Archive for the 'book books' Category

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Tumblr Mailbag: James Ellroy vs Robert E Howard in The Racism Race

November 24th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I get tumblr questions sometimes, a lot of which have to do with race or racism or people being racist to me because I talk about race sometimes. Here’s anudda entry in the ASK DR RACISM, OB/GYN saga, word to your mudda:


I remember reading something of yours where you mention the racisim inherrent in the work of Robert E. Howard. While I certainly don’t disagree with you, I would counter that the racisim in James Ellroy’s work is much more profound and, in many cases, explicit. Am I wrong, and, if not, how is one case more palatable for you than the other? I’m not trying to call you out or imply some hypocracy on your part, I’m simply interested to read what you have to say about this, if anything.

I sorta disagree with the thrust of your question. Writing racist characters (or “writing racist characters well” to be specific) isn’t the same as actually being a racist who wrote racist stories. Not even close. But, I’ll give this a try, because it’ll let me talk about a few things I’ve been meaning to talk about.

The main difference between the two is the way racism is expressed in their works.

My first thought when trying to come up with an explanation was that James Ellroy is a racism fetishist, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more that he’s into the taboo aspect of racist (and homophobic, and…) language, but also the musicality and rhythms of it. The repetition, the hard consonants, the way the words bend under the weight of someone’s accent. The pleasant menace of a kool, kalm, and kollected phrasing of a bit of bitter baggage on behalf of kharacter konstruction and… uh… another k word.

Ellroy isn’t doing it just because he hates blacks and gays and mexicans and wants a platform to call them whatever old timey words for them he dug or made up. He knows that taboo things tend to be super sexy in the right hands, and he’s aiming to drench you in them and pull you onto his side. There’s something attractive and alluring about his prose, and part of it is due to the nonstop obscenities. You don’t want to be these guys, but you do want to hear their thoughts for a while. Ellroy’s doing magic tricks.

It’s also worth noting — and fiction is the only time this excuse is worth anything, it won’t ever be viable in real life — that the language was a product of the times in addition to Ellroy’s own interest in the language. It’s meant to be racist. Ellroy, at least the Ellroy I’ve read, is writing stories set in our near-past during a point in time in which most people in the USA were either racist or perfectly aight with benefitting from institutionlized racism. If that wasn’t in his work, the books would ring half as real as they do. Granted, there are other ways to go about it beyond Ellroy’s “tossing you in the deep end with your clothes on” approach, but I never got the feeling that he was a racist himself. Great with the language, sure. But he’s writing characters who were racist, instead of espousing racist beliefs himself. There’s even a wide variety of racism in his works, while an actual racist usually just sticks to one school of thought. It would be kinda like a religious fundamentalist writing a novel where she espouses Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Sikh, Zoroastrianist, and Hari Krishna fundamentalism simultaneously, you know?

Robert E Howard, though, was an actual racist, him and his boy HP Lovecraft both. Though I guess HPL was so cartoonishly racist that REH just looks sorta like a regular dude standing next to him, maybe. But regardless, he was the type of racist who didn’t understand why a Mexican life was worth just as much as a white life, talked about burning lower races alive as a punishment for crimes, and who treated (or maybe just referred to, he probably didn’t have many black friends and the one he had went blind as a result of rolling his eye so much) people of other races as less than human. So: racist. Wikipedia says “he would be considered racist by modern standards” but that was clearly written by an insecure REH fan. He was definitely, undeniably racist by any measure, and especially the measure that says “being a racist means being a dick to other races.”

So REH’s racism has to be read differently from Ellroy’s racism-fetish (for lack of a better). One is an art thing, an affectation. The other is a straight up and down personal philosophy. What you believe affects what you create. Like for me, personally, my interest in crime, crime fiction, black history, girls with guns, girls wearing hoodies, smoking as one of the coolest acts in the world (thanks, robert mitchum), and so on affect what I put down on the page. if you look at my fiction (the tiny bit I’ve put online), you can connect the dots and begin to go “Oh wow, this guy’s really into weed smoke retracing skylines.” Ellroy’s interest in language and taboos manifests itself with his klear and komfortable facility with klanguage. REH’s racism manifests itself in the themes and specifics of his story.

The launch story for the new Conan comic was “Queen of the Black Coast.” I dug it and wrote about it. BUT when you know that REH is a racist, the story goes from a cool pirate tale to something else, which isn’t actually helped by the art or writing. REH’s racism means that his stories are going to have subtext that you have to explore and consider.

Bêlit is a pirate queen and commands a ship of hardened men who answer to her every word and desire. Pretty awesome idea, very girl power, and super thugged out. It’s the Warrior Queen, right? Red Sonja on a boat, Athena in a jaunty hat and pirate boots. Patty Hearst with the machine gun and beret, only on a boat instead of in a bank.

But the specifics: Bêlit has perfectly milky-white skin, something that was (honestly still is, but let’s not go there) considered the height of beauty. Her crew? A bunch of ultra-black brawny dudes. They’re her opposite, essentially. She is high and they are low, she commands and they obey, she is a steaming pot of sex and they are not. (Wait for that one.)

In and of itself, that isn’t bad. If it showed up in a modern DC Comic, like Africa being ruled by apes or that one stretch where they killed or benched a gang of fan-favorite non-white characters in favor of the army of Stepford Supergirls they got over there, you would just be like “Aw, man, c’mon dudes, you’re better than this.” You could probably roll with it. But if you knew that the author believed white women were greater creatures than black men, it wouldn’t sit so well.

