This Column Has Seven Days #053 // This Sounds Vaguely Religious

Hello and happy Friday, gentle readers! This week I have three quick selections to throw out in the hopes of increasing someone’s enjoyment of life and of all the spectacular weirdness that exists out there. This time out it’s comics and Scottish electronic music, but that’s just where I’m at this week. Your mileage may vary.

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This Column Has Seven Days #052 // Featuring The Inevitable Daredevil Review

If I were really planning ahead, I would have made column no. 52 an all-DC-Comics spectacular, but I didn’t, because I am not a great person at planning ahead. Including one DC book will make up for it though, right? Right.

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Terra Firma

Cover to Terra by Amanda Conner & Paul Mounts.
Cover to Terra by Amanda Conner & Paul Mounts.

Most of my comic-book reading lately has involved pulling mediocre books off my shelf that have just been taking up space and finally reading them before moving them out of the apartment. This week I read eight different nearly acceptable books, including Superman: New Krypton volumes one and two, X-Men: Mutant Massacre, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s run on The Flash, and a few that were so bad I won’t mention them here at the risk of triggering a rant. However, there was one I liked enough that I am keeping it around for at least one more read. That book is Terra by writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey, artist Amanda Conner, and colourist Paul Mounts. It’s a book with more than its own fair share of cheesecake, but I have always had a soft spot for Amanda Conner’s art.

I think I am an Amanda Conner fan because she’s got a real eye for variety — yes, she draws beautiful women in skin-tight and sometimes-skimpy outfits, but they’re not all bending over at the waist and looking over their shoulder in every panel like the work of some other mainstream superhero comics artists. There are also beefcake guys (though, admittedly, the ratio is skewed), as well as supporting characters with a variety of body types, most of who come off as beautiful in their own distinct way because of the line and attention Conner brings to them. The characters always have body language and facial expression appropriate to the situation, whether that be intimidating, humorous, frustrated, powerful, happy — the list goes on. In fact, my favourite thing about Conner’s art is that she’s an amazing director of emotion and body language in comics. There is never any doubt in my mind what any of her characters are thinking, whether they’re the people in the foreground with the dialogue balloons or a random person in a crowd.

The ideas collected in the Terra TPB could have been an interesting addition to the DC Universe — multiple alien civilizations living underneath the Earth’s crust are under the protection of a 16-year-old hybrid superhero — but with at least one line-wide reboot wiping that out of existence, whether or not the story “matters” is beside the point. Palmiotti and Grey write a young woman who is trying to find her place between two worlds; she wants to leave home and explore the outside world but not entirely sure how to go about it. It relies on character and ideas more than an intricately plotted story, which is fine by me as the characters and ideas are definitely strong enough to stand on their own. Terra is fun and adventurous and extremely well-drawn, and I am very pleased to say that I misjudged the book by just looking at its cover. If only there was a proverb that warned against that kind of behaviour.

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That’s not all, folks. There were a couple other things that caught my attention this week. I’ll get the most obvious mention out of the way first.

Television: I am a giant comics nerd so of course I watched Daredevil this week. I took the full seven days to watch all 13 episodes though, because as much as I wanted to just binge and get through them as quickly as I could, I also wanted to savour the story and draw it out. Also affecting my movement through the series is that the show is shockingly violent. The episodes can get pretty intense and I didn’t want the shocking moments to lose their impact just because I had watched seven or eight episodes in a row. Overall, it’s a really great series; I found a couple of episodes dragged a little but that’s only in comparison to the rest of the Daredevil series. Compared to nearly all of the other comics-based television shows out there, Daredevil stands tall and proud. Yes, it’s vicious. Yes, it gets a little bleak and dark at times. But the cast is phenomenal, especially Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better Foggy Nelson, who I think is the most important Daredevil character other than The Man Without Fear himself. The fight scenes are tremendous, the tone and visual style is consistent throughout the series, and though the whole series felt like a battle, the final two episodes really hit me like a knife in the gut. In a good way. Daredevil wears a lot of hats — crime series, action-adventure serial, courtroom thriller, superhero adaptation — and it wears them all really well. This sets the bar really high for the rest of the Marvel Netflix shows to come, but it’s also giving me hope that they can pull this off. (Especially the Iron Fist series; the fight choreography in Daredevil is so good that I can’t wait to see what they do with Iron Fist.)

