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Saturday, June 12, 2004
Comics: Dream Teams

Everybody else is doing it, so why shouldn't I? Only I'm going to start off with a twist: dream projects by specific creators.

Kevin Nowlan HC OGN - I just can't get enough of Nowlan's all-too-rare pencils. DC needs to back a truck up to Nowlan's house, ask him what he wants to draw and who he wants to write it and give him five years to produce a 128 page OGN. I don't care if it's Superman, Batman, the Legion of Super-pets, whatever he wants to do (though I'd probably prefer it to be a creator-owned story). I'd buy this in a heartbeat.

Just Imagine Alan Moore creating the Marvel Universe - Moore admits that he grew up on Stan and Jack and, while I know he won't work for Marvel and he's already exorcised those particular demons in 1963, who wouldn't like to see a series of OGNs (let's say 64-128 pages each) where Moore reimagines the entire Marvel U and only the names are the same? I'm thinking Spidey, DD, Hulk, Cap, Thor, Iron Man, the FF, the Avengers, Silver Surfer, Nick Fury, the X-Men, and maybe Wolverine would get his own book, all culminating in a final "Secret War" with all the characters. Knowing Moore, he'd even plot in a throughline, so when the last volume came out, it would be the culmination of an ongoing plot (unlike Stan's Crisis). Give him artists like Hitch, Nowlan, Cassaday, Bachalo, Quitely, Sprouse, Cooke, JH Williams, Alan Davis, Gene Ha, and Mike Oeming and I bet we'd see superheroics redefined for the new century. (side note: can you think of anyone else who could do a Just Imagine project, and do it well? I know Dan Jurgens did something similar with DC's Tangent, but I can't think of any writer other than Moore who might do this type of thing well).

A comic book company built around writers - Take the money Alessi poured into CrossGen, CrossGen's high production values, talented artists, and multi-format distribution, add in genuinely creative writers like Warren Ellis on a sci-fi book, Garth Ennis on a war or a western, Steven Grant on a crime book, Ed Brubaker doing noir or Alan Moore on whatever he wants (just to name a few). Stir and step out of the way. Start printing money. Seriously. Why hasn't this happened?

Walt Simonson should never have trouble finding work with Marvel or DC, and he should be allowed to keep working on his projects until he's said all he has to say, regardless of sales. Nuff Said.

And that's my dream list of comic book projects. And now here's my dream creative teams on existing characters:

Dr. Strange by Alan Moore w/ P. Craig Russell and Dean Ormston on rotating art. Moore has both the Stan Lee bombast (1963) and the mystical know-how to make this work, and with Russell and Ormston alternating arcs (or each drawing half the book) you'd get the beautiful and the beautifully ugly.

L.E.G.I.O.N. by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. If Ellis and Hitch need and established franchise to do their widescreen space operas, this is the franchise for it. Alien races, advanced technology, a team that barely even trusts each other. L.E.G.I.O.N was always the dark step-sister to the Legion of Superheroes, and that's just what Ellis needs (this can be complemented by Shane's suggested Morrison/Jimenez 30th Century Legion).

Jonah Hex by Garth Ennis and John Severin. Best twisted western series ever?

Quicksilver by PAD and Mike Wieringo. For my money, no one has ever written a speedster as interesting as PAD wrote Quicksilver during his short tenure in X-Factor. 'Ringo has the chops to capture the speed, the comedy and the drama.

Sandman Mystery Theatre by Ed Brubaker with alternating arcs my Michael Lark and Sean Phillips. Brubaker has made his love for the pulps very public, and he works well with both Lark and Phillips, both of whom conveniently do noir-style stories better than just about anyone else (maybe they could convince David Mazzucelli to come in for a guest arc).

Jack Kirby's Fourth World by Grant Morrison and Ladronn. Are you telling me you wouldn't buy this?

Nightcrawler by PAD and Dave Cockrum. While Cockrum is a shoe-in (in my opinion) for best artist on Nightcrawler (my favorite character), I think only PAD could balance the comedy, drama and religious themes necessary for a good book starring Kurt.

Nick Fury or SHIELD by Joe Casey and Leonardo Manco. Anyone who read Casey's Deathlok series knows why I'm making this suggestion, and Casey's writing on Wildcats 3.0 and his last year of Superman has only gotten better.

As for the big guns for each company, here's who I'd like to see:

Spider-man by PAD and JR jr. What can I say? I didn't realize I was such a PAD fan until I made this list, but I think he captures Spidey better than just about anyone else I've ever read. And JR jr is the top of my list for best Spidey artist.

