Friday, March 28, 2008

Bronze Beauties #17: 1st Issue Special

In 1975, DC Comics launched a new “tryout” series, 1st ISSUE SPECIAL. Each issue featured a different character, some new, some established B-listers, in order to simultaneously check out fan reaction and clean house of some inventoried unused stories. The series’ 13 issues constituted quite a mixed bag, from the forgettable (#4’s LADY COP) to the okay (#7’s THE CREEPER tale by Steve Ditko) to the sublime (see below).

Three issues were written and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby, wrapping up his ambitious but ultimately overreaching stint at DC Comics. The goofiest of Kirby’s contributions was #6’s THE DINGBATS OF DANGER STREET (Sept 1975), a callback to the kid-gang comics of the Golden Age that Kirby created with his then-collaborator Joe Simon (who helmed his own wacky issues of this comic, most notoriously another kid group, millionaires THE GREEN TEAM in #2). The Dingbats (Good Looks, Non-Fat, Krunch and Bananas) do urban battle with goofy villains Jumping Jack and the Gasser in a story that feels a bit like the Sweathogs fighting crime.

The only feature that spun off into a successful series was Mike Grell’s super sword & sorcery epic, THE WARLORD in #8, but I think the best issue of 1st ISSUE SPECIAL was #9 (Dec. 1975), starring the oft-misused mystical hero, DR. FATE. In a tale written by Martin Pasko and beautifully illustrated by Walt Simonson (a perfect match of artist and character), Dr. Fate fights the mummy Khalis while dealing with some domestic strife at home with his wife Inza. The story has become a classic, being reprinted by DC umpteen times over the years, but there’s something about the original package with the Joe Kubert cover and Batman Hostess Fruit Pie ad inside the cover that makes this a true Bronze Beauty.

NEXT WEEK: The Invincible IRON MAN!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bronze Beauties #16: Beware! The Claws of... the Cat

I’m resurrecting Bronze Beauties, a mini-gallery tribute to the super-swell comic book covers of the 1970s (what is referred to as the Bronze Age of Comics). Kicking off the return is Marvel Comics’ short-lived female superhero book BEWARE! THE CLAWS OF... THE CAT! Part of an attempt by Marvel to woo female readers in the early ‘70s (alongside NIGHT NURSE and SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL), The Cat only lasted four issues, despite artwork by the criminally underrated Marie Severin. The Cat drifted around the Marvel Universe after her series was cancelled, and in 1974 in GIANT SIZE CREATURES #1, she mutated into the super-powered feline Tigra. Curiously, years later, the Cat’s old costume was adopted by longtime Marvel character Patsy Walker when she morphed from teen-comic-star to superheroine and became Hellcat.

I know, I’m confused, too. Here are the covers to THE CAT #2 (January 1973) and #4 (June 1973) both by the legendary John Romita.

NEXT WEEK: The not always first, nor special FIRST ISSUE SPECIAL!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

At the Risk of Sounding...

One of my live show pet peeves is artists who scold an audience for talking. This is not to say that a yammering, inattentive crowd doesn’t suck. It does. But at a concert that takes place in a nightclub, it’s something that, with some exceptions, you simply have to accept. A nightclub (as opposed to a theater with seats) is a social atmosphere, where the music is just part of the experience. Not everyone there is there to hear the band, regardless of the cover charge they might’ve just paid. Some are there to hang out with friends, have some drinks, meet new people. For these patrons, the music is just background.

Most musicians realize this, whether they like it or not, and just deal. Some do not.

While working the bar Saturday night, I witnessed the biggest stage blowup I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to name names (you can figure it out, but let’s call him Lemmy). He’s a young singer songwriter who went through the sadly common wringer of getting signed to a major label right out of the gate, selling no records, and promptly getting dropped. So, there’s a chance he’s a bit bitter.

He’s still popular enough to draw a crowd, though, but here’s the thing: This guy’s bland, CW-ready brand of pop rock doesn’t exactly appeal to a discriminating group for whom music is a priority. In fact, much of his appeal lies in the fact that he’s got a real pretty face (Lemmy has also done some acting). The imagery surrounding Lemmy is all SEVENTEEN-ready, his shaggy hair and soulful eyes tailor-made for an audience that cares more about how their rave faves look than sound. This is evidenced by the mostly female crowds at this shows, the stripe of gal who gets all gussied up, hoping that he’ll notice her from the stage and bang ‘er in the bathroom. Or something. I’m just speculating, but I’d bet good money that 95% of the women at the show on Saturday night own SEX AND THE CITY DVDs.

And so, they talk. As they did on Saturday night as Lemmy and his band went through their set. About halfway through the show, though, Lemmy lost it. After delaying the start of a quieter song until everyone (temporarily) shushed, he started, then suddenly stopped, and SCREAMED at the audience:

“Shut the FUCK UP, you FUCKING ASSHOLES!!! Do you have any idea how hard it is to stand up here and do this while you RUDE PIECES OF SHIT are out there TALKING? HAVE SOME FUCKING RESPECT, YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!”

