Jan
7

Avenging the Week – Succumbing to Peer Pressure

Posted by on Friday, January 7th, 2011 at 10:39:36 AM

After a lengthy winter hiatus, Funnybook Babylon is back for 2011!

Apologies for the unannounced break – a wedding, work responsibilities and the holiday season conspired to keep me away from regular blogging for the last two months.

This week we’re going to embrace convention with part one of my randomly selected Cool Things in 2010 List! In the next week, we’ll take a look at the Top Ten Pamphlets (series or limited) bought in 2010 Not Named Daytripper of the Year, the Top Five OGNs of 2010 and other fun things.

10. Daytripper

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I may be in the minority, but 2010 was a pretty good year for comics. Chris Ware’s “Lint” was a modern classic and the best book of the year by far. Darwyn Cooke exceeded expectations with The Outfit, his latest adaptation of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels. David Hine and Shaky Kane pushed the limits of comic book storytelling with The Bulletproof Coffin (check out the first issue here). Brandon Graham’s King City brought back memories of when comic books could still surprise.

At the end of the year, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Daytripper was the book that truly haunted me, that still lives on in my imagination. Daytripper is a laconically paced post-modern fable about one man’s (Bras) journey in life. Each issue took place over a short period — ranging from a single day to about a week — in a different year of the man’s life, focusing around a moment that helped define him as a person.

On one level, the brothers are telling us a series of archetypal stories suffused with magical realism, but their naturalistic approach to character development and dialogue set the book apart from other good Vertigo books. The brothers also collaborated on the art, which is nothing short of breathtaking. Dave Stewart is on coloring, and turns in another masterful job.

I don’t think that any book this year affected me as personally as Daytripper. I saw parallels to my own life throughout this book, ranging from Bras’s evolving relationship with his father, his career challenges, and his tumultuous love life. I know this sounds like a worn cliche, but Ba and Moon did an amazing job of capturing the sense that life is a journey: the son worships his father as a child, feels lost in his shadow for a bit, reconciles himself to his father’s legacy, and as an old man finally understands him. In the end, Ba and Moon tell a deceptively simple story with amazing art, which is all I can possibly expect from a comic.

Although all four of the books I cited in the first paragraph were more formally ambitious, when I think about the comics published in 2010, Daytripper will be the first that comes to mind.

9. Apple Products

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Yeah, MacBooks are cool and Apple’s OS has always been better than Windows. The iPod changed how I listen to music.

But 2010 was the year that I became dependent on Apple products. The iPhone and the iPad have completely changed the way that I process information, engage with the Internet, read and experience entertainment.

I don’t want this to sound like an ad campaign, but I’ve become entirely dependent on both devices.Well, that’s not really true. It’s the apps.

I conduct all my business with the calendar app, GW Mail, Dropbox, Box.net and RTM. Pages is a remarkable word processing application. My commutes, which were once spent reading the Daily News, are now an opportunity for me to read the Times, catch up on my Google Reader feeds via NewsRack, read books via the Kindle app, or read comics using Comixology.

I think I have one of these devices with me all the time, operating as my second brain.

To be fair, there are three big drawbacks to both devices:

(a) Network – There’s a charming fantasy that you’ll have a seamless user experience when using the iPhone and iPad – at least if you pay attention to Apple’s advertising campaign. This is only true if (1) you are in your home wi-fi network and/or (2) you are a college student. In New York, decent wi-fi networks are far and few between. There’s the public library, McDonalds, and… an array of shady networks that work intermittently. So, the iPad? You have to make sure that you’re stocked up on content before you leave home. And as far as the iPhone goes, how much do you trust AT&T Wireless?

(b) Closed System – I’m just going to say these three things: I’d love to be able to use either device to view flash video content on the internet; the Apple-Google war should remind us all why anti-trust laws need enforcing; and iTunes is a bloated piece of crap.

(c) Overly Aggressive Product Cycle – Apple comes out with a new iteration of their products on an annual basis. If you’re not careful, you can get caught in the wave of fans/early adopters who buy a new version of their devices (or computers) a year, without regard to the status of their phone contract or financial status. Even if you don’t partake in the madness, the hysteria reminds you that you’re only a customer.

8. Boardwalk Empire/Steve Buscemi

2010 was the year in which we were reintroduced to Steve Buscemi. Buscemi inhabited the role of Nucky Thompson, the Prohibition era boss and sometime treasurer of Atlantic City, so thoroughly that I forgave the occasional predictable storyline or bit of obvious dialogue. Its a riveting performance that was only matched by Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston in 2010. Buscemi shows us the multifaceted complexity of a man who excelled as a politician, entrepreneur, racketeer and de facto crime boss of Atlantic City. Every episode I marveled at watching Buscemi effortlessly shift from the glad handing political hack who shakes hands with every citizen waiting to vote to the calculating boss cooly plotting the death of his rivals, and back to the political genius who quickly recognized the value of the female and black vote. He’s also a tragic figure – a widower perpetually in mourning who yearns for a child he never held.

