The Curator of Schlock #69: The Muppet Christmas Carol

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The Curator of Schlock #69 by Jeffrey Shuster

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Michael Caine Returns to The Museum of Schlock

Muppet Christmas Carol

We’ve gone a whole year without a Michael Caine movie present in The Museum of Schlock. He plays Ebenezer Scrooge in 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol from director Brian Henson. So yeah, it’s Muppets and Michael Caine this week on The Curator of Schlock. Now, I had never seen this movie before so I decided to do something a bit different. Instead of a review, here are 22 live observations of The Muppet Christmas Carol as I watched it.

Kermit as Cratchet 1.     Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are talking to me through my TV screen. Gonzo insists that he’s Charles Dickens.

2.     Michael Caine is playing an extra evil Ebenezer Scrooge. Random Muppets and vegetables start singing about how mean he is.

3.     Muppets fall behind on their mortgages just like the rest of us.

4.     Kermit is Bob Cratchit. Big surprise there.

5.     Same Christmas Carol crap! His nephew is too nice! Steven Seagal would have lit Michael Kane on fire by now!

6.     Kermit was able to get Christmas Day off. Which is more than I can say for myself all those years toiling at the paper! Claude Thornhill’s Snowfall plays in my head.

7.     There are way too many rats in this motion picture.

8.     Are these Muppets playing human characters or is this an alternate Victorian London where humans and Muppets coexist peacefully?

9.     Scrooge is eating moldy cheese. Ewwwwwwww!!!

10. Jacob and Robert Marley? There was no Robert Marley in the novel!

11. The Muppet of the Ghost of Christmas Past is creeping me out big time!

12. Young Scrooge says, “Who cares about stupid old Christmas?” I care!

13. The Muppet of the Ghost of Christmas Past is still creeping me out big time!

14. Animal!

15. If the Ghost of Christmas Present welcomes Scrooge to Christmas morning than he’s the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come not the Ghost of Christmas Present!

16. Michael Caine is dancing with a giant Muppet!

17. I used to have a crush on Miss Piggy. On second thought, don’t print that.

18. Tiny Tim needs to hurry up and die already!

19. No more singing! Please!

20. Ghost of Christmas Future is scary even in Muppet form!

21. Money-grubbing pigs!

22. Please! Please! No more singing!

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Jeffrey Shuster 3

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102, and episode 124) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

The Lists #12: Literature Questions for Further Discussion (e.e. cummings “anyone lived in a pretty how town”)

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 The Lists #12 by John King

Literature Questions for Further Discussion (e.e. cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town”)

  1. If e.e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is an allegory for obscure figures from The Holy Bible, who would anyone and who would noone be?
  2. Recite the poem naked. Doesn’t that sound better? What changes in the timbre of your voice?
  3. Why do you think “Women” is the only word cummings capitalizes in the poem? Speculate about when cummings stopped suckling upon his mother’s throbbing breast.
  4. Pinpoint the nearest pretty how town to where you live on Google Earth. Now read the poem again. Notice anything different?
  5. What do you think cummings’s neighbors were like? Did they slurp tea in the afternoon, and squint through Venetian blinds at the snowy yard?
  6. How is a pretty what town different than a pretty how town? What does that difference do to the psyche? How would you feel shaving in such a difference?
  7. How long can you hold your breath?

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1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

Heroes Never Rust #72: Fattening the Story

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Heroes Never Rust #72 by Sean Ironman

Fattening the Story

When I took Introduction to Creative Writing when I was an undergraduate in college, I was taught that everything in a story had to be there for a reason. I had to interrogate each word, and every one had to characterize and move the plot along. Stories had to be tight. I was taught to start as late into the scene, as close to the climax, as I could. Now that I am a writing professor, I teach my students the same lesson. But, I have my doubts. Students are too quick to get to the next scene, to get to the point or the meaning that they are working toward. Perhaps it’s because I mainly write creative nonfiction, which contains a lot of searching and meandering instead of a strict, tight story, but I find that there’s a lot of fat on good stories. I read students’ stories and essays and I find that one of the main problems is that they don’t allow a story to breath. The world doesn’t seem real, even in nonfiction. In my opinion, adding details that may not be crucial to the story allows the story to seem more real.

