Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Light's Gone Out

On a cold January day, Pete Seeger died.

People toss around words like “Giant” and “Living Legend” and half the time the people who get labelled this way don’t deserve it. Pete Seeger really was those things. More than that — he was a constant… he lived long enough so that some of us can say that he was Always There for us, from the time we were children until now when we are beginning to enter our Advanced Years. As one of my Facebook friends accurately pointed out just a few minutes ago, it feels as if we’ve lost a member of the family. He was everyone’s Favorite Uncle.

He wrote the songs that defined a generation, and he kept alive the great songs of the dying past, the songs of Tradition. 

More important than any of that, he was an ambassador of Positiveness, Goodness and Light in a world that has become increasingly become Negative, Evil and Dark. He was one of the few, so very few, who acted as our collective Conscience… and he was so good-natured about it that no one in their right mind could possibly have resented his call to Do Right.

This one hits awfully hard, ladies and gentlemen. If the world that we grew up in is an iceberg — adrift in a vast sea and slowly melting away into nothingness — Pete Seeger represents an enormous shard of that iceberg that just broke off and sank beneath the waves. I believe that we are diminished, not increased by Time… now, Time has claimed one of its biggest victims… and left us without a source of music and hope.


Monday, January 20, 2014

TERMINATION ALLEY: Spitting in the Face of The Devil

Despite every obstacle that the Fates have laid in front of me in the past month, I am poised to publish TWO new books in the next couple of weeks. One is happening due to pure blind tenacity, and the other is happening thanks to a lot of work done over a period of years many, many moons ago.

The latter is volume 2 of Quirk, collecting well over a year's worth of my weekly internet comic between two covers.

This is where things really start to happen. It's not necessary to have read the first volume or any of the prior iterations of QUIRK to jump onboard here, but you may enjoy this more if you know some of what has gone before.

Everything changes for our heroes in this volume: Quirk's ship AND one of his friends are both repossessed by their original owners, the Evil Cosmic Conglomerate Lockhead Dynamics; Quirk, Sludge and Smith are set adrift on course to the most unbelievable destination of all... along the way, they encounter the Artmeister of the Spaceways, the Dalai Dada. And when they land on the Planet of the Amazon Cowboys, nothing can prepare them for the depth of the conspiracy that has engulfed Earth.

The Dalai Dada sequence was created just after the incidents of 9.11, and reflects my feelings surrounding that awful day,  Beyond that, this volume reflects the culmination of 20 years worth of plotting and planning.

Quirk, Vol. 2, "Termination Alley" is 62 pages in full color. It retails at $15.99, and will be available before the end of the month.

Ordering details coming soon... along with information about the other completely wonky book that's coming around the same time.

Onward! Gawdam it, I am going to conquer this woebegone world SOMEhow!

-- Freder

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ol' Banjo Eyes

In writing about Eddie Cantor yesterday I mentioned that both Fox and Warner’s have started trickling his movies onto DVD (and it’s about danged time), albeit as part of their print-on-demand, DVD-R “Archive Collection” lines. 

As soon as I saw this, you know that I ordered up a couple of Cantor’s pictures, and in the coming weeks I’ll scarf up the rest. I want to do everything in my power to encourage these two studios to issue them all!

The DVDs themselves are, by their very nature, bare-bones releases, and not bargain priced, of course. They have no extra features, which is OK by me… I’m there to watch the movie, not a bunch of filler stuff (I can’t listen to audio commentaries anyway: I get confused and end up not being able to understand either the commentators or the sound track). It also means that the studio doesn’t spent a lot of money on graphic design, usually just slapping the original movie poster on the front of the case. This is OK by me, too… I love old movie posters. Sometimes they’re better than the movie. 

