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Issue #296

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #296

Attended a piano recital last week, by an award-winning amateur. Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody, not an easy piece to play well. He didn’t play perfectly, but he was close. By the end his performance was ferocious, as the piece required. Also two orchestras, one very professional, the other, less experienced, still a touch shaky but vastly improved over the last time I heard them.

As I sat in the audience, the scene struck me as not so different from a Nascar rally. More formal, certainly. But while, at a Nascar rally, there are always a few, especially judges, who want to see perfect performance, the thrill of the event for a large number of spectators is the possibility of the grizzly high speed crash. Not that they necessarily want to see a horrible crash, but the anticipation of one is what lends the event most of its electricity.

A classical music concert isn’t dissimilar. It isn’t the prospect of a great performance, whether musical, theatrical that makes an audience hold its breath. It’s the risk of a bad one. For the spectator, this is part of the joy of any performance, though it’s impolite to admit it even to yourself. But all performances are high wire acts, on the spot with only one chance to get it right. If they don’t…

In case our celebrity-mad culture hadn’t clued you in, the performer is the spectator’s natural enemy, and vice versa. No one likes to see someone else do well (or even semi-well) what they can’t, unless there’s something to be gained from it personally; awe only derives from an inferior position. Which explains the popularity of magazines like THE STAR and shows like EXTRA!: in this culture our “stars,” at least among actors and “personalities” (a whole new bastard breed of celebrity whose main talent is celebrity, and are more or less invented by shows like EXTRA!, or by online self-porn videos), are generated mainly so they can be later torn down. Part of this comes from this whole poisonous “role model” concept that keeps being trotted out: stars get gutted by the press, by self-professed cultural watchdogs, even by other stars, for not being perfect role models when it should be obvious to any idiot that they never were. Let’s face it, Paris Hilton ticking off a judge and getting sent to jail just isn’t on the same plane as some fire-and-brimstone minister railing about AIDS being God’s vengeance on gays while sneaking off to male prostitutes in the dead of night himself. Has anyone ever thought Paris Hilton had the moral sense of a wood tick?

Performers have an advantage over other types of artists, but it’s also a drawback for them: they get a blueprint to work from. The rest of us, the writers, painters, sculptors, stand-up comedians, composers, etc. work from blank slates. Working from a play or a screenplay or sheet music (even musical improve usually starts from something) is different, it’s not quite that lone trek into the Forest Perilous, but it’s not necessarily easy either. The disadvantage is that the blueprint those performers work from is the same one they’re judged by; a music critic can theoretically tell from a composition’s notation whether a performer is performing it “correctly.”

Which usually means according to the composer’s wishes – that is, realizing in practice what the composer envisioned – but often also measuring up to expectations generated by earlier performances of the work. It’s the “standards” trap, particularly when it comes to classical music. Innovation in those areas is as often as not met with critical disdain, because there are notions of what works should sound like, and not much room for variation. In popular music too, messing with “standards” is risky business, even though “standards” takes on a different meaning. How many 50 year old musicians now make their livings performing faithful nostalgia renditions of a handful of 30 year old hits for audiences who want that one thing from them and that one thing only? Fine artists frequently face a double bind, if they achieve any fame at all: an appreciative audience or galleries often unwilling to accept shifts of style or material, and critics always ready to declaim their lack of “artistic growth,” which is frequently a meaningless term implying stylistic development has some sort of natural timetable. It doesn’t.

In most artistic fields, “standards” in popular music terms (“the old standards”) are the only real “standards” they are. However “standards” are defined, they’re an “audience” invention (critics, really, being a subset of the audience at best). Standards, as usually concocted, identified or revealed, are an outside imposition on an artist’s process of creation, an expectation which may have nothing concrete or practical to do with the actual work. It usually has more to do with social mores or expectations of the day, justified as either audience expectation or critical thought.

I once had a conversation at a party with Gary Groth (of Comics Journal fame) about films wherein I said I’d rather watch an interesting film than a good one. Aside from a look that suggested he thought I was crazy, but that’s just my interpretation since I didn’t press him on it and alcohol was involved so anything could have been meant or not meant, he didn’t really respond. But the statement isn’t as dichotomous as it sounds. “Good” in art and popular art alike is always measured by external yardsticks that may not really have anything to do with the actual work. Stravinsky’s music once triggered riots, and was critically derided as vulgar; now it’s considered a pinnacle of 20th century composition, and when performed usually sounds a little staid. There are films that are masterpieces of set design and cinematography, impeccably directed, beautifully acted and precisely written that are also unbearably dull, while some films are complete trash exploding with hypnotic energy. Something that perfectly captures the artist’s vision may be art, may even be widely acknowledged as such, but that doesn’t automatically make the artist’s vision worth the paper it’s printed on.

Comics, which used to have the benefit of being considered totally throwaway, so any kind of “progress” was viewed as accidental and borderline miraculous, have in recent years found themselves in similar circumstances. Each branch of material these days usually has more to do with audience expectation than any actual artistic expression or development. Within set parameters, enforced consciously or otherwise by publishers, or by the self-imposed imaginative limitations of talent, innovations – which are usually more the infection of one kind of material by another – are possible, but very little appears that’s genuinely innovative. What’s normally most applauded isn’t the material that expands boundaries but which colonizes existing territory with the most fervor.

