Wordburglar’s Welcome to Cobra Island offers silliness, symmetry and the redemption of nostalgia

By Monte Williams

In April 2010 I hastily gathered the opening and closing lyrics from a bunch of songs and albums and the first and final sentences from a number of novels, and then I studied the results  for patterns, hidden meanings and whatever else I could find.

Tonight I conducted the same unlikely exercise on the first CD I’ve bought in a decade, and the deceptive, easily disregarded result inspired me to pen this, only the third essay I’ve composed in twelve months.

 

Welcome to Cobra Island…

Shoulda known when I arrived, I wasn’t ever leaving here.

 

This satisfying completeness is no accident; not one to repeat himself otherwise—“A Letter from Snake Eyes” parts 1-3 notwithstanding—rapper Wordburglar memorably drops a particular phrase twice on his latest album, first in the title track, which opens Welcome to Cobra Island, and again in “Chuckles (The Last Laugh)”, which draws it to a rousing close. In the former, a manic recruiter boasts that the iconic terrorist organization lays claim to “five square miles of territory and airspace”, while in the latter, a once-obscure and unsung Joe named Chuckles narrates his suicide mission from a nuclear sub off the titular island’s coast, where he plans to “lay waste” to “five square miles of reptiles and reprobates”.

With the possible but complicated exception of System of a Down’s Mezmerize and Hypnotize (released six months apart in 2005), there hasn’t been symmetry like this in an album since Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in 1979. (Fittingly, The Wall likewise includes a three-part song. But then, George Michael’s Faith offers three parts of “I Want Your Sex”, so perhaps this isn’t as significant as I might like to think).

And this is as good a place as any to comment on the role of nostalgia in one’s appreciation and criticism of a G.I. Joe-themed rap album. I feel considerable affection for Sunbow’s G.I. Joe A Real American Hero cartoon from the 1980s, but I cannot sit through a full episode today, and I am wary of anyone who claims that cartoons from thirty years ago are superior to the cartoons of today. I do not define a masterpiece as “something fondly remembered”, and when I discovered that someone calling himself Wordburglar had created a rap album about G.I. Joe characters, I winced and rolled my eyes.

In other words, I had no intention whatsoever of giving any of these songs the benefit of the doubt.

Admittedly, the first single, “Rap Viper”, would not likely have won me over without the benefit of nostalgia; no one but an unabashed G.I. Joe fan could respond with delighted giggles and a stunned cry of “Ho, shit!” to a verse as absurd as “Dope serving like Headman in a drugstore / Once got busy in the back of a Buzz Boar”.

But while that’s the lyric that persuaded me to begrudgingly pay proper attention to Wordburglar, it’s the aforementioned “Chuckles (The Last Laugh)” that led me to realize he’s a damn good writer and rapper.

Like Cobra Commander (see “Venomous Ideology”), Chuckles arguably receives his definitive portrait on this album. “The Last Laugh” is so persuasive, its brushstrokes so unexpectedly menacing and moving, the listener has no choice but to abandon the pretense that Wordburglar is a mere novelty act. It took a half-dozen listens for me to realize something surprising: the song isn’t funny. Nor is it cute. It’s a legitimately sad, disturbing, thrilling story.

 

In my line of work, it’s hard not to cast aspersions

Just keep telling yourself you’re not a bad person

 

The chorus, perhaps the only component of the song that qualifies as light or buoyant, is ridiculously infectious:

 

Quick wit and a fast tongue, my dad’s son

Only weaknesses are women and bad puns

Call me Chuckles, never left a job half-done

Go ahead and laugh, I’ll be sure I get the last one

 

While Wordburglar’s talent transcends the limited scope of the album’s content to become, if not universal, at least moderately accessible to any open-minded listener unfamiliar with G.I. Joe, a Joe fan will hardly know what to do with himself at first listen. Whether rapping about Destro, Zartan or that strange insect-vegetable cult, Cobra-La, Wordburglar manages to evoke a uniquely deep breed of nostalgia. Whereas most of the supposed nostalgia in today’s pop cultural landscape is of that sad, shallow, Family Guy variety whereby an arbitrary mascot from the 1980s will arrive in a scene and the viewer is expected to cheer simply because he recognizes the Kool-Aid Man or Lion-O of the Thundercats, Wordburglar samples and distorts and reshapes music from the vintage G.I. Joe cartoon to stunning effect. Along the way, he weaves characters and vehicles and storylines from the property’s ’80s heyday with lesser icons from the brand’s meandering, waning ’90s efforts, and even some contemporary notables; the “Rap Viper” assures us that he is “dirtier than Shadow Tracker’s dreadlocks”, while Low-Light mentions his recruitment to the Joe team in ’86, but also his dinosaur-hunting tenure in the early 1990s, a time most Joe fans would prefer to forget.

Still, nostalgia is an insidious, seductive force which frequently blinds us and fools us; perhaps I overestimate Welcome to Cobra Island‘s potential appeal to the average listener. (Truly, not every song can be “I Want Your Sex”). Whatever the case, last time I studied the opening and closing words of songs, I wrote, of my approach to pop culture, “I am a busy, bored, irritable man, so I require you to present me with a bold, daring experience, and it had best grab me right from the start.”

Welcome to Cobra Island was only intended to serve as a convenient distraction on my iPod while I washed the dishes. Instead, it grabbed me.

Right from the start.

My Pappy always said, “Son, should you decide to conduct a comparative analysis of the lyrics of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, you would do well to narrow your focus of study to each band’s treatment of the subject of daughters and their fathers.”

Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” is as earnest and self-serious as most any other Pearl Jam song (my friend Jeremiah Death has offered the crude but persuasive suggestion that everything Eddie Vedder said and wrote in the 1990s represents nothing more than an effort to “score some of that Lilith Fair pussy”); its tepid chorus includes the sanctimonious admonishment, “Don’t call me daughter, not fit to”, although to be fair, “She holds the hand that holds her down” is almost elegant by Pearl Jam standards.

Nirvana’s take is more interesting. “Been a Son” is the sad tale of a father who wishes he’d had a son rather than a daughter. It’s arguably every bit as heavy-handed as “Daughter”–if nothing else, Nirvana’s title is more intriguing and imaginative–but it’s far less pandering, not least because Nirvana opts to write from the perspective of the father, who offers such disappointed criticisms as “She should have made her mama proud” and “She should have had more time to spend” and, most alarming and least subtle of all, “She should have died when she was born”.

But then, it’s hardly surprising that the stunted narcissist who scribbled “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” and then blew his brains out when his kid was two would write convincingly from the perspective of a shitty father; I’d rather listen to Cobain, but when it comes to dads, surely Vedder’s better.

 

See also:

Queensryche’s “Bridge” (You’re begging me for a brand new start  /  Trying to mend a bridge that’s been blown apart  /  But you know… You never built it, Dad”); Jane’s Addiction’s “Had a Dad” (“I walked around, even tried to call  /  Got that funny feeling, he’s not there at all”); Everclear’s “Father of Mine” (“My Daddy gave me a name  /  Then he walked away”); Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (“When you comin’ home, Dad?  /  I don’t know when”); Austin Powers’s “Daddy Wasn’t There” (“When I was first baptized  /  When I was criticized  /  When I was ostracized  /  When I was Jazzercized  /  Steak and kidney pies  /  When I was modernized  /  When I was circumcised  /  Daddy wasn’t there”).

Back in late January, I recorded here at Autobotic Asphyxiation a curious coincidence: I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with one group of students and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies with another group of students, and almost on the same day I read the following passages:

 

Lord of the Flies:

Ralph turned to the chief’s seat. They had never had an assembly as late before. That was why the place looked so different. Normally the underside of the green roof was lit by a tangle of golden reflections, and their faces were lit upside down—like, thought Ralph, when you hold an electric torch in your hands. But now the sun was slanting in at one side, so that the shadows were where they ought to be.

Again he fell into that strange mood of speculation that was so foreign to him. If faces were different when lit from above or below—what was a face? What was anything?

 

The Road:

Bye and bye they came to a set of tracks cooked into the tar. They just suddenly appeared. He squatted and studied them. Someone had come out of the woods in the night and continued down the melted roadway.

Who is it? said the boy.

I dont know. Who is anybody?

 

 

“What was anything?”  “Who is anybody?”  It’s a meaningless coincidence, surely, but it’s also a rather arresting echo.

I’ve since found others.

Less alarming though still notable are these wee slices of duel misogyny from the narrators of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Stephen King’s 11/22/63: “How did the world come to be run by power-mad old women?” and “Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand”, respectively. Interesting, but barely perceptible unless one happens to have read the two novels one after the other.

But dig this: I bought the novelization of Tim Burton’s Batman a couple months ago as a gag gift for my friend Kit, and while I had planned to read it for the hell of it, I gave up after a few painful pages. All I took from those pages was an amused chuckle at the expense of author Craig Shaw Gardner; the novelization’s opening scene details the mugging of a hapless Gotham couple and their young son, whom Gardner feels compelled to identify as “little Jimmy”. Nine times, this happens. Never merely Jimmy. Always little Jimmy.

But whatever, right? It’s strange, and more than a little embarrassing, but it’s also harmless and forgettable.

But the book I chose to read after giving up on Batman was a Bill Bryson anthology called I’m A Stranger Here Myself, and in the introduction Bryson writes, “And a special thanks to little Jimmy, wherever he may be.”

Um…?

Yesterday, meanwhile, I finished reading Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel, which is perhaps the most defiantly weird novel I have ever read from a female author. One of the protagonists is a dog named after Lorelei, a figure from some German myth I had never heard of. Here is a creepy, beautiful excerpt:

 

Had I known but yesterday what I know today

I’d have taken out your two grey eyes and put in eyes of clay.

And had I known but yesterday you’d be no more my own

I’d have taken out your heart of flesh and put in one of stone.

 

Today, I read Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, wherein Zuckerman yearns for his ex-wife, Laura. His nickname for her, which would have meant  nothing to me just two days ago: Lorelei.

Meanwhile, there is a professional wrestler named R-Truth who semi-recently endured an inexplicable bit of character development: having been for years a happy-go-lucky rapper, he suddenly became volatile and paranoid. And R-Truth has a tormentor. An invisible antagonist weaving vast conspiracies against R-Truth. The invisible villain’s name?

Little. Jimmy.

These are the kinds of meaningless yet menacing coincidences that encourage wild fits of paranoia in the anxious, weary mind.

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A Love Letter to Alex Ross

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; February 25, 2008

 

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Several years ago, during my brief junior high school teaching gig in California, I taught an endearingly quirky and eccentric eighth grader who was a big old Nirvana nerd. Her enthusiasm for a movement (or perhaps a mere moment) that preceded her birth brought to mind my own junior high allegiance to all things Jim Morrison and Jello Biafra. While I eventually managed to see Misfits founder Glenn Danzig in concert, and later the Ramones, Social Distortion, Pink Floyd, Motorhead and a number of other technically before-my-time performers, Jim Morrison was long-dead by the early 1990s, and Biafra had long-since disbanded the Dead Kennedys—who have since successfully sued their former frontman for refusing to sell their seminal hit “Holiday In Cambodia” to Levi’s for a Dockers commercial; they celebrated their newfound ownership of the Dead Kennedys catalog by offering the same track to the Guitar Hero video game franchise. Hardcore!

Since I couldn’t buy a ticket to see Biafra or Morrison live, they managed to retain some of their mysterious aura. They remained elusive somehow, always just beyond my reach, and all the more intriguing for it.

Meanwhile, in 1993, while I was obsessing over The Wall’s liner notes and scribbling punk rock logos in the margins of my high school notebooks, a twenty-three-year-old Flash Gordon fan by the name of Alex Ross contributed a painted cover to a novelization of a popular comic book about the death of Superman. Just three years later, Alex Ross was already a comic book legend.

 

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Alex Ross’s work in such titles as Marvels and Kingdom Come lent an epic, nostalgic legitimacy to even the most absurd relics from the Marvel and DC archives; in an industry largely consumed by nostalgia, the appeal of an artist with a vision as loving and earnest as Alex Ross is obvious. However, my own reasons for worshipping at the altar of Alex Ross are perhaps a bit more obscure. Though his paintings are often compared to those of Americana icon and Saturday Evening Post mainstay Norman Rockwell, and while they are nearly as accessible as Rockwell’s, what draws me again and again to the works of Alex Ross is the same elusive, intangible, before-my-time, just-out-of-reach aura of mystery that pervades live recordings of Black Flag or Buddy Holly.

While your typical Alex Ross painting is as American as Coca-Cola or L. Frank Baum, his obsession is not merely with comic book big guns like Batman and Fantastic Four, but also the more obscure icons of the comic book industry’s Golden and Silver Ages. Having never discovered comics until my twenties, I am not familiar with a good majority of characters in a given Alex Ross comic or postcard or collector’s plate, and I find it difficult to overlook the inherent cheesiness of the comics such characters starred in so many decades ago, and so strangers they must remain.

But not quite.

 
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While aesthetic similarities between the works of Ross and Rockwell have been noted repeatedly, what’s seldom if ever addressed is that Ross’s work also boasts the same startling emotional impact as Rockwell’s. I may know dick-all about Red Tornado or Captain Marvel, but the effect of an Alex Ross portrait is to make me feel as if I remember such characters with a fondness usually reserved for one’s childhood bedroom or hometown movie theater.

I wasn’t there to see segregation end in the schools, but Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” makes me remember it as if I had been. Likewise, I never read about the Justice League of America’s battle with Starro the intergalactic starfish—yes—but the appeal of Ross’s depiction of said battle is that it makes me feel that I might have been there, that it might indeed have taken place the same day those U.S. Marshals escorted a young Ruby Bridges to school.

 

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That’s the appeal; the madness of Ross’s painting is that it makes a scene involving a fight between spandex-clad do-gooders and spacefaring marine life seem somehow almost as resonant as the end of segregation. When a painting (or a song or a comic or a film) makes you yearn to return to a time or place you’ve never been, it’s no longer mere nostalgia, but rather some new and subtly unsettling breed of propaganda.

No single artist’s aesthetic, with the possible exception of Bruce Timm’s, has dominated the superhero genre over recent decades like that of Alex Ross. Further, like Norman Rockwell, there is something uniquely American about the works of Alex Ross. Perhaps it’s simply that Ross’s own obsessive nostalgia is primarily for Americana fixture Superman, particularly from his “Truth, Justice and the American Way” heyday. Or perhaps it is because the comic book medium, itself an American original, has for years now endeavored to incorporate (or outright mimic) the Japanese manga aesthetic, whereas Ross keeps his vision stubbornly, defiantly consistent, bucking all trends in favor of dutifully following his Rockell/Superman muse.

Are Ross’s paintings too stilted or lifeless, as some have suggested? Is his work too accessible, too consistently non-threatening? Some respond to a Ross painting like he’s the savior of a medium that doesn’t deserve him, while others suggest he’s a cookie-cutter hack in the vein of Thomas Kincade. When I see an Alex Ross painting, I respond with all the detached objectivity my beloved eighth grade student brought to her study of Kurt Cobain. When I explore Ross’s latest rendering of the absurd pulp gods of the twentieth century striking pompous poses and engaging in fisticuffs, I am reduced to monosyllabic awe.

 

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Deconstructing Disney: Aladdin‘s Jasmine

By Monte Williams

 

It is difficult to find in Disney’s Aladdin a single character with whom to sympathize.  There had never been a character like the genie in an animated Disney film before, but look past the novelty of the clever animation and all that’s left is another spastic Robin Williams performance, intermittently charming but mostly grating. The title character, meanwhile, is such a chronic, unrepentant liar that the film would collapse without the benefit of his dishonesty; the narrative framework is so dependent on Aladdin’s reliable, cowardly, selfish need to lie to Jasmine that the movie would boast a running time of fifteen minutes if the thieving little phony ever told the truth.

 

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(Image appears courtesy of energyontherocks at Tumblr)

Not that we feel particularly offended on her behalf; Jasmine’s disregard for political rank and social hierarchy and wealthy posturing might perhaps be admirable if not for two things. First, it is simply too easy for a wealthy person to affect an enlightened distaste for money—and Jasmine, let us remember, is not merely a wealthy young woman; as the Sultan’s daughter she is literally the richest and most powerful woman in her society. So while it is amusing to watch as she deflates the fragile egos of her many pompous suitors, her airy disdain for their finery is no less pretentious than their crass material boastfulness. Second, whenever Jasmine rolls her eyes and runs off to her (vast) bedroom to pout, she strikes the viewer not as a woman who has come to understand that money isn’t everything, but rather as a spoiled, petulant brat for whom no one is good enough.

Aladdin promises to show Jasmine “a whole new world”, but whereas Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle yearns for “adventure in the great, wide somewhere” and “an end to this provincial life”, Jasmine just wants to go slumming. Indeed, if he wasn’t consumed with his overpowering need to lie, Aladdin might recognize that “A Whole New World” is wasted on Jasmine; more fitting, certainly, to serenade her with Pulp’s “Common People”:

 

 

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do what common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do

 

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The narrator of “Common People” explains to a rich poseur that she will never truly understand his lifestyle, for even when she’s “in bed at night, watching roaches climb the wall, if you call your dad he could stop it all”. Likewise, Jasmine runs away from home (which is to say she flees the palace) to live a life of “freedom”, but as soon as she and her street rat are cornered by guards with swords, she drops all pretense and demands their release “by order of the Princess”.  Also, she is unimpressed with Aladdin’s “Prince Ali” schtick, but she is intrigued despite herself when he shares with her his flying carpet; in other words, Jasmine is a rich, beautiful young woman who doesn’t care about a dude who likes her until she discovers he has a nice car.

 

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Near the end of the film, when all appears lost, Jasmine uses her hips and eyelashes to distract the gullible Jafar, which is notable mostly because she uses the same expression to seduce the villain and Aladdin.

 

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The most irksome aspect of this moody, manipulative and defiantly unlikable Disney Princess is that she and her beau have ruined my favorite television series; repeated exposure to the tiresome adventures of Aladdin and Jasmine has forced me to recognize that Six Feet Under is not as original as I thought; all Alan Ball “created” was a live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin, inexplicably set in a funeral home.

 

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The self in the lyrics of Metallica

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; May 6, 2009

Back in the mid-‘90s, Spin Magazine produced a truncated, snarky list of the greatest bands in heavy metal history. Eager to distinguish themselves from Circus, Rip and Hit Parader, Spin had always been rather smug in their scarce coverage of heavy metal, and so I studied their dubious list just long enough to note that those condescending hipsters at least had the sense to recognize Iron Maiden. Fifteen years later, Google doesn’t care to retrieve Spin’s bygone document for me, but I recall that the list’s author described Iron Maiden as pretentious, but that he also conceded that it was precisely because they aimed so high that Iron Maiden knew greater creative triumph than their peers.

The same is also true of Metallica. While their catalogue is spectacularly uneven, no one can deny that Metallica has long been a uniquely ambitious standout in the largely humble, lowbrow world of heavy metal; while Ozzy was crooning corny werewolf anthems and Van Halen was utilizing lame synthesizers to urge the youth of America to “Jump”, Metallica was crafting the classic Ride the Lightning, featuring songs about suicide and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Admittedly, Metallica’s themes are not always original, but even when the subject is a familiar one, Metallica’s approach is reliably, abnormally intelligent and intriguing. A telling example is the title track to the divisive St. Anger. Where Slayer’s “Payback” attempts to convey rage by screaming tired one-liners from ‘80s action movies—“Payback’s a bitch, motherfucker!”—“St. Anger” is clearly the product of men who have legitimately struggled with rage, and who therefore needn’t glamorize it or endorse it because they know that anger is painful and destructive rather than fun and sexy. Compare: Slayer shouts, “I’m going to tear your fucking eyes out, rip your fucking flesh off”, while Metallica pleads “I want my anger to be healthy” and “It’s hard to see clear / Is it me? Is it fear?”

