Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gold Medal vs. Heavy Metal

I'm going to miss the Olympics.

That's the band HammerFall and the Swedish women's curling team, which won a gold medal in Vancouver. If I'd known curling was so totally wicked awesome, I'd've pulled the broom out of the garage long ago.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Comedy Album?

I woke up this morning suddenly aware that a big piece of culture had slipped away without me noticing: comedy albums. I don't know why I woke up with that on my mind, but I did (I also woke up this morning calculating the Earth's mass in my head . . . just checked, I was only off by a factor of three, which I consider pretty darn order-of-magnitude close).

Karen, when I get that faraway look in my eyes, this is where I go. Sorry. Love 'ya.

In my teens, it wasn't unusual to get together with friends and listen to comedy albums. I remember doing it in the family room of a good friend in junior high; I remember doing it with 15 people crammed into a college dorm room. Does anyone still do that? Or does it sound as antique and exotic as a malt-shop sock hop to someone under 35 or 40? Or was I just hanging out with freaks and weirdos all along (a real possibility)?

My prime comedy listening years were pretty much the 1970s, though I heard and appreciated material from before my time. In the mid-'70s, San Francisco AM radio station KSFO had a wonderful block of nighttime programming. As I recall, the evening started at 8 p.m. with Radio Mystery Theater, which broadcast modern original dramas. At 9 p.m. came old programs from the 1930s through '50s, a rotating mix of classic dramas such as "The Shadow" and comics like Fred Allen and Jack Benny, as well as occasional obscurities. Then at 10 p.m. came comedy, hosted by D.J. John Gilliland, and oh was that terrific! All the great stuff from the '50s and '60s. There were probably a good two or three years there where I disappeared into my room after dinner every night to listen to old radio programs and cuts from comedy albums. Most parents of teenage boys worry about them because they don't know what they're up to; I imagine now how my parents must've worried about me because they did know.

On top of that were comedy albums that friends and I bought, shared, swapped. A terrific mix of old and new. I loved Bob Newhart's button-down mind, both Bill Cosby's high-concept and well-observed family stuff, Allan Sherman, Nichols and May, Spike Jones. Tom Lehrer. Monty Python put out some albums that played with the vinyl medium as much as their films and television programs played with theirs. I knew a girl in junior high whose parents were so cool they let her play George Carlin loud! Richard Pryor. And poor Bill Dana . . . Mr. Dana came out of the Danny Thomas-Spike Jones-Steve Allen school of comedy and had the misfortune to play a dim-witted character named Jose Jimenez just when it became obviously wrong to do so. When I was 13, I didn't know Jose Jimenez was racist; I just thought he was very funny. (Mr. Dana later retired the character with apologies and received an Image Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition.)

Comedy wasn't just an obscure niche of the recording industry. "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" was Number One on the Billboard pop chart in 1960, ahead of Elvis Presley. The last comedy album I'm aware of having a significant cultural impact was Steve Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guy" from 1978, which hit Number Two on the album charts and went double platinum. Everybody had it. Looking over the list of Grammy winners, I don't see much in the 32 years (!) since: some Weird Al, PDQ Bach (which I love), Chris Rock, welcome little blips from veterans like Carlin, Jonathan Winters, and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, and a new generation rising with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Some good work, but nothing explosive and universal. Certainly nothing I can imagine college freshman huddling around an mp3 player listening to.

Is that it, then? Is the comedy album a relic? Cable television doubtlessly stole a lot of their steam; whereas Bill Cosby put out at least one record a year between 1963 and 1973, today someone like Lewis Black produces HBO or Comedy Central specials at the same rate. Then there's the obvious fragmenting of culture, so that you and I could go our whole lives unexposed to each other's artistic and entertainment touchstones.

Maybe I'm becoming a cranky old coot (check that: I know I'm becoming a cranky old coot, I'm just not sure whether it applies to this issue), but it seems like something valuable has been lost. Something communal, some secret clubhouse conjuring the theater of the mind. It's hard to put a finger on it. I didn't even notice it'd gone missing until this morning.

