I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Friday, November 8, 2013

Five Songs 11/8/13

1. Capital Cities, "I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo" from In a Tidal Wave of Mystery (June 4, 2013)

2. Foster the People, "Helena Beat" from Torches (May 23, 2011)

* - Their more popular song "Pumped Up Kicks" scares me deeply because it was on the radio often when I was reading Stephen King's It.

3. Geographer, "Life of Crime" from Myth (February 28, 2012)

4. Jaill, "Horrible Things (Make Pretty Songs)" from Traps (June 12, 2012)

5. Kids of 88, "Nerves" from Sugarpills EP (February 14, 2011)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Five Songs 11/1/13

1. David Bowie, "The Man Who Sold the World" from The Man Who Sold the World (November 4, 1970)

* - Despite calling myself a Bowie fan, I had only ever heard the Nirvana cover of this song until this past week.

2. Misfits, "Skulls" from Walk Among Us (March 1982)

* - Special thanks to Amy Bolan for introducing me to the Misfits.

3. Katy Perry, "Unconditionally" from Prism (October 18, 2013)

* - Whatever criticism I may have about this song, it has nearly made me cry twice.
** - This is a lyric video, which is apparently very popular with artists now. When the real music video comes out for this single, I'll make sure to put it up.
*** - Special thanks to Amy Bolan for introducing me to this song.

4. Public Enemy, "Harder Than You Think (Featurecast Remix)" (August 1, 2012)

* - Special thanks to Justin Metz and Soquitcherbitchen for introducing me to this song.

5. RAC, "Super Mario Bros (RAC Mix)" from Nintendo vs Sega EP (April 25, 2008)

* - Special thanks to Justin Metz and Soquitcherbitchen for introducing me to this song.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Five Songs 10/25/13

1. Bell X1, "Safer than Love" from Bloodless Coup (April 1, 2011)

* - Special thanks to Amy Bolan for introducing me to Bell X1

2. Cream, "Tales of Brave Ulysses" from Disraeli Gears (November 10, 1967)

3. Mozes and the Firstborn, "I Got Skills" from Mozes and the Firstborn (March 3, 2013)

4. R. Stevie Moore, "I Want You in My Life" from Phonography (August 7, 1976)

5. Ramones, "Beat Up the Brat" from Ramones (April 23, 1976)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Five Songs 10/18/13

1. Atoms for Peace, "Ingenue (Live)" UIC Theater, Chicago, IL (October 2, 2013)

* - Special thanks to Adam Friedli for taking us to this concert in Chicago.
** - Neither of these videos are the same as the arrangement for the live show, but the approximation may hold you over until you can find it on the internet or hear it in person.

2. Fugazi, "Strangelight" from The Argument (October 16, 2001)

3. The Limousines, "Fools Gold" from Hush (June 11, 2013)

4. Stepdad, "Must Land Running" from Wildlife Pop (June 12, 2012)

* - Special thanks to Amy Bolan for introducing me to Stepdad.

5. Ultraista, "Our Song" from Ultraista (October 2, 2012)

* - Special thanks to Stephan Mathos for introducing me to Ultraista.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Union and Separation

How I Slipped Down a Rabbit Hole and Found Myself Mired in America

When I was first commissioned by the Lowell Ledger to report on a "union meeting" at the Englehardt Library, I had no idea that I would get involved in a story that was far too big to be contained in the one article I was writing. Over the next few weeks, the struggle between two opposing sides over the wording of a contract for utility workers would bleed over into other facets of my life, confusing the boundaries of "that story" and "my story" until I found myself part of a narrative about the people and the governing bodies they elect. What I was actually experiencing was the life story of a small town in Michigan called Lowell, or, in other words, a big dream in the collective consciousness called America.

My mission was bi-fold, to reveal and to simplify - to reveal because the contract negotiations had gone on for over a year between union lawyers and city lawyers "behind closed doors," and to simplify because the entirety of the story would have to fit on half a page with a possible addendum in the back of the paper. When I was first hired on to the Ledger in November of last year, publisher Jon Jacobs described how difficult it was that City of Lowell and Lowell Light & Power would not give even the littlest scrap of information to the public about their negotiations. Nearly a year later, I had thought that everyone at the Lowell Ledger had forgotten about this struggle when I was given my first assignment to cover an informational meeting that a municipal watchdog group named VOICE (Voters Organized in Civic Excellence) of Lowell had put together.

Democracy at work in Lowell, Michigan.
The revelation was easy. Finally, the people of Lowell had eyes on the process that had been unfolding for so long without their input. It was the simplification that proved difficult. If the world were simple, then you could reduce the one side - the Lowell Light & Power workers, the City of Lowell workers, their families, the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) union representatives, and the members of VOICE of Lowell - to the one word "union" while reducing the other side - the City Council, the Lowell Light & Power board, the city manager, the manager at LLP, and their myriad lawyers - to the word "city." In fact, VOICE of Lowell and the IBEW do not share the same mission. If the IBEW were corrupt and it was bringing harm to this little community, it would be the duty of the VOICE to call them out. Furthermore, VOICE of Lowell is an open group, a group that Perry Beachum could join, as well as anyone on board, even Mayor Jim Hodges. Truly understanding the struggle unfolding in Lowell requires throwing the concept of simplicity out the window.

If the diametrical opposition still screams in your ear, consider the similarities one can find between the "two groups." Barbara Barber took over leadership of VOICE of Lowell after founder Ivan Blough died in June of 2010. Ivan Blough was a legend of a man, Lowell's own Paul Bunyan or John Henry. I'd even heard stories of the man, and I was raised in a completely different town. Ivan never put any limits to the types of structural problems he could repair nor the types of social injustice he could battle, doing repairs on the Lowell showboat and striving to keep the community informed on what was going on in their town. If you were to try and find someone to compare in Lowell today, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone more committed than Greg Canfield of Canfield Plumbing and Heating. I first met Greg while reporting on his activity in raising money for the local food pantry at Flat River Outreach Ministries (FROM) through Lowell's Food Fight charity competition, but Greg's philanthropic work extends to paying for water heaters for people in need and doing pro bono work for flood victims. You could argue that taking the time to be on the Lowell Light & Power board is just as charitable as any of his other work, especially because running your own business keeps you busy enough as you are. Of course, you cannot make this comparison if you think we're discussing yeses and nos, odds and evens, pros and cons, because these two great-hearted men who have so much in common exist at opposite ends of the extreme, at least according to "the simplification," Ivan Blough with the people and Greg Canfield with the powers that be.

The Canfields supporting Flat River Outreach Ministries.
Ultimately, I wrote my simple article and I got paid for it, but whether you consider the preceding paragraphs  a well-articulated, touching and emotional statement or simply verbal vomit of all the thoughts stuck in the author's head, they prove that this story doesn't color within the lines. I stand with the people who want to be let in on the process of government, but at the same time, I feel for the council member who is so wired from being on the defensive that he can't get a good night's sleep. The process of government is scary. To take sides in a seeming dichotomy is wrong, or at least in bad faith. My instinct is that the people are getting the bad end of the bargain of American democracy, and that the people in power are selfish and manipulative, but my experience includes instances of people purposely giving away their every freedom because laziness is easier than involvement. My experience includes instances of public officials who are really trying their hardest to make a better world, from President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner down to each and every council member I encountered in Lowell. In fact, I would go so far to say that they are mostly all coming from a good place when they make those pronouncements that seem so discordant with liberty and justice, or, at least, the origin of these campaigns came from a wholesome place.

But for the workers at Lowell Light & Power and City of Lowell utilities, a contract will be forced upon them by their municipal leaders whether they like it or not if negotiations do not result in an agreement within the next couple of months, so all of this peace, unity, and camaraderie that is so evident to me is likely to be on hiatus for those who are in the thick of it. I get to walk in and out of this situation, but these people have no other home for the next few months than the jungle. My heart goes out to them all.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Local First Puts Local... First

 How the People Learned to Bail Out the Michigan Economy Themselves
The Needs of Local Businesses Outweigh the Needs of the Chain, or the Internet
Spock, paraphrased 

Elissa Hillary heads Local First, a Grand Rapids-based organization started in 2003 by Guy Bazzani in order to boost consumer support of local businesses. She was interviewed on a September 4 segment of "Stateside" on Michigan Radio.

