Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review: The Joker: Talking Bust and Illustrated Book

Hmm…how do I review “The Joker: Talking Bust and Illustrated Book”? It is produced by publisher Running Press, which suggests I should approach this package as a book, though DC Comics historian Matthew K. Manning’s The Joker: Behind the Smile is no taller than my thumb, and by my estimate, approximately 7,000 words shorter than the Wikipedia page devoted to the Clown Prince of Crime. There are some nice pictures illustrating such milestones as The Joker’s debut in Batman #1, Bill Finger’s creation of an official back story in the classic Red Hood storyline, the Neal Adams years, the Frank Miller and Alan Moore years, Batman: The Animated Series, and a few twenty first century comics.

The real star of this package is a plastic Joker bust the height of my middle finger that says several Jokery phrases (in either Mark Hamill’s voice or a reasonable facsimile) at the push of a button. As just a book or just a collectible, there would not be much to say about this mini box set, but taken together for a fairly reasonable price, “The Joker: Talking Bust and Illustrated Book” makes a decent souvenir from your latest trip to Gotham.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Farewell, Peter Tork

Anyone who has ever read Psychobabble knows that I love The Monkees. In the mid-eighties, they were my gateway into the fab music of the sixties at a time when the airwaves were flooded with crushingly boring adult contemporary pap and crappy hair metal bands. They inspired me to learn to play the bass guitar. They were my introduction to peace-and-love politics. Much of that influence flowed directly from The Monkees' own bass player. 

Peter Tork may have been saddled with playing the dumbo in a group who received a lot of vitriol for "not playing their own instruments," but the real man was a living contradiction of all the idiotic stereotypes yoked around The Monkees. Tork was actually an immensely talented multi-instrumentalist (bass, piano, banjo, guitar, French horn) who was every bit the deep thinker the character he played on TV's The Monkees was not. He even sneaked some of that philosophy onto the sitcom at a time when anti-establishment ideals tended to be villainized on conservative shows like Dragnet. He also wrote some of The Monkees best songs, such as "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?", "Can You Dig It?", and "For Pete's Sake", which served as the series' closing theme in its second season. For a more thorough run down of Tork's musical achievements with The Monkees, check out this old Psychobabble post.

Peter Tork was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago, though he apparently beat it and continued making music for a while afterward. That included a fab new album and tour with fellow Monkees Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith. Sadly, Tork's sister Anne Thorkleson, announced today that her brother died today at the age of 77. No word yet on whether or not his death was cancer related, but Peter will be greatly missed here on Psychobabble.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: Tom Petty's 'The Best of Everything'

After a few stale years, seventies rock started getting interesting again in 1976 as punk blew in like a fresh, filthy breeze from the future. At the same time, a brand new band also provided hope for the future even as they unabashedly drew on sounds of the past with their Byrds jangle and Stones toughness. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was one of the most invigorating debuts from a year that also brought us firsts from The Ramones, Blondie, and The Damned, which is saying a hell of a lot.

Yet while the other new bands of 1976 I mentioned would get caught up in trends at times (eighties metal and disco, for example), Tom Petty never did. He never lost sight of his singular goal to make tuneful, tough, terse, truthful rock and roll. If you need proof of that, check out two discs worth of The Best of Everything, a new compilation that dips through most facets of Petty’s career as a leader of Heartbreakers, member of Mudcrutch, solo artist, and Stevie Nicks collaborator (only his days as a Traveling Wilbury are unrepresented, and I doubt anyone will cry too much about that). While there are variations in the slickness of the production, there is little variation in the quality of the music from 1976’s “American Girl” to 2016’s “Trailer”. The fact that there wasn’t room for such essentials as “Change of Heart” and “Woman in Love” also speaks for the strength of career, since there isn’t too much included that I’d swap with them (“Southern Accents” and “American Dream Plan B” are a couple of candidates). There’s also a nice unreleased Heartbreakers track from 2000 called “For Real”.

The one down side to this set—and way too many contemporary releases—is the absurdly brickwalled mastering. Message to masterers: stop doing this. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: 'Perspectives on Stephen King'

Stephen King has written about 55 novels and there have probably been about that many books written about him and his uncanny ability to give readers the cold sweats. A new one called Perspectives on Stephen King is probably one of the more novel books about King. Andrew J. Rausch conducted interviews with folks who’ve adapted King’s work for the screen, famous fans, fellow horror writers, publishers who’ve worked with him, etc. I suppose the goal was to get a different angle on the writer and maybe uncover some unknown details using an atypical format.