Recently, while studying Metallica’s lyrics, I noticed something of a fascinating trend which dates back to the band’s debut album, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All (admittedly not the subtlest of titles, but hey, they were young): James Hetfield repeatedly directs accusations at some mysterious “you”, only to concede by song’s end that he is talking to himself. We all compartmentalize our personalities and project our faults onto others, but while Metallica have never managed to address this phenomenon as elegantly as, say, Mad Men (“A man is whatever room he is in”), it is surprising what they are able to convey with just a few words. With their latest album, Death Magnetic, Metallica concluded the nearly twenty-year-old “Unforgiven” trilogy with “The Unforgiven III”, wherein Hetfield sings, “How can I be lost in remembrance I relive? And how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive?” This serves as a gentle coda to 1991’s “The Unforgiven”: “Never free, never me… The old man then prepares to die regretfully / That old man here is me”.

In “Frayed Ends of Sanity”, a highlight of 1988’s menacing and aggressive …And Justice for All, Hetfield repeatedly growls the following chorus: “Growing conspiracy / Everyone’s after me / Frayed ends of sanity / Hear them calling”. The final refrain, however, subtly changes the lyric: “Growing conspiracy / Myself is after me”. (For a much funnier take on this theme, see Megadeth’s “Sweating Bullets” video, arguably the most unintentionally hilarious thing you’ll find on the internet.) Even in Metallica’s corny early years, this fascination with identity was evident. Behold this unlikely lyric from the otherwise cliché “Jump in the Fire”: “Living your life as me / I am you, you see… Come home where you belong”.

What I find most intriguing about this lyrical pattern that lingers throughout the band’s entire career is that it arguably casts doubt on the meaning of all Metallica songs. Consider 1988’s “Eye of the Beholder”, with its alternating challenges: “Do You See What I See…? Do You Hear What I Hear…? Do You Feel What I Feel?” Or St. Anger’s “Frantic”: “Do I have the strength to know how I’ll go? Can I find it inside to deal with what I shouldn’t know?”

With “Sad But True”, from 1991’s Metallica, the band took what had been merely an odd (if also stubborn) songwriting quirk and turned it into a full-blown mission statement. “Sad But True” is not Metallica’s greatest song, but it is the purest, clearest, more overt example of the band’s strange “projecting” theme:

I’m your life

I’m the one who takes you there…

You’re my mask

You’re my cover, my shelter…

I’m your life

I’m the one who took you there

…and I no longer care

I’m your truth, telling lies

I’m your reasoned alibis

I’m inside, open your eyes:
I’m you.

I spent a decade angrily dismissing Metallica as sellouts, and most everyone agrees that the band opted to compromise or even abandon their hardcore roots in the name of commercial viability, though as I age I tend to be a bit more forgiving about such decisions. What pulled me back into the fandom was what I mentioned before: Metallica’s lyrics convey real, often painful struggles. (While I have always considered “Until It Sleeps” to be a low point in the band’s career, I defy any other metal band to top its greatest lyric: “The pain still hates me / So hold me until it sleeps”.) Metallica would never have crafted anything as resonant or revelatory as “Sad But True” had they not allowed themselves to experiment with their sound, and with their very identity as a band; no song on Kill ‘Em All would have dared to concede that fear might be at the root of one’s rage, as “St. Anger” suggests.

Some fans still regard Metallica with resentment, suggesting that the band should have essentially spent the last two decades re-recording Kill ‘Em All, repeatedly churning out uninspired, ridiculous metal in the vein of Slayer. Fifteen years ago, I’d have joined their foolish chorus. But now?

Metallica said it best:

I’ve outgrown that fucking lullaby.

Stephen King’s 11/22/63

By Monte Williams

In an essay published on this blog on May 20, I wrote that some variation of the phrase “there’s no way he can know that, but he feels certain of it, just the same” appears in practically every novel Stephen King has ever written. I have since read King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, which includes this passage:

A stick rose and fell in his hand. He was beating something. The squealing stopped and I thought, It was a dog and he’s finished with it. He took it out there on a rope leash and beat it until it was dead. There was no way I could have known such a thing, of course… and yet I did.

11/22/63 also includes several dialogue exchanges wherein King goes out of his way to phonetically spell a speaker’s Maine accent—has any word appeared in King’s novels more frequently than “ayuh”?—plus the sentence “After that, things happened very, very fast”, which appears in dozens of King’s stories. Other familiar beats include a scene—two scenes in 11/22/63, actually—wherein the protagonist tries to convince himself he’s dreaming, only to dismiss the idea because of a few sensory details that would be unlikely to appear in a dream; a mantra the narrator repeats several times (“the past harmonizes”) and a song that recurs and/or gets stuck in the narrator’s mind (“In the Mood”); a scene in which two characters ponder a riddle and one of them experiences a revelation and delivers the solution or punch line with no context, baffling the other character. Worst of all, 11/22/63 includes yet another unambiguously evil Stephen King villain.

I shake my head and roll my eyes as I note these discouraging patterns, and yet they are not enough to convince me that 11/22/63 is anything less than the greatest novel Stephen King has ever written.

I offer no stunning insight when I suggest that King’s pacing is frequently flawed; in a review of King’s Dreamcatcher (2001) for Entertainment Weekly, Bruce Fretts writes, “Here’s a hint of how long it takes the plot to get rolling: The chapter title on page 431 is ‘The Chase Begins.’”  But while his stories sag in the middle and his endings are almost always deflating, nobody starts a novel like Stephen King; hell, even Dreamcatcher was engaging at the start. And I don’t mean that King utilizes gimmicky, attention-grabbing opening lines, though I’ve admitted elsewhere that I’m a sucker for such openings. I mean that King crafts the most outlandish premises and somehow manages to make the reader care deeply about them. The first one hundred pages or so of 11/22/63 are some of the best pages of King’s career and some of the most effortlessly addictive pages in the history of fiction, this despite an almost defiantly absurd premise: the proprietor of a small town diner discovers that his pantry contains a time travel portal that always takes you to 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958. No matter how long you stay in 1958, you always return to the present two minutes after you left. From there, the dust jacket summarizes things nicely:

On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back?

This premise is something of a real-world riff on John Smith’s fatal dilemma in King’s The Dead Zone, which King wrote in 1979, right around the time he was predicting reality TV and school shootings under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. It also makes for a gripping goddamn story; I read 11/22/63 in three days… during a European cruise. I say again: it took me only three days to devour an 800-page novel… while touring Sicily and Rome.

And yet it is more than merely addictive and satisfying. For all of its familiar—too familiar—crutches, 11/22/63‘s ambition and audacity are positively stunning. King admits that he first attempted to tell this tale in the ’70s, but that the pain of Kennedy’s assassination was still too overwhelming. One suspects that King also simply lacked the know-how thirty-plus years ago to see the novel’s beguiling premise through to its logical conclusion. Now that he has done so, the happy result reads like an author not just at the peak of his talent but indeed gleefully showing off. Occasionally, the resulting prose is a bit self-conscious, but just as often it is beautiful. Sometimes it is both:

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

Would the novel be more stirring still without its quasi-religious portrayal of time as a near-sentient force manipulating the characters? Yes. And without its mustache-twirling villains, too; King’s novels too frequently suffer from evil-for-the-sake-of-evil antagonists, and 11/22/63 has two such villains, though neither sticks around long enough to cause mortal damage to the novel’s momentum or credibility. More intriguing by far are the deranged homeless men with colorful cards stuck in the bands of their fedoras; these alarming eccentrics seem to sense that something is amiss near the time portal, and while they appear to be neutral figures, they are nonetheless more menacing than the novel’s two homicidal maniac characters, because King does not believe in the maniacs and so neither do we. He clearly cares more for his homeless weirdos guarding the portal; in King’s fiction, even holes in the space-time continuum boast a cheerfully utilitarian vibe, as do the low men in yellow coats in Hearts in Atlantis and the Breakers of The Dark Tower and the short story “Everything’s Eventual”. At its best, Stephen King’s imagination possesses something of a humble, unassuming, blue collar modesty; one suspects that the fantastic men and monsters bent on guarding and destroying the universe in King’s fiction all clock in at work each morning with lunch buckets in hand and exchange polite greetings of “Mornin’, Sam”, “Mornin’, Ralph”. King’s greatest failure, then, is his repeated abandonment of this uniquely utilitarian blue collar voice in favor of exploring the predictable trappings of a given genre; King needs to forget about homicidal maniacs and focus more on homeless drunks whose time travel Spider Sense is tingling.

But sloppy habits and foolish creative choices aside, Christ, what a strange and triumphant decade-plus Stephen King has had. His work is perhaps not as consistent as it once was, with Under the Dome and Lisey’s Story and—going back further—Dreamcatcher ranking high on the list of his worst works. But his best writing these days is the best of his career. I recently read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which in its broad strokes features a plot distantly similar to that of 11/22/63. The latter stages of each author’s career are likewise similar; the man who once likened his writing style to “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries” (and later expressed regret for the comment) has since won a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. And if Philip Roth has had an amazing career resurgence in recent years, behold these highlights from King’s output from the past fifteen years or so: Bag of Bones, From a Buick 8, Duma Key, Everything’s Eventual, Just After Sunset, On Writing, Hearts in Atlantis. Add the flawed but personal, uneven but rewarding 11/22/63 to that list and it holds its own against the crop of any contemporary writer.

In 11/22/63‘s afterword, King thanks his son Joe Hill, who “thought up a new and better ending” for the novel. For anyone who reads 11/22/63 and has closely studied King’s works, this is a more rousing endorsement than even that once ubiquitous boast, “I have seen the future of horror, and it is named Clive Barker”; 11/22/63 features one of the few truly satisfying endings in King’s catalog. He often kills his characters just to sorta half-assedly resurrect them (see The Regulators and The Dark Tower), but while the time travel plot of 11/22/63 would excuse all manner of such cowardly self-indulgence, King instead makes tough choices, with the result that 11/22/63 is that rare treat: a Stephen King novel that is far more haunting after one has read it.

A Faith No More Mixtape for the Joker

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; May 11, 2010

 

Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

–Alfred (Michael Caine), The Dark Knight

 

And it’s okay to laugh about it.

-Faith No More, “Ricochet” (King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime)

 

 

In a feat worthy of the Clown Prince of Crime, Faith No More somehow managed to encapsulate the fractured, subversive purpose of Heath Ledger’s Joker sixteen years before Ledger’s Joker came into being. Consider this excerpt from “Midlife Crisis,” a single from 1992’s Angel Dust:

 

I’m a perfectionist

And perfect is a skinned knee

 

This notion struck me last night while I was listening to Faith No More on my iPod while doing the evening dishes. (I initially titled this column “Compiling Joker’s iTunes Playlist,” but a mixtape is more do-it-yourself and somehow anarchic; surely an iPod is too tidy for Joker.) I was struck by the song’s chorus:

 

You’re perfect, yes, it’s true

But without me, you’re only you

 

Huh. Sounds like something Joker might say to Batman. Come to think of it, so does this “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” lyric, from Faith No More’s King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime: “Your day has finally come / So wear the hat and do the dance, and let the suit keep wearing you”.

Indeed, the more I thought about the Mike Patton era of Faith No More, the more it seemed that one could almost make the case that their four studio albums were written for the Joker. Here I speak not just of Heath Ledger’s portrayal, but indeed every incarnation of the Joker character since his first comic book appearance in 1940.

Surely Faith No More’s more abrasive tracks (“Caffeine,” for example, or “Smaller and Smaller”) would appeal to the character who describes himself as “an agent of chaos” in 2008’s The Dark Knight. It seems equally certain that the Joker of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel, who raises unsettling but credible implications about Batman’s relationship with the young, tights-clad Robin, would endorse vocalist Mike Patton’s justification for the shockingly loyal direction the band took with their cover of Lionel Richie’s “Easy”; asked why the band opted to play it straight rather than add thrashed-out guitar work or what-have-you, Patton insisted (correctly), “It’s more Satanic this way.”

 

It’s always funny until someone gets hurt

And then it’s just hilarious!

-Faith No More, “Ricochet” (King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime)

 

In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, the Joker offers what might be his definitive statement from seven decades of appearances in print and on the small and large screens:

 

It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for—it’s all a monstrous, demented gag!

 

The Joker who delivers that line would love the smash-cut from verse to chorus in Faith No More’s “Collision,” from 1997’s Album of the Year:

 

When the dawn breaks

With a handshake

Relaxed and feeling great

 

Screechin’!

Head-on! Head-on! Head-on!

I’m needin’

A head-on! Head-on! Head-on!

Collision

 

Arkham Asylum ends with Batman escaping from a truly lunatics-run asylum, only to have Joker bid him farewell by saying, “Enjoy yourself out there… in the asylum.” This corresponds to lyrics from Faith No More’s “Pristina,” the final song from 1997’s Album of the Year:

 

These walls won’t keep them out

They’ll keep you in

 

What a Joker thing to say; let’s not forget his choice of words in The Dark Knight when he repeatedly mocks Batman’s impotent efforts to intimidate him: “You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you!”

 

Rhymes and giggles muffle the dialogue

-Faith No More, “Kindergarten” (Angel Dust)

 

Then there is 1989’s The Real Thing, which is tame and mild compared to Faith No More’s later efforts, though it boasts more than a few hints of depravity and sedition sure to appeal to Joker. “From Out of Nowhere” sounds almost like a traditional love song, but it also happens to be the perfect From Joker To Batman ballad:

 

Obsession rules me

I’m yours from the start…

You come from out of nowhere

My glance turns to a stare

Don’t know if I’ll laugh or cry…

All becomes you

 

Skeptical? Recall Joker’s plea to Batman in The Dark Knight: “You complete me.” Ledger’s delivery of this line is arresting not because it’s sarcastic, but because it’s earnest; I wouldn’t hesitate to deem his delivery more charged than Tom Cruise’s offering of the same line to Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire. Joker’s sincerity simultaneously subverts and validates the corny Hallmark power of the original line, much in the same way that an errant hand on a steamy car window in a crass and miserable sex scene between Shep (David Harbour) and April (Kate Winslet) in Revolutionary Road makes a subtle mockery of the more famous and audience-pleasing love scene between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.

 

You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!

-Joker (Heath Ledger), The Dark Knight

 

Or perhaps the unfortunately titled “Zombie Eaters” better summarizes Joker’s feelings for Batman. It seems on the surface to have been written from the perspective of a baby singing the praises of its mother, but Faith No More songs are seldom intuitive or straightforward. I’ve long believed that the narrator of “Zombie Eaters” and the pedophile character who narrates “Edge of the World” (both from The Real Thing) might be one and the same; perhaps the baby’s perspective is only utilized to reflect that the pedophile character is stunted. Whatever the case, “Zombie Eaters” contains lyrics that could definitely apply to Joker’s relationship with Batman:

 

You’re everything, that’s why I cling to you…

I like to make a mess

I laugh at your distress

 

“Zombie Eaters” also features a cry of “Nobody understands except the toys in my hands,” followed soon after with a demand of, “Give me! I need my toys!”  These lines would never have struck me in this manner a week ago, but once you start combing through Faith No More’s lyrics with Joker on the brain, everything seems to take on a new significance. (In “Digging the Grave,” Patton sings, “Let something in, throw something out / You left the door open wide”, while in The Dark Knight, Ledger tells Christian Bale’s Batman, “You changed things. Forever.”) In the case of Patton singing “I need my toys”, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jack Nicholson marveling aloud in 1989’s Batman, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

Also from “Zombie Eaters”:

 

If I smile, then you’ll smile

Then I’ll get mad for a while

 

I stole the title of this essay from “Zombie Eaters,” as well, and it might be the ultimate Joker-to-Batman statement:

 

I hope you never leave

‘Cause who would hear me scream?

 

Another track from The Real Thing, “Falling to Pieces” would seem at first glance to be an appropriate homage to Joker, but then again, Patton sings “somebody put me together,” and if the Joker were ever to offer a cry for help, it’d come more in the form of “Helpless,” from Album of the Year, which features a lyric that is probably Joker’s worst nightmare:

 

I even tried to get arrested today

But everyone looked the other way

 

To be ignored is possibly the only punishment that could undo the Joker. (That said, this bit from 1995’s “Ricochet” could also be Joker’s worst nightmare: “It is the hardest thing to do / To watch it grow on top of you / And see you’re just like everyone: No fun!”) Meanwhile, “Helpless” ends with a stubborn insistence of “Don’t want your help / Don’t need your help”, until another cry slowly drowns out the first voice and, eventually, the guitars and the drums. Finally, the new voice cries alone: “Help. Help. Help! Help! HELP! HELP!”

It’s probably the most unsettling bit of singing I’ve ever heard, and it, too, seems to fit Joker perfectly; he’d probably never overtly ask for help or admit that he could benefit from it, but inside he must be screaming for it.

 

Do you often sing or whistle just for fun?

-Faith No More, “Land of Sunshine” (Angel Dust)

 

In the animated film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which features scenes so dark and menacing that I literally had a stomach ache after watching it for the first time, Joker abducts Robin, portrayed in this era of the animated Batman universe as Tim Drake, a preteen. Batman conducts frantic, fruitless searches for weeks, and by the time he locates his young ward, it is in a very real sense too late, though Joker has not killed the boy. Instead, he has remade Tim Drake in his own image; after enduring several weeks of A Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing and torture, Robin boasts a leering rictus, green hair and purple schoolboy shorts. He is capable of no verbal communication except a tense, haunted series of giggles. (My first, horrified thought during this scene: Joker must have undressed the boy at some point to get him into his miniature Joker suit. Brr.)

Joker boasts to Batman, “I’ll begin with how I peeled back the layers of the boy’s mind”, then encourages Tim to shoot his former guardian: “Make Daddy proud. Deliver the punch-line.”

Perhaps Joker had Faith No More’s “Last Cup of Sorrow” in mind during this most perverse moment of triumph:

 

With a new face, you might surprise yourself

 

Of course, “With a new face, you might surprise yourself” could also work as a generic recruitment slogan for Joker. Like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, Joker isn’t simply about mayhem; he’s also an enthusiastic provider of social commentary. In The Dark Knight and A Killing Joke both, what’s most terrifying about the Joker character is that he is so persuasive.

From The Dark Knight:

 

You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan”, even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I told the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truck load of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die… well, then everyone loses their minds!

 

And from The Killing Joke:

 

All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? You had a bad day and everything changed.

 

One is reminded of Heath Ledger’s Joker politely insisting, “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve” and, later, “Madness, as you know, is like gravity… all it takes is a little push.”

 

What if there’s no more fun to have…?

Think about you crackin’ a smile…

-Faith No More, “Get Out” (King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime)

Of course, no matter how persuasive or seductive he becomes, Joker’s demented (if sometimes uncomfortably insightful and accurate) lessons will usually go unheeded by the comparably sane denizens of Gotham City; presumably, he would find much to relate to in the closing words of Faith No More’s “A Small Victory”:

 

If I speak at one constant volume

At one constant pitch

At one constant rhythm

Right into your ear

You still won’t hear

 

One of my favorite tracks from The Real Thing calls to mind a highlight from Tim Burton’s Batman, from 1989. Here I’m speaking of the moment when Jack Nicholson’s Joker turns to his lead goon, Bob, and says, “Bob: gun” and then Bob hands Joker his gun, at which point Joker unceremoniously shoots Bob. The perfect soundtrack to this scene, so perfect indeed that it’s almost too easy to cite: “Surprise! You’re Dead!”

Perfect match though it seems, however, I might suggest that Joker’s take on a title like “Surprise! You’re Dead!” would be to argue, as would Tyler Durden, that it applies to all of us. In other words, we are all so numb and oblivious that we may as well be dead; how telling that the lyric that follows “Surprise! You’re dead!” is “Open your eyes!” Actually, something else appears between the two lyrics: a maniacal laugh. Ha ha ha.