Bêlit is sexy. Her and Conan don’t fall into puppy love so much as tiger love. Their union means terror for everyone else and extreme pleasure for them. BUT Bêlit’s the sole woman in command of a dark crew, which brings to mind one of my least favorite sexual fantasies, that of the black male tainting the white woman with his penis. 99% of interracial (as a genre, not a description) porn plays on this and is pretty gross about it.

The new comic adaptation (and maybe REH’s original tale, but I dunno there) avoids this, though the subtext is definitely there. Instead, I got the feeling that Bêlit withheld herself from her crew, or whatever nice way to say “she isn’t doing it with any of them, to my knowledge” you prefer. Which is interesting, because her crew are portrayed as being totally subservient, which lends me right to another of my least favorite tropes: the neutered black male.

Black masculinity (and femininity, obviously) has been an object of scorn, and occasional desire, to white culture for centuries. Consider your average prison rape joke (strike one), where the rapist is almost always black (strike two) with a big dick (strike three) and the raped is a skinny white man (somebody get this guy outta here). Pull that apart and you get the fear of the black man’s dick.

“Oh, but it’s positive!” you might be thinking. “Having a big dick is awesome!” Sure, okay. But the idea black men have big dicks didn’t come about because white people were like “Whoa! Look at Johnson’s johnson! That’s pretty impressive.” It’s because having a big dick meant you were… let’s call it “closer to nature.” A better phrase would be “more of a savage, closer to an animal than human.” (You can find the focus on black women’s bodies in a similar aisle in your local racist grocery store.)

Taking away the black man’s dick is another way to denigrate black men. (Sidebar: I just had to google the etymology of the word “denigrate” because I kinda laughed at the idea of it meaning what it looks like it means, and one of the synonyms is blacken. Yesssss, I love you, real life. Nothing’s as funny.) Reduce them to jokes or force them into certain roles and you take away their masculinity, which was and is basically synonymous with power.

So: a bunch of figuratively neutered black dudes being lorded over by the whitest of white ladies. Um. Can I get a ruling from our impartial judges?

Thanks, fellas.

And when Conan — REH’s stand-in for what Real Masculinity was all about — steps in, he becomes not just de facto leader of the boat, but Bêlit’s lover, as well. Like, instantly. Right after Conan murders a bunch of her dudes in a fight. They become obsessed with each other, go at it like rabbits, and everyone on the boat is cool with that, somehow. “Oh cool, Mister Charlie, go ‘head Miss Ann. Y’all just have fun copulating while we row to the next city. Rowing so hard our backs ache. But we won’t call OSHA. Sure. Y’all have fun. That sounds great.” Conan sidesteps the subservient gig and goes right to constant sex and planning violent raids. Conan was working there for fifteen seconds before he got promoted to king, and Bêlit actually places him over herself, in terms of authority.

All these little puzzle pieces aren’t too bad on their own, for the most part. But it’s when you put them together that you realize REH is saying something beyond “this is a story all about how Conan’s life got flipped, turned upside-down.” If you look at the hierarchy of the book, you have the unexperienced white man at the top, the experienced white woman under him (literally and figuratively in this case), and the black men coming in a distant third, below sexual notice and entirely without power except in the service of their queen and king’s wishes. Black women don’t exist here, which mirrors an absolutely amazing amount of fiction out there, especially of the fantasy or science fiction variety.

Kinda ugly, ain’t it? And I didn’t exaggerate anything or pull anything out of my butt when doing that summary. The specific stuff is in the comic (I’m assuming Brian Wood altered how the story plays out to make it fit a comic book format but stuck with REH’s basic framework and structure here.) and the themes aren’t stretches at all, so much as “Oh, weird, this story REH wrote lines up pretty directly with several racist ideas???” Hang on, I’ve got some input from our foreign expert coming in…


“Oooh, that’s a bingo! Is that the way you say it? ‘That’s a bingo?’”

Ellroy’s writing about how things were and amping up the racist language for the sake of being edgy and lyrical. He’s making up racist characters and writing about them, rather than espousing a racist viewpoint of his own. I can’t see your average racist rolling as lyrical as Ellroy’s racists, you know? What Ellroy does is not unobscene, depending, but it isn’t as much of a sin as writing a story about a fake place set in the fake past that lines up with your racist ideas and fears. That goes for stories set in a fake future where black people are Coals and whites are Pearls, too.

I, personally, don’t get down with REH’s prose. I dig Conan comics, especially the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord joints, but his racist undertones combined with his so-so writing means I can keep my distance. Lovecraft is the same, only even more terrible at putting words in order. But the only time Elder Gods have really worked for me is Hellboy so that was an easy decision to make, like giving up brussel sprouts or any exercises that make my abs hurt.

Racism is a taint. It’s a lot of things, but in REH’s case, it’s a taint. It’s a mud puddle that you stomped in right before going into your friend’s house, and you keep leaving behind little bits of proof that you were the one that made a dumb decision. You’re mucking things up for yourself and making it hard for people to like you. I don’t know if this metaphor works but it was real important to me that I make it at 0800 on a Saturday morning.

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Thanksgiving? Let’s overdo it.

