October 16th: Sydney

I’m writing this from the Botanical Gardens. Sharon and I took a taxi from the airport, the hotel let us check in at 8am, so we showered (thank God) and changed. We are eating in a cafe in the Gardens, having taken pictures of the flowers, birds, and the Opera House. I had “wedges” for lunch. Turns out it’s not a sandwich, like I thought, but fried potato slices (I should have known when the cashier asked me if I wanted tomato sauce and handed me ketchup when I assented).

Now in Hyde Park. Saw bats at the Gardens, the Opera House, and the Circular Quay. We cashed some traveler’s checks, I picked up some tickets, and now we’re letting the jet lag make us nap.

[Originally published at GoHither.Net]

October 14th: Los Angeles to Sydney

The flight to LA is nice. I’ve never flown on a 777 before. I especially like the TV monitors in the back of the seats, and you can surf. LAX has funky columns outside that change color at night, and a restaurant that looks like a spider. The flight to Sydney is long. I haven’t been on a 747 either, but I don’t like it as much. It’s cramped, and I have a hard time sleeping. I watched Frequency (and For Love Of The Game to LA).

[Originally published at GoHither.Net]

emmet swimming-ly

If you went away for spring break, you may have had fun, but you missed one heck of a show on Saint Patrick’s Day. As the green beer flowed, emmet swimming had a filled to overflowing Fat Tuesday’s rocking.

If you’ve never seen or heard emmet swimming, they’re hard to describe. The sound of the band on the CD vaguely resembles REM, but the closest equivalent to singer Todd Watts is Tears for Fears.

However, in a live situation, their sound is different, largely due to the introduction of bassist Rob Shaw. Between him and drummer Tamer Eid, they’ve developed a ferocious rhythm section. Try to imagine Rush’s Neil Peart with Les Claypool from Primus and you might have some idea of how they sound together. At various times, Rob was singing, although it wasn’t in time with Todd and didn’t seem to make much sense at all. I have a theory that he was singing “I’m a Little Teapot Short and Stout”, but I can’t be sure.

The couple of covers they did were quite interesting: a Willie Nelson tune, guitarist Erik Wenberg handling the vocals on an REM tune, and a really odd (but good) choice, Belly’s “Feed The Tree”.

The new songs were all well done, though some were especially memorable. These included “Emmet Swimming”, “Lisa Says”, “Expect Me”, and the closer, “Boone’s Farm Wine”, a certain future favorite of GMU students. Todd introduced “I Believe” as their only Irish tune, and it was quite enjoyable as well.

You wouldn’t think Fat Tuesday’s would be big enough for stage diving, but several people in the audience attempted it before the management requested that they stop. The crowd was very into the show, and even though the biggest reaction came from the older songs, the new songs got an enthusiastic reception as well.

Talking with Tamer and their manager between sets revealed some good news. emmet swimming has been touring the east coast (and attracting some label interest), but has taken some time to record new songs. They’ve recorded seventeen new tracks of which about ten will make their next album. The new CD will probably be out in July and will be available at local CD stores that participate in The Local Music Store network.

For more information on emmet swimming, drop a line to: S.G. Entertainment, P.O. Box 1116, Fairfax, VA, 22030.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

A Top Ten Look at 1993’s Best Comics

It’s not quite the end of the year, but it’s time for the year end wrap up of comics. Here, in a more or less order, is my list of the top 10 comics for 1993.

10. Ninjak (Valiant) A brand new book, but a good one. Ninjak is Valiant’s new mysterious ninja, but the best thing about this book is the people behind it. Valiant has been known for delivering good, solid stories, but since the departure of Barry Windsor-Smith, has lacked any superstar artists for the fans to get excited about. Well, now they’ve got one. Joe Quesada (The Ray, Batman:Sword Of Azrael, X-Factor) has accepted penciling duties on this book, and with the solid storytelling skills of Mark Moretti (Eternal Warrior) this book should go far, if the first issue is any indication of where it’s going.