Now, aside from the first line, this is not a verbatim transcript. But I swear, it’s close. He ranted at the top of his lungs before going back into the song. I just looked up, said a soft, “Really?” and watched the crowd react with mostly justified disbelief. One patron about my age walked to the bar shaking his head in disgust while others hooted or laughed and a few lowered their heads in penitence. And absolutely nothing was gained, onstage or off.

Some years back, Lloyd Cole, a far more accomplished, talented and successful singer-songwriter than Lemmy did two nights solo at the bar. I’m a big Lloyd fan, and was somewhat disappointed that the crowd the first night was not very attentive. There was enough chattering that it was a bit difficult for me to hear the show from behind the bar. The next night, before we opened doors, I talked to Mr. Cole about it, lamenting the behavior of the audience. But his reaction was the opposite of Lemmy’s.

Lloyd agreed that it sucked, but said that he was fully aware of the social environment of the nightclub, that not everyone was there to pay rapt attention to him, and if he couldn’t hold the crowd, that was his problem. This humble acceptance of a crappy situation was revelatory to me, and indicative of an artist that’s out to make music, not be aggrandized.

For an artist to yell at an audience is a no-win situation. The people who weren’t paying attention are just going to take umbrage and get louder. And some people who weren’t talking are likewise going to feel alienated. Nobody likes to be treated like a child, especially by someone as petulant as a screaming five year old begging for attention.

Dude, these people just paid $10 to come in and have a good time, not to be scolded by a spoiled wannabe rock star. And you know what else? You know who’s to blame for their inattentiveness? YOU ARE. YOU are the creator of the tepid, unchallenging background rock that doesn’t appeal to the kind of discerning music fans who pay attention (and I’ve witnessed many shows with completely silent sold-out audiences). If your music were more interesting, you wouldn’t draw a crowd that yammers on about old episodes of FRIENDS or not wanting to pay taxes or their hair or whatever the fuck they were discussing.

At the Risk of Sounding cold, Lemmy, This Ship’s Going Down. You should make a New Year’s Resolution and Cover Up, because If They Come Again, they’re not going to be Absolutely Still and you will be The Only One Lonely enough to not Get the Joke come High Noon.

Or, to use words that aren’t yours, you reap what you sow.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Tilda Swinton Rule

My friend John has a theory he calls the Tilda Swinton Rule: If the actress is in a movie, it can’t be all bad. (I would argue this purely based on her part in Jim Jarmusch’s meandering yawner BROKEN FLOWERS, but that’s besides the point.) I thought about John’s theory because it held water in regards to the 47 year old actress’ unexpected Best Supporting Actress win for MICHAEL CLAYTON at the Oscars on February 24th.

I’ve got a checkered history with the Academy Awards. When I was a kid, I totally bought into the hype and the purported “importance” of the Oscars. I even remember getting inexplicably excited over victories such as when Dustin Hoffman’s Best Actor win in 1980 for KRAMER VS. KRAMER, a movie I hadn’t even seen at that point (and wish I could still say the same). When I got a bit older, I did probably host some Oscar Parties (but I honestly can’t recall).

But as I got a bit crustier in my 30s, my increasingly-cynical eye began to view the Oscars as a vainglorious circle jerk of the most overpaid, over-pampered people in the world giving each other shiny awards and displaying wretched excess that only served to inflate their already out-of-proportion sense of importance in the world. For years, the Whoopi-Billy-Robin hosting triumvirate was hellaciously torturous. And mostly, movies that I considered total crapola were being bestowed multiple awards that deigned to declare their parts and sometimes sums that superlative adjective, “Best:” FORREST GUMP. SCHINDLER’S LIST (well, I thought it sucked). GLADIATOR. And of course, TITANIC. Blech. No thanks. I stopped watching.

But when I reached the point some years back where I actually started getting paid to have opinions on popular culture, I grudgingly accepted that ignoring the Oscars is kinda like a sports writer deciding he’s going to skip the Super Bowl. I still despised the hype and the ridiculous attention to fashion and the fawning over Jack Nicholson (I like Jack, but c’mon) and the mostly insipid production numbers and the awful, unfunny patter shat out by Hollywood hack writers and awkwardly spat out by actors who often proved they should never do live theater. And I still disagreed with much of what was being declared “Best” (MILLION DOLLAR BABY was an awful, awful motion picture and I couldn’t friggin’ stomach Adrien Brody in anything until last year’s DARJEELING LIMITED).