She painted a picture of what greater Grand Rapids might look like if people thought to shop first and foremost at local businesses rather than national and international chains. When people shop at small nearby businesses, a whopping 73% more money stays in the community. Why should this matter? When that money stays in the community, it creates jobs, and helps fund things like schools and road repair. In a state where it seems like every main road is replaced each summer and there are multiple school districts under state emergency control, there should be no more clear solution than to shop locally.

Hillary says that if people make a small change in their buying habits, it can make a big impact. She cited a study done by Civic Economics claiming that if everyone in Kent County were to shift one in ten dollars that they would already be spending - we are not talking about buying anything more than you already do - the impact would be $140 million more dollars in the area and 1600 more jobs. Imagine the possibilities were the average Michigander willing to spend twice or three times that much locally.

Meijer is a regional grocery chain that has been
operating out of Grand Rapids, Michigan since
1934 and many of their products are local.
One thing that people often trip over on the way to shopping locally is the belief that chain stores are more convenient, providing a wider selection of products at cheaper prices. Hillary says that this is not necessarily the truth, at least not in all cases, but chain stores have a tendency to spend so much more money in marketing in order to make you believe that they are a better choice that it is hard to see through to the local store. Where does this enormous marketing budget come from? The consumer, of course - you and me and all our neighbors.

The internet provides another stumbling block, and this is particularly depressing, because unless you are ordering from a local business 100% of the proceeds from your purchase leave your community. Hillary suggests that when we view our expenses we shift from looking at price and start looking at cost. While the sticker price of a product or service from a chain or internet source might be lower than that of a local business, the cost to the community is egregious. Money leaving the community leads to stores closing and jobs leaving the community which leads to a reduction in government tax income - which you know they'll take from somewhere else. For Hillary, every dollar you spend is a vote, so if you spend your money at a local business, you are voting for that local community and the success of your community.

Grand Rapids has always been very entrepreneurial, and in the last decade or so it is a mecca for start-up businesses. When I moved out of state several years ago, I remember going to all of these interesting places and thinking: Grand Rapids doesn't have cool bars or restaurants; Grand Rapids is boring. When I moved back a couple years ago, everything had changed. It was like going from black-and-white to technicolor.

My future father-in-law Cliff Yankovich has been writing about this kind of stuff for at least as long as I've known him on his blog called Cliff's Riffs. I would be lying if I said I had any earlier influence on this subject than his writings and the life he leads. In 2009, he challenged his readers to spend $10 a week locally if we wanted an extra $36 million in the state economy and he subsequently provided example after example on how easy it is. Because he is connected to two local businesses, he's written articles on "the impact of doing small (micro) business" and "the net effect of doing business with a local shop." Cliff is telling the same story as Local First - people need to start thinking about where their money is going.

Visit Local First at their web site. After you're done learning about this community support group, buy a local coffee or ice cream cone. It is so easy, you'll kick yourself for not starting earlier.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Heaven and Hell Are For the Dead

A Review of The Walking Dead #2

The story of Rick Grimes is a series of reversals, a fact that is just as true in the second issue as it is throughout all of The Walking Dead. Alone and surrounded by the dead, sometimes animate and sometimes put to rest by bullets to the brain, Rick's entry into Georgia and its "Southern Hospitality" feels like an entry into the afterlife. This is amplified by the fact that the first and last word of dialogue are both "God." At the beginning, Rick curses this life after death, saying "God Dammit! Not again!!" when he finds another gas station void of gas. By the end, Rick says "Thank God," as he embraces the family that he has been searching for. You could say that Rick experiences both heaven and hell.

Thank goodness Rick talks to himself. Since
thought bubbles are no longer in style, much
of this issue would have otherwise been as
word-free as the beginning of Kubrick's 2001.
The metaphors for heaven and hell are ample. The first panel shows Rick driving in the darkness and the last shows Rick in a community by day. He mourns for a dead family after seeing the destruction of Atlanta only to praise their life when Glenn's suggestion of hope is fulfilled. Perhaps the most telling example of heaven and hell is that of Rick's loneliness and his ascent into community. I've heard just as many people say, "Hell is being alone," as "hell is other people," but for many cultures it is alienation that breeds evil and sin and hell while community provides good and love and heaven. For many religious persons, hell is the absence of God. This hell as defined by negation is popular with some of the more philosophic Christians, people who are trying to answer some of the problems left over from the omnipresent, omnipotent, completely good nature of God running into the presence of suffering and the reality of hell. Though Rick Grimes experiences some good moments, meeting a horse and recounting his favorite moment, it is clear that this is Rick's hell, a world where the ones he loves are absent.

It is a gruesome hell. Those who have passed are eternally dead, always and only experiencing death. They are granted a second life, but it is no life worthy of the word. These "zombies," as they are named for the first time by guardian angel Glenn, bring their "bad word" of death to anyone they encounter. When Rick ventures into what he assumes to be a government protected zone in Atlanta, he is surrounded by the undead and they feast on his horse alive. Certainly, the horse would have died of starvation, dehydration or exposure if Rick hadn't freed it, but the nameless beast didn't even enjoy the dignified end that Rick gave the unnamed zombie at the end of the first issue when he shot it in the head. Rick's bullets were reserved for the shamblers closing in on him.

Since so many stories these days are based on the Odyssey, one would assume that The Walking Dead would be much like Gilligan's Island. Much like the crew of The Minnow was always coming close to rescue only to find themselves back on the island, Rick Grimes would keep getting closer and closer to his family only to miss out on them once again. Perhaps he would walk by them while they are hiding in the trunk of a car, or he would rush toward them as they are pushed into a helicopter that he is too late to get to. In reality, Robert Kirkman reunites Rick's Odysseus with his Penelope and Telemachus - Lori and Carl - immediately, tearing them apart in the first issue and putting them back together in issue two. Kirkman is setting up for a long, drawn-out drama, in which we see the metaphorical innards of the characters just as we saw the literal innards of Rick's horse. (Keep in mind that Rick got pretty deep in his conversation with the horse, almost disturbingly so, while he believed he was alone in this world, because this theme will certainly pop up again.)

Let's not forget the words of the street-savvy Glenn when he said, "Don't give up hope, man..." After all, Rick, Lori and Carl are united and part of a group of survivors, and the thing about survivors is that they are all alive. They aren't on the ground because of bullets or on the streets because of a mysterious reanimating force. Rick's reunion with the human race makes it clear that this world is for the living, while heaven and hell are for the dead.

You'd think somebody would get some spray paint and ominously write that Georgia is the home to
Southern inhospitality. I guess those rascally teens must have had something else on their minds.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Justin Tiemeyer Presents 'Film Tourism'

Opportunities to Help Struggling Michigan Cities by Visiting the Places Where Your Favorite Movies Were Filmed

In 2014, Transformers 4 - AKA Untitled Transformers Sequel - will be heading into theaters, and if the success of Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) is any indicator the fourth film in the series will be a box office hit. Residents of Michigan may be proud to find out that there is a piece of our state in this upcoming film, a former ferry named the Ste. Claire which is currently docked in Ecorse. The Ste. Claire is often referred to as a Boblo boat because it was created in order to transport Detroiters to and from the Boblo Island Amusement Park, which they viewed as their own version of New York's Coney Island. Boblo Island was closed down in 1993.

According to ship keeper Sam Buchanan, the Ste. Claire will play an important role in one scene of Transformers 4, not a grand shout out to Ecorse and the former amusement park but certainly not the type of thing that you will miss if you blink. It is clear that the municipality of Ecorse, which is currently understood to be in a state of financial emergency, was able to capitalize on the filming. The production crew for the film worked on the set for three weeks and filming took place over three days. Whether or not any of these workers were local is unclear, but it is a reasonable assumption that they acquired local food and lodging, not to mention the money that the people of Ecorse must have leveraged from Paramount pictures in order to have the film shot in their town.

On the tail of this announcement was an even larger announcement, that the Michigan Film Office has offered $35 million in incentives to Warner Bros. in order that the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film will be shot "in metro Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan," a decision that is expected to bring an extra $131 million into the Michigan economy. While many of the geeks of the world are unhappy at the announcement that Ben Affleck will play Batman, the geek in me is excited at the possibility of being an extra in a comic book movie much like my good friend Chad was in Green Lantern. But that is beside the point. This project will bring capital into the struggling city of Detroit and hopefully some of the other nearby emergency managed cities such as River Rouge and Allen Park.