 

Sense of security

Holding blunt instrument

-Faith No More, “Midlife Crisis” (Angel Dust)

 

What about “Everything’s Ruined”, a perplexing gem from Angel Dust which appears to concern a well-off family and their ambiguously disappointing son. Setting aside the fact that “Everything’s Ruined” sounds like something Joker might have engraved on a trophy, wouldn’t he be delighted by lyrics such as “When he lost his appetite, he lost his weight in friends” or “He made us proud, he made us rich / How were we to know he’s counterfeit”?

 

Smiles
Bruises
Smiles
Bruises

-Faith No More, “Jizzlobber” (Angel Dust)

 

Finally, what would Joker make of the songs Faith No More has chosen to cover throughout their career? I’ve mentioned Lionel Richie’s “Easy”, but they’ve also recently taken to performing Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” as part of their celebrated reunion tour setlist, and Patton used to make a point of covering everything from New Kids on the Block hits to Nestlé chocolate jingles during the band’s early live performances. Studio recordings include covers of songs from performers ranging from Dead Kennedys (“Let’s Lynch the Landlord”) to Black Sabbath (“War Pigs”), and even the theme from Midnight Cowboy.

Hell, Faith No More even covered a Bee Gees song. At this point, I assume its title won’t surprise you:

“I Started A Joke.”

Hasty notes on The Dark Knight Rises while I wait for my friends to see it so we can discuss it

By Monte Williams

 

I’m faintly embarrassed to admit that The Dark Knight Rises made me cry more than once, but I promise I’m not being defensive when I suggest that it’s Christopher Nolan’s weakest film.

Its biggest failing is its dialogue, which ranges from numbingly dull and cliché to distractingly stilted and contrived; the characters seem at times to be making a conscious effort to utter phrases that will seem resonant in retrospect. The film never produces a motto half as memorable as “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” from Batman Begins or “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” from The Dark Knight; instead, the dialogue simultaneously sounds as if it’s straining to reach such heights of bumper sticker profundity and as if Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer couldn’t be bothered to imbue the dialogue with personality. And it’s not just the dialogue; the whole film feels like it’s trying too hard and at the same time not trying hard enough.

No one can question Christopher Nolan’s audacity; if nothing else, The Dark Knight Rises is the boldest superhero movie ever produced, in terms of the extent to which it is willing to embrace an unsettling dark tone and convince the viewer that heroes are mortal. But so what? The plot’s political commentary is intriguing, but only because it exists in a superhero film; where else would a message like “the rich are corrupt and they’re oppressing the poor” feel like a revelation except in a superhero movie? It’s like when actors were first allowed to say “bitch” and “ass” on TV sitcoms; the studio audience would hoot as if scandalized, but only because sitcoms were historically sanitized, not because “bitch” and “ass” were clever or exciting things to say. (I’m also reminded of an old interview wherein Alan Moore discussed the youthful pride he had felt for the growing maturity of the comic book medium as he and other writers learned to explore themes like child abuse in the pages of Batman; he then proposed that perhaps a Batman comic book is not the best place to explore a theme like child abuse).

I found myself marveling at the damage Christian Bale’s Batman endures in The Dark Knight Rises, but again: so what? Bane broke Batman’s back twenty years ago in the comic books. Also, movie studios are so reboot-obsessed that directors and scriptwriters may as well kill off their superpowered protagonists, since they’ll just end up retelling said protagonist’s origin in three years anyway.

Still, the film’s climax is intense and satisfying. I was stunned to the point of speechlessness when I left the theater, and after all, no other superhero movie ever made me cry, which I attribute to a bit of short-sighted foolishness shared by all superhero movie directors except Christopher Nolan: forgetting to cast Michael Caine in a pivotal role.

I’ll close with the only message I’d intended to convey when I started this review:

 

Photobucket

Photobucket

 

Anne Hathaway is no Michelle Pfeiffer, and for all the silly, cartoony theatrics of Tim Burton’s films, Selina Kyle is not half as intriguing and tragic and convincing in The Dark Knight Rises as she is in Batman Returns.

Better luck in the next reboot, Catwoman.

 

 

Edit:

I had decided not to address the culture wars that seem to erupt on the internet whenever a studio releases one of these blockbusters, but after I posted this haphazard collection of baffled impressions last night, I started reading Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man. It opens with the following excerpt, which almost seems to have been written in response to film critics and also their critics, those teeth-gnashing fanboys who view any Avengers or Dark Knight Rises verdict less fawning than “Masterpiece!” as a personal affront and a pretentious, snobby affect:

Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simpleminded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.

Wherein it becomes apparent that a comparative analysis of American politics and professional wrestling is an exercise in redundancy

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; March 29, 2007

 
 

On February 5, 1988, before a television audience of millions, the irredeemably evil Andre the Giant stole the World Wrestling Federation heavyweight championship from virtuous superhero Hulk Hogan. Hogan was not pinned; he clearly lifted his shoulder well before the one-two-three. Still, the referee made the count, and the timekeeper rang the bell. The more dedicated and ambitious journalists of the day would eventually discover that loyal WWF referee Dave Hebner had secretly been replaced by his evil twin brother, Earl. In the meantime, those in attendance and outraged viewers watching from home knew that Andre had not legitimately defeated their “Real American” hero, but the wicked Giant was nonetheless awarded the championship.

Having already seen Optimus Prime slain at the hands of Megatron but two years previous, the youth of America felt something die inside at this latest injustice, which goes some distance towards explaining why they frankly couldn’t give a shit when, twelve years later, the most farcical presidential election in American history concluded with a theft even more implausible, ridiculous and embarrassing than the one perpetrated by Andre the Giant.

Today, young Americans have largely abandoned pro wrestling, with ratings for World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship Raw series plummeting in recent years until they’re hardly more encouraging than the latest voter turnout statistics. The time has come to admit to ourselves that young America’s polite indifference towards partisan politics and the wrestling industry stems from the uncomfortable but increasingly undeniable fact that the two have grown indistinguishable from one another.

Skeptical?  Then dig, if you will, the picture: a pair of unconvincing actors square off in a heated debate, reading from clumsy, cliché-filled scripts, only pretending to disagree, while everyone in the audience knows who’s going to win ahead of time. Now riddle me this: have I just described two wrestlers, or two politicians?

 
 

If professional wrestling did not exist, could you make it up? Could you envision the popularity of huge men in tiny bathing suits pretending to fight? Could you sell this to a promoter? –Jerry Seinfeld

 
 
With its merciless, cutthroat infighting and its disgusting tendency to manipulate consumers by pandering simultaneously to their ignorance, fear and sentimentality, the modern American political landscape resembles nothing more than an every-man-for-himself steel cage brawl on a late-night wrasslin’ show. Meanwhile, power-mad wrestlers like Triple H and Hulk Hogan are accused by wrestling’s most critical fans of abusing their “political power” backstage, while underhanded politicians are said to “fight dirty” with their smear campaigns, which often have all the eloquence and insight of the self-aggrandizing threats and taunts of a professional wrestling interview. Could California’s gubernatorial recall election of 2003 have been any more absurd as an over-the-top-rope Battle Royal? Was the Kennedy family, with its surface charisma obscuring severe dysfunction, anything but the political equivalent of wrestling’s Von Erich, Hart and McMahon clans? Would it surprise anyone at this point to discover that the puppeteer pulling Bush’s strings wasn’t Cheney or some shadowy political insider, but instead WWE CEO Vince McMahon?

 
 
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Actually, it would surprise me, because Vince McMahon isn’t devious enough for the world of politics. McMahon is a dangerously perverted turd of a human being, make no mistake; among other fetishes and personality defects, he has taken in recent years to pulling down his pants and forcing wrestlers to kiss his bare ass on live television. Still, you could argue that at least McMahon pays these poor bastards, and each wrestler ultimately chooses to pucker up, and any one of them could decide to quit rather than suffer such an indignity. You’d be right, of course, just as you’d be correct if you suggested that the paychecks these wrestlers receive for joining Vince McMahon’s Kiss My Ass Club bear a striking thematic similarity to Bush’s $300 tax cut of 2001.

 
 

Politics is the art of controlling your environment. –Hunter S. Thompson

 
 What elevates McMahon above your average politician is his willingness, indeed his eagerness to own up to his own inherent shittiness as a human being. Not so with presidential candidates, who invariably promote themselves as concerned Good Guys, politely but firmly towing the moral line—training, saying their prayers and taking their vitamins, as Hulk Hogan used to say. And those of us watching on television boo and cheer whoever we’re programmed to boo and cheer.

But not wrestling fans; Vince McMahon’s heavy-handed story mandates be damned, wrestling fans boo or cheer whoever they want to boo or cheer. Admittedly, this might have less to do with cleverness or some sort of playful defiance on the part of the wrestling fanbase and more to do with the fact that wrestling is simply more accessible than politics, and thus better equipped to accommodate a postmodern, subversive approach on the part of its followers. After all, wrestling’s violence and humor are painted in such broad strokes that even a lobotomized hamster could follow along, and its histrionic announcers are always on hand to spoon-feed the (relatively) subtler nuances of the action to the audience at home.

 
 

Ever notice news is staged like TV wrestling shows, with Reagans and Khaddafis cast as cartoon villains and heroes?  -Jello Biafra

 
 
Certainly newscasters are no less condescending than wrestling announcers, but there’s also a deliberate distancing act on the part of the news media in the United States. There’s seldom any effort to provide factual context to the latest soundbites; it’s as if those who produce the news do not want the mainstream audience to understand what they’re watching. Country singer Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” comes to mind: “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.”

Politics and pro wrestling also share a rich history of callously co-opting pop cultural trends in order to add a veneer of respect or relevance to their own sad proceedings. Highlights from the comically inept history of this phenomenon include the MTV “Rock n’ Wrestling” craze of the ’80s, Run DMC’s “Wrestlemania Rap,” Bill Clinton’s Fleetwood Mac campaign theme and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s masturbatory pillaging of his own cinematic oeuvre for silly political catch-phrases and soundbites. Most relevant to our discussion today, however, would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s presidential convention cameos of 2000. And who, you might be wondering, did The Rock endorse? Point of fact, he appeared at both the Democratic and the Republican conventions, and his speech somehow managed to win over both audiences. Is this a testament to The Rock’s versatility, or to the fact that Democrats and Republicans, like WWE’s dual Raw and SmackDown! brands, are in fact one crayon parading about in two wrappers?

Aside from all the blood, spinal damage and steroid abuse, all that really distinguishes pro wrestling from politics is that someone who excels at wrestling might eventually earn our admiration, either for their athleticism or their storytelling prowess; if I could choose any ten storytellers with whom to discuss the finer points of the craft, you can bet that high on my list would be Bret “Hitman” Hart, who often managed to fool me into forgetting that his matches were not “real.” There have been politicians I’ve reluctantly, begrudgingly admired, but everything I respected about these misfits was precisely what made them so shitty as politicians.

Consider Howard Dean and Ralph Nader, two intelligent men who are both unable to recognize that one simply cannot not say honest or provocative things on the political battlefield. Or perhaps they know good and well that this is the case, and they are simply too reckless or defiant to care. Jesse Ventura is of this same misfit mold, and while a valued Monteland correspondent who actually lived in Minnesota during Ventura’s reign has cautioned me against even casually endorsing the man who once went by the nickname “The Body” (for it seems that Ventura neglected to actually, well, govern during his stint in office), we all know that politics is no longer about what you accomplish in office but rather what you say on television, much as wrestling is more about manufacturing catch-phrases than exhibiting athleticism or storytelling.

Ventura’s intelligence might be up for debate, but give him this: the man never seems to care who he pisses off. Had Al Gore worried less about pissing off the thin-skinned and the ignorant back in 2001, we wouldn’t have to endure his ongoing public relations efforts, which call to mind the familiar redemptive arc of a wrestling villain desperate to win fan approval. My favorite example of the latter might be the case of one Sgt. Slaughter, a patriotic thug who in 1991 made a startling if also unconvincing transformation into an “Iraqi turncoat” for several months before filming a series of apologetic vignettes wherein he’d pose before various national monuments to plead, “I want my country back!”

 
 

TV wrestling is phallocentric soap opera for retards and intellectually lazy intelligent people who get off by cultural slumming. –Warren Ellis

 
 
Liberals and conservatives alike still delight, seven years after the fact, in blaming—or crediting—Ralph Nader with mortally compromising Al Gore’s momentum during the 2000 election. But really, wrestlers and politicians alike are at their most charismatic and effective when they forgo their tiresome scripts in favor of being true to themselves. In one of the half-dozen or so late-90s videocassettes chronicling the astonishing popularity of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Austin himself confirmed that all the industry’s most successful superstars had simply created “characters” who were really just exaggerated self-portraits. In politics, alas, such honesty can only occur when there is nothing to lose. Had Al Gore shown a fraction of the resolve, confidence or charm in 2000 that he’s shown in recent months, he might have won the election. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he might have won by a wider margin.

Either way, Gore chose instead to play it safe, to channel his own opponent rather than, say, Jay Bullington Bulworth. He stuck to the script, in other words, convinced that what  Democrats wanted was a creepy, sexless, robotic yes-man trumpeting the conservative ideology. Was it Nader’s fault Gore lost the election? Hardly. And I’d wager that WWE CEO Vince McMahon is among those who know better. He’d  summarize the fiasco with but three words: “Gore screwed Gore.”

Apparently, Al Gore has learned his lesson (now that he has nothing to lose.) You see, Hunter S. Thompson once suggested that, “You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics,” and just this February, An Inconvenient Truth producer Laurie David was quoted in The Washington Post describing Al Gore as something even more flattering and unlikely: “He’s a superhero now.” The title of the piece in question? “Al Gore, Rock Star.” Indeed, type those four words into Google’s search engine and you’ll be rewarded with an index of no fewer than 1.5 million hits. While a wrestler whose personality is dull has no hope of achieving mainstream success, Gore proves that a determined politician can at least convincingly pretend to be cool. Whether he decides to let his carefully cultivated hipster status carry him to the White House someday remains to be seen. Whatever the result, though, it can be assumed that the young will respond with a collective shrug.

For my part, I gave up on pro wrestling years before I abandoned politics, but wrestling is more likely to win me back, and in the meantime, the inevitable result of the increasing similarities between wrestling and politics is clear; it should hardly be surprising by this point that the only politician to have recognized it thus far was also once a wrestler. I leave you with the prophetic vision of one Jesse Ventura:

“We need to put a wrestler in the White House in 2008.”

Twenty Years Later, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn Looks Like Hell

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; November 30, 2010

Lion-O was the leader of the ThunderCats. I don’t believe he had a surname. What he did have was what an old man in a bait shop on The Simpsons called “a shock of hair, red as the fires of Hell”. Lion-O also wore one glove like Michael Jackson, and he wielded the Sword of Omens, an unassuming dagger that surpassed all the combined comical phallic imagery of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; to power-up, Lion-O would clutch his sword tightly in his fist and swing it back and forth through the air… and it would elongate. Most damning of all, Lion-O wore a powder-blue leotard with the midriff cut out to display his taut abs. Prince, clad in his assless “Gett Off” pants, would look at Lion-O and say, “Damn, that’s flamboyant.”

I loved Lion-O. I feel no tremendous pressure to defend myself; I was eight years old. During roughly the same time period, I also loved Fall Guy, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. Kids like stupid things. This embarrasses me, though: I was a Spawn fan. I loved the Spawn comic book from Image Comics, the HBO animated series and the live-action film. Most of all, I loved the Spawn action figures. And this time, I had no excuse; I was nineteen.

It was those action figures that first seduced me. The initial series of Spawn toys hasn’t aged well; they now look like rejected characters from the vintage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series by Playmates. But when they first hit Toys R Us shelves, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn figures were a revelation. For the time, the sculpts were stunning, and man, did Spawn’s costume look cool.

Today, Spawn’s costume, admittedly neat-looking, calls to mind the various supernatural characters in the World Wrestling Federation during the 1990s. There was the Ultimate Warrior, who would call upon the “gods” and the “spirit of the warriors” to defeat his opponents. Then you had Papa Shango, a voodoo monster who caused mysterious black goo to pour down the faces of the Ultimate Warrior and Mean Gene Okerlund. Then there was the Undertaker, a sort of zombie character who was so magically powerful that his occasional losses would usually result in hordes of druids dragging him from the ring while lightning danced in the background and smoke filled the arena.

There are obviously many things one could point to in order to question the credibility of these athletic characters, but what always bugged me most was the simple question of why these mystical beings had no better outlet for their voodoo and sorcery than a wrestling ring. And just as it makes no sense for a god to display his powers in a wrestling ring, it seems unnecessary for a satanic soldier to dress like a professional wrestler.

Seriously. Why does Spawn wear spandex?

Looking back at the beginnings of the Spawn comic book first published in 1992—the first six issues of the series were recently collected in a paperback called the Origins Collection—the protagonist’s spandex costume is the least of the reader’s concerns. Among many shortcomings, Spawn’s chief failing is that it is a wordy comic. Wordy is the last thing a comic like Spawn should be, especially in light of Todd McFarlane’s meager skills as a writer. Most of the words take the form of Spawn’s thoughts as he struggles to figure out the nature of his powers and the details of the deal he made when he sold his soul to Malebolgia. His actual spoken dialogue is scarce. Here, for example, is Spawn’s spoken dialogue from the debut issue in its entirety:

Get out. Now! Or you’re all dead.

Bad idea.

Now, who’s next?

Fat boy. You’re WAY out of your league.

They’re gone. You needn’t be afraid.

No. Not again.

Hh-huhhh hhuhhhh…

My face—felt like—

Jesus!! What AM I?

What am I?

That’s forty-one words, counting “Hh-huhhh hhuhhhh” as one word. Meanwhile, in just the first six pages, Spawn thinks two hundred-seven words. Actually, that’s in the first seven pages, but Spawn does not appear on page three, so I opted not to count it; page three is one of those staggeringly audacious Frank Miller rip-off pages that were ubiquitous in the early issues of Spawn, featuring the alternating observations of a TV news reporter, a Hollywood gossipmonger and a political commentator. There are over three hundred words on this page, and the artwork is a repetitive string of portraits of the three commentators. Their facial expressions never even change. McFarlane pretty quickly abandoned this tired bit of plagiarism, just as he abandoned the meter that tracks the rate at which Spawn’s powers fade; presumably, such a countdown created too much storytelling accountability.

It is unusual for me to dismiss a story as too wordy. I like words. Hell, this essay is about three thousand words long, and I still remember a cartoon hanging on some professor’s office door at college in the late ‘90s, featuring a man at an art gallery ignoring the paintings in order to intently study the Exit sign. A companion notes, “He’s always been text-driven.” That’s me: text-driven. But Todd McFarlane has no way with words.

Even so, I will always have a smile in me somewhere for this ridiculous character called Spawn. Some stunted part of me still thinks his costume looks awesome, and Spawn features a superhero premise that is still unique and intriguing, twenty years later: assassin Al Simmons dies, goes to Hell, sells his soul for one more opportunity to see his wife, Wanda, but is returned to Earth five years into the future as a horribly burned monster and a soldier in Hell’s army. Plus, Wanda’s married to Al’s best friend, and they have a daughter.

Beyond the premise, however, the Spawn series was always a victim of failure of imagination. The simplest way to explain what I mean is to note that every evil character in the Spawn universe looks evil. A great example is Billy Kincaid. Kincaid murders children, but he’s not tormented or ambiguous in any way. As he tells us about his love of finger-painting, he’s gluing a child’s severed fingers onto his painting.  Oh, the wit.

McFarlane’s artwork is also much more mediocre than I remembered. More often than not, there are no backgrounds in a given panel, just colorful voids or cross-hatched messes. McFarlane’s faces are never convincing; each character’s features are exaggerated without being cartoony enough to charm. His illustrations of children are especially funny-looking, and his grasp of anatomy is wildly inconsistent, and I think McFarlane designed Spawn’s cape to billow wildly just so that it would obscure Spawn’s feet, so that McFarlane wouldn’t have to draw them.