Books: At first I thought Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life was too clever for its own good. In the first chapter of the novel, the main character Ursula Todd dies stillborn in the winter of 1910, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The second chapter retells the story of her birth, but this time the local doctor makes it to her home in time to save her and she lives through her first day on Earth, until another calamity befalls her and she dies again. The first hundred or so pages explores many of young Ursula’s lives and deaths, nearly all of them starting over in the winter of 1910, which I found made for a slightly maddening experience. No stranger to the concept of multiple lives and multiple timelines — I am a comic book reader, after all — I wasn’t put off by this tactic, but rather confused about whether the book would finally start gaining momentum before Atkinson cut the story off at the knees again. Thankfully, once Ursula makes it to her 16th birthday, the stories available to her become more expansive and Atkinson is able to explore concepts such as the role of British women in the early 20th century, the effects of the Second World War on multiple European countries, and universal themes of love and family and devotion. Once the initial hiccups were over, I rather enjoyed the ability to look at multiple aspects of this era of British life through the eyes of the same character, who gains different perspectives on life with a few alterations to her timeline with every new life. Fans of hard sci-fi might find the book a little free and easy with the timeline-hopping, and there were a few times where even I thought that Atkinson might not have thought out the logistics of her gimmick well enough. However, once it gets out of its own way, Life After Life has a group of interesting stories to tell and a character who is worth sticking around for, in nearly every iteration.

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That’ll do it for me this week. Until next time, clear a few things out of your life that you no longer need and take time to savour something instead of gorging on it. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #051 // Escape From Spring Break

Hello! I am back from Winnipeg and from the mystical recesses of the spring break holiday, and it feels good to be back. This week I’ll be taking on a few shorter recommendations as I shake the rust off, but I truly believe these are three great selections well worth anyone’s time.

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Deadly Class: High School is Murder

Deadly Class Volume 1 cover by Wes Craig & Lee Loughridge.
Deadly Class Volume 1 cover by Wes Craig & Lee Loughridge.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Deadly Class since it was first published in early 2014, but it was often pitched as “The Breakfast Club meets Kill Bill,” and as that is a terrible pitch for someone like me, I figured I’d probably get around to reading it eventually. It wasn’t until last week, when I was killing some time in the Winnipeg Public Library, that I picked up the first volume and gave it a solid read. I am saying right now, for the record, that a year was entirely too long to wait. Written by Rick Remender with art by Wes Craig and colours by Lee Loughridge, Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth shows that this has the potential to be a monster of a series.

It’s set in 1987 at Kings Dominion School Of The Deadly Arts, a boarding school for the world’s greatest assassins-in-training. Marcus Lopez, the school’s newest student, is trying to make his way in this new environment. For the past year, he’s been living on the street and on the run from the law, having left the group home he went to after his parents died in front of him. Just like in non-assassin high school, Marcus has to deal with inter-student politics, brutal teachers, and awful homework assignments, except the cliques are all children of gangsters and political dictators, the teachers can execute you for failing, and the assignments are attempted homicides.

Remender amps up the “high school as gladiator arena” tone by mixing in a little of his own apparently horrific childhood (part of the reason that the series is set in 1987), but the real reason this book is a must-read is Craig and Loughridge’s art. I lost count of how many times I turned the page and was startled by the fluidity and power of the comic page. Craig’s layouts are phenomenal; he’s got a real knack for giving characters personality through posture and facial expression alone, but he also pushes the storytelling by breaking through or layering or sequencing panels in such a way that the attentive reader is guided through the book at just the right pace. Loughridge is always someone I am happy to see as part of a creative team, and his colours perfectly accent each scene, never seeming out of place or garish (except when necessity calls for it, as is the case in the greatest acid trip I’ve ever seen in a comic). Deadly Class could have been little more than a high-concept elevator pitch with an empty soul, but with these talented creators behind the helm, there is so much more to it, and I am counting down the days until my budget resets and I can buy the second volume.

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It wasn’t all adolescent assassins for the past two weeks, though. There are a couple more things that I want to shine a little love on.