MsMarvel3By the third issue of Ms. Marvel, the general idea has been set and the characters have been introduced. Kamala Khan has gained superpowers and has difficulty controlling them, which causes her to transform into Carol Danvers, the ex-Ms. Marvel and current Captain Marvel. Now, the comic must expand on Kamala’s world. Unlike a short story or a novel, most comics from Marvel or DC are designed to exist for years with more and more stories. Even if Ms. Marvel were cancelled tomorrow, the characters could appear in other comics because most of what Marvel publishes exists in the same universe.

One way a comic book could add details about the world is by placing those details in the background. Years ago, I read an article by an editor at Marvel Comics (I have since forgotten which editor), and he gave tips on artwork in a comic. One of the big tips was to not forget about the background. Many beginner artists keep background details to a minimum, but the background can help strengthen world-building and choreography in action scenes. In Ms. Marvel #3, background details are used for humor and for characterization. On the opening page, Kamala eats breakfast and watches a news story about her rescue of Zoe Zimmer in the last issue. The world thinks Carol Danvers was there, not knowing of Kamala. The cereal box in the corner of the page is GM-O’s: Tasty Cereal. On the side of the box is a blurb that reads, “Listen to your gut not the lawsuits.” The cereal box is completely unnecessary. It never comes into play, but it’s a little joke to help set the tone. In comics, creators can get away with details like this one because a reader who is interested in just the plot can read the dialogue and turn the page. Readers who want to take in everything the comic has to offer can meander on the page and catch the background joke.

msmarvCerealThe background can contain elements other than jokes. In the first issue, the Terrigen Mists transformed Kamala and gave her superpowers. While the mists are a part of other comics, in Ms. Marvel, they are given very little explanation. Basically, it’s foggy and Kamala gets superpowers. The story, rightfully so, focuses on Kamala rather than the mystery of the mists. But, it would be odd to never mention the mists again. So, the mist mystery is mentioned through the background elements. On page two, a bare-footed homeless man, holds up a sign on a street corner that reads, “Fear the mist.” Then, on the third page, Kamala types on her computer, and in the background are newspaper clippings on her wall about the mist. “Dr. Shinoz: Manhattan Mist Poses Medical Risk.” “Mist takes Manhattan.” “Mist 2014: Public Seeks Answers.” By making the mist a mystery in Kamala’s world, the creators get to have their cake and eat it too. They show the readers that they haven’t forgotten, that it is intentional and they are in control of the story, while not having to spend most of the first story arc on the mists. Characters receive the focus, not the plot device. Intentionality is everything. Writers can do pretty much whatever they want as long as it’s intentional. Years ago, writer David James Poissant taught me that each story obeys its own rules, and it’s the writer’s job to set up the rules for the story at the beginning. In creative writing, there aren’t really rules, only things that work and things that don’t work. But, readers want to feel that the writer is in control. By placing information on the mists in the background, the creators of Ms. Marvel show readers that they are in control of their story, lay the groundwork for a possible future story arc, and show readers that Kamala is interested in what is happening to her body.

ms-marvel-4-shot

Details can go much further than just background information, of course. At the end of the issue, Kamala gets back out there being a superhero and tries to stop a robbery at a convenience store where her friend, Bruno, works. Like in many superhero stories, the superhero fails or gets hurt when starting out. Kamala gets shot in the gut by the thief. While the issue leaves off with her on the floor and holding her stomach as she bleeds out, I think I can safely say that the main character will not die three issues into the book. Her injury is a learning experience. But, what makes the scene more complicated than the usual superhero injury scene is that the thief is Bruno’s brother. He needs the money to pay someone named the Inventor. Earlier in the issue, Bruno’s brother asked Bruno to just take cash from the register, but Bruno wouldn’t. His brother didn’t know Bruno would be working at the time he robbed the place. He didn’t even know his gun was loaded. Of course, he still shot Kamala, but the thief not being random and just being a high school kid in a tough situation allows the reader to feel empathy for the boy. It will also add a layer to Kamala learning to be a superhero. Not all villains are evil.