November 22nd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year or whatever, which gives me a good excuse to crank out a bunch of capsule reviews for you. I haven’t been writing on here as much as I’d like (turns out moving is stressful and time consuming???) so this is like… a catch-up post, in a way. If you order stuff off Amazon via these links (any stuff, not just the stuff I’m linking) 4l! gets a cut, which keeps the lights on and the electrons flowing or however it is the internet works. If you don’t order stuff off Amazon via these links, thanks for reading anyway. I don’t really know how to express it, but I’m extraordinarily thankful that me, Gavin, Esther, Thomas, and Hoatz have managed to build up a little fan base over the past few years just by typing dumb things about comics and cartoons and wrestling and movies and music. I feel like we’re real idiosyncratic compared to basically every other comics blog — who else has long-running Chikara posts and Nelly Furtado themed weeks? — but y’all keep showing up and talking, even when I go ultra anti-pop and write about rap minutiae for a month. So: thank you.

Now: capitalism and commentary.



MUSIC

-The Alchemist – Russian Roulette: Alan the Chemist is one of my favorite rap producers, in part because he’s got his feet set in two of my favorite types of rap: indie joints and mean mug New York rap. You can tell that hanging around Prodigy from Mobb Deep really helped Al turn into an ill rapper.

Russian Roulette is one of my favorite albums this year. The promo describes it as a 30-song soundscape, and that’s true enough. It’s a concept album, basically, and Alchemist has produced beats that utilize Russian themes and sounds. It’s not all legit — I’m pretty sure that Joan Rivers talking to Dolph Lundgren about playing Ivan Drago is not actually a Russian thing — but it’s all ill. It’s not a DJ album at all, but the songs fade into each other perfectly. They’ll share a sample or some other sonic element, a vocal sample will begin at the end of one and finish up when the next song begins.

I don’t think I could ever listen to this album on shuffle, even though there are a gang of emcees I like spread over the album. It’s so much better when viewed as a complete hole. It doesn’t tell a story or anything, but it’s… it’s a soundscape. You just listen and let it simmer and enjoy the emotions it sparks. It’s a trip, in at least two senses of the word. It’s got raw raps, atmospheric tunes, real boom bap New York production, and everything in-between. It’s also got Mr. MFN eXquire kicking magical realist storytelling rhymes for a story, which is something I love. He’s done a couple of these — I think there was one on Merry eX-Mas & Suck My Dick, “The Maltese Falcon”? — and they’re always great.

I liked Vodka & Ayahuasca a whole lot, too. “Gladiator Music” is hard body, and the title track is super tight:

-Frank Ocean – Channel Orange: I dig this guy a whole lot, and this album is worthy. It’s a quiet, sort of a downer joint about sad subjects and heartbreak. “He is Frank Ocean and he is here to make you think about death and heartbreak and get sad and stuff!”

But it’s good. It feels downtempo, the kind of album you put on for a quiet night. It’s melancholy, but the kind of melancholy you want to sing along with. You want to croon and moan along with Ocean, even if you can’t match his falsetto. He feels very lost and vulnerable, like he’s just trying to live but things ain’t working out. He’s a little off in the distance from his problems. Far enough to spell them out for you in intensely relatable ways, but still close enough to feel burnt.

“Bad Religion” is probably my jam. I love “Thinkin Bout You,” especially “No, I don’t like you/ I just thought you were cool enough to kick it/ Got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho/ since you think I don’t love you, I just thought you were cute/ that’s why I kissed you/ Got a fighter jet, I don’t get to fly it though/ I’m lying down thinkin bout you”, but “Bad Religion” is like a gunshot.

“Bad Religion” is about Ocean’s unrequited love for another guy int he form of a conversation (kinda) with a taxi driver. “He said ‘Allahu akbar’, I told him don’t curse me/ ‘But boy you need prayer’/ I guess it couldn’t hurt me/ If it brings me to my knees/ It’s a bad religion.” I like the wordplay and emotion in there, from the reminder that God is Great to being open to anything that won’t hurt you. Great song to sing along to.

Ocean’s good at making songs you wanna sing with.

-Sean Price – Mic Tyson: You need that real raw hoodies and timbs rap? Well. P!

Pyrex: “(Pyrex) Don’t make me abuse my power/ One telephone call, shoot this coward/ I was the bum, but the pendulum switched/ Now my whole team Supreme, no Kenneth McGriff”

Bar-Barian: “P! The jerk that retired, I’m nice so I’m back niggas/ Smack Earth, Wind, Fire, and ice out that nigga”

Price & Shining Armor: “All in my face like a rap battle/ Fuck around and catch all of the eighth when the gat rattle/ ‘That hardcore rappin is played out’/ until I hardcore slap you then ask you what’s played out”

Hush: “‘These rap niggas wack, Ruck, call ‘em out’/ Everybody wack except me, fuck is you talkin ’bout?”

Straight Music: “Fuck bein humble, I’m better than everybody/ Melancholy niggas get hit with a heavy shottie/ Dumb fuckers don’t know how the rules go/ Young pups can’t fuck with the Cujo/ You bark better than your bite/ Yeah I bark, but I’m better when I fight/ P!”

Bully Rap: “Uhh; you cowards are bogus/ Split head like Red Sea power of Moses/ Due to my weight gain I had to double the dosage/ of drugs that I do, a nigga stay toasted”

“Haraam,” a bonus cut:

This album’ll put hair on your chest and a gun in your glovebox. P!

-Jessie Ware – Devotion: This album’ll run your life if you let it. It’s super good, just a lady going in on singing, but the highlight for me is “110%.”

