Learning experiences

March is definitely coming in like a lion for me, mostly thanks to work. I’ve been in the middle of two major projects this month:

* The Date our friends feature
* The TOC site redesign

I mentioned the genesis of Date our friends here, and it’s finally wrapping up this week. In retrospect, we should have planned dates in places that would be easier to film. The final video was posted today, and it’s so dark, it’s damn near unwatchable. So much so that I briefly flirted with the idea of running it as an audio podcast. In any case, lessons learned. Overall, I thought the feature came together well and it was a big hit for us traffic-wise.

The site redesign is good news, bad news. Good news is the site looks much better than it used to. The bad news is that we’re still working out some bugs so the post-launch stress abatement has yet to occur.

Said stress is also due in part to me heading to Austin this week for the annual South By Southwest music conference. I’ve been so focused on the site relaunch that I haven’t had much time to research my SXSW plans, so I took today off to do so. Yes, I took a day off of work because I have so much work to do.

Speaking of SXSW, I’ll be taking a hiatus from the OMIC Twitter from Wednesday through Sunday so I can send updates from my phone to the Time Out Chicago Twitter stream. This will be my first time covering an event via Twitter – though I’ll also be blogging at the TOC blog– and I’m looking forward to utilizing it as a reporting tool. (I thought about creating a Tumblr blog for it but my jaw still hurts from biting off more than I could chew during Date our Friends).

25 in 12: You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

Writing about subcultures in a mainstream form is difficult. If you’re writing non-fiction, the difficulty comes from striking a balance between authoritative and accessible. Err too much on the side of the former, and your piece will sound too “inside.” Err on the latter and you’re likely to dumb down a subject so much that you fail to capture what makes it interesting in the first place. Either way, the end result is the same: the reader is left uninformed.

Setting a novel inside a subculture carries the same risks. I’ve been as bored as anybody when reading Tom Clancy’s interminable descriptions of the insides of naval warships in between Jack Ryan’s derring-do. On the other hand, when I reached the end of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, I wondered why he bothered to make the L.A. arts and music scene the backdrop of his novel, if he had so little to say about it.

Love Me is the story of an L.A. band whose inter-romantic difficulties are matched only by its inert career, until its bassist Lucinda, holding down a side job answering phones on a complaint line, brings the group’s troubled genius songwriter some lyrics culled from the calls she receives from an anonymous loser she dubs The Complainer. His turns of phrase become the basis for both the band’s new direction, and Lucinda’s erotic obsession with her caller, whom she eventually meets and shares a torrid days-long, booze-soaked love affair in advance of the band’s first gig.

Lethem is aiming for a modern satire here, but it’s a jab that feels dated by about 20 years, as he neither understands the world he’s describing nor his characters. The band’s first show is initially to be a silent one, where the group will only mime a performance at a party that doubles as an art installation. The party guests rebel and the band gives a bravura performance, which leads to encounters with a legendary ex-hippie DJ, an would-be Svengali manager and Lucinda’s slothful, romantic partner, who’s expectedly talentless but still insists on joining the band, due to his lyrical contributions. Just what the world needs: Yoko jokes mixed with riffs on Andy Warhol’s Factory.

The story isn’t without interesting details, like the armpit-sniffing culture reporter, the zookeeper guitarist who kidnaps a kangaroo who’s in the midst of a depressive episode, or the drummer’s employment at a place called No Shame, which is described as a “masturbation boutique.” But Lethem never really explores the flair of these side stories. We never find out what differentiates No Shame from the average porn shop, for instance, thereby missing an opportunity for some genuine satire on the smarter set’s tendency to dress up low culture in high fashion before reveling in its enjoyment.

