Time Out of Mind

There’s an elegant graphic overlay on the cover of David Bowie’s current CD, a sticker that shares one word with the collection’s title; “Nothing has changed.” runs along the bottom, a ghostly slogan without a product, while the sticker (fixed perpendicularly to the title and intersecting at the “changed.”) promises “the Very Best of Bowie,” a concession to marketing he may have designed to be clawed off the minute you buy it.Nothing_Has_Changed

Qualms about commercialism notwithstanding, this is a very public album — though he starts off doing what he damn pleases (and I’m pleased too), with the brand-new “Sue (or, In a Season of Crime),” a soaringly melancholy soliloquy of a lover betrayed by his own blind eye set to a gorgeous grinding jazz symphony. On an album with a lot of them, the concept of the remix is pushed to new conceptual territories by the “single edit” you can hear on YouTube that makes it seem as if Sue died, and the 7-plus-minute version in this set, which makes it clear that Sue just left. Bowie’s always been as much about choices as changes, and we hear morphed versions of his most familiar songs here, which mirror the mutations he always does in concert.

But they won’t be so unfamiliar to many; these are typically the versions released to those who aren’t necessarily buying the albums they came from; radio singles, club mixes. So while alien to the ears of hardcore fans, this is music (re)made with some marketplace in mind. It’s just that Bowie realizes that marketplace is now more literal — more people will hear his songs on in-store mixes and TV ads than on what “radio” is left, and the punched-up, cut-down versions are a strange kind of backwards avant-gardism.

The directional is not just figurative — the definitive version of Nothing has changed. starts with his new composition and travels in reverse, over three disks, to the first song he ever released (before he was even named Bowie). His crowning statement, The Next Day (from just The Last Year at this writing) is too fresh to need reassessment, though it is summarized agreeably here. This is “The Very Best,” not The Very Lost; I guess he won’t open the vaults all the way until after he’s in one, but there are some revelations you won’t recognize, including several languorous, lovely songs from the never-released 2001 Toy album and stuff that only ever appeared as online premiums or limited-edition bonus plastic.

Nothing_Has_Changed_2CDHis best song of the Aughts, “Isn’t It Evening,” stays lost (on a solo album by longtime accomplice Earl Slick), but the overlooked backbeat to 9/11-era New York, “New Killer Star,” gets a much-deserved second hearing; the best songs from Heathen, which weren’t technically on Heathen, like “Safe” and “When the Boys Come Marching Home,” stay buried on CD B-sides but some of the actual album’s cream still rises (like the astonishing reclamation of Petula Clark-era britpop “Everyone Says ‘Hi’”). Heavily second-guessed interpretations of tracks from ‘hours…’ and Earthling show those songs’ strong construction and resistance to tampering; faux-experimental follies like 1. Outside and Buddha of Suburbia don’t take up more than their share of space; the first two of those warrant deeper reconsideration (Bowie’s late-1990s cyber-folk on ‘hours…’ and plastic-drum & base on Earthling were infectious and ingenious expressive journalism of a cultural era, and even 1. Outside’s deliberate hit-and-miss struck some gems, like the not-here “Thru’ These Architects Eyes”).

The 1980s, of course, can’t not outstay their welcome since they were infamously one of Bowie’s most prolific if least productive times; they take up Disk 2, after “Buddha” (1994) and the brilliant edge-disco of “Jump They Say” from the criminally overlooked Black Tie White Noise (1993) lead it off. This was a characteristically paradoxical period, highlighted by a handful of songs that stand with his best from albums that maybe shouldn’t have been made to begin with. Some of the vision is here (if, as we’ve gotten used to, snipped for old-time radio’s timeslots) — “Loving the Alien,” “Blue Jean,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love” — plus a lot of his adrift novelty singles and endless supply of movie themes (“Dancing in the Street,” “This Is Not America”), but not one-off resurrections like the exhilarating Cold War postmortem “Pretty Pink Rose” (maybe a rights issue with collaborator Adrian Belew?). “Underground” or “Magic Dance” are astonishing by their absence (especially since “Underground” is the rare example of a Bowie song that was much better in its single abbreviation) — how an artist of Bowie’s unerring cultural instincts (and, one presumes, sizable vanity) hasn’t noticed that everyone under 40 now views Labyrinth the way earlier generations of pop consumers saw The Wizard of Oz, I can’t figure out — unless my estimate of the vanity is
really off, and/or those songs can make a lot more money if he waits for the rumored movie sequel to be out.

