Monthly ArchiveNovember 2007



Commentary 30 Nov 2007 08:33 pm

GPS should have positioned him elsewhere

Here is my print column for this week:

The day after Thanksgiving, and I’m doing something I vowed never to do again.

This is just two days after I did something I had never done before — put up outside Christmas lights and mow the lawn in the same afternoon.

As long as I was breaking new holiday ground (and not breaking my head falling off the roof), why not revisit old territory? So I recant on my promise to never again shop the day after ingesting the animal Ben Franklin favored over the bald eagle as this country’s official winged symbol.

I’m thinking a lot about turkeys while standing outside a chain store with about 300 other crazy birds to buy junk that none of us needs, but that is foisted upon us by our innate American pride in keeping up with the Joneses.

Because the sun isn’t up and it’s too dark to read and because I’m nosy, I start listening in on conversations. This is wrong, like a brother buying lingerie for his sister, but I always learn a lot. This time, I learn the hot gift this season is a GPS device for the car.

GPS is short for Global Positioning System, a little electronic gargoyle that perches on the dashboard and tells you which way to turn to get to wherever you’re trying to go.

I thought that’s why most people had spouses, but I guess I’m wrong because lots of people in line are willing to spend beaucoup bucks for the machine.

I’m not old fashioned or a Luddite, but I can’t see where most of us, humming along to our radios as we zoom back and forth between work, home and family, need the robotic equivalent of a backseat driver — in the front seat, no less — to tell us how to navigate the well-marked streets of our hometowns.

Before I hear from traveling salespeople and truckers who need to find new places everyday, let me say that a GPS is a good idea for some, but for most of us, it’s like buying an assault rifle to take care of a termite problem. Overkill, baby, overkill.

But back to the store.

The doors open and we’re now inside, the GPS units flying off the shelves, shoppers clutching them to their bosoms and making like running backs headed for the cash register end zone, eager to part with their hard-earned cash (or plastic) and dance a little jig under the goal posts.

One poor player — we’ll call him Mark, as in “what an easy mark” — is getting himself dressed down by the coach, disguised here as his significant other.

She gives him an intense tongue-lashing via cell phone because he can’t find her among the milling fans on the sidelines, slowing her speech as if talking to a particularly obtuse child. “Come … to the … front … of the … store,” she intones, and I wonder that she doesn’t bribe him with candy.

When he’s finally there, the phone disappears into a pocket and she begins to shred him in person. In her arms is a GPS tracker. I don’t know how it works — and I really don’t want to know — but I wonder if it can be set for “as far away from her as possible.”

The crowd shifts and I lose track of their decidedly one-sided conversation. I pay for my purchase and head for the door — all this living, and before 7 a.m.! — wondering how poor Mark is doing back there in line, and how he’s done his whole life, browbeat by this harpy who I hope is a short-term girlfriend but who is more likely the albatross life mate he has slung around his own neck.

And for some reason I think of him sneaking out to the car at night and whispering “divorce lawyer” into the little beeping toy on the dash, and the thought makes me smile. It’s a weird mental image, a real non sequitur, as strange as putting up Christmas lights and mowing the lawn on the same day.

Happy holidays, Mark, whoever and wherever you are, and good luck with the GPS. If I were you, I’d follow wherever it leads.

Comic books & Media 27 Nov 2007 06:46 pm

Not so funky

A recent column by John Whitacre discusses the problem of aging as it relates to comic-strip characters, focusing on Tom Batiuk’s decision to advance the characters in “Funky Winkerbean” ten years following a recent storyline where Lisa Moore, a main character, died of breast cancer.

Review reporter Steve Wiandt wrote a wonderful reflection on “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe” that you can read by clicking here. The sequence is undoubtedly one of the most poignant in the history of newspaper comic strips, and Batiuk should be considered for every major award offered this year to cartoonists.

Having said that, I must also say that the “Ten Years Later” storyline has been a major letdown in every way possible, as bad as “Lisa’s Story” was good. I have no emotional investment in the new characters, who are drawn so differently each day that I can’t tell who they are. The situations they find themselves in aren’t funny or moving or much of anything. So far, it’s a big dud.