It’s a good song in and of itself. It’s about a woman trying to get a guy to dance with her. Chorus: “Now if you’re never gonna move, oh my love/ You’ll make me come to you/ But I’m still dancing on my own/ Still dancing on my own”. That’s cool. But the crazy part is that it samples Big Pun’s “carving my initials on your forehead” from the sublime “The Dream Shatterer,” a song with a first verse that goes like this:

Aiyyo I shatter dreams like Jordan, assault and batter your team
Your squadron’ll be barred from rap like Adam & Eve from the garden
I’m carvin my initials on your forehead
So every night before bed you see the “BP” shine off the board head
Reverse that, I curse at the first wack nigga with the worst rap
’cause he ain’t worth jack
Hit him with a thousand pounds of pressure per slap
Make his whole body jerk back
Watch the earth crack; hand him his purse back
I’m the first Latin rapper to baffle your skull
Master the flow, niggas be swearin I’m blacker than coal like Nat King
I be rappin and tongue’s packin, who wants magnums, cannons and gatling guns?
It’s Big Pun! The one and only son of Tony… Montana
You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana
C’mon, pana, we be mob rhymers
Feel the marijuana, snake bite, anaconda
A man of honor wouldn’t wanna try to match my persona
Sometimes rhymin I blow my own mind like Nirvana
Comma, and go the whole nine like Madonna
Go try to find another rhymer with my kinda grammar

Big Pun! The only one with over a thousand guns.

It’s a really weird sample for an R&B record. In fact, it’s incredibly off-tone, you know? Pun is like Sean P!, he goes in when it comes to hardcore rap. It’s like when Tupac would spend the second half of a song about getting laid talking about his enemies.

But Jessie Ware makes it work. She made it work so well that it got a music video. Here’s her comments on the song: “Writing a pop song was a new thing for both of us, and I started to feel really self-conscious and out of my depth.” To break the tension, the pair started flicking through a hip-hop magazine, alighting on a striking image of heavyweight rapper Big Pun in a yellow PVC suit, sitting on a throne. “I decided, ‘Right, I’m going to write a song about a girl trying to get him off his throne and dance’.” Her gorgeously restrained summer smash 110% was the result, and Jessie was thrilled when Big Pun’s estate gave them permission to use a sample of the late rapper reciting the line “carving my initials on your forehead” throughout the track.”

So it’s a song that not only samples Big Pun to curious effect, but is ABOUT Pun. Awesome. It’s the song I connected to the most, because I love Pun, but the whole album is good.

-Curren$y – The Stoned Immaculate: Curren$y Spitta makes songs and albums about smoking weed, women, cars, ~jets~, weed, clothes, grinding, and smoking blunts. If you can relate to that, this is gonna be your jam.

I don’t particularly mess with Wale and Wiz Khalifa, but they came off super dope on this album (clever/cleaver & arose/aroused aside), and 2 Chainz was tolerable, if ultra-pandering, as expected.

This is an album you want to ride to, if you’ve got a car, or relax to, if you’re just chilling.

(I should probably revisit my opinion of Wiz at some point, but I’m pretty content with only listening to dude when him and Curren$y are rapping together.)


BOOKS

-Justin Cronin’s The Twelve: I’m reading The Twelve now, but you should start with The Passage. Here’s the hook: a government agency created vampires in a lab in an attempt to control their destiny and basically never die. Things went south, the vampires broke out, and now America is dead. The vampires aren’t the sexy blaaaah, blaaaah types, either. They’re basically savage animals, humans that have been stripped of their memories and reduced to their thirst and hunger. The vampires ran roughshod over the continent, and one hundred years later, our cast lives in cities protected by bright lights.

But then they have to leave that city. And there’s a young girl who was around when the apocalypse happened. And things keep going wrong.

It’s a good read.

-Katsuya Terada’s The Monkey King Volume 1: Terada is one of my most favorite artists, a real inspiration, and this book is a filthy and disjointed retelling of the story of the Monkey King. You want it. You just don’t realize it yet.

-Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk: I wrote about this one, too. But get this: if you buy Slam Dunk on Amazon, you can take advantage of their 4-for-3 sale. Instead of paying 32 bucks for ~1000 pages of comics, you just need to pay 24.

There’s a lot of these. The longer the series runs, the better the games get. So get up on it so I have somebody to talk to about it.

-Josh Richardson & David Brothers’s PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale: Prima Official Game Guide: I cowrote this one with a friend. I think we did a pretty good job.

-Bill Watterson’s The Complete Calvin and Hobbes: Buy me this because it’s the best and I deserve it. Thanks in advance.


MOVIES

-Ninja Scroll: I saw Ninja Scroll when I was a kid. It wasn’t my first anime (whattup Akira and Fist of the North Star double feature that I only saw 2/3 of before being kicked out of the room by my grandmother after my cousin snitched on the violence in Akira) but it is one of my all-time favorite movies. I’ve never even watched it subtitled, come to think of it. It would sound too weird, too fake.

Jubei Kibagami is a vagabond with a sword and skills that are just barely explained. He’s going up against the Shogun of the Dark and the Eight Devils of Kimon alongside Kagero, a poisonous ninja girl (“niiiiiinja girl!”) and Dakuon, a deceitful monk.

It’s hard to overstate how much I like this movie. My only issue with it, and one which I only realized after I grew up, is how rape-y it can get. But past that? The action, the dialogue, the action set pieces, and every single battle against the devils is amazing. It’s violent and fantastic and surprisingly well-written, considering the type of movie it is. It was my first real introduction to a few tropes I love these days — battles in bamboo forests, wandering ronin, swinging a sword so hard the air can cut people, punching a dude so hard the wall behind him breaks, blind swordsmen, swarms of ninjas dashing through the trees, delayed effects of attacks — and like… you won’t find a better movie for a 14 year old, you know? Sex, violence, blood…

But even as an adult, this is the kind of hardcore fast-paced I still enjoy to this day.

