Monthly ArchiveMarch 2011



Commentary 24 Mar 2011 10:04 pm

Playing Hyde and seek with memory

Here’s this week’s column:

I’m so embarrassed.

I confused Jekyll and Hyde in my last column, referring to homicidally insane Mr. Hyde as “mild mannered,” and kindly Dr. Jekyll as “bestial.” Thanks to sharp-eyed reader (and Alliance Review ad manager) Jeff Kaplan for being the first to point out the error and for being polite enough to suggest that maybe he was wrong.

Nope, Jeff, it was all me. I’m only surprised that the mistake hasn’t drawn more notice from readers, but since the column ran on a day that was both unusually warm and St. Patrick’s Day, maybe other people were too busy soaking up the sun or getting blotto to notice.

And just maybe they were soaking up the sun while getting blotto. But I digress.

My mistake is puzzling because I keep the two literary opposites straight through the following mnemonic: Hyde HIDES inside gentle Jekyll.

All my life I’ve used mnemonics to help me remember everything from the order of the planets — outward from the sun, they are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (or My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, unless you don’t count Pluto as a planet anymore, in which case My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos) to the seven coordinating conjunctions — for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so (aka FANBOYS).

In college, I had a mnemonic for Bloom’s taxonomy, or the skills in the cognitive domain — from lowest to highest, they are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation — that was so X-rated I still blush every time I think of it. It can’t be printed in a family newspaper (or even on the bathroom wall of any self-respecting establishment, for that matter), but it involved the word “cuckold,” which you can look up to get a flavor for what the other words might be.

They tell me now that Bloom’s taxonomy has changed, and that “creation” has now unseated “evaluation” at the top of Mount Cognition, but this screws up my memory device, so I prefer not to think of it that way, thank you very much.

(I was somewhat heartened to learn that Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking with Einstein,” a recent — and recommended — book about memory and mnemonics, uses similar off-color strings of associations to memorize random lists of numbers, the orders of decks of cards, and anything else that a “memory master” might need to recall in competitions. In smut there is power, apparently.)

Non-smutty spelling mnemonics are also helpful. “The principal is your pal” works for “principal,” as long as the student using it has a good relationship with the front office. “A sheriff has one rifle but fires twice” makes me think of Buford Pusser from “Walking Tall,” even though Pusser carried a baseball bat, but it still helps with the spelling of the county’s top cop title. And then there is that hoariest of mnemonics, “i before e, except after c,” which has somewhere in the vicinity of 200 exceptions.

One mnemonic that doesn’t work for me is the old “thirty days hath September, April, June and November …” which is confusing because three months end in “ember” and I want to stick December in place of the other two. I also don’t care for “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives, if only because the knowledge has never once been useful. It’s not as though representatives from Publishers Clearinghouse ever knock on my door, waving one of those gigantic million-dollar checks but only hand it over if I can correctly recall the fate of Anne Boleyn.

It would be much more useful to have a helpful mnemonic for using “lie” (to rest in a horizontal position) and “lay” (to put or place) correctly. The past tense of “lie” is “lay,” as in, “Yesterday, I lay down,” while the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” as in, “I laid the book on the shelf.” If it goes much beyond that, forget it — and once you get into weird constructions like “would have laid” or “should have lain,” I’m more likely to rewrite the sentence than take the time to look it up.

If I told you I had a good mnemonic for that, I’d be lying. Or laying. It’s enough to turn my timid Jekyll into a raging Hyde, I tell ya.

Or is that Hyde into Jekyll? I still can’t remember.

Books & Comic books 19 Mar 2011 06:50 pm

Daytripper

daytripper-tpb

Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá take readers through the life of would-be Brazilian writer Brás de Oliva Domingos, a man who keeps dying in different ways, in Daytripper, the trade paperback collection of the Vertigo mini-series.