* * *
Great new word of the day: Pleonastic. It means repetitive or redundant (perhaps like that definition itself). Work it into a conversation.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Man, I've been busy lately. Still am. Just a quick catch-all catch-up post full of dubious detritus:
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This here blog is just recovering from an explosion of visitors brought by a single Tweet from online cartoonist Scott Kurtz, who enjoyed my post on the Catbayashi Maru. I met the popular and successful Mr. Kurtz for the first time a week ago (might write about the occasion someday, but probably won't). What made it fun was that Scott won the Eisner Award for best webcomic the year after I did, which we shamelessly lorded over everyone else. I liked him, his wife Angie, and his Dad a lot. Anyway, one whisper from Scott was enough to peg my visitor count for two or three days. I hope he uses his power for good.
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I just came up with the best way to get a charity solicitor off the phone, and I'm amazed I didn't think of it years ago. Today when the very determined lady asked if she could count on my $25 donation, I plaintively replied, "But I just gave you a lot more than that last month! Didn't you get it?" She thanked me and hung up so fast she was almost rude.

Karen and I like giving to charities, particularly local ones for which our relatively puny contribution might make a difference. What I don't like is when the cost of the follow-up letters and phone calls begging for more exceeds the value of what we donated in the first place. That'll get you crossed off the list pretty quick.
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Every so often, when Karen and I have a free afternoon, we pick some small town only slightly less randomly than throwing a dart at a map and say, "let's go there." We did it again last weekend, visiting a hamlet just a half hour away we hadn't been to in years, and had a swell time. Anybody else do that? I recommend it.
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I've got a couple of speaking engagements coming up I'll write about when I have some time. Both related to Mom's Cancer, and I can't express how gratifying it is that my family's story endures like that. It's very, very nice. Much appreciated.
* * *
Anyone else remember Herb Caen? Dot dot dot.

Back to work, slacker.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oooh! Aaaah!

My world, welcome to it.

Starting when I was in my early thirties, I've had one or two migraine attacks per year. The headaches aren't unbearable, and I've learned that if I take a megadose of Advil when I first feel one coming on I can avoid most of the pain. Instead, I just go blind.

Perhaps I overdramatize. Not literally blind--I can still walk around without bumping into walls, and could read a book or drive a car if I really had to. But my visual perception gets very distorted, like looking through a kaleidoscope. Sometimes the world goes all pointillist on me: objects break up into vibrating dots, as if Scotty were beaming them aboard the Enterprise. Other times, a glowing, vibrating, transparent crystalline shape parks itself right in my center of vision and dances around to refract whatever I'm focusing on. As the episode progresses the shape changes, usually growing to form a distorting ring with a clear center.

The first time it happened, I was working in a laboratory and was terrified, thinking I'd gotten a whiff of some bad fumes. These days, my migraines are kind of an annoying curiosity. I notice the little distortion zone forming, check to make sure I'm seeing it with both eyes (yep), slug down some Advil, and resign myself to wasting the next couple of hours lying with my eyes closed and waiting for it to go away. It can be almost enjoyable, watching the pretty light show and trying to map the dancing colors and shapes--a little neurological self-experiment. The effect is called an "aura," and it's easy to imagine that in an earlier era it would have been quite the spiritual experience. Eventually it fades, and I'm left with a diffuse ache behind my eyes and a dark gray nimbus brain-cloud that usually lingers until the next morning.

I knew a girl in college who got migraines--really painful ones. I admit I thought she was quite the drama queen, swooning and moaning and retreating to her room with the curtains drawn. I regret my lack of compassion. These things are your brain turning against itself, man, and can be very nasty and scary. Compared to many, I get off light.
Why mention it now? Because today's my lucky day.
* * *
Speaking of beaming aboard the Enterprise, Karen and I watched the 2009 movie Star Trek a couple days ago, for the first time since we saw it in the theater. Karen said she got more out of it this time. I found that the things I liked about it the first time I liked even more, while the things that bugged me about it the first time bugged me even more. Loved the characters (for the most part), hated the contrivances and plot holes. On balance, I stand by my review in May and grade it a "B," and just wish J.J. Abrams had given the script one more pass that could've brought it up to an "A."
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Still speaking of beaming aboard the Enterprise, this is for the three people who I know will appreciate it:

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I read something that took me aback. If a movie studio were to make (or remake) Back to the Future today and sent Marty McFly as far back in time as he went in the first film, he'd pop up in the golden oldie days of . . . 1980. My brain just melted . . . although that could be the migraine.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I'm Alive

I'm back home, a day late and a certified survivor of Snowmageddon 2010.

