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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

ASTERIX AND THE CHARIOT RACE (2017)

It's always sad when a beloved series' creators retire, die, or hand over the creative reins to other hands, so it is with great delight that I go on record as being pleased as Punch with the third volume of ASTERIX from its new creative team, ASTERIX AND THE CHARIOT RACE (2017), and the first that I've read since the departure of the creators. This 37th arc in the long-running Franco-Belgian adventure comedy set during the reign of Julius Caesar finds our Gaulish heroes engaged in grueling chariot race open to all comers from the known world, and the expected frenetic madness ensues. 
Now written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad, this story is a letter-perfect replication of the flavor ad style of Goscinny and Uderzo, that — shockingly — restores the iconic characters ad their world to the lively, crazy fun that hooked me to the series some 46 years ago. I am DEEP into Asterix as a fan, so I know its tropes and stylistic touches inside and out, so it's no idle compliment when I say that ASTERIX AND THE CHARIOT RACE is a welcome throwback to the glory days of stories like ASTERIX THE LEGIONARY, ASTRIX IN SPAIN, ASTERIX IN SWITZERLAND, THE MANSIONS OF THE GODS, ad of course ASTERIX AND CLEOPATRA. The script wastes zero time in getting straight to the main action, pitting Asterix and Obelix (whom a soothsayer has prophesied will be a champion charioteer despite his complete and utter lack of experience with the sport) against an array of international competitors from within the Empire ad beyond, and while Conrad's illustrations hew clone-level close to Uderzo's signature style, he imparts his own sensibilities to the characters and their body language in subtle ways that Uderzo never achieved, and that aspect leads me to wonder if Conrad was an animator or if he simply studied and absorbed quality animation design to a comprehensive degree. The recurring cast all look perfect, though now featuring bits of gestural business and "chicken fat" that are likely only detectable to the veteran Asterix-junkie, and the new characters, each saddled with the groaningly-fun but horrendous punny names the strip is infamous for, are all memorable, with my favorites being Kushite charioteer team and princesses "Nefersaynefer" and "Kweenlatifer," who bear more than a passing resemblance to Venus and Serena Williams (respectively).
Bottom line, this one's a fast-paced hoot that has me eager for the next installment from Ferri and Conrad. Final Grade: A+

Obelix contemplates some checkerboard action with Kushite charioteer/princess "Kweenlatifer."


NOTE: The only caveat that I give in regard to this volume is the same one I give to pretty much all of the Asterix books, specifically the series' serial deployment of ethnic stereotyping. I look at it as a very Franco-Belgian exaggeration/caricaturing of all non-French people, done with zero conscious malice, but many others are likely to take offense, especially in today's climate, so keep that aspect in mind. To me, as with pretty much everything, it's a matter of context, but I fully understand why some would find it offensive in this day and age. That said, speaking as lifelong negro, a lot of us do indeed possess "liver lips," so dems da breaks.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

DUSTING OFF THE SKILLS

Drawn earlier this evening, off the top of my head and with zero reference, in order to prove a claim. 



A while back I told Charlie (my dear friend Lexi's brother and my chosen nephew) that when THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came out I was bombarded by my 9th grade classmates with "Draw Yoda!!! Draw Yoda!!!" so I would oblige, and in the process I drew him so many times that I can practically delineate him in my sleep. 

Before tonight's dinner at Lexi's place, I was working out some head structure sketches for a character I'm trying to finalize the look for, and Charlie said "So, are you finally gonna draw Yoda for me?" When it had come up before I had neither pen nor paper, but this time I had my sketchbook with paper of preferred tooth and a blue pencils, so I set to it. What you see here is maybe two minutes of drawing that was interrupted by dinner being served, otherwise I would have finished it. It was sufficient to get across my point of being able to draw Yoda from memory, but I wish I'd had the time to finish it properly.

I've had a creative resurgence of late, something I have not felt in a shamefully long time, so I spent over $400 on replenishing my art supplies at this year's New York Comic Con, and I now take my sketchbook and a modest supply of drawing equipment with me in my regularly-sported back pack, thus facilitating drawing anywhere and at the drop of a dime. It feels good to flex these muscles again.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

THIS SATURDAY AT THE BIG APPLE COMIC CON!!!

From the website.

Well, dear Vaulties, your favorite Bunche will be participating in a panel regarding the special bond between the City and Comic Books, moderated by Paul Levitz, alongside fellow speakers Michael Uslan, Tom DeFalco, Steve Saffel, and Peter Kuper, at the Big Apple Comic Con. For more information, click here, and I hope to see you at the show!