It would be easy to sit back and hope that the struggling cities of Michigan will continue to get money through movie contracts, but sitting back and letting other people fix the problems simply does not work. I could go on a rant about activism and the importance of maintaining funding to the Michigan Film Office despite the complaints of many lawmakers in Lansing that it is an unnecessary expenditure, but I'd like to take this time and this space to discuss another possibility: Michigan film tourism.

Sure, when Amy and I ate here we knew it wasn't the
White Castle of Harold & Kumar fame, but did you
know that scenes from A Very Harold & Kumar
were shot in Detroit?
The Michigan Film Office has a list of the myriad films made in Michigan on their site which ranges from the This Time For Keeps to the 2013 film Black Sky. While you'll still have to drive to Dallas in order to see the future Detroit of Robocop, you can see the cabin from The Evil Dead in Gladwin or the factory from the opening shots of Beverly Hills Cop in Dearborn. When I lived in New York City, you could walk down the street on any given day and you might accidentally become an unpaid extra in a film. I remember walking behind comedian Jason Sudeikis as he walked from his trailer to the set of some film I never took the time to get the name of. We always talked about going out to visit the Amityville Horror house on Long Island or to do a Home Alone 2: Lost in New York tour of the city. There is no reason someone couldn't do a Detroit Rock City or 8 Mile tour of Detroit.
1946 film

The next time you plan your family vacation or birthday excursion, think about visiting Detroit. You can see the backdrops for some of your favorite films and help a struggling link in the chain of Michigan economics. Maybe you can get a hotdog at American Coney Island or see a Tigers game down in Foxtown while you're there - you don't have to make it about film. I believe that if enough of us find something interesting to do in Detroit or Flint or Pontiac as opposed to some other city in some other state or in some other country, the people of Michigan might not have to complain about financial woes for much longer and the children of Michigan won't have to move to other places on account of the fact that those places actually have a strong, functioning economy.

As for me, I just found out that Mark Wahlberg - one of the four actors whose movies I will watch despite of terrible reviews and trailers - was in Michigan for the shooting of the 2005 film Four Brothers. I think I might dedicate some time to seeing the places in Detroit where those four brothers drove around contemplating revenge. Hopefully, I'll come back with some dining recommendations.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cash Against the Machine

An Explanation of and Work-Around for Michigan's Emergency Financial Manager Law

Governor Snyder and the Michigan legislature have come under heavy scrutiny in the past few years for appointing emergency financial managers for several Michigan municipalities that are considered high risk for financial disaster. While Public Act 436 of 2012 is the most recent standing law on the subject, the foundation for the emergency manager came about in Public Act 72 of 1990, titled the "local government fiscal responsibility act."

The aim of Act 72 to serve the general welfare of the people of Michigan appears to be genuine. In a section titled "Legislative determinations," we are lead to believe that the aim of this act is to promote "the public health and welfare of the citizens of this state" and "the interests of the people," but there is also an undertone that the state is using the distress of its municipalities in order to gain control where normally power would be denied the state. High hopes and deep suspicion are balanced expertly in this legal document.

Perhaps the most important portion of Act 436 is the list of fourteen conditions that may point to "a local government financial problem." Municipalities facing one or more of these situations will come under state review for determining whether or not an emergency financial manager is necessary. Some examples that may indicate economic instability include past due unpaid claims to creditors exceeding $10,000, large numbers of pensioners who are not receiving timely deposits, municipal employees who have not been paid for over a wee past their scheduled date of payment, and violations of a variety of government acts. In most of these situations, it is necessary for a public or private body to petition for the emergency status. This is not a situation where the gods of Olympus see that man has stolen fire and begin to enact their punishment. Rather it is like the case of suffering nomads pleading for deliverance who are given a list of commandments intended to lead them to a better way of living.

The real points of contention in the emergency manager law have to do with questions of government overreach and the imposition of highly paid outsiders who deny the people their right to self-govern. Regardless of your beliefs one way or another, these are questions that ought to be asked by any body of people who values liberty and justice as granted by the Constitution of the United States of America. I would like to reorient the discussion, however, in order to focus on another question: What can we do to help these cities?

We may have supported a Dallas hockey team, but we
supported the Detroit economy when Amy and I
wined and dined at Pegasus in Detroit's Greektown
neighborhood prior to a Stars-Red Wings game at the
Joe Louis Arena last February.
According to the Michigan Department of Treasury, there are currently nine cities and six school districts under the control of a state appointed emergency financial manager: the municipalities of Hamtramck, Detroit, Allen Park, Inkster, Flint, Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac, and River Rouge and Hazel Park, Buena Vista, Pontiac Public, Muskegon Heights, Highland Park and Detroit Public school districts. We can let state officials battle it out in order to keep these areas afloat or we can seek a way to engage the problem ourselves. The simplest public solution would be for Michiganders to buy products from the affected areas and to reroute vacations to places like "lovely Benton Harbor." This is the aim of all of the Pure Michigan radio advertisements narrated by "Toolman" Tim Allen. Perhaps it should be the aim of the citizens of Michigan.

There are certainly difficulties with any plan based solely on a spend, spend, spend mentality. The reason the state of Michigan wishes to take over city operations is because, at the bottom, many people believe that these cities are being mismanaged. While mismanaged, investing in a city might be seen as throwing money down the toilet. This is a valid point, but throwing money into a local toilet might prove more useful than investing in the immense overhead of interstate and international logistics that comes from buying American flags that are made in Taiwan. In the end, I think spending locally is the right direction because the only thing democrats and republicans at the federal level could agree on during the discussions preceding the manufactured fiscal cliff dilemma was that America needs more revenue.

Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor and the rest need more revenue as well. Let's find some businesses that stand for what we believe in, businesses in Allen Park or Ecorse or Pontiac, and let's buy from them rather than spend all of our money on the gas it takes to deliver our goods. If you have a favorite business located in a financially devastated community, share it with your friends, share it here if you're willing. We cannot promise that the social network of elected officials will do the work we've chosen them for, but with enough cooperation we can promise that the social network of Michigan citizens can make a big difference for cities in distress.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

There Are No Zombies in The Walking Dead

A Review of The Walking Dead #1
Gasp indeed!

The Walking Dead is, at its roots, a "Rip Van Winkle" story - Rick Grimes is put into a coma by a shotgun
toting escaped felon only to awaken in a completely different world, a world populated by shambling monsters, "the walking dead." Much like Washington Irving's short story, Robert Kirkman's thriller in black-and-white is subversive. At first glance, the world of "before" and the world of "after" are like night and day - animated corpses wander chaotically where living, breathing beings once thrived in a cooperative community - but just as Van Winkle reduces the Revolutionary War to replacing a King George painting with a George Washington, Grimes sees a world that hasn't changed all that much.

In the first issue of The Walking Dead, there are no zombies; there are only humans. Before and after, humans are violent beings capable of hospitality, camaraderie, and mercy, but also of insanity and cruelty. When Grimes and "neighbor" Morgan Jones discuss the disturbing state of affairs, they don't speak of "zombies," "revenants," or "walkers." They use the words "it," "things," and "monsters," and let the reader fill in the blanks, but our familiarity with zombie culture can obscure the fact that we've used these same terms for generations in order to dehumanize people we see as other. Those who have been transformed are not even clearly dead, with the exception of one ravaged corpse that Grimes eventually puts down like a cowboy shooting a crippled steed.

The theme of a zombie apocalypse world being not so different from our current world is not so new. Zombie films have made this assertion from the very beginning. The 1978 George Romero film Dawn of the Dead  is often cited in this sense because of the undead's propensity for shopping malls, making the viewer wonder if we're not zombies already. The Walking Dead is significant in that Kirkman follows his characters for more than 90 minutes, meaning that we deal with human questions not only through social satire, but through the monthly development of characters we know and love. The story has been going on for a full decade, and it doesn't show signs of stopping.

What a reader can expect from The Walking Dead #1 is a balance of hope and despair that will penetrate the next hundred or so issues. We are introduced to Morgan Jones and his son Duane, who have been in the thick of it since the dead first started rising. Because of what he's seen, Morgan doesn't trust in the powers-that-be. When they told people to rally in Atlanta, Morgan stayed put, relying on his own savoir-faire rather than the edicts of the authorities. As his foil, Rick Grimes believes in a better tomorrow, that the communiques about Atlanta were true and that order will be re-established shortly. He is an officer of the peace and peace is on its way. It is hard not to side with Rick Grimes.

Of course, Grimes slept through the worst of it. Or, perhaps, the worst is yet to come.