Skeptical? There are more than one hundred-twenty pages in the first volume of the Spawn Origins Collection, most of which include at least six panel illustrations. Of an estimated seven hundred-twenty illustrations, then, guess how many feature characters whose feet are clearly visible? Six. In the remaining seven hundred-fourteen or so drawings, everyone’s feet are conveniently cut off by the bottom of the panel or obscured by smoke or mist, like Crazy Eddie’s feet on the cover of Iron Maiden’s Maiden Japan. When you do see feet, they’re deformed, else they’re just cursory scribbles.

The first six issues of the Spawn comic book represent only one version of the character’s origin. There is also the Hollywood adaptation, which I recently purchased to watch for the first time in a decade. If all one can say of the Spawn comic is that Spawn’s cape looks wicked-keen, all the movie has to recommend it is stylish opening credits. The story is the same: Al Simmons kills people, dies, goes to Hell, wants to see his wife. This time, though, when Simmons wakes five years later as Spawn, Marilyn Manson’s “Long Hard Road Out of Hell” plays on the soundtrack. And just as “Long Hard Road Out of Hell” is a pale imitation of Danzig’s “Long Way Back from Hell”, Spawn is derivative of any number of better superhero movies: Batman, The Crow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The script seems to be made up of arbitrary lines of dialogue that could be rearranged with no ill effect. Having encouraged Spawn to let his costume’s powers do his fighting for him, Cogliostro warns Spawn that his powers are finite, and when he drains them, he’ll die. Spawn’s response is to hand Cogliostro his guns and say, “I won’t be needing these.” Cogliostro says, “Now you’re catching on.” If draining your superpowers kills you, I should think that guns are exactly what you need.

Most scenes are stolen—faint praise—by the fat, demonic clown, named Clown in a typical bout of McFarlane literal-mindedness. Clown is occasionally funny, as when Spawn complains that he feels like his skin is about to explode, to which Clown replies, “That’s just your viral necroplasm going through its larval stage. Pretty soon you’re gonna get hair in funny places, and you’re gonna start thinking about girls.” Alas, Clown also farts and gleefully displays the “skid marks” on his underwear. He is mostly a tiresome, idiotic character, and it is a testament to the charisma and comic timing of actor John Leguizamo that he steals the show with such shitty dialogue while buried in make-up that completely obscures his identity.

Spawn calls Clown a “fudge-packing midget” in just one of many instances of homophobia in Spawn’s history; in the animated series, Overtkill dismisses Spawn as a “no-talent asshole in a faggy outfit”, and the special features of the Spawn DVD offer an interview with McFarlane wherein he suggests that Batman is more “kooky” than Spawn because Batman “doesn’t even like girls”. (The special features also include a Sci-Fi Channel documentary filled with nonsensical quotes from McFarlane, such as his assertion that Spawn “has a more intelligent, sophisticated sense about it”, and that it’s “really more sci-fi-ish instead of comic book-ish”.)

The cover of the Spawn DVD reads, “The Special Effects Event of the Year”, which is doubly embarrassing in light of how poorly said effects have aged. The Clown make-up is flawless, as is Simmons’s scorched flesh, but Spawn boasts some of the worst CGI I have ever seen. Sadly, Spawn’s cape, such an integral part of the character’s mystique in the comics, is the fakest-looking thing in the movie—not counting every scene set in Hell; Malebolgia looks like a grouchy-voiced monster from an old Crest commercial. As a film, Spawn doesn’t work as action or comedy, and it certainly isn’t scary. The only terrifying thing on the DVD is McFarlane’s claim that the movie represents “chapter one of about a two hundred-chapter story”.

When I first considered revisiting Spawn, I browsed the bookshelves at a Deseret Industries store in Idaho and discovered a lightly battered copy of the novelization of the Spawn film—the irony of procuring a book about a hero from Hell in a Mormon store was not lost on me. The author is Rob MacGregor, and his bio offers a funny double-take moment: “He has written seven Indiana Jones titles, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as The Crystal Skull, a novel of adventure and intrigue.”

MacGregor’s adaptation is about as memorable as you’d expect a Spawn novelization to be. Here, for example, is an inept sex scene between Wanda and Al:

She murmured that he was bigger than she remembered him.

“Bigger all over,” she whispered after running her hands over and down beyond his flat belly.

Then he filled her desires with his own as they eagerly entwined. She primed his passions and he answered with great ecstatic thrusts, until finally they could wait no longer and threw themselves into wave after wave of gushing rapture.

Inevitably, Al Simmons has a dog, a terrier named Spaz. Simmons affectionately calls the dog Knucklehead, and MacGregor writes, “Simmons grinned like a kid as he rubbed and patted his excited little dog.” This reminded me of the David Cronenberg interview in the eXistenZ graphic novel, wherein Cronenberg criticizes the shallow character development in action films by noting that the viewer will usually see the protagonist play with his dog at the start of the film, so that we know he’s basically a great guy.

When Simmons is killed, MacGregor writes, “His scream faded back into the depth of his lost soul.” There’s writing like this on every page, though I’m uncertain as to the extent to which we should hold MacGregor responsible; as a writer-for-hire, it would be difficult to make much of the material provided, in the case of Spawn. Here’s more: “the demonic gaze of eyes that pierced his heartless carapace like hot coals” and “he screamed, louder than any previous howl, as spikes burst out of the backs of his hands” and “his words flayed Spawn, ripping him apart from inside out” and “the roaring wails of Hell’s hordes pounded in his head” and “Hell hovered close to a sizzling death star that scorched its rugged surface and fried its ghastly condemned inhabitants” and “his red compound eyes flashed with hell-fueled rage and he let loose a loud, unearthly screech that momentarily paralyzed Cogliostro with dread” and, my favorite, “Then Simmons wailed in agony as something horrendous and totally unexpected happened.”

As is the case with the Spawn comic books, one need never read between the lines when it comes to the novelization:

Spawn looked up to see Wanda’s entire body growing fuzzy as a dark energy swirled around and around her, whirling faster and faster. When the whirlwind died away, Wanda was gone, and Clown stood in her place. The knife fell to the floor. Of course. It was Clown the entire time. He’d shape-shifted to look like Wanda.

Thank god that last sentence was added, otherwise scholars would still be debating the implications of that scene today. Earlier, after a two-paragraph description of Simmons’s transformation into Spawn, the too-helpful narration concludes, “Without a doubt, he was being savagely transformed into a new being.”

In another example, Wanda and Terry and their daughter Cyan reunite after nearly being destroyed by a demon from Hell, and MacGregor feels the need to inform the reader, “They were incredibly relieved and overjoyed to be together again.”

The book is also littered with typos (“He hesitated, but then tossed him back to the floor with both hand”), plus something else that I don’t even know the name for. Here’s an example:

“That sonuvabitch,” he screamed. Fitzgerald was going to pay. “Oh, was he ever going to pay.”

This happens more than once. A character will alter the tense of his speech to match the style of the omniscient third-person narration. Taking a page from MacGregor’s book, I’ll tell you the obvious: it’s disorienting.

Children in the Spawn comic book are not just innocent, but also wise. The novelization is the same. Before Clown tosses aside his Wanda mask, Cyan, a five-year-old, assures her father, “Don’t worry, Daddy. That’s not Mommy. I know Mommy and that’s not her.” Later, she realizes Al Simmons is her dad. This despite Simmons not knowing it himself, and despite the fact that he first arrives five years into her life, as a horrifically burned man in a filthy jacket who later grows leather armor with spikes from his skin.

Soon, Spawn assures Wanda that, while he’s no longer a part of her life, he won’t be far away. Cyan says, “You better not be.” I am reminded of the oldest daughter in Dan in Real Life saying, “This is weird… and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Children and teenagers do not speak like Hallmark greeting cards or earnest talking heads from What the Bleep Do We Know.

This was all distantly disappointing for me. I expected Spawn to be clumsy and silly, but some part of me wanted the comic book and movie to maintain some of their coolness. After all, back in 1996, I spent hours on my sister’s computer downloading a thirty-second teaser for the Spawn movie. That’s how much I loved this stuff.

Luckily, one hope remained: HBO’s Spawn, the animated series. It probably won’t surprise you by now to learn that there are limits to the extent to which the Spawn cartoon was able to salvage my dwindling affection for Todd McFarlane’s satanic hero.

While the series tries too hard to establish its edginess—every shooting victim bleeds like the bed that swallows Johnny Depp in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street movie—it’s far more effective than either the movie or the comic book. In the animated series, Spawn is a figure of absolute horror. He has no child sidekick, no adorable puppy. He is a vicious, violent shadow.

The show’s aesthetic is an uneasy mixture of intense, Anime-esque detail and American television animation simplicity, but the voice-acting is stellar. If you close your eyes and treat the show as a radio serial, it’s legitimately chilling. The standouts of the voice cast are Keith David as Spawn and Michael Nickelosi as Clown. Both characters are more disturbing in animated form than in any other medium, and it’s all due to David and Nickelosi.

The cartoon, like the comic book, is at its least convincing when it comes to portraits; a given character’s features are exaggerated, but not in any buoyant way that would please animation enthusiasts like John Kricfalusi, just in the manner of crappy drawings. Otherwise, the animation is stylish, but it barely qualifies as animation, in that there’s not much movement. It’s similar to MTV’s The Maxx, or Marvel’s superhero cartoons of the 1960s, which dragged static illustrations across the screen to convey action. There are also lots of close-ups on eyes as characters talk, and often as not, trees and skyscrapers are just distant silhouettes, and rows of teeth are white strips with no definition or separation. Every scene is drowned in shadows, yet no light source is apparent. The series sometimes feels like a Liquid Television reject.

The man-with-dog manner of establishing each good guy’s inherent goodness is no less clumsy and obvious in the cartoon than it is in the movie. Wanda spills her files at one point, and Terry says, “Let me guess, first day on the pro-bono case.” Why would a husband need to specify that his wife is working a case pro-bono, if not to inform the audience that she’s a great gal?

I am stunned that I once found these stories compelling. It is clear to me now that, just as you can collect any number of Spawn comic books and still have something less than a graphic novel, and just as Spawn is not only a poor excuse for a film but hardly earns its status as a popcorn movie, HBO’s Spawn cartoon is not an HBO-quality series. To be sure, it has nudity, like Sex and the City. And it has graphic violence, like The Sopranos. Still, to paraphrase Dave Chapelle:

Even though this is HBO, it’s still regular-ass TV.

Stephen King is at his best and his worst in Richard Bachman’s The Regulators

By Monte Williams

Picture the Zords from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers driving down a quiet street in an Ohio suburb one fine July afternoon… and opening fire on the paperboy and any pets or housewives who happen to pass by. The Power Rangers are replaced by something called MotoKops, but otherwise, so begins Richard Bachman’s The Regulators.

Though his villains are maddening in their one-dimensional, moustache-twirling, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil shallowness, and while he is seemingly incapable of providing anything like a satisfying resolution to any of his novels, Stephen King—who published The Regulators in 1996 under the nom de plume Richard Bachman, despite having cheerfully admitted in 1985 that Bachman was his pseudonym—frequently produces peerless, fearlessly inventive premises for his bloated, meandering novels. The plot of The Regulators struck me, upon my initial reading in 1996, as perhaps King’s wildest and most unique idea: a demon (of sorts) takes faltering possession of an autistic child named Seth, and together they transform your average suburban neighborhood into… well, here’s how the narration describes it:

Beyond the last few sane, green trees was a broad expanse of whitish hardpan running toward a troubled horizon of sawtooth mountain peaks. They had no shading or texture, no folds or outcrops or valleys. They were the dead black Crayola mountains of a child.

Audrey, the autistic boy’s aunt—his lone guardian after the demon-thing kills his parents and siblings—later clarifies, “This nightmare we’re in is a combination of The Regulators, his favorite Western movie, and MotoKops 2200, his favorite cartoon show.”

The sixteen years since the novel’s publication have served to decrease my admiration somewhat, so that I now regard The Regulators less as a gleefully, defiantly unpredictable novel and more as a needlessly crass and violent variation of the classic “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone. Still, King gets many of the details right, as one can usually expect him to do; not many authors can burden “live action” protagonists with cartoon antagonists and make the results feel convincing, but King believes that a child’s scribbled illustration can become a setting for a nightmare, and as a happy consequence, the reader also believes.

At his best and also at his worst, Stephen King is an endlessly fascinating writer. He is prone to laziness and self-plagiarism and clumsiness, and yet he is capable of startling elegance, as well; behold this excerpt from Audrey’s journal, wherein she attempts to explain what has befallen her nephew: “There’s a thing inside of Seth—not an id, not another manifestation of his personality, not a hitchhiker, but something like a tapeworm. It can think. And talk. It talked to me today—it calls itself Tak.”

When one of her neighbors asks whether Tak is a demon, Audrey replies, “No, it has no… no religion, I suppose you’d say. Unless TV counts. It’s more like a tumor, I think.” (Later, someone suggests, “It’s a vampire, isn’t it? Only what it draws off is psychic energy instead of blood.” Last year, King announced that he is working on a sequel to The Shining; he describes its villains as “psychic vampires”.)

More simple elegance:

In a way it is like being caught in another barrage from the regulators, only this time what Johnny feels cutting past him are thoughts instead of bullets. But weren’t they always thoughts, really?

And this:

None of it makes much of an impression on him. He is thinking about how he just got home from work. That seems like a very big deal to him, for some reason. He thinks he will begin every account of this terrible afternoon (it has not occurred to him that he may not survive the terrible afternoon, at least not yet) by saying I just got home from work. This phrase already has become a kind of magical structure inside his head; a bridge back to the sane and orderly world which he assumed, only an hour ago, was his by right and would be for years and decades to come: I just got home from work.

King’s delightfully understated dialogue helps to anchor his tales when the plots grow unwieldy or implausible. A winning and disturbing and comical example from The Regulators: “I don’t know for sure, but I think someone just shot the kid who delivers the Shopper.” Sometimes, King’s unassuming narration serves the same function: “The boy, who was sitting cross-legged and staring around with the imperious disdain of a pasha, had always struck Gary as about a 9.5 on the old Shithead-Meter.” One of the characters is an author “who had once won the National Book Award for a novel of sexual obsession called Delight and who now wrote children’s books about a feline private detective named Pat the Kitty-Cat”; this character likens the phrase “a serious writer” to the phrase “a really good whore”. King is sometimes guilty of earnest, heavy-handed sermonizing, but he never fails to provoke a chuckle with his short bursts of playful, petty editorializing like that “really good whore” comment. He’s adept, too, at capturing the sorts of absurdly inane thoughts people have during moments of extreme stress, as when a young woman in The Regulators sees a suicide victim and realizes he is one of the neighborhood twins. She watches as the boy’s mother wails in mourning, and King writes, “But they had such perfect teeth, Cynthia thought stupidly. Must have cost her and her husband a fortune.”

Just as often, though, King goes too far with a great—or at least a serviceable—idea, as in the following passage, wherein a character comes to accept that the neighborhood paperboy has been murdered:

Suddenly it was all perfectly real to him. Cary Ripton wasn’t going to be the Wentworth Hawks’ starting shortstop next summer; Cary Ripton wasn’t going to swing in through the back door tonight, asking what was for supper. Cary Ripton had flown off to Never-Never Land, leaving his shadow behind.

Nice, right? Sadly, King continues:

He was one of the Lost Boys now.

It’s just one sentence too many, but it’s enough to derail the narrative and break the spell; it marks the place—one of many—where King stops telling a story and starts spoon-feeding the reader. Here is another passage that’s one sentence too long, which is especially damning considering the passage is only two sentences long in its entirety:

Cynthia closes her eyes and tries to tell herself this is a dream, just a dream. It would be nice if she could believe it.

Such ineptness makes King’s graceful moments not just refreshing, but baffling. Consider two excerpts from The Regulators. First, this embarrassing exercise in self-indulgence:

Cammie Reed’s bulging eyes… They glow a brilliant red, swell even further outward, then explode from their sockets. The grin on Cammie’s face stretches so wide that her lips split open and begin to stream blood down her chin…

So, Johnny thinks, Audrey was right. Only Seth was able to contain it. Seth or someone like Seth. Someone very special. Because—

As if to finish this thought in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, Cammie Reed’s head explodes. Hot fragments, some still pulsing with life, pelt Johnny’s face.

Next, a legitimately captivating study in horror:

The boy stood there with the pistol pressed against the side of his head just long enough for Steve Ames to hope that maybe he wasn’t going to do it, that he’d had a change of heart at the penultimate moment, that last little vestibule of maybe not before the endless hallway of too late, and then Jim pulled the trigger.

It is difficult to believe that the same writer produced both those selections.

Meanwhile, King describes a pack of giant wolf-monsters as “hungry abortions”, and since “Bachman” has always approached storytelling with a sort of brash cruelty that King’s work seldom boasts, this “hungry abortions” phrase represents one of the few times that The Regulators feels like a Richard Bachman production. This is fine, since King had by this time abandoned the pretense that Richard Bachman is a real author. Still, it is strange and silly and off-putting that a novel ostensibly penned by Richard Bachman features such unabashedly Stephen King-style phrases as “It’s been a hot July, a perfect good old by god blue-ribbon jeezer of a July, no doubt about it” and “life as good as you ever dreamed it could be, with… steaks in refrigerator meat-drawers waiting to be slapped on the barbecue in the backyard come evening (and will there be apple pie to follow? what do you think?)”.

I mentioned earlier that Stephen King has never figured out how to provide satisfying closure to his novels. In The Regulators, the conflict resolution involves bowel movements—one almost suspects that the novel’s title is a misguided pun. This could be the last straw for sensitive readers, as King has something of a penchant for scatological humor. In this instance, however, and as unlikely as it sounds, bowel movements serve as an example of surprisingly clever plotting, and also intriguing characterization: “Tak apparently didn’t like to be around when its host moved its bowels. It was, in Audrey’s view, a strange and almost existential fastidiousness in such a relentlessly cruel creature.”

From there, alas, everything falls infuriatingly flat. The villain is slain—except maybe not, ‘cause that cloud up there sure looks like a cowboy—and the heroes die—except that King takes the time to suggest that maybe they’re still alive as ghosts, or in another dimension or something—and I’m not being vague; that’s literally all the thought that King’s narration puts into Audrey and Seth’s fate—with the result that the reader knows neither the reward of a happy ending nor the grim satisfaction of a tragic one. Ultimately, one is left, as is too often the case with King’s novels, with the sense that nothing in the story really meant anything or mattered much, nor even needed to occur. The ostensibly tragic ending of The Regulators feels more random and arbitrary than devastating; it’s so muddled and nonsensical that even the surviving characters don’t bother to make much sense of it.

Worse still, King quickly, lazily moves on from the tantalizing prospect of local law enforcement officers struggling to understand how an entire neighborhood was blown to hell with futuristic weapons when no one from the adjacent streets saw or heard or even suspected anything, just as he inexplicably added an already-psychotic villain to the anxious rural setting of Under the Dome, immediately robbing that novel of all of its tension; King has made clear his love for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and yet one suspects that if King had written that fine novel instead of Golding, he’d have rearranged the plot so that Jack Merridew kills Piggy before the boys even wash ashore on the island.

Let us address for a moment the unfortunate plot summary on the novel’s back cover:

There’s a place in Wentworth, Ohio, where summer is in full swing. It’s called Poplar Street. Up until now it’s been a nice place to live. The idling red van around the corner is about to change all that. Let the battle against evil begin.

Here come…

The Regulators

It’s admirable how little this humble summary spoils in the way of plot details; it reads more like a teaser for a Christine sequel than anything. But like many a Stephen King paragraph, it goes on for a sentence or two longer than it should. Seriously: “Let the battle against evil begin”? Has there ever in the history of publishing been a reader who felt persuaded or seduced by such stumbling, lazy promotional hackwork? If I was a publisher and one of my employees even playfully suggested using the word “evil” on the back cover summary of one of my company’s novels, I would fire the stupid son of a bitch.

Here are some passages from the novel that would serve as stronger, more enticing teasers than that clunky embarrassment above:

God help her, she was back from her safe place, and the demon hiding inside her dead brother’s autistic little boy had caught her trying to escape.