I remain a “Funky Winkerbean” reader, and I still hope to be won over by the sudden changes that Batiuk has foisted upon his fans. Maybe the characters will grow on me, though I’m doubtful.

Change in serial fiction — comic books, soap operas, situation comedies and comic strips — is always challenging, as a creator seeks to try new things and keep the creation fresh in his own mind, while not modifying things so much that he loses what made the work “click” with fans in the first place.

For comic strip and comic book characters, aging is especially problematic. They don’t have to age, after all, and can remain eternally youthful (think Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie) generation after generation. With more cartoonish characters — like Garfield or the Peanuts gang — nobody cares if they remain forever young. As a matter of fact, their iconic, unchanging status is part of the appeal.

With more “realistic” cartoon characters — super heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, comic strip characters like Funky Winkerbean and associates, and the “For Better or Worse” crowd – readers more frequently question the passage of time. If Spider-Man was in high school when Nixon was in office, how can he still be in his early 20s today, for example?

Some creators argue that aging characters slowly over time (one year in “story” time for every seven years that pass in “real” time, perhaps) hurts nobody and adds a touch of realism. But if a creation lasts long enough — 30 or 40 years, let’s say — creators reach a point even with slow time where the character has aged enough that the change alters the original concept.

Spider-Man is one such character. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him in the 1960s, Spidey was a teenager in high school. Indeed, that was a big part of his charm: other super heroes, like Batman and Captain America, were older, with teen sidekicks to appeal to younger readers, but Spidey was a main hero was just a kid. Talk about wish fulfillment!

Over the years, Spider-Man and his alter-ego, Peter Parker, slowly aged. He graduated high school in the 1970s and started college. A few years ago, he started teaching high school. What kid wants to read fantasy adventures starring a character who could be his science teacher, for heaven’s sake? By aging Spider-Man, the writers and artists who create his adventures have changed one of the things that made the character unique in the first place.

Now, Marvel publishes stories about several different Spider-Men in an attempt, I guess, to give all readers a character with whom they feel comfortable. There is the Ultimate Spider-Man, who is still a high school science nerd. There is a Spider-Man who is married to a fashion model. There is a Spider-Man who is modeled closely after the animated cartoon series. And there are always reprints of the original stories by Lee and Ditko (my favorites, by the way).

Unless a creator sets out to age characters in “real time” (as Lynn Johnston decided early on in “For Better or For Worse”), I agree with keeping the status quo and allowing the characters to age gracefully by not aging at all.

Media 26 Nov 2007 09:09 am

Scroogish tradition

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A few years back, I picked up a cheap CD version of “A Christmas Carol” narrated by Orson Welles with Lionel Barrymore playing the Scrooge role.

Ever since, listening to it has become an annual tradition for my wife and me, usually in the car as we travel from store to store on our appointed holiday shopping rounds. This year, we listened on our way to Boardman, about a 40-minute trip, perfect for hearing the entire adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic.

(An hour-long version of the radio program also exists, but mine clocks in about 20 minutes shy of that. Apparently, radio performances of the story were an annual holiday tradition between 1934 and 1953, usually with Welles and Barrymore in the leads, so it is likely that various recordings are circulating.)

I am particularly fond of this version because it retains so much of Dickens’ original work and because both Welles and Barrymore are uniformly excellent. I believe the copy I have was originally performed live as part of the CBS Campbell Playhouse radio program; at least the script matches one I found on the Internet here.

The same site sells copies of the broadcast for a very reasonable $10, which also includes a 1954 recording of the same story. (I haven’t heard the latter.) However, as the recording is now in the public domain, you can find it online — along with many other old radio programs — for free. Here is one site that allows you to download all of Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air and Campbell Playhouse performances.

I enjoy radio drama because it forces listeners to exercise their imaginations. Sometimes, like Freddie Mercury sings in “Radio Gaga,” I grow “tired of all this vision” on TV and in the movies. In radio plays, the spoken word is everything, and the mind sets the stage based on what the ear hears. That is refreshing and a skill well worth cultivating.

Family life 24 Nov 2007 11:14 am

I shop, therefore I am

My wife and I are very different when it comes to Christmas shopping. She enjoys the process and likes to look around; I loathe it and want it finished as soon as possible.