Remember when you could theme Windows 95 and 98? Like download a pack and transform your whole OS into a tribute to whatever it was you downloaded a theme for? Mine was Ninja Scroll in 1999. It’s been a while, but I think that the dialogue boxes trigged the “What’s the matter, monster?” sample and shutting down was “Burn in your golden hell!” I was all about that life. Still am, if we’re being all the way real with each other.

-Fist of Legend My uncles put me onto this movie, way back when I was first discovering kung fu flicks and before I had a chance to pillage Video Warehouse for their $1.50/5 days rentals. It’s a world rocker. It isn’t my favorite Jet Li flick (that’s probably still Once Upon A Time In China 2, and I want to die exactly like Donnie Yen does in that movie), but it’s amazingly good. It’s a remake of an old Bruce Lee picture, Chinese Connection, but better. Jet Li’s a student during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the ’30s, his master dies, and Li wants to know why.

Li’s invincible for most of the movie. Invincible is kind of understating it, honestly. Li sons, stepsons, grandsons, and great grandsons dozens of men in this movie. He grabs one guy by the mouth, plays kiss chicken with another guy just to show how slow he is, and beats up not one, but TWO different groups of martial arts students. He’s a steamroller and it’s nuts.

Normally, that’d be a bad thing. Heroes need to be vulnerable. But here, the vulnerability comes later, when Li goes up against a juggernaut and masters, instead of goons. There’s a fight in the wilderness that’s fantastic, full of importance and emotion, and the ending fight has gotta be one of my favorites in any movie ever. It feels like an even more dangerous fight on account of how invincible Li was for most of the movie. It made me a believer in Jet Li.

Great title, too.

-Closer: Hey, do you want to watch a movie about the dissolution of romantic relationships? One with heart-rending arguments that’ve got to be heard to be believed? Great performances from Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen?

What do you mean “No, that sounds like it’ll make me cry?”

-Alien Anthology: You already know that 3/4 of the movies in here are great and one’s unwatchable. What I didn’t expect was how crazy these movies, especially the first, look in HD. Alien looks like it was made yesterday in a retro style, with all the details and colors that are suddenly present. It’s nuts. I’m so high on this set I’m even down to watch the alternate versions of movies I’ve already seen.

I wish they would just post the opening sequence to Alien on Youtube. You remember when people would be like, “Hey, buy The Matrix to show off how good your DVD player is!”? That sequence is the 2012 version of that.

-Afro Samurai: The Complete Murder Sessions [Blu-ray]: I should probably do a full post once I rewatch these, but it goes like this:

In the ’70s, blaxploitation and kung fu flicks were big. Both of them connected with the black community in a major way. In the ’90s, anime hit and Wu-Tang hit and that connection was reignited. The Wu are kind of the next step in the evolution of that connection. They grew up on the original connection, processed it, and came out with their own. Anime expanded the connection even further.

Afro Samurai: Resurrection is one of the latest entries in that connection, and it is the blackest anime you’ll ever see. Low bar, yes, obviously, but while I was watching this, I felt like I was watching something that was tailor made specifically for me. It’s so good. The original series was straight, it was aight, but Resurrection is more john blaze than that. It’s a ton of things I’m into boiled down into one thing. The way they blended Japanese and black culture (pop culture?) is nuts. The game was pretty cool, too, and the soundtrack is a must-buy if you like the RZA and/or good music.

No one bleeds until the sword is sheathed.

It’s Ninja Scroll 2009.


VIDEO GAMES

-Super Mario 3D Land: I love platformers. I think LittleBigPlanet has the best engine for pure platformers, creation stuff aside, but every once and a while, Nintendo has to remind people that they invented the remix.

Super Mario 3D Land is incredibly fun. They’ve taken Mario to some new heights. I’m maybe halfway through the game and impressive things keep happening. They either flip old gameplay, revamp old graphics, or invent new things for Mario to do within the constraints of the Mario formula. This joint’s wonderful, and makes me pretty happy about buying a 3DS XL. You gotta have great posture, but some of my favorite types of games are on that thing. The ruler’s back.

-Metal Gear Solid HD Collection: I can, and recently did, talk about Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series for hours. It’s probably my favorite franchise, or at least the one I keep coming back to, even if I’m half as good at them as I used to be. The plot’s a sprawl and you have to make a few leaps to keep up, but if you’re willing, Kojima is going to take you on a ride that can’t be matched by pretty near anything else. It’s emotional, it’s cinematic, it’s action-packed, it’s full of heart, it’s everything I wanted out of the series.

It’s a sprawl because Kojima covers a lot of ground, from meme/gene/scene to child soldiers to the effects of war and technology and pop culture on our collective psyches. It’s about individuality and authority, sex and death, nihilism and legacy. It’s also about vampires, dudes who shoot bees, ghosts, and ancient old men who can be killed by leaving your system off for a few days. Over the course of the series, a guy whose entire gimmick was his upset tummy and gross poops was transformed into an actual character, and a widely-hated dude went from a pariah to one of the highlights of the franchise.

The Metal Gear Solids are video games, ambitious ones, and I wouldn’t change them for the world. They glory in being video games, even during the cinematics, and they are better for it. These are library games. You should own them, you should have access to them.

