Monthly ArchiveSeptember 2010
Books 30 Sep 2010 07:11 pm
Banned Books Week ends Friday, but the clip above is poignant no matter when you watch. Hard to believe that so many books have been challenged or banned, and for such spurious reasons. Your right to monitor reading material for your children and yourself does not extend to monitoring reading material for my children or me. Sadly, too many people don’t feel they have the right to decide what the rest of us read.
As the new television season gets underway, networks have missed the perfect opportunity to piggyback on the country’s newly minted education obsession with a remake of “Welcome Back Kotter” for the high-stakes testing era.
Surely you remember beleaguered Mr. Kotter and his Sweathogs. Comedian Gabe Kaplan played Kotter, who returns to his alma mater to teach a baker’s dozen of incorrigible students, including Vinnie Barbarino (“Up your nose with a rubber hose!”), Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (“Hey, Mr. Caaar-TEAR”), and the uber-annoying Arnold Horshack (“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” with hand thrust into the air). Kotter is regularly hassled by clueless Vice Principal Mr. Woodman, who dislikes both Kotter’s unusual teaching methods and the subhuman Sweathogs.
In the updated version – informed by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the federal government’s love affair with charter schools at the expense of public education, and one-sided documentaries that paint teachers themselves as little better than adult Sweathogs – we find that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In this new version, Kotter is still perpetually in danger of losing his job, only this time it’s because he has failed to improve his Sweathogs’ test scores in various target demographics, which include students from impoverished homes, students from specific racial and ethnic backgrounds, and students with special needs. Now when Mr. Woodman bursts into Kotter’s room in the middle of class, he’s waving spreadsheets, raving about “value-added” and “adequate yearly progress” and crunching numbers based on formulas that nobody outside of John Maynard Keynes understands. Audience laughter ensues.
In one episode, some of the Sweathogs apply at a swank new charter academy funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However, they are denied admittance because the academy fears their scores will adversely affect their reputation in the community. The Sweathogs return to their original high school, which the charter school has cherry-picked for its best and brightest, thus perpetuating the self-fulfilling prophecy that public schools are stuck in an irreversible downward spiral. In a cameo appearance, Melinda Gates is hit upon by John Travolta’s Barbarino character and flees the school in disgust, blaming Kotter for his lack of classroom discipline.
In another installment, Kotter is temporarily replaced by an Ivy League graduate of Teach for America, whose résumé consists of a six-week crash course in educational theory. Applying a strict business model to the classroom (because it worked so well on Wall Street a few years ago), the new teacher realizes a modest increase in test scores. However, like most Teach for America candidates, she leaves after her two-year commitment, just at the point where, according to most studies, her teaching would become as effective as an experienced educator’s.
Kotter is rehired, in time to be asked to serve on a special panel to explore solutions to the nation’s educational woes. Fellow panel members include politicians, millionaires, and politicians who are millionaires. Kotter is removed from the panel when the other members realize he has actual classroom experience. He is replaced with Oprah Winfrey. Her appointment makes no sense, but it does give her a chance to say, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” for the audience’s raucous applause.
The next week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invites Kotter and his fellow faculty members to a special showing of “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary about American public education that demonizes teachers’ unions. Afterward, Duncan has Mr. Woodman threaten to fire the bottom ten percent of teachers, based solely on test scores (because idle threats are the optimal way to motivate people to do their best).
When Kotter points out that firing the bottom ten percent creates a (ital.) new (end ital.) bottom ten percent, and that it unfairly targets teachers (usually new and inexperienced) who work with the most challenging students in large urban districts, the audience boos. The very prospect that learning could be contingent on factors such as quality parenting and socioeconomic background is absurd; everybody knows public schools are solely to blame for all our nation’s ills. Besides, politicians have learned that blaming the same people you rely on for votes is ballot-box suicide; the teacher witch hunt is a much more convenient scenario, which is why they concocted it.
