Saturday, May 30, 2009

On the fall of a hairy angel

I, like everyone else on the planet Earth (and since I don't think the viewing metrics can track extraterrestrial downloads, that's as far as I can realistically hyperbolize), watched and was amazed by the audition of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent. To see the look of shock on the Judges' faces was a delight. To hear the audience go from jeers to cheers in eight words was thrilling. And everyone else thought so too.

She became The Current Thing in no time flat. She is, at the moment, the fifth most-viewed clip on you-tube, beaten out by the work print of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the monkey sniffing his finger and falling off the tree branch, the Original Laughing Baby, and that goddanmed Numa-Numa song.

Seven weeks is a long time. And she stayed at the top of the buzz chart all that time. People found old performances of hers and uploaded them, and we ate them up with ketchup. She stayed out of the limelight as much as possible, giving a few interviews but all told, the media spent much more time talking about her than they did talking to her. And that usually only just makes the press more ravenous.

I started watching the clips of the other acts on the Britain's Got Talent website against my own better judgement. I don't watch reality shows all that often, I've never watched the American version of BGT, and have had no interest in American Idol, knowing their names a careers only thanks to the able hands of magazines like Entertainment Weekly. But I found myself being smitten by several of the acts. There was no one to compare with Susan, but there were acts which made me think there would be quite a fight for second place.

Dance troupe (and eventual upset winner) Diversity knocked me off my chair. More than simple dancing, they built 3-D structures with their bodies, including a Transformer, a phonebooth and the BGT Judges desk. Like a hip-hop version of American dance troupe Pilobolous. And it took a second look and reading a few interviews, but parody dance act Stavros Flatley won me over as well. They knew damn well they were there as a lark, they were having a great time, and the audience rewarded them with a spot in the finals. A classic example of a one joke act, but it's a DAMN good joke, and they kept it fresh enough to make it to the end. Yes, it meant there was no space for autistic showtune singer Callum Francis (2 Grand? Really? REALLY?) but you can't have everything.

Several of the other child acts were quite good indeed, mainly 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi. I predicted a three-horse race between Boyle, Diversity and Shaheen, but tenor saxophonist Julian Smith came from behind and slipped into the top three at the final.

The semi-finals were filled with as much drama as one could hope for. Susan cracked a bit on the opening of her song "Memory" but rallied quickly, and by the time she blew the doors off the ending nobody minded or noticed. Hollie Steel got lost in the middle of "Edelweiss" and started to cry. Simon, master manipulator that he is, declared that they would make time for her to compose herself and come back and try again. She did, and made her way to the final.

The finals were almost a let down, compared to the drama of the Semis. Almost all the acts went back to their audition songs, including Susan, who did a softer rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream". Diversity, OTOH, brought a brand new performance, and personally I think that's what won it for them - they delivered something new while the other gave the same thing again. And in today's society, "The same thing" is not all that popular.

As has been the norm with AmIdol here in the US, many of the finalists are already being courted for more fame. Disney is apparently interested to talk to Shaheen, reports UK paper Wales Online. Judge Piers Morgan jokingly reported he already had text messages asking to book Stavros Flatley when he got backstage. And if you could advance order albums, I dare say Susan's would already be multi-platinum. Simon Cowell is having a new money bin built, as all the acts are signed with his production company, just like there are for AmIdol. Win or lose, they will all make him money.

But that's not why you're reading this.

Of course, the vast majority of the drama was happening off-screen. From the moment Susan hit the airwaves, the frenzy has been unprecedented. By that Monday she was on all the US Morning news shows. Britain fell in love with her. She was the perfect story - spinster lady with mild learning disabilities in a frumby dress and a hairdo by a rusty eggbeater comes out. Audience starts laughing before she even makes center stage, judges already writing her off.

And then she sang.

You couldn't write anything that good.

Or can you?

Susan has let slip on several interviews that she did not in fact audition for the show - the producers (defined as "Simon Cowell") found her. While this does not diminish her talent one whit, it does suggest that her story was far more carefully crafted, and much less of a surprise than it initially seemed.