Every year, I propose we do all of our shopping online or buy gift cards all in one place. She never agrees with this, preferring to be part of the great crush of humanity, weekend after weekend, that descends on stores to pick them clean like vultures feasting on dead flesh.

Being a good husband — or at least a docile one — I generally go along to get along. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.

Movies 21 Nov 2007 04:30 pm

Kong and stuffing

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 When I tell people I spend part of every Thanksgiving holiday weekend (if not Thursday, then surely Friday) watching the 1933 King Kong, they think I’m wacky.

But I found a website that proves giant apes and turkey go together somewhere else besides in my mind. Check it out here, evidence that WOR in New York started the fad that carried over to WUAB Channel 43 in Lorain/Cleveland, where I first became fixated on King Kong on Thanksgiving.

If football and stuffing go hand in hand, why not a giant ape, too?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Books 16 Nov 2007 04:32 pm

Snoop dog

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I’ve been on a Charles Schulz tear lately, having finished the new biography by David Michaelis and watched the recent PBS “American Masters” profile of the cartoonist’s life.

So when I found “The Many Faces of Snoopy” at the Rodman Public Library, I had to borrow it.

This isn’t like the Peanuts paperbacks of my youth — tiny little things with a few dozen cartoons in each. This is a big, family-sized portion of Snoopy divided into sections reflecting some of his cooler disguises: like Joe Cool, Legal Beagle, the Flying Ace, the Beagle Scout and the Writing Ace. Each section reprints three or sometimes four dailies or one Sunday per page; with 351 pages, that’s a lot of Snoopy.

I must admit that 50-plus pages of Flying Ace strips are difficult to read in one sitting, especially when they were originally designed to be enjoyed one per day over the course of decades, mixed in with other stories and gags starring the rest of the Peanuts gang.

Still, this is a great way to survey the history of Snoopy and see a big hunk of Schulz’s work reprinted in one handy collection. And if you’re a Snoopy aficionado, it’s pure nirvana, I’m sure.

Commentary 15 Nov 2007 03:23 am

No happily ever after

The headline for my print column this week is “No happily ever after.” The column itself goes like this:

 Once upon a time, a little boy traveled to a brick building each day, where he experienced a wonderful world of stories, pictures, numbers and experiments.

In this brick building were all the other boys and girls who lived in the village, regardless of how much money their parents made or whether they lived in the good or bad parts of the village.

Everyone agreed this was a wonderful thing.

The adults in the brick building prided themselves on working with children. Sometimes, the little boy or one of his friends would ask questions that took the group in directions the adults had not planned, but they happily accommodated these questions, knowing that inquisitive children are the best learners.

Along the way, the little boy learned to think on his feet, to analyze complex problems and come up with workable solutions.

The little boy liked some lessons more than he liked others. He preferred art to history, math to writing. He dreamed of becoming an architect. Other children felt differently, and each focused on what he or she did best.

Every few weeks, the little boy brought home a slip of paper that indicated how well he was doing. Sometimes, he did very well. Other times, he struggled.

One day, the leaders of the village gathered all the slips of paper from all the village children and were horrified to discover that, like snowflakes, no two children were the same. How could the children compete in the village if they did not all do equally well?

Although the leaders had no real idea what went on in the brick building, and although they did not have the years of training that the adults in the brick building had received, they decided to fix this problem that they themselves had created.

The leaders decided which knowledge was worth knowing and which knowledge was not. They created a series of tests for all children and decided how many questions the students had to answer correctly to be successful outside the brick building.

They all agreed this was a wonderful thing.

Because the tests were so important, the adults in the brick building began to spend more and more time preparing children for them. Instead of reading, drawing and exploring, the little boy practiced filling in bubbles on a test sheet, learned how to eliminate wrong answers to improve his chances of passing, and practiced writing in a way that would please the leaders who scored the tests.

The little boy gave up his dreams of becoming an architect and focused on coloring test-sheet bubbles and eliminating wrong answers. He stopped asking questions that led to diversions; the adults were too busy, the learning too structured, to allow for them anyway.

In the brick building, the boys and girls learned less and less, but because they were coloring the right bubbles, the village leaders were pleased, and they patted themselves on the back and made impressive-sounding speeches and stayed village leaders because everybody felt good about things.

