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August 28, 2003


Ever had one of those days?

August 27, 2003

Blue Man Group: The Complex Tour

Just came back from a very, very good show. There were few surprises: if you read the Blue Man Group website's notes about the making of the tour, then listen to the album, you can imagine pretty much the whole show. If you can call that a flaw, it was the biggest. But the previously-mentioned themes of overcoming alienation and self-mocking rock cliches were reinforced by an impressive wall of percussion, inspired audience interaction, and a comedic performance by the Blue Men that was half Harpo Marx, half Jack Benny, and half Steve Martin -- not the Wild and Crazy one, but the warm, droll, somewhat befuddled one from L.A. Story and Father of the Bride.

OK, so that's three halves. Your point?

One sour note for me was from a few audience members living up to the redneck stereotype, hooting and hollering toward the end of "Exhibit 13," a very somber and moving piece unlike any other song in the show. I knew something they probably didn't: Exhibit 13 is Blue Man Group's tribute to the victims of September 11, composed about a year ago. The slips of paper you see falling to earth in the Flash video at the website, also displayed during the concert, were recovered in the New York area.

The other sour note was that Shannon couldn't join me; her stomach started bothering her in the afternoon and she had to cancel the babysitting. Blue Man Group has just announced that they'll be in Charlotte on Friday, November 7. I'm sorely tempted to insist that Shannon take a Mother's Evening Out, go to Charlotte, and have a great time at that show.

August 26, 2003

Why the Music Industry's in the Crapper

Found on Slashdot, an automatic voice processor that can make anyone sing perfectly on key, even in concerts!

Yes, YOU can be a mechanically processed pop singer too! Before and after, listen to what this technology can do to your voice!

None of this natural voice stuff! Sound pitch-perfect, all the time! Now all you have to do to be a Pop Star is look pretty and have a solid marketing team!

Voice altering technology. Because the only place consumers want imperfect vocals is in their showers.

August 24, 2003

Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson Vol. 1

Here's an unpublished review I wrote a couple of years ago about one of my Favorite Comics Ever. (In fact, this is probably the one that I picked up in high school that cemented my expensive return to the hobby.) Volume 2 was just released.

The major American comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, have published shared-universe fiction for more than sixty years. Many of the super-hero titles that contribute to these shared universes draw from different genres: the urban grit of modern Batman comics happens in the same world where mermaids swim in Atlantis and technological monstrosities attack from outer space. This mixing of genres can foster either new creative possibilities -- or an awkward mess.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in Marvel Comics' title, Thor. The first issue, created by comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, featured a newly-awakened modern day Norse god of thunder battling -- I kid you not -- the Stone Men from Saturn. Admittedly, this was a product of the early 1960s. A certain level of silliness was to be expected. But any scholar of Norse myth had only to glance at the cover to see that the contents would not draw heavily from the Elder Eddas.

Thor's hair was blond, not red; his face clean-shaven, not bearded. He was intelligent and noble, not dim and foolhardy. Odin was frequently drawn with two intact eyes. Asgard, home of the Norse gods, was frequently depicted as a land of superscience. Asgardians spoke in odd pseudo-Elizabethan dialogue -- with "thous" and "thees" and "mayests" and "smiteths" -- more suggestive of the King James Bible than Viking sagas. In short, despite Lee and Kirby's periodic "Tales of Asgard" backup strips that attempted a more mythological flavor, Thor was built on only a fraction of the richness of Norse mythology. Alongside Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man, Thor found himself fighting aliens, rival pantheons (he and Hercules had a strong rivalry), and villains like the Absorbing Man. Sometimes it worked. And sometimes Thor looked horribly out of place -- how seriously can you take a longhaired guy with a funny helmet and a funnier speech pattern?

Especially for modern, older comic book audiences, writers of Thor must walk a fine line between being an active part of the Marvel shared universe and taking advantage of the title's great asset: the richness of Norse myth. Longtime fans, veteran writers and critics have pointed to one writer-artist whose stories struck that balance dead on, creating an run of stories that has held up for almost twenty years. Walter Simonson's tenure lasted from issue #337 in 1983 to issue #382, which celebrated the Marvel character's 30th anniversary. With Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Marvel Comics has begun reprinting those stories.

The new direction begins with a classic comic book conundrum -- a threatening alien ship (which strongly resembles the space battleships of Leiji Matsumoto's Space Cruiser Yamato and Captain Harlock) is heading for Earth. Thor battles the cyborg warrior within, but Simonson turns expectations on their head when the alien wrests away Thor's hammer, which should be impossible. This proves, due to the hammer's enchantment, that the alien is Thor's equal in nobility and valor. The first stories in Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson follow Thor and the alien -- whose improbable name is "Beta Ray Bill" -- on their journey from rivals to allies as they rescue Bill's people from a demon horde.

As with J. Michael Straczynski's later approach to the television series Babylon 5, Simonson initially hides the story arc he is carefully constructing. The "Beta Ray Bill" stories provide a science fiction-themed opening to a modern-day epic of high fantasy melded to the superhero genre. The demonic assault on Bill's people provides the first hint that a great danger is building. As Thor battles a dragon in the heart of New York City, encounters the last ancient Viking, and is pursued by an Asgardian temptress, he and his fellow Norse gods become aware of increasingly strong rumblings of danger. Meanwhile, a great being of fire slowly forges a sword of immense power -- the significance of which would not be lost on readers familiar with Norse mythology. Simonson is building toward a Marvel Universe rendition of what could literally be called the ultimate Norse saga.

