Tuesday, July 10, 2007

In the Penny Press!

Just the other day we were coming back inside from the rooftop garden here at Stevereads when we chanced upon a young intern crying in the stairwell. Foolishly, impulsively, we inquired as to the cause. The intern turned her bloated, tear-blotched face up to us and said, “I miss In the Penny Press!”

Which got us to thinking (well, actually it first got us to firing, since any hapless intern given to such bouts of soppy sentimentality obviously deserved the old heave-ho) that perhaps the occasional In the Penny Press might not be such a bad thing, even though we’ve re-consecrated the site to books.

So in light of the fact that there’s actually a good deal of interesting stuff to discuss in the recent Penny Press, and in memory of that poor weak intern (who’s already been tasered out of the building by Steveread’s elite security forces), let’s have a look, shall we? And what better place to start than the current New Yorker?

The July 9 & 16 issue has several things to recommend it, not least Hendrik Hertzberg’s withering column on Vice President Count Cheney in ‘Talk of the Town.’ Hertzberg is redacting multi-part examination of Count Cheney done in the Washington Post, and his summaries are pure, gleeful gold - or worth their weight in it, anyway, to those of us who watched with horror as a Marvel Comics super-villain came an inch away from literally stealing the country away from its people:

“Given the ontological authority that the Post shares only with the New York Times, it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called ‘the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,’ has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant president he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that an plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable ‘war on terror.’”

Granted, the end of that last sentence kind of breaks away from Hertzberg and starts galloping around the ring, but honestly, can you blame it? Count Cheney learned his dark arts from his Sith Lord Richard Nixon - that the White House cannot do wrong because it defines right and wrong, that power must be exercised only for power’s sake, never for the sake of good, or in the benefit of the people from whom it comes (except that in W. & Cheney’s case, that power didn’t come from the people - the people used their power to elect somebody else; but stealing sort of counts). And for a while there, it actually looked like evil would win. But the tide of public opinion has at last turned on the Dark White House, and we here at Stevereads predict the process will only continue, as more and more subpoenas are handed out and more and more evil misdeeds come to light. We further predict that on the eve of finally being brought to justice by good ol’ Mace Justice Department, Count Cheney will suffer his 121st heart attack and escape punishment of any kind. But those are the breaks.

Elsewhere in the New Yorker, an equally baneful-looking figure, a 1949 black and white photograph of surly, whiney, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius looms over a very good appreciation by the always-reliable Alex Ross. The composer’s lifelong pessimisms and lifelong dependence on copious amounts of alcohol to fuel his creative endeavors are woven by Ross into a profile very much worth reading. Our only problem with it? We here at Stevereads object to Ross’ calling legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky ‘garrulous.’ Koussevitzky was outright told in no uncertain terms by Sibelius himself that the composer’s much-anticipated Eight Symphony would be premiered by the BSO; it’s hardly ‘garrulous’ for Koussevitzky to, you know, tell people that. How was he to know Sibelius was fatally locked in a block-struggle with the work and would never, in fact, deliver it? Serge Koussevitzky was many things, but ‘garrulous’ wasn’t one of them. But aside from that one little quibble, the article made for some great reading.

And speaking of great reading, in a rare development for the New Yorker, the short story, “If I Vanished” by Stuart Dybek, is actually very, very good, very nearly worth the price of the issue all by itself. Summarizing short stories is about as tedious as summarizing dreams (note to Beepy: they’re both very, very tedious), but suffice it to say the Kevin Costner movie “Open Range” manages to play a fairly large part in a story that has, in the end, nothing to do with it at all ...

Closing out our look at this New Yorker double issue is Anthony Lane’s very funny review of the new Michael Bay smash-fest “Transformers,” starring Shia LaBeouf. This is the movie in which our young hero’s yellow Camaro turns out to be a crusading alien Autobot, and as you can guess from such a summary, Lane has lots of good stuff to work with:

“Certainly, the director can’t decide on their [the Autobots] level of moral sophistication; early on, they seem merely aggressive and willful, not unlike a real Camaro, but then suddenly the Autobots - led by Optimus Prime, whose name suggests an ambitious, moist-palmed young curate out of Trollope - begin gushing sermons like oil.”

‘not unlike a real Camaro’ ... hee ...

Shia LaBeouf also turns up in the latest Vanity Fair, in a cover-featured interview by Michael Hogan that does its level best to hide what is obvious from the third paragraph anyway: the kid’s no Einstein. In the typical way of such interviews, Hogan tags along with LaBeouf asking pro forma questions while LaBeouf does his level best to pretend he doesn’t really have anybody in the car or at the restaurant with him. This behavior among Hollywood’s young stars (the cake would have to be taken by Ashton Kutcher a few years ago when he took a cell phone call in the middle of an interview with GQ. For an hour. From his pharmacist.) has always amazed us here at Stevereads. After all, every one of these self-absorbed little shits started off life as a person. At what point did they morph into ass-talking egomaniacs capable of banally mouth-shitting to somebody who’s actually getting paid to interview them? We feel fairly certain if somebody had been paid to interview LaBeouf when he was, say, thirteen, he’d have puked himself with anxiety at the honor; but here he is, acting like he’s free-associating on his Bluetooth to Teen Beat.