Morgan: "The cities are screwed!" Rick: "So, you're saying the cities probably aren't screwed?"
Morgan: "Uh... yeah..."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Skill Vs. Will

Why Detroit Has to Do More Than Just Want a Revival

The only thing more beautiful than Detroit
in the winter will be future Detroit in the
Op-ed contributor Stephan G. Richter did an opinion piece titled "What Really Ails Detroit" for the New York Times recently in which he argued that Detroit's collapse into bankruptcy was caused by other factors than those we are actively discussing at the moment. For Richter, Detroit's financial troubles are indicative of an "overall decline of America's manufacturing centers," caused not by globalization, outsourcing, and recession, but by the lack of a highly skilled labor force. He describes the traditional narrative on the subject as "at best ... a convenient half-truth."

Detroit's problem - and America's, if we're following Richter's logic - did not begin in the last decade. Richter traces it back to 1950s post-war America, a period he refers to as the "heyday" of America's manufacturing strength. Since the two major fronts of World War II were in Europe and Asia, America was able to bounce back much faster than most of the economic power centers on those other continents. As a result, top corporate managers paid their workers higher wages based on market dominance and the enormous revenues that resulted rather than elevating pay as employees became more skilled. Richter blames these managers and their descriptive wage raises (based on results and current dominance) in the place of prescriptive wage raises (based on skills and capability for future dominance) for bringing about the current state of urgency in the American city.

In short, Detroit is failing because America is no longer competitive in terms of manufacturing. What we once saw as causes - globalization, outsourcing, and recession - should have been seen as warning signs that municipal economies would collapse, one by one. Silent, but underlying Richter's opinion piece, is a sense of American arrogance, the idea that radical independence will triumph over communal engagement. Richter's solution to the Detroit problem is a long-term decade-spanning plan for skill development, requiring cooperation between national, regional and local entities such as businesses, government agencies, associations, and schools.

While Richter did not directly reference large public works projects as a means to success in Detroit, this does not preclude public investment in renewal such as the proposed new Red Wings stadium from being part of the solution. However, Richter would likely offer a similar argument to Marvin Surkin, the subject of a previous blog post, namely that the jobs created by construction of the new hockey home will be largely low skill, low pay positions. For a public works project like this to have a positive, lasting effect in terms of public interest, it would have to be the beginning of a larger cooperative effort to train the local labor force, elevating them from grunts to foremen to designers and finally innovators. You should read that previous sentence with an emphasis on "beginning." The ultimate goal would be to continue on, to create a city of the future, for the people and by the people, that employs the smartest, most impressive labor from people who have never been expected to do more than punch the clock.

We have to do more than show that a strong Detroit is what we are seeking. We need to lay the groundwork to make it happen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Detroit's Magic Bullet

A Critique of the New Red Wings Stadium as an Economic Stimulus for Detroit

My first time at the Joe Louis arena for the record-breaking victory against the Dallas Stars
last February may have also been my last time if the Red Wings move to Foxtown.
On the August 14th edition of Stateside on Michigan Radio, host Cynthia Canty interviewed Marvin Surkin, a specialist in comparative urban politics and co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying regarding the private/public joint venture to regenerate the highly indebted city of Detroit by replacing the Joe Louis arena with a new Red Wings stadium. According to a plan endorsed by Governor Snyder, the Wings would join the Lions and Tigers in the Foxtown district, bringing 8300 jobs and 1.8 billion dollars to the struggling city. Surkin's response: "Gee, I wish it were true."

"Magic" is the only word Surkin can conjure for a deal that has been promised, in some form or another, time and time again for years. As if the examples of Detroit's new baseball and football stadiums weren't enough to prove that this sort of corporate logic doesn't work, Surkin provided a further example in the classic 1927 Yankee Stadium which was refurbished and more recently demolished all in the name of resuscitating the Bronx. It didn't work for the Bronx, and it won't work for Detroit.

Surkin's argument is that this project will certainly bring jobs to Detroit, but these jobs won't necessarily benefit Detroit. While the developers will be required to contract a percentage of their labor locally, a serious question to ponder is whether erecting this colossal entertainment hall will actually take funds outside of the city. As for the persisting jobs - the parking attendants, beer servers, hot dog slingers - it is clear that these are not the highly skilled, highly paid jobs that are needed to make Detroit strong. Surkin suspects that the Foxtown businesses will go the way of Chrysler, providing jobs but in the process actually lowering the mean income of those involved.

Surkin asks an important question: "Are we going to see the city further abandoned or are we going to see the city supported?" Some other important questions follow. What would happen to the people if the Red Wings had to leave Detroit because they are no longer profitable due to an investment that went bust? Do the voices of big name supporters like Governor Snyder and Little Caesar's Mike Ilitch deserve to be heard over the voices of the people? Will fancy sky boxes and special kickbacks for corporate sponsors lead to a profitable enterprise that is socially relevant to Detroit? Surkin may be "a voice crying in the wilderness," but what he says should give you pause. The future of this deal is "run down," "second rate," "torn down."

Personally, I've heard both sides of this argument. The naysayers can't see the value in 284 million dollars in public funds going to a sports team when hard working people are going to face an impoverished retirement because their promised pensions are no longer funded. Everybody else seems to think that by pumping all this money into the Detroit entertainment scene, the newly established mecca will bring people from far and wide and those people will leave their money behind. I tend to agree with Surkin that there are some very wealthy people who are hoping we're dumb enough to forget history and trust that this time it will finally work out for the right. At the same time, I believe that there is likely a connection between the success of Detroit sports teams and the success of Detroit, but the connection is a subtle one that has not yet come to light. 

Detroit will not be saved in broad strokes, and the strokes don't get broader than million and billion dollar stadiums, but maybe the hubbub about the new home of the Red Wings will make it clear that we need more research into how a hockey team can bring a city out of bankruptcy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Justice League of America's Vibe #1

Comic writer Geoff Johns has an uncanny knack for taking over entire universes. He now commands the helm of the DC universe, which has shrunken by about fifty dimensions in the last few years, but which still comes with great responsibility. But he can see the forest for the trees. If his recent introduction of Simon Baz as the most recent earth Lantern in the monthly series Green Lantern didn't convince you of that fact, then his re-introduction of lesser known here Vibe in Justice League of America's Vibe #1 ought to bring the point home.

Vibe's origin brings many current political issues to the forefront. He is from Detroit, which is the only large city in America to do so poorly that the state has to take over the city government with an emergency manager. This is also the site of a catastrophic event, the invasion of Darkseid from another dimension, a terrifying moment in the DC universe that affects its characters in much the same way that September 11 affected us. The new DC universe, at its inception, has lost its innocense, as has Cisco Ramon, the boy who will one day be called Vibe. An inter-dimensional port claims the life of his older brother. The same act of violence gives Cisco a strange power that keeps him from being detected by cameras. In this first issue, we immediately understand who Cisco Ramon is, what motivates him, and we have a sense of what his future holds in store.

Not even Marvel's Brian Michael Bendis is capable of delivering something this emotional in his first issue. Johns has the advantage of having written the entire backdrop upon which Vibe's story plays out, but that doesn't necessarily make this kind of work easy. Any of the recently canceled DC titles could have fit into the events of the Darkseid invasion and delivered stories that touch the readers who read them, and yet many did not. But Johns is not just serious. It wouldn't feel as real without his brand of comedy. For example, when Cisco is asked to join a team that prevents further incursions from Darkseid and their beasts, he rightly notes the irony that the government wishes to make a border policeman out of a Latino.

In the end, I am skeptical about this series, but only for one reason. Johns has committed himself to the Justice League, and we know this because he has left Green Lantern behind in order to develop stories just like these. But will Johns continue to write Vibe after the first few arcs? Certainly, if the title is taken over by Tomasi, or another writer who works well with Johns, that could be really fun, but ultimately I want Johns to develop this character for more than just a year. I will stick with Justice League of America's Vibe for at least as long as Geoff Johns writes it. May that window last forever.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

George Saunders - Tenth of December: Stories

George Saunders is what my professors in the writing department would call a "rockstar writer." While rockstar musicians are likely to wear tight pants and sing falsetto, Saunders achieved rockstar status by writing genre-bending stories that break many, if not all, of the rules that students are taught regarding English grammar and composition. Reading Tenth of December: Stories, I realized that Saunders is the future that I was trained by Ander Monson at the GVSU writing department to be a part of. Saunders pushes the envelope in terms of style, content and format.