Hulk by Ennis and Steve Dillon. What can I say? I like the team of Ennis/Dillon and, though I prefer them on creator-owned projects (am I sounding like a broken record?), they're just about the only team I can think of who might be able to breathe life into the Hulk. Even though I hated Ennis' Hulk Smash mini, given time (and enough money), Ennis is the best writer around at making characters human, and that's what the Hulk needs.

X-Men by James Robinson and Peter Snejberg. Another dark horse creative team, but after Morrison/Quitely I'm at a loss to think of who could do the X-Men well. So, let Robinson and Snejberg, the creative team from the last few years of Starman, come in, take whatever characters they want, jettison all the baggage from the franchise and start from square one rebuilding the team. No Magneto, no Sinister, no Sentinels, no Apocalypse, no Shi'ar. Just mutants in a school, trying to protect a world that hates and fears them. Give Robinson five years to reinvent the franchise (at least on Starman, he seemed to thrive on long term planning). Hey, it could work.

Superman by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Okay, maybe I'm buying to the Millar hype machine, but Big Blue is Millar's favorite hero, and his Superman Adventures are actually quite good. As for Hitch, Superman needs an artist good at larger than life fights, and that's where Hitch excels.

Batman by Matt Wagner and Alex Maleev. I don't know if there's any Batman stories left to tell, but I've liked what I've read of Batman written by Wagner, and I loved Sandman Mystery Theatre, so why not? As we see month after month in Daredevil, Maleev can do noir, and I think that's what Batman need. Maybe they should concentrate on the crimes and the criminals, with Batman as a deus ex machina where you never actually get into his head, or see how he finds out what he does. Maybe the Phil Hester/Mike Huddleston team from the Coffin could breathe some life into the Bat, too.

JLA by Giffen, DeMatties and Maguire. Just keep rerunning their five year run forever and I'll be happy.

JSA by Robinson, Rags Morales and Michael Bair. Robinson, because he obviously loves the JSA and he writes generational heroes well. Rags and Bair because they're pretty much the best monthly creative team DC has, and I want them on the JSA every month.

Not bad for off the top of my head, eh?

Thursday, June 10, 2004
Comics: Unity of Creative Vision

Been trying to sleep for a few hours now, but I've got a headache that just won't let me. So I figure what better way to try to put myself to sleep than to go off on a comics rant? It seems to put so many visitors to the coffee shop to sleep! [Please excuse any glaring lapses in logic that may appear below, they're the headache talking].

Last summer it seemed like the whole comics blogosphere was talking about why manga is increasing sales in bookstores to non-traditional comics readers (read: girls and kids), where mainstream U.S. comics are not. Since that time, I've thought more than I probably should have about that topic and I've come to the conclusion that one of the most important aspects of comics, one of the things that keeps readers coming back for more, and one of the things that manga seems to have and mainstream U.S. comics often don't anymore is unity of creative vision. Let's define the term, shall we?

By "unity of creative vision" I am referring to the sense that a single story is being told, whether finite or infinite, and every part of every issue is building on that story without throwing the reader out of it by lapses in logic or drastic changes in art style. The fact is that without some sort of unity of creative vision, a series may do okay in comic shops, but the prospects for its long-term sales in a trade paperback (collected edition) marketplace aren't so good.

When you pick up a manga like Ranma 1/2, GTO, Iron Wok Jan or what have you, you know what you're getting; each volume is a part of a larger story which has a beginning, middle and end. I don't know if they use studios with multiple artists aping one main style or how they do it, but the art in any given manga series is pretty much the same from volume to volume, which helps you to know what you're getting. If I were to start purchasing a new manga series but one volume had art by Miyazaki (whose art I am quite fond of) while the next had art by Clamp or Monkey Punch (whose styles I personally am less than fond of), it's extremely possible that I'd be put off and may not continue reading. Likewise, when I pick up a creator-owned indy book like Strangers in Paradise or Cerebus, I know what I'm getting in terms of the art style and (at least in Cerebus' case, I'm not sure if Terry Moore has an ending planned to SiP) I know that I'll be able to read the whole story.

The way I see it, there are three types of unity of creative vision, which I will discuss forthwith: unity of writer, unity of creative team/artist, and unity of editorial vision.

By far the most common unity of creative vision we see in mainstream comics today (and keep in mind, I'm mostly talking about Marvel and DC comics throughout this discussion, as indy books tend to have less trouble maintaining a single creative vision since they're more often than not creator-owned) is unity of writer. This is probably most common simply because it's easier for a writer to maintain a monthly schedule of high quality comics writing than it is for many artists (I mean this in no way as a slight to artists; I think most folks recognize that good art takes time and many artists cannot produce their top quality work on a monthly basis).

