Never let it be said there's no culture in Las Vegas, and I don't mean the Elvis or Liberace museums. (Which, I'm told, are must see but I haven't seen them yet... hmmm... is NBC referring to Thursday nights as Must-See-TV anymore?... but I haven't been to either yet.) Recently, in the Venetian, a relatively new all-suite resort casino on the strip with $450/night rooms and the world's worst gondola ride, the famous Guggenheim Museum opened a Las Vegas branch. With two areas, one rarified and one plebeian, the first featuring a spectacular array of motorcycles of all makes and ages and the second a collection of impressionist and early modern paintings.
When I was a kid, we considered museums full of dead culture, things we didn't like or care about but were expected to "appreciate," whatever the hell that means, that was supposed to make us better human beings. Whatever the hell that means. As opposed to what we liked, what was our culture. (The attitude is not dispelled by culture fascists periodically suggesting all our ills would be cured if children were forced to listen to Beethoven instead of rock music.) As I've gotten older I've had to cope with that from the other end (like the suspicion all our ills would be cured if children were forced to listen to the Sex Pistols instead of Britney Spears) and it's a reason I don't get too worked up when younger people prefer the work of – hell, there are no popular mediocre artists anymore, are there? There are no popular artists anymore, are there? – to, say, Alex Toth's. Like it or not, it's their culture; they get to choose it, not me.
But this is what museums are good for. I have to say I've never cared for Picasso's work. (Larry Young and I may someday release a spoken word version of the Modern Lovers' fabulous song "Pablo Picasso," though. That I've always liked, and who wouldn't?) But prior to visiting the Guggenheim, I'd never seen a real Picasso. Or Van Gogh, or Gaughin, Matisse or Kandinski. I'd seen prints and pictures, of course, some exquisitely produced. There are some lovely art books out there.
But all print and books aren't paintings. They're the shallow surface of paintings: images. They flatten paintings into singular plastic works, finished and glossy. You can see what the artist intended, perhaps, but you don't see the route he took to get there, and that, too, is art. I'm reminded of the story of a man at his wife's funeral. The priest goes to comfort him and says "Her soul is with God now." The man looks tearfully at the priest and protests "But, Father, I loved her body too!" The image may be the soul of a painting, but there's also the body. What you don't get from a print is the technique.
The problem with emotional experiences is they beggar description, and seeing a painting, a really good physical painting, can be an emotional experience looking at a print can never hope to match. As much as Picasso's work once bored me, having now seen the real work the precision and focus of it fascinates me. On the other hand, the paintings of Van Gogh and Gaughin, upclose, look slapdash and unfinished. Gaughin's in particular are a hodgepodge of strokes and densities that seem as though he just couldn't make up his mind, or lost interest midway. In general, impressionists up close are a disappointment; whatever stir Monet may have caused when he debuted, there is no work more middleclass and toothless today. Matisse sways between impressionism and the modern. Much of his work presented at the Guggenheim suggests the incomplete sloppiness of Gaughin, then he turns around and paints something as striking as "Standing Moroccan In Green." Then there's Kandiski, who shifts in the space of a few years from a fuzzy semi-representational surrealism to abstracts with amazingly photographic sharpness.
Print may not be dead, but there are things it was never meant for. I love the Guggenheim. And the motorcycles are cool and a half too. Hit a museum and see the real things for a change.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Aman Chaudhary's paintings in Antony Johnston's short horror novel FRIGHTENING CURVES ($12.95, from Cyberosia Publishing LLC, 129 Highland Ave Suite 4, Somerville MA 02143). Two developments since then. Diamond is currently soliciting a large-sized, nicely produced limited edition set of six, though they've cleverly buried it in the November PREVIEWS on page 406. (These are also available singularly directly from Cyberosia. And I've finally had a chance to read the book. Nice job, though those who've read FROM HELL or Warren Ellis' HELLBLAZER (when will DC collect these issues, anyway?) will find themselves on somewhat familiar ground: Brit ex-spook (almost literally; his secret government job involved squelching occult menaces) turned visionary private investigator Philip London uncovers the occult underpinnings of the city while being haunted by his dead ex-wife, hunted by demonic manifestations, used by warring magicians and somehow constantly assaulted by rats and zombies. Originating as a serial on the now-defunct REACTOR site, FRIGHTENING CURVES shows Johnston's ambition as the material veers wildly from Brit hardboiled cop show (with its traditional nosebleed of slang), Lovecraftian horror, Victorian pastiche, Gaimanesque fantasy, and finally erupts into a blast of cyberpunk. For the most part he pulls it off. Not entirely successful, but it leaves me very interested to see what he produces next. And Aman's paintings are still gorgeous.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: many people in comics are big fans of big apes. Not me. After reading SKY APE ($12.95, AIT/PlanetLar Books, 2034 47th Ave, San Francisco CA 94116) I'm not sure if writers Phil Amara & Tim McCarney are among them or not. More reminiscent of Grant Morrison's DOOM PATROL than of anything ape related (though, come to think of it, that had a big ape in it too... didn't it?), the book is, well, gibberish. Packed with apparently random 70s TV references (good flaming god, someone actually remembers GOLDEN PALACE?!!), it's either an autistic's attempt at a standard comic book or a comedic attempt to replicate the experience of reading a comic book in the dark via strobe light. Sure is fun, though, even as you slam into plot walls every eight pages or so. Purty, too, courtesy of artist Richard Jenkins. And a good reminder there's a fine line between genius and insanity.
