Tuesday, March 30, 2010

NCCCC 2010 Round 3 - Doonesbury Dopplegangers

For this round of the National Crappy Comics Copy Cats Competition, we look at strips that take a stand.

Politics and comics rarely mix. At least not well. Topical humor does not age well with lead times of two weeks or more. The truly funny political strips of the past like Pogo an L'il Abner had a sensibility that transcended partisanship. The current reigning champion is long-running and Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury. For several decades now, conservatives have chafed under the piercing wit of Garry Trudeau (and just how American can someone named after a Canadian prime minister be?) hoping for a right-wing equivalent. Meanwhile liberal cartoonists labor under Doonesbury's long shadow, which is its own burden.

Doonesbury Dopplegangers

Let's look at political cartoons of various ideologies:

Mallard Filmore

Mallard Filmore or That Fuckin' Duck as I prefer to call him combines the intellectual rigor of Sean Hannity with the rational discourse of Glenn Beck. This lazy compilation of cheap shot sub-Fox News talking points would be the worst comic strip in print even without its infuriating reliance on straw men, poorly sourced quotes, and cheap Ted Kennedy gags. There is no narrative arc and each strip is nearly indistinguishable from the last. Its only redeeming value is that it is universally despised except amongst Washington Times subscribers.

Prickly City

You can't spell Prickly City without 'ick'. Perhaps the most obvious beneficiary of reverse affirmative action anywhere, Scott Stantis seems to be deliberately trying to win a Worst Drawn Comic award. The use of a right-wing big-lipped ethnically-ambiguous girl as his primary mouthpiece is just offensive on multiple levels. And while it tries to use oddball metaphors in incomprehensible thinly disguised allegories (terrorist desert hamsters anybody?), they mostly come off as half-cocked.

The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee

I have not quite yet deciphered the random political leanings of Edison Lee except that it seems to have a vaguely anti-big government and anti-tax stance. Way to go out on the populist limb there. The jabs and cheap shots just seem so forced and obvious. The inclusion of a lab rat pet puts in Calvin and Hobbes range (as write-in nominator john observed), but it's the college-freshman-that's-read-just-a-little-too-much-Ayn-Rand sensibility that makes this strip most annoying.

Non Sequitur

Wiley has toned down his Non Sequitur political rants considerably since the election, which can be considered a weakness. A good cartoonist would stick to his guns no matter who is in office. The ObviousMan and History of Cavemen bits at least provide a slightly different take on the usual ax-grinding. Still, being the second best knee-jerk liberal on the comics page is pretty faint praise.

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And there is still time to vote in the Calvin Clones and Faux Far Side categories.

Monday, March 29, 2010

NCCCC 2010 Round 2 - Faux Far Side

In the first round of the National Crappy Comics Copy Cats™, we looked at strips trying to fill the big shoes of Calvin and Hobbes. An even bigger and much missed comic strip was the off-beat and relentlessly eccentric Far Side. Gary Larson is as much a part of geek culture as Monty Python or The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. There is a Far Side for any situation. It's hard to believe that their have not been any new strips since 1995. For fifteen years we have had to relive the strips in the endless books, calendars and tee shirts or put up with its many pale imitators. Which brings us to our next category:

Faux Far Sides

And the heirs to the throne cover a lot of different territories. Here are a few of the most blatant flatterers.

The Argyle Sweater

Stylistically, you couldn't find a closer cousin to the Far Side than The Argyle Sweater right down to the line style and shading. It has mad scientists, anthropomorphic animals and oddball geeks. The humor is also dependent on bad puns, odd juxtapositions and surreal situations. And when it misses it misses big.


When it comes to surreal situations, no strip out-DaDas Dan Piraro's Bizarro. Full of trademark signatures like pie slices and dynamite sticks. The humor is perplexing and off-beat to point of opaqueness. There is almost and Emperor's New Clothes quality to many of the jokes. You don't want to declare yourself too unhip to get the gag even if there may not be any funny there.


If you wanted to design a Far Side Lite, you couldn't do much worse than Rubes. Relying on the typical single panel tropes, the jokes are clever but not too deep. It lacks any sort of post-modern twist. Just standard gags executed competently.

Non Sequitur

Before it had any continuing characters, Non Sequitur was, just as its title implied, a random series of gag-a-day strips. While drawn in a standard strip format, the sensibility was that of a square single panel. And it covered a lot of Far Side territory: cave men, oddball animals, and subtle puns.

