Friday, March 24, 2017

Review: 'Shag: The Collected Works'

Perhaps the mid-twentieth century wasn’t a non-stop rainbow orgy of Beatnik lounges, hipster soirees, Beatles concerts, Tiki bars, surfing expeditions, and rumbles between Adam West’s Batman and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. Perhaps. I really don’t want to think about the dreary alternative, though. I surmise Shag doesn’t either.

For over twenty years, the pop artist has fetishized the sixties and seventies in enchanting fashion, creating a wild retro realm that you just want to disappear into like Alice sinking into the looking glass. It’s a world in which every cat is super cool, every chick is ultra groovy, every color is eye-poppingly brilliant, and every environment is de-luxe. You may have seen his work in commercial settings, as it has appeared in numerous adverts and on the covers of quite a few CD collections. Nevertheless, there’s always seriousness artistry behind the method. More surprisingly, nightmarish blasts sometimes shatter the retro dreaminess of Shag’s world. He has depicted scenes of murder, torture, and Hieronymus Bosch-inspired depravity in his signature, crowd-pleasing style. He has even come clean about how his own dark times inspired some of these deviations in his work.

Shag’s light and dark, artistic and commercial work is all on glorious display in a gorgeous new collection titled Shag: The Collected Works. This book levels Shag’s wide playing field, encompassing his acrylic paintings as well as the things featuring his artwork you aren’t likely to see hanging in any museum: the CD covers, the ottomans, the coasters, the pillows, the Hawaiian shirts, the watches, the drinking glasses. It’s all marvy. So is his taste in pop culture as he gives The Beatles, The Ramones, The Velvets, the Universal Monsters, The Twilight Zone, The Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Batman, and Disneyland the Shag treatment.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: 'Superman: The Golden Age Dailies 1942 to 1944'

IDW’s most recent Man of Steel campaign had the publisher compiling Superman’s full-color Sunday newspaper comics from 1943 to 1956. The final installments in that series zinged with campy adventures that found Supes hopping through time and getting amnesia more often than he changes his red underwear. Well, kids, it’s time to grow the hell up, because IDW is now backtracking to Superman’s daily strips from 1942 to 1944. These strips in sober B&W, and if you check those years, you’ll understand why the subject matter is somber. The very first panel of Superman: The Golden Age Dailies 1942 to 1944 slaps us in the face with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Under these circumstances, Superman doesn’t have time to wrangle flying horses or renovate garbage dumps as he did when we left him last year in The Atomic Age Sundays 1953 to 1956. In his Clark Kent guise, he rushes off to sign up to do his part. Unfortunately, he fails his eye test when he accidentally uses his X-ray vision to read the eye chart in the adjoining medical office.

So, you see, that although the world is at war and there are Nazis and—forgive our hero—“Japs” to contend with, there is still some of that good-old Superman goofiness going on here. When he isn’t dispensing with the buck-toothed, goggle-spectacled, offensive Asian stereotype The Leer or super-Nazi The Monocle, Superman gets to rescue a millionaire nerd, trade snipes with Lois Lane, match wits with her niece in an atypically whimsical arc, and deal with the always-delightful Mr. Mxyztplk in the imp’s debut tale. Nevertheless, the specter of a horrific war looms over this entire collection and occasionally breaks through to shade the relentless action and highjack the fun. One particularly ugly arc involves more of those offensive stereotypes gathered in an American internment camp for Japanese-Americans. More bizarrely, a short holiday arc features Hitler, Goebbels, and Santa Claus, who has been kidnapped and imprisoned in a concentration camp. I am not making this up. At times the darkness even rubs off on the Man of Steel, himself, such as when Superman gives an enemy a face full of poison, kills a nemesis in cold blood by dropping a ceiling on the creep, and terrorizes an old man to find out whether or not the guy is disabled. So be prepared for a grimmer Superman this go round… assuming you haven’t already been tipped off by those swastika-emblazoned bombs on the cover of The Golden Age Dailies 1942 to 1944.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Farewell, Chuck Berry

Perhaps it's glib to say that Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll (as I attempted to show in this post, it was more of a group effort), but certainly no one represented or refined Rock & Roll more profoundly. That climbing, nagging riff that began so many of his songs from "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Johnny B. Goode" (two of the very, very few contenders for "definitive Rock & Roll track"). His witty, rebellious lyricism that so perfectly captures the frustrations and joys of the young people who still represent the genre's key audience. That chugging, incessant rhythm. That swing. These are the cornerstones of Rock & Roll, and indeed, they are the inventions of Chuck Berry. 

