Black Apps

Few corners of the world remain unexplored, but the closer we feel to each other, the more dangerous things seem to get. Tension replaces mystery, and this is the source of “GetFisk”’s intrigue. The series of adventure iBooks picks up from the lineage of pulp action fiction, and with a confluence of media, achieves mixed results. midnight_in_juarez_cover 

Two novellas in, the adventure definitely gets better as it goes along. But then, classic pulp rolled off the presses at tens of thousands of words a month, and while it never missed, the hits couldn’t all be knockouts. The GetFisk series concerns the shaky line between glamour and brutality as high-energy movie franchises, videogames and open barbarism on the news cycle converge in both the Western and the global mind. Fisk is a mysterious businessman, a Tony Stark without superpowers but with a Doc Savage-esque troupe of operatives to execute his worldwide agenda.

That agenda is an interesting fantasy of judicious control; in the same way that Shakespeare’s work was an overall brief for the rightfulness of monarchy and the responsibility of leaders to be considered and humane, this newer violent crowd-pleaser shows a multi-billionaire trying to bring world stability by undermining drug cartels and high-seas pirates through the even bigger business he can install (and getting his hands dirty in the undercover muck while he does it, dealing with mercenaries and terrorists and double agents).

His main surrogates are secretly deadly moviestar Tarita Lee and deceptively charming merc Carlos Madrid (yep), figures operating suitably on the margin between our highest fantasies and worst nightmares.

Two GetFisk iBooks have thus-far appeared, Midnight in Juarez (the drug-cartel one) and Pirate Lair (the Somali one). At times — too many times — the drama that’s ripped from today’s headlines seems merely scrapbooked in place. The books’ narrative halts often for little TED Talks on how legalizing pot in the U.S. would really screw the gangsters making money off it south of the border, etc. — all true, but the text sings in husky, shrill colors more compelling when it’s talking about assassins with icepicks and glass-jawed heroes sent to “dreamland” and femme fatales “armed with two shotglasses and a serpentine tongue” — and when the skilled plotting takes over from the diagrammed background issues.

Juarez is told all in present-tense, which gives an interesting immediacy, though it often also feels like an extended pitch for a movie you might rather be watching; Lair is more traditional narratively but makes better use of its modern trappings — little gifs open each chapter of both books, but they are often so rudimentary as to not add much; the series would do well to exploit the pictorial nature of screen reading by integrating these scene-setting images as static illustrations with text run over them. The simple technique of Lair being designed for light text on black background pays more attention to design, and this second volume’s animations, and their selectivity of incident, show more refinement.

pirate_lair_coverWhen the books drop themselves into their own rush and demonstrate rather than describe, they can truly absorb the reader, and the second one is confident enough to double back into the life stories and venture inward to the motivations of its damaged, determinedly optimistic protagonists. Juarez ends on a jawdropping reveal about one of the main characters that keeps most of the other players in suspense while letting us in on something that hits us like an inevitable but unanticipated driveby. And the machinations of Lair pull us along in ways that the creators wisely let us in on less of beforehand than any of the dots connected one-by one for Juarez.

The real world is complicated, and we learn its meaning as we go along; speaking for themselves, in one of the books’ best touches, the marauders of Pirate Lair show us a shaded (if sketched) portrayal of how people not given much chance to be goodguys can try and do their best. I have the feeling that GetFisk will do better and better as it goes along; the plots it hatches are well-formed, and the scenes it weaves around them are becoming more and more persuasive. As Tarita muses about a charismatic turncoat druglord, and maybe our next thrilling series entry, “Too dangerous to love, but too exciting to miss.”

Superunsung

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Kirby Krackle has always had the anthems for misfits needing to pull together — but their newest-to-me album is all about reaching out.

Sounds Like You, whoever you may be, leaves a lot of the specific superhero, sci-fi and gaming references of past albums behind, to sing the praises, and imperfections, of the geeks themselves — and indeed every individual who is a misfit (and a glorious varied mismatch) in their own way. Main songwriter and singer Kyle Stevens told me this is about the progression of geek culture overtaking the mainstream, but it’s also about the geek flag that everyone can now unfurl.

Simple pleasures of fruitful slacking (“Cozy Pants O’Clock,” an ode to goofing off in adult jammies set to a great glammy backing of crunchy guitar and haunted-mansion piano; and “One More Episode,” a ballad of binge-watching with the one you love even more than Peggy Olson and Heisenberg), and knowing enough not to connect at too high-speed to your heart’s desire (“140 Characters”), are the heroic achievements here.

“Parachute,” about emotional leaps and looking out for each other, is my new fav love song (and the last three included KK’s own “Needing a Miracle” from Super Powered Love), and “Take You Out Tonight” is another ode to growing wiser as part of something; no one writes happily-married-ever-after songs like Stevens, because fanboys aren’t supposed to want that though it’s all we and Clark Kent are really ever thinking of.