Watch that audition again - Piers and Amanda were gobsmacked; Simon was smiling like George Peppard, watching the plan come together. He knew DAMN well what was coming, and was pleased as punch when everybody reacted as they did.

And react they did. Interviews, fans at her home, a general hysteria. They kept talking about how she had oxygen deprivation at birth, but went to great lengths that she had "learning disabilities", but was not retarded or brain damaged. She was a woman who dealt with challenges all her life, took care of mer mother, etc. Couldn't ask for a better story.

When she made an appearance after getting a "makeover" that consisted of a bottle of conditioner and a sharp pair of tweezers, Britain lost it, claiming she was "being changed". They wanted her to stay dumpy and frumpy, to remain an inspiration to the dumpy and frumpy of the world. If I may drag the column to comics for a moment, I was reminded of how many comics fans are against the idea of Barbara Gordon regaining the use of her legs, as she's such an inspiration to paraplegics now. If Chris Reeve could have gotten an operation to restore his legs, would anyone have said "No, you won't be an inpiration anymore"?

In his stand up act, when Robin Harris' friends asked him if he would change when he got famous, he replied, "You God damned RIGHT I'm gonna change!" Considering the people that were likely throwing themselves at her to do her up, I thought her improvements were reparkably restrained. This too, I'll warrant, was part of the plan.

By the time of the semi-finals, one can only imagine how hot it got under that magnifying glass. The semi performance was good, but when the news hit of her tantrum at her hotel, people were ready for the next chapter. It came and went in the press so fast, like a scientist measuring the life span of a quark, you'd be hard pressed to prove it ever happened at all. So at the final, everyone was waiting to see her "come back" from such a dramatic event. And she was...good. Which was not enough. She needed to swing for the lights, and she went with a safe infield shot.

The audience, now educated that she was prone to tantrums, all leaned forward to see if they'd get some fireworks. They got none - she happily congratulated the winners and everyone applauded her graciousness.

Then the cameras turned off.

Just like before, the details of what "really" happened will likely never be revealed. But Susan finally let it all catch up to her, and whether she cried, screamed, cursed, gyrated or what, was slipped away to a private hospital for a "rest". I'm not surprised. because it's not like she was going to be allowed to pack her bag and go back to Scotland. She's going to be very carefully tended, much like a veal, for quite a long time.

It's Monday Morning, and NOBODY is talking about Diversity. Lots of people are calling it "Second place syndrome" where the place-winners do better than the winners of these shows, mainly because of that "He shoulda won" feeling, like Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, and the two new guys whose names I've already forgotten (Irony!).

It's Monday Morning, and they are still riding Susan's coattails. Amanda Holden guest-hosted the CBS Early Show today, partly to talk about Susan's episode, but mainly to push herself to American viewers and producers. Susan's voice coach was interviewed as well, as was Piers for the fourth or fifth time. And they spent all their time talking about Susan, and making sure everyone got their names spelled right. Amanda got a very nice intro piece, making sure America knew she did a lot more than just sit at the Paula Abdul position. For all our faults and foibles, the mindset is ever the same - you're not REALLY famous until you're famous in America.

If they don't have Susan Boyle as a "special guest" on the next run of America's Got Talent, somebody is seriously slipping. They've already said they're actively looking for "similar stories" for acts on AGT. They are praying they can find an American Susan. And I don't think they will, or if they do, they won't get as big a reaction. Because as I said before, the Internet Generation is not that keen on seeing the same thing again.

There are likely more people discussing Susan's career right now than her mental health. I don't think it's anything more dire than a woman being dropped into a situation she coldn't possibly be prepared for. Again, they're being VERY cautious to correct people who use phrases like "Brain damage" about her - they don't want ANY suggestion that she's not in possession of her faculties. And to be fair she's lived by herself for years, and cared for an ailing mother for years before that - not the actions of someone having a full set of wits. I'll bet the best term would be the old favorite "pixillated" - she's got a full deck of cards, but a couple are bent.

I wish her well, I wish her wealth, and I wish her happiness. It truly is a storybook tale, I'm just hoping the story isn't Valley of the Dolls or A Face In The Crowd.