It’s like Alice in Wonderland, only the Nine Inch Nails version.

I asked if Seth was awake & Herb said no, he’d been down the hall to check and Seth was fast asleep. That gave me a chill I can’t describe. Because it meant we were standing there at our bedroom window in our pj’s and looking out at our nephew’s dream. It was there in the back yard like a big pink soap bubble.

Here is a passage that is quietly exasperating for the longtime King fan:

The idea he’s having now is every bit as strong as that one, but quite a bit more optimistic: the shooters are gone, at least for the time being. There’s no way he can know that, but he feels certain of it, just the same.

Some variation of “there’s no way he can know that, but he feels certain of it, just the same” appears in nearly every novel Stephen King has ever written. It appears twice in The Regulators:

Cammie seems not to hear. She is looking at the spinning red thing with wide, unblinking eyes, as if hypnotized… and it is looking back at her. Johnny doesn’t know how he can know this, but he does.

But perhaps at this point I am nitpicking. For all the weariness with which I regard King’s lesser habits, I readily admit that no one has provided me with more hours of entertainment; I sent an e-mail to my friend and fellow King enthusiast Mike Noyes as I was putting the finishing touches on this essay, and he startled me in his reply by casually noting that he has never read any Stephen King novel more than once, whereas I have read several of King’s books three or four times.

One could rightly suggest, then, that I should quit my bitching. I would counter that it is because I love King’s work so deeply that I am so eager to see it improve. And it can improve. Stephen King can rise above his more self-conscious, self-serving instincts.

There’s no way I can know this, but I feel certain of it, just the same.

The Struggle to Believe in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; September 30, 2010

The word “fuck” appears 1,758 times in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher.  Some of the more creative variations include fuggin’, thuck (when the speaker’s face has been removed), huck (when the speaker’s teeth have been kicked out), fooking (when the speaker is Irish), fuh-fuh-fuh (when the speaker is paralyzed), a “fu” followed next panel by a “ck” (when the speaker watches someone get shot midword), plus a huggk (when the speaker is gagged),  and even a drawn-out version that takes up an entire three-panel page; the letter u appears 48 times in that one (the speaker is falling off a cliff).

Jesse Custer the eponymous clergyman says “fuck” a lot. So does his girlfriend, Tulip, a little girl raised by her daddy to love guns, until Daddy gets shot during a hunting accident and Tulip learns to hate guns… until she becomes a hitwoman. Jesse’s pal Cassidy says “fuck” more than any other character in the series, and indeed my favorite use of the word is probably this inspired declaration by Cassidy, not just Jesse’s friend but also an Irish vampire: “Oh fuck. It’s God.” In a special issue dedicated to Cassidy (collected in the Dixie Fried graphic novel), “fuck” appears 56 times; at least once per page until page eight, which features no dialogue at all.

Even the angels of Heaven say “fuck” in Preacher, a popular but controversial late-‘90s comic book series which includes 66 issues plus a half-dozen or so “specials” (non-continuity tales), all collected in nine graphic novel paperbacks with striking painted covers by Glenn Fabry. The plot of the long, engaging, uneven series concerns Jesse Custer’s quest for God. Specifically, Custer has a superpower of sorts called “The Word”, which gives his every command the absolute authority of God’s word; if Jesse Custer told you to put a gun to your head and pull the trigger, you would not hesitate to obey. (His eyes helpfully turn an angry red whenever he uses his power.) Jesse’s gift quickly leads him to discover that God has vacated his throne, and so Jesse and his two unlikely companions set off to find Him. As Cassidy puts it, “You’re lookin’ for God—I mean literally, not some soul-searchin’ bullshit.”

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Spawn creator Todd McFarlane once said that a hero is only as good as his villain, and so by making Spawn fight the devil (or a devil, at least), McFarlane was trying to subtly imply that his creation was superior to all other superheroes. Clearly, Preacher creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon know something Todd McFarlane doesn’t know: if you wish to create an imposing, insurmountable David-and-Goliath scenario for your hero, then God, not Satan, is the greatest villain of all. Here, then, are some of the many things Preacher has to say about God:

Tulip, who freely admits “I think He’s a piece of shit”, asks Jesse, “What will you do when you get the Almighty by the balls?” Custer—who refers to God at one point as “the good fuckin’ Lord” and later demands, “Where is He?! Where the fuck is God?!” and boasts, “God don’t stand a fuckin’ chance”—offers a succinct reply: “Squeeze.” An angel protests Jesse’s callous blasphemy by insisting, “But he is the Lord of Hosts!”  Jesse answers, “Yeah, an’ he can wait his goddamn turn.” God offers a privileged, oblivious protest of His own: “But it’s my creation…!” In response, the longsuffering Saint of Killers—a brutal murderer in the Old West, manipulated by God into replacing the Angel of Death as “the patron saint of slaughter and assassination”—says, “It’s outgrown you.” Not to be outdone, Cassidy cheerfully offers the following: “Having met the Good Lord face to face, I think I can honestly say he’s a bit of a prick.” He also asks a fellow bloodsucker, “What’re yeh scared’ve crosses for, ‘cause some bollicks got nailed to one a couple’ve thousand years ago?” Cassidy eventually admits, “I still can’t get me head round it. Findin’ God, punishin’ God—it’s too big. Too abstract.”  Jesse Custer is dismissive: “Only if you allow it to be. He did wrong. He fucked people up. He has to be made to face it. You look at it that way, He’s just another son of a bitch.” (The dialogue and captions in comic books are written in all caps; I do not know whether Jesse Custer—or Garth Ennis—would approve of my proper-noun status for “He”.) Meanwhile, and perhaps most resonantly, the Saint of Killers marvels aloud, “Why can a man not turn to doing good without the Lord getting all mixed up in it?” But Preacher’s boldest statement about God might be a panel with no dialogue or narration at all: God is shot dead. This is of course presented as a happy ending.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith, in his introduction to Preacher’s second volume, Until the End of the World, writes, “As a man who has an unflappable, fervent, and devout faith in God… I know—in my heart and soul—the Lord to be mighty, just, loving, and righteous… and a huge fan of Preacher.” Smith wrote the above fairly early in Preacher’s run. It would be interesting to see whether he still feels this way, especially in light of Jesse Custer’s mission statement: “God has to go… He deserves it for the things He’s done, but more than that the world just plain needs to be rid of Him.” (To give you a sense of how much pop cultural time has elapsed since Smith’s misguided but well-intended comments about God’s favorable stance on Preacher, his post-intro bio mentions the imminent release of Chasing Amy, then continues, “His next assignment is putting words in the mouth of Clark Kent and his Kryptonian alter ego in the new Superman movie from Warner Bros.”)

Really, though, for all its “We’re gonna get you, God!” swagger, Preacher doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to bother with the Almighty. Consider: the first line in the first issue of Preacher is, “This where you’re gonna start lookin’ for Him, Jesse?” and the final word from that debut issue is “Bang”. And really, that about sums up God’s role in Preacher. God serves the same function in Preacher that Montana serves in Lonesome Dove; He is a destination for our heroes to aim for so that they can change throughout their journey—or not change, in the case of the characters in Preacher, as I’ll discuss later. God is there for our protagonists to rail against and to curse and to threaten, and yet he is never really there in any meaningful way. God is mentioned repeatedly, and He pops up for the occasional cameo appearance, if only to remind the reader that He does indeed exist—at least in the Preacher universe. And He also serves as a convenient deus ex machina a time or three. And then He is shot dead: Bang.

And he is not the only one. The (many) shootouts in Preacher remind me of an old Gary Larson Far Side strip featuring an Old West sheriff admonishing his posse before a gunfight: “If you do get plugged, for gosh sakes don’t just slump over and die. Put some drama into it and throw yourself screaming from the edge.” You see, no one in Preacher gets shot without physical drama to spare. You rightly respond, “Surely there should be physical drama when someone is shot”, but in the pages of Preacher, most bullets seem to strike the face, with the result that “fuck” barely appears more often than flaps of skin that used to be noses and gaping, bloody caverns in place of jaws. I was reminded of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and while I happen to think Natural Born Killers is a good film, it’s only a couple hours long; if it was made into, say, a long-running HBO series, then the over-the-top violence would quickly lose whatever impact it has, both as clever commentary and as simple cultural shock-and-awe.

Preacher was published by Vertigo, a popular dumping ground for DC’s non-superhero comics, most of which are deemed too controversial to share a publishing logo with Batman and Aquaman and the like. Vertigo was a popular imprint in the 1990s, because no matter how fantastic the plots, the characters in a given Vertigo title would at least speak like real people… or more like real people than Flash or Green Lantern, anyway. More often than not, Preacher takes this ostensibly realistic approach to dialogue too far; as noted above, even the angels in Heaven drop the F-bomb. To cite another example, when a detective approaches a hysterical, grieving widow and asks, “Is this your husband’s scrotum?” one is startled right out of the story, not because the writing is edgy or daring but because the dialogue has become distractingly implausible. That the detective in question is a vicious homophobe who turns out to be a gay connoisseur of S&M might seem to justify his distracted, gruff conduct with the widow—it must be taxing, living with such self-hatred—but in reality it just makes the plot feel as tired as most of the dialogue.

The problem with the kind of stupid humor that permeates Preacher (a hillbilly engaging in sexual congress with a chicken, say, or a self-inflicted shotgun-blast victim drooling and saying “For sure!”—or “Fuh shuh!”—to every question) is that such humor makes it difficult for the reader to invest in the supposed intensity of the dramatic scenes that surround all the stupidity. Likewise, the problem with excessive profanity is that there is no impact during those times when profanity is truly warranted. For example, Jesse Custer visits his deranged, abusive family members, who were responsible for the murder of Jesse’s mother and father when Jesse was just a child. He tells them, “I owe you pissant white trash cocksucking sons of bitches all the hurt in the fuckin’ world,” and it’s got almost no power, because he talks that way to everyone he meets, from his girlfriend to his granny to his God. Compare this to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, which features no profanity whatsoever until Inigo Montoya finally delivers his oft-practiced speech of vengeance to his father’s killer. When the killer pleas, “I’ll give you anything you want”, Montoya responds, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.” That one use of the phrase “son of a bitch” is more powerful than any hundred shouts of “Fuck!” in Preacher.

Still, the series does boast a number of inviting opening lines, including “First time John Wayne spoke to me I was five years old, not long after seein’ my daddy get shot through the head” (Issue 4) and “Well, well. If it isn’t the woman that nobody fucks with” (Issue 33) and “Life without genitalia, day fifty-one” (Issue 59) and “Between the stink of my shit an’ puke an’ piss an’ the noise from what was crawlin’ around outside, my week in the coffin kind of sucked.” (Issue 10). (You would expect that a line about having spent a week in a coffin would be uttered by the vampire, but not in this case.)

And Ennis has a way with dialogue in general, if only sporadically. The first time God serves as a deus ex machina is when he brings Tulip back to life after Jesse watches his family members shoot her. The lovers don’t talk much when she first returns; they’re too busy screwing. Eventually, though, Jesse says, “I kinda skipped this before, ‘cause I figured you mightn’t wanna talk about it—But what was it like gettin’ shot through the head?” That sounds like just the sort of unintentionally tactless question a man like Jesse Custer would ask a person. It also has the pleasant effect of making Jesse’s relationship with Tulip feel believable, which is pretty important to establish after an otherwise absentee God just brought her back to life; one must enjoy quite a level of intimacy with another person to feel comfortable asking a question like “What was it like gettin’ shot through the head?”

The dialogue also shines when the characters playfully taunt one another in what’s often an endearing fashion. Cassidy admits at one point that he might be a bit insecure, to which Jesse replies, “I hate that goddamned word. Insecure: goddamn late-Eighties pop-psychology asshole’s fuckin’ buzzword.” Soon, Cassidy suggests that perhaps Jesse needs “a wee chat wi’ his inner child”. And later, “Yeh might just be in denial… get some downtime an’ really try to process yer issues.” Or there’s the scene wherein our heroic trio crashes a sex party in search of bad types, and Cassidy is accosted by a goth chick who says, “Hit me! Bite me! I want you to bite me!” and Cass replies, “Heh heh heh! No yeh don’t!” The host of this party, Jesus de Sade promotes himself thusly: “We in the Gomorrah people are interested primarily in physical gratification: in smashing through the boundaries of base and boring everyday society. In tasting of forbidden fruit, and luxuriating in our defiance of an old, defeated god.” Jesse Custer is less than impressed: “You mean you fuck a lot.”

And see, I don’t mind Jesse’s use of the F-bomb there; that word can add a lot to a joke, when used sparingly. But this here is better, and it boasts not a single utterance of the F-word: Jesse Custer visits the Empire State Building and marvels at the New York City timeline (complete with Twin Towers): “It looks like… every goddamn movie I ever seen of the place… like every movie they ever made about here’s really happened, somewhere way down in all that smoky streetlight.”

Tulip gets a few opportunities to shine as well, though often as not her buddy Amy steals the scene, as in this exchange:

Tulip:  Well, you know how Jesse makes such a big deal about honor and loyalty? I mean, it’s a very guy thing to do… I guess it’s a girl thing, too. But we don’t have to turn everything into an ideal, we just get on with it.

Amy:   We don’t read enough Hemingway.

Unfortunately, there’s also lots of dialogue like “Your father’s severed penis is stuck in his colon” and “I will have vengeance… and if I have a face like an arse—so be it! I will become Arseface!” Such nonsense is what drags Preacher down from the lofty heights where it belongs.

The third Preacher book, Proud Americans is a dramatic improvement over its predecessors. Jesse Custer runs into a Vietnam buddy of his dad’s, who offers to tell Jesse about the father he can’t remember. For once, Jesse is neither flippant nor dismissive nor sarcastic nor ironic. For once, after nearly twenty issues filled with melodramatic posturing, Jesse manages to appear engaged without being profane. Finally, Jesse Custer is quietly earnest:

Billy Baker: Jesse… do you wanna know a little about your daddy? ‘Bout what happened to us three in the ‘Nam? ‘Cause I hope I ain’t outta line here, but I think he’d of been cool about you hearin’ it.”

Jesse Custer: Yes sir, I’d like that more’n anything.

Later, a mellow scene featuring star-struck marines meeting John Wayne is richer and more satisfying than all the combined vengeance and wrath in the first two volumes, Gone to Texas and Until the End of the World. Proud Americans is not without its tired gags, including a really, really fat villain who’s apparently supposed to be entertaining simply because he’s fat, plus the inbred descendant of Jesus Christ. But you might expect that a writer could do a lot with a power like Jesse Custer’s, and in Proud Americans, Garth Ennis does not disappoint. Though Preacher is not a superhero comic book, Preacher #24 (collected in Proud Americans) features arguably the all-time most clever and inspired use of a superpower: Jesse Custer enters a chamber where a moody mobster named Frankie the Eunuch is torturing Cassidy. Frankie immediately points his gun at Jesse and says, “First word outta your mouth I swear to fuckin’ God you’re dead before the second. I know you, motherfucker… I know what you can do! One fuckin’ word, motherfucker! One word!” Jesse’s eyes glow red, and he offers a lone command: “Miss.”

That single panel featuring Jesse Custer ordering a gunman to miss is what turned me into a Preacher fan. Unfortunately, there are six more collections to wade through after that delightful moment, and they’re maddeningly uneven. Proud Americans did not represent the start of an escalating improvement, as I’d hoped. Instead, Garth Ennis seems to improve in the same manner Marilyn Manson improves: intermittently, at best. The fourth volume in the series is called Ancient History, and it exhibits a particularly stark plummet in quality. Collecting a trio of Preacher miniseries, Ancient History begins with a personable, enthusiastic introduction by Garth Ennis, and a stirring, giddy love letter of an opening two-page spread, featuring narration that mixes real-life figures of the American West with such fictional legends as Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, until even the narrator admits, “It’s been so long since then that I no longer know just which of them are truth… and which are only legends.” From there, alas, it’s pretty much consistently downhill. Some scenes are set in Hell, during which time the story takes on some of that lumbering, early-‘90s, desperately grim ‘n gritty feel that seemed to pervade every comic book in those days. At its worst, parts of Ancient History almost read like a forgotten story from the pages of those Spawn comics I mentioned earlier.

Volume five, Dixie Fried begins with a special issue dedicated to Jesse’s good friend Cassidy, though the plot mostly just serves as a foundation for a series of comical mockeries of Anne Rice’s overwrought Vampire Chronicles. Cass meets a fellow vampire for the first time, and is disheartened to see that his fellow creature of the night is a wanker (or, as Cassidy puts it, “Wanker. Noun. One who wanks.”). Cassidy’s interactions with the pretentious Eccarius are frequently hilarious:

Eccarius: How could they know the torment that we face? Of never quite belonging, always looking in from out here in the cold… the exquisite hell of a life both blessed and cursed…

Cassidy: Aye. Torment.

Eccarius is fond of pretentious phrases like “christened in crimson” and “a nativity of moonlight and nightmare”. He gives a whole page-long speech filled with such gibberish, only to realize he is alone; Cassidy has joined a nearby crowd of drunken fratboys chanting “Show your tits!” to a girl on a nearby balcony.

One of Eccarius’s human groupies is an obvious jab at Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Coraline. He even writes a poem for Eccarius—Cassidy notes, “Now how did I know it wasn’t gonna rhyme?”—which ends with the word “dream”, a clear nod to Gaiman’s Morpheus character from the Sandman series. This playful knock at Gaiman would carry more weight if Gaiman’s Sandman wasn’t so vastly superior to Preacher. Still, it’s good for a laugh.

What’s most notable about Dixie Fried—which begins with a tale of Cassidy at his most lovable and amusing—is that it’s where we first start to sense that Cassidy isn’t quite the great guy we like to think he is. This is a refreshing development that goes a long way toward preventing Preacher from becoming completely stagnant; in volume six, titled War in the Sun, Jesse brags to Tulip, “None of that ever changed me, not who I really am. Nothin’ does.” And that’s the problem: Cassidy changes for the worse as we discover what a cruel, selfish shit he is—and kudos to Ennis for taking such a daring step with arguably the most charming character in the series—but at least he changes. Jesse only changes in the sense that, for every ten scenes of macho mayhem, he might show his sentimental side once or twice. These displays of sentiment quickly lose impact, however, because they almost always revolve around the same character: Tulip, who undergoes no more significant change than Jesse.

Tulip’s monopoly on Jesse’s affection goes mostly unchallenged until issue 42 (collected in Salvation, Preacher’s seventh volume), which ends with the greatest cliffhanger in the entire series. Jesse has been betrayed by Tulip and Cassidy, and so he becomes a wanderer. He ends up in a small Texas town named Salvation, where he meets a gruff older woman. During a conversation between the two, the woman is surprised to turn around and find Jesse standing close and studying her intently. As when he told Frankie the Eunuch to miss, Jesse here needs only one word to prove how much Ennis can make a reader care about his characters despite his lesser impulses as a writer. Here is the cliffhanger: “Mom?”

The hug that follows means more than all the bloodshed we’ve witnessed thus far, and yet Ennis and Dillon don’t seem to learn their lesson. A scene like the mother and child reunion is inevitably followed by a Nazi dominatrix, or a villain who combines various cuts of meat into a gigantic sculpture of a woman and then fucks it, or a trio of retarded hillbilly cannibals living in a coal mine, or Arseface—the gunshot kid who always says “fuh shuh!”—visiting his furruh uhzmuhyuh (“fairy arsemother”) or Jesse Custer watching his soul mate and his best friend betray him with a kiss and responding by falling backward onto the ground like a zany neighbor character fainting in a tired sitcom.