But after all, while there’s a skim of his mid-career masterpiece Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), there’s not a sound from the brilliant Baal or the troubled Tin Machine, bookends of his expeditions to the experimental outlands at the beginning and end of his most commercial decade. And the museum-quality Berlin Trilogy gets one perfunctory hit apiece; the compilation’s elegant design has a priceless succession of double-portraits showing Bowie looking in mirrors throughout his many lives, and in his re-selected past as in his concert tours, he’s got many selves to choose between and at any given time some of his mirrors on the wall are not speaking to each other.

Bowie’s rarities phase in and out of available existence like Bigfoot sightings (the absent Tibet-benefit “Planet of Dreams,” anyone? The also-not-here “I Pray, Olé” from the limited-time Ryko Lodger reissue?). So even I’m not sure if the swooning romantic sax-driven Spiders from Mars studio-take of “All the Young Dudes” I know from a bootleg 45 I spent what should have been my subway-fare back home on as a teenager has ever shown up on an official release until now; in any case I’m happy to have it on this collection since even I don’t have a turntable in my car.Nothing_Has_Changed_2LP

The jumpy edits can get unnerving to those familiar with the full versions, but familiarity is something the artist has never been content with for long. It’s satisfying when some tracks are allowed to stretch out as nature and the 1970s intended (like “Wild Is the Wind”), or are grand and lean like his compact, self-contained epics of the glam era — “Oh! You Pretty Things” for instance, which is also beautifully drifted back into “Changes” in the one sonic overlap of the whole collection. The rest is isolated bursts of brilliance. The lengthiest compilation before now, Sound + Vision from the end of the 1980s, did a better job of tracing the currents of his thought, but it had a twenty-years-shorter canvas to consider; Nothing has changed. is less about his character as an artist than the ways and moments in which he has connected with a mass public.

Sometimes he’s met them more than halfway and many other times he’s taken them farther along than they could’ve imagined. His inclusion of exuberant but underdeveloped early entries like “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and exhibitions of his youthful aspiration vaulting far above his ability (“Silly Boy Blue”) shows that the model of his creativity is not the often-repeated “chameleon,” but chrysalis — he absorbs and generates ideas and re-emerges in a new form that can encompass the times and his reactions to them.

The aching, charming, bitchy, ambitious hits from Space Oddity through Station to Station (“Golden Years,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Drive-In Saturday,” “Life on Mars?” to put it backwards, and lots more) could surely benefit from context but of course need no introduction. Then there are some more missing glimpses of doors he didn’t go through — like “Man in the Middle,” the anti-romantic master-portrait of self-consumed celebrity that just prefigured Ziggy; and the deeply buried trippy fairytales of his artworld outfit Feathers (some of whose songs or riffs, like “I Pray, Olé” much later, were reprocessed into more well-known official releases). It’s understandable that he’d edit out tonal anomalies like the (at the time very successful) “Laughing Gnome,” but the omission of the very mature, heartbreaking “London Boys” must be his future self sweetly not showing how advanced he was how soon, ’cuz he thinks he’d blow our minds.

By the time you get to “Liza Jane” (Davie Jones & the King Bees, 1964) you see a promising young man you’re lucky to have met, on a journey that never goes in the same direction and is worth starting over each time.