So, this year’s Oscars (for which I did spontaneously host a small gathering) was kind of a surprise for me in that… I enjoyed it. First of all, Jon Stewart did a terrific job as emcee (and I didn’t think so two years ago). He was comfortable and funny and most of all, brought a welcome East Coast air of perspective to the proceedings. Secondly, there was no hideous huge opening production number (although almost all of the Best Song nominees were pretty painful). But most of all, I actually LIKED much of what won: I did indeed think that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was the best film of the year, and I loved MICHAEL CLAYTON and RATATOUILLE (my opinions are not as strong on THERE WILL BE BLOOD and I have chosen to not see JUNO, thank you very much). And it was great to see Hitchcock collaborator Robert Boyle get a well-deserved honorary award. When all was said and done, I thought it was perhaps the best Oscars I’d ever seen.

But I often forget how far outside of the mainstream my opinions tend to lie.

And so I was kinda stunned to discover that not only were the 80th Academy Awards the least watched since they starting keeping track, but that almost everyone else on Earth seemed to hate the show. Barbara fucking Walters complained that there was “no gwamour” and that she’d never heard of most of the nominees. Xenophobes bemoaned the fact that no Americans won an acting Oscar. Jon Stewart’s casual demeanor wasn’t sycophantic enough for the narcissists in Hollywood who demand constant butt-sucking. And most hilariously, people complained that the biggest movies at this year’s Oscars… weren’t BIG enough and were all so DREARY! Wah! I guess everyone was longing for the feel-good flicks of yore about police corruption, mental illness, debilitating disease and the Holocaust!

The problem wasn’t that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or THERE WILL BE BLOOD or MICHAEL CLAYTON were dreary (I didn’t find them dreary, I thought NO COUNTRY and MICHAEL CLAYTON were absolutely exhilarating), it’s that they weren’t dumbed down to reach a mass audience. What all three of those films have in common is that they challenge the viewer.

I saw MICHAEL CLAYTON late, just a week before the Oscars aired. I had seen only the first 45 minutes of it via hotel pay-per-view in early February, and was dying to see the whole film. So, one afternoon a few weeks back, my pal Gary and I did an afternoon double feature at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square. About five seats across from us in the sparsely-attended screening sprawled a middle aged fella with his shoes off, his (thankfully) stocking-clad feet resting on the railing in front of him. “I just like to stretch out and have a little solitude in the afternoon, y’know what I mean? Little time to myself!!” he ranted, as I wondered why someone demanding solitude would choose a block of the world that is never, ever, at any time of day or night devoid of a sprawling throng of tourists.

As the advertainment gave way to the trailers, Mr. Sockitude got antsy. With each passing preview, he’d grouse, “C’mon, let’s start da fuckin’ movie already, fer Chrissakes!” I thought perhaps it was this gentleman’s first time in a movie theater, and what happened next only supported that premise.

As MICHAEL CLAYTON got underway, a couple seated behind us took out some contraband snackage, a smuggled in bag of SmartFood and opened it up. Anyone familiar with the physics of snack packaging knows that this act produces what is called a SOUND, a crinkling of paper and plastic that, while not pleasant, is to most, an acceptable reality of the filmgoing experience.

But not to Socky. He spun around in his seat and began to berate the couple. “JESUS, quit dat fuckin’ crinklin!’ Pour some into yer fuckin’ hands and eat it like dat! What da FUCK~!” This repeated itself a number of times until finally, under great duress, Mr. Sockitude put on his shoes and moved to the other end of the row, away from us, loudly bitching, not giving a crap that he was being ten times more disruptive than the cheddar-popcorn-munching patrons behind us.

The movie continued, and despite his distance, Socks continued to make his presence known to the whole theater. When the scene came where Tom Wilkinson describes to George Clooney a moral epiphany that occurred while two hookers were giving him a blowjob, Mr. Sockamagee whooped and hollered in glee. “HAHAHAH! YEAH!” He really liked the description of two whores taking turns sucking Tom Wilkinson’s joint.

But that, apparently, was the film’s sole high point for Sockeroony, because he left not too long after that. I guess the film’s explorations of moral ambiguity, corporate greed and personal redemption weren’t enough of a grabber for this brain trust.

I’m not saying that Chef Sock-ar-dee is the average moviegoer, or especially someone who throws Oscar Parties, but I’m betting that he didn’t get bored and walk out of THE DEPARTED. For once, the Academy actually awarded truly rewarding, challenging films, and what happens? It gets shit upon by everyone from the chowderheads on THE VIEW to freaking ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY who, in the current issue (the cover of which declares about the Oscars, “THEY WERE BORING!”) staggeringly recommends that next year they “Nominate More Hits.”

So, maybe Tilda Swinton won’t be making a return trek to the stage next year to pick up another statue that looks like her agent for her performance as Lady Macbeth in the upcoming COME LIKE SHADOWS. Maybe media darling Miley Cyrus will be getting Oscar’s first pre-emptive statuette for what’s sure to be an amazingly awesome HANNAH MONTANA: THE MOTION PICTURE coming in 2009!!! I would SURE DAMN LIKE TO SEE DAT!

I just hope nobody opens a bag of SmartFood behind me. That would suck.