If you reflect on literary history, stream of consciousness is nothing new. It became popular and edgy in the first half of the twentieth century. Now that it is the first half of the twenty-first century, however, a writer needs to innovate in order to keep this style of writing fresh. Many have simply retired back into simpler, more staight-forward narratives, but Saunders understands that stream of consciousness evolves just as human language and interaction evolves. As such, stories like "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December" go into the minds of children who are at once in both a world of fantasy and in the world of texts, blogs, and short attention span. Altered states of consciousness, be they drug- or war-induced, make the stream equally convoluted in stories like "Escape from Spiderhead," "Home," and "My Chivalric Fiasco." Asides are represented by parenthesies, questionable or excited statements are represented with question or exclamation marks in parentheses, and such verbal irregularities such as people who make their statements sound like questions are simply represented by a question mark at the end of a statement. The result of these methods is that each character sounds like somebody you might already know.

Mixing literary fiction, speculative/science fiction, lists, memos, and journal writing, Saunders proves in Tenth of December that he has become a sort of superman of literature. Of particular interest was his ability to tell a creepy story in the form of a message from an employer to employees with the intent of motivating the employees to do their job with more joy in the story "Exhortation." This same story is a fantastic example of the moral content of Saunders' stories. We don't know exactly what these employees are doing in Room 6, but it certainly doesn't sound very humane.

Many are comparing the moral component of Saunders' stories to that of the great Mark Twain. Just as Twain writes about a young boy who goes against conventional wisdom in liberating a slave in Huckleberry Finn, Saunders makes us value every-day suburban life over the irksome issue of human trafficking in "The Semplica Girl Diaries." In what feels like a nod to A Clockwork Orange, Saunders deals with drug trials and behavioral conditioning in "Escape from Spiderhead." No modern sin is overlooked, not child abuse ("Puppy"), nor experimentation on humans ("Escape From Spiderhead"), nor possible torture ("Exhortation"), nor slavery ("Semplica Girl Diaries"), nor even PTSD.

Tenth of December: Stories is likely to become a classic. The benefit of reading it now rather than when it is featured in literature courses in the future is that you can be one of the people who made it a classic instead of merely being one of those people who responded to the taste of more risky readers. This work by Saunders will be on your bookshelf eventually. Why not pick up a first edition?

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Uncanny X-Men #1

Scott Summers has become more than a man, more than a mutant, more than even an X-Man: he has become a cultural icon. Though the official opinion of the world is that Cyclops is a terrorist and a murderer, possibly the most dangerous person to ever walk the Earth, the chat in the cubicles and on the construction sites is that he is a hero. His face is like that of Che Guevara, plastered on the shirts of many, and on the hearts of many more. Some may say that Summers ended Xavier's dream when he ended Xavier, but with rock star artist Chris Bachalo and the hardest working writer in comics Brian Michael Bendis at the helm of Uncanny X-Men, some may say that Xavier's dream never looked so good.

There are a few things that you should maybe know about this book that you won't find out by reading the story. This is the third volume of the Uncanny X-Men. The first volume was canceled in order to make the battle between Cyclops and Wolverine truly consequential. At the time it was the longest running continuous comic published by either Marvel or DC. I still carry a fire of anger at this decision which decided to separate future writers from the legacies of Stan Lee, Chris Clairmont, and Grant Morrison, to name a few of the most influential Uncanny writers. For a handful of issues, Kieron Gillen took over with a grand scheme that involved the dastardly schemes of Mister Sinister. His plan was brilliant, but equal parts poor delivery and shrinking readership lead us to this Uncanny X-Men.

Now, Marvel tries to publish comics in pairs. Jonathan Hickman is writing both Avengers and New Avengers, Matt Fraction is writing FF and Fantastic Four, and now Brian Michael Bendis is writing both All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. With Bendis and Aaron on the key X-Books, this is certain to be a great year for the X-Men. And it ought to be: this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the X-Men, after all.

The thing that people ought to be raving about regarding Uncanny X-Men is Chris Bachalo's art. I am always astounded at how Bachalo makes pages look bigger and more full than any other artist save maybe Jim Lee or Greg Capullo. This is the kind of artist that you just throw on a Marvel project and make it succeed. You could call him Marvel's real life Hulk option. Wolverine and the X-Men was one of the few to make the cut in Marvel Now, after all, and much of that had to do with the historical collaboration of Bachalo and Aaron. The Uncanny X-Men are decked out in all-new, all-different costumes, which make them look like they're approaching Age of Apocalypse, part two (which wouldn't be all that inaccurate, seeing that the death of Xavier caused the first AoA). While Cyclops is the mutant icon, I actually enjoy Magneto's all-white costume the best.

The unfortunate down side of Uncanny X-Men #1 is that it is missing a lot of the things that Bendis usually succeeds at, namely, strong dialogue and strong emotional content. This is unfortunate, because if it weren't for this book Bachalo could still be working Wolverine and the X-Men right now. On the bright side, I've found that Bendis is much weaker at first issues than he is at any other. I didn't think I was going to like All-New X-Men after the first issue, but it has already delivered one of the best, most touching X-Stories in their long history. With two of the best-developed Marvel characters (Cyclops and Magneto) at the center of one of the best all-time writers for character development (Brian Michael Bendis), I expect that I won't see many disappointing issues in the future.

Uncanny X-Men #1 is great, but it is not perfect yet. My prediction: you're going to need a box of Kleenex for what comes next. Bendis knows shortcuts to your heart that many writers don't. Never underestimate this man.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret History of the Foot Clan #2

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Shredder find themselves after the same thing, the man who knows the "secret history of the foot clan," the one who has the ability to grant the Shredder secret power that could allow him to defeat his ancient enemies once and for all and have the most powerful ninja force on the planet at the tips of his fingers (or perhaps the tips of his toes, because they're called the Foot Clan, not the Hand Clan).

Much like in the first issue, the art is great when we're looking at people and not so great when we're looking at turtle-people, the narrative is strong, and the climax is interesting. It is hard to say much past that without either giving away the plot of the mini-series or being entirely redundant. Instead, I'd like to do something that I don't normally do, a digression on the character of Alopex.

Alopex is a mutant fox who was introduced in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Micro-Series issue about Raphael's solo mission. As far as I know, she is an entirely new character, not present in the original comics, the Archie comics, or the cartoon. She's popped up here and there, but it is not entirely clear why she was introduced. Prior to the introduction of Alopex, a mutant alley cat named Old Hob was brought into the origin story of the Turtles and Splinter. It is pretty clear what his future is for the series, but Alopex remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, in the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret History of the Foot Clan, we learn the story of an ancient witch who made contact with a magical force from beyond the stars and sold that power to the ninja clan. This figure is surrounded with much of the same mystery as Alopex. My thought is that Alopex, who keeps popping her head up in this mini-series despite not being pivotal to the plot in any way, is the reincarnated witch. If Splinter can be the reincarnated Hamato Yoshi and the Turtles his children returned from the dead, then there is certainly room for more rebirths. I'm sure Splinter wishes he could see his own wife again, but maybe not until after the threat of the Shredder is defeated. Why would Alopex be a reincarnated figure and not others like Old Hob or Slash? I can't answer that question, but I can mention that Alopex had latent ninja fighting abilities that neither of the other mutants possessed.

Originally, I mentioned that this second issue is exactly the same as the first issue in terms of quality, but after this tangential discussion I think this one might be better. After all, one quality of great art is that you think about it for some time afterwards.

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Young Avengers #1

Young Avengers is new territory for this reader of Marvel Comics. Characters like Wiccan, Hulkling, Marvel Boy, and Miss America are entirely unfamiliar while Kid Loki and the second Hawkeye (Kate Bishop) are only remotely familiar because I've read Matt Fraction's The Mighty Thor and Hawkeye. The storytelling method is something I'm familiar with: several young characters are introduced (re-introduced) with the expectation that despite their differences they will learn to work together. These characters simply look and sound a lot like your favorite Avengers, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, you know their names by now, only these characters are younger.

Despite a lack of zeal for this new title, I found myself drawn into the stories of some of the characters. Though Hulkling and Wiccan sometimes feel like a forced back-up gay relationship (because we all know that Northstar and Kyle Jinadu are the news-breaking first gay marriage in comic books), I found myself drawn to these two. There is something to be said for Wiccan's attempts to reunite Hulkling with his Skrull mother, and I'll admit that this story alone is my reason for deciding to keep reading this title. While I'm loosely interested in many of the characters and who exactly they are, I find very little to care about in the story of the team's central figure, Kid Loki.