The Reliable Impressionist

5e95bed4b5ccd196b9db9dcbf19e7766“The shoes must always be polished front and back…or people will know what sort of person you are.” This mantra of concealment, complete with quotation-marks, is one of the inner watchwords of a main character in Marguerite Van Cook’s graphic memoir The Late Child, a thought that we see exposed in classic comic-balloon but which reveals nothing of the woman’s own identity, a forgotten handbook maxim laid over whatever she might really be thinking.

Words are well-chosen and imperative in Van Cook’s reminiscence, but not paramount; this is comics, a visual medium in which to show is the way to tell, and the schism between the story people carry and the picture they feel compelled to paint is central to this phenomenal achievement of personal exploration and empathetic biography.

The woman keeping her eyes cast to her feet is Van Cook’s mother Hetty, called before a tribunal in post-WWII Britain to judge whether she is fit to keep and raise her daughter, born out of wedlock. Hetty is a survivor of the blitz, the grand atrocities and private tragedies and strangely vibrant togetherness of which Van Cook’s text describes in its terrifying and surreally everyday detail, while portraying the tenacious exterior and personal trauma of its witnesses — “It was a duty to keep oneself up,” the psychological narration says in one scene where Hetty is resetting her hair as she walks through a firebombed neighborhood; “Just because everything was a mess, there was no reason she should look a fright.” After making an intimidating show of their authority, the panel does let Hetty keep Marguerite; surface is all-important, but the grown-up Marguerite’s purpose is to reclaim the interior.

We see her young self walking past and playing in bombsites that stay piled where they fell decades after the war; excavation is no small task. And we walk in many shoes that her remarkable emotional insight inhabits. A harrowing encounter with a would-be child molester is told half from his perspective, a marvel of empathy which also emphasizes the detachment from such a memory, and even identification with the predator, that survivors of such ordeals can experience. Van Cook, who painted over the astonishing ink drawings of artist James Romberger throughout, believes that much comic coloring forms a wall of solidity that cancels out the illusionism of drawing and pushes the reader out of the narrative; her skill in shifting the perspective of the book’s narrators — from her mom to herself to criminals and magistrates and even occasional birds and beasts who are in the landscape of semi-civilized humanity — keeps the reader viewing the story from a vantage point within it, and her coloring keeps all surfaces active and transparent, superbly defined in their spatial relationships and psychological keys, but expressive of the ephemerality of true sight and lived sensation.

Romberger’s style is a wonder of optical and dramatic economy, reminiscent of illustration in the leading modes of the mid-20th-century period the book portrays — loose and sketchy to convey the forward velocity and succinct sophistication of the West’s self-image, charming in its simplicity and assured in its catalogue of abbreviated emotions, encyclopedic in its observation of the abundant urban and country environments while ambitious in its formal experimentation and interpretive shadings. This book is an intimate epic of what was missed in one’s own family and personal memory, and Romberger has a sharp instinct for what to leave out — on a trip to the countryside, young Marguerite is shown walking into a monumentally framed rural scene on a trail that tracks into it from an otherwise empty column of white with some type; this sudden sensory overflow is mirror-imaged in some moments of the confrontation with the sexual predator, in which color and life abruptly drain out entirely; Romberger’s decisive black line allows Van Cook to play these keys perfectly.

Collaborators in art and partners in life, Van Cook and Romberger are conscious of where words can intrude rather than explain; the book orchestrates brilliant moments of the comic form’s components colliding, as when an intonation from a jurist overlays and utterly obscures Hetty’s face. Like the lurching historical span it takes place in, the book leaps forward between several stories of Hetty’s youth and Marguerite’s. Evolving from showing to telling, from English wartime hesitance to the self-revelation of a revolutionary era, Van Cook & Romberger depict, early on, a lovely painting that Hetty’s first husband had made of their garden (sent to her in lieu of censored battlefield correspondence); much later, we are not looking at but in the middle of such a feast of natural bounty, as Van Cook describes an endless continental meal on a teenage vacation to stay with friends in France. This is conjured in the lapidary language Van Cook’s poetic sense practices throughout, though as it draws on and on, it seems to morph into a satire of Proustian particularity. Young Marguerite and a girlfriend end up walking off the excessive feast and collapsing in a country church, hilariously heedless of any salvation, and return to the gathering joyously, but the undertow of much less happy concerns is never absent — not only in a parallel storyline of abandoned innocence that I won’t give away here, but also in the simple fact, as hard for us to remember at first as it may have been for Marguerite to notice, that she is only having all this fun with someone else’s family, in someone else’s world.