Podcasts: A little over two years ago saw the release of the final episode of the Pod F. Tompkast. Hosted by the famous comedian, Paul F. Tompkins, the show was a hilarious combination of improvised monologues, interviews, sketches, and segments from his live show, with musical accompaniment from longtime Tompkins collaborator Eban Schletter. It was a great show that apparently was a monster to produce, hence its demise two years ago. But Tompkins and Schletter are back with a new podcast, Spontaneanation, which takes some of the best parts of the old show and adds an improv twist. Each episode of Spontaneanation starts with a monologue from Tompkins, a stream-of-consciousness, free-association ramble full of bizarre tangents and off-the-cuff rants. That quickly transitions into an unscripted interview with the episode’s special guest, sparked by a question from the previous episode’s guest. Finally, Tompkins and three guest improvisors perform a long-form improv sketch for the last half of the show, based on a location suggested by the interviewee as well as anything touched on in the interview or monologue segments.

After the first two episodes I’m happy to say that Spontaneanation is a worthy successor to the Pod F. Tompkast; it’s loose and silly without being foolish, and it makes me laugh extra hard to hear the other performers enjoying themselves and being delighted by their own ridiculousness. It’s also wonderful to have Schletter scoring the improv scenes in real time with the performers, as well as his patented back and forth with Tompkins during the opening monologues. It’s fast and loose and full of whimsy and I wish there were more episodes so I could listen to three or four in a row. I suppose I will just have to wait a few more weeks and then do a marathon re-listen.

Music: I discovered singer-songwriter Allison Weiss when she guested on a recent episode of the improv4humans podcast. The songs she performed on that episode were really striking, so the following day I started listening to her 2013 album Say What You Mean and have not stopped. I was a sucker for a good break-up album long before I’d actually been broken up with, and Say What You Mean is a killer break-up album. Full of happy-sounding sad songs boasting a variety of musical influences — country, punk, folk, rock — this is a highly accessible pop album that comes on strong with a solid punch to the heart. Weiss has the capacity to craft songs with simple but powerful lyrics, and half of the album’s songs could be breakout radio hits if given half a chance. There are sweet break-up songs like the acoustic “Wait for Me” and aggressive ones like the highly amplified and vicious “Hole in Your Heart” (my favourite on the album, for the record). Weiss has a delicate voice that sometimes cracks when she might not want it to, but she generally uses it to add a layer of heartbreak and pathos to a song, as in the way she falls apart at the end of “How to Be Alone.” I would also recommend her 2014 EP Remember When. Though it’s not as sweeping or as raw as Say What You Mean, it’s a little more polished, plus it features a cover of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” If there was anything that would seal the deal on my love of Allison Weiss, it would be a cover of my favourite Swedish pop sensation.

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That’ll do it for me this week. Until next time, spend some time listening to your favourite break-up album with teenage assassins, if that seems like a fun Friday night to you. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days 050 // Every Time I See You Falling, I Get Down On My Knees and Pray

As of the time this column is published (a couple days late because of terrible internet problems and also losing my iPad) it is spring break, baby! I know that doesn’t mean a lot to most people, but to me, someone who is employed by the public school system, that means I have a week to relax, visit friends, and have some extra time to enjoy some books, movies, comics, and so on. (It does not mean a week of debauchery, sadly, because I’m over 24 and that time in my life has passed.) Before getting ready to enjoy a break from my routine in beautiful, sunny Winnipeg, I wanted to quickly wrap up some of my favourite pop culture offerings of the week.

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This Column Has Seven Days #048 // They Alive, Dammit

Despite losing an hour I somehow managed to get a fair chunk of reading done this week. And my accomplishments weren’t just limited to reading; I decluttered the apartment, tackled a knitting project, and all manner of other things besides. Oh, and I watched an entire season of a sitcom as well — no, it wasn’t Parks and Recreation. (Though I am almost finished season four of that.) Let’s get to it.