Monday, December 09, 2019

FROM 2013: WHEN LOCAL SEASON WINDOW DISPLAYS GO WRONG

The running red paint on the wrist, hand, and waist of this graffiti-tagging Santa Claus makes me wonder what bloody mayhem the right jolly old elf has been up to to accompany his vandalism...

Sunday, December 08, 2019

R.I.P., RENE AUBERJONOIS, STAR TREK'S SHAPE-SHIFTING CONSTABLE AND VOICE OF PETER PARKER, GONE AT 79

Rene Auberjonois, all but unrecognizable beneath his makeup as Odo on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999), yet he made the character utterly memorable.

R.I.P. to René Auberjonois, best known to most as shape-shifting constable Odo on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. However, he will always hold a special place in my heart as the voice of Peter Parker on the classic 1972 children's album THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. 

One of the defining albums of my childhood.
It was an excellent Spider-Man audio play, coupled with marvelously cheesy early-1970's "bubblegum"-styled rock songs (making the LP a self-proclaimed "rockomic") that actually accented and propelled the narrative, and it was also the place where I first encountered one of my eventual favorite heroes of all time, specifically Doctor Strange. 
The record also holds a special place in my memory as being a gift that was given to me when my family traumatically moved from South San Francisco to Westport, CT, just a week or two shy of my seventh birthday. I found myself dropped into an unfamiliar and quite hostile environment with no friends while my parents struggled daily with the misery of each other, so I spent many hours listening to this album, escaping from the shit show that was my 7-year-old life while accompanied by the trusted and beloved presence of Spider-Man, who was given a solid vocal performance by Auberjonois. And his back-and-forth interplay with Andrew Robinson and Armin Shimerman on DEEP SPACE NINE was one of the show's defining highlights, proving that the right actor can bring even the most unlikely and fantastical of material to entertaining and believable life.
With Armin Shimerman on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE.
So, thank you, René, from the bottom of my heart. May you find well-earned rest and peace with the Founders.
The man behind the morphing.

IT WAS 39 YEARS AGO TODAY

Dear Vaulties-

here's a re-run from the past couple of years, complete with the title change and a few edits to render the accurate passage of time. Bear with it, because this has become an annual fixture.
NOTE : every word of the following story is true (or rather remembered as exactly as humanly possible given that nearly four decades have elapsed since it happened), and if you find some of it offensive at this late date, imagine being in my shoes at age fifteen!

December 9th, 1980-

It was the start of my tenth grade school day morning and I was disgruntled (as usual) at being denied sleep and instead being herded along with the rest of the cattle at Westport, CT's Staples High School into yet another inane class.

The first item of regurgitation/education of the morning was English with Mr. Dyskolos (not his real name; changed for reasons soon to be apparent), a late-forty-something red-headed guy who then resembled what Danny Bonaduce looks like today, who was also among the minute handful of teachers whose classes would keep students awake because he was genuinely interesting, did not talk down to the kids, and had not allowed the thankless teaching system to beat him down and force him to consider his job a mocking reminder of wage-slavery. (I'm the son of a teacher, so I speak with a working knowledge of such things.)

As the students took their chairs we all noticed that Mr. Dyskolos's usual laid-back manner seemed somewhat "off" that morning and after nearly a minute of total silence while he stared into space as though contemplating some cosmic truth or inevitability, he suddenly focused himself, looked at us and said, as serious as a heart attack, "By the look of you, you haven't heard what happened this morning. I'll just get right to it. John Lennon, de facto leader of the Beatles, was shot dead by some lunatic fan." Most of the class had indeed not heard about Lennon's murder and those of us who hadn't, myself among them, were stunned. But before the horrible truth could fully set in, Mr. Dyskolos continued. "You kids probably know a lot about the Beatles from what your parents or maybe your older brothers and sisters played for you, but you can't even begin to imagine the worldwide pop culture impact those guys had at the time. Obviously I was there for the 1960's and can tell you firsthand what it was like, but I'm gonna spare you that nauseating, self-indulgent trip down memory lane. I guarantee you that all your other teachers are going to suspend actual teaching for the day and drag you along for their reminiscences of their flower-power salad days, but I'm not gonna do that to you. Instead, I'm gonna tell you a few truths that you won't hear anywhere else in this school, or damn near anywhere else, on what's gonna no doubt be a day of worldwide mourning."

He leaned forward in his chair, his face a mask of utmost solemnity, and uttered words that blew the minds of the roomful of privileged suburban white kids (and me): "The Beatles sucked. They were a bunch of marginally talented 'heads' who started out ripping off the work of their black American influences and made a hell of a lot of money for no good reason, killing real rock 'n' roll in the process and unleashing legions of even less-talented imitators in that godawful British Invasion nonsense. And then they went to India, supposedly to gain 'enlightenment' or some other George Harrison-inspired bee-ess, but if you ask me all it did was make their music more annoying." To emphasize that point of criticism, Mr. Dyskolos began making a nasal and high-pitched "neeeeeeer neeeeeer neeeeeeeeeee neeeer" sound by way of approximating the tones of a sitar.