In a special episode, Kotter loses out on a merit-pay bonus by half a percentage point and must take an evening job working alongside some of his students at a local pizza parlor. He is so tired that he can barely stay awake, let alone be the dynamic entertainer-educator-innovator-surrogate parent-magician needed in the classroom. Meanwhile, the local newspaper considers running his students’ test scores on the front page, thereby exposing him to additional ridicule, all punctuated with a raucous laugh track.
I have more story ideas, but I doubt that more than half a dozen episodes of my proposed new “Welcome Back Kotter” would air before everybody finds something more interesting than education to worry about, like who the new judges on “American Idol” will be and will the nation survive this economic recovery. In that order.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (cschillig).
Comic books 23 Sep 2010 10:09 pm
The only thing cumbersome about Life with Archie: The Married Life #2 is the title. Otherwise, the book is terrific.
The spinning of two alternate destinies for everybody’s favorite freckled-face redhead — one where he marries Veronica, one where he marries Betty — continues in this issue, and while he starts both stories fairly miserable, he ends both with determination to seize his own destiny.
In the Veronica reality, Mr. Lodge has put Archie in the unenviable position of closing down Pop Tate’s malt shop, but it’s all just a ruse for the entrepreneurial Lodge to buy up property elsewhere without anybody noticing. Archie and Veronica’s wedding is at the breaking point, and along comes Reggie to console Veronica …
In Betty marital land, meanwhile (I guess “meanwhile” fits here), Archie is trying to make it big musically in NYC, but the Big Apple is taking a bite out of him, instead. By the story’s end, he and childhood friend, Ambrose, are set to … well, to do something to Ambrose’s Chowhouse. And back in Riverdale, wedding plans for Mr. Weatherbee and Miss Grundy become a double nuptial.
The one answer this second issue offers is a resolution to who will be writing the two series. Gone is first-issue writer Michael Uslan, replaced with veteran scripter Paul Kupperberg, who keeps the plots bubbling nicely. Norm Breyfogle’s art continues to be perfectly suited to both tales.
I’m enjoying this title. When I bought the latest issue at Walgreens, the cashier was very curious about it. I told her that it was about Archie’s marriage, and she wanted to know which girl he chose. When I said both, she looked puzzled and said, “He can’t do that, can he?”
Yes, he can.
Today’s column from The Alliance Review:
Tell any supposed computer guru that your machine isn’t working and he or she will ask the same question: Did you restart?
The restart option must be page one, paragraph one, of every textbook in computer fix-it academies, just as “sit down and shut up” is the opening chapter of every teaching manual. Surprisingly, it often works. (So does “sit down and shut up,” for that matter.)
I have this theory that, like snowflakes or fingerprints, no two computers are the same. Instead, each one is a unique mixture of hardware, software and files, all sloshing around like pickles in a barrel of brine. Who knows how all those disparate pieces interact, and what weird cyber-schizophrenia can result?
The restart option is like the cleanup guys who show up the morning after a big storm to take away fallen tree limbs. We’re glad to see them, but if they’re needed every day, we might want to reexamine where we’re living and consider moving where the weather is less extreme.
Restart is that way. If I had a dollar for every time a computer tech has told me to restart, I could afford to take my wife out to dinner at one of those swank restaurants where nothing on the menu is printed in English and the entrée is a piece of meat the size of a thimble, emerging from a bed of lettuce like the goddess Venus emerges from a seashell in a Botticelli painting.
Why do we need to restart so often, and why do we accept this as a valid solution to computer problems? If the unexamined life is not worth living, as somebody famous once asserted, then we need to examine why we’ve become a society of tech heads with index fingers constantly at the ready.
Since computers have infiltrated every facet of our lives, this is a serious problem. Most new cars have computer chips somewhere in their gizzards, so will we one day reach a point where we stop every few miles to turn the ignition off and on?
“Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“I’m sorry, officer, but the speedometer wasn’t working. I think I need to restart the car.”
Or how about on a transcontinental flight? “Passengers, this is your pilot. Unfortunately, we need to restart the plane, which will necessitate a landing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Flight attendants will be by shortly to show you how to restart your oxygen masks and seat belts.”