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Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt1-e1424187785669

Television: The pedigree of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt practically guaranteed that I was going to watch the entire thing. Produced and created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who made one of my favourite sitcoms, 30 Rock? Check. Starring the charismatic and talented Ellie Kemper? Check. Supporting cast includes Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess (both also from 30 Rock) and legendary actress Carol Kane? Check. And though it had a bit of a rocky start, and some questionable artistic and story choices (Krakowski’s Jacqueline Voorhees has an unfortunately tone-deaf backstory, for starters), it’s a very clever show that lives up to its potential. Sometimes it feels like it’s haunted by the ghost of 30 Rock, as the shows unsurprisingly share a comedic sensibility and are both scored by Jeff Richmond, but though the shows share some DNA Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is very much its own creature. The cast is a particularly strong point. Kemper is the perfect choice to embody the indefatigable main character, Burgess has all the best lines, and Kane steals practically every scene she’s in. Some of my friends and co-workers were turned off by the show’s premise — Kimmy was kidnapped by a cult leader and trapped in an underground bunker with three other women for 15 years before finally escaping — but the darkness of the show is the biggest selling point, as the way Kimmy and the rest of the characters cope with the tragedies in their lives and their secret pasts is ultimately inspiring. (It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, in case I’m making it sound more like a Lifetime Original Movie than a sitcom.) After a promising but shaky start Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt grew into a smart and funny show with a strong message, and a lot of potential for the upcoming second season.

Comics: I used Daylight Saving Weekend to making my way through my stack of unread single issues and I have to say that winnowing that pile down to under two inches has given me a surprising amount of energy and motivation to tackle other things. It’s strange, but true. Here are a few updates on some of the best of my current books:

  • Sex Criminals – Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s critical darling about time-freezing sex maniacs gets better with every issue. The story has been making a slow, subtle transition from “wacky sex comedy with hijinks” to “thoughtful sex comedy with hijinks,” which I thoroughly appreciate. My favourite thing about the book is the letter column, though; as much as I like the story itself, the feedback and the sharing from the community of readers always makes me laugh the hardest.
  • Swamp Thing – I didn’t think much of Charles Soule’s Swamp Thing run when he took over from Scott Snyder, but the last few issues have turned the book around very sharply. I found his first issues limp and in search of direction, but with one issue left before this series comes to an end, Soule has pulled together the weaker plot threads and characters and given the book a real sense of urgency. The rise of the new Metal Kingdom, or the Calculus, as a rival to the Green, the Red, the Rot, and the Grey, could be seen as muddying the DC mythology a little bit, but it’s a good idea and executed well. The book also looks gorgeous; Jesus Saiz’s art is given some fantastic depth by Matt Hollingsworth’s colours, and letterer Travis Lanham gives the denizens of each realm distinct voices thanks to font and word balloon choices. It’s a foregone conclusion that our hero will come out victorious in the final issue, I’m sure, but Soule and company have at least given Swamp Thing a challenging adversary and clever story to finish the series with.
  • The Wicked + The Divine – This is still my favourite book currently being published. The first story arc ended with a hell of a bang, and the second story has not only picked up the pace but is further exploring and developing the world and the characters’ places in it. The beautiful thing about a book like this (and also Sex Criminals) is that I have no idea where it’s going. Don’t get me wrong — I like some corporate superhero comics but I am well aware of their storytelling limitations (namely, having to make due with the illusion of change instead of actual change), and not only does The Wicked + The Divine allow for change, but it provides danger and actual stakes for the characters, so the reader comes to care about them. Plus, for my money it’s the best-looking book on the stands. It’s the comic I never knew I wanted, and now that it exists I never want it to end.

Books: This weekend I finished reading a book of comics criticism — Voyage In Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization. It’s definitely a niche volume, but for fans of Ellis it’s an interesting read; there are chapters that dissect how his work is influenced by his views on superheroes, science fiction, violence, anger, and authority. The book also features excerpts of Ellis’ interviews for the film Captured Ghosts, giving the man himself the opportunity to expound on these and other topics. My biggest problem with the book is that it would benefit from a final pass from an editor; there are a handful of typos, missing words, and confusing clauses that interrupted the flow of reading. That’s the kind of risk one runs when getting a self-published book, though, and the analysis in the book is thought-provoking and made me want to re-read some of Ellis’ work with this new perspective.