The undertow metaphor is not random; we see oceanic imagery from the start of the book onward, in the coastal town the characters originally inhabit, to the beaches Marguerite loves in both Britain and France, to a scene of lyrical horror when Hetty is waiting in the legal office and imagines the room filling up with water; Van Cook supplies the image of social suffocation, and Romberger portrays it with surf crashing against this strong, scared woman, an island of integrity and uncertain fortune, like the forgotten wartime legend of the nation that is now failing her.

Van Cook is a master of writing in displaced time, inhabiting the limited perspective of a moment in her life with utter vivid conviction while observing its meaning with the insight of contemporary context. Witnessing but not quite comprehending the student riots of France in 1968 and judging them unromantic, “we were the first to understand the profundity and meaning of pure love,” she writes of her and her teenage French best friend with the obliviousness of youthful discovery; not much later, in rejecting the manicured, arm’s-length world of the friend’s upscale parents, she says “we launched our senses out of childhood and demanded the right to touch,” a poet’s perspective on corners being turned that one doesn’t see the direction of at the time.

Van Cook’s most meaningful rebellions, as musical provocateur and artworld pioneer and literary prophet and patron of individuality (and Romberger’s blazing of paths in populist media and his artistic and scholarly role as a voice of political justice and cultural dignity) would come years after that, and The Late Child is a testament of the valued lives and essential insights that have a right to the years it will take for their time to come.

http://margueritevancook.com/       http://jamesromberger.com/       http://www.fantagraphics.com/

First draft-heap of history: Billy Joel

[Like the abyss, you can look over the transom and sometimes the transom throws back. From time to time this space will feature unsolicited-and-stayed-that-way submissions I made that would otherwise be lost to history. My frequent outlet, HiLobrow.com, features capsule profiles of cultural figures that debut on their birthday, but not this one, though I’ve done a lot. So, in this case, no waiting ‘til May 9; happy advance birthday, ya bald bastard!]220px-Billy_Joel_Shankbone_NYC_2009

Highbrow gatekeepers like to indulge in the exercise of deciding whether things that everyone has loved were indeed worthwhile. But BILLY JOEL (born 1949) resists “reassessment” ’cuz the facts of the case have always been right there to take or leave. A true intellectual and a genuine working stiff; a lot of inescapable pop static and just as much stubbornly brilliant songcraft. He himself spent too much time wondering who he should please — ersatz punk and avant-garde like the Glass Houses album and the “Pressure” single; pandering hit-fodder like “Baby Grand” — but he’s at his best when he thinks just enough and feels without heed, from exhilarating throwaways like “Get It Right the First Time” (which he hates) to somber marathons like “The Night Is Still Young” and pop-suites like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (which everybody loves, or at least has no good reason not to).

It’s hard when you get known by so many that you have to be all things to all people, but Joel resists being one thing, and if that means the cerebral troubadour and experimental tin-pan-alley prodigy he was through The Stranger mostly shows up for cameos among the dependable or trendy gold records — as that guy did with the grand cabaret bubblegum of “Don’t Ask Me Why,” the catchy insurrection of “Allentown,” the deep suburban blues of “This Is the Time” or the tense cast-against-type post-human synth-balladry of “Blonde Over Blue” or the lovely meta-kitsch of “All My Life”’s Bennett impression or the bloodcurdling chart-suicide of “Christmas in Fallujah” — then some of the people have all gotten what they want.

