangers and there isn't a hope in hell of it getting picked up as a series, but I think it's still worth your time. Two hours of your time, to be exact.

You can watch it at Hulu or Fox. Hulu is grand, but I like the Fox player a little better - plus, no commercials (at least none when I watched it).


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Still-Pictures with Life, Pt. II

Keen observers who wonder why, if this is ostensibly a book review, I spent so much time yesterday discussing a) getting my hands on the book, and b) my contentious history with manga. Well, 'b,' I hope, is self-explanatory: I'm using this book as a springboard to reexamine my long-held prejudices about manga, and I'm taking you along with me. As far as 'a,' well, this is the Subway Rambler, after all.

So: before I went off on a tangent, in the first paragraph of yesterday's post, I told you that A Drifting Life is a graphic memoir by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a veteran manga artist and writer who started his career in the early 1950s at the age of 16. And that's the subject matter of the book - it's essentially a career and industry overview with some human interest bits sprinkled in, covering the first fifteen years of Tatsumi's career.

This isn't the first graphic memoir by an established cartoonist, East or West. But the tight focus of this particular book does make it a pretty unique reading experience.

Right off the bat, a caveat: Tatsumi fares poorly at constructing a dramatic arc for the narrator. The book is a roman รก clef, but even allowing himself the luxury of fictionalizing certain elements (I'm not sure what these are), the overall tone is dry and anecdotal. Dozens of people wander on and off the page with little introduction and sometimes little or no purpose in the overall narrative. Characters have motivations that are either paper-thin and sleeve-worn, or completely obscure and inscrutable - which would be fine in a genuine autobiography, where the author is limited by his own experiences, but in fictionalizing certain aspects, Tatsumi does give us scenes of other people in his life that he couldn't possibly have known about, making speculations about other's motivation that may or may not bear any relation to reality.

The reason why this is so distracting is that the entire narrative is delivered in a dry and declarative fashion - things happen and Tatsumi tells us they happened, but never in a particularly illuminating way beyond the basic chronology and dramatis personae involved. The only relationship that ever goes beyond the surface portrayal is that of Tatsumi with his older brother, who shares a close bond but with Tatsumi, but also a competitive jealousy that occasionally boil over. Beyond that, the central character is a cipher - as even the title admits. Someone who is clearly passionate about comics but largely untouchable, at least as presented here.

And these are the qualities that I find a lot of manga shares - maybe I'm too steeped in expectations from western literature, but the overly polite and distant tone of A Drifting Life begins to drag the book down after a while. In a shorter volume, it wouldn't be so much of a problem, but at well over 800 pages, you really miss being able to fully connect with a human presence at the core.

But: if you can bring yourself to read a novel about a completely passive person, there's actually quite a bit here to make the read worthwhile. But that's tomorrow night.

Next: Manga and Post-War Japan

Monday, June 22, 2009

Still-Pictures with Life, Pt. I

Took a visit to the Nyack Public Library, today - well-stocked, but perhaps a little ramshackle in the staffing. The visit was actually the culmination of a minor thread in my life for the last few weeks - trying to get my hands on a copy of A Drifting Life, a new graphic memoir by veteran manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. I have to confess, here, that I'm largely ignorant of manga and only know of Tatsumi through this book, but I took it as a given that he's a giant in the field (having started working professionally at the age of 16, in 1951), and I had faith that the 800+ page book was going to be worth reading.

However, it's not that easy getting your hands on a book like this that you're not willing to spend money on. My first attempt was back in March, visiting the Tappan Library to see if they had it in stock or if they were going to. I tried to sell them on it as an important book (I always get evangelical about libraries increasing their comics stock). The reference librarian very kindly took down all the information and said she'd let me know. Indeed, she did, sending me an email a few days later profusely apologizing that the Tappan Library wouldn't be using their funds to order it. But (she continued), the county-wide database did show that someone might put it on order at another library. So don't give up hope!

I gave up hope. Which was premature, because several weeks later, this amazing woman actually sent me another email, informing me that the Nyack Library had gotten it, and she'd try to get them to send it over.