Comics: Speaking of Warren Ellis, this week I also read the first volume of Trees from Image Comics, written by Ellis with art from Jason Howard. Trees tells the story of humanity post-alien-invasion, with a twist — the aliens are giant cylinders that tower over cities, and not only do they not have any interest in communicating with the human inhabitants of planet Earth, they don’t seem to recognize us as life forms at all. Ellis and Howard show the reader a world where humanity lives in the shadow of powerful and unknowable alien beings and how that has become the new normal. A diverse cast of characters additionally shows us the impact of these Trees all over the world, from an artist’s community in China to street gangs in Italy to a mayoral candidate in New York City to a research station in Norway. I’m halfway through my second reading of the book; I’m an unapologetic Ellis fan but I feel there’s something really special and yet elusive about Trees that I really think needs more exploration. I wholeheartedly endorse everyone read the book and discover it for themselves.

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That’s all for this week, cats and kittens. Until next time, I encourage you to catch up on some of the things that have fallen to the wayside and get yourself energized. Spring forward, so to speak. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #046 // Marvel’s Not Ready For Prime-Time Players

This weekend I took advantage of a couple of the sales on ComiXology, including picking up about a half-dozen Marvel comics collections. I thought a few of those series were worth talking about, because while they aren’t perfect they are at least interesting examples of what comes from corporate comics that try to look like boutique books.

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Going Solo, or “What I Got At The Marvel Digital Sale”

When Marvel announced their “All-New Marvel Now” branding across a slew of titles in early 2014, it seemed to me like they were trying a little too hard. There were a few books I was interested in, but seeing the “All-New” descriptor tagged to the initiative made it smell of desperation and hucksterism. I tried out a few of the new series, including Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and Silver Surfer, and enjoyed each of them a great deal, but my choices were based far more on my interest in the creative teams than on the characters themselves. I took advantage of this weekend’s digital sale to pick up some other books, which promised some new takes on solo, “street level” characters: The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist: The Living Weapon.

The Punisher, Issue 5.

Let’s start with The Punisher. I have some very specific criteria when it comes to enjoying a Punisher comic book. Basically, if it’s written by Garth Ennis then I’m gonna like it; if it’s someone else, then it’s a crap shoot. In the first two volumes of the new Punisher series (Black and White and Border Crossing), writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads move Frank Castle from his home in New York City and send him to Los Angeles on the trail of the Dos Sols gang. This being a Punisher comic book, though, things get a little more complicated than that. The Punisher encounters the Dos Sols’ secret weapon, and is secretly hunted by the American military in the form of the black ops version of the Howling Commandos. In the second volume Frank finds himself in a South American prison, then later runs into Black Widow (more on her later) and ends up doing some dirty work for her in exchange for her not turning him in.

I enjoyed the team’s take on The Punisher as a tactician and soldier while still firmly entrenched in the Marvel Universe. Frank’s not going out guns a-blazing and heading at super-villains head on; he’s mindful of collateral damage and is actually taking steps to be brutally efficient without making a spectacle of himself. Moving him to Los Angeles also provides Edmondson and Gerads with some interesting story potential, as well as the ability to establish a few new supporting cast members. Gerads’ art is clean and uncluttered, and he gives a flow to fast-paced scenes so I was never confused about how the action in one panel led to another, an important thing in a Punisher book. However, there were times where I had to actively stop comparing certain stories or situations to the Garth Ennis run; it’s not fair to Edmondson and Gerads to compare their work to some of my favourite Marvel comics of all time. I definitely would have an easier time reviewing this series if I could have stopped negatively comparing it to Ennis’ run, but at times I just couldn’t help it. Despite my own personal attachment to and opinion of the character, overall this new series is a smart, violent, and engaging book, like The Punisher is supposed to be, even if I couldn’t get out of my own way and just accept it.