Joel did an album of instrumentals played by a formal concert pianist as his last full-length release to date, but from the start more than anyone he’s a pioneer of not just “classic” rock but classical — if the pure, percussive piano had been the basic unit of pop rather than the guitar, it would all play like this, and if the rockstars of 18th-century concert halls had kept their hold on what hit music sounds like, it would sound like him. He’s said to be working on an instrumental (maybe vocal?) cycle based on the long story of his native Long Island, and I hope this refection on history forms a musical future for him. Otherwise, unlike other icons who plow along with endless anonymous albums, Joel keeps his peace, just popping up in concert with the reliable songbook he won’t sully (and adds to when he actually feels like it). They compete with their past; he let his past win, and so he’s happy, and so he’s young.


Good Soldiers


I remember my mom pulling a knife on my dad at least twice; it was how you signified displeasure during the Vietnam era, kitchen-table saber-rattling. This was good old-school close combat, like the household and neighborhood chair- and baseball-bat-fights my folks themselves remembered growing up with, in an era before differences were worked out coldly from half a world away by pushing a button, or could be forgotten with the click of a TV remote. Mom and Dad took me to my only anti-Vietnam War protest, at age 5, but they were from World War II, almost the grandparent age of most kids I knew, so there was a whole era of failed social experiments (open marriages! shuttle custody! family group therapy!) that I missed out on. I need to watch movies like The Ice Storm to learn about that phase of my own lifetime, and Julia Lee Barclay-Morton’s My First Autograce Homeography (1973-1974) is that kind of reconstruction.

History remixes itself in Barclay-Morton’s text and director Ian W. Hill’s ingeniously abstract staging, with a chess-piece ensemble of elders and juniors and those left in-between enacting half-recalled family traumas and fractures. We know that Heather (a master painting of personality and prismatic emotional reaction by Stephanie Willing) is subject to the whims of warring parents and inadequate authority figures as she stands in (and leaps, and staggers) for the author as a tween-ish girl. The knives come out, often literally and from abusive surrogate parent Mrs. Levine (a seismic psychological guignol, outsized but never overboard, from Alyssa Simon), as real-mom and “new new dad” (two pillars of attractive remoteness, Olivia Baseman and Derrick Peterson) give self-justifying monologues, “Son of Levine” (an endearingly weird, suitably Bud Cort-esque John Amir) provides some companionship and “The Authority” (David Arthur Bachrach as an unspecified patriarch/preacher in an arabesque of flummoxed faith and self-importance) insubstantially weighs in.

Barclay-Morton’s libretto is a shreddered poetic confetti, its insightful nonsequiturs like fragmentary phrases of a language you didn’t speak at the time, as all childhood relations with grownups are; the narrative is a gauze of memory, unraveling one spiral at a time, as adult retrospect of these same events always is.

Meaning coalesces like an occasional kaleidoscope convergence, nearing and then pulling away from the heart of the matter; every crescendo in Hill’s soundtrack is abruptly cut off, like tics suppressed and revelations hurriedly submerged. Willing’s Heather is a spun-off musicbox figure careening through this like a confused time-traveler to her own present; the ensemble as a whole have the look of off-register film images willfully overlapped or indifferently synched.

These mechanical reference points place the human beings into Hill’s clockwork of old ad-jingle and pop-hit and news-report sound and video cues (puppetmastered with eerie instinct by Berit Johnson), an unbidden memory running itself and making everyone’s own experience feel observed rather than lived in, a ghost even the first time.

Hill’s powers of suggestion in stagecraft and palpable texture in deployment of light reach their latest apex here, with bleaching spotlighting to convert tangible figures to fading film images, nervous-breakdown strobes to prolong physical conflicts, boxes of magic brightness to convey wonders kept beyond our sight.

Earlier in the play, New New Dad is often seen in a fatigue jacket to signify the constant cloak of the Vietnam War; much later, Heather is seen posing in the same jacket, accessorized with machine gun, to convey the revolutionary chic of ’70s homegrown guerrilla Patty Hearst. The enemy has gone from foreign to domestic, in more than one sense; the war, as news-anchors used to tell us, was “in our living room” and then the troops came home; and these days, we bring guns to a knife-fight.

