Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, RIP

As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to meet John Updike when he came to my school for a weekend. The English department had a budget of about $6,000 for its writers series, and that money was usually doled out over the course of the year to 5 or 6 writers from the area. My junior year, however, the department decided to blow the whole wad on one writer, and they managed to get Updike.

The department also decided to pick out two English majors who would get to go out to dinner with the author and have some other personal time with him. Because I was a pretty good student, and I cleaned up nice, I was one of the chosen two.

Other than a few short stories, essays, and reviews, however, I had not read much Updike. I managed to find some cheap paperbacks at a used bookstore, and I read what I could in the weeks before his arrival.
Which turned out not to be much. I read some of The Centaur, all of the memoir Self-Consciousness, more short stories, whatever were his most recent things in The New Yorker, and possibly a few chapters of some other novels.

In preparation for the visit, the English department held a discussion of Updike's work. There was, amongst the faculty, a lot of ambivalence about Updike's fiction, just as there seems to be in the obituaries that have come out today, and for similar reasons: gender, sex, class, etc. The discussion included readings of selected passages from his work, one of which was a sex scene that, in typical Updike fashion, was both unerotic and excessively, almost medically, detailed. (I wish I could remember the source of the passage. It may have been from The Centaur or from Couples.) After hearing the passage, an older gentleman in the audience burst out, "I've had sex many times with many women, and it has never, ever been like that." Though I would never have quite the same basis for comparison, I would recall this reaction every time I came across a sex scene in an Updike novel.

When Updike arrived in town, I was taken, with some faculty, administrators, and the other English major, to dinner with the author. Updike turned out to be unintimidating and personable, focusing a lot of his attention on the two students in the room. I have a picture, which is framed on my office wall, of this dinner: me in a suit that I bought while working at Sears, a huge smile on my face, sitting next to the author. As I remember, I managed not to embarrass myself very much, though I did try to draw too much of a connection between him and me by referencing the fact that both of us had fathers who were teachers.

The next day, I brought my stack of cheap paperbacks for him to sign. He referred to me by name and said, "You really haven't read all these, have you?" I just laughed and didn't give an answer. (Now, in going through my home office looking for my Updike books, I could only find two signed paperbacks. I know I had to have more than that at the time, but I have no idea what happened to the others.)

I also got to spend more time with him before his reading, where I was told by a woman who may have been his agent that I shouldn't bring up The Witches of Eastwick movie with the author. "He's not happy with it?" I asked, and she just shook her head. "Don't bring up Hollywood at all," she added. (And now, it turns out, one of his last works, if not his last, is a sequel to that book.) I was surprised by this directive, as Updike did not seem to be the kind of high-maintenance author who needed such protection, but maybe it was just one of those things that agents do for their clients.

This was my first experience meeting a "big-time author," and it had a profound effect on me, especially since Updike turned out to be such a nice guy. I would later read much more of Updike's work, and for about ten years, I kept up with all his new releases as well. I read Rabbit, Run in my early twenties, which seems now to have been the perfect time for a young white guy to read it (much like reading Catcher in the Rye at 15 or 16). The last novel of his that I really liked, however, was Memories of the Ford Administration, a book that has passages that I remember well and still marvel at their style. One passage in particular I often find myself thinking about and laughing:

Sex still had a good name during the Ford Administration. Betty Ford had been a footloose dancer for Martha Graham and announced at the outset of the administration that she and Gerald intended to keep sleeping in the same bed.... In those years, one-night stands, bathhouses, sex shops abounded. Venereal disease was an easily erased mistake. Syphilis, the clap--no problem. Crabs, the rather cute plague of Sixties crash pads, had moved on as urban rents went up, and herpes' welts and blisters had yet to inflict their intimate sting. The paradise of the flesh was at hand. What had been unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory. Except that people were going crazy, as they had in ancient Rome, either from too much sex or from lead in the plumbing. Ford, a former hunk, got to wome in a way Nixon hadn't. Twice, I seem to remember, within a few weeks' time, a female went after him with a gun: Squeaky Fromme was too spaced to pull the trigger, and Sara Jane Moore missed at close range.