While understanding that art subcultures – particularly music – are both fluid and transient, Lethem doesn’t realize that the people within them are not. Rather than craft arcs for the band members, Lethem’s characterizations double back on themselves, contradicting everything we’ve been told about them. Too consumed with the questions of how art is created within a flurry of influences, the novel fails to give us a sense of the character’s own motivations, making them nothing more than sketch pads for Lethem’s ideas, full of scratch-outs and scribbled side notes. It’s also a bit disconcerting that even the best-written female characters in the book – particularly the hard-nosed zoo administrator Dr. Marian – are shown to be mere putty in hands of The Complainer, due to his seductive, but slovenly, gaze.

Lethem is a writer of impressive ideas and skill; my experience with Love Me won’t deter my desire to read his celebrated novels Motherless Brooklyn or Fortress of Solitude. But it’s worth nothing that his plan to give away the movie rights to Love Me says far more about the issues of copyright and ownership and art than the book does.

Preferred refers

Looking at keyword referrals for OMIC is pretty entertaining, as I imagine it is for most bloggers.

In addition to lots of people looking for MP3s of New Wave songs from the 80s, I also tend to get a lot of referrals from “chicago pimp cups.” Not just pimp cups, mind you, but Chicago-centric pimp cups which I imagine would have to feature a bejeweled rendering of Mayor Daley. Ironic though that it leads them to this post.

I’ve also been getting a lot of Google traffic lately for people looking for info on Journey’s new lead singer.

But today I was very pleased to discover that I am the #4 Google search result for “don henley blowhard.” It’s really comforting to know that I am not alone in this opinion.

The Sleepers revel in classic rock and roll hedonism

I was pretty sure I was going to like Comeback Special from Chicago band The Sleepers before I even cracked open the CD. *

The cover has a vaguely bootlegged look to it like The Who’s Live At Leeds. Prominently displayed on the cover is the band’s logo, faux-rubber-stamped over a phonograph. Not a distinguished old-timey one that might have a dog peering into it, but one of those 70s down-market deals that proves that albums only sound better than CDs when you have 10K worth of stereo equipment behind them.

The back of the CD insert apes the look of a taped-up set list next to a picture of the band. The bassist is the most flamboyantly dressed of the five, while the lead singer is outfitted in what appears to be a sweater vest, button-down and corduroys. This makes so little sense that it must be true.

The easiest, laziest criticism against what The Sleepers are doing is that there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking going on here, though you could level the same critique at The Detroit Cobras, The Bellrays or The Goldstars, three bands who – like The Sleepers – take all the pieces necessary for a rock-and-roll, barroom-stomp style and put it together in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a retread.

Comeback Special is the band’s 2nd full-length after Push It Nationwide. The songs are full of crunchy guitar riffs crackling over bottom-heavy grooves as the lyrics repeatedly invoke the Holy Troika of Rock Problems (women – of legal age and otherwise – booze, and cigarettes). 70s rock shibboleths are offered from the MC5-style guitar lines to the Freddie Mercury-esque shouts of “Yeah!” on “Loaded” and “Jailbait,” to the direct line that can be drawn from Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” to The Sleepers’ “Filthy Ways.” These are bombastic, anthemic songs that revel in weekend-warrior vice.

The Sleepers manage to transcend their influences precisely because of all these winking nods at what came before. It’s the difference between a band that knows what it’s doing when it plays a certain way and a band that plays a certain way because it doesn’t know any better.

Comeback Special works because The Sleepers studied hard in rock school, then pissed off their professors because they turned out to be a little smarter.

The Sleepers’ Comeback Special is out now. Tracks from their album are available via its MySpace page. Their CD release party is March 8th at Double Door. Opening will be The Regrets, The Cocksmiths, and Whiskey Blonde, which sounds about right, actually.

* My own personal barometer for this decision-making – hinted at here – is worth expounding on, but not here. Buy me a beer in a bar sometime though…

25 in 12: Superman/Batman: Supergirl

Hi, Chicagoist readers. You’ll find the main page of the blog here and more comics content here.

Well, it didn’t take me very long to start totally cheating within the bounds of this project.

