Andrew Gets Conventional

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So…all of my blogs have been works in progress.  This is no exception.

Last weekend, I was honored to spend 10 1/2 hours signing my debut novel at C2E2, where I learned how people in the comics world are so eager to welcome you in, and how days on the floor are followed by nights of serious drinking and mingling.  What this left me with was a paradoxical desire.  To devote the maximum amount of writing time to my future novels and stories…but also to stay in touch with so many new friends on my blog.

So Culture and Rational Protest is getting mixed up a bit.  I’m setting a limit of seven minutes (one for each fine or lively art, depending on your taste) for every post, but at the same time, I am going to make a concerted effort to post every single day…with illustrations.

The theme will be the same: diversions of the cultural world surrounding us and my manifold experiences, only now there will be a little more diary-type writing and commentary mixed in.  Because one thing I found at C2E2 is that people really like hearing what I have to say…doesn’t matter if it’s thoughts about the creative process or being human, or just answering lots of James Bond trivia questions over red wine at the Hyatt Regency restaurant once the Jeopardy adventures slipped out.

So let’s keep talking!

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Over the Campus and Through the Woods

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This week, for those of you who don’t me, I started a full-scale commitment to my new career and cooked for both my girlfriend’s birthday and two of my dearest friends’ housewarming party. This left little time for both writing and cultural exposure, so this week’s post is necessarily short and those of you who read it faithfully may be crying out “Oh no, not ANOTHER Jethro Tull album!” But read on, because what I was able to do this week proved to be an all-around delight.

Only one day can make all this fit together...

The University of Chicago’s Humanities Day 2010 was the same treat as it was in 2009, even though I only caught three lectures instead of four. (I missed a poetry reading when a MAPH alumni discussion of the enlightenment over champagne went on a bit long.) The weakest this year, actually, was the keynote address from Martha Feldman. “Castrato de Luxe: Blood, Gifts, and Goods in the Making of Early Singing Stars” proposes an exceptional thesis that the castrati, the male singers who, thanks to surgical removal of their testicles, were able to reach an astounding range of notes with proper control, became substitute icons for the declining monarchy in an era of increasing recognition that financial recompense ruled the world. The stories of castrati were entertaining, and the recording of an imitation of the great singer Farinelli’s “Quai guerriero in campo armato” sounded mind-blowing in Rockefeller Chapel…and most of all, it helped explain how the cult of celebrity grew into the Internet-crazy proportions of today. However, Dr. Feldman betrayed no passion for her subject…her monotonous delivery left me tuning out long before the lecture came to an end. Worlds apart from her was Philip Bohlman, whose technical fumbling with the computer/projector/PowerPoint system was more than made up for by his audiovisual aids and the obvious feeling he had for his lecture on Eurovision; he even wore a Eurovision baseball cap with his suit and tie! I had signed up for this lecture expecting something entertaining, but also received a vivid, rigorous argument that Eurovision’s music and spectacle provide countries a way to make grand statements of nationalist identity…the music BECOMES the national spectacle, even though it is a series of ultra-commercial three-minute pop love songs. Watching a Turkish dance-pop number professing love for the sexy girl you’re dating turn into an aural and visual meditation on the Armenian genocide, or two lovely Israeli and Palestinian singers duet in both their languages fills one with more powerful emotions than you would have guessed…and of course, he played “Volare” and “Waterloo.” However, the best lecture I attended was Jonathan Hall’s preview of a new book in which the classical historian explains how archaeological discoveries which apparently proved literary and historical traditions in Greece and Rome in fact raised more questions than they answered. Dr. Hall’s careful delineation of how the wall allegedly built by Romulus at the founding of Rome and the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion and burial in the Vatican, despite the findings of recent excavations, are only possible answers for one of a variety of traditions represents some of the best scholarship I have witnessed since coming to Chicago, and made me want to read the book. Moreover, he was the most personable of lecturers: an Englishman with an Italian wife, he cracked jokes about Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the proper translations his wife gives him of semi-obscene Italian words, and even used the phrase “Hey presto!” at one point.

Let's go into the woods...