For one, I love how this passage encapsulates a nostalgia for an era that otherwise seems so unmemorable. And this, for me, is the thing that Updike did best: fix his eye on a particular time in American culture and articulate a perfect description of it. I think the Rabbit books do this especially well.

I haven't read Updike in years, with the exception of my annual re-reading of his short story, "A&P," which I teach every year in Freshman Comp. I should probably pick up some of the books I never finished as an undergrad. I noticed that my bookmark is still in my copy of The Centaur--I was using a ticket from a breakfast with the author to mark my page.

In his hilarious and insightful account of his literary admiration for Updike, titled U and I, Nicholson Baker begins by discussing the recent death of Donald Barthelme, and he goes on to write about the way in which a reader's attitude changes after a writer's death:

That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when delivering their judgments--when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn't of the first rank--had once seemed to me unnecessary: the writing, I had thought, was good or bad, no matter whether the writer was here or not. But now, after the news of Barthelme's death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begin to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer....The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar.... Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple, their delights primitive and unvarying: all their emotions wear stage makeup, and we almost never flip their books across the room out of impatience with something they've said. We can't really understand them anymore. Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seeing the work through the living writer's own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can't suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense their imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly.

I find this assessment particularly appropriate of Updike because he was so prolific and continued to write up until his death. And his work was such a mixed bag. One could read a new Updike novel with the hope that it was a return to form because there had been so many returns over the last 50 years or so. Now, one can go to the obituaries and figure out exactly which works to read and which to avoid, but the hope that the next one might be the best is no longer there.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Grammar Survey

Just a quick note here asking for your help by participating in a survey about grammar errors. The survey, which was developed by two university professors, can be found at this link.

As the researchers conducting the survey write:

"We would like to invite you to take part in an online survey to share your opinions about grammatical errors in Standard Written English as they might appear in business or professional correspondence. Your survey response will help us to assess current perceptions about language usage in professional contexts."

If you have about 15 minutes to spare, please help with this important research project.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lordy Lordy

So, yesterday was my 40th birthday. The Other Dr. K conspired with Chris Sims to throw an awesome surprise party on Friday. A BATMAN-themed party, I should add (the awesomeness of which was only slightly diminished by the fact that Batman is now dead and never coming back).

The guests at the party were primarily friends from work, and I don't think all of them were quite aware of my "scholarly interest" in Batman before this event. And I wonder what kind of looks the Other Dr. K got when she picked out the Batman balloons along with the "40" balloons.

Chris Sims gave me a buttload of DC Showcase Presents and Marvel Essentials editions, probably enough to last me until next year.

A colleague gave me a Sterling Cooper Advertising coffee mug. I don't think my facial expression in this picture quite captures my real excitement, because this gift puts me just one step closer to my goal of having an office as awesome as Don Draper's. Now all I need is the art deco furniture, a full bar, and some ashtrays.

Speaking of Mad Men, another gift I got which would fit that milieu was this:

Playboy's Host and Bar Book from 1971. The book is everything you'd expect from the time period, including a a Cold War-theme running through the section on vodka drinks. (The "Kremlin Colonel" includes vodka, lime juice, sugar, and mint.) However, I was surprised that the chapter on "15 Types of Parties" did not include an entry on "Key Parties." Perhaps Playboy was reserving that for its own special book.

I was also surprised by the large number of drinks with a raw egg in the ingredients, including a whole section of "flips," which are defined by the inclusion of a raw egg.

This book is definitely going to require further study.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who helped make the birthday special, and also to those who sent birthday wishes through Twitter and email. Now I'm going to mix up a Kremlin Colonel while playing with another gift, the Quantum of Solace game for the Wii.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More on the LCS

Yesterday's post on my attempt to get the Obama/Spider-Man comic at the LCS has generated a lot of attention, including links from prominent comics bloggers like Mike Sterling, Kevin Church, and Tom Spurgeon. It's also started to make the rounds of some comics news sites.

Many of the comments--which I appreciate, by the way--have talked about further steps that might be taken with this situation. And, as a kind of collective response, I'd like to address them by giving some background about my experiences with this store in general.