If this restart thing becomes more widespread, it could become a figure of speech for any poor performance, anywhere. Little Johnny having trouble in school? He needs a restart. Bad job review at work? Hit the button. Underperforming in bed? Restart, maybe twice.
All these actions could be accompanied by a little push on the belly button, followed by an approximation of that ominous noise computers make when they fire back up again, the one that sounds like James Earl Jones chanting “Ohm” in a Tibetan monastery. It would diffuse stress and refocus us on the task at hand.
I’m sure my wife would love if I had a real restart button, one she could press every time I put off painting the basement by using the lame excuse that the cement from the waterproofing job hasn’t “cured” yet (it’s been almost a year), or whenever she tells me something really important and I don’t listen.
Restart. Restart. Restart.
It’s something to ponder the next time your computer is frozen and the guru you depend on to help you through can offer only a shoulder shrug and a one-word, two-syllable solution that you’ve heard too many times before.
As for me, the next time I have a bad day, I’m going to poke myself in the stomach, click my heels together three times, and hope I wake up back in bed, ready to restart and make it a better one.
Comic books 20 Sep 2010 11:02 pm
Back in the late ’70s, I was a periodic reader of Weird War Tales. I’ve never been much of a war-comic buff, but I loved horror anthologies, and Weird War mixed the two concepts in a way that was appealing. And because it was an anthology, you could skip months (or years) when the covers or interiors weren’t so appealing and not feel that you’d missed anything.
Like more traditional horror books, Weird War had a host, but its narrator wasn’t some dime-a-dozen ghoul in a graveyard: It was Death itself, the Grim Reaper, baby, mowing down soldiers with his (its?) scythe like so much wheat.
I’m glad DC didn’t monkey with the format in the recent Weird War Tales #1 one-shot, which offers three unrelated stories of … well, weird war. The first is by far the best, a Darwyn Cooke tale of famous fighters from history’s great wars gathering for a reunion of sorts. All is well until a particularly infamous personality crashes the party. Cooke channels his inner Mike Mignola here for a macabre little number. Rounding out the issue is an offering by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein, the writer and artist who put some life back into DC’s Doc Savage earlier this month; and one by veteran writer Jan Strnad and artist Gabriel Hardman. Both hew pretty closely to the standard Weird War Tales formula, and that’s what makes them so fun.
For a nostalgic trip through the trenches, readers could do a lot worse than drop $3.99 on this book, which features a nifty Cooke cover, to boot.
I’m sure somebody with more artistic chops than I possess could explain the subtleties of Seymour Chwast’s style. To the layman, it looks like the work of a talented 12-year-old. Certainly, there is more to it than that, as anybody who can hold the attention of a reader through a 127-page adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy must be doing something more than immediately meets my untrained eye.
That said, I don’t mind the fact that Chwast’s adaptation here is blocky and simplistic. For some strange reason, it works well with the material, not something I would have guessed from the outset. What he has done is boil down the essentials of Dante’s signature work into something that is easily accessible. We follow the Italian poet (who makes himself the protagonist of the work) and his mentor, Virgil, as they wend their way through the various circles of Hell in the Inferno, successive levels of Purgatory, and finally into Paradise, meeting along the way both Satan and God and a variety of real-life politicians and religious figures from the Middle Ages.
Chwast’s most clever conceit here is to dress the characters as gangsters and send them through a film noir-inspired set, not that the artist’s work is noirish in the least. His full-page maps in each section makes it easy to locate the fedora- and trenchcoat-clad Dante along his journey. It’s hard not to chuckle at the sight of Chwast’s sinners burning, freezing, or being buffeted by high winds depending on their level of punishment; whether the adaption is supposed to be funny is open for debate, but I’d guess the laughs are intentional, especially with various road signs along the journey pointing the two travelers to the next circle or level. Hell, even Lucifer looks comical here.
One thing I can’t blame Chwast for is that the back half of the book is less interesting than the front. Largely this is because Hell is inherently more dramatic than Heaven, something John Milton found to be true in Paradise Lost, where the scenes with Lucifer plotting in Hell are much more dramatic than the scenes of God and Jesus sitting around in Heaven, being perfect. Chwast’s best visuals are found in Hell and Purgatory; by the time Dante gets to Heaven, I was getting bored, and maybe the artist was, too.