What the aforesaid “Needing a Miracle” did for the Lois Lanes and Mary Janes of life, “Grandma’s House” does for the Aunt Mays; a disco inferno that completely unironically homages kickass wise-hearted old ladies (Stevens also happens to be setting one of the prime examples of what a male in fandom who doesn’t deserve to be chased down and effed up by a Catwoman cosplayer would look like).

Fictional characters are people too, and a pair of songs late in the disk keep Kirby Krackle’s gloved hand in the realm of comics-for-sound and movies-on-the-radio. “Web-Slinger/Hope-Bringer” looks at the lowest-hanging fruit of subject matter and the hardest to say something new about, which Stevens nails, making you sense not what it would look like to do what Peter Parker does, but feel like to be who he is, in an eerie, energized theme-song of psychological turmoil and release in flashbulbs of bursting ben-day color bombs. At an end of the spectrum far, far away “Moisture Farm” recasts the basics of Star Wars as a kind of guy-walks-into-a-cantina joke to remind us why so many of us get over it and grow up (but can still smile and identify).

The range of styles, from “Taco Night”’s suburban salsa to “North of the Wall”’s troubled, titanic hardcore punk, is like a colorful overwhelming wall of comics and cartridges, and with the new national anthem, “The Same Thing,” KK waves the flag for everyone who needs to be accepted and learn how good it feels to be different together. Geek lit always shows the crowd cheering one solitary hero as he or she prevails. But Sounds Like You reminds us that the story isn’t really worth it until everyone in the crowd-scene wins.

http://kirbykracklemusic.com/

School’s In Forever

Mr. SBP

All the world’s a screen anymore, and in everyday life, as used to be the case just in celebrity and politics, we never stop acting. At best that is a type of considered, even examined, life that supposedly-isolating technology has facilitated; at worst, it’s Mr. Student Body President, the most hilarious pilot I’ve seen since the age of print.

This concept, in which The West Wing is repeated as Doogie Howser, is a savage satire of the logical conclusion of youth culture, competitive hipness, and first-world problems consuming our civic bandwidth. Hollywood used to worry about that scary younger generation taking over the government (Wild in the Streets, 1968); now, it frets about young people each collapsing into a country of one (Men, Women & Children, 2014); in Mr. Student Body President the titular popularity-contest winner strides through the highschool hallways with a team of advisors in tow, spouting Sorkin-cadanced solemnities about pep-rally plans and defaming rival schools’ sports teams as in a democracy/terrorist clash of civilizations.

The triviality of the concerns and the soberness of delivery hilariously burlesque the misplaced priorities that people under 70 would see real-life leaders sputtering if any of those people watched the news, and the trappings of poise and seriousness are a little-remarked consequence of a media-saturated culture; people have not been dumbed down by TV and movies and gaming and wifi, they’ve been given a mynah-bird sophistication, and the comedy and tragedy of Mr. Student Body President is that the senior-year executive doesn’t know how funny he sounds OR what his misspent talents could actually accomplish.

Nicholas Barasch is a prodigy of suave self-importance as the title character, Tyler Prendergast; Jenn Lyon a pillar of appalled, receding civilization as Principal Helfrick; Maggie Ross a bundle of existential anxiety as Mrs. Mayer, the embattled media advisor; and Dolores McDougal and Bill Weeden paragons of flummoxed lifetime-functionary earnestness as student council advisor Mrs. Honeychurch and Assistant Principal Leslie Klemmer, respectively. At one point Honeychurch nods up to helplessly look for a google reference for something unrelated to what the kids have queried; at several points Klemmer is reporting his hapless-Hoover surveillance of students’ tweets to the principal.

Sorkin of course banged out a Facebook movie, and Mr. Student Body President more accurately maps how quick these buzz-thoughts pass us by; Tyler gazes with the weight of the world at the empty space on a wall gallery of pep-rally skits past — Wayne and Garth, “Gangnam Style” — and hopes that his planned (and banned) “Turn Down for What” variation will take its place among the relics. This pilot is the wittiest skewer and scalpel of such self-delusion since Conan O’Brien and Adam West’s Lookwell, which is on no one’s wall, and I hope the greenlight gods will not make the same mistake with Mr. Student Body President — the future of comedy actually does depend on it.

A Show About Everything

Absence is not emptiness. When others aren’t looking, we aren’t looking either, but we’re still here just as much. Filmmaker Ashish Pant has a mind for absence in Byron Jones, a nonverbal oral history of the space between what “happens.”Byron 4

The film navigates the dark matter of our everyday; sleeping, meals, the getting dressed but not the going anywhere. Improvising stasis is a monumental task that the movie’s main focus, Bill Weeden, achieves in the title role; his nothing is always a supremely active state, of gestures and tics and unselfconscious mannerisms and unpredictable reactions and inner life floating in the sea of recollection behind his eyes.