Friday, May 29, 2009

On sights seen while walking to and from lunch

I often order lunch from the local chinese take-out place. Until recently the bill would come to $9.85. (Yes, that IS quite a lot of food, thank you very much) But recently they raised their prices slightly, so now the same order costs $10.25. BUT, they have a coupon in their menu that gets you a free egg roll for any order over 10 bucks. So by rasing their prices 40 cents, they have to give me an egg roll that costs a buck and a half. So who won there?

On the way back, I noticed that the local YWCA office was having a "huge" clothing sale to benefit their services.

When I got there, the sale consisted entirely of one large bin of used ladies' golf shoes.

Sometimes, the comedy just writes itself.

Also, I noticed a "for rent" sign in the local candy store window. That's not a fair statement - not "candy store" in the sens of the place that sell candy and magazine and cigarettes and 8-dollar boxes of breakfast cereal - that place is going strong. This is one of those froo-froo "candy shoppes" that sells the giant Pixy stix and other obscure stuff and tries to get eight dollars a pound for the candy you can get at the grocery store for like three, but the kids asked you to come in here, and they're whining and it's rude not to buy of those. Now considering there's a movie theater like three stores away (The Boyd, a great old one-screen theater still in good repair, well worth a visit), and movie theaters are the ONLY place in existence that has more expensive candy, you'd think they'd be able to at least make money by helping people save money on that 7-dollar box of jujubes (Which I always pronounce "who-who-bays", after the original spanish gelatin confection that inspired them), but no. So it's going away as well.

The magic shop that was there since approximately the passing of Merlin Ambrosius also closed some time back, in exchange for a cell phone store. I cannot figure out how cell phone stores all make money, since they're as common as Goblin Tinkerers in a Magic booster pack. O well, we'll see what happens.

The comic shop I go to is a few blocks in the opposite direction and I didn't go there today, but I mention it just to make sure I keep the entry vaguely comics-related.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

On how sometimes, the Kookie Solution is the way to go.

On 77 Sunset Strip a classic detective show from the 50's, they introduced Edd "Kookie" Byrnes in the pilot as a psycopathic killer who habitually combed his hair. In the episode, the character was captured, convicted and sent to the gas chamber. But Byrnes was a hit - he was all people were talking about. So in the next episode of the series, star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. appeared before the credits and literally told the audience:

We previewed this show, and because Edd Byrnes was such a hit we decided that Kookie and his comb had to be in our series. So this week, we'll just forget that in the pilot he went off to prison to be executed.

Sometimes that's the best answer. When you go down the wrong road, sometimes you just cut your losses, admit your errors, turn to the audience and say "I'm sorry, can we just go again?"

Dallas caught lots of hell for the famous "shower scene" - they literally claimed an entire season of the show never happened, and Victoria Principal just dreamed it all, including the death of Patrick Duffy (a scene skewered magnificently on Family Guy). But they knew they'd pooped the bed, they admitted it, and the show went on for years more. Martin Mull's character Garth Gimble was killed on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but Mull proved so talented that they created a twin brother barth, gave him his own talk/variety show (Fernwood and later America 2-Night) and made he and his partner Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) so popular that to this day, Mull and Willard are rarely seen working separately.

In the last of the newly-announced co-features in DC Comics, Captain Atom will be getting a backup spot in Action Comics coming in June. Now there's lots of folks, including myself, who think that's a great idea. Captain Atom is potentially one of the most powerful characters in the DCU, on Superman's level. He had his own book for several years, has always been near the top of cameos, and even got good face time on Justice League Unlimited.

If it wasn't for the fact that the last time we saw him he was trying to take over the multiverse and appears to have died, taking the entirety of parallel universe 51 with him in Countdown, this would be great.

Back in his original DC title, Captain Atom had one of the better continuity explainers to come along to that date. Taking a page from Alan Moore who explained that all of Miracleman's golden age adventures were simluated adventures created to help train the Zarathustrans, it was explained that all of Captain Atom's (original Charlton) adventures were fabricated by the government. When they unveiled Atom to the world, they explained that all these adventures happened, but were classified by the government, as Captain Atom was still classified at the time. The idea was to give him instant street cred with the other heroes, so he could enter their circle, and report back to the government about them. Great idea, unique, never really caught on.

