Funnybook Babylon

January 9, 2012

An Aperitif

Filed under: Articles — Jamaal Thomas @ 1:00 pm

I’ve been meaning to write about comics for about two months, but life got in the way. Family, work, holidays… you know the spiel.

I haven’t stopped reading comics (as evidenced by my Twitter feed), but between the controversies about salaries and work conditions at Marvel Comics, the Kirby (and Ghost Rider) litigations, diversity in mainstream superhero books and day and date digital comics, I’ve found it easier to simply disengage from the debate for a bit. I think we’ve been having the same conversations about the comics industry for the last twenty years, and nothing really changes. We’re still asking Marvel and DC to improve working conditions for creators and to respect their creative rights. We’re hoping that they treat the writers, artists and editors who were responsible for creating their most valuable intellectual property with kindness, respect and honor. We want them to realize that attracting a workforce with diverse backgrounds and experiences will foster innovation and lead to more interesting and original stories. We want them to learn how to effectively market and sell their product to a wider audience, many of whom will never set foot in a comic store.

I feel like I’ve been trying to balance my love of some Marvel/DC books with my disdain for the management of both publishers for most of my life. They’re never going to change. Neither am I. That doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to rail against their unjust and/or shortsighted business practices, but… I guess I just need a break sometimes. Maybe it’s holiday malaise, even though this might have been the best holiday season since I was eight years old.

Quick comics update:

I’m still all-in on digital comics. Wonder Woman and Flash are the best books to come out of the DC relaunch. Nate Powell’s evocative Any Empire was exceptional. I finally finished reading Adam Hines’s Duncan the Wonder Dog, and it was one of the most moving experiences that I’ve had with a comic book. I don’t like saying things like this, If I was foolish enough to come up with a top ten list, I’d add Gabriel Ba and Matt Fraction’s Casanova: Gula, Rick Remender’s work with Jerome Opena, Esad Ribic, Rafael Albuquerque, Billy Tan, Mark Brooks, Scot Eaton, Rich Elson, John Lucas, Andrew Currie, Andrew Hennessy, Dean White, Jose Villarubia, Chris Sotomayor, Matt Wilson, Richard Isanove and Paul Mounts on Uncanny X-Force and Mike Hawthorne, Tony Moore and Jerome Opena on Fear Agent, Mark Waid, Javier Rodriguez, Paolo and Joe Rivera and Marcos Martin’s Daredevil, Mike Mignola, Duncan Fregedo, Dave Stewart, and Clem Robins’ Hellboy: The Fury and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent. I still need to read the new issue of Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges, the new Love and Rockets by the legendary Hernandez Brothers, Craig Thompson’s Habibi and Michael Kupperman’s Mark Twain book.

Outside of the arbitrary top ten, I’ve been catching up with older books that I’ve discovered (or revisited) this year, like Zot!, Empowered, Finder, Concrete and Tomb of Dracula. All in all, a pretty good year for comics.

I could write about comics for the next few thousand words, but even thinking about the endless debates is exhausting. So, an aperitif. Let’s talk about music. I love soul/rhythm and blues music, even more than hip-hop. I loved Undun, but it hasn’t gotten the spins of Weather, Good Things, Echoes of Silence, As Above So Below, Back to Love or Betty Wright: The Movie . But when I was a younger man, I had a troubled relationship with contemporary rhythm and blues music.

Like many of my generation, classic soul, funk and R&B music was the soundtrack to my childhood. I have fond memories of listening to Stevie Wonder after I finished my homework, trying (fruitlessly!) to copy the dance moves of Michael Jackson, the Temptations and the Four Tops and being moved in ways that I was too young to understand by Marvin Gaye and Prince.

Then I got older. I transitioned from listening to my parents’ LPs to buying my own audio cassettes. I still loved the music of my childhood, but I needed to hear music that spoke to my experience.

It’s a familiar story – the “rebellious” teenager driven to embrace culture that’s completely different from what their parents like. As a child, my tastes (in culture that wasn’t created for children) were entirely shaped by those of the adults around me: their music, their books, their movies and television shows. When I entered adolescence, I craved music and culture that belonged to me in the same way Motown or Stax belonged to my parents, or Michael and Prince belonged to my older cousins and younger aunts/uncles. I wanted my own classics. I wanted R&B music that spoke to me the way it spoke to them decades before. I got great music in that pre-neo-soul era, from Cooleyhighharmony and Poison to My Life and Toni Braxton . But the music that spoke to me? That was hip-hop. It was CL Smooth and Q-Tip. Nas and Ice Cube.

Hip-hop music felt new, alive, vibrant, while even great R&B was unable to escape the shadow of the sixties and seventies. There was a shining moment when R&B artists wanted to create music that was rhythmically, melodically and thematically complex, but it felt like that moment had passed.

The productions and vocals were still compelling, but it just wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted singers to talk about the messy world that I lived in, where love and romance were inseparable from politics, friendship, culture or identity. When I listened to R&B albums, I felt like I was transported to a fantasy world where romance took place in a vacuum.

I just couldn’t relate. Everything in my life — love, school, sports, politics, music, religion, race — all seemed to happen simultaneously. It was all integrated. Love, romance and relationships bled into every corner and crevice of my life, and it was hard to appreciate music that didn’t somehow reflect that reality. The words that were sung just seemed to come from a different world.