At the beginning of the year when I decided to set a goal of reading 25 books over the next 12 months, I remember thinking “I’m probably going to end up including a graphic novel or two.” Not that graphic novels aren’t, or can’t, be literature. They are, and can. But making time for reading comics in any form isn’t a problem for me. It’s sitting down with a novel or non-fiction tome and carving out the time to finish it that presents a challenge. Still, I knew if I was going to hit this goal without cutting down on my other media consumption, a few comics would sneak in here. And as I’ve still been trying to slog through two books that I’m not at that wild about, this one certainly did.

Even worse, Supergirl doesn’t even qualify as a proper graphic novel. It’s merely a collection of the Superman/Batman team-up comics (numbered #8-13) – a novella one might say – which deal with the Supergirl’s re-appearance in the DC Universe.

(This is probably confusing for the non-comic-geeks among you but know this: every so often comic book characters – including and especially the most iconic of them from Superman to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman – have their backstories revised. It keeps the characters fresh, helps bring in new readers and also gives writers new stories to tell. It also brings out the nerd fury like little else in comics. In any case, this is story is a re-introduction of Supergirl into the DCU. If you want to know how it got this way, there’s always Wikipedia.)

Like any volume of Superman/Batman, even a story about Supergirl is always a story about Superman and Batman. And, by extension, a story of identity.

In this story, Kara Zor-El (Supergirl) is a teenager sent to planet Earth soon after her baby cousin Kal-El (Superman) is rocketed away from their dying home planet of Krypton. Her father intends for her to be Kal-El’s protector, but due to some interstellar traffic jam, she ends up arriving on Earth several years after he does. While Supergirl’s arrival feels like home to Superman, Batman is suspicious of her, and remains so throughout the story, never quite sure of who she is.

Wonder Woman harbors similar concerns, and she brings Kara to Paradise Island for training and observation, over the objections of Superman who finds himself in conflict with two of his closest friends, due to his certitude over who Kara is meant to be. But her training is interrupted by a visit from the malevolent Darkseid – ruler of the hell planet of Apokolips and generally bad dude – who brainwashes Kara into becoming his handmaiden, leading Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to rescue her not once, but twice as Darkseid follows them back to Earth to make an attempt on Kara’s life.

If this volume of the Superman/Batman stories were a TV movie, it would be considered a backdoor pilot, as Supergirl was mainly a way to re-launch the character into her own title within the DCU. As such, there’s a feeling that all the “good stuff” about the Supergirl character was saved for later.

At times, it’s hard to tell if writer Jeph Loeb wants this new Supergirl to be a teenager just coming to terms with her adolescence or a fully-grown woman who realizes the person she was sent to protect is now protecting her. It leads to an odd juxtaposition of moments: Supergirl will be standing up to an accusatory Batman one moment – no mean feat – while in the next she’ll be gaily shopping for clothes, dressed in a baby-tee and low-rise jeans, the straps of her thong hiked up somewhere around her rib cage (granted, this book came out in 2004 but it just goes to show that boys on both sides of the inks and pencils have a hard time coming to terms with young women). But Loeb is smart enough to show us that when Supergirl is at her sharpest and best-defined is in moments of conflict whether with Batman, with an expert swordswoman on Paradise Island or even with Superman himself.

As I said, this is a Superman/Batman story. The through-line in these volumes is that each man finds a little of himself in the other, and vice versa. In this volume, Superman discovers that he shares Batman’s tendency to do “whatever is necessary.” Here, his desire to keep his family – Supergirl – safe, leads him to eventually bury, though not kill, Darkseid at the far end of the universe. It’s a frequent theme in comics: through adversity you find out who you really are. And family is at the core of who Superman is, whether on Krypton or in Kansas. At the end of Supergirl, Superman realizes that though Kara is Kryptonian and capable of super-heroism, it is up to her to discover her own place on Earth, as he did, away from the safe embrace of family.

I have to believe this has a resonance for other people the way it does for me: The moments in my life when I felt the most secure in my identity were the times immediately following periods of great conflict or insecurity.

In any case, the next time I sub a graphic novel in for a “real” book, I promise it’ll be something a little meatier. Like DC: The New Frontier.