In the years since, Captain Atom has had a number of left turns and last-minute changes, mostly resulting that they never really knew . They started with the Armageddon 2001 crossover event back in 2001. The storyline was that in the future, one of the DCU's heroes would decide that the world would be a better place with him (or her - their identity was to be a secret) in charge, so they simply took out all of the other heroes and set themselves up as Monarch, both in position and name. (This concept has also been touched on expertly by Mark Waid in the classic mini Empire, and is being addressed by him again in the upcoming Irredeemable)

A new character, Waverider, travels back to modern-day DCU (at the time, 1991) and tries to learn who would eventually become Monarch. It was shrouded in secrecy, the reveal was supposed to be a major shock...and it was supposed to be Captain Atom.

In one of the first spoiler leaks of the electronic age, it was revealed that Captain Atom was to be revealed as Monarch, but in all honesty it wasn't all that hard to suss out:

  1. It pretty much had to be someone strong enough to be able to take out Superman and the rest of the upper-level DC heroes. That took a lot of players off the table.
  2. The storyline was being told in the annuals of all the books, and odds are they weren't going to find out who Monarch was in the middle of the story. Justice League Europe was the last of the books, and the only regular character strong enough to logically be the guilty party was Atom.

DC, deciding they didn't want anyone to know the ending, changed horses in mid stream and decided at almost the last minute that Monarch was in fact Hawk, from the Ditko-created and recently revived (and luckily, about to be cancelled) Hawk & Dove. It made no sense, resulted in heaven-only-knows how many plots and stories getting trashed, and generally pissed everyone off. Later uses of the character, turning Hawk into the equally-difficult to-explain-why-it-happened Extant for the later Zero hour event didn't help.

Eventually it all got sort of worked out - Geoff Johns did what Geoff Johns does best, and came up with a storyline in JSA that explained that the end of A2001 was all a con by former legion baddie Mordru, and pretty much settled everything to the point that the average fan could get a general sense of closure from it, and move on with the narrative, happy that it was fairly well sorted.

Then Countdown came along and started picking at the scab.

Captain Atom got a pretty damn good miniseries where he was thrown into the Wildstorm universe. This was in fact one of the first fairly blatant hints that the Multiverse, or at least a version of it, was back in play at DC When he returned to the DCU, he was horribly injured and his containment suit was leaking. The government put him in what looked like a modified version of the Monarch armor and started experimenting on him. He woke up and escaped.

In the pages of Countdown, he took the name of Monarch again and started assembling an army for what was to be a massive war for the fate of the multiverse. It...sorta happened. I think.

So as you can see, there's a LOT to explain...or explain away.

James Robinson swears it's "our" Captain Atom, the one who did all that stuff in Countdown. Now I'm all for seeing how he pulls that off, but part of me wants to take the easy route, say that Monarch from Countdown was the Captain Atom from earth 784-apple, and move forward. Get Efrem Zimbalist to come out and say "Let's just forget Countdown ever happened, and that Captain Atom has just come back from Earth-Wildstorm after saving them all, okay?"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On the art of holding your nose while keeping your car on the right path

Alan Dershowitz didn't come to Claus von Bulow's defense because he thought he was innocent, but because the methods the government used in their investigation were questionable, and if they were allowed to stand, they could potentially be used on the next guy. Similarly, I'm sure the ACLU would have loved to see Rush Limbaugh twist in the wind, but they had to step up and support him after the government raided his personal medical records. Jake and Elwood may hate the Goddamn Illinois Nazis, but they won their court case, and they had the right to hold their rally.

Sometimes you have to come to the defense of people you may not agree with, because the things that are happening to them might happen to you. It's that whole "They came for the Jews" thing.

Mr. Christopher Handley recently plead guilty to "possessing obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children and mailing obscene material." He bought a number of manga of the category known as "lolicon", which offer drawings of pre-pubescent kids in sexual situations. It's short for "Lolita complex", just like in that song by Sting.

They're a big market in Japan. They've also been siezed by police in Japan. And oh BOY have they been siezed here. Specifically, from Mr. Christopher Handley. Out of the thousands of books and DVDs he owned, they found between 150-300 images (as in single panels or pages, as opposed to entire books or movies) that could be judged (as opposed to clearly and plainly WERE) obscene.