That brief introduction, coupled with the knowledge that its published by Vertigo, might lead readers to expect that some level of the supernatural is involved. Vertigo titles, after all (as much as I love them), mostly take the tropes of all-ages genre comics (superhero, detective, horror) and punch them up with a little additional sex, violence, and vulgar language. So if you come to Daytripper expecting some noir exploration of an author’s repeated deaths, you can be forgiven.

But it’s not what you’re going to get.

Moon and Bá are more interested in holding up Brás as if the character were a snow globe, shaking up the people and events that surround his life and examining how things might play out similarly and differently with each go ’round. Readers approach each chapter — and really, this is meant to be read in one sitting, despite being published in ten installments — with a vague sense of apprehension, knowing that Brás is going to succumb but hoping somehow that this will be the chapter where he wins through. He’s a likable character that way, and the crowning achievement in an estimable story.

In each installment, we’re treated to wonderful character bits – Brás’ friendships, his loves, his relationship with his father and mother and with his wife and child — and insights into the human condition. In one chapter, Brás languishes in a dead-end job as obit writer. In another, he takes off to find a long-lost friend. In a third, he’s eleven years old again, experiencing a first kiss while playing with cousins at his grandparents’ farm. It’s all beautifully illustrated against the backdrop of Brazil, with sublime colors from Dave Stewart.

Really, this isn’t the sort of book one would expect from Vertigo, which makes it all the better. More a stream-of-consciousness novel than anything else, Daytripper absolutely charms and dazzles. Here’s a title that deserves any awards that might come its way.

Comic books & Commentary 17 Mar 2011 06:41 am

Add some purple to your holiday green

hulk

This week’s St. Patrick’s Day-themed column from The Review:

Ah, Saint Paddy’s Day, when green goes from the unappealing color of cartoon muck monsters in Mucinex commercials to the hue Americans pay to drink from cheap paper beer cups while embracing all things Irish.

It’s also the occasion for one of my favorite movie lines, when an exasperated federal marshal, tired of chasing Harrison Ford along the St. Patrick’s Day parade route in the Windy City in “The Fugitive,” opines about the Chicago River: “If they can dye the river green today, why can’t they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?”

For me, however, green will forever be linked in memory to one of my favorite comic-book creations — the Incredible Hulk, the bestial Jekyll to mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner’s Mr. Hyde. When the Hulk was first introduced in Marvel Comics back in 1963, he was gray, but by his second appearance, he took on the lime shade for which he is best known to this day.

I first discovered the Hulk back in the mid-’70s, thanks to a comic book snuck into school by my soon-to-be best friend, Bob Crum. It was a 25-cent issue of Marvel Super Heroes #57 where the monstrous hero faces off against a one-eyed yellow alien from another planet, the Space Parasite. For the purposes of this column, it would have been better if their epic battle had taken place in Chicago, but I’m tied to the facts: They sparred in New York City — in Shea Stadium in Queens, to be exact, and the fact that I remember this some 35 years later when I barely remember what I had for dinner last night goes a long way toward demonstrating the power of childhood nostalgia.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before I was a certified (some would say certifiable) Hulk maniac, buying, borrowing or trading Hostess Ho Hos at lunchtime for his every appearance. The appeal to my 8-year-old self isn’t so mysterious: As a 60-pound weakling, I found it pure wish fulfillment when the scrawny Dr. Banner transformed into the hulking, uh, Hulk and squashed his tormentors, whether they were gigantic aliens or mean-spirited people in the street with the temerity to throw soda bottles in his direction, all the while intoning, “Hulk smash!”

Some bullies at recess would have learned a thing or two if I had possessed similar strength, believe me.

Probably the Hulk’s greatest power, however, had nothing to do with his strength, but rather the nigh-miraculous way that his purple pants didn’t burst at the seams when Banner gained four times his normal muscle mass and transformed into his jade-skinned alter ego. Sure, the knees would rip and the hemline would fray, but otherwise those magical pants were unscathed.

Come to think of it, maybe the Hulk’s greatest power was the ability to find new pairs of purple pants, month after month, no matter where his wanderings took him. In Alliance, meanwhile, my mom was unsuccessful in finding even one pair of purple pants for her pleading son, proof that she either didn’t have super powers or that her sense of fashion was more highly developed than mine.