I heard long ago that there are only seven basic plots to all stories. Someone once told me it was only three. But, there aren’t that many, regardless of whether it’s three or five or seven. The details change the readers’ experience. It’s not enough to just focus on what’s crucial to the plot. The world and its characters need to breath, need to feel real. To do that, sometimes it takes meandering and giving details that aren’t entirely necessary, at least to the plot. I agree that everything should have a purpose, but that purpose might just be in the meandering. In order to create character-driven stories, writers need to let those characters interact with the world and move away from stripping details away. Hopefully, those students beginning their careers can understand that.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

In Boozo Veritas #70: MEMO from The Secret HQ of The Drunken Odyssey

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In Boozo Veritas #70 by John King

MEMO from The Secret HQ of The Drunken Odyssey

To: Teege Braune, Author of In Boozo Veritas

From: John King, Host of The Drunken Odyssey

Subject: The Unspeakable Awfulness of Eyes Wide Shut (Redux)

Date: December 15, 2014


Teege, I am more worried about you than ever.

First, my villa complex uses garbage cans. There is no dumpster. This leads me to believe that you are either hallucinating again or else you are bothering even more strangers with your relentless obsession.

Of course, one might reasonably conclude that the reality of one night, or a handful of nights, let alone a whole lifetime, is not the truth, just as no dream is ever only a dream. Still, I am worried about your fantasmagorias about attending orgies with elderly women, especially if they (the orgies) are as boring as the one depicted in Eyes Wide Shut.

Second, you know as well as I, alas, do, that the preposterously-named Nuala Windsor is a character in that cinematic abomination. Either your movie-watching companion was having you on, or maybe you knew but played along, eager to blur the lines of reality and boredom the ways EWS does.

My neighbor is Mrs. Thorndike, and she’ll be crushed to know that you’ve been watching VHS movies with another elderly woman down the street or wherever. She asked me to tell you to call her. You’ve made things awkward between me and my neighbors, Thomas.

Third, I checked the DVD out of the library and watched it for the first time in fourteen years, and, ouch, EWS seemed even more unbearable this time.

Eyes Wide Shut should have been called Tom Cruise Walks In and Out of (Mostly Opulent) Rooms.

EWS5This two-and-a-half hour movie would have had a running time of about seventeen minutes if Kubrick had used jump-cuts instead of lavishing steady cam footage onto every entrance and exit. I wonder if Kubrick saw Scorcese’s two major steady cam shots of entrances in Goodfellas and thought, “I will use that in every scene, despite there being no coherent story-enhancing purpose of such cinematography.”

EWS6And here is where you might pull the thesaurus down and tell me that such footage represents the liminal, and that such representation is essential to the themes of EWS, in particular the in-between state between reality and dream, and the in-between state between reality and perception.

EWS2But there is no liminal state between boredom and boredom, Teege. The liminal is a lazy metaphor, the expression of a lack of anything real to communicate.

EWS3

The aging and ailing Kubrick must also have been reading too much Harold Pinter and decided to out-Pinter Pinter, because the amount of pauses is excruciating. If he used jump cuts and lost the pauses, the running time of EWS comes down to about seven minutes.

And when the dialogue finally comes, often it is delivered with Quaalude-grade stupefaction.

When the plot drudges towards Tom Cruise finally about to crash the black mass orgy, we ooze into the totally-essential tuxedo and costume rental scene, where we get to meet Mr. Milich of Rainbow Tuxedo Rentals, and learn about his tragic bald spot.

EWS1The name of the rental place–considering the barely cryptic innuendo of Nuala Windsor earlier in the film, whose sexual predilection almost makes her either a succubus or a reality television star–is so symbolic as to be nauseating, especially since I used to walk by this actual location on my way to classes at NYU. This is on one of the cross streets between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square Park in the West Village.

EWS4When Milich enters his office rather late at night, he catches two men with an underaged girl, all of them in states of undress.  He attacks the men and screams at the girl, who’s either his daughter or ward, who runs to Tom Cruise for protection. She then immediately casts lusting looks at her new protector like some Lolita, without the nuance or ambiguity Nabokov gave his nymphette.

EWS7The point seems to be to call into question what one sees, and to wonder if the world is so ubiquitously corrupt, or if one’s imagination–if one’s own repressive Puritanical libido–is being projected dangerously out onto the world.

In the fucking West Village in the latter half of the twentieth century, one of the least sexually inhibited locales in America. What next, a closeted gay man living in San Francisco who wants to come out, but is afraid the people in his city won’t accept his sexual orientation?

If the movie’s setting was Indianapolis or Chicago, the profoundly nuerotic sexual anxiety might make more sense.

Probably Arthur Schnitlzer’s Dream Story (Traumnovelle), the source material for EWS, makes more sense: Vienna in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Milich, as a proud business owner, should have been the main character, as I liked him, his daughter, and the two Asian men with her more interesting than everyone else in the movie.