I owe this woman some thanks. When's the last time that a someone - let alone a complete stranger - was that thoughtful to you? Hell, even if you say, 'she was just doing her job!,' when's the last time you met someone with that level of dedication to their job? Hold on...

... and I'm back, having just written the woman a letter of thanks.

My reasons for wanting to read the book - beyond just being tantalized by the reviews I'd read - largely stemmed from a couple of years back, while I was still teaching comics at the local art center. Most of the kids in class had manga as their touchstone for what comics are - and I have always had an ambivalent (at best) relationship with the canon. I'm just the right age to have witnessed the first serious explosion of more artful manga into America, with the one-two release of Lone Wolf & Cub and Akira, both high-profile translations that likely owed their release to the rise of Frank Miller, who had mined the works and the genre for inspiration. At least, that's how they were marketed at the time.

And me? In that era, I was just moving from my all-Marvel/DC diet to the fringes of the underground/alternative/independent/whatever they were calling it that week, and having grown up with the after-school diet of watered-down anime like Battle of the Planets, so I was pretty receptive to reading it. But I didn't like it. All of the qualities that Scott McCloud praises in manga in Understanding Comics were present, but it was those very qualities that left me cold.

For starters, it was difficult to see the two works (as different as night and day) as anything other than pastiches of American genre works - a complaint I still lob at both manga and European genre comics. It's understandable - 20th Century American culture really seduced geeks the world over, much as Moebius translations in Heavy Metal did in the 70's and 80's and manga and anime do with American geeks, now.

Those qualities that I didn't like would be a little hard to parse, since I find I like most of them just fine when I encounter their effects in Western comics - I'll get to this - but when collected in one place at the source, it didn't work for me. And the more I encountered manga and more serious anime - going to RISD, a lot of it was forced on me - the less I found I liked it. My biggest complaint was the sameness of the work that I saw and the general thinness of presence.

Beyond (admittedly) looking very, very cool, all of these dystopian robot lesbian stories had nothing on serious science-fiction. The famous Yakuza riff Crying Freeman was tedious and repetitive, lurid without being actually titillating. And it all seemed like stuff I'd seen done before - and better - in American movies. While very little influence of Western comics is felt in manga, it's clear that American movies are the template for much of the work. Note: I'm pleased to say that this little observation of mine was borne out by Drifting Life, where the lead character endlessly details his obsession with American movies and detective novels.

Next: More manga

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In which realism defeats entertainment

As I said to Yesenia shortly before we independently reach the same conclusion (that the film was a huge snore), "Wow, there's nothing more I want to watch than a boring, self-important actor playing a boring, self-important dilettante in a boring and self-important film."

In case you can't tell, I was speaking ironically. For all I know, this film may be a masterpiece. We couldn't even make it a half-hour into the first part. And - not that I was ever on board with the Che Guevara cult of personality in the first place, but I'm pleased to announce that my opinion of him has now calcified into thoroughly disinterested disdain. What a tool.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Again with the Classic

Saw Up tonight, at the Port Chester AMC (with Karl & Yesenia). And what can I say? With the partial exception of Cars, Pixar is still just ringing up the the seamless, entertaining works of art. I don't think there's been a run like this in the history of cinema since Disney's original run of animated features from 1939 to - oh, let's say 1960. That's twenty years and about 15 movies - and Pixar's coming close on their heels, with ten films in fifteen years. With their pace now of a film a year, unless they really fuck it up and accidentally produce a Dreamworks script, they might actually beat the Disney run.

It's not to say that Lasseter and the Pixar team have done everything seamlessly. I have no idea what they were thinking letting Chris Sanders go - Sanders is surely one of the great animation directors working today. Sanders, to me, combines the best of a lot of different iconic animators - shades of Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi fuel his work, but he manages a timelessness that eluded both of those directors. Sanders is easily in Brad Bird's league, and it's foolhardy to squander and alienate talent of that order, despite the roster of big guns that Pixar has (Pete Docter, Bird and Andrew Stanton really know their stuff, and even if Lasseter is no longer top-tier in terms of directing chops, it's clear that he knows how to pick and shepherd projects).

Anyhow, Up is yet more fuel for my inevitable Blu-Ray purchase, so the economy better hurry up and recover so that I can justify spending my money on crap that I can't afford, again.