Black WidowThe next comic, also written by Edmondson, is Black Widow, with art by Phil Noto. Out of the three series, this is the closest spiritual cousin to the critically acclaimed Hawkeye; though it doesn’t quite hit the same artistic highs as that series, Black Widow is a look at what an Avenger gets up to when she’s off the clock. From the first issue, Edmondson lays out his take on Black Widow: a woman who’s not running from the mistakes of her past, but rather using it as motivation for her current actions. I think the first volume, The Finely Woven Thread, is a good introduction to the character (speaking as someone who has never felt a particularly strong attachment to her). It starts with a few self-contained chapters establishing Natasha Romanoff’s globe-trotting espionage adventures and then closes with a multi-part story that establishes a conspiracy inside the Marvel Universe’s greatest spy agency. The dialogue gets a little rough at times, and towards the end of the collection the plot feels as though it is being stretched a little thin. On the strength of the writing alone, Black Widow would simply be an acceptable book. However, Noto’s art turns it into a much more interesting read; surprisingly, given his thin lines, his action scenes have real energy and the way he lays out the talking heads scenes help the pacing and actually elevate the dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Black Widow, and will definitely get the next volume to see how the seeds Edmondson and Noto plant in these early issues take root.

Iron Fist

My favourite of the three new-to-me series, however, was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, with Kaare Andrews taking care of both writing and art duties. The first volume, Rage, takes everything that has previously been established about Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, and deconstructs it. I don’t want to get into plot details, as revealing anything about the events of the plot (aside from the whole “Things will never be the same again!” hook) would spoil the read. However, I have to single Andrews out for making a book that looks absolutely gorgeous. His varying colour palette establishes just the right tone for each of the different settings, his faux-distressed and faded art for the flashback scenes strikes a good balance against the present day’s crisper line, and his action scenes are vibrant with Iron Fist moving through panels like a torrent of boiling water. Furthermore, the way he lays out each page is creative and eye-catching; some pages have a number of smaller panels against a larger backdrop, geographical details in one scene become panel borders in another, and his splash pages give the reader a chance to breathe while expanding the scope of the issue. I have no idea where Iron Fist: The Living Weapon is going, and though I am not sure I will like the final result from a plot and character perspective, I will love watching it happen.

Each of these new series scratches a different genre itch — action, espionage, martial arts — while never abandoning their identity as corporate superhero comics. That’s both a blessing and a curse — the use of established characters helps give them an audience but it also means that any significant changes are unlikely to remain in continuity after the current team leaves or the series wraps up. Taken for what they are, warts and all, all three are worth a read if only as attempts to shake up and reintroduce old characters to new readers, and the art on all three makes them worthy of a second look.

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I wasn’t just a Marvel zombie this past week, though. I also managed to dig deep into the origins of one of television’s biggest creative juggernauts — for good or for ill — of the last 40 years.

The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.
The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.

Television: I didn’t watch the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special earlier this month, mostly because like a stereotypical goon I dislike most of what SNL produced after I turned 19. However, I thought that the 40th anniversary was as good a reason as any to take my Season One DVDs off the shelf and give them a watch for the first time. After watching the first nine episodes I am still floored at how different the show was in its early days. It makes sense that a late-night sketch variety show would have a few growing pains when starting out, but the first few episodes feel wildly different than the format that is so familiar to today’s viewer. The first episode has host George Carlin (who only does monologues and never interacts with the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players), comedian Valri Bromfield, musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian (each of who does two songs), Andy Kaufman doing his Mighty Mouse routine, some original work from Jim Henson’s Muppets (which were an absolutely terrible fit for the program, as much as it pains me to say), and a film by Albert Brooks. All that plus some truly weird and wonderful sketches. It’s a fascinating watch, even if some of Carlin’s bits are de-fanged due to the combination of nerves and television standards, but watching the show evolve over the next eight episodes is absolutely fascinating. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, is basically a musical show with a few sketches, including a bizarrely hilarious film where he plays one-on-one basketball against former Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins. Simon sings a few songs on his own, then gets Art Garfunkel to come back to sing a few of their classics (and also to verbally Garfunkel on television).

The show really starts coming into its own when Candice Bergen hosts the fourth episode. She’s the first host to participate in sketches with the cast, and the show even has her in unscripted conversation with Gilda Radner, which is wonderfully sweet and sad. It is easy to see that everyone involved in the evening is having fun; the cast seems grateful and happy to have someone who’s willing to play along with them, and Bergen is up for trying anything. It’s the first glimpse of what the show would eventually turn into, and as much as I like the Carlin episode with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, the Bergen episode is the first to border on legitimately great. Lily Tomlin’s and Richard Pryor’s episodes are even better, each tailored to best highlight their personas and skills. Even though the show can appear clumsy, sweaty, and dated at times, it’s also exciting and fresh and vibrant, and I can’t wait to get through even more episodes and then on to Season Two when things apparently get really interesting.