It turns out, Jocelyn Pook’s music is wonderful; it reminds me of her music for the film of The Merchant of Venice. The annoying music from EWS (sampled and repeated for maximum annoyance as a tone poem of boredom) is György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata II: Mesto, Rigido e Cerimonale,” which I think translates to “Can some shadow demon please help me tune this piano?”

This movie has scarred me with its awfulness, dear friend. Please explain how you see it as anything other than a pretentious waste of time, the silly effort of a former cinema master pretending that he still has something to say.

_______

1flip

John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

Episode 130: Jaquira Díaz!

Episode 130 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I interview author and editor Jaquira Díaz.

Jaquira Díaz

TEXTS DISCUSSED

15 Views of MiamiRead Jaquira Díaz’s “Cami” at Story South.

Read Jocelyn Bartkevicius’s “Out of the Garden” at The Missouri Review.

To hear more of and about 15 Views of Miami, check out this episode of Functionally Literate Radio.

Things Fall ApartDrownNOTES

Pre-order Nathan Holic’s new novel, The Things I Don’t See, here for only $6.

The Things I Don't See _______

Episode 130 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Shakespearing #22: As You Like It

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Shakespearing #22 by David Foley

As You Like It

22 As You Like ItI’ve probably fallen too easily into the assumption that the order I’m using for Shakespeare’s plays reflects an actual order of composition. Go online and you’ll find chronologies that vary significantly from Riverside’s. So my sense that As You Like It acted for Shakespeare as a kind of palate cleanser between Julius Caesar and Hamlet might be an illusion. But I like the idea. I like the idea that Shakespeare fell upon As You Like It with a kind of relief. The play takes us out of the churn of history and politics, far from Rome’s clashing ambitions and Elsinore’s venal and venomous court. Even Much Ado About Nothing seems, by comparison, poisoned by intrigue, ambition, and malice.

It’s not that there isn’t malice in As You Like It. Duke Frederick and Orlando’s brother Oliver are the Malice Twins, so alike that they can’t stand each other. “I never lov’d my brother in my life,” says Oliver. “More villain thou,” says the duke, seemingly without self-consciousness. Duke Frederick has, of course, overthrown his own brother and banished him to the woods, which turns out to be like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.

This is the relief of As You Like It: how lightly, how charmingly it slips away from the conniving world. In Much Ado, villainy must be revealed and expunged. Here it’s powerless to breach the forest borders. Duke Frederick makes it only to “the skirts of this wild wood” before he’s converted and wanders off to a monastery. Oliver falls asleep in the forest and wakes up reconciled with his brother. It’s true that while he slept “a green and gilded snake…wreath’d itself” around his neck, and “with her head nimble in threats, approach’d/The opening of his mouth,” but “with indented glides [she slips] away” when Orlando appears. Maybe it’s a good thing Oliver has denied Orlando the education proper to his station. It gives him power not just to deflect the coiled serpents that fill a courtier’s mouth with lies, but to kill a lion, exorcising the court’s corruption and the forest’s dangers in one swift sequence.

But the great relief of As You Like It is Rosalind. She shakes us free, and you can feel Shakespeare shaking himself free as he writes her. There’s no accounting for a Rosalind. There’s no accounting for the way a character can take hold of a writer’s pen (or keyboard) and seemingly write herself, so that it becomes impossible to think of craft or construction, only of being, perhaps the way Gaston Bachelard describes a poetic image as an “origin,” “[spoken] on the threshold of being.” Perhaps we can try to account for Rosalind, like that poetic image, through language. Rosalind rides language like a windhover, whether she’s disparaging love (“Men have died from time to time, and worms of eaten them, but not for love.”) or pining for it (“I’ll go find a shadow, and sigh till he come.”), whether she’s bantering with Jaques or insulting Phebe.

Her imposture as Ganymede seems not so much to free her as to express her freedom, to make it visible. She is the “master mistress” of the final pageant, promising a return to order through a kind of jazz improvisation. (“And I for no woman!”)

22 As You Like It BergnerBut, in truth, we haven’t been much disordered. We found a new order when we entered the forest, and it’s almost a disappointment to see Rosalind emerge in women’s clothes at the end of the play, as if we’ve retreated from the threshold of being.