Yes, they unabashedly show drawings of little children in sexualized positions and situations. This is unbashedly creepy. The Post Office decided that it would be okay to open this man's mail because the postmaster feared they may contain dirty books. This is ALSO unabashedly creepy.
Certain things make people's brains shut off. Child Porn is one; indeed, it's amazing what people can be talked into or out of in the name of "our children". People who are all for each and every free speech case will look away for a case like this. This becomes one of those "exceptions" that people guiltily admit yeah, maybe in THIS case... But as Sam Vimes said, once you start bending the rules for good reasons, it only makes it easier to bend them for bad reasons.

This is one of those messy "in the middle" cases that people hope don't come up. It's easy to come to the defense of, say, a comic shop who accidentally gave a free copy of a book about Picasso to a kid. It's harder to come to the defense of a guy accused of something everyone considers anathema. But both come down to the same argument: "This is not obscene".

It's like trying to decide what's "too fat". 45 pounds is too thin for a six-foot tall 25 year old; 1,270 pounds is too fat. But what about, say, 215 pounds? You'll never get a consensus. Same here. You'll never get everybody to agree that this guy just liked anime, or that he was collecting these books to skirt the law.

It seems to me that if they had found more "real" child porn, they wouldn't have bothered with the loli comics. This is all they had, and they went with it. they wanted a win, and they got one.

In a rather similar scenario, Paul Rubens (Pee Wee Herman) plead guilty too, to owning like ONE picture (from a lot of like 30,000 pictures of vintage gay porn he'd recently bought) of a young boy (not nude) who was IN a picture where two nude men were posing. He eventually got everything knocked down to a single minor misdemeanor (cause the DA knew they had nothing, but didn't want to walk away with a loss) and he figured it was not worth the time and expense to get the last bit wiped away.

This fellow is almost certainly going to do more than comunity service. We can make guesses about why he chose to plead guilty all we like, but the vast majority of people are going to assume it's because he WAS guilty, or at least guilty enough.

Maybe he is. Maybe he's merely creepy. Maybe his collection was purely innocent, maybe it was a way to get what he wanted without having to actually break the law. Maybe he just can't afford to defend himself anymore. If there was more evidence that the guy was a cretin, it'd be easy to cast him off and not worry about it ever affecting "us".

We'll never know. He's guilty now. He's not going to be able to come back later and claim he had a wide stance.

The knee-jerk reaction in this case has been that the guy is a pedophile, and if you support him in any way, you are "pro-pedophile". This is an argument that is hard to dispute, as it is based on personal opinion, which is notoriously hard to shift. It's the same reason that so much time is spent by, say, Obama's detractors ensuring the world that they disagree with his actions and standings, and not Because He's Black. It's like trying to convince people that you susbcribe to Playboy for the articles. It's just too easy to believe the big idea than to cut it up and realize that these little ideas are true. So in the minds of too many people, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund now "supports child porn" No. This is like saying the George Washington Bridge supports the War in Iraq because trucks containing military equipment drive over it.

I do not envy the CBLDF in this case. But like the ACLU et al, they must come to the defense of people who are being prosecuted in a way that could eventually be used against everyone else.

Once it's a precedent that drawings of children, ones that were not posed for or anything, can be considered child porn, it opens dangerous doors. There's a certan magnificent piece of comic work by a certain well known comics writer and his new wife that people are just DREADING some easily offended person with access to a letterhead will come across.

This was not a case that was trying to get certain types of art declared not obscene, it was a case dedicated to making sure the government didn't gain more ability to declare certain types of art obscene.

Here's an example. I recall a cartoon from Playboy from years ago, back when I didn't bother to claim I was reading it for the articles. A young girl is in a Doctor's office; the doctor and her mother are looking at her. She is unclothed, standing in the examining room. She has bunny ears and a tail sprouting from her head and sit-upon, respectively. The doctor says "Well on the bright side, you know what she'll be when she grows up".

This is a cartoon featuring an unclothed minor in an issue of Playboy. Is that child porn? Thanks to the new rules, the answer can't be any better than "maybe not".