The bottom line is that this adaptation is likely to bring some attention to a nearly 700-year-old poetic masterpiece. Chwast’s version makes me want to break out the original (which has been languishing on my bookshelf, unread, for some time) and compare it to the graphic novel. That, in itself, is a sign of success. My guess is that lots of high schoolers and undergrads will be accessing this version as a quick and painless way to absorb the material, making it a bigger and more expensive version of Classics Illustrated.
What are the greatest Fantastic Four stories of all time?
I’d include lots of Lee and Kirby material, of course, including the classic introduction of the Silver Surfer and Galactus, the Inhumans saga and “This Man … This Monster!” from FF #51. John Byrne’s ’80s run yielded a lot of contenders too, among them, “Terror in a Tiny Town” from #236 and “A Small Loss,” the issue where Reed and Sue lose their unborn child.
And to that august list I have to add the Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch collaborations from issues #554-569, collected in two hardcover editions (and trade paperbacks, and maybe even an omnibus), entitled World’s Greatest and Master of Doom.
I’m a few years late to this particular party, but I only recently picked up Master of Doom when my comic-book shop, Land of Cran in Canton, Ohio, was having a 50 percent off sale on all collected editions. (I thought this was good news until I went back this week to learn that the store is closing.)
Having read the entire run over the last week, all I can say is: Wow. These issues encapsulate everything that’s great about the FF — the sense of family, the small personal moments, the cosmic enormity, the lighthearted levity alternating with moments of pathos. It’s all here, and in ways that twist and invert the formulas without in any way invalidating them.
Millar finds a way to give us the unexpected and irrevocable death of Susan Storm Richards and still have her appear the following issue, hale and hearty and in no way invalidating her demise the month before. He gives us a Johnny Storm who cavorts with a sexy super-villain without losing a beat in his heroics. He gives us a most unexpected resolution to a Ben Grimm romance, one that doesn’t end with the girlfriend revealing herself as a Skrull or dying at the hands of one of the team’s many enemies, all resolutions that Millar has Ben poke fun at when he proposes to his lady friend. And most of all, Millar gives us a genius Reed Richards who is still a bit of a romantic, rushing to aid a former flame even as he reaffirms his love for Susan.
All this on top of mind-warping stories that involve moving eight billion people from the future to the present via a time machine powered by a comatose Galactus (the ultimate Energizer Bunny), a group of new New Defenders, the introduction of the man who trained Doctor Doom (the Marquis of Death), and a centuries-old monster that lives off the life force of children. Plots and subplots loop in on themselves with wild abandon, and nothing is quite what it seems.
Bryan Hitch brings it all to life with a sense of realism not often seen in Fantastic Four adventures. His Johnny Storm looks like a man set aflame, his Thing is one of the all-time great renditions, and his Sue Richards looks like a woman in her mid-30s who has persevered through one trial after another. Only his Reed Richards falls short of definitive, looking sometimes like his nose is slightly bent out of true, something the reader could blame on his elastic qualities, one supposes.
The only disappointment comes in the final issues, when Millar hands off the scripting chores to another writer and diverse hands become apparent in helping Hitch finish the artwork. A monthly magazine can wreck havoc with quality, and while the substitutes pitch a good game, I would have preferred to see Millar and Hitch finish their collaboration together.
The mark of a great run is when you are truly sorry to see it end, and that’s how I felt after turning the last page of this super-powered romp. Maybe Millar and Hitch said everything they had to say about the FF, in which case I’m glad they went out when they did. Still, I wish there was a Volume Three to look forward to. Definitely recommended as some of the best FF adventures this long-time fan has ever read.
I’m teaching my film studies class differently this semester. In past years, I’ve taught it as a chronological journey through the cinema, starting with silent films and proceeding, decade by decade, to contemporary selections. This didn’t really work, as students were bored almost to tears until we hit the 1970s or so. For a few semesters, then, I taught it by genre, offering one old and one new example of sci-fi, western, romance, musical, comedy, and so forth. Nothing was inherently wrong with this approach, but I became bored with it and wanted a change.