-NBA 2K13: Like this wasn’t going to be on the list.

Get real and get NBA 2k13 for the best NBA experience yet. I messed around and went through a real wack streak and lost seven games in a row against the dude I play against all the time. I’m 30-48, 5393 points to his 5494. I’m not too far behind, and I’ll get my uzi back, but whoof, it’s been a rough couple of weeks.

-Prince of Persia Trilogy HD: I wrote about this for my man Michael Peterson, but here’s the short version: these are good games with a well-told story that perfectly matches the extremely solid gameplay. Sands of Time is a Platform King, and Two Thrones is the perfect marriage of the ill combat system in Warrior Within and the great platforming mechanics in Sands of Time. Like MGS, these are library games.

-PS3 games on PSN: You should buy Tokyo Jungle if you like running around as cats and dogs and sheep and gators through a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. You should buy Papa & Yo if you dig being terrified and experiencing someone else’s child abuse metaphor. You should buy Rock Band Blitz because I know you have a bunch of DLC from that game.

Alternately, cop that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 if you want to see what modern fighting games should look, feel, play, and function like. It’s grrreat.

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Blood’s A Rover: Audience Control

May 18th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I’m not one of those guys that’s all, “Oh, I wish I could write like so-and-so!” That always seemed backwards to me. If anything, I want to write like me, but I want to be as talented or as in control of my talent as another, more popular writer. Usually, when I read something that really knocks my socks off, it makes me want to up my game so that I can give that feeling to somebody else. That type of skill is jealousy-igniting. Like this bit from James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover, which I have helpfully liberated of context. All you really need to know is that Scotty has 18s on his tie where he once had 16s, and Scotty is a cop. Read:

Crutch gulped. Scotty always loomed. He carried two .45’s and a beaver-tail sap on a thong. Bobby and Phil guzzled beer and snarfed pizza. They turned the backseat into a zoo trough. Crutch pointed to Scotty’s tie.

“You had 16’s last time.”

“Two male Negroes robbed a liquor store at 74th and Avalon. I just happened to be in the back, holding a Remington pump shotgun.”

Crutch laughed. “It’s the record, right? Fatal shootings in the line of duty?”

“That’s correct. I’m six up on my closest competitor.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was shot and killed by two male Negroes.”

“What happened to them?”

“They robbed a liquor store at Normandie and Slauson. I just happened to be in the back, holding a Remington pump shotgun.”

This probably reads very differently when it isn’t bookended by Ellroy’s rapid-fire jab-jab-hook prose style, but it got me good when I read it. I went back and read it again, I liked it so much. I like how Ellroy stacks meaning upon meaning without ever really coming right out and saying what he’s talking about. It’s there in the bit about Crutch gulping as Scotty looms. The droll repetition of “two male Negroes,” the implied shadiness on his closest competitor’s death… there’s a story lurking around back here, and Ellroy’s hinting at the barest edges of it and making you wish you knew more.

It’s good writing, basically, and I feel like that sort of writing only comes from when you’ve learned to both respect your own talent and your audience.

I’ll have more to say, I’m sure, as I make my way through this book. Ellroy’s one of those guys who makes me mad/jealous/amazed/entertained when I read his books.

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“It’s going to focus its sound into a beam!” [Hiroshi Yamamoto's MM9]

January 23rd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I read Hiroshi Yamamoto’s MM9 in a couple of days. Maybe three at the outside. It flew by, however long it took me. It’s divided into a handful of chapters, episodes really, each a story unto itself. They each have their own TV show-style titles, too. I think my favorite title is “Danger! Girl at Large!” but “Arrival! The Colossal Kaiju of the Apocalypse!” is pretty great, too.

Here’s a summary of MM9 from Amazon:

Japan is beset by natural disasters all the time: typhoons, earthquakes, and…giant monster attacks. A special anti-monster unit called the Meteorological Agency Monsterological Measures Department (MMD) has been formed to deal with natural disasters of high “monster magnitude.” The work is challenging, the public is hostile, and the monsters are hungry, but the MMD crew has science, teamwork… and a legendary secret weapon on their side. Together, they can save Japan, and the universe!

You can read an excerpt here or read the first chapter on Amazon.

This book was good. I was expecting just a regular monster book, something where kaiju come in and wreck shop and then the government puts things back together. I was surprised on a couple of different levels. The most obvious surprise was that the book is more of a short story collection than a straight-up novel, in a way. The episodes take place in chronological order, and they do build on each other, but they feel more like short stories in the same universe than the regular progression you’d see in a novel. The characters are loosely defined archetypes. Sakura’s an eager and earnest young lady who dosen’t always make the best decisions. We get a brief look at Yuri’s home life. Yojiro is the experienced man in the field. Chief Kurihama has heart problems. Everyone’s a sketch, but the type of sketch that you can easily fill in for yourself.

Yamamoto’s cast is movie-ready, that’s obvious, but that isn’t really a bad thing. It’s actually a boon to the short story format, because Yamamoto can get right into the kaiju drama after doing a little bit of character-building work to open the chapter and show us how far we’ve progressed in time. Sometimes he weaves it throughout the story, as when Ryo goes on a date with his girl just prior to a kaiju attack, but for the most part, the characters are defined by what they do, not who they talk to. I don’t mean that as a negative, though it can surely be seen as one. Yamamoto amps up the spectacle instead of the drama, but not necessarily at the expense of it, is what I’m doing a poor job of saying.