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David FoleyDavid Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

The Curator of Schlock #68: A Bionic Christmas Carol

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The Curator of Schlock #68 by Jeffrey Shuster

A Bionic Christmas Carol

Steve Austin vs Ray Walston

Bionic1I’ve got a problem with mustaches. I admit it. I don’t like it when they curl up into the nostril, fusing with the nose hair like Jauquin Phoenix’s in Her, but I also don’t like the kind that Lee Majors had on The Six Million Dollar Man.

bionic3It’s too thin and it hangs too low on his upper lip. These men need to take their cues from Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds.

BurtMustaches aside, it is this Curator of Schlock’s expert opinion that the tenth episode of the fourth season of The Six Million Dollar Man entitled A Bionic Christmas Carol stands as one of the greatest adaptations of the classic Dickens’ tale.

Bionic2Now I know some of you movie snobs out there are decrying the very idea of including an episode of a TV series on this blog, but every episode of The Six Million Dollar Man was like watching a major motion picture! The guy fought Sasquatch! Sadly, you’ll get no such fights in A Bionic Christmas Carol. Our episode begins with Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) meeting up with Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) for their annual day before Christmas lunch. Wow! I mean day before Christmas lunch sounds delightful! I wonder why Steve Austin didn’t just call it Christmas Eve lunch, but who am I to question the Six Million Dollar Man?

Anyway, their lunch is cancelled because some curmudgeonly old miser named Horton Budge (Ray Walston), president of the Budge Corporation, is keeping the plant open on Christmas Eve. Boooooooh! Now, some of you may know Ray Walston from TVs My Favorite Martian or Picket Fences, but I’ll always remember him as Mr. Hand from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I can’t believe he ate Spicoli’s pizza in front of the entire class. What a jerk! All the kids are on dope? Go to bed, old man!

bionic4Anyway, Mr. Budge hates Christmas, and hates his nephew, Bob Crandall. It seems that Bob embezzled some money from Budge, but it was to save his Mrs. Crandall’s life and pay for her expensive medical treatments. Instead of reporting his nephew to the police, Mr. Budge made Bob into his personal chauffeur, having Bob run errands whenever he wished. This means no Christmas dinner with the family for Bob and no Christmas bonus to spend on gifts for his kids. Sadly, there is no scene of Steve Austin reaching into Mr. Budge’s stomach and pulling out his spine with his bionic arm. You could only get away with so much on network TV in the 1970s.

Steve Austin was sent to Mr. Budge to inspect the equipment Mr. budge was developing for a future NASA Mars mission. (Hahahahahahahaha!) The test astronaut almost catches fire due to the fact that Mr. Budge only pays for the bare minimum of safety requirements. You’d think that the bare minimum would be enough. What else happens in the episode? Steve Austin bionically leaps up and tears off the top off of a Sequoia so the Crandall kids can have a Christmas tree. He also dresses up as Santa Claus in order to spook Mr. Budge into accepting the spirit of Christmas. What more do you want from 70s TV?

Five Things I Learned from A Bionic Christmas Carol

  1.  Leisure suits are still better than Parisian Night Suits.
  2. The Bionic Man loves Christmas, unlike Batman who hates Christmas!
  3. Ray Walston was born at 60-years-old.
  4. Sunny California doesn’t exactly scream Christmas.
  5. Kids were hard to love in the 70s.

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Photo by Leslie Salas.

Photo by Leslie Salas.

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102, and episode 124) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

The Lists #11: Less-Than-Stellar Christmas Gifts That Actually Exist

 The Lists #11 by John King

Less Than Stellar Christmas Gifts That Actually Exist

 1. Don’t “feed” Peanut Big Top water, please. Is this how Zayles creates its merchandise?

Lalaloopsy Diaper Surprise2. Compete with your friends to clean this dog’s feces. It’s just like real life.

Doggy Do3. According to child psychologists, one thing every matching game for young children needs is more vomit-play.

Pig Out Pete4. Do you remember the guilty fun you had watching Ahhhnold and Sinbad goof it up in Jingle All the Way? Obviously, this 18-year-old film with the slenderest of premises needs to be a franchise anchored by someone who’ll getter done.

Jingle-All-the-Way-25. Ahem.

Taylor Swift6. I am trying to make up my mind if this vintage 1995 collector’s item is less or more disturbing than a normal Barbie. Is there a saw in that medical bag? Ask the seller this question on Ebay.