When I first moved to the area eight years ago, I opened up the local phone book to see if I could find a nearby comic shop in this small city. After looking for the various Yellow Pages categories--Comics, Collectibles, Hobbies, Toys and Games--I couldn't find anything that resembled a comic shop. I even asked at the chain bookstores in the mall, and no one knew if the city had one.

I spent some time during those first weeks here driving around and exploring the city. One day, I drove past a store that did have the word "Comics" in its name. However, the store windows were covered with old and faded posters, and where I could see through, the place looked dark inside. The paint on the logo and mural outside the building was peeling, and tall weeds grew out of cracks in the sidewalk leading up to the door. I wasn't hopeful.

However, I pulled on the handle, and the door opened. Inside, behind the counter of statues and busts, was the same clerk I discussed yesterday. Displayed prominently behind the counter were autographed pictures of Rush Limbaugh and Southern morning show stars John Boy and Billy. The back wall was lined with higher-priced Marvels, and the middle of the sales floor was an island of back issue bins. New comics were arranged by Marvels and DCs in the opposite wall.

I asked the clerk if I could start up a sub. He said, "Sure," and took out a piece of paper to write down what I wanted. First, I had some questions to ask about their policies. For one, the store had the policy that if you subscribed to a particular title, they would also automatically order the annual and any related miniseries, crossovers or spinoffs. So I asked,

"I want to order Justice League, but I don't usually get the related miniseries and spin-offs unless I really want them. Can I just subscribe to the main JLA series without also automatically getting the other stuff?"

While this was certainly possible, the clerk also made clear that this was not the normal policy, and his demeanor indicated that I was perilously close to maximizing the amount of work he was going to do to get my business.

So, I put together a minimal list with some specific instructions like the above for keeping stuff I didn't want out of my pull box (Like "Batman--main title only"). He then explained that he would see what he could do about my special requests. It became clear to me that the store may have had exactly as many regular customers as it needed or wanted, and they especially didn't need or want a high maintenance customer like myself.

I then grabbed some stuff off the rack to buy. I paid cash, and the clerk recorded the transaction by hand on a 3x5 notecard.

Over the next few years, the store reinforced my earlier impression that they weren't really interested in gaining any new customers. After all, a Yellow Pages ad seems like a no-brainer for any retail business, but the store steadfastly avoided even that basic marketing strategy. On one occasion, I listened to the same clerk and his buddy loudly describe wrestler Chris Benoit's murder of his wife and son, oblivious to the father who was quickly hustling his own son and daughter out the door.

The few times I was in there when the owner was running the place, he would have conservative talk radio on. This didn't bother me personally, though I would have preferred something a little more neutral--something that didn't feel like he was ignoring the fact that many customers might not want to listen to this. It now seems ironic, in retrospect, that the clerk would have such a strong negative reaction to the presence of an image of someone who represents a different political view in the store. (To be fair, though, the times I have engaged the owner in political discussions have been pleasant and respectful.)

There are other stories I could tell, like the Free Comic Book Day where the owner gave away random issues of Mark Millar's Trouble miniseries--a decision that was a mistake on many levels. In general, though, the store is a dinosaur--a throwback to the heyday of the 90s where the sheer popularity of comics as investments made it easy for stores like this to get by on bad business practices and terrible customer service. This store continues in that mode primarily because it is the only comic store in a 75-mile radius and really has no reason to change.

So, I say all this to give something of a picture of my experience with the store, and as a response to those commenters who mentioned contacting the owner about the clerk's tirade. Basically, I don't think it would change much. The store is what it is--an unpleasant stereotype of the bad reputation comic stores get--and it seems to get by on a base of loyal, regular customers. It's open for a few hours in the afternoons on Wednesdays thru Sundays, giving those customers just enough time to get in and get their subs. The reality is this: the owner is free to run the store any way he wants, and to attract, discourage, or keep customers using whatever method he sees fit. I've long since stopped shopping there regularly, only going there on occasions like yesterday, when something particularly special or noteworthy comes out. The meager few dollars I spent there on such occasions will be no great loss, but refusing to give them even that is the most reasonable response to the experience I had yesterday.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Brand New Day

So, I went to my Local Comic Shop to see if I could get a copy of the Spider-Man/Barack Obama comic.