9. Wild C.A.T.S. (Image) While I have a problem with Image creating a work-for-hire situation when they said they’d be nothing like Marvel, I certainly have no problem with the quality of the books that do come out from most of the creators. Wild C.A.T.S. is a team of superheroes gathered together initially to fight an alien invasion. The team book is a tough concept to pull off, since it’s been done practically to death, but Jim Lee pulls it off. The writing is OK, but the main reason to buy this book is the exciting pencils of Lee. Lee manages to keep the book exciting while keeping the characters realistic in their proportions, a tough feat to pull off at Image.

8. Sachs and Violens (Marvel/Epic) Yes, Peter David (Incredible Hulk, X-Factor, Aquaman) strikes again. It seems this man excels at anything he turns his typewriter to. Joining him once again is George Perez (New Teen Titans, Infinity Gauntlet, Break-Thru). These two were first united in last year’s Hulk: Future Imperfect, and their new work looks even better. Sachs and Violens are a model and a photographer, driven to become detectives by the death of one of Sachs’ model friends. The best part of the first issue, aside from the great art, is the text in the back, where David explains his feeling on sex and violence. And what does David think of sex on TV? “Frankly, I think it’s a pain. For one thing, the cable box winds up wedged into your back and gets real uncomfortable…”

7. Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo (DC/Vertigo) An old, lame Western hero. The last story with this guy attempted to send him into a post-nuclear apocalypse. I thought nobody could make him interesting. Boy, was I wrong. Famed horror (and horror western) novelist Joe R. Lansdale brings horror to the Old West, and it will never be the same. Jonah Hex is your average ornery bounty hunter with a price on his own head, who discovers that corpses that don’t stop moving make it hard to collect bounty on them. Lending a great deal of historical background are artists Timothy Truman (Scout, The Spider, Turok) and Sam Glanzman, both well known for their stories based in this time period.

6. Bone (Cartoon Books) Have you ever heard of Pogo? Remember “we have seen the enemy, and he is us”? No? Well forget it then, and go buy this book. Bone is hard to describe. It’s obviously influenced by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but has a style all it’s own. The star is one Fone Bone, who along with his cousins Phoney and Smiley is trying to find his way back home. That description doesn’t do the book any justice, though. It’s hilarious and must be seen for itself.

5. Superman (DC) In November of last year Superman died. You wouldn’t think that leaves much room for a story, would ya? Especially with four monthly titles to put out. Well, editor Mike Carlin and his team of writers managed to do it. In April, it was established that Superman had survived somehow, and this news was followed by the appearance of four separate Supermen. The surprise was that none of the four was the real one, and one was a villain that took the combined might of the other three, plus the original, to stop. This story has been fresh and original all year, an amazing effort.

4. Cerebus (Aardvark-Vanaheim) This is hard to describe. What do you say about a book that started out as simple Conan the Barbarian parody, but has evolved into the life story of Cerebus. And when I say life story, I mean it. Dave Sim has committed to producing 300 issues over 26 years. And you know the amazing thing? He’s more than halfway there already. This book is fantastic, though. It covers one person’s life, and like life it has humor and sadness, adventure and tragedy.

3. Spawn (Image) You really have to respect someone who can listen to what the critics say, and than proceed to blow them away. The most frequent criticism leveled at Image is that it is a company made up of artists and that it’s writing, to put it mildly, sucks. Todd McFarlane had been writing Spider-Man before he left Marvel, and has been improving since, but he acknowledges he’s no Shakespeare. So in response to the critics, he hired some of the best writers in comics to write issues of Spawn this year. Alan Moore (Watchmen), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Frank Miller (Batman:The Dark Knight Returns) all wrote for Spawn, producing some incredible issues along the way. Oh yeah, Spawn is short for hellspawn, he gets his powers from the devil, and every time he uses them, he gets closer to returning to the grave. This is the best book from Image, not to mention the longest running one.

2. Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (Marvel) Genius is an overused word, but it certainly applies to Frank Miller. As he makes his second return to the character he gained his fame on, it’s clear that he was born to write the adventures of this blind superhero. Even though his Daredevil has been branded the definitive one, Miller never had before told the full origin of the character the way he had done with Batman. This series answers questions about Daredevil that have remained unanswered for more than ten years, as well as providing a full origin of Elektra, his lover and enemy.