My first two Cantors arrived yesterday, and I wasted no time slotting Kid Millions into the player. This was the first Cantor I ever saw, and I still consider it the best. I’ve watched it many times, on broadcast TV, VHS and now DVD, and it has never looked better. In tone and structure, every one of his pictures is exactly the same: light, character-based comedy, laced with an even lighter brand of either melodrama or mystery, with the humble but All-American Eddie getting into one scrape after another. There are clearly delineated Good Guys and Bad Guys (although the Bad Guys are rarely all that bad); inevitably there’s some kind of mix-up with a Girl, while Eddie fights manfully to make his way in a world he never made. It’s all amply peppered with up-tempo musical numbers, and always climaxes with a big set piece of some kind: in Strike Me Pink (which I wrote about yesterday) this is a wild chase through an Amusement Park on bumper cars, roller-coasters and a hot-air balloon. In Kid Millions, it’s a glorious Technicolor finale in which Eddie finally makes good on a promise he made (in song) to a gang of local street urchins at the beginning of the picture.

This movie made an enormous impression on me when I first saw it more than thirty-five years ago. It was a heavy influence on my comic strip Tinsel*Town. The pivotal character, Eddie Fox, takes his name from Cantor and the references don’t stop there. In my fictional Hollywood, all of Eddie Fox’s movies follow a specific formula and tone: these were swiped directly from the movies of Eddie Cantor.

Cantor has been given a raw deal by history, and as I pointed out yesterday, I strongly believe this is due to modern White Guilt about the way other races were portrayed by Hollywood all across the board — not just in Cantor’s movies. We’re right to cringe a bit inwardly when Eddie dons his blackface, among the many other race-related things that happen in his movies. But we don’t do anyone any favors by burying the past. It doesn’t alleviate the hurt that was done, after all, and it’s just another way of pretending that bigotry never existed.

In the case of Cantor, it has also deprived history of one of its most talented and engaging performers. Instead of damning him for one aspect of his movies, isn’t it better to appreciate the good… while acknowledging that we’ve come a long way, baby?

— Freder

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Philadelphia Snorey

Cantor asserts himself in Strike Me Pink.

For the past two nights I have fallen asleep on The Philadelphia Story, and I’m beginning to despair of ever getting through the thing.

It’s not entirely the fault of the movie: after dinner with a full tummy, I turn out the lights, throw a light blanket over myself, settle in to my comfy chair, and inevitably a pussyquat or two or three (rarely, all four have been known to pile on) will settle down onto my lap, and in such relaxing circumstances I guess it’s a wonder that I can stay awake for anything. 

But the sad fact is that after a lifetime of anticipation no movie could probably live up to, I am finding The Philadelphia Story to be a disappointment. The first let down comes right up front: Its most famous scene is the first scene in the picture — and nothing that follows matches it. The show stops before it even begins: now I see the wisdom in Merian C. Cooper’s ruthless deletion of King Kong’s infamous Spider Pit sequence. 

Beyond that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Philadelphia Story, and a lot that’s right. Kate, of course, lets her light shine blindingly, and Cukor creates what’s probably the perfect atmosphere for such a thing. But there isn’t one single character to like or care about, and a good number of them are just plain loathsome: especially including the Jimmy Stewart character. This “sophisticated” comedy is perhaps too sophisticated for me, if “sophistication” means something that feels totally superior to its audience and the world.

Abbott and Costello aren’t faring much better with me. It took me two nights to get through their largely dismal Mexican Hayride — in which neither Mexico nor hayrides make any appearance. The picture is at pains to keep the pair apart from each other, and Bud is moved into the sidelines for an alarming amount of the picture’s runtime. Without Bud on hand, Lou is just tiresome, much as he tries to cultivate our sympathy with his coy, cutesy cow-eyes. The songs are dreadful and the big “comedy” finale with Lou being chased by a bull (accomplished through obvious stock footage, an even more obvious mechanical bull head and terrible optical effects) is laughless beyond belief. By this time, bull fights had been done to death by comedians including the Stooges, Eddie Cantor and even Bugs Bunny; this one is the bottom of the barrel.