My adventure began a few hours before I left California late Monday, when Alison (who works for my publisher Abrams, invited me out to speak to the Bookbinders' Guild, and made the travel arrangements) e-mailed that the airline had cancelled my flight. Curiously, the airline's website seemed to think everything was fine and on schedule. Two different customer service reps gave Alison and me two different answers. I left for the airport figuring I had a 50/50 chance of a plane being there for me. One was. We later realized that the airline had sent Alison an e-mail cancelling my return flight on Wednesday. Their original e-mail never specified which flight they meant, and we assumed it was the earliest. So I left San Francisco at midnight Monday suspecting I was on a one-way trip.

The red-eye arrived at JFK airport at 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, so I was totally fresh and energized when I reached the Manhattan apartment of Editor Charlie and his wife, the Lovely Rachel. Charlie went to work while I cleaned up and then met him at Abrams.

Tuesday lunch with Charlie (who took the picture), Jim Killen, the graphic novel buyer for Barnes & Noble, and Elisa Garcia, Abrams's national accounts manager for children's books. Poor Elisa, having to put up with three grown men talking about their passion for comics. It was a real pleasure.

After spending the afternoon meeting people at Abrams, reconnecting with some I'd already met, and talking a little business, Charlie and I reported to the stately Random House tower for the Bookbinders' Guild panel, which we thought went well and seemed to get a good response. About 30 people showed up for wine, hors d'oeuvres, and us. The topic was "Which Came First: The Book or the Blog?" and the first speaker was literary agent Kate Lee, who carved out a career finding and bringing web content to print when few people had thought to do such an outrageous thing. Her presentation was very interesting, a good complement to ours I thought. Then Charlie and I did our Abbott & Costello routine--focusing mostly on Mom's Cancer but also comparing and contrasting with WHTTWOT. We took some good questions, I signed some books, then we went to dinner.

Ms. Lee, me and Charlie at Random House. At the lectern is Alison Gervais, who arranged everything. It's not a good picture of her, sorry.

Dinner after, Charlie behind the lens again. I'm with Rachel and eminent designer-editor-author Chip Kidd, a friend of Charlie's who works at Random House and came to watch/taunt us. Chip drew a doodle on a paper chopstick sleeve that I rescued for my original art collection and can never show on a PG-rated blog. There's probably a name for the style of food we ate here but I don't know it. Like a Japanese type of dim sum or tapas: you order an assortment of bite-sized meat and vegetable morsels (some pretty exotic), which are skewered and grilled on a long hibachi on the other side of the bar. Fun and tasty.

Wednesday morning I slept in. Don't know why I was so beat. I later met Charlie and Assistant Editor Sofia for lunch, where we really dove into what I hope will be my next book that I hope will be published by Abrams. They had a lot of good questions, new and challenging ideas, and I came away a little daunted by the work I have to do but genuinely energized about doing it. This was the first professional-grade feedback I've gotten on my idea and it was constructive and useful. When the book comes out and I mention in the acknowledgements how it wouldn't have been possible without them, it's this lunch I'll have in mind.
Poor Alison worked frantically to find me a way home, and eventually got me the last seat on a plane taking off today (Thursday) at 8 a.m. The rest of Wednesday afternoon I wandered Manhattan in a blizzard. It wasn't particularly cold. The biggest challenge was navigating the lakes of mush that pooled at each crosswalk--every Boy Scout knows that in a wilderness survival situation, keeping your feet dry is paramount. I decided there were many worse places to be stuck.
I took this photo because I liked the bicycle and the black-on-white metal and branches. This was early Wednesday, several more inches fell during the day.
I nearly passed right by the Empire State Building without realizing it. Beer saved me. See, I have a brother-in-law who collects t-shirts from brewpubs, the more obscure and exotic the better. So as I walked along enjoying gotham's transformation into a magical crystalline wonderland, my thoughts went exactly like this:
1. Hey! That looks like a brewpub! Maybe they have a shirt I could get Marc!
2. Hey! This looks a lot like the place Karen and I got a shirt for Marc the last time we were in New York!
3. Hey! That place was on the first floor of the Empire State Building!
4. Look up.
5. Oh.
Publicist Amy had talked to two of the best comic book stores in the world, Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics, about me coming in and signing books for them. I did. Both seemed happy to have me, particularly considering the weather, and said they'd been happy with sales of WHTTWOT. Hanley's also had a box of Mom's Cancer books in stock for me to sign, which I appreciated. Nice people running great shops, go spend money at them.
David (left) at Midtown Comics bags the books after I signed them, with a "signed by creator" sticker on the front.