A nice twist is that the MMD aren’t a bunch of totally awesome gun-toting superheroes. They’re scientists and researchers. They don’t handle any of the violence or kaiju extermination. They’re there to advise and consult. They examine the kaiju while it’s on approach, figure out the rules for battling it, and help decide where to stage the showdowns. The military handles the actual combat. That configuration helps make the book pretty fresh, since we’re just a step removed from the action, but still in the middle of it. It doesn’t really get into military otaku fetishism, either. Yamamoto is very plain about what type of ammo works on each kaiju and why, but he doesn’t dwell on those specifics.

The other surprise was that this isn’t just a kaiju book. I was expecting oblique references to the greats, like Godzilla, Mothra, and maybe–if Yamamoto was willing to stretch–Ultraman or some tokusatsu. I was reading it for lines like this:

Kurihama quickly understood. He grabbed the microphone and yelled, “Run, Ryo! That’s a parabola. It’s going to focus its sound into a beam!”

A huge part of the appeal of kaiju is not destruction, but how that destruction happens. Any idiot can stomp around a power plant in a rubber suit. Real idiots have beams. Sometimes it’s just a burst of nuclear flame, like Godzilla. Others shoot lasers. Some robots shoot missiles from hatches on their chest that are cleverly disguised as breasts, which isn’t a beam, but a close cousin. Still others rock the old Itano Circus style of beam, a wildly gyrating group of flying death beams. Beams rule, basically. A few comics characters have them, too, most notably Cyclops, Superman, and Iron Man. (They’re boring, in comparison, but I just thought I’d mention them so you know exactly what I mean.)

MM9 has a few good beams, but it’s also very upfront about what kaiju are: living cultural myths. One of the chapters involves a mandrake. Another is all about guiafairo, a bat monster from Senegal. Yamamoto takes cultures from around the world and just slightly re-contextualizes them for his purposes. Japanese yokai make appearances, too, and Yamamoto does a deft job of delineating the differences between kaiju and yokai.

It’s an interesting take, and one that hadn’t even crossed my mind before picking up the book. Yamamoto spends some time talking about American kaiju, how radioactivity affected kaiju after World War II, and how kaiju work despite the fact that they’re violating several laws of physics. It never feels like a thick infodump, even when he’s delving into the anthropic principle and the history of the universe.

Here’s another bit I liked, which is part of a longer (sorta evil) monologue:

“It is. Humans need to be afraid. When they think of kaiju, they need to feel dread and awe. With this great disaster, we will instill within them a terror they will never be able to forget and they will never be able to deny—not for thousands of years, not for tens of thousands of years, until the day the very last human dies.

MM9 is pop fiction. If you’re at all curious about Godzilla or movie monsters, this is probably the book for you. I caught references to Godzilla and Mothra, of course, and maybe a few others besides. It can’t be understated how easy a read this is, either. It burns like a good airport novel, something you dive into for a little while and leave entertained, if not necessarily enriched. I came into it almost entirely cold, not having read anything by Yamamoto before and having only read the excerpt before picking it up. It’s a little funny, in a broad sort of way, and a kick to read.

(googling around after finishing this tells me that the book is actually a short story compilation, so go me for being able to recognize obvious structural elements of books?)

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“The knife fell, and then the guy fell.” [Parker: The Score]

January 12th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Chris Ryall revealed the first preview for Darwyn Cooke’s 2012 adaptation of Richard Starker’s The Score the other day. As expected, it’s a great image, well in line with the other novels Cooke has done thus far. The Score is a good novel. Not my favorite–if I had to rank them, it’d probably go 1) The Hunter 2) The Outfit and 3) Butcher’s Moon–but it definitely rates. The hook alone makes it worth reading, really. “Parker gets a posse up and robs an entire town. And then things start exploding.

This is a book with lots of Alan Grofield, too. Grofield is easily the best supporting character in these novels. He’s a thespian slash thief, and each of his interests informs the other. He pulls heists to keep his theater going, and he tends to think of his jobs as being excerpts from exciting films. He’s suave, but he’s all about his business. He’s not unlike Lupin III or Gambit in certain ways, to be honest, which is probably part of the attraction. He really enjoys acting and stealing, and that makes him an incredibly enjoyable character to read. There’s this great bit in Butcher’s Moon where he takes up with this librarian who thinks she’s too big for the town she’s in that’s just wonderful, a sublime mix of Grofield being able to spot a type, adjust to that type, and then lose interest as soon as he gets focused on the actual job at hand. He’s a romantic, but he knows how and when to turn it off.

Here’s a couple of bits from that chapter in Butcher’s Moon:

“Very nice library you have here,” Grofield said.

The girl walking through the stacks ahead of him turned her head to twinkle over her shoulder in his direction. “Well, thank you,” she said, as though he’d told her she had good legs, which she had.

They went through a section of reading tables, all unoccupied. “You don’t seem to get much of a business,” he said. She gave a dramatic sigh and an elaborate shrug. “I suppose it’s all you can expect from a town like this,” she said.

Oh ho, thought Grofield, one of those. Self-image: a rose growing on a dungheap. A rose worth plucking? “What other attractions are there in a town like this?” he asked.

“Hardly anything. Here we are.” A small alcove held a battered microfilm reader on a table, with a wooden chair in front of it. Smiling at it, Grofield said, “Elegant. Very nice.”

She smiled broadly in appreciation, and he knew she knew they were artistic soulmates. “You should see the room with the LPs,” she said.

“Should I?”

“It’s ghastly.”