I get to the store at about 1:05. The store is supposed to open at 1:00, but it's dark inside and the door is locked. About half a dozen cars are in the parking lot waiting for the place to open.

The guy finally shows up about 10 minutes later and opens the door. Most of the people coming in are not regular customers, but are there for the Obama comic. For the next ten minutes, a steady stream of customers comes in asking specifically for the comic. The store has about 35 copies of the regular issue and 3 copies of the Obama cover, which have been marked up to $25.00.

Of course, customers are confused. They want the Obama cover, which they've seen on the news with a price of $3.99. The clerk tries to explain the concept of variant covers, but this doesn't seem to make sense to nonregular customers. After all, they wouldn't expect to walk into Best Buy to purchase a Wii for the regular price of $250, only to find that the store is charging $1000 because it is a rare item.

A little bit later, the clerk gets a phone call from an irate customer whose daughter came in to buy the Obama cover but refused to pay the jacked up price. He again tries to explain the concept of variant covers, but it becomes clear that even he doesn't understand how the ordering worked on this variant, because he seems to think that it's a one-for-ten variant, rather than the more complicated situation it actually was. He gives the customer the phone number of the store owner and hangs up.

This turned out to be the tipping point that had been building for the last 15 minutes.

The clerk lets off a tirade for any of the six or seven customers currently in the store. "Don't complain to me about the price--I didn't set it. I'd just as soon give the fucking thing away so I don't have to look at it for the rest of the day. I'd rather wipe my ass with it than sell it. And I'm going to have to deal with this shit all day."

A couple of people in the store respond about the demand for the book and the news coverage, which is the first the clerk has heard of it. The fact that he was not aware of the media attention this book was getting says volumes. And this just gets him going more:

"You know, I do want things to get better, but a big part of me hopes that it gets worse and this guy really fucks this country up. Because then all the people with their DVDs and magazine covers and shit will shut the fuck up. Because I'm sick of hearing this shit. I really hope he fucks this country up even more. And Joe Quesada has probably been whoring himself out on television rather than doing his job. He should get back to telling stories rather than this propaganda cashing in on this shit. I'm just fucking sick of it."

A customer then walks up to the counter to make his purchase and engages the clerk in further conversation. The clerk then mutters, at a lower volume than his tirade, a completely despicable racial epithet. I set down my comic and left. I won't be supporting this store anymore.

And I'd rather be out this particular comic than give that store any of my money.

Patrick McGoohan, RIP

Sad news today that Patrick McGoohan, star and creator of the greatest television show in history, died today. More on this later.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Many "O" Faces of Superman

From the DC Vault, art by Curt Swan.

True Fact: The first image in row two inspired Soulja Boy's "Crank That."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oh Bondage Up Yours!

The DC Vault, by Marty Pasko, is filled with some amazing culled from the DC archives, even moreso than what we find in the Marvel Vault, which came out the previous year. This may be due to the fact that DC has a much longer and well-recorded history.

One of the true gems is the following 1943 letter from All-American Comics president M. C. Gaines (father of EC and Mad founder William Gaines) to "Doc" William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman:

(Apologies for the crooked scan--the DC Vault doesn't fit on my scanner too well.)

Anyone who's read Golden Age Wonder Woman stories knows of Marston's notorious bondage fetish. Here's an example that may very well have been the tipping point for the reader who sent in the complaint discussed in Gaines's letter:
Wonder Woman, in a gimp mask, chained up and dumped in a water tank. (From Wonder Woman 6, Fall 1943)

This letter is fascinating on several levels, especially the sequence of events that must have led to this letter. First, Gaines and Marston apparently had several conversations about the preponderance of bondage in Wonder Woman comics. The problem, however, is not bondage in general, but the excessive use of chains. A recent conference between Gaines and Marston has set a goal for chain-bondage reduction by 50-75%. Gaines seems to assume that Wonder Woman fans will be satisfied with other forms of bondage and don't necessarily need it to be chain-specific.