P.S.: Here - another Sanders link: a comic called Kiskaloo that I was ignorant of until about five minutes ago. I haven't read it, but that drawing sure is nice - and it proves once again that the level of talent out there doing webcomics is pretty scary. Note: The site navigation is pretty lame. The link goes to the first (I believe) strip, so click 'next' at the top to read through them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Really Sit Around the Disk

Man, oh man: you've really got to be bad at organizing your hard-disk when out of the 150 GB your computer came with, you've got roughly 1.5 GB free. It keeps warning me while we record that I'm 'Dangerously Low' on space,* which wouldn't be so bad, except it keeps doing it in front of the other band members, which is kind of embarrassing.

Let's face it, though: does anyone who knows me seriously expect me to be diligent about backing up and keeping scratch disk space on my hard drive? My motto is, "If something takes effort (exaggerated farting sound)." Which, admittedly, is the motto that's gotten me where I am today, in oh, so many respects.

Somewhere in the back of my head, is Yesenia's voice relating an Puerto Rican platitude that she grew up with: "The lazy man does everything twice." Sort of Norm Abrams 'measure twice, cut once' philosophy, but (as with all things of Hispanic origin) far harsher and much more spot on - guaranteed to either shame you into action or just make you feel lousy for being you.

Anyway, I'm yet again thinking of getting a hard drive, and this time using it with Apple's built-in 'Time Machine' automated back-up. 1 TB, that oughta do it. I'll skip the Firewire expense and just go with USB 2. Techheads, recommend away.


*That might not be the exact phrasing, but for the sake of comic riffing material, let's just say it was.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It seems kind of startling that the year is already half-over. Perhaps the time has come to accomplish something?


Friday, June 12, 2009

Here Comes the Rain Again (Again)

Good Christ, but it's been raining an awful lot lately. Not so much raining at length, but the squalls that come are like God's Bathtub being violently upended over the house. And God's apparently feeling dirty these days, because - based on the available evidence- He just sighs and fills it back up, until a pissed angel (my money's on Uriel) comes and kicks it over again.

Annoyingly enough, the little leak in the office - which was essentially taken care of - has been acting up due to the sheer volume of water that's been sheeting down on the roof. The basement, on the other hand, has been remaining admirably dry, with only the expected water in the far right rear corner. It makes for that musty smell (note to self: ventilation!) that old houses seem to carry in these weathers. But that's just a matter of doing a better job of leading the gutters away from the rear of the house.

Which I'll do as soon as it stops fucking raining.

As far as the water leaking into the office, the best defense seems to be a pile of soft towels, since trying to catch the drops in containers just resulted in the water splattering everywhere. I'm sure there's a better fix to be made up on the roof - most likely, the water is getting in between the flashing and the siding near the little dining room rooflet (is it a gable?), and an application of tar seemed to take care of it a couple of years back. It's either time for another application, or something more drastic. Anyone know any unrain dances?


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Peaks & Troughs

Spent a small chunk of my time this weekend doing further edits on the live audio I captured of the two opening acts at Putnam's show the other week. Why, exactly, am I doing this when I have a good half-dozen other things that take priority over it? Because it's the only thing that I have in front of me that I really have any fun doing. Plus, after a particularly sluggish math lesson with my father earlier this afternoon, I find getting deep into editing and balancing audio to be incredibly soothing.

Given that everything in my life these days is either things I don't know how to do (math) or things that require me to break down big mental blocks (design) and things that fall equally into both camps, I think I can forgive myself a couple of hours blown over a basically pointless activity (that isn't just watching TV) that actually plays to my skills and leaves me with a sense of satisfaction when I'm done.

And 'done' may be the most important concept here - pretty much all else that requires my attention is part of a larger project, even some that (literally) have no end in sight. It's nice to just sit and finish a project in one evening. Even if the monetary rewards are nil, the idea of having spent a Sunday evening doing something personally rewarding is... well, you know.

Next up: finishing up some logos for my sister's company. With design work, I often have to hack away at something in small periods over the course of a few days to get something I like. It's vanishingly rare that I can sit down with nothing and stand up after a discrete period satisfied with the results. As a designer, I frequently have a blank page in my mind that equals the Illustrator Document on the screen. It's more a tale of compromising with myself over the course of several sessions until I can just let something go. Let's see how I do this evening.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

And Then There Were Two...