Through most of its run, Preacher puts forth a decidedly conservative take on the world. Jesse Custer often comes across like the king in Braveheart, who unceremoniously tosses his son’s gay lover to his death. We can sympathize with Jesse’s disgust when he realizes, for example, that he’s holding a man’s dildo. But while I would feel disgust at the realization of where the thing had been, one gets the sense that Jesse is just disgusted that a man would even have a dildo. However, in many sections of Salvation, Preacher raises the liberal flag. But whatever the politics, violence is always the solution. (Yet again I am reminded of the title character from Spawn, who solved everything from child abuse to racism through stylish, vigilante murder.)

The eighth volume, All Hell’s A-Coming is easily the best book since Proud Americans, though the standalone story “Tall in the Saddle” is an ill fit—all the special issues should have been combined into a single collection so that the remaining volumes would feel less disjointed. But ignoring “Tall in the Saddle”, All Hell’s A-Coming does a bang-up job of fleshing out Cassidy’s fall from grace as the reader’s favorite character; imagine if J.K. Rowling had decided to reveal in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Ron Weasley had a history of abusing girls and betraying his loved ones. Tulip’s friend Amy describes Cassidy as a “nervous little boy”. Another woman says he’s “the nicest piece a’ shit I ever did meet”. Cassidy spent years beating women and turning tricks to support his heroin habit. Once, he hit a woman so hard that she lost an eye; one wonders whether, from Jesse Custer’s perspective, the low point in Cassidy’s sordid life wasn’t crippling an innocent woman, but sucking another man’s dick. Finally, Jesse Custer discovers that Cassidy has been essentially keeping Tulip in a drugged stupor for months, arguably raping her. Issue 57 ends on an unusually subtle and understated cliffhanger: Cassidy at the door. Nothing is said, because nothing needs saying. I’ve hinted before at how much Garth Ennis can accomplish with a single word when he’s at his best, and the cliffhanger finale to issue 57 proves that Ennis and Dillon make excellent use of silent panels, as well—there simply aren’t enough of them.

The ninth and final volume of the Preacher series is called Alamo. Alamo proves that Preacher isn’t Jesse Custer’s story. It’s Cassidy’s. This is confirmed for good in issue 66, the series finale, wherein Cassidy says to Jesse, “I can’t help wondering if maybe the big job you took on wasn’t really about God and everything, about saving the world or whatever. If maybe it was more about saving me.”  It’s probably no coincidence that Proud Americans, the greatest book in the entire series, features a number of issues exploring Cassidy’s origins. But Preacher is not just Cassidy’s story. Preacher is Cassidy. It is vulgar and crass and stupid and stunted, and it seemingly cannot resist fucking up its own potential at every turn. And yet there are enough glimmers of goodness and greatness lurking beneath all the shit that you feel compelled to keep giving it another chance, even as it’s spitting incest and vomit and Arsefaces in your face. And like Cassidy, Preacher finally makes you proud in the end. Indeed, a final gesture of Cassidy’s even brought tears to my eyes. (The last page made me cry a little, too, not least because of its title, the last of many Preacher salutes to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove). The curious thing about the gesture in question is this: all Cassidy really does is tell someone the truth and admit he’d lied before. What is it in humans that makes us so enamored when bad people try to do good?

One thing I’ve wondered about for ten years or more is Jesse Custer’s power. It’s called The Word, which was also the name of the city newspaper that employed Spider Jerusalem in Transmetropolitan, the creation of Garth Ennis’s friend, Warren Ellis. Is there some subtle, secret connection here, or was Warren Ellis just having some fun and sending a nod his best mate’s way? Speaking of Transmetropolitan, its artist, Darick Robertson provides a consistent, grounding look to that series, and ignoring the guest artists who contributed to the various Preacher specials and miniseries, Steve Dillon does the same for Preacher. However, flipping back to Until the End of the World for reference after finishing Alamo proved to be rather startling; Dillon’s illustrations featured far more cross-hatched detail in the early issues, with the strange result that the characters seem to grow younger and cleaner as the story progresses. Otherwise, Dillon’s illustrations, always lively and intriguing and intelligently composed—if also too often redundant thanks to Ennis’s scripts mandating gunfights every third issue or so—are almost too consistent, at times. Steve Dillon’s portraits all tend to blend together; everyone seems to share the same scowl, and there’s something in the eyes that makes all the characters appear to be distantly related to one another. In Heaven, a warrior breed of angels called the Seraphi are pupilless, which is actually nice, ‘cause it means they’re the only characters who don’t resemble every other character.

Another question: do the gods of other faiths exist in the Preacher universe, too?  God is real; is Buddha? Allah? I assume Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are atheists, but if so, they clearly decided that it’d be more subversive to skewer God within a He-does-exist context. Also, there is an odd Babel touch in issue 20: The Word only works on those who understand English. Presumably, a deaf person would be immune too, then; at one point, a woman successfully evades the Word’s power simply by covering her ears. This seems to be quite a reckless loophole.

It seems to me that most Preacher fans discovered the series at a young age. Back in the 1990s, its defenders would probably have suggested that Preacher’s every gunshot and titty shot and F-bomb was a knowing, brilliant parody. If it were released today, would those same fans still admire its armchair vigilante posturing? Or would its fans discover that Preacher is mostly just ugly and silly and—for all its giant-toppling attacks on pretentiousness—painfully self-serious? (This does not contradict my assertion that the series is filled with far too much lazy, lowbrow humor; it really is a perplexing combination of stupid humor and tiresome self-seriousness.) If Preacher’s longtime fans were to take a fresh look at its nine uneven volumes today, would nostalgia keep them from noticing its flaws, or would they banish it to the realm of other crude, corny, ostensibly shocking ‘90s relics like South Park, Attitude-era WWF shows and Kevin Smith movies?

Speaking of Kevin Smith, I quoted his Until the End of the World introduction earlier, and I’d like to do so again. Smith suggests that, “This is not a book full of sensationalistic crap.” This from an introduction to a volume featuring chicken-fucking hillbillies, countless characters being shot through the head (including the protagonist’s father on the very first page), a depraved party for wealthy perverts where one of the guests sings “Let’s fist again, like we did last summer”, someone getting a bicycle parked in his ass, and 252 appearances of the word “fuck” in 255 comic book pages. I’m reminded of pro wrestler Mick Foley, who once admonished his fans for writing “Foley is God” on their signs, but admitted that “Foley is Good” wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. And so, in closing, I offer a more accurate version of Kevin Smith’s introduction:

This is a book full of sensationalistic crap. But it’s also pretty good.

Sometimes.

A Tribute to My First Favorite Wrestler

By Monte Williams

 

I didn’t discover comic books until my twenties, and so it fell to professional wrestlers to provide me with fodder for my adolescent power fantasies. I was an asthmatic and eccentric child, and the baffled indifference with which I regarded competitive sports resulted in an awkward situation from which I never really recovered. Put simply, by age ten, all my friends possessed what struck me as an intimidating grasp of the impenetrably complex rules of football and basketball. I timidly attempted to join in on a hasty game of the latter during a hot afternoon recess in fifth grade, and the coach and my buddy Joseph both playfully mocked me for “traveling”, whatever that means. Thus ended my flirtation with athleticism. (The same panicky feeling of inadequacy arises even now whenever I am confronted with that other traditional masculine activity: automotive repair. Just setting foot inside a Les Schwab shop leaves me feeling uneasy.)

Small wonder that I found such solace and inspiration in the clumsy cartoon narratives of what was known at the time as the World Wrestling Federation. The wrestler who carried most of the burden of my wishful thinking in the late ‘80s was the Ultimate Warrior. His theme song was a pounding, thrash-metal assault which served as a brilliant compliment to the Warrior’s aggressive personality, and to the almost unsettling frenetic energy with which he would race to the ring and overwhelm his hapless opponents; there has never been a piece of entrance music more perfectly suited to a wrestler, and I would celebrate my every trivial conquest by loudly performing a Beavis-and-Butthead-style a cappella rendition of the Warrior’s theme.

But the Warrior wasn’t my first hero, nor was he the WWF’s most gifted or charismatic performer. The stories he told in the ring were frequently the most exciting, but they were never the most inspiring or—yeah, I’ll say it—the most resonant. Because the Warrior, for all his power and confidence, wasn’t the best. The best was the first. My first.

My first hero. “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

I was fortunate to avoid the wrath of bullies. Still, I had something of a victim’s manic love of underdogs, particularly defiant underdogs. And it was his reckless defiance that made me a fan of the Macho Man, and of the WWF in general. I’d tried once or twice before to watch wrestling shows, but I’d always found them unpleasant and tiresome. Then something persuaded me to watch for a moment one Saturday morning in 1988. I say “something”, but it’s no mystery—Randy Savage persuaded me.

The jaded, tired, cynical thirty-five-year-old who is writing this essay knows that what he saw that day was just a wrestling “angle” designed to setup the main event of the first SummerSlam pay-per-view, but at age eleven, I saw two villains standing in a wrestling ring—it was the Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase and his bodyguard Virgil, not that I knew their names that day—and I saw a tan, muscular, bearded freak on a stage nearby, and he was wearing leather pants and tassels and giant sunglasses, and he was challenging both the bad guys to a fight at the same time, and it was the most courageous, daring taunt I’d ever witnessed (“in my whole life,” my eleven-year-old self would no doubt hasten to add). Further, the raucous cheers of vigilante endorsement from the crowd clearly implied that this lunatic in purple leather really could fight two guys at once—and win!

I believe Savage’s exact words were, “I’ll take on you and your ugly bodyguard right now.” Hardly the wittiest challenge, admittedly. But when I consider the dizzying number of hours I have spent watching and reading about professional wrestling since 1988, I feel certain that those ten words had a greater impact on me than any other phrase in popular culture. Again, what I found so enthralling was the Macho Man’s brash defiance. I lived in mortal fear of ever having to fight another boy, and this guy? He’s ready to fight two dudes at once! Whoa.

Macho Man was the champion at the time, and that surely added to his appeal. Kids are always drawn to the leader or the strongest character from a group of heroes, and a champion is the strongest (or best) and a leader of sorts. But Hulk Hogan had been the champion, too, and would be again (and again… and again… and again, including a brief reign in the impossibly far-off year of 2002), and yet, while I adored and cheered Hogan, my feelings for him were never quite as intense as what I felt when I’d watch the Macho Man wrestle. For one thing, Hogan was such a massive beast that it was difficult to convince oneself that he was ever really in jeopardy; no doubt this partly accounts for why his program with Andre the Giant was so compelling: for once, Hogan was the victim of someone much meaner and much, much bigger. As such, he was relatable for perhaps the first time. As concerns his ability to create an almost desperate level of sympathy in his audience, the Macho Man was always relatable, which is no small feat considering his character was intense and insane, and also prone to wearing outfits that even Prince might dismiss as too loud.

Too often, the ill will with which two wrestlers toss taunts and threats at one another feels contrived and flat and unconvincing. This was seldom the case with the Macho Man, and it was never the case in any of his blood feuds, especially when he was the good guy; when he threw himself at Bad News Brown or Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the Macho Man didn’t just make everyone believe he hated his opponent—he convinced everyone in the audience that he wanted to kill the son of a bitch.

And yet, Christ, could he ever make you hate him. What a vicious motherfucker! Why, he betrayed Hulk Hogan! He grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off Brutus Beefcake’s mullet! He cost the Warrior the championship and treated his valet Elizabeth like shit and man, I fucking hate the Macho Man!

But never for long. On some level, we always longed to cheer him.

I was never a WCW fan, and so for me, when Randy Savage left the WWF in 1994 to perform in WCW, his career effectively ended. And really, I’d been slipping away from pro wrestling for a few years by that point, so that I was only half-aware of Savage’s second championship reign and his final feud in the WWF, wherein his opponent was a big monster named Crush. No doubt I missed out on many a magical Macho Man moment, but it’s for the best, ‘cause in my mind, the career of Randy “Macho Man” Savage ended in grand fashion… at WrestleMania VII, with his legendary retirement match against the Ultimate Warrior.

The bad guy in the main event that night was Sgt. Slaughter, but make no mistake: Randy Savage was the most hated man in the WWF. He had turned against Hulk Hogan and Elizabeth more than two years prior, and he’d been irredeemable ever since, and so everyone was thrilled to see the Warrior soundly thrash him and end his career. (Spoiler alert: that stipulation was not honored.) In retrospect, perhaps fans even regretted having cheered the bastard during his brief stint as a hero; he’d always been so cruel towards Elizabeth throughout the early years of his career, and what had he ever done to make amends? Had we really been so willing to forgive the abusive creep just because he stopped beating up good guys and started beating up the Honky Tonk Man? What the hell were we thinking? Screw that guy! And look, the Warrior just beat him and ended his career. Good! Good riddance!

But then something unexpected happened.

Elizabeth hadn’t appeared in the WWF for a year, and yet she was in attendance that night, seemingly just to sell the importance of the match. She’d loved Savage for years, after all, and so it only made sense that she would want to be there to witness the match that would determine his professional fate. Sure, he’d hired the deranged, violent Sensational Sherri as his manager, but still, there was a history between Elizabeth and Savage…

Elizabeth didn’t stay seated in the audience. When Savage lost the match, Sherri opted to express her disappointment by kicking him repeatedly as he lay beaten on the mat, until finally Elizabeth, who weighed all of ninety-five pounds, raced to the ring and threw Sherri to the floor, after which Macho Man rose groggily to his feet and regarded Elizabeth with his default expression: angry suspicion. And after several tense minutes, and with the encouragement of an increasingly if still cautiously optimistic crowd, Savage finally set aside all his paranoia and rage: he and Elizabeth embraced in the middle of the ring, and suddenly the most hated man in wrestling was everyone’s hero again.

I just watched this stirring scene for perhaps the tenth or fifteenth time, and once again I was struck by the number of fans in the audience who openly weep at the unexpectedly sweet and triumphant conclusion to the tumultuous saga of Randy Savage and Elizabeth. It is not often that professional wrestling makes its viewers cry.

Wrestling is frequently a disappointment for me these days, during the rare periods when I bother to watch it regularly. It is also an exercise in frustration, although I recognize, in my more lucid and objective moments, that it’s really no more dumb or pandering today than it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Sadly, just as there are limits to how much pleasure I can derive from wrestling today, there are also limits now to the extent to which I find inspiration in the reconciliation between Savage and Elizabeth, simply because there are limits to the extent to which I am able to forget that in real life the couple divorced just a few months later, and Elizabeth eventually died of a drug overdose.

Still, it all must mean something to me, all these years later. ‘Cause it has taken me a year to express how deflated and defeated and sad this perpetually eleven-year-old man in his mid-thirties felt when first he heard the news that he must learn to navigate his timid, uncertain way through a world without a Macho Man.

A Prescription of Restraint and Subtlety for Slayer

By Monte Williams

Originally published by PopMatters; August 12, 2010

I have always thought it would be funny to put together a musical group to perform thrash-metal anthems in a sort of feminist-folksy manner while simultaneously producing covers of Lilith Fair ballads in the style of aggressive bands such as Anthrax and Pantera. I used to joke with friends that we could call the band Slayer McLachlan.

This wouldn’t require as much of a stretch as you might expect. Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan actually wrote a somewhat Slayeresque lyric of her own in “Hold On,” from 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: “Hold on to yourself, for this is gonna hurt like hell.”

It features the words “hurt” and “hell,” but McLachlan’s lyric has also got a direct, understated quality that makes it more powerful and somehow almost more threatening than most Slayer lyrics, even though it’s meant to be beautiful and dramatic, not menacing. This has happened for years now: artists keep doing Slayer better than Slayer ever could, usually by accident; Sarah McLachlan out-Slayers Slayer on an album that includes the lyric “your love is better than ice cream”.

Likewise, 4 Non Blondes produced pop music at its most accessible and least aggressive, and yet they managed to convey the effects of drug use (or perhaps simple lunacy) more convincingly than Slayer. A highlight of 1992’s Bigger, Better, Faster, More! is “Drifting,” wherein Linda Perry croons, “I reached for my hand, but it was already there.”

Compare this clever, knowing, subtle charmer of a lyric to a typically ham-fisted attempt by Slayer to describe a sense of unreality:

 

Close your eyes and forget your name

Step outside yourself and let your thoughts drain

As you go insane

Go insane

 

Again, the legendary Slayer (“loud, aggressive, and violent,” according to Rolling Stone) is not just undone, but undone by someone who was only trying to be cute; that 4 Non Blondes track also features the lyric “I fell out of a tiny raindrop that lost its way when it decided to roam”.

Though the narrative usually consists of nothing richer or more ambitious than a boy wanting to have sex with a girl, most songs manage to tell a story of sorts. And if a character in a novel or film or a song is developed properly, he needn’t yell or curse in order to scare us. Lonesome Dove’s Captain Woodrow Call beats a man nearly to death, and his justification isn’t wild threats or deranged profanity, but instead this calm concession: “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.”

Similarly, anyone who followed Joss Whedon’s Firefly for its dozen or so episodes on Fox knew to expect some seriously wicked doings in the show’s big-screen continuation, Serenity. In the trailer, Captain Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t need to bathe himself in blood or brag about the size of his penis. He just says “I aim to misbehave”, and since he’s a well-developed character, we know that he means it, and we are chilled and giddy at his four quiet words. (The film’s villain is no less subtly chilling; when Mal taunts him with the angry criticism “I don’t kill children”, the villain calmly replies, “I do.”)

This admirable creative restraint comes only to those writers who take the time and who have the skill to develop their characters. Here I’m thinking of Batman in the Justice League animated series, replying to Doctor Destiny’s threat of “I’ll be able to go in your brain, even if you’re wide awake” with, “My brain’s not a nice place to be.” I’m thinking of the Undertaker telling the Rock, “I may not dress like Satan anymore, but I’m still down with the devil.” I’m thinking of Doyle, the villain from Sling Blade, asking simple-minded Karl, “What’cha doin’ with that lawn mower blade?” And I’m thinking of Karl’s simple, modest answer: “I aim to kill you with it.”

The problem with Slayer, lyrically, is that they have never known how to pace their meager narratives or develop the characters that inhabit them. Nothing ever escalates in a Slayer song, for the simple reason that there’s nowhere left to go when you start out by screaming “Fuck Hell Die!” at the top of your lungs. (It will become clear by the end of this essay just how minimally I have exaggerated with this parody of a sample Slayer lyric.)

The chorus from Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” from the Young Guns II soundtrack is easily as badass as any Slayer lyric one could name:

 

I never drew first, but I drew first blood

I’m the devil’s son

 

Such an overt reference to the devil calls to mind another soundtrack highlight: Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch’s “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”, from O Brother Where Art Thou? Specifically, I am thinking of the following lyric:

 

You and me and the devil makes three

 

Marilyn Manson, every bit a subtle as Slayer, took that inspired, sexy line and made an entire obvious song out of it, like an enthusiastic but misguided kid insisting that all twenty-two minutes of a given Simpsons episode should be filled with Itchy and Scratchy.

Slayer’s lyrics are also staggeringly repetitive. I haven’t listened to a new Slayer album since 1996, but since this essay is a study of Slayer’s lyrics rather than their music, I simply let Google direct me to lyrics from the band’s more recent albums; for all intents and purposes, I could have simply copied and pasted the lyrics with which I was already familiar.

For example, I noticed during my research for this essay that the words “dead” or “death” appear fourteen times in the band’s debut album, Show No Mercy. You might argue that the band was in its infancy at the time (Show No Mercy was released in 1983); I would counter with this damning observation: the word “dead” or “death” appears more than forty times in Slayer’s latest album, World Painted Blood, released in 2009. And not a single instance is as haunting or perceptive as this 1998 gem, from Beck’s decidedly non-satanic “O Maria”:

 

Everybody knows that death creeps in slow, ‘till you feel safe in his arms

 

I could do this all day, as could most anyone. It is no great challenge to isolate a Slayer lyric at random and compare it pretty much arbitrarily to a lyric from nearly any other musical performer and find Slayer’s words wanting, not just as quality writing but as anything approaching menacing. Here are some examples that required nothing more than a half-assed stream-of-consciousness recollection of songs from my small iTunes collection:

Slayer Lyric from “Hardening of the Arteries”:

Convulsions take the world in hand

Paralysis destroys

Nobody’s out there to save us

Brutal seizure

Now we die

 

Danzig Lyric from “Thirteen”:

I’ve got a long line of heartache

I carry it well

The list of lives I’ve broken

Reach from here to Hell

 

Slayer Lyric from “Dead Skin Mask”:

Incised members ornaments on my being

Adulating the skin before me

 

Ozzy Osbourne Lyric from “Diary of a Madman”:

Enemies fill up the pages.