In the moments we’re looking in the mirror, showering, defecating, arranging our clothes, we don’t “know” anything more than that about ourselves but completely understand who we are, and in this entirely wordless film we learn who Byron Jones is by sensing his mood and anticipating his reactions. Weeden himself was given no advance knowledge of the film’s narrative, shooting in sequence and being handed a part of the script (consisting of incident and activity, no conventional story) shortly before enacting each scene.

Byron 8 He grew to know this personality just as we do over the course of about an hour and three quarters. Time is measured precisely like that, while cycling into one grand composition in which the space from bedroom to sitting room to kitchen is more important than the duration between moments.

Jones is solitary in a literal sense; we don’t see him ever speak to his occasionally glimpsed home health aide though they take meals together, and otherwise we see no soul but him; presumably retired, apparently widowed or never attached, though we know nothing of what choices he has made. All of us are as solitary, figuratively, in our conception of ourselves, we just don’t feel that that solitude is worth watching — we seldom look into it rather than out from it, but in Byron Jones, it is worthy of note.

Pant packs and thickens time into the movie’s scenes, for an animate still-life painting of how we push our way through daily existence. We see Jones, seemingly well in control of his faculties and destiny, dress up; for nobody, as far as we can tell, but not for nothing; attending to himself, he is the opposite of invisible.

We are as aware of time passing slowly as we are absorbed in its particulars, but Byron Jones is not a Warholian endurance test, daring you not to laugh; it is only funny when it means to be, as in an extended struggle between Jones and the vacuum-sealed contents of a SPAM can, or with a rogue home corn-popper. Later on, with lifeforce, with vigorous anger, one day when the aide is late, Jones dancingly attacks a paisley rug with a vacuum cleaner in an act that looks like the wiping clean of a mandala.Byron 1

The mystic, existential referent applies; Byron Jones is like a Koyaanisqatsi inverted, in which the title character’s simple, crucial existence is at the hub of the wheel of the world. We are animals; we rest, eat, take in air and warmth and water; we sustain ourselves, and the moments in which we do these things are flowing into us, not “moving on.” We see scenes of Byron going out, and scenes of him returning, but nothing of the in-between. But he doesn’t go in circles; he completes them.

Common Valor

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In heroic fiction, there’s always another twist on the way to a final victory; in reality there’s always something new to endure in the course of just staying alive. Compromised, complicated heroes are a commonplace of comics since the mid-1980s, but writer Gail Simone is unparalleled in facing the consequences of conflict from the point of view of those without power.

Leaving Megalopolis is a post-apocalyptic narrative of the type we’ve become used to from zombie and vampire flicks and the daily feeds from Ferguson and Katrina-era New Orleans. But less like Walking Dead and more like Missouri, Megalopolis is about a menace not from those we consider “other” than or “under” us, but above — a glittering city’s superhero population has gone rogue, hunting down civilians in a blasted, now almost-dead urban wasteland.

In the trials of the classic band of survivors, attempting escape and encountering brutality and betrayal in the present while just as slowly marching away from guilt or abuses in their past, we see how both the highest heroism and the worst monstrosity can be the work of everyday humans.

The abandonment of Detroit and the shooting of refugees fleeing flooded New Orleans are each explicitly referenced, and Leaving Megalopolis is a grim parable of having no authority to count on and the logical conclusion of dismantling government. But also of the necessity of individuals truly relying on their own resources and moral authority, not to be “left alone” but to find connections with each other; I can’t think of a braver mainstream comics writer than Simone, and I can’t remember when I was as emotionally invested in an end-times drama as I am in this one.

Artist Jim Calafiore does a horrifying, heartbreaking job of portraying the city’s ghostly greatness and the inhumanity of its inhabitants both super and human. Great attention and understanding has gone into the archetypal references in his design of legends gone wrong and his conception of unnoticed and unsung ordinary souls at their best, their worst and their lost, precious everyday.

I won’t reveal what “turns” the superheroes evil, but it coincidentally reminded me of what seems to have happened to Nix Uotan at the end of The Multiversity #1, and the moral of Megalopolis is that the worst that can befall us happens not from “going bad,” but from giving up. Simone is a definitive storyteller and compassionate witness who puts you in the center of the action and herself at the side of your struggles, and will not turn away.

A Night at the Avant-Garde

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I’ll Say She Is (The Lost Marx Brothers Musical)
New York International Fringe Festival, Aug. 10, 15, 18, 20, 22

http://www.marxfest.com/illsaysheis/

They say I’ll Say She Is was plotless, ephemeral; that’s easy for them to say, since the show has not been performed in some 90 years. I say it’s a delightful confection of thoughtful abandon, and you can say that again.