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That’s it for me this week. Until next time, try your luck at one of those Marvel series, or at least track down the Saturday Night Live “Racist Word Association” sketch with Pryor and Chevy Chase and marvel that it was on broadcast television in the ’70s. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #042 // Baby, I Hope You Like Funkin’ It Up

Happy Friday, everyone! I actually made a concerted effort to read a lot of comics this past week. So of course I’m going to spend the biggest chunk of my time talking about an album that came out last winter from one of my favourite bands of all time. Because I get to do what I want here, and I like that.

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First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate: An Excess of Excess

funkadelic_first_ya_gotta_shake_the_gate

I’ve been taking a few weeks to really listen to and digest First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, the first Funkadelic album of all-new material in over 33 years. I absolutely adore George Clinton, though my interests lie primarily in the 1970s P-Funk era. His wide-ranging musical tastes include doo-wop, rock and roll, soul, and R&B, and he’s influenced so many musical acts over the past 30 years that even if one has never listened to Funkadelic or Parliament, their music still sounds instantly familiar. The man is a huge inspiration and full of excess both musically and in real life, so I was both excited and hesitant to see what he could do on a triple album with all the production effects that have been developed since the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, at over 200 minutes of music, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but gloriously so. It’s very hip-hop and R&B-inspired, far different than the rock sounds of prime 1970s Funkadelic that I’m a fan of, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And yes, some of the album’s 33 tracks seem a little self-indulgent, but this is George Clinton, damn it, and if the man wants to be self-indulgent then I say let him, he’s earned it. There’s also a lot of auto-tune on the album, which I think Clinton overuses, but it’s a fairly new toy so I can see why he would be excited to play with it even though it really overwhelms some of the songs.

I’ve been taking a few listens through each of the discs before I make any judgements on the songs, as there are so many different sounds and genres that it can take me a little while to get acclimatized to them. The first disc is full of highs and lows, so I’m going to focus on the highs. I really enjoy the smooth “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?” and the G-funk groove of “Radio Friendly,” which is a little cognitively dissonant — Clinton homaging a genre that is itself an homage to Clinton — but it works. “Mathematics of Love” is a long track with some nice soul touches, and “Creases” has a rap by Del the Funky Homosapien that references He-Man villains like Man-E-Faces and Trap Jaw, so I’m all in on that one.

The second disc is probably the most solid of the whole album, with a lot of tracks that make me want to shake it all over the place. “Jolene” has a great hard guitar riff as a backbone, a sound that reminds me of the old 1970s Funkadelic in the best way. “Dirty Queen” is a rap-metal song which makes me strangely happy, while “You Can’t Unring The Bell” is a hip-hop/funk number with a solid groove and some killer drum and horn samples. “Pole Power” is a stripped-down funky number with a sexy groove and killer hook, and “As In” is a cover of a Bootsy Collins song I’ve admittedly never heard, but it is sung soulfully and wonderfully by the late Jessica Cleaves. This disc also features the most unexpected track on the album: a cover of The Four Tops’ “Bernadette” that at first rubbed me entirely the wrong way but ultimately I found to be one of the album’s most re-listenable songs.

I’m just now starting to delve into the third disc of the collection but there are definitely some great tracks already. “The Naz” features a really cool little groove that never fails to get my tailbone a-shaking, but really, the majority of the song is just special guest Sly Stone rambling all over the place. Plus, just the idea of a Funkadelic track with Sly Stone on it makes me happy beyond explanation. Some of the guitar work and vocal additions remind me of Frank Zappa and The Mothers, which is definitely not a bad thing. And the next three songs in a row — “Talking To The Wall,” ”Where Would I Go?” and “Yesterdejavu” — sound just like they could have appeared on a ’70s P-Funk album, if one could strip away a few of the modern production touches.