Are they me?

 

Slayer Lyric from “New Faith”:

I won’t be force fed prophecies

From a book of untruths for the weakest mind

I keep the bible in a pool of blood

So that none of its lies can affect me

 

Danzig Lyric from “Bringer of Death”:

See the devil kiss the hand of God

See the devil crying tears of flame

See the devil bite the hand of Christ

And know the devil is the work of God

 

Slayer Lyric from “Sex, Murder, Art”:

You’re nothing

An object of animation

A subjective mannequin

Beaten into submission

Raping again and again…

 

Toadies Lyric from “Tyler”:

I find a window in the kitchen, and I let myself in

Rummage through the refrigerator, find myself a beer

I can’t believe I’m really here, and she’s lying in that bed

I can almost feel her touch, and her anxious breath

I stumble in the hallway, outside the bedroom door

I hear her call out to me, I hear the fear in her voice

She pulls the covers tighter, I press against the door

I will be with her tonight!

 

Another Slayer Lyric from “Sex, Murder, Art”:

The urge to take my fist

And violate every orifice

 

Rolling Stones Lyric from “Paint it Black”:

I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

 

Slayer Lyric from “Payback”:

I’m going to tear your fucking eyes out

Rip your fucking flesh off

Beat you till you’re just a fucking lifeless carcass

 

Danzig Lyric from “Left Hand Black”:

Gonna bring you God in the palm of a left hand black

 

Slayer Lyric from “Live Undead”:

Night grows cold, twilight’s near

On the edge of madness the wounds are sheared

Forms of hanging, flesh shredded carcass

No spared breath

Imprisoned in a shell, ready to explode

Dead soul

Stone cold

Out into the night

 

Michael Jackson Lyric from “Thriller”:

Night creatures calling

The dead start to walk in their masquerade

There’s no escaping the jaws of the alien this time

This is the end of your life

 

To be fair, that “Thriller” lyric isn’t anymore menacing than a given Slayer lyric. If anything, it’s pretty much exactly as menacing as a given Slayer lyric. But that’s kind of the point: it’s a Michael Jackson lyric!

 

Slayer Lyric from “Criminally Insane”:

Branded in pain

Marked criminally insane

Locked away and kept restrained

Disapprobation, but what have I done

I have yet only just begun

To take your fuckin’ lives!

 

Tim Rice Lyric:

My teeth and ambitions are bared

Be prepared

 

Tim Rice’s lyric above is from Scar’s theme, from Disney’s The Lion King. In other words, Slayer has been undone by a cartoon lion.

 

Slayer Lyric from “Silent Scream”:

Silent Scream

Crucify the bastard son

Beaten and torn

Sanctify lives of scorn

 

Tom Waits Lyric from “We’re All Mad Here”:

Your eyes will die like fish

And the shore of your face will turn to bone

 

Here’s another lyric from “Silent Scream”, this one so staggeringly dumb that it comes right back around to awesome again:

 

Embryonic death

Embedded in your brain

Suffocation, strangulation

Death is fucking you insane

 

Compare it to this moody, atmospheric bit of babble from Tori Amos, who once covered Slayer’s “Raining Blood”:

 

Even the rain is sharp like today as you shock me sane

 

Keep in mind, Tori Amos is responsible for such pulse-poundingly evil lyrics as “Hangin’ with the raisin’ girls” and “Caught a lite sneeze / Dreamed a little dream”. Keep in mind also that while Tori Amos’s “Precious Things” may not feature scary lyrics, its piano intro sounds more menacing than Slayer.

 

Slayer Lyric from “Mandatory Suicide”:

Lying, dying, screaming in pain

Begging, pleading, bullets drop like rain

Mines explode, pain sheers through your brain

Radical amputation, this is insane

 

Here is a Metallica lyric on a similar theme, from “One”:

 

Now that the war is through with me

I’m waking up, I cannot see

That there’s not much left of me

 

Slayer Lyric from “SS-3”:

Hunting

Fighting

Killing whore

Wade through blood and spill some more

 

Danzig Lyric from “Under Her Black Wings”:

See she comes

On the eve of dusk

In another form

With a scent of rain upon her neck

She brings the lust

Supernatural

Ceasing never

On and on and on

 

You’ll notice I have used several examples from Danzig, for the simple reason that Glenn Danzig is fascinated by occult themes, just like Slayer, and so it felt like a particularly apt comparison. Danzig makes wickedness seductive, whereas Slayer makes it corny.

Just as Trent Reznor’s “I wanna fuck you like an animal” is neither as subversive nor as sexy as “I wanna hold your hand” by the Beatles or “I wanna hold your little hand if I can be so bold” by the White Stripes, Slayer’s “Strangulation, mutilation, cancer of the brain / Limb dissection, amputation, from a mind deranged” isn’t half so unsettling or persuasive as Johnny Cash’s stark, mean “Folsom Prison Blues” highlight, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

That “strangulation, mutilation” bit is from a Slayer track called “Necrophobic”, which ends in a bit of satanic haiku so comically inept I find it endearing:

 

Necrophobic

Can’t control the paranoia

Scared to die!

 

But wait, there’s more! Here’s a lovely bit of poetry from a track called “Black Seranade”, from 2006’s Christ Illusion:

 

Your repulsiveness reminds me of dead flesh

Rotting corpse the smell of your putrid fucking soul…

Destroy the empty shell

Smash away the haunting fear

I hate your endless stare

Watching as I fuck your corpse

 

Think back to Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, from Murder Ballads. It’s narrated by two characters: a young woman named Elisa Day, and her first lover, who also proves to be her killer. It is a soaring, beautiful piece of music, and it’s also more chilling than Slayer’s “Black Seranade”, not least because the Elisa Day character narrates the tale in the past-tense, and yet she doesn’t seem to understand what has happened to her; each character begins a second verse by detailing “the second day” of their courtship, but while the killer moves on to say “On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow,” poor Elisa says only “On the third day he took me to the river…”

But Nick Cave’s murderer character doesn’t scream his triumph or spew profanities or throw an impotent tantrum. He kisses her goodbye and gives her a flower.

Compare, then:

Slayer:

Rotting corpse the smell of your putrid fucking soul…

Watching as I fuck your corpse

 

Nick Cave:

I kissed her goodbye, said, “All beauty must die”

And I knelt down and planted a rose between her teeth

 

At this point, I needed a break from Slayer’s lyrics, and so I visited their website: http://www.slayer.net/us/home. And what did I see?

Something evil. Chilling. Creepy. Godless.

Behold, if you dare:

 

Celebrate the release of Slayer: Pinball Rocks. THIS WEEK ONLY: $7.99 Slayer catalog sale on iTunes.

 

Slayer is about to enter the app age with the launch of Slayer: Pinball Rocks, a new pinball game app.
“As a life-size pinball player, this looks so awesome,” said Slayer’s Kerry King. “It looks really fun and entertaining, with a shot of evil, and it could definitely keep me up all night with a few shots for myself.”
Slayer: Pinball Rocks continues the rich legacy of iconic metal and rock bands making pinball tables. In Slayer: Pinball Rocks Slayer meets the king of arcade games in one loud, fast, flipper-thrashing frenzy. With hyper-realistic pinball gameplay set to a backdrop inspired by the band’s latest head-banging masterpiece, World Painted Blood, the game includes multi-ball play, and a full tap-along mini-game in a pinball environment straight out of your worst nightmare featuring spinning razor blades, guitars, amps, concert lights, and a skull that eats your ball and spits it out through its eyeball.

 

Yeah… let’s look at some more lyrics.

 

For proof of how little Slayer has matured in nearly thirty years, I have compiled the opening lyrics from the opening track of each of Slayer’s studio albums. Here they are, in order:

 

“Evil Has No Boundaries” from Show No Mercy (1983):

Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell

No one can stop us tonight

We take on the world with hatred inside

Mayhem the reason we fight

 

“Chemical Warfare” from Haunting the Chapel (1984):

Frantic minds are terrified

Life lies in a grave

Silent death rides high above

On the wings of revelation

 

“Hell Awaits” from Hell Awaits (1985):

Existing on damnation’s edge

The priest had never known

To witness such a violent show

Of power overthrown

 

“Angel of Death” from Reign in Blood (1986):

Auschwitz, the meaning of pain

The way that I want you to die

Slow death, immense decay

Showers that cleanse you of your life

 

“South of Heaven” from South of Heaven (1988):

An unforeseen future nestled somewhere in time

Unsuspecting victims, no warnings, no signs

Judgment day, the second coming arrives

Before you see the light, you must die

 

“War Ensemble” from Seasons in the Abyss (1990):

Propaganda

Death ensemble

Burial to be

Corpses rotting through the night

In blood-laced misery

Scorched earth the policy

The reason for the siege

The pendulum, it shaves the blade

The strafing air blood raid

 

“Killing Fields” from Divine Intervention (1994):

You know the feeling

When adrenaline takes control

Can’t beat the rush

That leaves a suicidal hold

Instinct spares no one

Destroying the human heart

The taste of blood

Can rip your soul apart

 

“Bitter Peace” from Dioabolos in Musica (1998):

Initiate blood purge

Coalition in massacre

Mechanized high tech

Wholesale death in effect

Mutually assured

Destruction will occur

Genocide revised

Same pain through diverse eyes

 

“Darkness of Christ” from God Hates Us All (2001):

Mankind in his insatiable search for divine

Knowledge has discarded all biblical teachings

Realizing that the strength of religion is the repression of knowledge

All structures of religion have collapsed

Life prays for death in the wake of the horror of these revelations

 

God Hates Us All earned Slayer the tag of Loser of the Week in Entertainment Weekly for bad timing; it features a track called “God Send Death”, and it was released during the week of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Oops.

 

“Flesh Storm” from Christ Illusion (2006):

Take a deep breath

‘Cause it all starts now

When you pull the fuckin’ pin

The shrapnel burns

As it tears into the skin

Ever wonder what it takes

To be questioning your faith

This is what it’s like

When it happens every goddamn day

 

“Cult” from Eternal Pyre (2006):

Oppression is the Holy Law

In God I distrust

In time His monuments will fall

Like ashes to dust

Is war and creed the master plan?

The Bible’s where it all began

Its propaganda sells despair

And spreads the virus everywhere

 

“World Painted Blood” from World Painted Blood (2009):

Disease spreading death

Entire population dies

Dead before you’re born

Massive suicide

Vicious game of fear

It’s all extermination now

Poison in your veins

Global genocide

 

Clearly, just as there is no arc or escalation in a given Slayer song, there has been no arc or maturity or development or growth throughout Slayer’s career.

In scouring the band’s lyrics to tally each appearance of “dead” and “death”, I noticed other words that recur often enough to qualify the band’s entire catalog as an exercise in self-parody. In Slayer’s eleven studio albums, these are some of the words that appear most often: “decay” (appears 10 times), “evil” (appears 24 times), “soul” (84), “Satan” or “satanic” (27), “scream” (28), “god” or “lord” (50), “blood” (78), “insane” or “insanity” (35), “rot” (13), “die” or “died” (56), “hell” (55), “lie” or “lies” (47), “kill” or “killing” (58), “burn” (34), “war” (37), “night” or “tonight” (46), “eyes” (51), “fight” or “fighting” (28), and “fear” (19). Finally, “dead” or “death” appears 195 times in Slayer’s songs.

I was surprised to note that “fuck,” “fucked” and “fucking” only boast a combined twelve appearances throughout Slayer’s entire catalog.

Still, Scar the lion never had to say it even once.

Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Start Loving Talking-Car TV Show Novelizations

By Monte Williams

I like to buy weird shit for my friend, Kit Seymour. We met when I was ten and Kit was eleven, and for a long period in our late teens and early twenties we were each about as subjective, perceptive and open-minded as Comic Book Guy, from The Simpsons. We were the type, for example, to heap hyperbolic praise on Tim Burton’s Batman while also regarding as a personal affront Burton’s decision to clad Michael Keaton in a black rubber Batsuit, when comic book tradition clearly mandated gray and blue spandex.

In college, I swerved predictably and self-righteously to a more pretentious point of view, briefly dismissing superheroes as unworthy of my critical or leisurely attention, no matter the color of their underwear. Since then, for well over a decade, I have struggled to determine whether my perspective on popular culture is elitist or populist.

A telling illustration: I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice a couple years ago, and I’d hardly call that lowbrow reading… but I only read it for context; I wanted to read Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’ve still never read any works of William Shakespeare—but I’ve read dozens of Stephen King novels!—and I mostly endorse Mark Twain’s definition of a literary classic: “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”. Those classics I have read are not really classic literature—they’re just old books, such as A Princess Of Mars, Treasure Island, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. These are pulp adventure stories for young boys, and they just happen to be old enough to have amassed some confused degree of credibility from an intellectually lazy, reliably credulous populace. I read most of these books with no greater ambition than to obtain a deeper understanding of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Reading these old books has helped me to develop an appreciation of the kinds of long, challenging, complex sentences writers favored before the rise of television. Compare the following passages.

First, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886):

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.

Second, from John Blaine’s Smuggler’s Reef: A Rick Brant Science Adventure Story (1950):

Scotty, a husky, dark-haired boy, grinned lazily… Mrs. Brant, an attractive, motherly woman, poured another cup of coffee for Jeremy Webster.

This might seem an unfair comparison, but I’d suggest that the intended audience for each book is (or was) the same.

Meanwhile, for all my stunted literary preferences and my fondness for big dumb pulp adventure—Joss Whedon once suggested that every movie should be The Matrix; I would counter that every movie should be Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom—I refuse to read Clive Cussler’s novels. I only recently discovered that Cussler writes a series of books starring exactly the type of two-fisted globetrotting adventurer I enjoy, but a few reader reviews at Amazon are enough to persuade me that Cussler produces crappy pulp fiction, whereas I prefer awesome pulp fiction. I don’t know how to distinguish one from the other—I just know what I like.

During our Comic Book Guy years, Kit and I fell victim to Autobotic Asphyxiation. Since we had enjoyed He-Man cartoons as children, we looked back on those cartoons with a warm nostalgia, which we mistakenly believed was objective analysis. In other words, we defined “masterpiece” as “that which is fondly remembered”. Today, Kit and I know that He-Man cartoons are retarded, but I mentioned at the start that I like to buy “weird shit” for Kit, and what I mostly mean is that I like to find and purchase for him the most obscure and—this is important—unnecessary detritus from the shallow, stupid pop culture of our 1980s childhoods. I once nabbed for Kit an illustrated storybook adaptation of the short-lived animated series Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos, and that was perfect, ‘cause I want a gift that will provoke a chuckle from my friend, and perhaps ten seconds of baffled, self-conscious “oh, wow” nostalgia, but which he can then feel free to toss into the trash can.

A few weeks ago, at the Variety book store here in Lahore, I found another tacky relic for my longsuffering pal: Knight Rider 3: Hearts Of Stone, Roger Hill’s novelization of some damn episode or another of an early ‘80s TV show about a do-gooder and his talking car. Excellent. Kit will laugh, but the paperback is not valuable enough to prevent him from cheerfully tossing it into the garbage after his giggles subside. Best of all, it cost only seventy rupees—less than a dollar.

Feeling smug, I thought I’d read the first sentence. After all, how would one begin a Knight Rider novel?

At this point, I should note that, for all my burgeoning recognition that big words and complex sentences can be a good thing, I’m still mostly in this reading game to be entertained, and as such I am secretly convinced that the world would be a better place if every novel had a fun, inviting, accessible, seductive “hook” of an opening sentence. I’m not much of a John Grisham fan, but boy does that man know how to start a novel. Here’s the opening line from The Chamber: “The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease.”

I don’t even mind the passive verb—I just want to keep reading. Here’s the opener from The Client: “Mark was eleven and had been smoking off and on for two years, never trying to quit but being careful not to get hooked.”

Going back a ways, here’s the first sentence from the oft-adapted A Christmas Carol from Charles Dickens: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” More recently, from a novel I’ve never read (I happened to glance at its first page one day), some sort of thriller called Hard Rain, by one Barry Eisler: “Once you get past the overall irony of the situation, you realize that killing a guy in the middle of his own health club has a lot to recommend it.”

In their way, all these opening sentences honor the goofy, gripping spirit of the pulps. I salute them.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened Knight Rider 3: Hearts Of Stone to page one and read this:

Michael Knight had not been inside the confines of a church since he was nine years old, and this particular church struck him as quite intimidating.

Um…?

God help me, I’m intrigued. This experience calls to mind that old headline from The Onion: “Ironic Porn Purchase Leads To Unironic Ejaculation”.

I aim, dear people, to read this cash-in novelization of a bad ‘80s TV drama about a talking car (named, in a nice bit of serendipity, Kit… or rather, K.I.T.T.). Indeed, I shall read it from cover to cover. (It helps that the novel is only 167 pages long).

Here’s what concerns me: during that same trip to Variety, I also nabbed for Kit an A-Team novelization.

Dare I glance at page one?

Isabel Allende’s Zorro

By Monte Williams

On the first page of her novel Zorro (2005), Isabel Allende writes, “Heroism is a badly remunerated occupation, and often it leads to an early end, which is why it appeals to fanatics or persons with an unhealthy fascination with death.”

If this strikes you as something of an incongruously dark note on which to start a novel about a pulp icon as defiantly buoyant and debonair as Diego de la Vega, then you might find the follow-up reassuring:

There are all too few heroes with a romantic heart and a fun-loving nature. Let me say it straight out: there is no one like Zorro.

Allende maintains this strange mixture of solemnity and playfulness throughout the novel; loyal sidekick Bernardo helps a young Diego—described at age thirteen as boasting “an impetuous bravery that on occasion verged on dementia”—to lead through town a wild bear in a sombrero… and just pages later Bernardo hides within earshot as his mother is raped and murdered, and as a consequence he never speaks again. Fittingly, the promotional blurbs on the novel’s front and back covers range from The Guardian’s “beautiful and disturbing and profound” to The Independent’s wry observation, “Isabel Allende leaves few swashes unbuckled”.

Zorro is the first Isabel Allende novel I have read. I tend to favor male writers—not as a matter of policy, but as a matter of habit. If Zorro is any indication, Allende’s pacing is admirable, and her plotting is stellar. An author who resorts to telling rather than showing is an author to avoid, and the clumsiest, most glaring evidence of this tendency is any extended absence of dialogue, and yet I was startled to realize, early in my reading of Zorro, that I had just read a nearly dialogue-free passage of twenty pages. This passage was pure storytelling; not only did its momentum leave me oblivious to the “missing” dialogue, but further reflection revealed that the twenty pages of “silence” were a deliberate, clever thematic choice on the part of the author.

I avoid those novels and films that undertake a simultaneously shallow and fetishistic study of other cultures—here I’m thinking of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which proves, as do gay comedians who can only joke about homosexuality and Jewish comedians who can only joke about Jewishness, that it is possible to take a condescending inventory of one’s own ethnic or religious group. I also steer clear of any movie or book with a distractingly pretentious, Oscar-baiting title, such as Snow Falling On Cedars, or most anything that includes the words “daughter” or “wife”. (Hearty applause for Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, wherein an aspiring culture snob sings the praises of an art film called The Flower That Drank The Moon).

A lesser writer than Isabel Allende might have felt too self-conscious to embrace a pulp hero like Zorro as her protagonist, and even if another author did muster the courage to dedicate an entire novel to Diego de la Vega, you can bet that her courage would falter at the suggestion that the novel’s title be Zorro. Here then are some phrases, lifted directly from Allende’s novel, which might have served as alternate titles for Zorro if Allende were a coward: “The Five Basic Virtues”; “an impetuous bravery”; “she never stopped dreaming in her own language”; “his mother’s tribe”; “timid coals”; “a watchful spirit”; “Daughter-of-Wolf”.