The show (originally by Will B., Tom and Alexander Johnstone), as many know by now, is the only stage production of the Marx Brothers that did not later live on as a well-known movie. Documentation was thus harder to come by, and writer, artist and performer Noah Diamond has reincarnated it from existing drafts, contemporary accounts, consultation with a descendant of the original scenarist and his own well-informed imagination. He was born to revive this show from long before most of us were born, and leading re-historian and neo-dime-entertainment impresario Trav S.D. was born to direct it.

The show is in the old-school revue format, which means a minimal plotline and blocks of banter as an excuse to launch into songs and set pieces, and Diamond understands well this form’s fine, fall-over-able line between structural expediency and flat-out surrealism. The bored heiress of the title is wandering a movie-set New York City in search of something to interest her, and show-stopping interludes on an allegorical Wall Street (written five years before that other depression), a trip to (and in) a downtown opium den, and a seedy, blaring Times Square that owes as much to the grungy ’70s heyday of American cinema as to the Hollywood golden age are immortally absurd.

A talented cast is free not to re-enact the Marx Brothers’ shtick so much as create it for the first time all over again. Diamond himself as Groucho is miraculous, tapping the source of that comedian’s anarchic essence rather than reconstructing his mannerisms. Groucho’s persona was a weird, prescient dissent to American masculinity, announcing his helplessness at the same time he is enacting absolute (unfit) rule, as we see here in a prolonged and hilarious segment in which he plays a cuckolded Napoleon.

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Seth Shelden is charming yet quietly troubling as Harpo, who was perhaps the only clown who every really knew how scary he could be, a queasy balance struck en-pointe by Shelden’s meta, masterly performance. The Marx character who of course has worn least well is the Italian-immigrant caricature Chico, but Robert Pinnock, long a virtuoso of luckless everymen, plays him with foibles and dignity that ring very true and drily uproarious. I was always intrigued yet seldom satisfied by Zeppo in the old movies; I found the real him to be played too bland and leading-mannish, when the point is that, in this misfit troupe, good-looking, well-adjusted Zeppo is the freak; Aristotle Stamat’s subtly grandstanding and euphorically-self-impressed take makes the play my favorite story of this character.

An expert ensemble of burlesque singer/dancers serve as the show’s Greek Chorus Girls; few have any spoken lines or vocal solos so this is almost a silent-movie role amidst the even more antique form of vaudeville, and two standouts are Melissa Roth, who shows a genius for pantomime (no small claim in a play starring Harpo) by projecting whole life stories of everyone from a flower-peddler to a courtroom bailiff through sheer posture and attitude, and Alexis Thomason, whose shenanigans radiate remarkable fearless joy yet focused presence, no uncommon, um, feet.

Trav S.D. himself gives a miniature master class as one of his trademark stentorian, flummoxed authority figures, and his direction is razor sharp and graciously tumultuous; the minimal set’s absence is never noticed, as the cast’s lavish costumes (by Juliann Kroboth), and lavish-er expressiveness, amidst painterly lighting (Tom Bibla) and precise musical scoring (Bibla; Sabrina Chap) put us in the movie Hollywood should’ve made 90 years ago but couldn’t have achieved ’til now.

The show at this point surely has a bountiful future, and it pays to look back to a past where anything was worth a try, and the enduring philosophy that reality can be improved on and creative possibility is what you say it is.

Off the Chart

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New EP, LIJE, iTunes, CDBaby, eMusic.com

If Fellini had made beach movies, Supermajor would have been their elegiac, enchanted house band. “Cemetery Eyes” is an anthem pouring out from and then somehow all around the dashboard of some convertible that went off a too-sharp curve on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1966 and never returned to Earth, picking up alien angel doo-wops and Eno buzzes from the ether and the future along with its irresistible elysian guitar jingle and synth fizz while it was in the air with no interference. “Your Drift Is a Drug” has that motorcycle-kickstart rhythm, recoiling on itself as it chews up distance, wrapped up in sensations torn away from the disappearing landscape. Happier yet still wiser, Supermajor are pop prophets and sibyls who haunt a collective hit parade without ever having had to die, as rock and roll never does, because they know that youth only passes from soul to soul. There is no more radio but there’s still ritual, and Adam Swiderski’s headlining songs are testaments of movie-star confidence and morality-play caution while Brooke Tarnoff’s and Sarah Engelke’s are séances of ’70s arena-diva sorrow and transcendence, “I See You Clearing” a prayer for hearts put back together from each others’ pieces and “Shotgun” the proto-punk hall of fame B-side. Everything converges for “A Little Piece of the Sun,” the kind of half-album-length epic that whole societies of counterculture would collect around. Supermajor makes the music of the flattened spheres, orbiting eternally on black tracks and then shooting you into the day each time the needle has to lift off.