Hogan gets past the patter only once, when he asks the kid if his unconventional upbringing (pothead mother, drug-dealer father) has impaired his ability to function well in romantic relationships. Shia says yeah, that’s certainly the case, he’s the bad guy in relationships.

No mention, of course, is made in the article to LaBeouf’s own drug use - at least, no honest mention. He says he’s basically high on life these days, that he won’t let drugs derail is burgeoning career - says, in fact, that he won’t drink a drop until after the next Indiana Jones movie, in which he has a big part (exactly five seconds googling his name will fill your computer with cell-phone pictures that contradict this assertion, but we here at Stevereads can’t honestly recommend you waste those minutes in such a way). No mention is made of how many cigarettes LaBeouf smoked during the interview - probably because Hogan lost count. In any case, one thing more than anything else becomes clear by the end of the piece: roughly two months after the ‘wrap’ on the new Indiana Jones movie, Shia LaBeouf is going to have the mother of all meltdowns. Somebody should start writing his part in ‘National Lampoon’s Family Vacation VIII’ right now.

Fortunately, elsewhere in this issue of Vanity Fair there’s another profile, this one of somebody entirely smarter, funnier, more honest, and in the end more courageous than poor little Shia LaBeouf could ever hope to be.

We refer, of course, to Barbaro.

In a lamentably-titled piece called “Gone with the Wind,” the lamentably-titled Buzz Bissinger tells the uplifting, heartbreaking story of the Kentucky Derby champion whose horrific injury at the Preakness (Youtubing the final stretch is recommended only for the strong of stomach) eventually claimed his life.

Bissinger does a fantastic job of capturing the nature of the largely wacky, largely insular world of thoroughbred horse-racing, and in a very refreshing take, he decides from the beginning to refer to Barbaro in no different terms than he would to an up-and-coming baseball star, or basketball phenom: not as a bought-and-paid-for animal with no personality or control over his destiny, but rather as a physical prodigy with a prodigy’s good and bad points, and boat-loads of personality.

Bissinger describes in touching, accumulating detail the ways in which Barbaro slipped inside the oft-repeated #1 rule of thoroughbred horse-racing: never fall in love with a horse.

His owners, trainers, handlers, riders, and eventually veterinarians and doctors all were helpless to forget that rule, and there are wonderful little portraits of all of them. But by far the most vibrant and memorable personality in the piece is that of Bararo himself.

We’re aware here at Stevereads that there will be those among you who grant no personhood even to those non-human animals who display it far less problematically than horses. Dogs, dolphins, elephants, even cats all behave in ways that are far more analogous to human ways than horses do, and even we here at Stevereads have enjoyed an only very spotty relationship with the beasts ourselves (they don’t much like dogs, so the inferences are right there to hand). But nevertheless, we hope (in league with our dear little Elmo, who knows from first-hand observation that complexity lies all around us like air) that in the not too distant future ALL animals of any complexity whatsoever will be granted the hithertofore human preserve of personhood. To say that Barbaro was forced as a calf into contact with the life-consuming sport that would consume his life is to say nothing different than you’d have to say of Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods, or David Beckham. And to keep saying it, after you’ve seen the film footage, any film footage, of Barbaro running - or more accurately, on the testimony of his riders, Barbaro in flight - well, if you don’t see a creature absolutely loving what he’s doing at least as much as any steroid-addicted, endorsement-hunting human athlete, you’re just plain bigoted, or just plain blind, or both. Look again: you’ll see a very distinct form of poetry, visceral, physical, and entirely, voluntarily luminous. And then, once you’ve looked, bow your head for a couple of seconds to notice the passing of Barbaro the way you’d ordinarily do for an extremely promising young college student, taken early.

The last item on our agenda today is something of a postscript, a nod to the wild old days when we here at Stevereads reviewed anything that moved. We couldn’t help but notice this week the premiere of Thor #1 from Marvel Comics, otherwise known as the House of Loathsome. Those of you who are comic book snobs can feel free to stop reading at this point (side note: those of you who are Stevereads readers had better not even think of ceasing to read here).

A quick background update for those of you who’ve already lost your virginity: in the immediate prelude to the infamous, disastrous ‘Civil War’ storyline, Marvel killed off their resident super-hero Thunder God, Thor. They killed him off but good: no more Thor, no more Asgard, no more gods - all of it gone. A daft idea in and of itself, yes, but nevertheless wrapped up to be really, truly, completely, and utterly final.