On Charlie and Rachel's suggestion, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition on the work of director-cartoonist-animator Tim Burton, which I thought was terrific. I may have enough thoughts on that to support an entire other blog post. For now, I'll say that if you have any interest in seeing a prolific creative mind at work and play, in a wide variety of media including animation, drawings, sculpture and film, it's worth a visit.
Snow even makes garbage look good. Or at least better.
I only slipped and landed flat on my back on the sidewalk once, which was pretty good in those conditions. Two tourists quickly and compassionately helped me to my feet. I could tell they were tourists because they quickly and compassionately helped me to my feet. Nothing damaged but dignity.
I happened to walk past David Letterman's show at the Ed Sullivan Theater just as they were ushering in the audience for Wednesday's program. Thinking maybe some ticketholders hadn't made it due to snow, I asked the staffer at the door if they needed one more hand in the balcony. Alas, they had all the applauders and laughers they required. I walked around the corner and heard Paul Shaffer's band playing through the theater's side doors.
Back to Charlie and Rachel's for an unplanned second night, about which they heroically hid their anger and disappointment. Another great dinner at another unique restaurant, an early-morning rise, a long flight home, and my Daring Blizzard Adventure was done.
A street at dusk.
Honestly, the storm didn't impress me much. For all the talk of schools, businesses and airports closing in near panic, I spent six or seven hours comfortably walking streets that were always navigable. Maybe Manhattan has superior snow-removal procedures, maybe the storm hit other places harder than the little slice of city I saw. I certainly didn't see any good reason to cancel every airplane flight on the East Coast two days ahead of time.
But I'm not too sorry that they were.

Monday, February 8, 2010

All My Bags Are Packed, I'm Ready to Go

I'm leaving on a redeye tonight for a quick business trip to New York City. I can't begin to tell you how much I'm looking forward to the East Coast winter.

Item One on the agenda is a presentation that Editor Charlie, literary agent Kate Lee and I will be giving for the Bookbinders' Guild of New York, which has a monthly meeting on topics of interest to its publishing industry members (not all of whom, I gather, are directly involved with the physical binding of books). Tuesday's topic is "Which Came First: The Book or the Blog?" Editor Charlie and I will talk about how Mom's Cancer happened and, I think, some of the special issues involved in publishing graphic novels. Right now, he and I are struggling mightily to figure out why the PowerPoint slides I sent him aren't working. It's very possible my talk will be illustrated with shadow puppets.

Items Two through Seventeen consist of some other business, and with luck I'll get a bit of personal time on Wednesday to complete a little pilgrimage. We'll see if my schedule and the weather cooperate.

Pictures to come, I'm sure. I like New York.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Catbayashi Maru

So I've been in a Star Trek frame of mind the past couple of days anyway, and then 10 minutes ago my cartooning pal Mike Lynch sends me this:

You'll either get it or you won't. If you don't, that's OK--we can still be friends. But if you do, we can be good friends.