So, Gaines has Miss Roubicek, who I assume is his secretary, put together a list of acceptable "methods which can be used to keep women confined or enclosed without the use of chains." It's a shame that Pasko doesn't include that enclosed list of methods, but I imagine the scene playing out something like this:

Gaines (wearing suspenders and an open-collared shirt with tie undone, while holding a lit cigar, calls from his office): Miss Roubicek! I need you to take something down!

Miss Roubicek (putting down her red nail polish and quickly grabbing a No. 2 pencil and yellow legal pad): Right away, Mr. Gaines!

Gaines: Miss Roubicek, I need you to help me with something--how can I confine or otherwise enclose a woman without the use of chains?

Miss Roubicek: Well, gee, Mr. Gaines, I don't think I'm that kinda...

Gaines: C'mon Ruby! Don't kid a kidder, sweetheart. Bondage--no chains! Go!

Miss Roubicek (chewing her gum thoughtfully): Well. let's see...there's rope...

Gaines: Natch! I need more creativity, chop chop! (Claps)

Miss Roubicek (more quickly): ...silk scarves, rubber bands, other forms of elastic material, leather straps, stocks, a mink stole, the plastic tubing hospitals use to administer intravenous fluid, ivy (but not the poisoned kind), a garden hose, the cord from venetian blinds, the belt from a terry cloth bathrobe...

Gaines: Yeah, yeah, yeah--that's the stuff!

Miss Roubicek: How 'bout handcuffs? Do those count?

Gaines: Y'know what? I think I'm going to have to count that as chains. But we've got a good start here. Now take a letter for that perv Doc Marston...

Man, those were the days!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More Fun with Blackhawk

The recent Showcase Presents: Blackhawk collection features a disclaimer at the end of the table of contents: "The comics reprinted in this volume were produced in a time when racism played a larger role in society and popular culture, both consciously and unconsciously. They are reprinted here without alteration for historical accuracy."

However, one doesn't have to go far into the book to question why, of the many offenses on exhibit here, racism in particular was singled out. A better disclaimer would be something like, "Look. These comics are old. There may be a lot wrong with the world today, but after reading this, you will have to admit that some progress has been made in the last 50 years. Racism, sexism, and cultural insensitivity in general are not nearly as rampant as they once were. And the next time you see Tom Brokaw, hit him over the head with this book and let him know that this is what his so-called 'Greatest Generation' produced."

In this issue, Blackhawk ill-advisedly responds to an email titled, "Gain Inches the Easy Way!"

A case in point, from Blackhawk 110: "The Mystery of Tigress Island," in which the Blackhawks take on their distaff doppelgangers, The Tigresses!

Like the Blackhawks, the Tigresses are a team of international aviators (aviatrixes?) with a multicultural make-up. Led by an American named Joan, the team also includes Frenchwoman Yvette, Norwegian Ilse, and Spanish-speaking Rita--

--whose Spanish really sucks. Or is it meant to be ironic that she fails at gender agreement?

The Tigresses lure the Blackhawks to their island hideaway--which is identical to Blackhawk Island--with the offer to help capture the wanted criminal mastermind, Kurt Ostrec. The Blackhawks, however, do not want any help with this dangerous criminal. Whatever it is that the Blackhawks do, it's too difficult for women, as Blackhawk explains in every other panel, including this one where Joan introduces the rest of the team.

The Blackhawks underestimate the Tigresses and fall prey to their cunning honey trap:
Fortunately, two of the seven Blackhawks are able to spout their culturally stereotypical catchphrases while falling into the pit.

With the Blackhawks trapped, Joan and the Tigresses send a message to Kurt Ostrec, informing him of their success. Ostrec arrives on Tigress Island thinking that he now has the amazing opportunity to do away with his foes once and for all, but he quickly realizes that something else is afoot.

It turns out, the Tigresses' real target was Ostrec himself, but their plan to kill the villain is stopped by the timely escape of the Blackhawks. After Ostrec has been captured, Joan explains their motives: all the Tigresses are widows of men killed by Ostrec.
Hey, Joan, try varying your sentence structure once in a while.

As the Blackhawks take Ostrec into custody, the Tigresses--and the reader--learn a valuable lesson about essentialized gender roles in relation to crime fighting. And it's one of the many valuable lessons readers can find in the pages of Blackhawk!