Speakin of the line between genius and insanity, if you liked Jodorowsky and Gimenez's METABARONS ($14.95, Humanoids Publishing, Box 913658, Hollywood CA 90093), you'll love... Let me start again. Jodorowsky's TECHNOPRIESTS (three volumes, $14.95@, from the same publisher), beautifully drawn by Zoran Janjetov and colored by Fred Beltran, is a much drier, more cerebral project than visceral METABARONS, though they both exist in the same chronology. This is El Topo the mystic, not El Topo the gunfighter. Though occasionally descending into action (not to mention periodically degenerating into superheroics), there's something remote about this work: Jodorowsky in his acid-flashback-contemplating-the-universe persona, and ultimately not saying much of anything at all. While METABARONS was a staccato barrage of outlandish ideas, TECHNOPRIESTS doles them out mindfully, as if concerned with our ability to soak them up. I can't say I found it very interesting at all.
Sabre's Edge (Lowercase-s Productions, 510 2nd Ave SE, Minneapolis MN 55414) publishes ANDI, a series of one-shot black and white comics by writer/artist Mark Stelmach: RAGGEDY NATION (1999, $4), VELVETEEN (2000, $4), SIBLING (2001, $4). Superhero fans, run for your lives. Stelmach's chaotic art is simultaneously reminiscent of George Metzger, Mike Mignola and Matt Howarth, and prior to this I couldn't have even imagined such a thing. Part underground comic, part horror comic (or is it a horror comic parody), Andi is an aborted baby whose unquiet spirit undertakes a quest of vengeance in the form of a sock puppet, but the stories are really about people doing horrid things to each other just for the sake of doing horrid things, told from a moralist's perspective. Strong stuff, and if the business took the art of comics seriously publishers would be lining up to publish it. Bonus: "Andi" pinups by artists ranging from Doug Mahnke to Charles Burns.
Considering how in the dumper the business is, there sure are a lot of small publishers out there. I'm not talking about self-publishing, I'm talking about companies like Asylum Press (Box 124, Watertown CT 06795). The operating strategy at Asylum seems to be "If Chaos Comics can get market share, why not us?" BILLY BOY THE SICK LITTLE FAT KID ($2.95) seems to exist just to get killed over and over, like South Park's Kenny; can't fault writer/artist Frank Forte for trying, but I just don't get the joke. Then there's HEX OF THE WICKED WITCH ($2.95), one of Aslyum's Chaos/Image entries, complete with skimpy costumes, big breasts and overblown melodrama (particularly in the dialogue). Frank Forte is behind WICKED WITCH as well (is he behind Asylum Press? Maybe this is self-publishing...) but with a vastly different art style liberally inspired by Chaos' books. The story – an evil but sexy witch (completely with pointed hat) reanimates a sexy vampire to enslave, then demons attack, the vampire breaks free to say things like "Your blood will make a tasty cocktail witch!" [sic] as she prepares to turn the witch into an undead slave instead. To be continued. This kind of thing has grown so tedious even Chaos doesn't do it much anymore.