When you go into a series knowing that it will keep the same writer for the entire run, you know that you're going to get similar characterization month after month, as well as, hopefully, a continuing story with a beginning, middle and end (sometimes several of each if it's structured in arcs). If you read the entire run, you hopefully get a sense of change and growth throughout the book, and you can theoretically begin and end with the writer's run on the book and you won't feel like you've missed out on what was "meant to happen" (I'm thinking now of a book like Johnny Bacardi fave Thriller, which lost it's creators 7 issues into the run, and finished up in what appears to me to be a pretty different place than I'd guess Fleming intended).

I believe DC was the first major publisher to recognize that a series creatively controlled by a strong writer can stand on it's own, despite artistic changes. As early as the mid-eighties, we started seeing writer-driven titles like The New Teen Titans, Suicide Squad, and The Sandman, which ended when the writers were done with the story they had to tell (or sales dictated that it was time to wrap things up). Often, DC relaunched the title shortly thereafter with a new creative team (the Jurgens/Perez Teen Titans launched shortly after Wolfman's 104 issue long series ended; The Dreaming, which was essentially a continuation of The Sandman universe, launched shortly after Gaiman ended The Sandman) and a new #1 issue to differentiate the new series from the old. That's not to say DC has a perfect record with this; I personally think that they should have ended the Justice League books after Giffen left and Doom Patrol after Morrison left, but I'll get more into that later.

In the 90s, DC "rewarded" some of it's more popular writers with their own series, which could begin and end entirely when the writer chose (I'm sure sales were a factor, as it's no coincidence that Hitman ended around the same time Preacher did, but the writers were usually given enough notice that they could wrap up their stories or their character arcs). Series' like James Robinson's Starman, John Ostrander's Spectre and Grant Morrison's Invisibles utilized different artists throughout their runs, but readers never sensed that the multiple artists were detrimental to the creative vision of the series. In fact, since Robinson and Ostrander had permanent artists on their books (Tony Harris and Peter Snejberg on Starman, Tom Mandrake on Spectre) who simply required a fill-in every few months, they were able to leverage their "fill-in" artists so that the "fill in" issues told stories slightly to the left of the primary action, but which could fill in often necessary gaps to the main story they were telling (Starman explicitly called this out with their Times Past stories).

On occasion, though, multiple artists can be detrimental to a series, especially when they contrast with one another or a fill-in is needed in the middle of an arc. Here I'm thinking of Grant Morrison's much-talked about run on New X-Men which featured linework from talented pencillers with wildly different styles (like Ethan Van Sciver and Igor Kordey) within the same story arc. If online discussion is worth anything, New X-Men lost readers as a result of the artistic inconsistency, even after Marvel wisely started assigning each penciller their own arc (it's hard to jump from the clean, traditional art of Phil Jimenez to Chris Bachalo's expressionistic line and back again without getting artistic whiplash). Sandman largely avoids this criticism, and long-term sales of the collected editions seem to indicate that it isn't as detrimental as I may think, but I'll confess that I was put off by some of the wildly varying artistic styles throughout the series. Varying styles can work in one-off stories like those in World's End, but when the series art varies as wildly as Sandman's does from the smooth linework of Shawn MacManus to the sketchier lines of Mike Dringenberg it can really throw one out of the story, especially if one style appeals significantly more than another.

The second major unity, and the one that I think is more important that anyone gives it credit for in terms of collected edition sales, is unity of creative team, or writer and artist. Because so few artists are able to produce top quality art on a monthly basis, we see fewer of these long-term collaborations among American mainstream comics, but the manga world is full of them. I believe that books like Ennis/Dillon's Preacher, Ellis/Robertson's Transmetropolitan, Ellis/Cassady's Planetary, Azzarello/Risso's 100 Bullets, and possibly the Lee/Kirby FF could stand on their own as a series (assuming that those that aren't finished yet are allowed to do so) right next to similar manga volumes and no one would know the difference. With each volume, you know exactly what you're getting in terms of art, character and story and, just like with a series which has a unity of writer, you know there is going to be a planned ending. This type of unity differs considerably from a unity of writer, especially in a book like Starman, where Tony Harris and Peter Snejberg have such drastically different styles, I suspect that the book lost readers when it lost Harris, simply because people buy comics for both the story and the art and Snejberg's art was so different from Harris' established style.