1. Sandman/Death (DC/Vertigo) There’s always one thing that rises above all others. And this year it’s Neil Gaiman’s unparalleled work on Sandman and it’s spinoff, Death: The High Cost Of Living. Gaiman’s amazing ear for dialect, speech, and mannerisms make all of his characters totally unique. Death 1-3 and Sandman 50, in particular, were incredible. The artists, Chris Bachalo and P. Craig Russell provided dazzling interpretations of Gaiman’s scripts, making for the best comics of the year.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Understanding Comics: Read It!

Before I begin this review, I’d like to quote from a favorite cartoon of mine: “Pictures without words: Art!; Words without pictures: Literature!; Words and pictures together: pieces of worthless crap!” This sums up the mainstream attitude towards comics; at least, until now. The problem with comics is that unlike other media, there has been no critical examination of the form. That is a gap that the new book from Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, fills admirably.

The book is basically comics’ first textbook (and isn’t that what college students want, another textbook?). Unlike most textbooks, it is done entirely in the standard comics style, which is absolutely appropriate. It begins with an attempt to nail down a definition of what exactly comics are. McCloud starts with the definition by comics legend Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) of comics as sequential art (two or more connected panels of art). McCloud expands this definition to “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (and if you think that’s complex, check out the dictionary definitions for art or literature).

When did comics begin? A good question. Most books about comics start around 1896 with the first comic strip, but McCloud ventures a bit farther back. He examines an Egyptian tomb painting from 1300 BC and finds that it meets his requirements to be considered comics. On the way back to the present he stops in the 16th century to examine a pre-Columbian manuscript and looks at the first interdependent combination of words and pictures in the mid 19th century.

McCloud next explains the attraction comics have via their depiction of life not being quite realistic. His theory is that a realistic view is the way we see others, but the image we have of ourselves is more cartoony, so we are able to identify more with the characters in comics. The level of reality used can affect how one views the work, and a combination of realistic and cartoony styles can result in a totally different style, such as Japanese comics (referred to as manga), where the humans and animals are done in a cartoony, but the environment they inhabit is extremely realistic.

However, the most abstract a picture, say a face, can get is not “:-|” but rather “FACE”. McCloud believes that “words are the ultimate abstraction” and that most comics have emphasized the difference between words and pictures. Writing and drawing are often seen as completely separate disciplines, even though the best comics are those in which the words and pictures seamlessly flow together. What is needed is the formation of a vocabulary for comics consisting of words and pictures. There’s a problem in the combining of the two, though. Pictures are received information, instantly transmitted and received, while words are perceived information, requiring time and knowledge to understand. In their simplest forms, the most abstract picture and the simplest word, they are close to another, which is desired to build a vocabulary, but which is often at odds with the desire for sophistication. McCloud envisions a classification for comics based on the triangle, which has three points: reality/nature, meaning/ideas, and pictures/art, into which all comics can be placed.

McCloud next introduces a concept that is extremely crucial to comics, closure, where we observe parts but perceive a whole. This has applications to everyday life, when we assume that the GMU Student Senate exists, even though most of us will never see it. Also closure is evident when we look at a photograph in a newspaper (actually just a series of dots) or watch a movie (24 pictures a second, which we interpret as action). In comics, a static medium, closure is used to simulate both time and motion. He introduces several specific types of closure, such as moment-to-moment (eye blinking) and action-to-action (ball approaching, batter hitting it) and looks at some statistics of uses of different types. He discovers that American comics almost exclusively show things happening, while manga often uses closure to set a mood. He believes that these differences are cultural, in that we are more goal oriented and the Japanese have a tradition that emphasizes “being there over getting there”. The power of closure is seen between panels when the reader is asked to see what isn’t there. With two panels of an eye open and closed, the reader will supply the motion of the eye closing, an act unique to comics.