Writer Kieron Gillen has gathered some all-star status over the last few years. It was he who developed Kid Loki into the character we all know and (sometimes) love in Journey Into Mystery. He also wrote the Uncanny X-Men during its short stint between the conclusion of Marvel's longest running title (such a bad decision) and the beginning of the Marvel Now Bendis run (such a good decision). Friends of mine said that Gillen was writing the definitive X-Book, one in which Mister Sinister is realized as the character behind all those years of great stories since 1963. The book fizzled, partially because everything at Marvel has to fit into the big event calendar and certainly partially because Gillen's vision wasn't as good as Jason Aaron's vision for Wolverine and the X-Men, one of the few X-books not to get a reboot during Marvel Now. As for Kid Loki, I found him much more interesting from Thor's perspective in Fraction's The Mighty Thor than in Gillen's Journey Into Mystery.

Seeing Gillen as the writer for Young Avengers is something of a turn off. He has the power to pull some great artists to his side, and Michael S. Norton is no exception. His work reminds me of Fraction's partner on Hawkeye and The Immortal Iron Fist, David Aja. Unfortunately, the title of this first issue "Style > Substance" reflects Gillen's work much too accurately. The title pages look great, like Venture Bros. meets Hawkeye, and the characters all look fantastic. There is love and sexuality and all the other things young people are concerned with, but it feels a little too superficial.

I mentioned earlier that the Skrull situation (coupled with the art, of course, which is great) will keep me reading for another issue, but come issue two Gillen has to bring something more substantial. His ideas for the development of the Uncanny X-Men with Mister Sinister were brilliant, but they were also poorly delivered. Without any such great plans for Young Avengers, will Gillen be able to deliver some really good content from here on out? I'm not very optimistic, but I'm willing to give him one more try.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Following S01E01: "Pilot"

The Following is probably the best publicized new television program to air as a mid-season replacement this winter. Simply put, it is the story of a serial killer with quite a... following who has escaped from custody and the author who knows the most about him and who must organize a crew in order to take him down.

One of the first things you have to look for in a new network television program is how well the actors act. In some shows, old hand actors with an amazing tenure in the business fall flat, delivering only what they need to deliver in order to get a paycheck. And while new talent sometimes seems like it can't compare, it is often that actor that you have never heard of who makes waves, like Evangeline Lilly on LOST, for example. The point is that you can rarely tell by looking at the actors on IMDB or even by watching the trailer for the show if the cast is going to be strong. The first thing I noticed about The Following is that Kevin Bacon, Maggie Grace and Billy Brown (remember him from Dexter?) are all great actors with varying degrees of success. I think the best moment of the Pilot took place when Grace's character Sarah Fuller testified against the killer in a flashback and described a moment where she couldn't remove a knife from her so she pushed it deeper inside in hopes that she would bleed out sooner. It was heavy. It was deep. It was creepier than I'm used to with prime time network television. It was just plain good.

Unfortunately, that's where the good ends. Everything about the writing, directing and production feels like everything else on successful network TV - it is cheap and boring, but it is familiar and doesn't require much from its audience. It is perfect for the every-fattening Americans who sit on the couch and talk about how much they like franchise television shows like Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS. Shaun Ashemore's acting is weak, his character vacillating back and forth from cocky cop running the show to fanboy. And here's the really sad part: there is nothing the least bit menacing about the murderer. It doesn't matter if James Purefoy is a fantastic actor, because the murderer Joe Carroll was written to be so bland that nobody could make him interesting.

I had invested first in the Cinemax show Banshee, second in the FOX show The Following and then finally in the FX show The Americans. Banshee and The Following were both weak enough that I found it difficult to watch the entire pilot - forty minutes of commercial-free programming can be a very long time for a busy young individual, after all. Thank goodness that FX delivered with The Americans. Skip the others.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Uncanny X-Force #1

Now that the marriage between Storm and Black Panther has been annulled and the relationship between Psylocke and Fantomex appears to be over, the two X-women have a decent amount to talk about. Of course, in true superhero form, these conversations occur while the two are putting their lives on the line for the greater good. In this first issue, Ororo and Betsy accept a mission from the premiere Canadian superhero Puck.

The cover (Olivier Coipel) and interior (Ron Garney) art in this book is absolutely amazing. In a reverse of Schindler's List, black and white is used to distinguish characters from their colorful surroundings for narrative purposes. When it comes to illustration, sometimes it feels like you're looking at scribbles that anyone could have put together, but Uncanny X-Force reminds you that illustration is an art. The artist has just as much power, and possibly more, when compared to the writer in developing the characters and the narrative.

Writer Samuel Ryan Humphries shows that he knows what he's doing - and thank goodness, because I've never heard of him before Uncanny X-Force - by choosing some interesting characters, showing that he's done his homework when it comes to their past and their motivations, and showing that he cares about them by showcasing important parts of their lives. In addition to the interesting discussion of loves lost between Storm and Psylocke, it is interesting to see mostly forgotten characters like Puck and Spiral in this story, and it is especially interesting to note that Spiral is one of a couple characters responsible for Psylocke losing her eyes and having them replaced by bionic spy eyes. If you haven't recently read Uncanny X-Men from the mid- to late-80s, you might have completely passed over this rivalry. I have some hope that Humphries might give Puck a similar treatment. Let's not forget that Puck used to be a giant of a man. There is some interesting story there.

On the down side, I am a little skeptical of the future of this title. Part of me wishes that this were the new Alpha Flight, starring Storm, Psylocke and Puck, but sadly I'm not so lucky. Instead, I see Storm in a really weird position. She is a woman who has always valued life and balance, even when she got really mad about losing her powers and decided to show the world by growing a mohawk, but I'm suddenly supposed to believe that she has no scruples with joining an assassination squad? This is the single character who had the balls to point out the moral problems with Cyclops and his Extinction Team after the division between team Cyclops and team Wolverine. Furthermore, the characters who are teased at the end of the book don't interest me, and I have a hard time believing that interesting stories can be built around them.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the art, the story, and the character development that I've seen so far has been strong enough to keep me reading to the next issue. In some ways this book is phenomenal (and by that, I mean in terms of art), but in all ways it meets the minimum expectation for a comic: it makes you want to pick up the next issue.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Deadpool: Classics Killustrated #1

When Deadpool finds himself unhappy with his ordinary every-day universe-hopping in order to murder every version of every Marvel character that he can find, he decides that he needs to expand his horizons and begin murdering literary heroes from before the age of comic books in the hope that killing the supposed inspiration for superheroes will prevent the superheroes from existing in the first place.

There is a lot to like about Classics Killustrated. Over the last decade, many comic book companies have done what they can to present literature to children in the form of comic books. The only successful attempt I've seen is Skottie Young's Wizard of Oz series. It is interesting to see Deadpool take on this phenomenon in his omniscient, fourth-wall-breaking way. Cullen Bunn is a strong support writer. I know him from being Brubaker's number two during his long run on Captain America, so it is not surprising to see him as the number two to Posehn and Duggan on the Deadpool books. The art is pretty solid as well, although nothing to phone home about. I really liked the concept that the classic heroes of literature might be the necessary condition for superheroes, and the setup for a Sherlock Holmes adversary was intriguing.

The problem is that I find it hard to invest in a non-canonical Deadpool book in which our favorite anti-hero kills characters at random across the multiverse without significant repercussions. Deadpool's motives make no sense to me, nor do they appeal to me in any way. While I would normally disagree when people in the government blame senseless acts of violence on the media, I can't help but see their point when it comes to some of these such-and-such kills the Marvel Universe books. Deadpool is an assassin, but there is much more to his draw than merely committing pointless acts of violence. Deadpool is supposed to be both funny and fun, and while I've mentioned that Bunn can certainly pull his own weight when it comes to writing, it seems like wit doesn't come quite so easy to him as with other Deadpool writers.

Some might think that this sort of a comic book is appalling. I just feel like it is pointless. I don't think Marvel should stop publishing books like this. I just think that readers with taste should do their best to stay away from forcing a boring book like this upon themselves.