He looked at her, unsure for just a second, but her expression told him she hadn’t after all been suggesting a quiet corner in which they could bump about together. The idea, in fact, hadn’t occurred to her; she was really a very simple straightforward girl, appropriate to the town and the library.

The girl was on the lookout for him, and came tripping out from behind the main desk as he was going by. She gave violent hand signals to attract his attention, and when he stopped she hurried over and whispered, “It turns out I’m free tonight after all.”

She’d broken her date; headache, no doubt. Feeling vaguely sorry for the young man, and both irritated and guilty toward the girl, Grofield said, “That’s wonderful.”

It was Tucker who got me to finally pick up Butcher’s Moon. I read something like thirteen Parker novels in a shot a couple years ago, so I’d been on a bit of a break, but his review got me back on the horse. I had no idea that Slayground got a sequel, and I love that book. It was my #3 before I read Butcher’s Moon.

University of Chicago Press is continuing their Richard Stark reprint series with three Grofield novels in April. In order: The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird. I’m looking forward to reading them.

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“When Your Boyfriend Fits into Your Jeans and Other Atrocities”

November 1st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

As a kid, maybe somewhere between 8-10, I found my grandmother’s stash of Erma Bombeck books. I think it was out in our barn, in a chest, or something like that, and I found it after a day of toiling in the yard. I’d already run through my uncle’s collection of sci-fi, espionage, and fantasy at this point (they were later wrecked thanks to an untimely leak during a rainstorm while I was out of town and the books were looking bloated and sick by the time I found them again), and these books were slim, so I figured why not. The one title I always remembered was If Live Is A Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits?. I never really ate cherries, so I didn’t get the pun in the title until someone explained it to me. Honestly, they probably had to explain a lot of it to me–who still says “the pits?” The other book was Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!, which I liked because it had pictures by the Family Circus guy and the title was all in lowercase. (It also had “from the author of The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank” under her name, and we had a septic tank, so I could relate.)

These books were written five and twelve years before I was born by a lady who was fifty-five before I was one. In terms of target audiences, I was about as far out of it as you could get. The jokes were ancient, the references even more so, but I still managed to hook onto it. The family dynamics were really funny, and pretty unlike my family, but the jokes still hit. The mean little asides, the idea of nagging parents and lazy children who just want to borrow the car (“one day I’ll be old enough to do that!”), and the summer vacation stuff were all pretty great. I think I sorta vaguely remember some thinly veiled sex jokes (“maritals”), but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. If they were in there, though, they were funny.

I think I liked Bombeck because she was so sarcastic, but in a loving way. You could tell that she really liked her family, but wasn’t afraid to slap them when she needed to. Her jokes tended toward really simple aphorisms, stuff like, “One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is.” But go to a big family gathering and watch how many names you get called before your relatives settle on the right one. My grandmom has five kids and something like 14 or 15 grandkids. I’ve been called everyone’s name, up to and including people who are fifteen years younger than I am. It happens. “It’s funny, because it’s true.”

But yeah, ever since, I’ve liked this sort of humor. There’s something comforting, but still a little edgy, about it, like a milder version of “hurt the ones you love.”

Imagine my surprise when I found a random link to Mindy Kaling’s new book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and it turned out to be a Bombeck-style advice/memoir/aphorism book. Here’s a preview:
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling – Excerpt

Now, here’s the thing. I like The Office. Liked, maybe, I haven’t checked out the new season to be sure just yet. I thought it was at its best a couple seasons ago, and feel like Jim & Pam have been dragging the show down ever since. The Office isn’t necessarily a good vehicle for real drama. But when it’s actively trying to be funny, it’s deadly. The highlights of the past few seasons have been Ellie Kemper as the new and slow receptionist, BJ Novak as Ryan, and Mindy Kaling as Kelly. Something about those three never fails to slay me. I like how Kelly’s infatuation with Ryan fluctuates between outright delusion and genuine, iron-grip control of the situation. Every time Ryan gets a chance to look at the camera in disbelief or anger, I’m laughing. All three of them have great comic timing, and Novak and Kaling both write for the show, too. I still like a lot of the cast–Craig Robinson is fantastic–but these three kill.

Kaling’s book was a surprise, but yeah, you know what? After reading the excerpt? I was hooked. Bombeck was the first name I went to (because of sexism, I guess), and I feel like it’s an apt comparison. They both mine a similar vein of humor, I think, with really personal and relatable observations punctuated with biting humor. It’s my thing. And I knew I would enjoy the book when I hit this bit from the introduction, as part of a list of rejected titles for the book:

When Your Boyfriend Fits into Your Jeans and Other Atrocities

and for some reason, that just tickled my funny bone something fierce. It was the word “atrocities,” I think, that tipped me over into open laughter. The outrageous exaggeration (maybe it isn’t!) got me good. The book’s full of stuff like that, like when she explains how she somehow found herself in the habit of saying thank you to boys who were being mean to her or what it was like to fall into a pond from a high diving board against her will.

It’s funny stuff. I remember being a kid and wanting to be a comedian. I found an old photo album that had a spot where you could put down your Dream Job, and what I actually wrote was “comedian/astronaut,” which is either a hybrid job or I really wanted to have two jobs in kindergarten. I feel like these are the sort of jokes I’d have wanted (or still want) to be able tell. Maybe that explains my dumb sense of humor, because I’m entertained best by terrible puns/wordplay and excessive violence. (If only someone could merge the two…)

But yeah, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, judging from the few chapters I’ve read thus far, is the business. Real funny stuff.

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