(She did, however, find me a pair of Hulk Underoos, but they were a disappointment, being normal briefs trimmed in green. Most of my other briefs turned green on their own by virtue of my wearing them for weeks straight.)

I was in seventh heaven a few years later when the Hulk came to television on Friday nights, packaged with the goofy adventures of Bo and Luke Duke on “The Dukes of Hazzard” and the more steamy shenanigans of J.R. Ewing and family on “Dallas.”

It wasn’t quite the Hulk I had come to know in the comic books, however. This Hulk didn’t speak, so gone were the “Hulk smash” comments, and he didn’t wear purple pants. He was, however, green, even if the body paint worn by actor Lou Ferrigno came off in one episode where the Hulk wrestled a bear in the water.

Many years later, I learned that “The Incredible Hulk” TV show was modeled almost as much on “The Fugitive” series starring David Janssen as it was the Marvel Comics character, which brings us full circle to the Hollywood remake of “The Fugitive” and the comment about dyeing the Chicago River green.

You enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day how you will. Me, I’m spending part of it with some vintage comic books featuring what is arguably the world’s biggest, meanest leprechaun, and most definitely the only one who ever tromped around in purple pants.

Books & Comic books 13 Mar 2011 10:41 pm

Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire

suisquad

Back in the ’80s, I read and enjoyed the Legends mini-series by John Ostrander and John Byrne, so I gave the first year or so of Suicide Squad a try, as it spun out of Legends and was also written by Ostrander.

This new trade paperback, Trial by Fire, was a nice stroll down memory lane with the early days of a series that many fans remember more fondly than I do. The concept of the book is great: A government Dirty Dozen of super villains carry out dangerous jobs to gain federal pardons. Because they were/are bad guys flying below the radar at DC, the possibility of one or more of them dying on any given mission is a real possibility (hence the team’s name), although fatalities seem to be more the exception than the rule.

Unfortunately, this collection begins with a 38-page snooze fest: the history of the team as recounted in Secret Origins #14. The reader doesn’t get to anything with a real plot until Suicide Squad #1, an exciting Mission Impossible-style job in Qurac against a group presciently called the Jihad. Everything we really need to know about the book and its characters is presented much more compellingly in this issue, which Ostrander and penciler Luke McDonnell unspool in an almost cinematic style. It’s a little exposition heavy, but it works.

Subsequent issues are more of a mixed bag, with too much attention focused on Captain Boomerang, obviously styled as the breakout star of the book a la Marvel’s Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men. Harder to explain is a later emphasis on the Penguin, the worst of all Bat villains. McDonnell’s pencils in some of these stories never rises much above competent, and sometimes looks almost amateurish. Maybe the monthly grind was taking its toll. This collection ends on a high note with a fun psychoanalysis of the team courtesy of its shrink, which also sets the stage for future conflict and interactions.

Would I buy future Suicide Squad trade collections? Yeah, even though the next volume would, of necessity, have to include the crossover issue(s) from the rotten Millennium maxi-series. Suicide Squad isn’t great, but it is solid fun and a nice reminder of the state of mainstream comics some 25 years ago. C+

Books & Comic books 11 Mar 2011 01:38 pm

Market Day

market-day

I just read and enjoyed Market Day by James Sturm. It’s the story of an early 20th century carpet maker whose life is turned upside down when the major purchaser of his craft no longer wants them. The theme of the book hits home in many ways:the lack of appreciation society sometimes has for one’s work, the prevalence of (and preference for) mass-produced junk over handcrafted art, and apprehension over the future. It’s a reminder that the twenty-first century doesn’t have a monopoly on angst over quickly changing times.

Apropos of nothing, it may also be the first book I read entirely while standing up, a quick pause from the housework I’m doing on this snowy Friday out of the classroom. It may also be the only book I’ve read immediately after cracking my head on the bottom of the breakfast bar. Or maybe it was before cracking my head. Or maybe I hit my head harder than I thought because I really can’t remember.