The problem with this format is that interviews usually reveal much more about the interviewee than whatever the topic of the interview is, and Rausch’s questions are not always probing enough to uncover much about King. He regularly asks, “What is Stephen King like?” (most common answer: “a regular guy”), what is King’s greatest strength (“creating relatable characters”), or what was it like working with him (“great”), but he rarely digs much deeper than that, probably because a lot of the interviewees do not seem to know much more about King than what they’ve read in his books. Therefore, some of the interviews yield nothing more revelatory than how 1408 got made or what King’s email writing style is like. Interviews with people like writers C. Courtney Joyner and Joe R. Lansdale, both fans with no direct connection to King, reveal even less (though I’ll admit that as a fan of Lansdale’s work, I still enjoyed his interview).

Interview responses tend to meander too much or skate forward too quickly to serve as deep analysis of the work, and there is an overall tendency to avoid criticizing that work. King-scholar Patrick McAleer comes closest to digging into King’s style and themes, but he too stops short of getting critical enough to provide a sufficiently balanced perspective of the author.

The most interesting interviewees are the ones who worked most intimately with King, such as his co-writer Richard Chizmar (Gwendy’s Button Box) and former researcher Robin Furth. They give insight into King’s generous work methods and his personal generosity, and it’s neat to get a personal and private perspective on his personality and methods.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Vinyl Reissue of The Cardigans' 'First Band on the Moon'

“Love Fool” must have been the most misinterpreted single since “Every Breath You Take” both because lazy listeners didn’t bother to comprehend the self-loathing curdling beneath the single’s chipper sound and because many did not understand that The Cardigans were not the latest in a line of disposable, two-dimensional pop acts. Since releasing the delectably crafted and witty Emmerdale in their home country of Sweden in 1994, The Cardigans were a band unlike any other. Other artists may have appropriated ironic sixties lounge cheese or Pet Sounds-style production or Ray Davies-indebted songwriting, but none combined them as The Cardigans did, and it isn’t likely that any other group would have done it so deftly if they’d tried. Certainly none of them would have serially covered Black Sabbath.

So after making two singular, polished, and perfect pop albums, The Cardigans slipped quite naturally into international mainstream success with First Band on the Moon, largely due to the irresistible disco-pop hooks of “Love Fool”. The rest of the album was just as smart and subversive, sounding almost as sweet as “Love Fool” but expressing the same sour sentiments. First Band on the Moon practically works as a misanthropic concept album about how miserable it can be to fall in love. Tore Johansson’s crisp, multi-layered production with it somewhat more electronic sheen than the relatively organic Emmerdale and Life make it an intricate and dazzling listening experience (especially through headphones), so it’s wonderful that First Band on the Moon is the latest in a welcome series of albums from the CD age lovingly remastered for vinyl. While most nineties albums gain little from vinyl presentation because they were recorded digitally, First Band sounds significantly nicer than its harsh and brittle compact disc counterpart. The only negative is that while all six Cardigans albums are receiving this fine treatment overseas, First Band on the Moon is the only one being released in the U.S., but based on the way First Band sounds, my fellow Yanks may want to spring for international shipping at least on Emmerdale and Life.

(UPDATE: I've heard the vinyl reissues of Emmerdale and Life and they are equally spectacular)

Friday, February 8, 2019

Review: 'The Horror Comic Never Dies: A Grisly History'

In the days when the scariest movies offered nothing more potent than guys skulking around in scaly rubber suits, horror comics genuinely shocked and disturbed. On their pages, eyes popped from skulls or were punctured with sharp objects. Entrails spilled. Dripping things clawed out of fetid graves. Horror comics were gross, they were goopy, they were ghastly— so naturally kids loved them. Parents, however, found them disgusting and deleterious. The horror comic issue (pun!) was of such significance that it clawed its way right on up to a series of senate sub-committee hearings in 1954.

If you’re even a casual student of comics history, you already know all this and have probably boned up on the topic (pun!!) by viewing documentaries such as Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television or reading books such as David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague. If you’re pressed for time, you can also check out Michael Walton’s new book The Horror Comic Never Dies: A Grisly History, which sprints through the history of horror comics in about 95 pages, understandably lingering on the horror comics scare of the fifties, though not with Hajdu’s level of attention. I’m not sure if I learned anything significant that I didn’t already know, but Walton’s telling of the tale is sprightly and well-written. He uses his next 40 pages to provide conversational, lightly critical synopses of numerous twenty-first century horror comics (and a few films based on horror comics) that may inspire you to discover something you’ve not previously read, though without examples of art this section is missing a major factor for drawing new readers to comics.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Farewell, Julie Adams

Julie Adams was the woman who stole the Gill Man's heart. Although she had a long and varied career that included appearances in some 149 films (especially westerns) and TV shows (One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, The Mod Squad, Murder She Wrote, Lost and many, many more...she also had a regular gig on the Jimmy Stewart Show as the star's wife, Martha), she was always most known and loved as Kay Lawrence in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Sadly, Adams died yesterday at the age of 92 

Review: 'David Lynch: Someone Is In My House'

David Lynch is mainly known as a creator of film and television, but that is only because film and television are the most popular visual art forms. He actually started living his art life as a painter and illustrator, and has been much, much more prolific in creating such works than film and TV over the past 55-or-so years. This is not news to fans, who have long known that Lynch only began filming in the first place because, as he said in one of his most oft-quoted statements, “I wanted to see my paintings move.”