There will never be another Far Side. It covered so much ground, it's tough to do a truly fresh take. That doesn't keep people from trying. So which strip is trying a little too hard?

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

NCCCC-2010 Round 1 - Calvin Clones

For this year's version of Foma Madness, we are going back to our roots and finding crappy comics. While we did a fairly exhaustive series in the inaugural edition of the National Crappy Comics Competition, this time we are narrowing our focus and naming it the National Crappy Comics Copy Cats™. We are looking for the comic that is lamest rip-off of an established strip or genre. And our first category is:

Calvin Clones

Kids and their pets are a comic strip staple. From Charlie Brown and Snoopy to Milo and Opus, anthropomorphic companion animals have always been comedy gold. However, a wise-assed kid and his stuffed tiger redefined the paradigm. Intellectually challenging, subversively anti-nostalgic and iconically irreverent, the philosophically named Calvin and Hobbes was arguably the greatest strip of a generation.

But success breeds excess. Since C&H went dark many other strips have tried to bottle that magic but mostly missed the mark. Let's look at the pretenders to the throne.

Red And Rover

Chronologically ambiguous (it could be set in the 50s or yesterday), Red and Rover is the most family friendly nominee with a sweet tone that borders on insulin overdose inducing. While Rover is slightly sarcastic, he is no stuffed tiger. And Red is so milquetoast he makes Dennis The Menace look like a serial killer.

Boy And Cow

Since all the good preternaturally provocative pets were taken, Boy and Cow takes a titular turn towards the bovine. While Cow is plenty punchy, the lack of animation makes her (a cow would be a her, right?) a particularly static foil. There are only so many set-ups that can come out of a kid and cow standing in a field.

Big Top

If a single talking animal is funny, an entire menagerie must be frickin' hilarious. At least that is the premise of Big Top where a ten-year-old boy lived with poodles, tigers, and bears (Oh, my!) Now living on only in reruns, Big Top tried to up the ante with an entire cast of wise cracking circus animals. At least it gets points for being self-aware.

Non Sequitur

Like its name, Non Sequitur is all over the map. However, one of the more common story lines involves precocious hellion Danae and her miniature pony. The equine companion is not a charter cast member, but has become a bigger part of the piece as it tries to temper the dark cynicism of their pint sized cynic with the wide-eyed innocence of a four-footed friend.

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Monday, March 15, 2010


I've been critical of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the past, but this year they are honoring one of the bands that made my middle-school years special, those four flare-legged sirens from Sweden, ABBA. Now some of you may think that Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn, and Agnetha aren't very rock and roll. Well, to them I only have this to say:

Honey, honey,

Knowing me, knowing you, does your mother know the name of the game? I wonder, because she should have taught you that the winner takes it all and it’s money, money, money or you meet your Waterloo. Baby, those are the rules for one man, one woman.

I have a dream and you should take a chance on me because you have a hole in your soul that can only be cured by that dancing queen, Nina the pretty ballerina.

So don’t settle for the S.O.S. because I need to thank you for the music. Otherwise, so long and hasta manana, because I dance while the music still goes on, Chiquitita. Watch out because when all is said and done you owe me one.

I could go on and on and on since I am head over heels. Do I want them to gimme gimme gimme some kisses of fire? I do, I do, I do, so I will stay a super trooper because lovers live a little longer.

Your Fernando

I dare you to click any of those links and not catch the spirit and energy that formed the premiere pop band of the 70s and early 80s. There music is infectious and catchy. They were video pioneers that presented a visual style every bit as bright and flashy as their carefully crafted tunes. Every time I hear one of their songs, I am sent back thirty years to when music to me was fresh and new.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Pick My Next Book

My house is a veritable landfill of read and unread books. I sometimes dread purchasing a book out of fear that I already own it. My backlog of unread books is probably over fifty. At my average monthly rate of two to three a month that is nearly two years worth, yet I continue to buy more. Out of town this week, I dragged coworkers to an antiquarian bookstore in Austin where I bought an autographed Kinky Friedman novel and a Brett Easton Ellis first edition.

To help me clear the pile, I am dedicated to reading at least one dust collecting tome a month, but I need your help. In the comments, list up to three of the books in the following list that I should be reading as soon as possible.

Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban
Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey
Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
Heydey by Kurt Andersen
The Bridges of Madison County by Robet James Waller
The System Of The World by Neal Stephenson
Jittebug Perfume by Tom Robbins


Fat Man In The Middle Seat by Jack Germond
Googled by Ken Auletta
The Grand Idea by Joel Achenbach
Collapse by Jared Diamond
The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut
Under the Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead by Crystal Zevon
Let Freedom Ring by Sean Hannity
Fiasco by Thomas Ricks
The Battle For America 2008 by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the books occupying every horizontal surface in my house, but they are the ones I feel most compelled to read or the most guilty that I haven't read yet. Obviously, I should read all of them, but what I want to know is which I should read next. Use any criteria you want and pick up to three in each category. For extra credit, name one book I should just plain avoid. I haven't quite decided how I am going to count or weigh votes, but I'm likely to be persuaded by impassioned pleas. So help me out, please.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Anthem Ani

It took me until I was 45 years old to see any shows at the legendary 930 Club in DC, but in the past six months I have seen two very different acts play the same stage. Here is my side-by-side comparison.

Gaslight Anthem
October 22, 2009
Ani DiFranco
March 2, 2010
Blurry Cell Phone Pictureimg296

Ani DiFranco 2


Gaslight Anthem is punk band with strong Jersey Rock roots. They hit my radar screen when I saw a YouTube clip of Bruce Springsteen guesting with them. If they have The Boss's seal of approval, I have to check them out. Ani DiFranco is the patron saint of DIY feminist folk rock singers. I've wanted to see her in concert for years because Living In Clip is one of the greatest live albums ever recorded.
Opening Act

There were three other bands on the bill: The Measure, The Loved Ones, and Murder by Death. All of which were very good in their own way. The Loved Ones were the best band, but Murder By Death had some great songs.
Ani runs her own record label, Righteous Babe, so she brought along Erin McKeown who seems like a very interesting performer in her own right, but came off a little as Ani-lite. She did do a hilarious folk version of 'Single Ladies'.
Stage Presence

Brian Fallon is a very charismatic front man. He has got all those rock star moves and a flash of his neo-greaser smile just lights up the stage. The full sleeve ink and the 50s era crew cuts just scream Punk That Know Their Roots. Ani is both self-effacing and earnest at the same time. Fumbling after her opening number she said "At least I got my stage patter going for me."

Stage Show

Clean straight ahead rock and roll. The 930 Club is not the place for flashy pyrotechnics.Lots of crowd interaction. The audience loves her and is very vocal about it, which seems to embarrass Ani just a bit.
Audience Demographic

I was nowhere near hip enough to be in this audience. Everybody was at least ten to twenty years younger than I was and dressed in denim and tee shorts from whatever show they had seen last week. I had come straight from work and still had on khakis and a button down oxford shirt. I bought a Gaslight Anthem tee at the concession and went back to my car just to change into it so I wouldn't stick out worse than I did.

I kept trying to gauge how much of the audience was male. Ten percent might be a tad low. Twenty percent would be way high. Like Melissa Etheridge shows, this makes the bathroom waiting line very short. At least for me. Agewise, it ran the gamut. The lesbian couple standing next to me that nuzzled the whole show were nearly my age, but it was still a young crowd.

Crowd Demeanor

Pretty rowdy. For the first band, a mosh pit broke out for a brief time. I had gotten there real early and worked my way to within four people of the stage, but by the end of the show the crush from people behind me was making it hard to breathe.

Respectful. I was also about six people from the stage, but the crowd gave everybody plenty of personal space. Groups ahead of me kept sending out forays of people for beer or bathroom breaks and they all were able to work their way back to their spots.

Amusing AnecdoteIn the talking part of the show, Brian tells about getting some famous local tattoo artists to come to the hotel to give him some new ink on his leg. So he apologized in advance if any bandages or blood got knocked into the audience. It's amazing there was any place left on his body to tatt up.