Bunn breathes some fresh air into a genre of comic books that is utterly meaningless, but it is not the kind of air that gives life to something good. It is more like the air that you put in a leaky tire - it's enough to get you home, but you're still going to have to fix or replace that tire. In terms of Classics Killustrated and the entire "kill everybody" genre, I am weighing in on the side of discard, forget, and replace with something better.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Star Wars #2

In the second "episode" of the new Star Wars comic book, Princess Leia assembles a team of X-wing pilots to search for a new Rebellion home base. Meanwhile, Han Solo evades pursuit by an Imperial Star Destroyer, Luke "gets cocky" after showing off his piloting skills in a simulator, and Vader's Elite Star Destroyer comes under new management.

One thing that the Star Wars comic has going for it is that it de-centers the story-telling process. Instead of having Luke Skywalker (IV-VI) or Anakin Skywalker (I-III) as our main protagonist, we see things from the perspective mainly of Leia Organa (#1) and Han Solo (#2). This is both a good and bad decision on the part of the creative staff. It is good because these characters need to be better developed, and not just by non-canonical writers. When you release a comic called Star Wars without hyphens or colons, and this close to the announcement that there will be more films, you tease the possibility of their stories being canon, and what the Star Wars universe is lacking is canonical stories from the perspective of Leia, Han, Chewie, and friends. It is bad because there is no singular focus. Already by issue two, the Leia story, which is by far the most intriguing that the comic has to offer, has been pushed into the background, and Han, while fun, is not as interesting. A run-in with Jabba has been teased, but we've all seen the remakes of the original trilogy. The romance of Han and Jabba leaves a bad taste in our mouths, a taste of CG and the destruction of our childhood.

Of course, Leia's mission to find the mole in the Rebellion is still under way, and we see it develop ever so slightly with the creation of her rogue X-wing team. I hope that I am following a red herring on this, but I think that the conclusion of this story is pretty clear. It will be frustrating if I am correct. Leia has spent a lot of time in the last two issues mourning her lost planet Alderaan, and now we find a starfighter pilot from Alderaan on her team. Certainly, she will be looking for someone who has experienced Alderaan, who remembers the joys, who can share her sorrow. She will grow close to the Alderaan pilot, and he will be the mole. Maybe I'm being stubborn. Maybe there's a much more interesting story to be developed here. I just don't think so.

The second issue is not nearly as interesting as the first. We need to hear more from Princess Leia, to understand her more fully, because the other characters (with the exception of Vader) are a little too flat in this comic (mainly because they're fully developed elsewhere). I want to keep reading this comic, but if we get too many more issues like this second issue, I might have to stop.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Superior Spider-man #3

In this issue of Superior Spider-man Otto Octavius/Spider-man offers his old friend the Vulture a deal if he'll quit his life of crime, but when he sees just how disturbed the Vulture really is he goes overboard in order to take him down.

If anyone had wondered if Dan Slott's genius had come to an end at the conclusion of his Amazing Spider-man run, this issue should answer with a resounding "no." The fact of the matter is that Peter Parker is not the only character worthy of development. In a flashback, Slott shows us a scene of mutual respect and friendship between a younger Otto Octavius and the Vulture. Reading the old comics about the first time the Sinister Six came together, I doubt anyone wondered, "What does this look like from the perspective of Doctor Octopus?" No. The actual response was, "Doctor Octopus is heartless."

But it is the heart of Otto Octavius rather than the devious mind that leads him astray in the third installation of this series. It seems that his respect for Vulture and their shared hatred for Spider-man blinded Otto to the true nature of his former friend. After all, the Vulture has been abusing the young in a variety of different ways since he first began using them as batteries in order to keep him from decrepitude. Perhaps for the first time, Slott informs readers that there are limits to how far Otto Octavius will go, and those limits have nothing to do with the memories and conscience of Peter Parker that have been superimposed on Otto.

This issue was mostly disturbing. If the Vulture's child abuse wasn't enough, then the eerie scenes where it is clear that Carly knows the truth about Otto's deception should have sent a shiver down your spine. It is clear to Peter Parker that Carly knows, but it is also clear that she has to play this one carefully. If Otto were to be exposed, there would certainly be a deadly backlash as he uses all of Spider-man's "great power" to protect his secret, to protect his newly found life.

The only bad thing I have to say about Superior Spider-man is that new issues come out so often that it has become difficult to keep up with reviewing them. Fortunately, I am having no problem keeping up with enjoying them. Superior Spider-man remains the best new comic of the year, and I don't think Bendis's Uncanny X-Men or Johns's Justice League of America will be able to dethrone the king.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

The Americans S01E02: "The Clock"

In this episode, superspies Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings undertake an impossible mission in order to get ears on a meeting between US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and her defense secretary John Nott regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative. For that to happen, they will have to attach a bug to the clock in Weinberger's office, hopefully without blowing their cover and sacrificing nearly two decades of residency. Meanwhile, Agent Beeman has a similar strategy: he wishes to convince a woman to work for the FBI as a spy in the Soviet embassy.

Due to the likelihood of this mission going bad, Elizabeth Jennings is forced to look at her own mortality and to examine the consequences for their children should their mission in America go bad. Phillip is much more concerned with the details of the mission while Jennings appears to spend her time worrying about the family, which stands in stark contrast to the events of the first episode where Jennings nearly ratted out her husband for losing his faith in the mission and wanting to live a normal life with their American children. While the pilot episode brought intrigue, the second episode brought depth - both of these people are both Soviets and Americans. Their concerns are divided over two worlds, and they believe that only one of these worlds can win.

With all of this one the line, Phillip is forced to bluff Weinberger's maid into switching out the clock for them with only the threat of her son's death and the threat that there are more of these operatives watching her every move. We see him walk a tight rope, hoping all the while that things will go all right. The thin wall between victory and failure is shown by comparison to Phillip's relationship with his son. Phillip gives young Henry an imperative, and Henry's response is, "Or you'll do what?" What would happen if the maid were to ask the same thing? Would he have to kill her and find some other way into the office?

As I mentioned in my first post for The Americans, the creators have no problem dealing with difficult sexual situations. In the pilot, we see that Phillip is disturbed when his wife has a one night stand with an American government official. But in this episode, Elizabeth is jealous when she sees a picture of the beautiful blonde that Phillip has spent a decent amount of time turning into an asset. Certainly, Elizabeth's extramarital sexual act is hard to deal with, but what of Phillip's repeated infidelity and the fact that he's convinced this woman that he's in love with her? Add to this the fact that the Jennings family is forced to put these under-trained operatives in harms way time and time again with a fairly high mortality rate and you run into some serious moral dilemmas.

Many reviewers ooed and aaed about the pilot of The Americans and complained that the second episode wasn't as good. I'm here to say that both episodes are of the same quality. They tell a fantastic family story balanced with intriguing spy action. The Americans is developing into a robust family story with the potential for several seasons of quality entertainment. If you're not watching it, you're missing out.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

New Avengers #3

With the new addition of the marvelous blue-furred mutant Beast - the heir to the mind gem after Charles Xavier's death - the Illuminati decide to assemble the Infinity Gauntlet in hopes that its power can prevent universes from colliding and collapsing, or, to be specific, in order to save the Earth. Their prisoner, the universe-hopping woman named Black Swan, is not quite so optimistic.

While I was interested in the characterization of the Beast and Captain America, I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed that Black Panther was pushed to the background in this issue. Just when I thought New Avengers would be a Black Panther book, Jonathan Hickman has decided to prove me wrong. Initially, this is not all that disconcerting. This is a team book, after all, and Black Panther has been the single most prevalent character if we total up all the page-time in the first three issues. My problem is that once a character like Black Panther has been pushed behind one or two other characters, it is not always so easy to pull him back out to the front. Panther was once the dissenting voice in a room full of powerful mega-minds who could re-write reality, and as of this issue he has been replaced by Captain America in this office. Certainly, it is interesting that he is willing to turn utilitarian as soon as he believes that the people of Wakanda in Earth-616 might benefit, but once this move is made, what is there to distinguish Black Panther from the rest of this council? As a publisher, Marvel can either bench Black Panther because he doesn't sell comics, or they can double down on him and convince the people that they should be reading Black Panther books. I am a fan of the latter, because I'm tired of businesses pointing to the consumers when they're accused of not caring for minorities and saying, "My hands are tied. The people don't like black heroes." It is too easy of a cop-out for an industry that has a surprising amount of power in changing public perception about social issues. (Did you forget how much of a hubbub Brian Michael Bendis brought about when he created a multi-racial Spider-man?)