Speaking of Eddie Cantor (his feature The Kid From Spain climaxes with one of the best comedic bullfights), this past week TCM ran one of his later features, Strike Me Pink. I’m glad to see TCM airing his movies, and gladder still that Warner’s and Fox have both started to release the tiniest trickle of his output onto DVD, in their “Vault” print-on-demand lines. I’ve lamented his fall from grace a time or two on this blog: he’s one of my favorite movie comedians, in his day a giant in the entertainment world — and no one remembers him anymore. His pictures are light as air, genuinely charming (Cantor does the Horatio Alger thing better than anyone), laugh-out-loud funny and endearingly entertaining after all these years. I never, ever fall asleep on a Cantor picture! Strike Me Pink is not his best, but despite some unexpectedly lousy songs by Harold Arlen it still hits all the comedy marks, and is a heckova lot better movie than Mexican Hayride — this is how a climactic comedy setpiece should be done.

I’m almost certain that TCM chose this over some of Cantor’s better pictures (notably the great Kid Millions and Roman Scandals) because it’s probably the only one that does not contain a musical number performed in blackface! Cantor, not to put too fine a point on it, has been a victim of White Guilt: modern audiences tend to be shocked — shocked! when the burnt cork comes out and Eddie dresses up in full Minstrel Show regalia. I say now, as I have on many occasions, Get Over It. The Past cannot be changed to suit the political and social mores of The Present. What Cantor did was in no way mean-spirited. The proper thing to do is to be amazed that anyone ever considered this sort of thing acceptable as a mainstream entertainment: and then relax and enjoy it on its own terms, as a record of the past that should not be forgotten.

— Freder

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Season of Keeping It All Together

In case you are wondering why so few updates in the last month… it’s been a long few weeks of Stuff Happening, the worst of which was the complete thermo-nuclear meltdown of my once-trusty iMac — where I do everything and where absolutely everything was stored. After nearly a week of effort, I was able to get it back up and running again and start restoring all my files… only to have it crash again. And again. And again. The hard drive was apparently so corrupt that no amount of reformatting could fix it. The last thing I wanted to do at this time was buy another iMac… but needs must where The Devil rides, as they say.

In the process of getting a replacement I became so angry at Apple that I wish I lived near Cupertino just so that I could throw rotten Granny Smiths at them (the weather would be a nice improvement, too). Who would have thought that a bottom-of-the-line iMac of today would cost the same as the bottom-of-the-line iMac that I bought two years ago — and actually deliver less? Apple has made the new iMacs so thin that they can no longer contain a CD drive… and because of this, I could not install my software.

I have to wonder… why is Apple so obsessed with making things thinner and smaller, even at the cost of required elements? I can’t believe that Steve Jobs would have approved of this design. Sure, it’s less than a quarter of an inch thick at the edges… but it still looks exactly the same from the front, and doesn’t deliver a necessary element. You have to buy a CD Drive as a $90 add-on, and connect it via USB.

— But the new iMac has only 4 USB ports. By the time I add on my extended keyboard (the wireless one that comes with it is useless), the CD drive, a new external hard drive for back-up and the syncing cable for my phone and tablet, it’s full up and I have nowhere to connect a printer, or either of my two remaining peripherals. 

Don’t even get me started about their latest operating system, Mavericks. It is buggier than a mile-long strip of flypaper. I suspect it was at least in part responsible for the downfall of my other iMac. On the new one it was freezing and failing to recognize permissions and forcing me to restart the computer two and three times a day. I’ve managed to get through two-and-a-half days now without a restart, and consider that a minor miracle.

However — at least it does restart. The same could not be said of my old one.

Who knows? Maybe the computer, being brand-new, needed to learn how to be a computer. Gotta learn how to walk before you can run and all that.