The whole show was goofy and low key with a lot of stage patter. Ani got the biggest 'Awwws' from saying that she had been apart from her baby for a few days and had been writing up a storm.
Tap On My Shoulder

Just before Gaslight Anthem took the stage I got tapped on my shoulder. It was a guy I knew from an Internet group who is about my age but has much better taste in music. He is a 930 Club regular and had seen a couple of the other bands before.
There were big "No Cameras, No Audio Recording, No Videotaping" signs taped up at the entrance. The girl ahead of me had a tiny digital camera in her purse that got confiscated. I waited until near the end of the show to pull out my Flip camera and was recording Ani's big pre-encore folk song closing number (available on YouTube from a different show here) when a beefy security bouncer tapped me on the shoulder. He stood there while he watched me erase what I had recorded.
Show LengthThe Gaslight Anthem set was just a little over an hour, but each of the opening acts had gotten 20-30 minutes so the show didn't let out until after midnight.
Ani only played a little over 90 minutes which surprised me since she has such a reputation for being a great live gig. I guess it's quality not quantity.

Noticeable Omissions
None. Gaslight Anthem only has two albums so they pretty much played everything they have ever recorded plus a cover or two.

Ani is prolific to the point of self-parody. She has never had an unrecorded thought, so there will always be something missed. I was surprised that she omitted her biggest 'hit' "32 Flavors". I would have liked to have heard "In Or Out" or "Letter To A John" but the songs she did play, even the stuff I had never heard, were all uniformly good.

VerdictGaslight Anthem has unique blend of energy and talent that can energize the punk crowd but the lyrics are full of clever allusions that can appeal to a classic rocker like me. This group deserves a big break-out hit so that I can say "I saw them when..."

After missing her year after year, perhaps my expectations were too high. While I was a bit disappointed with the length of the show, several days later her songs are still buzzing through my brain. After all, as she sang at the show:

"If you're not getting happier as you get older, then you're fucking up."

As I mentioned above, security for AV equipment was very tight, but since cellphones are ubiquitous, there is only so much they can stop. Here is a brand new song she played that as best I can Google is a world exclusive to me:

From the setlist that I took a photo of, I believe the song is called "Zoo". The video is a little dark, but the sound quality is amazingly good for a Droid being held over my head. I posted the clip on YouTube to not much fanfare and it already has over 150 views. That's hardly going viral, but it shows she has a fan base out there.

Monday, March 01, 2010

BooksFirst - February 2010

Books Bought

Books Read
SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

There is a whole sub genre of non-fiction that I call Contrarian Sociology. The whole purpose is to demonstrate how conventional wisdom is wrong using some sort of analysis. By a publishing coincidence, the two masters of the form, Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell each had have a new book out.

Steven Levitt in Freakonomics combined economic analysis with pop sociology to explore topics not normally associated with the dismal science. In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and his writing partner Stephen Dubner take the same method and tackle topics even further afield. In a counterpoint to their original essay on the economics of drug dealing, this time they tackle prostitution. Only they don't come up with any insights that couldn't be gleaned from HBO's Hookers On The Point. They also interview exactly one high class hooker and she isn't any more enlightening that Showtime's Diary of a Call Girl.

Most of the chapters don't even have a single unifying theme and are just pastiches of various blog entries that sort of link together. Many of their 'findings' are very glib and not all that shocking. And when they venture out of the realm of economics, they get into deep trouble. Their chapter on global warming has come under particularly extreme criticism. I think because they spend so much of their time in the social sciences where the same data sets can have equally valid interpretations, the realm of hard science escapes them. They have a hard time distinguishing contrarianism with crackpotism. Just because something flouts the established thinking, that doesn't mean it is in inherently right.

More coherent is Malcolm Gladwell's What The Dog Saw which is actually a collection of his New Yorker articles. Part of the advantage is that these articles have all been vetted by the vaunted Bright Lights, Big City fact-checking department. The best items are the biographical essays where he goes into how someone created or changed an industry. These vignettes are insightful and clever.

That doesn't mean the book is flawless. Gladwell also tries hard to be contrarian even if it doesn't fit the facts. He makes a big deal over choking versus panicking which seems like a distinction without a difference.

In the latter part of the book Gladwell delves into more subjective territory. He spends several chapters discussing that traditional measures of talent and aptitude are poor indicators of actual success. These are themes that he will explore further in Blink and Outliers (reviewed by me here).

The problem with both of these books is that they try too hard. They are so determined to upset the established paradigm that they stretch facts, misconstrue data and leap through logical hoops to come up with new and exciting theories that don't always pan out. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is there for a reason and no amount of clever writing can turn some facts inside out.

What's worse is that these books are intellectual cotton candy. They taste clever and deep, but when you are done, the empty calories just run away. The books are good for some cocktail party conversation or water cooler talking points, but they really don't illuminate the universe.