Which is also how audience expectations are reinforced. Not surprisingly, the “celebrity culture” has its grip on comics too, in a skewed way; readers are very eager these days to skewer a book not for not achieving the artistic goals the creator(s) set out for themselves but for not sufficiently – and just as often too sufficiently – serving reader expectations.

But here’s the thing.

When a pianist plays a piano concerto, often what he gets right isn’t the most interesting part. What he gets wrong, what any artist gets wrong, can turn out far more interesting. Playing to expectations is just serving up comfort food, but misstep and accident can open up whole new experiences. As Pablo Picasso put it, good taste is the enemy of art. As Brian Eno said, honor thy error as hidden intention. Legend has it that the old Persian rug makers would weave a tiny intentional flaw into each carpet, because only God was allowed to be perfect. We tend to obsess on “perfection” – perfect wardrobe, perfect performance, perfect result – but perfection isn’t an impossible goal so much as an imbecilic one. Striving to perfectly realize “your art” is one thing, but you also have to know where short of perfection to let it go, because it will always be short of perfection.

The intention of art is risk. Being good is always good, but being interesting is better.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Sorry for the shortish column this week. My time will be jammed up for the next couple of weeks, wrapping up a project that’s been some twelve+ years in the making. Once that’s over with, though, it’s a schedule run amok, so look forward to all kinds of odd things here.

For those who’ve been following the travails of the slowly decaying (big business version of the) record industry, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), having so far failed to gain from legislators broad police powers allowing them to spy on virtually anyone’s computer and downloading habits but managing to jack up fees for satellite and Internet radio stations if they choose to play music, and managing to get RIAA creation SoundExchange designated the only operation authorized to collect fees on behalf of recording artists on the Internet (according to the terms, even unsigned musicians putting their own recordings on their own websites are required to pay the demanded fees to SoundExchange – and then they’re required to pay a fee and join SoundExchange in order to receive the payments they made to themselves on their own material!), is now going after what are apparently the biggest music pirates of all – radio stations. That’s right, the reason CD sales have been collapsing isn’t idiot mismanagement of record companies that generally show utter contempt for their supposed audiences and have done everything in their power of the years to homogenize the music they choose to promote into lifeless crap, it’s that people can get free music on the radio! Traditional policy, essentially encoded into law, has held that radio stations promote music, effectively giving audiences a free little taste of it so record companies can get them paying money for that spike over and over, but now, as record company revenues tumble, the new notion seems to be that radio stations are thieves making profits off record company property, and the record companies want their cut. Democratic Representative Howard Berman now chairs the House Subcommittee that oversees this sort of thing, and he’s a total record company shill so the RIAA getting their heart’s desire on this and other agenda items isn’t exactly out of the question. Where this leaves the “independent marketers” who operated as middlemen in recent record company-radio station payola scams (the “independent marketer” is paid by the record company to get radio stations to play selected records, and the “independent marketer” pays the radio stations to play them, thus barely meeting the letter of anti-payola laws while ramming long hot pokers well up the backside of the spirit of those laws)… but if this goes through expect a lot of radio stations to switch to all-talk formats. (A funny piece on this subject can be found at THE ONION.)

Diamond’s dismissal of COMIC FOUNDRY magazine (as mentioned last week) has generated a lot of Internet chatter. Questions of distribution monopoly aside, there is the matter of whether anyone wants a broad-interest print magazine about comics. I know a lot of people who’d like to produce one – I’ve discussed it with people myself – but I haven’t heard from a lot of people who’d like to buy one. At this point I’d be curious what kind of market research the COMIC FOUNDRY did to determine how marketable the magazine would be, like most magazines determine target markets and growth potential before their launch. (About the worst thing anyone can do these days is “Field Of Dreams” market research, as a friend of mine puts it: the whole “build it and they will come” philosophy.) On the other hand, recent research suggests “young people” (I love that phrase; it brings to mind variety shows from the ’60s where fogies like Ed Sullivan would introduce acts with “a group that’s sure to please ‘The Young People,'” and you could hear the quotes around the last phrase) aren’t shy of print at all. They just find a lot of it irrelevant. What would it take to make a general interest magazine about comics relevant and appealing enough to draw in a broad enough audience to make it economically feasible? Any ideas?

VERONICA MARS comes to a close tonight, as I write this, which is sad but in its way gratifying. It had three strong seasons, and while the production company can rightly call the cancellation an economic defeat, from a viewer’s perspective it’s nice to know we’ll never have to suffer through the inevitable creative disintegration that would eventually accompany the show’s continuation. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it would come. I know some have been disappointed in this season, which, due to structural changes, didn’t build like the first two seasons, but it’s been just fine to me, with Kirstin Bell handling herself just fine, the only sour note being the on again off again Veronica-Logan romance. Next season, had it been renewed, would have already seen a format change, moving Veronica out of her native Neptune CA and her college years to an adult career as an FBI trainee at Quantico, but the clash of her native insolence with that stuffed shirt environment wasn’t exactly an appealing prospect. But now it’s so long, Veronica, and thanks for the memories. We’ll always have the bus crash.