At the end, in a haze of smoke, the cast cuts the fog with light shining from film projectors that have nothing in them, searchlights sweeping for just the sight of their own glow, and a makeshift pair of symbolic headlights, formed from clip lamps hanging at random angles, glare into the audience, two eyes blinding and pushing away your sight. Heather has, after all, long outlived the story, and not every light is seen by staring straight at it, and there’s something to wake up to when you close your eyes.

The show runs through November 22, 2014 at The Brick in Brooklyn, USA; http://tinyurl.com/mcjb8xz  

Hard Return: Incubus

incubrace better

[From time to time I’ll report my fresh impressions of a cult classic I’m the last to know about — just in case I’m the first-to-last.]

The key to Incubus is not story, but sound. Filmed in 1965 and lost for three decades afterword, it lingered in most people’s minds like a half-remembered melody. The film unfolds like a dream even when you’re seeing it, since it’s spoken in a language that almost nobody in the world shares — the utopian, syncretic creation Esperanto, once meant to be a universal language but soon almost extinct. This makes the film a kind of music rather than a spoken narrative, and music itself plays a dominant part.

Incubus exists in the interstice of two towering sci-fi milestones; The Outer Limits, whose creator, Leslie Stevens, directed and wrote this movie the year after the first version of the show went off the air, and Star Trek, whose leading man William Shatner stars in this movie one year before his most famous role.

Outer Limits’ first-season composer Dominic Frontiere also scores Incubus, and his hypnotic, mournful music is instantly recognizable while being fundamentally divergent form his work on the iconic science-fiction franchise. For Incubus is not science-fiction but folkloric horror.

Shot in California but thrown into a spacetime crossroads of classic village and unspecific historical period by its ornate, fantasy language, Spanish Colonial architecture and minimally archaic costumery, Incubus is a fable that could happen at any time — and only in the human psyche. Shatner is Marc, a pure-spirited soldier back from some unspecific conflict, convalescing in the countryside with his saintly sister. It’s a village with a supposed fountain of youth, which attracts venal and vain seekers, who are prayed on by local succubi who want to recruit some low-hanging fruit for Satan.

Marc of course is incorruptible, which complicates the plans of the demoness Kia (Allyson Ames), who intends to claim him for Hell. As the plot progresses she realizes she would rather claim him for herself, and he in turn tries to recruit her to the embrace of god. It’s an exceedingly weird-in-a-maybe-unintentional-way movie, with a coven of predatory females and a very maternal male lead.

The passive are sacrificed — including Marc’s sister, who is just automatically good rather than a resister of temptation like him, and, on the other side, the Incubus of the title, a personified force of hell who, by serving as a mere pawn no matter how powerful he is, does not have the moral superiority of having chosen what he does.

At one point Marc’s soul seems forfeit because he has succumbed to vengefulness in stabbing the Incubus for killing his sister; but what matters is what’s in his heart, not what he does circumstantially — and the same goes for the succubus who would be his love, whom the Incubus, through the discreet means of 1960s suggestion and perilously low budgets, tries to silence by turning himself into a humanoid goat and sexually assaulting her (one of the more appallingly misogynist scenes in film history, if you can stop laughing), but who loses when Kia tells him her heart belongs to god. Marc, himself lying almost killed by the Incubus just inside the village church, reaches out for the succubus’ hand and the monster evaporates — action, not just blind-faith acceptance, has won the day and eternity.

Frontiere’s music is a constant presence, and where he relied on eerie limpid delays and whistling electronic winds in Outer Limits, the harp predominates here; the sound of Outer Limits was mournfully technological while in Incubus it is memorially ancient. The earlier show was about a gleaming, godless future, while the movie is about a textured, god-full infinity. Treated as a legendary midnight movie or DVD-only oddity, Incubus got Stevens a kind of immortality though not the kind he expected, and it forges deliriously, determinedly ahead into an endless past.             

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.”


KK SLY hi-res cover

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.