I think that’s one of the reasons I loved hip-hop. Yeah, some (okay, most) MCs tended to imagine a world where women and romance existed at the very margins of life, but they were so good at capturing the other painful contradictions of being a young black male that I found it easy to forgive its problems and excuse its misogyny.

There are a lot of things to love about this song – the flawless production, the evocative lyrics, Nas’s perfect flow – but its embrace of life’s messiness is what makes it a classic. On “Memory Lane”, Nas fuses hope with melancholy and a sense of premature nostalgia that captured my early teen years (pretending that we’re wise beyond our years, sagely alluding to a dark golden age of roller rinks and crack kingpins).

My feelings about R&B changed with Brown Sugar, Plantation Lullabies and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and the rise of neo-soul. So it took me a long time to realize that the stories that I was looking for — that I should have been paying attention to the whole time — could be found in the music, not the words.

Books were my first love and I tend to approach everything — comics, movies, music — through that prism. I always see/hear the words first. Even now, when I first hear a song, my attention is focused on the singer/MC, but I’ve come to appreciate that the voice is just an instrument that shouldn’t be privileged over any other.

I know, this is one of those things that most music lovers just instinctively know. For a very long time, I was the only music fan in my peer group who heard primarily the verse or the vocalist instead of the beat. I dismissed Group Home. Scoffed at Janet. I was a very foolish young man.

There is something special about a song like this that’s wholly unrelated to Janet’s words. It’s how Jay Dee’s beat combines with Janet’s voice to invoke an acute sense of nostalgia and regret, with just a hint of optimism. It wouldn’t sound the same with a different vocalist – there’s a delicacy to Janet’s voice that’s irreplaceable. She doesn’t have the best voice or range in the world, but she’s great at reminding you what it feels like to be in love.

Or look at “DD”, by the Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) a remake of Michael Jackson’s 1988 classic. Tesfaye utterly transforms the song without changing a single word. The spareness of the production (rock-ish in the original, electronica-ish in the remake) in both versions draws the listener’s attention to the singer’s voice.

I listened to the original recently, and was pretty surprised: I had forgotten how little traditional singing Mike does on this song, opting for his patented “harmonious sing-song” voice. I loved the song, but for some reason, the hook/chorus were the only bits that stuck in my mind. At the time, Michael took great pains to foster an all-ages image. Even his romantic songs had a bit of a chaste quality. On “Dirty Diana”, Michael struggles to maintain that image while giving us a glimpse into the groupie filled world of a pop celebrity. For a moment, he’s just Michael Jackson, the man forced to negotiate a world filled with endless sexual propositions from female admirers. It’s clear that he has little sympathy for them. There’s something harsh and judgmental about the way he sings “[t]his time you won’t seduce me”. He’s not tempted, he’s angry. There have been a number of pop songs about the women that bed musicians, but this is one of the few that manages to not only be dismissive of the seducer, but immune to the seduction. Michael wants to exorcise her from his life. He’s not interested in her as a sexual object. She’s Dirty Diana, after all.

Tesfaye embraces the darkness of the original, but adds layers of meaning and ambiguity. He starts where Michael does, but falters almost immediately. When Diana took Michael in her arms, it sounded like the opening feint of a battle, but with the Weeknd, it almost sounds like the first chapter of a romance. The Weeknd is tempted. You feel his certainty slipping away with each verse. When he sings “that’s okay, hey baby do what you want” on the second verse, the noticeable tremor in his voice also suggests that both are vulnerable: he is reminiscing about an encounter that touches him a little bit more than he’d like to admit, and (if you take that section as a literal recreation of her attempted seduction) she’s more hesitant than her words imply. The facade slips, just a little. The choruses start off in a less aggressive place than the original, and get progressively softer until the lighter, more feminine voice overwhelms the deeper, masculine one. The seductive fan is far more sympathetic in this version, more than an Odyssean siren.

In the hands of the Weeknd, “DD” is transformed from a cautionary tale into something that feels a little bit more human and tragic. It’s the singer and the producer that define the real meaning of these songs, not just the lyrics. Once I realized that, all the songs that seemed maudlin and generic acquired new meaning. Who knows, one day I may even start to appreciate New Jack Swing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go back to Anthony Hamilton.


  1. Duncan was great, I like a book that’s willing to hang out the bar so to speak. I hope that he follows through on the series, but If he doesn’t the first book is still great.

    “they think he’ll help us with our problem”
    ” the problem of our philosophy”

    Comment by Asteele — January 10, 2012 @ 6:48 am

  2. There’s this “all or nothing” attitude in some quarters that is kind of annoying. That if you read any corporate comics, you’re some kind of traitor. Look, I also hate the stuff you’ve described and I definitely agree with Stephen Bisette, but I also want Mark Waid, Ed Brubaker, David Aja and so on to get paid. I think it’s possible to agitate for the system to change while still reading corporate product. Hell, I think it helps, even. Let the Big 2 know that it’s real customers who care about these issues. It’s not just cranks with blogs and Fantagraphics readers.

    Would it have killed them to shoot Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog like a million each? Ghost Rider made like 229 million dollars. Fair royalties would have been peanuts. Same goes for almost any superhero movie.

    Comment by Lugh — January 13, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

  3. […] [Originally published on January 9, 2012 at the FBB mothership. Slightly edited for clarity.] […]

    Pingback by An Apertif (Jamaal vs. Quiet Storm) — December 4, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

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