Civil War Nurse Barbie7.What is a way to tarnish a beloved Joss Whedon work? Convert it into Yahtzee.

Firefly-Collectors-Edition-Yahtzee-GameNever, ever scream yahtzee.

8. When considering these clunky, four-foot tall Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you should first ask yourself this question: Is my child fourteen feet tall? If the answer is no, then this present simply tells the recipient, “I know you’ll never have any real friends, so here you go.”

TMNT Giant Figures9. While I am a fan of both reading and Star Wars, The Drunken Odyssey must advise against giving this (or any, really) headlamp to a child.

Vader Reading LightIncidentally, Vader’s helmet comes off to reveal the wrinkled, diseased, gray face of Anakin Skywalker, which only makes this $20 accessory even sadder.

Vader Reading Light Interior10. The existence of full-body superhero costume-pajamas for men happens to be a disturbing declaration of Everlasting Celibacy.

Batman Mens PajamasSeeing the green PJs makes me think of a an immense (and immensely sad) man playing with his four four-foot tall Ninja Turtles, wondering when someone will make him a plastic April O’Neil figure, so his family will be complete.

Will his Christmas wish come true?

 _______

1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

Heroes Never Rust #71: Ms. Marvel vs. Possibly Offensive Imagery

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Heroes Never Rust #71 by Sean Ironman

Ms. Marvel vs. Possibly Offensive Imagery

In the first issue of Ms. Marvel, the Terrigen Mists were released and when Kamala Khan came into contact with the mists, she gained superpowers and transformed into Ms. Marvel, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed member of the Avengers. Kamala looked up to Ms. Marvel and wanted to be an Avenger, so when she gained the power to transform herself, she understandably went with Ms. Marvel, not having control over her new ability. This could be problematic if not handled carefully. Acquiring superpowers, especially for the lead in a superhero comic book, usually allows the person to become great. Even if the hero isn’t liked by many people (Spider-Man, for example), the reader relates to the character. And, let’s face it, kids want to be that superhero. Having a Muslim, brown-skinned girl turn into a character who is basically a model for the Aryan race is not the message the writer, or Marvel (now owned by Disney), wants to send. Telling girls that in order to be a superhero, they have to become light-skinned, tall, and blonde is probably the most offensive thing the comic could do.

KamalaKhanCarolBut.

Willow Wilson, the writer, uses the idea of having to become someone else to be a superhero to provide conflict for Kamala. First, the idea that Kamala turns into Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel) works to make Kamala relatable to readers. Even if a reader doesn’t like Carol Danvers (which is insane. How could someone not like her?), someone reading a superhero comic likes a superhero. The reader might like Captain America, or Iron Man, or Maggot. It doesn’t matter. Everyone reading Ms. Marvel can relate to Kamala because readers of superhero comics like at least one superhero, if not many. Even if the reader can’t relate to Kamala’s other life experiences, her idolizing of Carol Danvers gives the reader a way in to the character.

KamalaDanvers

What saves the comic from being offensive is that Kamala is not comfortable with being Carol Danvers and rejects her new body. “I always thought that if I had amazing hair, if I could pull off great boots, if I could fly—that would make me feel strong. That would make me happy. But the hair gets in my face, the boots pinch, and this leotard is giving me an epic wedgie.” If the comic didn’t comment on Kamala’s new body, it would be offensive. But, it uses the new body as a source of conflict for Kamala. The character grew up like many of us. We can’t be superheroes because we’re not strong enough, not fast enough, not tall enough. Everyone at some point in their life has talked themselves out of doing something because of who they are. Kamala never thought she could be a superhero because she never saw one that was like her. In the dream sequence from the first issue, she imagines herself as Carol Danvers. Even in her dreams, she can’t be herself and save the day.

Kamala-KhanThough she hates the new body, and can’t really figure out how to return to normal at first, she realizes that what made her happy was that she saved another human being. “Maybe putting on a costume doesn’t make you brave. Maybe it’s something else.” The comic doesn’t ignore the fact that most superheroes are white and look like models. Not understanding that something could be offensive and ignoring it makes it worse. And, quite honestly, makes the writer look bad, like he or she didn’t really analyze the story being told. Wilson avoids falling into those traps because she has taken a hard look at comics today and understands where Kamala Khan fits in. She’s able to use Kamala’s specific characteristics to both make the character unique and seemingly universal. The second issue ends with Kamala looking at the Ms. Marvel poster she has in her bedroom and making the same pose. This time, however she stays in her own body.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

Buzzed Books #16: Mo’ Meta Blues

Buzzed Books #16 by John King

Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Mo-Meta-Blues-finalMemoir can be straightforward, once memoirists reveal their particular working premises, so as not to be seen as James Freying their mendacious way to the bank.