Which, in the magnificent first issue of this relaunch, takes writer J. Michael Straczynski all of two pages to get around, with some mumbo-jumbo about how gods can never really die as long as humans are around to believe in them (this will be good news for Jesus, if his comic book is ever cancelled). There’s some great, juicily ambiguous stuff about how the gods of Asgard are only sleeping, awaiting awakening. It’s classic Marvel stuff, of the type that is certainly not being floated about the alleged ‘death’ of Captain America.

The plot - such as it extends beyond ‘bring Thor back’ - has some little kinks in it that on the surface appear to be inconsistencies (a free book - shush, Kevin - to the first person who points out the biggest of these; a quick hint: it’s on page Page 6) or just plain mistakes, but we here at Stevereads have a battered but intact faith in Straczynski; he’ll see this title well-launched before he decamps, six issues from now.

Six consecutive issues is much more than we can expect from the series’ sensational artist Olivier Coipel, naturally. Coipel’s artwork has never been stronger than in this issue - like all ‘cool’ young artists, he’s slowly, surely making his way back to the basics Jack Kirby laid out fifty years ago. You can be as artistic and diaphanous as you want, but this is four color comics, in the end: if you can’t tell a story, visually, you aren’t doing your job, period.

But nonetheless, Coipel and his higher-profile brethren are horrible, embarrassing disgraces, not only to the profession of comic book artists but to all professions, to anybody who actually works for a living. The final Warren Ellis/Brian Hitch issue of ‘Ultimates’ was one year late - one year late - entirely because of artist Brian Hitch. Ellis is a workhorse professional, and he had his completed, detailed drafts of the final issue of his run done roughly three weeks after the penultimate issue went to press.

The artist was the problem, as they always are these days. They sign on for a hot new series, they sign on for a large amount of money, they spend that money, and then, like locusts, they move on to something else. It’s disgusting, but we have to live with it, at least among comics-readers.

And certainly the results in this issue are spiffy. This is the real Thor, the eternal warrior-god and thunder-lord - not a clone, not some super-sophisticated space alien (anybody remember that retooling?), not even changed in personality. He’s once again bonded to the mortal Don Blake (who seems too cool for school this time around, so we’re hoping Jane Foster is paying attention), and Coipel’s artwork captures that dichotomy - the mythic and the mortal - perfectly. The two issues he’s on the title should be great to look at (after which a back-bench reliable will be called in - is George Tuska still alive?).

So there you have it, an old-fashioned installment of In the Penny Press, complete with miscellaneous topics, copious digressions, and a baker’s dozen frothy screeds. Hard to believe we once indulged in this three times a week, no? Now that it’s out of our system, we’ll return to our more state


Elmo said...

And yet you bought that year-late issue of Ultimates... and All Star Batman and Robin. Well, guess what? You're not even close to the bottom, cause Nexus 99 finally showed up, powdered in Steve Rude's coke. Go- RUN- buy three.

Kevin Caron said...

I got to see the pencils for Nexus 99 a while back (The Dude sent them to Mike Baron to look over) - they're truly mind-blowing. As clean and perfectly executed as ever.

Not sure if you're implying that Steve Rude is in the Brian Hitch school of slow output, but its my understanding that he's pretty much a page-a-day type of guy; it's not like he's been taking all this time drawing #99 - Mike just wrote it not to long ago.

Sam said...

Basically you're conditioned to be jaded by the daily press-conference lying and backroom excesses of the Bush administration, but some kind of critical mass was reached for me last week with the Libby commutation. I know I should have expected it, but the whole thing was just so heavy-handedly brazen and transparent--one of Cheney's 'guys' being let off the hook by a spineless and stupid and malleable president, because it's simply intolerable that any of Cheney's 'guys' face punishment for their business as usual, even if that involves leak state secrets (and this from an administration that's otherwise compulsive about the privilege of keeping secrets).

Maybe it wouldn't have been such a gut punch if it had been at all smoothly handled, but Bush's excesses never ever are. The oxymoronic quote was something like, "I respect the jury's decision, but I found the punishment excessive." But this is what 'respect' for the judicial process, or for any of the democratic process's, has come to. 'Respecting' it, and then ignoring it utterly to do whatever the hell they want.

beepy said...

Steve, you keep asking me for my opinions...here goes:

Cheney - thumbs down
Abuse of Cheney - thumbs up
Horses - thumbs up
Abuse of Horses - thumbs down
A name like Shia - thumbs down
Smoking- thumbs down
Short Stories - thumbs up
Death & Resurection of Superheroes-thumbs way down
Elmo, Kevin & Sam - thumbs way up

Getting off my back - priceless

Elmo said...

Oh, no, in no way do I think the DUDE took ten years... I'm just attempting Steve-speak. You know, sprinkling insults and non-facts everywhere in maintenance of my character.

steve said...

Manatees have no thumbs. Nice try, though.