Time is expressed mainly through panels and closure. The panel is comics’ most important symbol. A stretched panel in company with several narrower panels can denote a longer period of time. Motion is often shown with the help of a motion line (like a circle around a batter as he swings). Emotions can be shown in several different ways; with symbols (teardrops for sadness, crosshatching on the face for embarrassment) or with lines (harsh lines for anger, gentle for affection). Sound is conveyed through the word balloon, which can change in shape or typeface of the words to simulate different sounds.

McCloud looks at early cave paintings to show that when we first tried to communicate, it was through words and pictures (or show and tell). We drifted away from that until at one point words and pictures were totally separate. They slowly drifted back together around 1900, when comics as a popular medium first started. McCloud focuses on several types of combinations of words and pictures, ones which depend more on one, ones where they are seemingly unconnected, and the most important, interdependent, where together they “convey an idea that neither could convey alone”. He then provides several interpretations of a short story using these styles.

Next, McCloud answers the question: “Is comics art?”. Of course it is, especially since his definition of art is “any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction”(I guess this means Expulsion is art; frame it). He covers 6 basic steps to creation of any work of art and explains the different approaches one might take to be a groundbreaker or storyteller. He briefly mentions color, that it has been limited by money and technology, and may assume more importance in the future.

McCloud closes by mentioning that comics are unique as being a communication media where the artistic vision stands the best chance of making it to the reader. This is due both to the limited number of people usually involved and the art form itself. He encourages discussion of his book, and there has been response. In particular, one reader objected to the exclusion of single panel comics strips from the definition and argues that there is closure between the strip and the caption.

The book has already gone into its second printing and is available now in your favorite comics shop. My opinion? I agree with Neil Gaiman, award winning writer, who said of the book, “If you read, write, teach, or draw comics; if you want to; or if you simply want to watch a master explainer at work, you must read this book”.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Bootlegs: The Real Story and the Ones to Get…

You know who you are. You’re a college student. You’ve got a favorite band. You’ve seen them live. You’ve got all their albums and videos, or so you think. That’s right, you don’t have all their albums. Don’t give that crap, I know what I’m talking about.

One of the fastest growing areas of the record collector’s market is bootlegs. Bootlegs are unauthorized audio and video recordings of a band, mostly live recordings, but occasional studio outtakes surface. And unlike regular commercial live recordings, like Van Halen’s recent album or George Michael’s just released EP, these are mostly one uncut and untouched concert. Of course, these make perfect souvenirs, especially if one is available for the show that you went to.

The largest area of bootlegs is CDs. Until the mid 80s, the preferable method of distribution was vinyl, but the obvious benefits of CDs soon became apparent. The sound quality of bootlegs can vary. Some are recorded by the soundboard (the mixing board between the guitars and mikes and the speakers), while most are audience recording. Surprisingly, the audience recordings are often very good, and some are in stereo.

Some bootlegs are actually legal. Some countries in the EEC, such as Germany and Italy, have laws that recordings that are at least ten years old may be produced, as long as royalties are set aside for the artist. Ironically, the artist can’t accept the money, because that would indicate approval of what the bootleggers are doing. Most CD bootlegs have an import stamp on them, and owning them is legal.

The fastest growing bootleg area is videos. The majority of these are recorded on a camcorder that was sneaked in, though some are unreleased concerts. The only equipment needed to produce a large number is two VCRs and a supply of blank tapes. This results in a number of people selling copies of the same shows, and a large quality difference between the generations of copies. Since the videos can be produced quickly, shows are available that are little more than a week old.