Aside from this issue, which I don't think should just be placed aside easily, I really liked this issue. Beast is a great character, and I'm interested to see how he deals with the Illuminati as Xavier's proxy. It was really interesting to see Xavier deliver the mind gem to Beast via a psionic implant and trigger. Perhaps he took a page from the Weapon X handbook on that one.

Without spoiling the entire issue like I usually do, the conclusion of New Avengers #3 is troubling for the Illuminati, both because of the threats that it implies and because the voice of morality is likely to be ignored. I'm not excited to see what horrors might happen in the process of saving Earth, but I am excited to keep reading. New Avengers continues to be one of the better books that Marvel has released during the Marvel Now! movement.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

House of Cards S01E02: "Chapter 2"

In the second episode of the acclaimed new Netflix series, Frank Underwood continues his vendetta against his colleagues by convincing the denuded Secretary of Education to give over control of an important education bill and making the Secretary of State step down from office after looking like a racist jerk on national television. While Frank was able to accomplish quite a bit toward furthering his own agenda, much of the focus of this episode moved to Frank's wife Claire's struggles, both at work and in her relationship with Frank.

Robin Wright works very hard to make Claire Underwood downright inscrutable. It is nearly impossible to see what she is feeling beneath that shell of hers, both in terms of her decision to let go of most of her staff at her non-profit and in terms of her competitive/uncaring/caring/weird relationship with Frank. What we get from her is subtle, and it was wonderful to see Claire unpacked a little bit during this episode. If my interpretation is correct, Claire Underwood is concerned with aging and its ultimate result: death. This is why she bought a rowing machine for Frank, because health is one of the ways that we fight against entropy. This is also why she is going in such a difficult position with the non-profit: if she does not distinguish herself as hip and fresh, she and her entire enterprise will be distinguished as old and outmoded, and that's a situation where nobody wins. The question of mortality and replacement was hit home when Claire watches an older woman who is incapable of ringing up her coffee and who is immediately replaced by a younger, more capable employee.

These Death-of-a-Salesman-style themes permeate all of House of Cards. One needs only look to Frank being passed over for Secretary of State, Zoe Barnes rung-climbing past her colleagues because of her relationship with Frank, and the fact that the new education bill was written by six young wannabe-politicos to see this fact. The question becomes: Is Frank using this changing of the guard theme to his advantage or will he ultimately fail at his attempts because he's old and the next model has already come out?

House of Cards remains cleverly written and intelligently delivered. Kevin Spacey is still amazing, and he's even growing into that Southern accent a little bit better. The supporting cast is doing a great job of distinguishing themselves, but also of playing their parts. The second episode made it more clear to me just how fantastic the cinematography is in this series during a scene where Frank stands in front of a building in the night and the balance of light and darkness was absolutely stunning. Netflix pumped a lot of money into this series - this is true - but it is delightful to see that the money is going to good use. (If you've forgotten just how that much money can be misused, I direct your attention to Michael Bay's series of Transformers movies. What a waste!)

In the future, I'd like to see more about what made Frank and Claire Underwood into the people they are now, what their hopes and dreams were, what their early life was like, all that. It's not a problem yet, but if we don't get something that makes them more human within the first five episodes I fear it could hurt the program. As of now, however, House of Cards is the aces. (Get it?)

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Free Energy - Love Sign

Free Energy is a Philadelphia rock band comprised of Scott Wells (guitar), Paul Sprangers (vocals), Evan Wells (bass), Nicholas Shuminsky (drums), and Sheridan Fox (guitar). They released their sophomore album titled Love Sign this January.

There are a lot of good things that I can say about Free Energy. They are great musicians and Love Sign has some great production quality. Scott Wells delivers some fantastic and rich guitar sounds throughout an album that has a consistent feel to it throughout. Thematically, Love Sign is positive and makes the listener remember what it is like to be in love and to feel alive. It is hard not to hear remnants of other talented musicians in the work of Free Energy. The album starts off huge, much like The Darkness did in their album One Way Ticket to Hell and Back. Sprangers' vocals and much of the band's style are reminiscent of the '90s band Everclear if you removed some of the darker undertones of abandonment and abuse. Many of the songs feel like they were written either as Tom Petty or for Tom Petty to sing. Outside of those bands, there are little glimpses of Zwan here and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah there.

It would be really easy to write a great review of the album Love Sign, but unfortunately I just can't.

There is something missing in this album. There are moments where the band pokes its head into some real Indie rock goodness and proves that they have their own sound and their own story to tell, but almost immediately they retreat and hide in pop anonymity. Perhaps they wish to do honor to their predecessors and in the process they forget to do honor to themselves. While some of these influences point them in a great direction, elements like the terrible overproduced alt-rock-inspired background vocals bring this band down. Free Energy is fun but ultimately forgettable, and that is because they are missing the magic, that singular sound that could only be theirs. Without it, the best they can hope to accomplish is to blend in and get a paycheck.

With the right inspiration and the right direction, I think that Free Energy could be one of the best bands you've ever heard. Maybe that sound is there in their first album. I don't know, because I haven't listened to it. I think, though, that if they work for it, that greatness could certainly be present in their third album. My thought is that they could start with my favorite track "True Love" and devote themselves to making every track on their next album better than this stand-out track from Love Sign.

Free Energy has all of the puzzle pieces. Now comes the challenge of putting the puzzle together and seeing what appears.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

A$AP Rocky - LongLiveA$AP

A$AP Rocky is the stage name Rakim Mayers, a rapper who despite the inclusion of a dollar sign in his name is much more than a ripoff of '90s gangsta rap. While A$AP certainly spends a fair amount of time dealing with the themes of that particular genre, LongLiveA$AP makes it clear that A$AP is concerned with other things, like compassion and social justice, having a good time, and the thing that makes him a rapper of note, art.

While the first couple of tracks on the album make it seem like LongLiveA$AP is just a cheap callback to the works of Puff Daddy and Biggy, with weak beats and a ridiculous menacing deep voice, it is clear through this haze that A$AP is a really talented rapper. He is highly intelligent and referential, and when he's willing to be vulnerable he is really thoughtful. Of course, anyone who delves into gangsta-style rap, even for a couple of tracks, has difficulty with vulnerability, so you have to dig a little bit for thoughtful moments. When you get to a song like "Suddenly," however, A$AP effortlessly incorporates wisdom like the following line: "You my brother, you my kin / F*** the color of your skin."

For the most part, the album is well produced, and songs like "LVL" and "F***** Problem" are a couple examples of songs with amazing hooks. A$AP has the same problem that most of my favorite rappers have: he has difficulty producing an album. Don't get me wrong. He makes amazing tracks. But rap and techno tracks are often made differently than those of other genres because they're more likely to be mixed into other tracks by DJs. As a result, there will be more emptiness at the beginning and end of tracks and less flow from one track to another. While A$AP may have flow (ie. a decent amount of money gained by having successful records), he does not have flow (a consistent sound and feeling from track to track), and it certainly doesn't help that his album is a little bit too long. I would have cut out a couple of the first tracks and then sequenced and mixed the album a little differently, but I can't say that A$AP and his production crew have the same goals in mind. I can't fault A$AP too much for being better at tracks than albums. The only two rappers I've ever encountered who can put together an album that would make the Beatles and the Beach Boys proud are Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below).

On that note, I have to digress and bring up a constant theme on LongLiveA$AP. After my first listen, I was certain that A$AP is obsessed with Outkast and the ATL scene. The first track "Long Live A$AP" has a chorus that could have been borrowed directly from Love Below track if I didn't know any better. With a high-pitched dreamy voice and enveloped sound, this could easily be Andre 3000 singing (although, I have to say Andre is a better singer). The fast rapping on "PMW (All I Really Need)" sounds like a throwback to Andre as well. In "Wild for the Night," A$AP directly references Outkast and the song "She Lives in My Lap," while Andre and Big Boi are both mentioned later in the track "Ghetto Symphony." This is a strong enough theme that I wonder whether I should review this album on its own merits or as a tribute album.

LongLiveA$AP didn't blow me away, but it certainly put A$AP Rocky on my map of rappers to look out for. My girlfriend said that 2013 is likely to be a great year for rap, and that means that the January release of LongLiveA$AP is merely the warning shots. Even if I'd skip a track or two here and there, songs like "Hell, featuring Santigold," "Fashion Killa," and "Like I'm Apart" were strong enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see them on a few reviewers end of the year favorites list.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.