Simonson's Thor stories are heavily plot-driven, but he finds a way to use the limited space of 22-page comics to develop the supporting cast to an extent never before accomplished in the title, creating a true ensemble piece. In his hands, the god of mischief Loki graduates from a super-villain caricature to a subtle, capable menace. Similarly, the buffoonish Volstagg, created by Lee and Kirby for comic relief, is given a more nuanced, fatherly relationship to the tragic Balder. His art is still distinctive even eighteen years later. He uses graphic ornamentation to strong effect within and outside panel borders, draws with angular and dynamic lines, and mixes ancient, modern, and futuristic environments almost seamlessly.

Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson is not perfect. Readers must have patience with the tropes of the super-hero genre, including extended monologues in the heat of battle. Even though Simonson has gotten rid of the archaic "thees" and "thous" for the most part, the elevated style of dialogue still leads to a few groaners, such as, "Now speak before I unleash my fury!" Word balloons are sometimes confusingly placed, and a printing error switched two pages in the first issue (although it is easy to figure out the proper order). Because the book is reproduced from 1980s-era color separations intended for newsprint, the color looks a little garish on high-quality paper when compared to modern comics.

These flaws aside, this is the first chapter of a genuine epic of comic book storytelling, and the cliffhanger on the last page leaves the reader eager for the next collection. Together, Simonson's 45 issues meld the best of the superhero genre with the source material that had been strangely lacking in _Thor_ until then: the grandeur and heroism of Viking mythology. By finally reprinting these titles, Marvel Comics is showing a new generation of readers the possibilities that modern comics, with so many genres and sources to draw from, have to offer.

August 19, 2003

Deserving Exile

When your son asks you for a horseback ride, and you deliver, and he slips off before you or your wife can catch him, biting his own lip in the process, then you instantly go from feeling like the World's Best Daddy to not feeling fit for associating with human society.

Brief Observation from Work

A foil-wrapped pair of Pop-Tarts from a box of six at the grocery store is labeled, "DO NOT MICROWAVE."

The Pop-Tarts in the vending machine downstairs include microwaving instructions.


August 18, 2003

Too Much Music

In addition to all the other concerts listed below, I've just learned that Carbon Leaf will be in Carrboro for successive one-hour shows the last three Sundays of October and the first Sunday in November.

By the first week of November, I may have no hearing left. On the other hand, $800 worth of catalytic converter may put a bit of a crimp in my concert budget.

On the Mat

Finally, I made it to a regular class. My dojo has moved to the other side of Durham, and classes start 30 minutes earlier than they used, meaning that my attendance has been sporadic at best. When I did make it, it was for advanced class, which had me gasping like a graceless fish halfway through.

We talk a lot about shugyo in aikido: "hard training leading to enlightenment." (One of my favorite black belts once limped off the mat saying, "Shugyo's just another Japanese word for 'stupid.'" But he always came back for more.) Aikido's profoundly important to me -- but so's keeping up with work and, oh yeah, spending time with my kid before he goes off to kindergarten. So my priorities have been in the right place. All the same, this void of hard training has left me feeling distinctly unenlightened. Forget the long-delayed progress toward my black belt -- I need aikido in my life. It's the one place where I've been able to develop something resembling physical grace and, most importantly, peace of mind.

When I started aikido about ten years ago, I was That Guy. The one who was always too tense, too awkward, caught in alien territory. The aformentioned black belt once e-mailed me after a test to congratulate me and confess that he'd pegged me early on as one who wouldn't be able to hang in there. He predicted that I'd be wearing a hakama one day.

I'm so close I can feel it. It will happen. Soon. But strangely, I'm not in a hurry for it to happen, despite all the time I've lost. Right now, there's nothing more important than finding the extra time -- carving it out while maintaining all my other responsibilities -- to find the rhythm of the mat again.

August 9, 2003

My Recent Absence from Blogging

I've been busy and tired. It happens.

Put Another Nickel In

Music recommendations aplenty: Blue Man Group's The Complex is one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. It's accessible, but its sound is completely unique and the theme of alienation (and overcoming it) adds terrific texture to an album that, as the British say, "takes the piss" out of rock music cliches (while ultimately embracing them, of course).

Concertwise, Great Big Sea's in Raleigh on my birthday, September 24. They fill 20,000-seat arenas in Canada and are almost criminally anonymous in the Southeast. They sold out the Lincoln Theatre in March, here's hoping they do it again. The next week, Seven Nations and The Young Dubliners are hitting Cat's Cradle on October 2. 7N hasn't been here since February, and I suspect they and the Dubs will blow the roof off the place. Finally, October 11 brings the Tannahill Weavers to the Carrboro Artscenter -- best upbeat traditional Scottish music anywhere.

Big Bowl's Fortune Cookie Company Has Simply Quit Trying

Today's fortune cookie from Big Bowl, otherwise one of the best Asian restaurants in which I've eaten:

You like Chinese food.

You can't even make it interesting by adding the obligatory "...in bed."