I think that books can also achieve a unity of creative team if fill-in or replacement artists are chosen because of their stylistic similarity to the original artist. This is not to say that I am for having a "house style" of art, but I suspect that to a lay-person the difference between Pat Lee's Transformers art and that of James Raiz (to name the only two Transformers artists that I know) is so subtle as to be hardly noticable. Compare their art to that of of Jae Lee, who did Transformers/GI Joe, and almost anyone can see the difference. The best example from Marvel/DC I can think of featuring two artists whose styles are similar enough to pass a unity of writer/artist test to a lay-person is Ron Frenz and Pat Oliffe on Spider-Girl. Though a comics afficionado can certainly tell the difference between the two, to a lay-person they're close enough to pass. I suspect that an arguement could also be made for using a strong inker to pull somewhat different art styles together in an ongoing series. I'm thinking here of a Tom Palmer, whose inks were just strong enough that my young eyes barely noticed a difference when the Avengers artist changed from John Buscema to Paul Ryan. Then again, my memory may be faulty and they may look wildly different.

The final unity, then, is unity of editorial direction, and this is the one that I have the most trouble with today (some would argue hear that a strong editorial department is the opposite of "creative," but I think it can work both ways). Unity of editorial direction is best represented by Marvel comics from the 60s through the late 80s: every issue of almost every book (excepting mainly licensed properties like GI Joe, Transformers and Conan) appeared to be telling a single story, the story of the Marvel Universe. It didn't matter if the writer changed, because editorial was strong enough that one issue of a comic could bleed into the next, continuing the same story, characterizations, "voice."

A few months ago, I found a run of about a year's worth of Avengers comics in a quarter bin (I think the issues were 219-231 or thereabouts, I'm too lazy to pull them out at the moment). In reading through them, I was amazed to find that, though they wove the story of Henry Pym's betrayal, arrest and trial throughout, those twelve issues were written by five different writers (according to the Grand Comics Database, it was Jim Shooter, Steven Grant, Roger Stern, David Michelinie, and Alan Zelenetz)! Reading them with the insight I have today, I can tell that a few of the issues were probably comissioned as fill-in issues, but editorial was strong enough that the voice of the story, the continuing subplots and the characterization remained the same.

In the late 80s on into the 90s, Marvel's line became so sprawling that they couldn't keep the entire line under one creative vision, so they split the line into about half a dozen mini-lines, each with their own unique creative vision: the X-books, Marvel "Edge," the Spider-books, etc. Today, Marvel appears to have completely adandoned the idea of a line-wide creative vision, in favor of (in some instances) a title by title unity, but even that doesn't hold up as often as I would like (c'mon, Wolverine is on three x-teams and in his own book?!? Is that really necessary?). The fact is, in today's market, which is moving closer and closer to seeing collected editions as the dominant format for comics, trying to maintain a cohesive Marvel Universe with crossovers, etc, just doesn't make any sense. So Magneto destroyed New York in New X-Men, to suddenly have New York be destroyed in Amazing Spider-man would not only interrupt the flow of JMS' story, it would push Spidey readers to go buy the New X-Men trade, which may be more of a turn off than a turn on. The idea of one unified comic book universe, while I personally still enjoy it (and will probably do a post in favor of continuity sometime within the next week), may well be one that has seen better days.

An exception, where I think unity of editorial vision may still be working today, is in the Superman books under Eddie Berganza for the last four or five years. To my more or less untrained eye (untrained because I didn't read very many of them), the entire line seemed to be closely supervized by editorial and may well hold up in collected editions by disparate creative teams, since all the books appear to have a similar art style and the writers had a similar understanding of the character. Recent Bat-books may also work under this unity, but again, I haven't been reading them.

As I mentioned above, along with having a unified creative vision, one of the keys to selling a comic series in collected editions is that the runs have to be finite; they have to end when the creative team ends, which is why an editorially-driven line-wide unity probably wouldn't work anymore. As such, I'm not sure that certain runs within an ongoing series would ever work, despite having a unified creative vision. John Byrne's 60-issue run on the Fantastic Four (love it or hate it) doesn't really end, as he left the book before he could wrap up all his plot threads, as does Chris Claremont's initial 12 year run on Uncanny X-Men. Likewise, I'm not sure that Simonson's run on Thor or Miller's on Daredevil have enough sense of closure for a non-fan to read them on their own without feeling like they're missing either an ending or a beginning (it's been too long since I read the end of either run to say for sure). A run like PAD's on Hulk has a definite ending, several middles, but suffers from not really having a beginning (and maybe from too many disperate art styles). To get the whole story, you'd probably have to start with Byrne's short run, continue through Milgrom's year-long stint and then go into PAD's run, which really defeats the purpose of collecting the entire run. Alternately, one could collect a run like Keith Giffen's Justice League (JL/I/A 1-60, JLE 1-35, maybe taking out the Invasion crossovers, or including the Invasion series), Garth Ennis' Hellblazer (41-83?), or Morrison's Doom Patrol (issues 19-63, I believe) and pretty much have one story, with a beginning, middle and end (again, it's been a while, but I know I never read DP 18, and I didn't feel lost when I started with 19).