After the first episode premiered, some (notably ESPN’s Bill Simmons) argued that a man who looked like Buscemi couldn’t be believable as a crime boss. And on one level, he’s absolutely right. Steve Buscemi doesn’t inspire fear and loyalty in the style of Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Brando (The Godfather) or Pacino (Godfather trilogy). Through the course of the first season, it all starts to make sense: Buscemi is portraying a character who detests the qualities we associate with the ‘gangster’ archetype. A resilient opportunist. A power broker. The kind of guy who maintains power for decades. But there’s more. When I think about it, even though I loved all the “mob boss” performances above, there’s a predictable quality to the roles. By the end of the first season of The Sopranos, the viewer feels like they know Tony Soprano. He’s still capable of surprising you, but you’ve taken his measure. You know what kind of man he really is, beneath all the bluster. After the first season of Boardwalk Empire, it struck me that even though I know Enoch Thompson, I still don’t know what kind of man he is. Is he a weak corrupt politician who’s about to be over his head? A calculating mastermind who’s capable of anything? A man who’s lost his way but is still capable of redemption? I don’t want to spoil this, but there’s an amazing scene between Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald (who plays Margaret Schroeder) in the season finale that displays Margaret’s strength and Nucky’s humanity. Your heart breaks as Nucky reveals more of himself to Margaret than he ever had to anyone else… until you wonder if this is any different from that yarn he told in the premiere about killing rats for food as a kid. Is this a reminder of the first rule of politics: to never let the facts get in the way of a good story? Then again, after meeting Nucky’s father and getting some insight into the nightmare his childhood must have been, you wonder if the story he told the temperance league was true and the line he gave Jimmy a lie. This is why Buscemi is perfect for this role – its hard to imagine another actor embodying so many contradictions.

7. The Archandroid

Some people love Janelle Monae because of her quirky image, cool pompadour or her willingness to release a concept album in a vanishing marketplace. I love her because she single-handedly brought soul music back from the dead this year.

What? I know, I may be slightly overstating things. I’ve liked two or three soul/R&B albums a year over the last couple of years, and appreciate the robust tradition of what’s commonly derided as “Quiet Storm R&B”, but this year felt uncommonly shitty for black music that’s not hip-hop. Maybe I’m just sick of listening to tired attempts to capture the magic of Motown or the 1970s (I’m looking at you R. Kelly and Eric Benet). As I approach my second decade of seriously listening to music, I want something new, something that both ignores genre boundaries and remains true to the spirit of soul music. Hell, I just want something that’s both interesting/ground breaking and fun. As it turns out, I wanted Archandroid.

Let me begin with some caveats. I know that there’s a lot of great soul music out there – Foreign Exchange, 4Hero, Vikter Duplaix, Aloe Blacc (remember him for later), Silhouette Brown, Blaze, Stephanie McKay and Carlitta Durand – but…. mainstream attention still means something. When I was in my early twenties, I reveled in the obscurity of my musical choices. I loved surprising my friends with music from an emerging artist with whom they were entirely unfamiliar. But time passes. I got older. I’ve realized that mainstream matters, and for better or worse, Janelle’s album was the best mainstream LP released in 2010.

The Archandroid (full title: The Archandroid Suites II and III) is the sequel to Monae’s Metropolis Suite I: The Chase Suite, a concept album following the adventures of Cindi Mayweather, an android from the future sent back in time to save society from forces that suppress freedom and love. It’s a pretty interesting, if slightly goofy story, and she explains it in more detail here. Although I loved the songs on her first album, the narrative didn’t always effectively mesh with the music, a problem that Monae solves in Archandroid by embedding her story even more deeply into her songs. Instead of an album that feels like a sci-fi version of A Prince Among Thieves or Equinox, we get music that genuinely evokes a futuristic feel. With her debut, Monae manages the impossible, simultaneously acknowledging the grand past of soul/R&B/funk and nodding in the direction of hip-hop while she explores uncharted territory. Although many artists are successful at hopping between or blending genres, its a difficult feat to pull off for an entire album — unless you’re Prince — without sacrificing coherence. There’s a fine line between brilliance and self indulgence. Monae avoids this trap by exercising careful restraint. Instead of treating this album as a showcase for her talent, she only delivers what’s necessary for each song. No song on this album sounds over-produced or over-sung. Guest stars appear for the perfect length of time. Each track lasts just as long as it needs to: for example, you’d expect the album’s orchestral opening (“Suite II Overture”) to last for about thirty seconds as a self-indulgent effort to demonstrate the ambition of the album, but at almost two minutes… it’s genius.

Archandroid is impeccably sequenced. The first several tracks are a great example , switching from a sound inspired by European classical music to a track with a mix of Afrobeat, house music and hip-hop influences to a third track that sounds like sped up early Motown. And then there’s “Locked Inside”, which is the kind of brilliant R&B that would’ve killed in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. We finally slow down with “Sir Greendown”, a perfectly sequenced ballad that leads into “Cold War”, a modern pop-R&B song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Beyonce album.

Monae showed the world the scope of her imagination with her first EP Metropolis – Chase Suite, but with Archandroid, she demonstrated that she can defy our expectations of particular subgenres while reminding us why we fell in love with them in the first place.

(Above: Janelle Monae performs “BaBopByeYa” (from ArchAndroid) accompanied by the Emory University Symphony Orchestra)

Coming soon:More lists! While you’re waiting, check out the “Best Of” lists from Douglas Wolk (comics and graphic novels ), David Brothers, David Wolkin, Tucker Stone and the faceless mob we all know and love as Comics Alliance. More time on your hands? Read Chris Butcher on comics journalism, Jason Aaron on Alan Moore, and Tom Spurgeon’s interviews with Matt Seneca and David Brothers. Now scoot!

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