MIGHTY EYEBALL ($2.95; Big Eye Comics) is beautifully drawn by Rurik Tyler in a style somewhere between Wally Wood and Hilary Barta, but Tyler's story is just more of the post-modern dada action pioneered by Mike Allred in MADMAN. All characters have to do is say the right things and the right powers/weapons appear. At 16 pages, MIGHTY EYEBALL's not a bargain, but Tyler's got enough talent (artwise anyway, and his writing's not bad, just inchoate) that you might want to score a copy just so if he becomes the next big thing you can say you knew him when.
Finally this week, there's THE MUSIC BOX, a fantasy from Donie Odulio courtesy of Cydonia Press. I sometimes wonder if the upcoming HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS movies will revivify fantasy like STAR WARS revivified space opera, but then things like THE MUSIC BOX come along to remind me that it never really died (at least in independent comics) and occasionally can even be well done. (Far too occasionally.) The story alternates between the personal trials of a woman on Earth, a professional cellist, and a war – these fantasy worlds are always engaged in wars with cosmic consequences, aren't they? – on the parallel fantasy world of Cydonia. Though nicely drawn and even more nicely colored, the two parts of the story haven't yet, after three issues, begun to mesh, so it's hard to judge what's going on. I can say that while the fantasy sections are better done than most fantasy stories, the Earth sections are so well done I wish Odulio had dumped the fantasy altogether. Worth checking out.
Watching the local news last week, I ran across one of the cutesy timewasters they love, in this case schoolchildren interviewed about what freedom means to them. A girl said freedom means "I can play with anyone in the world she wants to." A boy said freedom means "we can fight in wars to keep America safe." He didn't say it like it was an obligation or a necessity, he said it like it was something devoutly to be wished. I suppose in a way they were saying the same thing.
So last week secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld said that we may never catch or kill Bin Laden because there are so many countries he could flee to, presumably opening the door to airstrikes and ground action elsewhere. Which led immediately to a flurry of questions from far and wide across America about what the hell we're doing in Afghanistan if we can't get Bin Laden. Which led to an adjusted statement by Rumsfeld the next day that we will certainly get Bin Laden. Yesterday Attorney General Ashcroft warned of imminent terrorist attacks inside the United States without actually giving any useful information. This is the second time he's done that, which just makes people paranoid and edgy, and I'm starting to wonder if that's his intent or whether he just doesn't want a repeat of Sept. 11 when the FBI reportedly didn't have any warning about what was going to happen so he puts out these statements just to make it seem as if the FBI knows something when they in fact know nothing. This morning Gov. Ridge, head of the new Office Of Homeland Security, downplayed things, saying the "warning" was just a "reiteration" of the initial warning after Sept. 11, so go ahead and live your lives and smile. Except that definitely isn't what Ashcroft said. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell has become the invisible man of the Bush cabinet, making virtually no public statements since mid-September when he poo-pooed the idea of entering Afghanistan by saying "we don't do mountains."
And this week the military expressed frustration with the sluggishness of the Afghanistan offensive to score any major headway or break the will of the Taliban to resist. i.e., a bunch of self-righteous religious fanatics convinced they've been chosen by God to rule don't break in the face of superior American firepower. Whodathunk it? I guess no one in the Bush administration bothered to read a history book before this undertaking. They're already talking about "Afghanistanizing" the war. Americans are getting antsy again about what exactly is expected to be achieved there, and even right wing pundits are starting to talk about how the "war on terrorism" is floundering.
Which was the problem with the "war on terrorism" from the start: it's too indistinct. Like the "war on drugs," it works as little more than a catch phrase. I'm not saying we let anyone go scot free, or pretend 9-11 didn't happen. I'm saying "good wars" are based on not on superior firepower but on definable objectives and clear goals with popular support, even (maybe particularly) when those goals are doled out piecemeal. We don't need "big picture initiatives," we need achievable action. The Bush administration has served up "the war on terrorism" as a means to broadly achieve a number of indistinct goals they themselves don't quite seem to understand, and so far the only thing they've really accomplished is last week's vast and ill-considered expansion of police powers, an event that will almost certainly see challenge in the courts and, if upheld, may have unpleasant repercussions for years to come. Welcome to the 21st Century. Disagreeing with the government is not America bashing, though American governments have always tried to present it as so. Flying jets through skyscrapers while calling for the end of America is America bashing. Bartering away liberties out of fear and panic is America bashing. Our liberties are what we are, and if we surrender them we won't be America anymore.
For a special message from the War Information Council on the subject, click here. Just in case you thought this had nothing to do with comics.
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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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