By this point in his diatribe you could have heard an amoeba fart.

Young eyes practically bugged out of their sockets and jaws had fallen into laps. This was rock 'n' roll blasphemy in the extreme, and on the morning of the senseless slaughter of a man held by most in the room to be a hero of peace, love and great music, no less. Our worlds were shaken to the core. And then Mr. Dyskolos continued, still looking solemn, but his mouth betrayed a slight half-smile as he was very obviously enjoying his class' speechless outrage.

"Then they put out that asinine White Album that had exactly two good songs on it — 'Birthday" and 'Back in the U.S.S.R.,' and those two were good because they sound like actual rock 'n' roll! — and they had the fucking unbelievable nerve to include that 'Revolution 9' horseshit! What the hell was that? (assumes comedic Liverpudlian accent) 'Noombuh nine? Noombuh nine?' What a load of crap! I'm telling you kids right here and now, remember how 'deep' that bullshit is when you decide to give acid a try!" (NOTE: this was the first time I ever hear a teacher curse when not discussing some of the content in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.)

Before he could say another word, Mr. Dyskolos was cut off and drowned out by an aural assault of irate dissenting opinion, his every word being tarred as the rantings of an anti-peace & love curmudgeon who "just didn't get it." "Who do you think you are???" shrieked several of my classmates. "The Beatles were the most important band in history! John Lennon and Paul McCartney were two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived! Are you crazy?" Dyskolos responded with a sneer that would have done Vincent Price proud and uttered my favorite comeback heard in all of my teenage years, whether I agreed with him or not: "What the hell did they ever write that was worth a goddamn? 'We all live in a yellow submarine?' Puh-leeeeze. The only reason you kids enshrine those hacks is because of nostalgia filtered down from parents who were barely your age when the Beatles showed up and absorbed by the general public and your older brothers and sisters who used that garbage as a soundtrack for when they'd sneak off to smoke weed in the back of a 'bitchin' van. Which also explains how anybody could ever find the stomach to listen to those Doors assholes! Face it, kids. For some of what are supposed to be this country's brightest young minds, you sure are a bunch of programmed parrots!" And when one of the students blurted out that John Lennon was a symbol of "give peace a chance," our sage teacher batted that one aside with "You've obviously never heard about the time when Mr. Give Peace A Chance went to some club and hung out with a Kotex stuck to his forehead," a then-shocking truth that only elicited more teenage keening.

That was the real meat of it but the back and forth ranting went on for the class's full hour, with order barely being restored with the ringing of the bell marking the rotation to the next class. Each of my classmates and I zombied off to the next class and swiftly discovered that Mr. Dyskolos had been correct in his auguring. Indeed, each and every teacher I had to endure for the rest of the day derailed the planned curriculum in favor of rose-colored reminiscences of "a more innocent time" full of free love, "the people getting together, man!"and how the Beatles were the troubadours that saw them through all of it and changed to reflect the time. That was all well and good in theory, but not for hours on end as heard from speakers of wildly varying levels of eloquence (to say nothing of interest), with lunch being the day's only respite from what was essentially the same story only with the most minor of variations. When the day finally ended I headed downtown to do my volunteer teaching of a cartooning class at the local YMCA and the journey allowed me some time to process the events of the day and the "truths" imparted.

I'd grown up liking the Beatles quite a lot but didn't own any of their albums on vinyl thanks to their many hits being available in endless rotation on some of the nascent stations that played what would come to be known as "classic rock," and as the seventies ended I avoided the agonizing repetition of disco and such by listening to the excellent oldies station WBLI out of Long Island, a radio entity that served to plant the seeds of my passion for pre-1970's rock that was either primitive and raw or bizarre and very much off the beaten path. WBLI played some of the standard Beatles hits, but they also threw stuff like "Devil in Her Heart," "Dig A Pony" and "Rain" (nowadays my favorite Beatles tune of all) into the mix and showed me just how much the classic rock stations played the same Fab Four songs over and over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum, and taking into account the espoused theory — voiced with absolute certainty of its veracity — that myself and my fellow students may have been a bunch of programmed drones, I began to wonder if Mr. Dyskolos had in fact done his young charges a favor by showing none of the rote reverence extended to the favorite sons of Liverpool by all who drew breath. He had effectively "killed our idol" on the day when one would expect nothing but 100% adherence to the party line, and that greatly intrigued my punk rock-influenced sensibilities.