Anyway, Market Day is a good read. Minus one inappropriate scene near the end, it’s appropriate for all ages, although younger readers may not be as interested in its message.


Comic books 11 Mar 2011 09:26 am

Comics I’m reading …

Here’s the stuff I’ve read recently …

detec874

I don’t give a flying fig about what’s going on in the larger world of the Batman books these days, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying Detective Comics and Scott Snyder’s macabre take on Gotham City. Issue #874 is a good case in point. Commissioner Gordon’s son, James, is a homicidal sociopath who just might be rehabilitated, but probably isn’t. Either way, Junior Gordon is creepy, as his sit-down with Dad in this issue demonstrates. Great art from Francesco Francavilla makes this book irresistible.

incog3

Incognito: Bad Influences still suffers from not being its predecessor, but it does offer more Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips goodness, making it better than a lot of other books out there. This third issue is no exception. Sometimes, violence, neo-noirish prose and pulp-inspired mayhem is just the fix I’m looking for.

amvamp12

Scott Snyder (again!) and guest artist Danijel Zezelj wrap up American Vampire’s first year with a stand-alone story spotlighting everybody’s favorite homicidal bloodsucker, Skinner Sweet. Sweet’s visit to a Wild West Show gives Snyder the opportunity to wrap up a few loose ends even as he points us in the direction of what looks to be a stellar second year. Still my favorite book, month in and month out.

dsav11

Someday, I’ll really have to go back and reread this current arc of Doc Savage. Writers Ivan Brandon and Brian Azzarello are practicing some serious nontraditional storytelling here in issue #11 (and in previous installments), but whether by design or by accident I can’t say. They may well be stretching the boundaries of Doc’s pulp mythos, producing something more than the pastiche that previous writers have provided. Or they could well be creating junk that won’t hold up to a sustained reading. Time will tell. I still have a hard time differentiating characters, so it’s helpful that each time a member of Savage’s crew is re-introduced, his name appears in a caption. That may not be a compliment to artist Nic Klein, but in his defense, he has a lot of people to juggle in this story.

spirit-11

David Hine and Moritat continue to produce a solid product each month. The Spirit #11, which features a teaming of Central City police and the villainous Octopus’s forces against an encroaching mob, is entertaining. Not groundbreaking in the tradition of Eisner, but worth my investment of time and money each month.

jhex64

I enjoy Jonah Hex, but I didn’t like issue #64 because the plot hinges on Hex acting stupidly, which is not true to the character. Here, he enters into a relationship with the demonstrably crazy town pump and lets two bar patrons get the jump on him before he draws his weapons. I don’t buy either scenario. The art by Nelson (what is it with one-named artists?) isn’t really to my liking, either. Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti usually deliver each month, so I’m sure this story is an aberration.

Commentary 10 Mar 2011 11:35 pm

Science fair experiments I’d like to see

This is my print column from March 10, 2011:

The secret to a successful science fair project is selecting a topic that really excites you.

This is simple advice that eluded me during my own school days, when my project every year involved pouring vodka on various plants and predicting that they would die. (One year, all I could find around the house was a cactus, which not only refused to succumb but actually thrived on liquor. Even liberal amounts of bleach were unable to kill it.)

In retrospect, I should have picked better subjects. Barring that, I should have made up topics, hypotheses, and results to shock the judges. Maybe I could have at least earned bonus points or garnered a few laughs. 