For a run like Bendis/Bagley on Ultimate Spidey or Bruce Jones on Hulk to sell as collected editions for the long haul, the creators must be allowed to end the run on their terms. Honestly, I think Joe Quesada at Marvel gets it; his track record with Marvel Knights and the Millar/Hitch Ultimates series shows that he'd rather see books come out late, than ruin a unified creative direction. Unfortunately, the realities of Marvel being Marvel, they have to put out certain comics (mainly the Lee/Kirby creations, plus Spidey and DD) every month, and sometimes compromises must be made. Also as a result of that business necessity, it doesn't behoove them in the short term to ever draw a series to a close, as that just gives readers a good "jumping off point." However many readers left New X-men due to artistic inconsistencies during Morrison's run, I'd be surprised if more didn't leave when Morrison did. The good news is, every jumping off point theorectically provides a jumping on point with the next issue, so they can always get new readers if they continually have worthwhile creative teams or storylines.

With that in mind, I've got a pretty revolutionary proposal, which goes against the conventional wisdom of the comic fan: Marvel and DC should do away with all but a few ongoing series' in favor of shorter runs unified by a creative vision. This would give them plenty of jumping on points with each series' relaunch, and allow them to more easily package the collected editions (think Gundam Seed, Gundam Wing, Mobile Suit Gundam, only with each "volume" having it's own creative vision). Runs could be as long or as short as creators want them to be, but when the creative vision changes (as determined by the creators in conjunction with editorial), the old series should end and the new volume begin with a new number 1.

This means that when Bendis, Bagley or both are ready to leave Ultimate Spidey, Marvel should allow them to draw the series to a close by tying up their themes and outstanding plots and then relaunching it the next month (or in a few months) with a new creative team and a shiny new #1 issue. It means that the current Avengers series would have had one 57 issue volume (Busiek), one 12 issue volume (Johns) and one 8 issue volume (Austen) before being dissasembled in a mini by Bendis/Finch and then relaunched with the same team. Batman could literally be a series of miniseries' by various creators, while Detective stayed as an ongoing to keep the franchise "alive" in the off months.

While this idea may be completely anathema to long-time comics readers, I think it just might be the saving grace for long term sales of collected editions. And with the right price point, we'd be just like manga!

TV: Sopranos Season 5 post-mortem

For those not in HBO-know, Sunday night saw the end of season five of The Sopranos, one of the best-written shows ever to grace the small screen, which means two things: 1) I have to wait 18 months until the beginning of the 10-episode final season and 2) it's time to think back on the season and offer my thoughts for discussion here at the Shop.

AHOY, MATEY, THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD

To begin at the end, I was surprised to see so many plotlines wrapped up with a nice neat little bow by season's end: the Johnny Sack/Little Carmine NY power struggle, the potential NY/NJ war (that was all but promised to us in the penultimate episode), what to do about Tony B's anger-control problem, Adrianna's status as an informant, Christopher's possible vacillating into heroin abuse, and, most surprisingly to me, Tony and Carmela's marriage. I know that the show's writers can usually fit more plot and character development into 10 episodes than most network TV shows can in a full 22, but they didn't exactly leave fans champing at the bit for any unresolved story or character arcs next season (what, do we get to see A.J. begin his illustrious career as an event planner? In Tony's words "isn't that gay?").

Sad to see Steve Buscemi's tenure as the fascinating Tony B. come to an end. We all knew he wouldn't last, based on his rogue actions and his problems with anger, but I honestly thought he'd make it through next season. I guess they'd kind of worked themselves into a corner with him, though, and there wasn't much way for him to get out, short of Johnny Sack getting pinched (what's that? he did? whoops!). To be honest, I liked the Tony B. character better early on, when he was trying to go straight. That's something they had never dealt with on the show: can a former wiseguy go straight and maintain his friendships? I guess the answer turned out to be a resounding "no," but it made for a couple of fascinating episodes as Tony B. used his cousin status to stir things up with Tony S. and his crew, even though he wasn't even involved in "dis ting of ours." Of course, I also thought he was going to turn out to be gay (c'mon, he's got a Queen song for his cell phone ring and he wants to be a masseuse!), which would have brought a whole other type of problem with it considering Tony S.'s feelings about homosexuals. But, alas, Tony B. had to die, and in order for Tony S. to have taken ownership of the situation (and his feelings about his cousin), it had to be at his hands (or shotgun, as the case may be).