In a sense, Lynch’s art always moved with or without celluloid. His paintings burst off the materials on which he oozes them. They are swirling, tactile. They are three-dimensional, either because Lynch applies his oils with such a heavy hand or because he actually sinks objects such as glass eyes or dead rats into them. They stare back at you. They seem to decay before your eyes. They speak. They move.

It must madden Lynch to see such massive, dimensional works shrunk down and reproduced on flat paper as they are in the new collection Someone Is in My House (a tie in with an exhibition at the Bonnefantenmuseum in the Netherlands), but as far as art books go, this is a nice one. It infuriates me when artworks are unnecessarily shrunk down for the sake of showing as much white border as possible, and this book does not commit that crime as egregiously as too many other art and photography collections do. This collection also provides a very wide look at Lynch’s varied career, not only presenting many of his paintings, but also his photographs, sculptures, film stills, and even a selection of his “Angriest Dog in the World” comic strips.

Someone Is in My House is also notable for presenting a great deal of work I’ve never seen before. One striking thing about much of this work is how it offers a completely unfiltered gaze into the abyss of his imagination. The dichotomy between Lynch’s affable, charming, sedate personality and the violence and nightmarishness of his films is familiar to anyone who has ever seen Eraserhead or Twin Peaks, but some of the material in this book may shock even the most hardcore fans of his films. Body are mutated and twisted to the extreme across his paintings and manipulated photos. Sexual violence looms queasily in works such as E.D., I Take You to My House, and Do You Want to Know What I Really Think? Works such as Change the Fuckin’ Channel Fuckface and Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House distill the explosive anger of Lynch’s most loathsome screen villains from Frank Booth to Fred Madison, and tempt the viewer to conclude that Lynch is only able to suppress similar anger with dedicated meditation. An early sketch depicts an al fresco bestiality orgy. The work is disturbing, sometimes repellant, though sometimes beautiful, like bits clipped from his most harrowing cinematic scenes and dipped in dark oils.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Review: 'Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said!'

In 2014, the Jack Kirby estate reached a settlement with Marvel that saw the late comics artist/writer finally receive credit for his multitudinous contributions to co-creating the Marvel Universe with Stan Lee. Comics historian John Morrow was an expert witness for the Kirby family in the case. Five years later, Morrow has published his own investigation into the matter of whether Kirby or Lee can be called the true father of Marvel in the form of an oral history called Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said!

The book is a chronological he said/he said narrative that essentially picks up steam in the early sixties and continues through the settlement. Oral histories tend to be unreliable, and Stuf’ Said! certainly comes with its own baggage. Stan Lee was a shamelessly self-aggrandizing self-promoter who believed that writers are the true creators. Jack Kirby was bitter and sometimes lashed out in both interviews and satirical comics that depicted Lee as a talent leech. Despite input from many of the people closest to these two men, a definitive answer to Morrow’s central question remains elusive.

However, examining that question—which should really only be of concern to the Kirby and Lee estates despite some fans treating it like some sort of pro-wrestling rivalry— isn’t really the main draw of Stuf’ Said! The book is much more interesting as a close examination of the ups and downs of a working relationship between two very influential creative people with their own personal foibles told largely in their own words without too much editorializing by the author. Although Morrow’s role in the settlement may raise eyebrows, he does an admirable job of remaining neutral throughout the book, occasionally making an attempt to interpret the intent behind a statement while framing that interpretation as something that needs to be taken with a grain of salt (which he conveniently and cleverly signals with a little graphic of a salt shaker).

Morrow’s efforts to cover the men’s public opinions of each other is certainly thorough, though there is the unavoidable issue of imbalance since Lee was so addicted to performing interviews and writing editorials and Kirby was not. There is also a lot of repetition to wade through as the men tended to say the same things in a lot of these interviews: Lee incessantly explains how it was his idea to create superheroes with foibles, Kirby regularly insists he was behind the X-Men and the Fantastic Four because he was concerned about radiation, Lee loves to say that Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde inspired him to create the Hulk, and so on. Occasionally there are minor variations in these statements that Morrow seizes on to point out an inconsistency in the speaker’s memories, but all that repetition doesn’t always make for the most compelling reading.

Still, fans who feel they have a pony in this race will find Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said! fascinating, and like all books by Morrow’s TwoMorrow’s Publishing, it is great to look at with oodles of color and B&W artwork and a witty format.

All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.