We'd had an offhand, half-assed attempt to organize a PCMA practice/recording session for the week, and as a result, we ended up with only two of the five members present - myself and Karl. Edz had to work late, Shaun had a sick wife to attend to and Christine wanted to actually go home for the first night in a week. Slackers!

Thankfully, we had just enough to do between the two of us, and since Karl and I sort of split the engineering duties between ourselves (I think we should demand a credit from the band as such, calling ourselves some kind of 'twins,' after the glimmer twins or the toxic twins...), it went pretty smoothly. Well, smoothly for Karl, who retook the bass for one song at my request - and did so without even arguing about it and in one take, which really is all the proof he ever needs to show he's a better man than I am. And that after I spent an hour yelling at him about how Google really isn't the goody-two-shoes 'do no evil' munchkin-patch they tell everyone they are.

Myself, I retook my failed guitar for two songs - one, the album-closing number that on my first take a couple of weeks ago just felt like ass, where I couldn't lock in with the rhythm section no matter what. Of course, after severely pissing myself off about my first attempts, I listened back a few days later and they sounded just fine, save for the fact that my tremolo was both too fast and too deep.

...avoiding sexual metaphors...

The other guitar track was an instrumental that we did as a quick one-off jam a couple of years ago that for the life of me, I could never quite get the hand of what I did on the original practice demo. It worked all of my weaknesses as a musician - right down the the fact that it's on guitar, which I definitely place a distant fourth in the list of four instruments that I play. To compound issues, in a weird twist, it's a guitar instrumental where I play the lead and Shaun the chords, and the part I play is pretty far up the neck, meaning that we've removed every point of reference I have to actually be able to really get my part together.

Add to that the fact that after that initial writing session, we've only played it in practice once in the intervening two years, so I've had no chance to codify what I do... which was really just weird happenstance in the first place, and completely out of my style to boot.

Miraculously, we got it down tonight, but it was a tough slog, with me constantly missing notes and fucking up runs - not for lack of technical ability, since it's not a technically demanding part (I don't do those), but because of the aforementioned excursion from my usual guitar style, which is kind of folksy (if you want to be both charitable to me and insulting to folk musicians).

Frankly, I don't think anyone (even those who feel I'm a good musician) would turn to me to play jazz-inflected electric lead guitar. Really, maybe I should learn some scales, finally - it's been, what, twenty years since I started playing guitar? Alright, already...


P.S.: That's right: I'm daring the PCMA Gods to strike down the work we did. Because it's either us or them, I've decided.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Going Too Far

Here's a depressing little article from some entertainment site or other:

"ANGELINA JOLIE has been ditched by the producers of the TOMB RAIDER movies after they decided she's now too old for the role.

The Hollywood beauty starred in the first two Tomb Raider films in 2001 and 2003, but movie bosses will replace the 33-year-old with a younger star for the next installment."

There's literally nothing right about the above, starting with the very idea that we've somehow gotten three goddamn Tomb Raider movies. Is that possible? Dear God. I don't even need to point out the depressing idea that at 33, Jolie is considered too over-the-hill to play the character.

But the capper is what the producer had to say:

"We are rebooting Lara Croft. It's a great story that we're going to tell, very character-orientated and more realistic than the past movies. It is an origin tale so it's going to be a younger Lara Croft."

Jiminy Christmas. When even Tomb Raider is getting rebooted, I think that means the 'reboot' craze for franchise properties has officially gone too far. It reminds me of the comedian's routine about a Starbucks opening inside another Starbucks - I thoroughly expect to one day be watching a rebooted film property, and then the film reboots halfway through with an all-new cast.

But the big question: Is there a public clamor for a more realistic, character-based film adapted from a video game whose claim to fame is a lead character with giant breasts? Would there not, in fact, just be a clamor for more footage of said breasts, the less realistic, the better? Also, I hold in suspicion a man who uses the term 'character-orientated,' although I suppose he could just be making a play on the globe-trotting aspects of the franchise.