The following are totally subjective lists of my favorite audio and video boots:
Audio
1. Led Zeppelin – Tour Over Europe: Zurich, 6/29/80
Zeppelin are the unsurpassed kings of the bootleg market. Every Zeppelin show found, no matter how poor the quality of the recording or the band’s performance, has been issued on CD. At last count, that is over 400 discs. There are a large number of notable Zeppelin bootlegs, with large amounts of unreleased songs, but this double disc set is incredible. It captures the masters of rock, on their best show on their last tour.
2. Una Noche A Sevilla (A Night In Seville): Guitar Legends Festival, Seville, Spain,10/19/91
An annual concert featuring guitarists is held in Seville, Spain. In 1991, the concert was extended to five nights to feature a different genre of music each night. This particular recording is the heavy metal night, and features the remarkable talents of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Brian May, Nuno Bettencourt, and Joe Walsh. The only time my four favorite guitarists have performed together. Simply amazing.
3. Rush – The Spirit of St. Louis: St. Louis, 2/14/80
A great recording and performance from an awesome band, featuring a complete rendition of “2112”.
4. Great White – Live From Electric Ladyland: New York City, 5/31/91
A boot of a radio broadcast. The Electric Ladyland shows are recorded in the studio of the same name, and the sound is incredible.
5. Van Halen – “7227”: Tokyo, 1988
The name refers to the playing time. A very good show, importantly featuring a live performance of “Summer Nights”.
6. Queen – Merry Christmas: London, 12/25/76
An early show from a great band.
7. Pearl Jam – Unplugged …and a little plugged: MTV Unplugged 3/92 & England 2/22/92
Their amazing MTV performance, plus most a live show. What a bargain!
8. Guns N’ Roses – Lies and Dollars: New York City, 1988
The audio to MTV’s Live at the Ritz recording, with all the swearing left in.
9. Metallica – The Four Horsemen: Meadowlands, 4/8/92
This three disc boxed set features the complete show from the masters of thrash
10. David Lee Roth – Live at Selland Arena: Fresno, 12/14/86
Steve Vai is an incredible guitarist. ‘Nuff said.

Video
1. Brian May – Hammerjacks, 3/5/93
All right, I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I was at the show, and he’s incredible. Go buy his new album, in stores now.
2. Extreme – Baltimore Opera House, 2/1/93
I went to the next night, but this is a great show.
3. Guns N’ Roses – Capital Centre, 6/19/91
Yes, their first night, where Axl dives into the crowd to fight security before St. Louis!
4. Led Zeppelin – Compilation
There are a number of compilations out there, but look for a black and white TV performance from ’68, as well as their Live Aid and Atlantic 40th anniversary reunions (there’s rehearsal footage from the latter)
5. Queen – A Concert For Life, 4/20/92
Yes, I know a legitimate copy went on sale last week, but it’s still amazing.
6. Nirvana – Dallas, 1991
Kurt Cobain dives into the crowd, then hits the security guard trying to retrieve him with his guitar. The guard then attempts to beat the crap out of him.
7. Metallica – Albany, 1992
A complete show.
8. Pearl Jam – New York, 1992
Good show.
9. Whitesnake – Albany, 1990
Steve Vai – still amazing.
10. Van Halen – US Festival, 1983
Lousy copy, great show.

For those interested in going to a record show where audio and video boots are available, the next one is this Friday, at the Holiday Inn Dulles Airport, from 6-12PM.
The next after that is on June 6, at the Tyson’s Best western, from 10-5. The admission for both is $3.00.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

The Death of Superman

Let’s start off this column with a discussion of what was probably the biggest event in comics in 1992 and threatens to continue into ’93: the death of Superman.

Let’s get one thing straight: DC Comics, which has been creating monthly Superman comics since 1938, is a business. It is owned by Time Warner Inc., who are responsible fully to their stockholders. The stockholders only want one thing out of Time Warner, which in turn only wants one thing out of DC Comics: money.

Okay. Now, Superman may be the most well known, as well as one of the oldest comics characters, but in comics old and familiar is boring, which translates into poor sales.

DC has been publishing for a while, so they’ve come up with a number of schemes over the years to try to improve sales. The 50’s and 60’s saw the use of the imaginary story, with stories like “What If Superman married Lois Lane” or “What if Superman lost his powers”. The stories came with disclaimers, but the sales were good. In the 70’s and 80’s, Superman was reinvented several times. His origin was updated (so that instead of him being 40, he was now 27), and new themes were introduced (Clark Kent became a television reporter, villains like Lex Luthor got more powerful). The most thorough reinvention was for Superman’s 50th anniversary in 1988. Many parts of his past 50 years were cut, such as the existence of Superboy, Supergirl, the Phantom Zone, and Krypto the Superdog. Sales were much improved, but after the popular writer/artist who had controlled this left, sales started to slip again.