People write "LOL" all the time even when they don't mean it (in fact, that's an official "Lolcat" above), but I actually laughed out loud when I saw that. Thanks, Mike. Your debt to me is repaid; that was worth 100 quatloos.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: Grammy Awards v. Iron Chef America

The Grammy Awards and Iron Chef America were on at the same time last night. We flipped back and forth.

Lady Gaga and Elton John open the Grammys singing in some sort of industrial hellscape from which both emerged covered in soot. My wife Karen thought they looked ridiculous. I said I thought that was the point. They sounded a'ight, dawg. B+.

Alton Brown intros that tonight's Iron Chef battle is coming from Kitchen Stadium #3 floating somewhere in the Maldives and announces that the Chairman's yacht has just docked. I like it when Iron Chef nods to its own ridiculous mythos. A.

Stephen Colbert kicks off the Grammys' first award by inducting his teenage daughter into the insincerely earnest (or earnestly insincere) comedy business. Jokes touch on the iPad, and Dad not being cool. She seems like a nice kid and it's funny instead of cringeworthy. A.

Today's challenger is chef Michael Smith, author of many cookbooks and star of Food Network Canada. There's a Food Network Canada? Smith looks like a big fella, towering over the Chairman (who could still kill him in two seconds if he wanted), and gets into the histrionic spirit of Kitchen Stadium by announcing his challenge of Iron Chef Bobby Flay with the same passion Patton brought to battling Rommel. A.

Green Day performs "21 Guns" with the Broadway cast of the upcoming play "American Idiot." I like Green Day and am a sucker for big choruses that raise goosebumps. A highlight of the Grammys for me. A.

The secret ingredient: Avocado! Karen groans--avocado's a gimme for the southwestern-style Flay. Do they even have avocados in Canada? I don't like avocado or guacamole at all, making me something of a heretic here in California. I find it flavorless and phlegmy. I keep trying it, hoping that someday I'll finally get what everyone else raves about. No luck so far. Points off for both throwing Flay a softball and using an ingredient I wouldn't enjoy. C.

Taylor Swift wins for Best Country Album. She sings country? For confusing me, that award earns a C.

Tonight I learned that the entire California avocado industry is descended from a single Haas avocado tree. I did not know that. When Mom and my sisters moved to Hollywood, their neighbor had a giant avocado tree whose branches hung over into their yard. It was a beautiful tree that produced year-round, but Mom was afraid that one of those plummeting shotputs would kill her dog Hero. All they did was make him fat; Hero loved to eat avocados. For teaching me something I didn't know and reviving a happy memory, A.

Pink sings "Glitter in the Air" rotating from a cloth sling dangling from the ceiling while spraying water on everyone below like a lawn sprinkler. Karen imagined all the enraged audience members getting their stylin' tuxes and spangly gowns soaking wet. I liked it, and not just for the single-ply gauze bandage Pink was wearing. At the very least, you've gotta admire her work ethic, plus points for potentially annoying spoiled rich people. A-.

Chef Smith pulls out a slab of Canadian bacon, maple syrup, moose loin, a six-pack of Molsons, and a box of Tim Hortons donuts, and politely gets to work. Nah, just kidding. For setting back international relations 50 years, B+ for me.

Black-Eyed Peas perform "Imma Be" and the ubiquitous "I Got a Feeling." That was . . . energetic. The legion of back-up dancers costumed in balloon-animal burkas and silver stereo speakers really made me miss grunge. And I didn't even like grunge. B-.

Tonight's Iron Chef judges are Donatella Arpaia and Anya Fernald, who have something to do with food, and actor Antonio Sabato Jr., who doesn't. That's OK. One of the charms of the original Japanese Iron Chef was the old-bat judge whose occupation was always listed as "fortune teller." I miss the old Iron Chef. B. (When Jeffrey Steingarten is judging, it's an automatic A.)

Stephen Colbert wins a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. He asks his daughter in the audience if she thinks he's cool now. She gives him a very sweet, teary-eyed nod that tugged at my Daddy heartstrings. Oh, would that I could ever make my daughters that proud of me. A.

Bobby Flay breaks out some chipotle and ancho chiles. Really thinking outside the box tonight, Bobby. C.