The networks announce their fall lineups, and it’s now okay to declare the 2007-2008 network TV season the year of déjà vu all over again. Among the boldly original concepts to be trotted out: “dramatic” retreads of SEX AND THE CITY, one (CASHMERE MAFIA) with four career women, and one (BIG SHOTS) with four career men, one (CARPOOLERS) with four men in a car (all ABC); a DYNASTY retread with THE O.C. inflections (DIRTY SEXY MONEY, also ABC); WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, this time featuring a female guidance counselor (MISS/GUIDED, from ABC, and I bet they came up with the title first); a bunch of ’80s computer geek jokes on CBS’ THREE’S COMPANY retread BIG BANG THEORY; the return of FALCON CREST involving a Florida sugar plantation in CBS’ CANE; CBS’ MOONLIGHT, about a vampire turned private detective of the night, which I’m sure has absolutely nothing in common with ’80s syndie show FOREVER KNIGHT, about a vampire turned private detective of the night (which debuted on an original, short-lived latenight CBS original programming sched) which absolutely never, ever had any connection at all to Marvel’s Hannibal King, because that was a private detective turned vampire, see? At the CW: a remake of PERFECT STRANGERS called ALIENS IN AMERICA, except this one has an actual Muslim character to generate that wacky sitcom humor. Fox, meanwhile, has Kelsey Grammar in an amazing original show about a broadcaster who returns to his hometown and has to deal with family still remaining there, but BACK TO YOU doesn’t look a thing like FRAZIER; it’s more like ED meets THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, thus ripping off three concepts at once. Also at Fox is NEW ANGEL – sorry, NEW AMSTERDAM – with an immortal warrior fighting forces of darkness in New York City, and a FRIENDS retread, THE RULES OF STARTING OVER, with the hot, fresh twist that the stars are all survivors of failed relationships (but who isn’t?). Finally, there’s NBC, which at least has the guts to do a flat-out remake of THE BIONIC WOMAN. (Get ready for lectures on why it’s really a feminist show.) Also from NBC: the return of QUANTUM LEAP – or is it EARLY EDITION? – as JOURNEYMAN, about a time-jumping journalist who tries to change people’s fates, and another SEX AND THE CITY retread, LIPSTICK JUNGLE, this one from S&tC‘s creator. Even the one show I’m genuinely looking forward to – Fox’s KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, a “reality” show starring cranky English master chef Gordon Ramsey roaming America to help hapless restaurants turn their fortunes around – is an Americanization of Ramsey’s English version, already aired on BBC America.

Even for network TV, that’s a lot of retreads. (On the original side, the CW has a show about a slacker chosen to become the Devil’s hitman – and it’s a comedy.) Even the shows that don’t ring any bells – a cop sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit returns to the force, a workaholic career woman with a new baby to care for calls on her estranged bohemian sister for help, etc. – sound strangely familiar. There’s a lot of decent acting talent in all these shows, and for their sake I hope they’re given some decent material to work with, but on the surface it looks like the networks plan this coming season to cope with audience erosion by boring us all to death.

In the meantime, ABC‘s running a new action-adventure series, TRAVELER, debuting May 30 at 10PM, so I guess it’ll run the summer if anyone watches. The concept is obviously THE FUGITIVE meets LOST as a trio of college roommates start a Kerouac-inspired road trip to “discover America” (do college students still do that?) only to discover that one of them, the eponymous Will Traveler, is a phantom terrorist who blows up a NYC art museum while setting up the other two to take the rap, for reasons unknown. Not knowing who to trust, except for a cryptic black guy who pops up at opportune moments to save their butts and give incomprehensible advice – I love shows where character drop endless clever hints instead of just giving the Reader’s Digest version when they obviously know what the hell is going on – the two roommates dodge authorities while trying to track down the non-existent (and currently presumed dead in the blast) Will. Fortunately, the pilot, aired a couple weeks ago as a teaser, was brisk enough that the clichés and idiocy could be overlooked, at least for the duration of the hour. It still plays like a “youth concept” only a 45 year old could come up with but, in the absence of summer competition, it’s mildly entertaining, though if they keep with the new TV tradition of heaping mystery on mystery without coming across with some answers now and then, that’s likely to come to an abrupt halt.

Congratulations to Dean Milburn, the first to correctly identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “games.” (Specifically, Milton-Bradley games: Clue, Life, Twister, Sorry, Operation, Battleship and Taboo.) Luke would like to point you to an interesting article on the economic and political implications of offshore outsourcing, which pretty much suggests those pushing the concept have their heads in a pretty uncomfortable place, as well as outline ways to fix the situation to keep the benefit and rein in the detriments. Go read it.

Just in case you’ve missed them, lots of reviews next week. In the meantime, go pester your retailer for the TWO GUNS mini-series from Boom! Studios. Or get it straight from Boom! if you can’t get satisfaction elsewhere.

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. I know there’s one hidden in this column somewhere, but off the top of my head I can’t remember where. Oh well…

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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