In 1990, the current writers on the Superman books (three at that time; a fourth was added in 1991 to have a Superman book out every week) decided that they would have Clark Kent pop the question to Lois Lane, in Superman (v.2) 50. This created a surge of media interest and the book sold out. However, this did not translate into increased sales in general in the Superman titles. Take note that there is one way to get out of an engagement without argument.

The Superman writers tried a number of different storylines in 1991, but none proved wildly successful. In early 1992, they were having a meeting when the topic of killing Superman came up. It’s their character; why not? Worked out that day was where and how he should die. They decided to announce it publicly way in advance (they had taken heat over not releasing the engagement plans), and came up with a gigantic alien mental patient to fight Superman (mental patient later changed to escaped prisoner in the interests of PC).

DC was fortunate and released the news about Superman’s death on a slow news day. Every media organization known to man covered the story, and Leno and Letterman talked about it for weeks. The story itself was a long, drawn out “Rocky” movie, a six issue slugfest ending in a typically cliched fashion: Superman’s last punch kills Doomsday, but he then succumbs to his injuries.

The recent storyline has been a huge success. For months, all four books, plus some issues of Justice League America have been selling out. The collector’s edition of Superman 75 (where he dies) has been commanding prices of $25 to $50 around the country. Superman 75 was the third biggest selling comic in history (@4 million), and the fastest selling ever (four printings in a month). The best way to catch the story for yourself is to pick up a copy of the Death of Superman trade paperback, a compilation of the whole storyline, now available at your local comics shop.

Wait a minute, Superman’s dead, right? DC screwed up because they can’t publish a book without its title character, right? Isn’t that the end of the story? Not quite. Most comics readers said “Superman’s dead? So what?” Why? Because death in comics ain’t quite like real life.

If you recall, there was a small media furor in 1987 when DC killed off Robin. However, that wasn’t the original Robin. The original one had a new costume, and the new one had only been around three or four years. Batman has since found another one. In comics, heroes and villains die all the time and come back to life. Readers have become immune to death. What may be original is how Superman comes back.
From Superman’s death until now, the four Superman books have focused on the supporting characters, as well as the attempts to revive Superman and perform an autopsy on his body. Jimmy Olsen has enjoyed success as a result of his exclusive photos of Superman’s death. Lois Lane and Clark’s parents have been shown dealing with his death on a personal level. Jonathan Kent, Clark’s father had a heart attack, slipped into a coma, and apparently died as the Superman titles suspended publication.

Several “one-shots”(one-issue specials) will be published in the next few months will detail how Metropolis handles life without a Superman, especially the large crime wave once criminals realize there’s no one to stop them.

The big news happens on Friday, April 16 when Adventures of Superman 500 ships. But how? Isn’t Superman dead? Yep.

In the double-sized issue, Superman meets his foster father, when both of them are traveling “towards the light”. Their combined force of will enables them to stop themselves passing on to the other side. At the end of the story, Pa Kent awakens from his coma, but Superman is nowhere to be found.

Two weeks later, on Friday, April 30, all four Superman titles ship on the same day, starting a new storyline – “Reign of the Supermen” – That’s right – Supermen. Four different super-powered individuals claim to be the Man of Steel.

Action Comics features a cold, logical (Vulcan?) vigilante who will kill if he thinks it’s necessary. Adventures of Superman features a “superboy” who appears to be a young clone of the original, and apparently has no memories. Superman features a cyborg from space, who claims to be Superman, retooled for the future. Superman: The Man of Steel features a steelworker, John Henry Iron, who was buried alive in the rubble when Superman and Doomsday fought, trashing Metropolis. He creates a high-tech metal suit, becoming a true man of steel.

The kicker is, any or none of these individuals could be Superman. They could be split personalities of the original, or the original is hiding out. In any case, it is unlikely that any of these individuals are Superman, since Clark Kent is nowhere to be found. If sales increase dramatically on one or two titles, that could affect the eventual outcome. If Adventures with the super-boy is successful, watch for him to be expanded into his own title.

Early predictions from fans saw Superman coming back as a grim and gritty vigilante, which is reflected in one of the Supermen.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]