This year, I’m using 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, as the spine of the course, introducing students to the 2o categories of stories and then finding a film that fits each one. The twenty plots are:
7. The Riddle
15. Forbidden Love
18. Wretched Excess
I still try to mix up genres and use classic films wherever possible, so this is like the best of both worlds. Thus far, I’ve shown Duck Soup as an example of rivalry and Shane as an example of the underdog plot. Currently, we’re watching Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive as an example of pursuit. I’m less concerned that the students agree with my categorization than I am that they think and categorize the films for themselves. So far, it’s working out well.
As an afterthought, I must say that watching Shane again was a revelation, especially the funeral scene for the murdered homesteader, Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, played by Elisha Cook Jr. So many films show senseless violence, but few do such an effective job of showing its consequences. The images of the children gathering disconsolately around the horses and Torrey’s dog whining and scratching as its master is lowered into the ground are at least as memorable as the big gunfight at the movie’s climax.
This week’s Alliance Review column, dated Sept. 16, 2010:
Once upon a time, if you missed a TV show, you missed it forever. If you’re over a certain age, this is the edict by which most of your boob-tube-related life was lived.
Growing up, I equated Tuesday night with “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” followed by my personal favorite, “Three’s Company.” John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt — I remembered all their names without Google, so indelibly were they etched on my prepubescent psyche — defined the swinging singles life and made me wish that I could one day live in a cool apartment complex where witty neighbors dropped by unannounced and all problems were solved in 30 minutes, minus commercials.
It was a real letdown when I rented my first apartment and lived next to a couple of nocturnal steelworkers whose fights were exceeded in volume only by their vociferous making up, and above a snarly old woman with curling chin hair and a penchant for coughing phlegm out her kitchen window. Mrs. Roper, she wasn’t.
Friday night meant “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Incredible Hulk” and, if my parents fell asleep on the couch before my bedtime, “Dallas,” with its heaping helping of oil, sex, intrigue, sex, high-pressure business deals, sex and sex. Who shot J.R. was the least of my concerns amid all that boudoir intrigue, I assure you.
But if I missed an episode of any of my favorites, there was no catching up — no YouTube or network websites, no DVR or season compilations on DVD. The only way I would see it again was if I caught it as a rerun later, but the chances of that happening were about the same as the odds of Phil Davison delivering a sane, sensible speech to the Stark County Republican Executive Committee.
Oh, sure, I grew up in the infancy of video recorders. Our first unit weighed in at about the size and weight of a manhole cover and featured a series of red-and-white switches under the front panel to record live TV. But these early devices were designed by people with advanced degrees in engineering exclusively for other people with advanced degrees in engineering; any recording of a show that you actually intended to tape was strictly coincidental. Despite my best efforts, I almost always ended up with something off Channel 17, the religious channel that my mom would make me watch whenever I said I was too sick to go to Mass.
Nowadays, the video recorder is as passé as charcoal briquettes and cursive handwriting. In its place is the DVR, which stands for Dummy-Version Recording. This means that even dopes like me can manage to record a TV show while out of the house doing something frivolous, like getting a surgical sponge removed from our intestines.
Unfortunately, as with all modern technology, the DVR has solved one problem by creating another: which unwatched shows to keep, and which to delete. This seemed like a ludicrous concern when I received my first unit, which could hold the digital equivalent of the Louisiana Territory inside its metallic innards. But by the time we swapped cable for satellite service a year later, we had populated all that space quite nicely, and anything new that was recorded meant an older show was taken off oxygen support and allowed to slip away.
The new DVR device has even more space, but I’ve filled it up to 90 percent of capacity in only a few short months. Now I’m left with the difficult decision of which shows to keep and which to jettison. A week’s worth of unwatched “Jeopardy” from last May? Gone to make way for “The Event,” whatever that is. An episode of “Secret Life of an American Teenager” that my daughter never watched over the summer? Save it — she might still want it. “Queen + Paul Rogers,” a concert that my wife accidentally set to record in perpetuity? We have five copies already, with more to come.