As for Johnny Sack, well, I suppose it's tough to be the boss. Personally, I think Johnny Sack has been a great addition to the show, first as Tony's confessor during season 3, then taking a more active role in season 4 first with his role fanning the flames of tension between Paulie and the rest of the Jersey crew and later when he almost took Ralph out. In a lot of ways, Johnny's one of the few real "tough guys" on the show, whose only weak spot has been his love for his wife (which clouded his vision when it came to Ralph and forced him to move from NY to Jersey). While he's certainly a better boss for NY than Little Carmine, who really appeared to be playacting as boss and ran off when things got hairy, Sunday's confrontation with Tony showed why Tony has the chops to be boss, and Johnny doesn't. Johnny has let himself get pushed around by Phil, and it almost caused a war with Jersey (and a loss of profits on some joint investments), then he of the oh-so-cold-stare gets stared down by Tony, in perhaps the first showing several seasons as to why Tony Soprano deserves to boss. Is it realistic that a NY boss would let himself be swayed by a Jersey boss? I don't know, but in the fictional world of the Sopranos, it works and I'm not complaining. Too bad about the FBI, though, because the new Tony/Johnny relationship after that confrontation certainly would have been interesting to watch next season.

That takes care of the major action of the finale, but there's a couple other, smaller scenes and developments that are worth mentioning before wrapping up the season:

Tony's visit to Christoper's hotel room. After giving Chris the order to go bury his cousin and reassuring himself that Chris wasn't sitting in the hotel room using, Tony offers, in a seemingly paternal way, that "about Ade, we never really got a chance to talk about that." Tony takes a seat and motions Chris to come over, and we (the audience) think they're about to have a pseudo-father/son chat about death and what it means in their business. But no, Tony jumps right in with "is there any chance you might've let anything slip?" The funnier part is that Chris jumps right in, ready for that line of questioning! This scene also brought the best line of the episode (better than Tony's "isn't that kinda gay" line) from Christopher: "She wouldn't even do five years in the joint for me!" Classic. (and for the record, I asked the missus and she wouldn't do five years in the joint for me, either).

Tony's visit to Paulie's house. First off, is it just me, or is Paulie becoming something of an old woman? Did you see how he was cleaning off his suit? And that hair, and all the gossip? Anyway, Tony finally sees the picture of him and Pie o'My that Paulie rescued from burning during season 4 and the shit hits the fan. To Tony, the horse is a symbol of one of his great failures. To Paulie, it's a picture of his leader the way he sees him, as a general. This scene says a lot about Paulie, the good soldier who, despite the back-biting, worships his leader and craves his approval. Of course, everyone in the crew knows that if someone is sewing the seeds of dissent, it's Paulie, which is why Tony went over there in the first place. One can only guess what this interaction will mean for the Paulie/Tony relationship next season (Paulie always has had a close relationship with NY . . .) Then again, knowing them, it may never come up again.

Finally, I think it's worth pondering if this episode didn't bring some kind of breakthrough for Tony in his session with Melfi. The Tony prior to that meeting was riddled with indecision and, though he put on a strong face for his crew, his feelings were interfering with what he needed to do on multiple levels. In the session, Melfi finally tells him to stop whining and blaming everything on everyone else and to take ownership of his feelings. It's only after this session that Tony takes out his cousin and has the wonderfully well-acted meeting with Johnny Sacks. I wonder if next season we aren't going to see a different Tony Soprano as a result of this breakthrough (because it's an HBO show, so y'know, characters can change). They spent the first few seasons building Tony up as a victim of his mother, his father and his surroundings (something many of us didn't quite buy), and then they spent this season showing what an utter bastard he is. I don't know that there's any action Tony took this season that wasn't selfish and/or cruel, and the writers/directors/actors really hit that home. My question is if Tony is such a bastard when he can't own up to his feelings, what kind of bastard will he be once he owns his feelings and decisions? Will he become an unrepentant bastard? Methinks things can only end poorly for Tony Soprano next year.