As I pondered these thoughts, I wandered past Westport Record and Tape, one of the town's most accessible record stores, and greeted Jean, the sweet southern proprietor. I asked her if the shooting of John Lennon had affected her sales that day and she said, "Honey, look over at the Beatles and John Lennon sections. Whadda you see? Tumbleweeds 'n' cattle skulls, that's what! Folks came in and cleaned the place out like they were a bunch of vinyl-eatin' locusts! On sales of Beatles and Lennon records alone, I could close early today." And it was true. Every single Beatles/Lennon platter had vanished into the Westport ether, bought up by fools who believed those perennial best-sellers (okay, maybe not SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY) would become instant collector's items.

Later that night as I lay there in my bed staring up at the white stucco ceiling, I listened to my cassette tape of SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (the only Beatles album I owned at the time) and experienced it in a way that I never had before. I'd listened to it about two dozen times since acquiring it a couple of years previous, but now it served as a poignant grave marker for my favorite member of the Beatles and its words took on a whole new timbre. No one would be "fixing a hole" in Lennon and ensuring he would live to see sixty-four and beyond. He would not be getting better and there would be no more good mornings for him. Yet tragic though it was, this was just another day in the collective life, and that life would go on without John Lennon (though obviously not "within").

I remember the hue and cry when Elvis Presley, the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll, gave up the ghost and people acted as though the world had come to an end, and I frankly didn't get it. I liked some of Elvis's music, but it didn't really speak to me in the way that the Beatles had and I now chalk that up to the Beatles happening during what could arguably be considered the most pivotal period of the twentieth century, a time that redefined much of American culture and into which my generation was born. We didn't grow up with Elvis, whose music helped set the template of rock 'n' roll, but we did come along during the rise of the Beatles and reached early sentience while under the influence of their sound. We couldn't know at the time just what their contribution meant, but we did know that we liked it. Obsessive poring over the minutia of the whys and wherefores of their lives, art and careers would come later. At that point in our young lives love was indeed all we needed, and in the wake of the plastic disco era and what small impact punk had in the U.S. at the time, that wasn't a bad thing.

So today marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of John Lennon's senseless slaughter and for me the day that it happened becomes ever more remote, so I figured I'd jot down my experience of it before age robs it of what clarity remains. If any of you have tales of that day, please write in and share.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

THE ONSLAUGHT BEGINS

The thing I dread most about this time of year is the relentless onslaught of treacly Christmas music that can be heard damned near everywhere (and that forces me to resort to listening to more punk and metal than usual in an effort to exorcise its saccharine overload), but this year had been relatively merciful. 
While ordering a pizza at the local schmancy pizzeria, I endured the eight-jillionth repeat of Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" (you know it, the one about Chet's nuts being roasted by over a campfire by cannibals or something), but the one that made me wat to core out my ears with a melon baller was Bing Crosby's ultra-nauseating triumph of fake "Irishness," "Christmas in Kllarney," which is full of the expected stereotypical "wheedly-whee" flavor that one comes to associate with old Hollywood's movies' trite invocation of Ireland. It's ultra-phony and, for me anyway, it's impossible to hear Bing Crosby these days without inserting my own lyrics about him merrily and drunkenly beating his kids, driving some of them to suicide. Seriously, how is this not horrible?
Come on, New Year's Eve...

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

MORE PARK SLOPE NEIGHBORHOOD FLAVOR (and aroma)

I just got back from running errands that should have taken only fifteen minutes, but I ended up getting stuck for an hour with the chatty and curmudgeonly woman who now runs the little mom & pop mailbox/postal service that I use instead of bothering with the post office on 9th Street. She's a clone of her recently-deceased brother in every way, and while she's abrasive as fuck I do admit that she's a nice person.

Anyway, I stopped by the mailboxes shop to send off my rent, and she took the opportunity of having me as a captive audience to vent about her issues with the entitled, assholish locals. It wouldn't have been so bad if she weren't an aging hippie chick whose personal hygiene is questionable at best. As I approached the counter I noted a distinct too-human stench emanating from her direction, and upon being within maybe two feet of her as she manned the counter, I realized the waves of stank were coming from her. It was a miasma of very bad B.O. and teeth that probably have not been brushed in days, stale cigarette smoke, something akin to a rotten onion (if applied as a moisturizer), and something that hovered between rotting seafood garbage and two-day-old uneaten wet cat food. Her hair looked like it had not been washed in weeks, and her nails had black grime collecting underneath that was impossible not to notice. The place is basically a tatty allergen trap that looks like it should be in a condemned building (which has been the case for as long as I have lived here), but the accent of her grubby look and derelict stench gave off the air of full-on "Uncle Touchy's Naked Puzzle Basement." In a word, "ECCCH..."