I’m aware that I took four paragraphs on a comics website to talk about a funk album that probably appeals to nobody but me. And that’s why I’m so glad Brandon and James give me this opportunity. Because if literally one other person checks out even one track from this album, then it will all have been worth it. First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, and then you gotta go back to listen to Maggot Brain and Standing On the Verge of Getting it On and Let’s Take It To The Stage. At least, that’s what I’d recommend.

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Comics: I have read a lot of comic books in the past week, but most of them have fallen around the “acceptable” range, give or take a few points, which makes it hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone. (The really good ones were sadly recorded for an upcoming Scotch & Comics episode, which is actually happening, no joke, but I don’t want to pre-review them here.) One chunk of comics that I can nearly wholeheartedly recommend are the first three volumes of Ultimate Fantastic Four. The story collected in the first volume, “Fantastic,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar with pencils by Adam Kubert and inks by Danny Miki and John Dell, is extremely skim (or skip) worthy. It sets up the Ultimate origin of the FF and their first encounter with the Mole Man, a story that takes six issues to do when it could probably been much more exciting to read over three. The art is okay, with a few really interesting passages, but otherwise I feel the real meat of these issues is in the “Doom” storyline, in volume two. This is the jewel of the series, written by Warren Ellis and art by Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger. This team really gets a handle on this younger and more vibrant take on the Fantastic Four: all the characters talk in more or less Ellis-toned dialogue, but it works for these young brash people, especially Ben Grimm. Honestly, Ellis’ take on The Thing is so fantastic it makes me wish he could write another FF story with the non-Ultimate versions of the characters. “N-Zone,” the story in the third volume, is once again illustrated by Kubert and a host of inkers, and while I don’t think his art is nearly as good a fit for Ellis’ story, it’s got a fantastic Ben Grimm, so I’m willing to overlook it. Maybe it’s just because I have an Ellis soft spot, but the second and third volume of Ultimate Fantastic Four feel youthful and vibrant even though they were first published over 10 years ago.

Books: Sometimes a book ends up being both more and less than I think it’s going to be. Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted was initially billed as combination memoir and travelogue, as author Eric Nuzum examines his youth, where he believed he was haunted by a ghost and started mentally falling apart, by exploring the ghost subcultures of modern America. It’s a little less complicated than that, actually. Nuzum does technically explore both of those ideas, but they’re not terribly well integrated. His accounts of his visits — to a highway that’s the centre of dozens of ghost stories, meetings with spiritualists, and a ghost tour through a haunted prison — are faintly interesting but don’t really lend much colour or depth to the exploration of his past. About three-fifths of the way through the book he drops those adventures entirely, and when he does the book becomes a far more gripping beast. His past is the much more interesting story, and the reason to read the book. Nuzum did not have an easy youth, whether it was being haunted by repeated dreams of a dead girl whose ghost lived in his spare room, or his tragic relationship with a young friend, or his substance abuse problems and subsequent mental breakdown. That’s the story that I appreciated the most, a man opening up and being raw and honest (as honest as he could be) about the horrors he’s lived through and how long he’s been haunted by that past. It gets extremely bleak and melodramatic, but that’s what being an adolescent was like for Nuzum (and many others), and when he finally gets to his lowest point I realized that his bleak and melodramatic tone may have been under-selling it. That’s when the book became more than I expected — the depth of emotion and exploration Nuzum dedicates to this horrible time in his life made that story so much more compelling than I had imagined it would be. Giving Up The Ghost would have been a much shorter book if he had done away with the framing device and it was just a memoir, but I’m sure that would have been a much harder book to get published, so I appreciate that I got to read the story at all.

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That’s all for me this week. Until next time, try to get a little funk on you. It’s a good look, I promise. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #041 // Boys in Sicktime Want to Write

What a day it has been, what a rare mood I’m in; why it’s almost like I have been recovering from a chest cold. That’s right, earlier in the week I had some kind of weird chest thing which made me hack and cough so much that one of my co-workers told me my voice sounded “sexy like Vin Diesel.” I of course ruined that by immediately saying “I am Groot,” which none of my other co-workers understood, but at least I was pleased by it. Here’s what else I was pleased by this week.

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