Autobiographies, however, are fraught with more philosophical problems than memoir. When David Sedaris writes a book of memoir essays, he is not promising the plumb the depths of the David Sedaris phenomenon. What we read in fact is the David Sedaris phenomenon. When we read an autobiography by a notable musician, on the other hand, the book is supposed to reveal their essence in ways that the phenomenon of their public body of work has not already done.

David Foster Wallace has written about this problem at length in his review of the tennis player Tracy Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story, a review that becomes a critique of the entire sports autobiography genre. Wallace argued that the quality that makes a superior athlete transcendent simultaneously makes such transcendence impossible to communicate. Self-consciousness about such perfection would mar the perfection.

My own thinking about the genre of autobiography has long been influenced by Groucho Marx. In 1959, he published Groucho and Me, the very title of which indicates an uneasiness of the identity politics assumed in an autobiography.

Groucho and MeEarly on, he makes this caveat emptor proclamation:

It is almost impossible to write a truthful autobiography. Maybe Proust, Gide and a few others did it, but mostly autobiographies take good care to conceal the author from the public. In nearly all cases, what the public finally buys is a discreet tome with the facts slightly concealed, full of hogwash and ambiguity.

Except in the case of professional writers, most of these untrue confessions are not even written by the man whose name is on the book jacket. Large letters will proclaim it to be THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF CHARLES W. MOONSTRUCK, and letters small enough to fit the head of a pin will whisper, “As told to Joe Flaimngo.” Joe Flamingo, the actual writer, is the drudge who has wasted two years of his life for a miserly stipend, setting down and embellishing the few halting words of Charles W. Moonstruck. When the book finally appears in print, Moonstruck struts all over town asking his friends (the few he has), “Did you read my book? … You know, I’ve never written a book before. … I had no idea writing was so easy!

Groucho and Me is actually a fine autobiography, but one that profoundly re-negotiates its relationship with the reader, since the character of Groucho Marx as known in 13 Marx Brothers movies would never sit down to write an entire book, or make any honest confessions at all.

The autobiography of artists might hold more promise than sports memoirs, since an artist in one medium might be empowered to translate that medium, and thus find a way to communicate the transcendence of their gifts in the arts.

That sense of re-negotiation of what an autobiography is happens to be key. A few years ago, I read Stephen Tyler’s Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? and found that, while my admiration for Aerosmith’s music hadn’t diminished, neither had it been greatly enhanced, either. Tyler recounts his adventures and misadventures, but the effect was a laundry list of happenstance, except for his rhapsodic description of his pre-Aerosmith years. Disgruntled with Tyler’s autobiography, Aerosmith’s lead guitarist, Joe Perry, has written his own called Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. There are five human beings in that band. Who knows that the truth is? If we accept that even if each theoretical book is not a complete account, then five books would be a beginning to getting at the essence of Aerosmith’s mastery of rock music. I am not sure I love Aerosmith enough to read whatever succession of autobiographies might be necessary to compete with the best of their sound.

Aerosmith should have been content, perhaps, to let the music do the talking. The essence of what I feel listening to their music is overwhelmingly my own.

Ultimately, an autobiography has to be mostly about something else: the person we don’t really know. This subject may or may not coincide with the art we appreciate.

This is a long preamble for a review of Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman, with footnotes by Richard Nichols, the manager of The Roots, the hip hop band Questlove is the drummer for.

You can probably anticipate from this set-up that Mo’ Meta Blues is a book that seriously engages the paradoxes of autobiography. The cover image, a riff on Milton Glaser’s psychedelic designs of the 1960s, shows the silhouette of Questlove’s profile with colorful question marks and a single black power fist emanating from his afro.

There are sections in which Questlove reminisces.

There are sections in which Questlove offers commentary about his favorite albums over a decade, year by year.

There are sections when Ben Greenman interviews Questlove.

There are sections in which Ben Greenman writes emails to the book’s editor, Ben Greenberg, asking questions about the ultimate direction of the book one happens to be already holding in one’s hand.