And yes, another week, another Jethro Tull album…but this is not another “ok, here’s some good stuff and some bad stuff and some stuff I just don’t care about all” review like the recent ones. No, Songs from the Wood is an almost total delight. Ian Anderson figured out that the group’s mammoth, weighty direction was no longer paying off aesthetic dividends, and changed their focus to a mixture of 50% folk, 50% Tull-style progressive rock instead of 100% of the latter. There are two questions I have about this decision. First, why did it take so long for him to figure this out? Mr. Anderson plays a mean flute (How much more traditionally English can you get?) and his voice always sounded like a traveling bard, while John Evan and David Palmer play a mean piano and organ and Martin Barre knows his way around old-school melodies on both acoustic and electric better than anyone. And second, why did we need eight minutes of the album’s next-to-last track, “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)?” The lyrics are good, the melody okay, but the long, crunchy jams might be Mr. Barre’s weakest moment in his Jethro Tull career…although it still has a fine flute and organ interlude in the middle. The other eight songs, however, all kick uniform butt, from the a capella opening of the title track…which brilliantly sets the tone for all to follow…to the eerie but lovely closer, “Fire at Midnight,” which actually transitions from Mr. Anderson’s mystical world of the wood back to the present day in effective fashion and allows him another of his rare sincerely romantic moments. In the middle, we get one terrific song after another which, like “Songs from the Wood,” all sound like they were written in the days of the Tudors and Oliver Cromwell, not in 1977! It’s hard to pick out highlights, but “Cup of Wonder” and “The Whistler” may be the album’s two best tracks, mixing piping flute, acoustic and electric instruments, mystical lyrics, and Elizabethan melodies in a manner hard to top, and “Velvet Green” is six minutes of evocative creation of an entire landscape with guitar and fiddle, while “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” is the best soundtrack for a warm night with your friends drinking spiced cider and celebrating the first snow. In fact, that may be why I really like this album…it’s a soundtrack for everything I love to do, long nights playing board games and drinking wine with my friends, intimate moments with my girlfriend, running indoors or outdoors with wind and sweat and a feeling of being alive. And Mr. Anderson’s vocals were never better, not even on Stand Up. My advice is to get it and reprogram it so “Pibroch” comes in at the start of side two, wrapping things up with “Velvet Green,” “The Whistler,” and “Fire at Midnight.” (And by the way, “Hunting Girl,” contrary to popular wisdom on the Internet, is an awesome hard-rock onslaught which really answers how folk-rock could and should sound, as the electric guitar plays a melody not out of place in the tavern and John Glascock and Barriemore Barlow push it along.)

Achewood (2001-current) by Chris Onstad

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The greatest heroes of the 21st Century?

So…Ray Smuckles, potbellied, medallion-and-shades-wearing ladies’ man, indulges in various schemes to make a fortune or at least have an amazing time when he’s not running his record label in Achewood, California. His lifelong spiritual brother and frequent associate in these pursuits is computer genius Cassandra “Roast Beef” Kazenzakis, whose once overwhelming depression has been lifted since he met and married Molly Sanders, a Welsh girl who died in the seventeenth century and met Roast Beef in Heaven during one of his many near-death experiences. Ray and Roast Beef are aided and abetted by their friends who live with Chris Onstad and his family: Belarussian amateur chef Teodor Orezcu, novelist, bar owner, and all-around wise man Cornelius Bear, hard-drinking Lyle Gabriel, and cheerful five year-old Philippe. Uptight, cultured, gay Pat Reynolds and serial killer Nice Pete drop by from time to time. And did I mention they’re all talking cats, teddy bears, and in Philippe’s case an otter?

This is Achewood, which I would argue trumps Penny Arcade and XKCD as the Internet’s finest comic strip. I was introduced to it a few months ago by my colleague Matt McGrady when he referred to one particular strip as the funniest thing he’d read all year…he’s been a fan from the get-go. I didn’t find that strip very funny, but then I clicked back to the beginning of that particular story arc at http://achewood.com/index.php?date=01312010 and found myself dying with laughter.

Achewood is like an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Mr. Show with Bob and David that never ends. Stories will develop, sometimes for months at a time, but they’re always filled with non sequiturs and will give way to new stories as if nothing had ever happened. There is a firm level of continuity as the characters recognizably change, yet that continuity takes place in an environment where rival Subway stores spark gang-style violence, homemade rockets to the moon launch, objects cause magically realistic events such as time travel to occur, and there’s always time to smoke a joint and watch Braveheart again.

Chris Onstad is a great illustrator, with a simple, Wattersonian style which perfectly complements his characters, each of whom has a perfect facial expression and regular set of clothing. But Mr. Onstad’s real genius is in his writing. He has a knack for adapting pop culture and real economic and philosophic principles into original concepts which play on many facets of American life. For instance, in what is probably the greatest of Achewood‘s story arcs, Mr. Onstad seizes upon mankind’s fascination with sporting events and their accompanying rituals and the pop culture trope of competitions to the death for the saga of The Great Outdoor Fight (http://achewood.com/index.php?date=01112006). I would seriously stop reading this blog, click, and spend an hour or so reading until you reach Ray and Roast Beef’s return home. Trust me, it’s time well spent, and every illustration, every joke, every turn of the story lands with precision. Even the cell-phone testicle attachments at the beginning!

The real secret of Achewood, however, is Mr. Onstad’s (himself a husband and father) ability to tug at genuine emotions beyond comedy and grossness. The friendship between Ray and Roast Beef feels real and lived-in, capturing the interactions and dialogue rhythms of guys who know each other inside and out. And in some strips, Mr. Onstad provokes lumps in the throat. The series where Roast Beef thinks through his decision to propose to Molly (http://achewood.com/index.php?date=05232007), their actual wedding, a recent strip where Philippe learns from his father’s ghost how sometimes you truly cannot go home again…this is a place most web-comics, most comics in general, never get to. As someone who writes comics, I should know.

But above all, Achewood spends most of its run delivering the kind of good time where you should never drink while you’re reading it because you’ll laugh so hard liquid will mess up your computer screen. The raps, the Roomba scenes, Ray’s (mis)adventures through time, space, and the infinite realms of his own hometown (which is really Palo Alto, and man, do I want to go there now)…read it and know that American comedy is alive and well.

Disclaimer: the current story arc is, as always, great, but I would not recommend it for a first-time reader, as it involves a few of the more obscure characters and excessive amounts of violence, sex, and idiots who burn their houses down due to a misunderstanding of how people behave when they’re tripping.