The man had his serious issues, particularly in the grotesque way he treated women and the belligerent way he treated his fellow musicians. However, the mark he left on music and twentieth century culture in general is unimpeachable. To list every artist touched by his music either consciously or unconsciously would be to list every guitar-based or lyric-focused artist since 1955. To list all of his incredible songs would be nearly as futile, but it does bear repeating that he did more than rewrite "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode" over and over-- another glib Rock critic gag. Just listen to his debut album, After School Session, and hear how deftly he handles straight blues, cool jazz, trad crooning, Latin rhythms, and however you want to define the chilling atmospheres of "Down Bound Train". The man was versatile, though he knew that the old "Johnny B. Goode" riffing was something completely, uniquely his own, and he worked it for all it was worth. 

Chuck Berry also possessed a buttery voice and six-string technique and an unparalleled work ethic. He kept pounding the boards until the age of 87 three years ago, and just last year started working on a new album, the fate of which remains unknown. What is known is that whether or not Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll, it really feels as though Rock & Roll has died with him.

UPDATE: According to Chuck Berry's official Facebook page, his final album CHUCK is currently being prepped for release by Dualtone Records. A release date will be announced soon.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: 'Multiple Maniacs' Blu-ray

“This isn't any cheap X-rated movie or any fifth-rate porno play. This is the show you want: Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversion… The sleaziest show on Earth.”

So begins John Waters’s first feature to make ample use of his absurdly wordy, mostly shouted dialogue, though David Lochary’s carny pitch could just as well have kicked off Waters’s second total talky. Indeed, at first Multiple Maniacs feels like a crude dry run for the even more deliriously crude Pink Flamingos. The whole Dreamland company is present: Lochary and Mink Stole and Cookie Mueller and Edie Massey and Mary Vivian Pearce and, of course, the divine Divine. Two years before she embodied the filthiest person alive in Flamingos, Divine is the murderous main attraction of the sleaziest show on Earth— a freakshow reveling in such outrages as puke eaters and smack shooters. Compared to the very real and very graphically depicted chicken slaughtering, blowjobbing, asshole singing, and shit eating of Pink Flamingos, the simulated atrocities of Multiple Maniacs seem positively quaint.

Waters also hasn’t quite fine-tuned his shtick yet with an interminable, ten-minute-plus scene in which Divine and Mink Stole substitute a string of rosary beads for the anal kind in a church. The director would soon learn that the funniest outrages are less like forcing audiences to stare at a dead dog for ten minutes and more like just peeling the dog off the pavement and whacking the audience in the face with it.

The very cool thing about Multiple Maniacs is that it’s the closest thing Waters ever made to a monster movie. This becomes obviously true when Divine, who seems like she’s already way over the edge at the beginning of the movie, gets driven even further over the edge when a giant lobster rapes her. Then Divine takes over for Lobstora in this Baltimore Kaiju by going on a full-fledged Godzilla-style rampage.

Another cool thing about Multiple Maniacs is that it is Waters’s very first film to get the Criterion treatment. The slightly soft picture betrays the fact that Waters wasn’t exactly Gregg Toland, but there’s still a very appealing B&W indie aesthetic that is captured well here despite the stray scratch or two. Audio is similarly well presented despite any deficiencies related to amateur-filmmaking, though those who saw the film back in 1970 may be disappointed that Criterion was unable to get the unapproved Elvis songs used in the original print approved (they’re replaced with some generic Rock & Roll instrumentals).