To wit — and with apologies to MAD magazine — the researchers here at Left of Center Central present excerpts from the best science fair research that never was:

  • n “Not only is it untrue that cats always land on their feet — disproven by my experiments involving several felines thrown out a fourth-story window — but it is equally false that they have nine lives.”
  • n “Based on my blond hair and blue eyes and my father’s black hair and brown eyes (and also the way he glares at my mom whenever I call him ‘Dad’), I predict that I am really the son of the meter reader, which will be shown conclusively by court-ordered DNA samples.”
  •  “One’s choice of toothpaste does not matter, and neither does toothpaste itself. To prove this, I have gone the last three months without brushing. Aside from constantly bleeding gums and a black, viscous fluid that seeps from my mouth when I sleep, I have suffered no ill effects.”
  •  “To demonstrate that television does not rot the brain, I recently strapped my sister to a chair and forced her to watch 24 straight hours of ‘Laverne and Shirley.’ Afterward, she scored just as poorly on a standardized intelligence test as she did before the marathon.”
  •  “Our neighbors really are perverts, as this secret surveillance video makes clear.”
  •  “Cutting brake cables does affect a driver’s ability to stop.”
  •  “All dog food tastes the same, regardless of label or flavor, as the following taste tests involving my 6-year-old cousin will prove.”
  •  “The light in the refrigerator does go off when the door is closed.”
  •  “Teachers are unable to detect the presence of phlegm in their Thermoses.” 
  •  “As proof of my assertions that infected belly-button piercings really do stink, please see the attached samples.”
  •  “Goodyear tires are more resistant to knife punctures than Firestone, especially late at night, when installed on cars parked in secluded lots away from security lights.”
  •  “After repeated testing failures, I reluctantly conclude that reusable toilet paper is an invention whose time has not yet come.”
  •  “A blood blister is not a twin that the dominant fetus absorbed in the womb, despite my drawing a face on my own blood blister with a Sharpie.”

The above examples might not be good science, but they would at least relieve the unending train of baking soda Mount Vesuviuses and seedlings in egg cartons that are the humdrum bane of every judge’s existence. 

But what do I know? My soused-up cactus never made it past the first round.

Books & Commentary 05 Mar 2011 04:11 pm

Less Seuss, more juice

This week’s column, as originally published in The Alliance Review:

Most Dr. Seuss books are too darn long.

This is a scandalous comment to make during Read Across America Week, which marks the anniversary of the good doctor’s birth, but there it is. I love Seuss’ rhymes, stories and art — all clever, whimsical and fun — but many of his books overstay their welcome by at least 20 pages.

Most parents on bedtime story duty cringe when the little ones select “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” or “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.” After the prolonged agony of the pre-bedtime bath, followed by the sublime torture of the pre-bedtime snack, both coming only an hour or so after the horrors of the post-supper homework struggle, any story longer than three-and-a-half minutes is highly suspect, and these two books are like the “Ben-Hur” or “Gunga Din” of the storytime set.

Published in 1938, which I suspect is long before Seuss knew exactly what he was doing as a children’s author, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” is especially unbearable. It’s a fairy tale of sorts about a waif who can’t tip his hat as a sign of respect to the king because every time he does a new hat appears on his head. It doesn’t even rhyme, and a Seuss story in prose is like a Playboy bunny in a burka — what’s the point?

Joe or Jane Average Parent just knows that he or she is going to be subjected to each and every one of those 500 hats, most of them exactly the same (red hat with one feather), and by the time the hats start to change their appearance (red hat with two feathers, red hat with three feathers with a jewel, etc.), is writhing in torment, realizing that 40 minutes have passed and the damn hats just keep coming and the kid is as wide awake as ever.

A more sensible title would have been “The 100 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” or better yet, “The 26 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” if only because “The 9.2 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” is too much to hope for.

“Mulberry Street” is a little better. At least it rhymes, and the repetition (like “The House That Jack Built” on crack) means that a cagey parent can accidentally-on-purpose skip two or three pages, especially ones that have been torn out prior to story hour.

Most of Seuss’ later works — “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Cat in the Hat” — are superior because they have fewer words on the page and move a lot faster. This means you have a chance of getting the kids tucked in before halftime ends or before they need another trip to the bathroom or a drink of water or any of the dozens of reasons they can find to keep you jogging up and down the steps until 11:30 p.m., when your bedtime story is written by one Jack Daniels, who has had more bestsellers than 40 Seuss’ combined.

And to think that I saw it on Bourbon Street.