As for the season as a whole, they had some highs (Tony B. succumbing to his baser urges) some even higher highs (the episode with Adrianna's death and Tony and Carmella's reconciliation is as good as The Sopranos gets), and really only one low (the extended dream sequence). Despite the bear symbolism (does anyone think it was necessary for Tony to return home by crashing through the bushes in the yard? We get it already!), the season held together better than any single season since season 2 (my vote for best season).

Wednesday, June 09, 2004
Music: 10 Favorite Concert Memories

Ah, summer. Back in the day, the end of school used to herald one of my favorite seasons - concert season! Sure I went to concerts year-round, but it always seemed like summer was the time when more bands that I liked came through KC, and a lot of my summers were scheduled around who was coming to Sandstone (local outdoor amphitheatre) or Memorial Hall (local indoor concert venue). Sadly, as I've grown older, I've found that I've been going to fewer and fewer concerts each year, tending to prefer the comforts of my home and a good concert bootleg over fighting the crowds.

So, in honor of summer, and the fact that a couple of my friends are going to see Rush's 30 anniversary tour next weekend, I present a list of Otto's Top Ten Concerts! [Couple of additional notes: 1) I don't have time or inclination to find exact dates for each of these shows, since my concert tickets are somewhere in storage, so bear with me and I'll ballpark the shows as best I can; 2) A lot of these may not have been great shows, but as I've only seen most of these bands once or twice, they were great experiences for me.]

1. Rush in Topeka, KS, Jan/Feb 1991 (Presto Tour) - First time I saw them, and we drove three cars through a blizzard to get to the show, leaving one on the side of the road.

2. Violent Femmes at the Blue Note, Columbia, MO, Spring(?) 1994 - almost 15 years after their self-titled debut, these guys still knew how to put on a show.

3. Wilco at the Blue Note, Spring(?) 1997 (maybe Fall 1996) - I'm pretty sure this was the last date of that tour and the guys were clearly having a great time on stage throughout.

4. U2 in Ames, IA, Spring 1992 (ZooTV Tour) - A huge spectacle by the veteran performers, and long time favorites of mine (truth to tell, I probably enjoyed seeing them in Summer 2001 even better because I was even closer to the stage, but this show just holds a special place for me because it was the first time I saw them.

5. Radiohead at the Greek in LA, Fall 2000 - Billy came through with last minute tickets to this show, one of three North American Shows that fall, and I'll never be able to thank him enough for giving one to me. They may have played better at any of the three or four subsequent shows I've seen since then, but this show was the experience.

6. The Lemonheads at the Blue Note, Fall/Spring 1994/5 - I don't even particularly like Evan Dando or the Lemonheads and I loved this show. The just had a lot of energy and really worked the crowd.

7. Cibo Matto at the Bottleneck, Lawrence, KS, Winter 1996/7 - I almost died on the way to this short set, but they played with a lot of heart and really worked the crowd.

8. Sting at Riverside Amphitheatre, St. Louis, MO, Summer 1993 - Like Radiohead and U2, I'll always remember my first Sting show. I never fail to be impressed by the energy he brings to live shows.

9. Ben Folds Five at Georgetown U, Winter/Spring 1998 - If you've never experienced Ben Folds working a small crowd, I feel sorry for you. He plays that piano like he's in some 70s monster rock band, pounding the keys and smashing his stool into it, and there's just no way to stay in your seat.

10. G'n'f'n'R/Metallica/Body Count at Arrowhead Stadium, Spring 1993 - My first and only monster rock show, and probably my favorite concert experience. Skipping out on the last few hours of school to go see these hard rock titans when they were (almost) at the top of their game. I still get chills thinking about Metallica's encore: James Hetfield had not been playing guitar for the last several weeks of the tour due to a pyrotechnics injury, but when the lights came up and there he was center stage, playing the intro to Enter Sandman, the crowd just went nuts. I don't know that I've ever felt a crowd that charged by anything, and I wasn't even a Metallica fan!

So there's my list, I'm sure J., Indy, or Bruce Sato will probably remind me of some shows that I've forgotten about, but those are the shows that have really stuck with me, for one reason or another (funny how many of them were not during the summer, since that what sparked this particular entry).

Now, in the comments or on your blog, what are your favorite concert memories?

Tuesday, June 08, 2004
TV: Deadwood

Is it Tuesday already? How'd that happen? So much to talk about, and not enough time right now to write much at all, so apologies in advance if blogging is light, or at least posts are shorter than usual for the next couple of weeks (leading up to what may be a two week hiatus when I move back to Texas).