Of the three substantial supplements, the best is by far Waters’s own typically charming, funny, and informative audio commentary that is the rare commentary to actually make watching a film more enjoyable. 33 minutes of interviews with Stole, Susan Lowe, Pat Moran, George Figgs, and Vincent Peranio is also great fun as the Dreamlanders share affectionate memories of Waters, their friends and cast mates, and filming. There’s also a ten-minute video essay by film scholar Gary Needham. All this makes for a nice package that is—fingers crossed—just the first interspecies coupling of the most prestigious home-video company in America and the filthiest filmmaker alive.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: ''Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia"

Star Wars is an excitingly picturesque world full of weird creatures, costumes, conveyances, and accoutrements to delight the eye. When it is doing what it was born to do, Star Wars is also a ton of fun. So it’s a bit of a drag that DK’s new edition of Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia isn’t more fun than it is.

Part of the problem is that Star Wars continued beyond the purely enjoyable original films to include such less fun things as CGI creatures and cartoons and the oft-criticized CSPAN leanings of the prequels. With sections titled “Galactic Politics” and “The Senate”, you can suss that fun is not at the forefront of this book’s agenda. The fact that all of the Star Wars entertainment out there has really cluttered the field is also detrimental to a book that wants to cover all that stuff to fulfill its encyclopedic purpose while also delivering on the visuals of its title. The only way to accomplish that is to shrink down the images, and too many of the photos in this book end up being too tiny to really enjoy.

Nevertheless, even little Star Wars pictures are at least a little fun, and truly dedicated fans will still find a lot to love in a book that makes room for sections on musical instruments and space food (totally gross looking space food, to be clear) and contains images of all those beloved characters, creatures, and creations (the pictures of props and decorations barely discernible on screen are fascinating and don't come off nearly as miniature as the character photos do) that all the dry, pseudo-reference book text in the world cannot dehydrate. And to be honest, you will find the occasional humorous caption if you hunt hard enough. Plus, you may even learn something, especially if you’re an original-trilogy old timer like me who didn’t know who half the robots and aliens in this book were before cracking into it. There are even things to glean about our old faves. For example, I had no idea that a tauntaun is technically a reptile. A hairy reptile. Only in Star Wars.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: 'The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains'

When we last left the regrettable world of comics-chronicler Jon Morris, he was introducing us to a colorful cadre of super also-rans such as Bozo the Iron Man and Captain Tootsie. With his encyclopedic knowledge of characters most serious comics readers would rather forget and his bouncy wit, Morris turned The League of Regrettable Superheroes into one of the most fun reads of 2015. Two years later he is following up with a logical companion volume called The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains.

In some ways, this delightfully designed and written new book is more of the same despite its decidedly evil bent. There are many, many more asinine characters to make you giggle and cringe. 7ll’s enemy Brickbat is a schlub in a Batman cowl who hits people with poison bricks. A nemesis of The Black Hood, The Crow is an alcoholic opera singer who turns into a giant crow. The Dude gives corpses makeovers. Big Cheese of the Big Gang wields killer cheese. Egg Fu is a giant, offensive-ethnic-stereotype egg with a prehensile mustache who menaces Wonder Woman.

That’s where Regrettable Super Villains veers away from the wall-to-wall obscurities of Regrettable Superheroes. Some of these baddies actually faced off against genuinely legendary heroes, proving that even Wonder Woman, The Green Arrow, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Aquaman, Daredevil, Spiderman, and others of their A-list ilk were not immune to the taunts of D-list villains. One of these regrettable fellows— big-headed MONOK— even proved so popular that he got into it with virtually every top-line Marvel hero.

Some of these villains aren’t even all that regrettable. Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man is a rather ingenious creation who can simultaneously take on the characteristics of all three of his namesake organic matters, sprouting a dinosaur from half his face while ensnaring The Doom Patrol in hands made of crystal and tree. And I don’t need to explain to regular Psychobabble readers why I genuinely believe the natty simian Mod Gorilla Boss to be a villain right out of my own wildest dreams. Plus, any villain known to exclaim, “I am Bloor, dictator of Uranus” could hardly be labeled regrettable.
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