One day, after he had filled in thousands of bubbles on dozens of tests, the adults handed the little boy one last slip of paper and sent him out into the village to find a job, like many boys and girls before him.

But surprisingly, there were no jobs for test-bubble fillers, no paychecks for eliminating wrong answers or writing just to please.

Employers wanted people who could think on their feet, who knew how to analyze complex problems and come up with creative solutions, not people who could make educated guesses from a pre-made list. The other boys and girls found their employment prospects were similarly limited.

The little boy, who was now a man, began to wonder if the village leaders had been wrong to change the programs in the brick building, if perhaps it was better when the adults who were trained to work with children did so without meddling.

Eventually, other people agreed, but not before the village leaders backpedaled and made more impressive-sounding speeches that make the old ways sound like something new they had come up with on their own, instead of just a pendulum that was swinging back in its original direction.

Of course, it was too late for a whole generation of boys and girls who had wanted to be architects, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers and business leaders, but who ended up only filling in bubbles.

And this, of course, was not a wonderful thing.

Books 13 Nov 2007 05:26 pm

Don’t do that or you’ll go extinct

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“The Darwin Awards 4: Intelligent Design” is newly released in paperback. As the title indicates, this is the fourth in a series of allegedly non-fiction accounts of people who have “removed” themselves from the gene pool in extraordinarily stupid ways.

The introduction, which explains how a person can win a Darwin (basically by dying while doing something earth-shatteringly dumb), is much funnier than the actual stories. Call me a prude or old-fashioned, but I don’t find stories of people’s deaths — a man who fell eleven stories from a balcony while trying to win a spitting contest, a couple who stumbled out of a bar and made love on the road before being hit by a bus, and soldiers who smoked in a warehouse filled with ammunition — all that amusing, and especially not when all the “jokes” basically have the same punchline.

I picked up this book from a filing cabinet of freebies in The Review’s editorial offices. I’m glad I did, because I have been tempted to buy earlier volumes. Now I know to save my money. Anybody who would drop $13 on this is quite likely a future candidate for a Darwin Award. It has enough entertainment value to borrow from the library or maybe even to buy off the bargain book rack for $2 or $3, but full price? No way.

 

Comic books 11 Nov 2007 08:11 am

Holiday in Riverdale

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Nothing gets you quite in the holiday spirit like a visit with Archie Andrews and friends, even if this year’s Archie’s Holiday Fun Digest was on sale in October!

The focus of the book is spiritual, salt-of-the-earth Betty Cooper and rich, materialistic Veronica Lodge. The two are shopping in most of the Christmas stories reprinted here, sometimes for each other, sometimes for Archie. In one story, Betty is appalled that Veronica buys gifts for herself, then has them sent to her parents to “give” to her. After Betty offers a heartfelt explanation of the spirit of Christmas in the middle of a busy mall, she receives a standing ovation from the other shoppers.

Another fun story is a gift mix up where Ronnie, Archie’s rival for the girls’ affections, accidentally gives Betty the gift that Archie had bought for her. And so it goes …

The only sour note in the book is the inclusion of Sabrina the Teenage Witch in one story. Something about Christmas and witches just don’t mix.

Otherwise, this is a fun collection, priced right at $2.49, that would make an excellent stocking stuffer. But don’t wait until Christmas to give it, because the stories are more fun to read leading up to the season of giving. It even warmed the heart of an old Grinch like me.

Commentary & Media 09 Nov 2007 05:11 am

Strike!

The Writers Guild of America is on strike. Bully for them. I hope they get whatever they are asking for, which I believe is some kind of payment for Internet broadcast rights. Writers are Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and although most are paid pretty well out there, that level of reimbursement is nothing compared to what the on-camera folks receive.

Ultimately, though, an interrupted season doesn’t affect me. I watch little or no network television. When somebody tips me to a good show, I wait to see if it self-destructs in the ratings. If it doesn’t, I usually rent it on DVD to watch at my leisure, minus the commercials. This is how I watch “24″ and “Lost.” Now that I have DVR, I do watch the occasional episode of “House,” but the thought of losing it for a few weeks (or longer) if the strike drags on doesn’t really bother me. Too many other things to do, I guess: Good books to read, movies to watch, people to talk to.

I can live without the new TV season, probably indefinitely. How about you?

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