June was a big month for DVR at Casa Schillig, likely because it’s too nice outside to watch much TV. But it was also too nice in July, August and so far in September, too, so a bunch of oldies from Turner Classic Movies molder away on the service.
I hate deleting shows because it’s so final. Just because I haven’t gotten around to “Terror Train” or “Freaks” doesn’t mean I never will, especially with Halloween coming. It was a lot easier when I was a kid and we only had two VHS tapes to our name, which meant 12 hours max of recording time, instead of three days’ worth or whatever the embarrassment of riches is that we have today.
But it was easier still back in the time when you watched a show when it was first on or not at all. If you happened to be distracted by two beautiful roommates or your fun-loving neighbors at the same time as that first-run episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” — well, that’s what summer reruns were for.
Comic books 14 Sep 2010 10:44 pm
I went three-for-three on quality with my comic book purchases this week:
Stephen King’s departure from American Vampire has caused a big change in quality — it’s gotten even better.
Not that there was anything wrong with King’s work on issues #1-5, but with this new, King-less story arc, series creator and writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque have stepped up their game to deliver what is easily the best issue of the series to date.
A new storyline begins here, one that moves the action forward to Las Vegas in 1936. A framing sequence shows an ominous resolution that takes place six months later in Colorado before jumping back to introduce us to a lawless Vegas in the months following the building of the Hoover Dam. The city’s population has swelled, and the underfunded police department is totally awash in crime. We meet Cashel McCogan, the chief of police, and two federal agents, Jack Straw and Felicia Book, sent to help him.
Snyder deftly introduces his characters and crime — a female vampire has murdered a prominent citizen in a hotel room — and sends our trio of law enforcement officials into action. It’s a good opening chapter, one that sets up the new participants and points to plenty of conflict down the line before ending on a full-page reintroduction of the prominent player from the first American Vampire arc.
Albuquerque changes up his artistic style to match this new historical era, too. It’s always easy to tell the characters apart, even in scenes that are busy with lots of people and dialogue.
I’ve questioned the need for another vampire book at a time when the media is glutted with them. I’m not questioning that any longer: American Vampire has gone from good to great and is even giving The Unwritten a run for its money as the book that I most look forward to reading each month.
Won’t the real Doc Savage please stand up?
I don’t know who that bronze-skinned guy in the first few issues of this book is supposed to be, nor am I sure that the Doc Savage who appears in this latest issue, #6, is the “real” Man of Bronze.
What I am sure of is that – finally – DC has delivered an issue of Doc Savage that is worth reading, a retrofitting of an old pulp standby, the Lost City, with modern sensibilities. Writers Brian Azzarello and Ivan Brandon pick up on the one salvageable aspect of the previous arc, Doc’s current status as a criminal, to kick their run into gear. They write Doc like a bit of a prick, but that’s preferable to the bland, personality-free doormat of the first few issues.
Nic Klein’s pencils are just as gritty as this new Doc, perfectly suited to illustrating exactly how big, fast, dangerous and, yes, downright scary our hero really is. And his lost city in the Middle East is suitably daunting and creepy, as well.
Damn if even the usually moribund back-up feature, Justice Inc., isn’t interesting this month, too. Just when I was thinking it was time to cut bait on this series, it gets good enough to earn a reprieve.
It’s a boys’ night out in Thor the Mighty Avenger #4, which means the mighty Warriors Three are this month’s guest stars. I never much liked the trio, but like so many aspects of this book, writer Roger Langridge and artist Chris Samnee have a knack for making the warriors work. Thor’s romp with the Asgardians leads to a barroom brawl with Captain Britain, of all people, but everything ends on a good note.
One thing this issue points out by shuffling Thor’s female friend, Jane Foster, to the side: It’s the relationship between the Thunder God and the earth woman that is the emotional undercurrent of the book. It’s fun throughout, but never as much as when the two are cuddling on the couch on the last page. I hope the relationship between the two stays platonic yet simmering for a long time to come. The romantic tension is terrific.