In one section, Ben Greenman inteviews Rich Nichols.

& there are Rich’s footnote rebuttals below the text of some of Questlove’s reminiscences.

This feels intuitive rather than fragmentary as a reading experience.

Mo’ Meta Blues is a deconstruction of autobiography, but the material one reads an autobiography for is also there. Questlove writes about his musical upbringing in its historical and cultural context, and his own passions as a music nerd—from childhood to his middle-aged present—is Proustian in its richness. His lifelong obsession with pop and R&B music, especially Prince is something I find easy to connect to. As a heavy metal teen, I loved Prince as far back as Parade (despite my not quite loving the falsetto strutting of “Kiss”—I liked the other songs on Parade, especially “Boys and Girls”).

One irony is that Questlove’s idol, Prince, has said, “I don’t talk about the past,” which forms an epigraph for M’o Meta Blues. But Questlove’s engagement with his past is not a static thing to cling to, hence the meta- elements to punctuate the provisional, questioning nature of both his past and present.

Observing Questlove childhood in this way makes me feel closer to my own childhood. His own idiosyncrasies are either just like mine, or analogous to mine. Questlove writes,

I remember once, when I was a kid, hearing Johnny Winter singing “Tired of Tryin’” with Muddy Waters on guitar, on the Nothin’ but the Blues album, and hearinh him seing and liking what I heard and then looking at a picture of him on the album and double-taking, maybe triple-taking, and then wondering what it meant to be black (or white, or albino) and play black music (was it?). And was Johnny paying tribute to Muddy by playing a takeoff on “tired of Cryin’,” by Howlin’ Wolf, one of Muddy’s personal and professional rivals—and, while we’re on the subject, one of the most authentically black voices in the history of popular music? Except that the closest artist to him vocally was Captain Beefheart, one of the whitest—if by “white” you mean the kind of fractured art rock he was practicing—except that he was playing the blues, and the blues are black, except that he was white and the blues were his, so maybe there’s no color in it all all except the color you put there. The exceptions don’t prove the rule. They shame it. They banish it. In one of Beefheart’s songs, “Dirty Blue Gene,” he explains why black and white are never black-and-white: “The shiny beast of thought / If you got ears / You gotta listen.” You heard the man. You gotta listen.

Questlove’s way of listening both reminded me of and awakened my own passion for pop music. He knows so many of the deep cuts I know, and a lot of other musical roads I’ve never even been down, too.

His experience is about much more than being a sophisticated listener, though, as his own philosophies of music are explored in his own professional careers as a drummer and a music producer.

At first, the title of Mo Meta Blues seemed trite to me, lamely shoe-horning the prefix onto the title of Spike Lee’s fourth movie, Mo’ Better Blues. The title turns out not to be trite at all, since a scene from the movie is at the crux of the autobiography. The conversation between trumpeter and bandleader Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and sax-player Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) is basically a Socratic dialogue on the dialectical relationship between audience, commerce, race, and art. This dialogue, I forgot, was sampled in the opening of The Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart (the allusion to Achebe another postmodern thread here). Bleek wants to be high and mighty about the purity of traditional bebop while judging the lack of audiences for it circa 1990, and Shadow calls bullshit on such narcissism, saying artists need to play what people want to hear. Questlove seems to respect both points of view, and looks for some satisfying middle ground between isolationism and pandering. It’s not an easy road to take if one takes aesthetics seriously, passionately, and with love.

This standard was driven home for Questlove as a producer, when he and his studio collaborators outside of The Roots all played the latest tracks they were working on, and he played an early version of “Double Trouble”:

I played it, and I will never forget the feeling that came over the room, including me. It wasn’t that they didn’t hoot and holler like they had for the other songs. They did. But they didn’t mean it. I know the move people resort to when they’re not quite into a song: they keep a straight stare on their face and bob their head a bit, not saying anything, not making eye contact. That’s the sign of death. That’s what they all did me, and I felt humiliated. I was like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: I will not be ignored! I went back into the studio that same night and gave that song a radical, extended facelift. I refused to sleep until I had that thing up and running.

I knew from then on that anything I did had to meet the standard of the room. It wasn’t enough to appeal to some unseen critics. I needed the artists around me to react with more than the straight-ahead, quiet-as-the-grave head bob.

 Sounds like a great fiction workshop to me.

Serve with:

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

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