So, Deadwood. Everyone still watching it, right? Well, Sunday's episode (written by Ricky Jay!) saw a number of plotlines that have been a-brewing since Hickok's death (the point where I feel like Deadwood became less about introducing to the characters, setting, and language and more about the actual characters, setting, plot and language) start to reach a fever pitch, culminating in Swearengen's soliloquy (is it a soliloquy if you have a whore's head in your lap?).

Rev. Smith seems to really be getting to folks, Swearengen especially, with his preaching to the oxen, forgetting how to pray, and uncanny ability to make everyone who talks to him feel sorrier for him than for whatever their problems may be. I swear for a brief second on that balcony, I thought I saw a tear in Swearengen's eye as he watched the poor Reverend, but then he washed any sentiment back with a tip of his whiskey bottle. History tells us that the Rev. Smith gets murdered on the way back from a Sunday sermon, it appears as if Milchs and his compadres are positing that Swearengen (or Dority at Swearengen's behest) does the poor man in as a mercy killing. I'm pretty sure we'll see what goes down next week, but I really have to say that they've done a fantastic job building Smith into a character that I actually like and sympathize with, especially considering how annoying I found him to be early on.

The romance between Sol and Trixie quite literally heats up (am I wrong, or is this the first time they've known each other, in the Biblical sense?). We've seen it coming since the time Trixie and the little girl whose name I seem to have a mental block to first came into the hardware store, but until Sunday night, all we saw were furtive glances and perhaps a little more courtesy than necessary on Sol's behalf, considering Trixie's position. My prediction, though, is that things can't end well with the two of them, both considering Trixie's "profession" and her position as chief confessor to Swearengen. If Al's bedside confession to the other whore is any indication, Trixie knows too much for Al to let her out of his grip, but she may still last out the season.

Bullock, still resisting the urge to bed the widow Garrett and resisting the draw to become sheriff (as he's the only man in town with any sense of right and wrong, and the cojones to back up his beliefs), finds himself confronting Swearengen in Swearengen's office. In the course of said "meeting," we learn something very interesting about Swearengen: he'd rather have Bullock as sheriff than Stapleton. Though Bullock emphatically denies that he's interested in the position, his desire for the safety of his wife and child, who are on their way, and his newfound "family" in the widow Garret and the orphan girl, seems to be pushing him toward his inevitable destiny. Also of note is that it's Bullock who tells Swearengen about Sol and Trixie, though whether it really is said out of anger at Swearengen, or if it's a more calculated anger against Sol for who (and where) he chose to bed down, I'm honestly not sure. Yes, Bullock has a temper, but he usually seems more in control of his actions than he was at that moment, though maybe his respect for the law and his annoyance that no one seems to share that respect may have contributed.

Also of note is the sort of mock government that's being set up by the fools in town, who all think that they are made important by the title of "mayor" or "sheriff," despite the fact that they still have to cowtow and show respect to the real power in town, the type of power possessed by Swearengen, Bullock and maybe even Tolliver. Real leaders are born, not made, but that doesn't make it any less humorous to watch Farnum's attempt at acting like Swearengen, complete with lackeys.

Lots more building up: Swearengen's rift with the magistrate over his past crimes, and his new partnership with Adams (how funny is that, by the way? Adams comes to town with all the power, essentially holding all the cards, but he spends one night with Swearengen and he not only lets himself be called a monkey, but he also accepts a hit on the magistrate's life for a mere $2000); Alma's father, whose heart is clearly not in the right place with regards to her claim (what's his game?); Tolliver's use of Leon, the surviving opium thief, to try to poison the town against Swearengen for giving up a white man to the Chinese; Eddie and Joanie's plot against Tolliver.

If no one else has said it yet, I'd like to suggest Ian McShane for an Emmy this year, even though he may be up against James Gandolfini in his finest acting performance on the Sopranos yet. McShane's Swearengen is the most three-dimensional "villain" I've ever witnessed in TV or film: he's not "evil" because he's haunted by his past, although we heard a little about that on Sunday night, nor is he driven to do what he does to cover up some essential weakness. Swearengen inspires fealty as much through people's respect for his actions (Adams) as through fear (Farnum). With him, you always know where you stand, even if where you stand is as a lackey. In fact, Swearengen and Bullock are two sides of the same coin, both honorable in their own way, Swearengen just craves the power and adoration that Bullock tries to avoid. The sad fact is that I have known people like Swearengen, people with just that amount of charisma and venom, and through McShane's nuanced performance this season, I somehow feel like I understand them better than I ever did.

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