Several old and some dead people win Grammy lifetime achievement awards. One dude wins a Grammy Award for helping produce Grammy Award shows, which seems pretty incestuous to me (speaking of nodding to your own ridiculous mythos). It strikes me, not for the first or last time, how little people in the same line of work can have in common. For example, Katy Perry and Alice Cooper, or Placido Domingo and Mos Def, or Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige, to name three actual pairings from last night. C for inappropriate combos and over-self-congratulation + A for weirdness = B average.

Chef Smith's trying some interesting, playful things. Fried avocado balls, avocado pearls nestled in raw oysters. No idea how any of it would taste and I still don't like avocados, but you can see a creative culinary mind at work. B+.

Taylor Swift sings with Stevie Nicks, first Stevie's "Rhiannon" and then Taylor's "You Belong With Me." The performance was a revelation--that revelation being that Taylor looked and sounded like a thin, flat, callow, boring, insubstantial wisp next to Stevie's rich, deep, seasoned, compelling bleat. "Rhiannon" is also a much better song than Ms. Swift's ode to being the head cheerleader in love with the team captain. Taylor seems like a very nice young woman, but the contrast was striking and not in her favor. C for Swift + A for Nicks = B average.

Bobby Flay chunks up a big beef shoulder into 2-inch cubes. Karen says, "That meat looks awfully fatty." I predict that he's going to put it into a pressure cooker to render out the fat and get a good braise on it. Seconds later, Flay tosses it into a pressure cooker. For making me look smart, an A.

Ah, the Michael Jackson tribute, in 3-D. Karen and I pull out our red-blue anaglyphic specs. The 3-D effect is pretty good, although I'm disappointed there's no footage of Jackson himself. That would've been fun (even a clip from Captain Eo could've been repurposed). Good performances, though again some memory-jolting bits of classic MJ songs would've been welcome. Jackson's son Prince Michael and daughter Paris speak at the end, and my how they've grown! Seems like just yesterday they were being dangled out of windows. Prince is a poised young man whose affect could have been Stepford-creepy if he hadn't made a couple of endearing mistakes reading the teleprompter. Paris seems sweet. And ain't genetics funny? B.

Chef Michael Smith takes a live blue softshell crab, coats it with some seasoned flour, drops it into a fryer, and lays it atop a sandwich. I'm West Coast--I don't know softshell crab, it's all Dungeness around here. Can you do that? Fry 'em up and eat 'em without cleaning or shelling them? Are they good? That just seems totally bizarre to me. A if edible, C if not.

The Grammys offer a nice tribute to Les Paul, whom I'm a big admirer of. I really liked that Jeff Beck and Imelda May went on to perform Paul's "How High the Moon." Great artists, great music, another highlight of the evening for me. A.

For one course, Chef Smith offers the judges three guacamoles prepared differently. When plating, he simply leaves the guac in the three food processor bowls in which they were made and fills them to the top with three varieties of chips. It's either a very gutsy move or a very lazy one. I like it. Five full points for plating design from me = A.

Rappers Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Drake get together for a song backed by the drummer from Blink 182, who's really wailing away on his kit. Whenever I see rappers on these award shows backed by bands or orchestras, I imagine that there's some kid in there who picked up an instrument at age 8, practiced every day, joined his or her small-town junior symphony, spent four hard years mastering their skills at Julliard, studied overseas, entered brutal competitions, scraped hard to land every gig they could get, and is now earning a couple hundred bucks playing backup for a multimillionaire whose musical talent consists of rhythmically reciting bad poetry. D for the bleepin' rappers + B for the drummer = C.

Judging is underway. Smith may be in trouble. The judges don't seem taken with his avocado-white chocolate mousse. C.

Taylor Swift's "Fearless" wins the Grammy for Album of the Year. I'm nonplussed, but good for her. B-.

Two champions met tonight in Battle Avocado here in Kitchen Stadium. The judges have spoken. And the winner is . . . Iron Chef Flay. B-. (If Smith had won, it'd be a B+ because Flay just seemed to coast tonight.)

Final grades: Iron Chef America = B. Grammy Awards = B+.