In the end, I did loose some important files, including about a third of the Major Arcana for my Tarot of the Zircus Mägi; I was able to replace these with tiffs that the printer had retained, so the designs are safe… but the original Photoshop files are Gone With The Wind. I lost the illustrations and text for a children’s book I was planning for 2015: the illustrations were very rough and would have been re-done and replaced anyway, but I’m not certain that I can recover the text. If I was smart I printed it out and have a hard copy in my files somewhere. 

But since when have I ever been smart? It’s a worry. There’s still so much in the way of restoring my old files, software and music to be done that I haven’t had a chance to look for it. 

Just as vexing but requiring nothing from me other than worry was my father’s tumble in early December down a flight of stairs that tore ligaments in his knee. This required surgery, which did not happen fast enough to please me. He finally went under the knife this week; the total radio silence following the surgery lasted for three days had me more than a little bit nervous. This was made worse by the message that I got from him just prior to the surgery — Dad was acting as if it was All Over and Out for him, as if he expected to die on the table. Word came through today: he’s fine — but there is a long recovery road ahead of him. He and I have had more a few differences and serious rifts over the years… but we’ve both mellowed out some and things are now better between us than they have been for a long while. He’s the only close family that I have left. Sooner or later a person realizes this, and sooner or later a person gets tired of being angry all the time. I can’t help my mother anymore; might as well deal with the Dad I’ve got while I’ve still got him. He must be about 86 by now, and still with a few good years left thanks to his wife taking good care of him — but I know, have seen what falls can do to someone at that age. 

Beyond that — my oven died; a short while later all the electrics in my kitchen followed suit; my furnace hadn’t been cleaned in a year and a half; I nearly ran out of heating oil and when I screwed up the nerve required to call for a delivery, all I got was an attitude problem from the bitch on the other end of the line; and (as many of you have experienced, some more so even than Maine) this winter really has been a tough old bastard so far. The Season of Death has lived up to its nickname.

All that has been attended to, insofar as it can be, and now I look forward to getting back to work. In that area, there is some good to report.

The Kickstarter campaign was a success, the Tarot of the Zircus Mägi has been published, all the backer rewards have been mailed out and the few remaining copies can be ordered from the deck’s micro-site here. Step right up and get ‘em while they are hot, ladies and gents… only 300 decks total were printed, at least half of them are gone, there will be no reprints, and the price is only going to go up as my remaining stock dwindles away. 

My novel for this year is going to be a little something called Baxter Bunny Escapes — a real genre-bender starring one of the supporting characters from 2013’s See Them Dance. With 20,000 words already in the can I’ve hit the ground running on this one and hope for it to be out by the end of the year. You’ll be hearing — and seeing — more soon.

Work on The Circus Tarot Book — companion volume to my Tarot of the Zircus Mägi — is nearly complete… it should be out early in February. I’m dismayed at the price that I’m going to have to retail it out at… but this is what happens when you attempt a profusely illustrated book in full color throughout. One thing I can say honestly — for good or ill — it’s not your typical book about the Tarot. 

It will be followed later in February by Quirk volume 2: “Termination Alley,” collecting another giant swath of material from the webcomic. This volume changes everything, as the good spaceship Frigid (and Carpy with it) is repossessed by its original owners, while Quirk and his pals Smith and Sludge are set adrift in deep space.

After that… I’ve got lots more in the pipeline and hope to release as many books in 2014 as I did last year. Wish me luck! It’s a lot like the old, old joke: There’s just got to be a Pony in there somewhere!

In the next few days I’ll regale you with a catch-up post on the filmic frolics that have passed over my eyeballs this winter, even as I prepare — lawd help us all — to be a presenter at the local PechaKucha night later in the month. How d’you pronounce that, anyhow?

Keep warm, kemo-sabes!

— Freder

Coming Distractions

I'll be a presenter at the January PechaKucha event in Waterville, Maine. Here are the details:  Come on along and watch me make an idiot out of myself!

-- Freder
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