The only instance of what might fairly be called pandering to (what this white male aged twenty-five to forty assumes is) Allende’s target audience is the novel’s cover, featuring a Martin Barrand photo of a dancing woman in a vivid red dress, beneath which rests that Guardian quote I shared earlier: “beautiful and disturbing and profound”. (Further pandering, perhaps: that quote begins, “Absolutely irresistible”.) But to Allende’s credit (or perhaps Harper Perennial’s credit), the title fills the width of the cover in stylish golden letters that no reader can miss.

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The story’s pacing does falter on occasion, and the ratio of show versus tell isn’t always what it could be. Particularly frustrating is Allende’s too-brief account of the trials Zorro endures throughout his training with the secret society of vigilantes called La Justicia. This pivotal step of Zorro’s Hero’s Journey comprises a mere four pages and features such dissatisfying, careless phrases as “He was able to vanquish his challengers in fewer than ten minutes” and “he was given difficult problems for which he had to offer original solutions demanding wit, courage, and knowledge”. A few examples of said wit would go some considerable distance to enriching this fresh, resonant take on the Zorro legend. (In a later scene, Allende writes, “He perfected the sleight of hand he had been taught by Galileo Tempesta, and performed true miracles with cards”, but having read Neil Gaiman’s awkward card trick descriptions in American Gods, I happily concede that, where Diego’s astonishing card play is concerned, Allende’s hasty pace and shallow focus are appreciated).

To be fair, Zorro’s training does not begin until page 156, so one could argue that Zorro would benefit from dwelling less on Diego de la Vega’s youthful origins and more on his costumed derring-do. I’ll counter with the suggestion that, had Allende been willing or able to explore her Zorro mythos ever so slightly more slowly and deeply, the novel could have been still more rousing and rewarding; one almost suspects that a humble pulp figure like Zorro might perhaps be a worthy and viable protagonist for even a tale as ambitious and epic and revelatory as Gary Jennings’s Aztec.

In the meantime, while Allende laughs with Zorro on occasion, she never laughs at him as would an inferior writer, and as a result, Zorro is not only disarmingly fun, but also grave and grand. Only an author who refuses to take herself seriously could possibly treat Zorro this seriously.

Revisiting The Matrix

By Monte Williams

Originally Published by PopMatters; January 7, 2010

My friend Josh recently asked me about The Matrix. He had refused to watch it in 1999, owing to nothing more, I suspect, than his distaste for its star, Keanu Reeves. Now, Josh is curious to know what he’s missed. I was dismissive, not because I thought The Matrix was a bad movie (I hadn’t seen it in several years, at any rate), but because I felt somewhat self-conscious about the unabashed enthusiasm I’d felt for the film in 1999.

“I doubt it holds up” was my hasty verdict.

I now realize that it is irrelevant to debate the extent to which The Matrix “holds up”, because Josh can never come to The Matrix with the same unassuming innocence we all did in 1999. Whatever its faults or merits, much of what helped to make The Matrix become a phenomenon in 1999 was the low expectations with which the public regarded what was, let us not forget, a science fiction movie starring Keanu Reeves. (Indeed, his first science fiction movie since the maligned Johnny Mnemonic in 1995). My buddy Josh endured the giddy Matrix hype of 1999, and he has seen the various parodies and he has surely detected, to some extent, the world’s collective disappointment at the Matrix sequels. Put simply, he’s got the film’s cultural baggage to contend with.

When I was a child, I would occasionally stumble across a movie from the 1930s or ‘40s, and I’d find that suddenly, a forgotten, nonsensical gag from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon made sense for the first time. Today, for Josh and for anyone else who has yet to see it, The Matrix would be, more than anything else, context for a series of cultural punchlines.

The question, then, is this: a decade later, what does The Matrix mean to someone who was there for the ride back in 1999?

For my part, some of my contrived aloofness and indifference dissipated as soon as the DVD menu loaded; chaotic strings of binary code give way to Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus looking down at the viewer as if the viewer is waking from a dream. “Welcome to the real world”, Morpheus says. It’s a surprisingly stirring little teaser. Alas, my partner was not moved. Indeed, she repeatedly offered derisive replies to the film’s stilted dialogue. I assumed at first that she was compensating for her own lingering embarrassment from 1999; she’d been, at that time, even more gee-whiz impressed with The Matrix than I was. But instead she admitted, not fifteen minutes in: “I don’t remember any of this. I have no idea what happens next.”  For all her sarcastic comments and forgetfulness, however, she did say, at about the halfway mark, “I’m actually pretty into this.”

And so was I. The film’s monomyth structure is more by-the-numbers and obvious than I’d remembered (can we agree to a ban on the Reluctant Hero trope, please?), and its pseudo-philosophy is at once ham-fisted and half-assed, lacking even the provocative punch of Fight Club’s “you are not your job, you are not the contents of your wallet” sermonizing. (Fight Club, like The Matrix, arrived in 1999). Also, there are simply more moments of awkward, contrived posing in The Matrix than you probably remember.

Still, The Matrix retains some of its charm. Trinity, for example, remains a winning triumph of post-Buffy feminist asskickery… if only for the first act. (Roger Ebert hilariously notes in his review of The Matrix that “Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, has a sensational title sequence, before the movie recalls that she’s a woman and shuttles her into support mode.”) Even in 1999, I did not care for the notion that, while Neo gets to be The One, all the Oracle says to Trinity is that she will fall in love with The One. This reduces a capable heroin of the Ripley and Sarah Connor tradition to little more than a sexy Disney Princess waiting for True Love’s Kiss to save her. That her kiss instead saves Neo changes nothing, just as Pretty Woman’s lofty suggestion that the princess rescues the white knight does nothing to change the fact that Pretty Woman teaches girls that consumerism is the path to happiness and prostitution leads to exciting opportunities.

And yet Trinity’s Barbie-awaiting-her-Ken arc is almost preferable to what happens to Neo’s character development in the third act, for if anything is more wearying than a Reluctant Hero, it is a character who knows—or even begrudgingly suspects—that he is special. The worst example of this phenomenon might be the first Harry Potter movie, wherein the plucky trio of wee wizards contends with a giant chessboard before Hermione (or perhaps it was Ron) tells Harry that he must proceed alone through the remaining challenges, at which point Harry concedes with a grim nod, as if to say, “Yes, you’re spot-on, I am uniquely equipped to meet this challenge, for I am The One.”

The One is almost always the least compelling character in a given story. More intriguing by far is the ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. This is why I still enjoy The Matrix; Neo does little for me, but Thomas Anderson—Mister Anderson—is a worthy protagonist. It is only during those early scenes starring Mr. Anderson that The Matrix avoids the stick-up-the-butt sexlessness of most science fiction and channels, instead, the unsettling carnal horror of David Cronenberg’s best work.

An early interrogation scene is a highlight. First, Thomas Anderson finds that his mouth has become a mucky web consisting of sticky strands of flesh. Then his mouth seals completely and seemingly irrevocably, calling to mind the title of an old Harlan Ellison story: “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. Next, Mr. Anderson is held down by men who proceed to penetrate him with the help of an electronic insect that skitters across his exposed, boyish stomach in a somehow fussy manner before thrusting itself into his belly button. When Trinity later removes this device, it is sucked into a glass tube with a wet, clicking slap; it is coated with Anderson’s blood. Finally, Mr. Anderson wakes in a semi-transparent mechanical womb, where he finds himself immersed in a sticky embryonic slime that permeates his pores and lungs. He is pale and hairless and blind, and he is more profoundly naked than you or I will ever be. Anderson discovers that cold tubes are embedded in the flesh of his arms and spine, with the largest tube planted deeply into the back of his skull. Anderson is a baby, then, born of an industrial nightmare; later, this symbolism is revisited in a more overt fashion, as an actual infant twitches and kicks on a vast bed of H.R. Giger machinery while a dark liquid cascades over eerie tubes and tentacles. We are told that this liquid is human remains. This is what the baby is fed: our dripping, black remains. This is what Mr. Anderson, too, has eaten. All his life.

But of course he’s not Mr. Anderson. Not anymore. Once he is rescued from his prison/womb, he is Neo, and we never have cause to care about him again, not least because the movie quickly devolves into a stylish but hollow series of fight scenes and shootouts. That these violent scenes are in fact too stylish is not the issue, nor is it the fact that a movie that dares to introduce an asskicker and turn her into Cinderella also ventures to clumsily engage us on a philosophical level only to solve its mysterious riddles with bullets and fistfights. (I am reminded of the Karate teacher from The Simpsons, who advises Bart that, “First you must fill your head with wisdom. Then you can hit ice with it.”)

No, the issue is that The Matrix never dares, in its third act, to be carnal. If the first act calls to mind eXistenZ, with Pikel licking Allegra’s bio-port and sucking gristle and skin from a gun, the third act is as antiseptic as a bad Star Trek rerun. Curiously, the only scenes to retain some measure of the earlier horror-of-the-body are those starring Hugo Weaving as the computer program known as Agent Smith, just as, paradoxically, the early scenes set inside the Matrix (before we know it as such) feel somehow more real than those set aboard the Nebuchadnezzar ship in the “real world”. Agent Smith’s monologue likening humanity to a virus is arguably the best writing in the movie:

 

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

 

More arresting still is the scene wherein Smith’s interrogation and torture of Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus turns startlingly intimate; Smith uses his fingers to trace fascinated, disgusted patterns in the sweat on Morpheus’s head and complains of the man’s revolting “stink” as Fishburn’s eyes roll up into his skull. Part of what makes this scene so fascinating and uncomfortable is that the science fiction genre has long been sexually stunted and stifled, added to which the Wachowski Brothers are fully aware of the ignoble roles African Americans have traditionally endured in the genre’s history—when they have been offered roles at all. The Wachowski Brothers imbue this scene, then, with a nearly violent charge of homosexual undercurrents and racial tensions; Smith hates what he calls, significantly, “this zoo”, and when Smith’s two computer program colleagues enter the room, looking proper and groomed and impossibly Caucasian, they see Agent Smith looming over Morpheus: a white “man” holding the face of a black man in his hands; they are so close they could almost be kissing. The black man is bleeding from his nose and mouth. His head is covered with sweat. One of Agent Smith’s colleagues, brow furrowed, asks, “What were you doing?” It’s a simple question. Understated, almost. And yet it is at this moment, more than any other, that The Matrix feels truly alive. There is accusation and disapproval and fear lurking in those four words: “What were you doing?”

Agent Smith never answers the question, of course; just when things start getting interesting, he runs off to exchange poses and banter with The One.

Alf, Nostalgia and Perverts

By Monte Williams

Our school library has both the 1963 and the 1990 adaptations of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies on DVD. This is convenient, because I just finished reading the novel with two of my classes, and it’s nice that I won’t have to watch the same film two days in a row.

Today, I posted a clip from the ‘80s sitcom Alf on my English 9 Moodle page, because I dimly remember that the 1990 version of Lord of the Flies—which I will watch this week for the first time since 1990—includes a scene wherein one of the boys, wishing he was safe at home and watching TV, wonders aloud what Alf’s up to.

Here are some of the YouTube user comments in response to the Alf clip:

I wish I can go back to the 1980″s the shows were the best back then. Shows like Jem and the Holograms, the A- team, Knight Rider, Alf, Punky brewster, Remington Steele, Gimme a Break, etc. And the world was a better place.

I watched a lot of tv as a kid in the 80′s and all these theme tunes bring back awesome memories of when life was just a bit simpler! No texting, no cell phones, people still did ancient things like write letters, gift certificates were made of paper instead of plastic like all those stupid re-loadable cards, etc etc.

(Truly, nothing stands as a more succinct and tragic symbol of our cultural degradation than reusable gift cards. Goddamn you, Obama.)

The 80s were a great time to grow up. No phones buzzing in the pocket or YouTube or Facebook for distraction, one could spend a couple of hours to themselves relaxing for an hour or two and watching shows like this.

they dont make things like this anymore, reality shows??? SHOVE THEM UP YOUR ASS,WHY WOULD I CARE ABOUT THE REALITY OF SOMEONE LIFE? SOMETIMES I DONT EVEN CARE WHAT HAPPENS WITH MY NEIGHBOORS LIFE

What has happened to tv? TV was the best in the 80′s and 90′s. The characters and stories were entertaining. Now and days on tv everything is about sex and violence. I miss the innocence of the 80′s and 90′s sitcoms, some shows may have been corny but they were still endearing. Thank goodness for dvd’s and YouTUBE.

My favorite comment:

so uplifting

The most baffling comment:

I didn’t even live in the 80s but still I feel like I knew them when hearing this opening cause the music was so much better and so were the TV shows.

Dammit, I miss the 80s/90s.

The video thumbnails in the sidebar include the opening themes from Airwolf and Growing Pains. This is sensible; anyone nostalgic enough to regard Alf with warm fuzzies will obviously delight in just about any damn television series from the ‘80s. For most people, the definition of “masterpiece” is “that which is fondly remembered”.

Meanwhile, I also posted a trailer for each of the Lord of the Flies films on our Moodle page. At this point, I discovered something strange.

If you watch an Alf clip on YouTube, the site helpfully offers you more shitty TV shows from what is currently the most overrated decade in the history of American popular culture: the 1980s. If you watch the trailer or a scene from the 1990 Lord of the Flies film, you get things like “10 Smiles of Jack Merridew”. Jack Merridew is the central antagonist of the Lord of the Flies novel and films. The actor who portrayed Merridew in the 1990 film is Chris Furrh, who was sixteen when the film premiered, and who looks to be approximately eleven years old in the film. User comments include “Gosh Hes Frikkin Hot” and “Love you no matter what JACK MERRIDEW~” and “its not exactly a crush, more of a passionate adoration. chris furrh is old and is no longer jack” and “awww I love him so much. he’s cute and hot at the same time” and “hes so sexy” and “Jack is so hot!!! Too bad this is in 1990 and he’s like 27 now”.

Other video titles include “Jack is sexy & he knows it !” and “Jack explains why he’s hot.!!!”.

And then there is the trailer for the 1963 adaptation. This clip helpfully leads one to the entire 1963 film, available piecemeal for free on YouTube. I have not watched it yet, but in searching for footage of Piggy’s death to discover how the filmmakers managed to film such a scene in the early 1960s, I noticed that by the end of the film, some of the boys on the island are running around naked. Fair enough.

Next, I noticed the thumbnails that had loaded in the sidebar. Suffice it to say that Lord of the Flies includes scenes wherein young boys appear naked, or nearly so, and judging from the thumbnail stills, such scenes from other films are also popular on YouTube.

This blog is called Autobotic Asphyxiation. The name is taken from an essay I wrote for PopMatters in 2007. The essay’s thesis is that Transformers fans—but really fans of most any property, particularly any geek-friendly property—cannot engage in serious cultural discourse. Put simply, the essay attempts, somewhat clumsily as I recall, to draw a parallel between internet nerds who pitch petulant tantrums about Transformers and people who choke themselves while masturbating.

I now propose that the psychological defect that leads someone to insist that Alf is evidence of the superiority of ‘80s television over modern television is the same stunting defect that leads to pederasty; one manifests itself as blind nostalgia and solipsism while the other manifests itself as sexual perversion, but the defect is inherently the same at its core. Now I just need a zippy name for this phenomenon, like “autobotic asphyxiation”.

PedAlfilia, perhaps.

Hmm. Maybe it’s time to rename the blog.

The Redemptive Jane’s Addiction Lyrics of Perry Farrell

By Monte Williams

Even now, twenty years after my escape, I cannot make sense of my stunted, suffering hometown. I am convinced that the average American was no less racist and homophobic in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s than he was in the 1950s, but perhaps the rest of the country was in a better place, and I have just always assumed otherwise; is America in the grips of a collective denial about its not-so-distant intolerance, or could Oroville, California possibly have been unique in its hatred and anger?

Whatever the case, I dedicated no small portion of my teen years in Oroville to studying the music and lyrics of bands like M.O.D. (Sample lyric, from “A.I.D.S.”, here reimagined as an acronym signifying “Anally-Inflicted Death Sentence”: “It’s time for you to realize AIDS like the plague is from God… That’s what you get for having a penis up your ass”). Nevertheless, I believe that what Roger Ebert suggests about movies is also true of songs: they can be a “civilizing force”. I listened to S.O.D.’s “Speak English or Die” and Overkill’s “Fuck You” and Carnivore’s “Race War” (“Don’t call me your brother / ‘Cause I ain’t your fucking brother / We fell from different cunts / And your skin’s an ugly color”), but I also listened to Jane’s Addiction. To the shamefully limited extent to which I maintained some tenuous grasp on basic human compassion and open-mindedness throughout my troubled adolescence, I have Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell to thank for it.

In an essay included in the liner notes of Nirvana’s Incesticide, Kurt Cobain wrote, “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” This histrionic challenge did nothing to discourage me from falling prey to the homophobia and racism of my hometown and my favorite musicians, ‘cause I could see through Cobain’s clumsy grandstanding and more-liberal-than-thou self-congratulation, whereas Perry Farrell’s assessment of humanity is more pragmatic and knowing; consider the introductory verse from “Pets”, from his later band Porno for Pyros: “Children are innocent, and teenagers are fucked up in the head / Adults are even more fucked up, and elderlies are like children”.

Farrel’s love for humanity is strong enough to accommodate his cheerfully damning self-deprecation (“I am skin and bones, I am pointy nose / But it motherfuckin’ makes me try”) and his sometimes fatalistic, arguably cruel sense of humor: “Love them whores, they never judge you / Now what can you say when you’re a whore?” (To which my stepsister Vanessa once replied, “How about ‘You look like a mosquito and you have to pay women to have sex with you?’”)

In the same song (unimaginatively titled “Whores”), Farrell even drops the N-bomb: “Way down low where the streets are littered / I found my fun with the freaks and the niggers”. Where Cobain would probably have defriended anyone who would utter what’s now embarrassingly known as “the N-word”, Farrell seems to understand that one cannot properly oppose racism without a willingness to say “nigger”. But then, Farrell doesn’t write pedantic essays—he writes songs. And he isn’t a lecturer—he’s a storyteller.

More to the point, Perry Farrell is a gifted storyteller. Consider the economy of phrase with which he evokes the dangerous slum where he sits wrapped in a quilt with his lover in Ritual de lo Habitual’s “Classic Girl”:

4:05 in my neighborhood

When shots go off, no one bothers

A pop and a reply

Pop

And no reply

Again, there is no anxious, hand-wringing pledge drive at play here. This is not Soul Asylum singing “Runaway Train” or Eddie Vedder “spontaneously” scrawling “Choice” on his arm mid-seizure or Julian Lennon singing “When I hear ‘bout how the forests have died, saltwater wells in my eyes”. This is a talented writer celebrating love in a city that does not invite or nurture love. Compared to “Classic Girl”, Cobain’s bumbling essay has all the wit and conviction of White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”.

Indeed, the closest Farrell ever comes to lecturing his audience is “No One’s Leaving”:

Sister and her boyfriend slept in the park

She had to leave home because he was dark

Now they parade around New York with a baby boy

He’s gorgeous

But even here, instead of guilt-tripping the audience or grade-grubbing for Very Special Episode awards consideration like Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun” (which calls to mind both the classic Onion headline “Somebody Should Do Something About All the Problems” and Maude Flanders’s constant plea, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”), Farrell simply expresses a sentiment and lets the listener take it or leave it.

Almost better than a wholly original idea is a tired expression reinvigorated through clever word choice and a unique voice. The reliable example I usually cite is Nick Cave’s “Where Do We Go Now”, which delightfully resurrects the hackneyed “rock me all night, baby” cliché thusly:

In a Colonial Hotel, we fucked up the sun

And then we fucked it down again

But Farrell does wonders, too, with the dippy, New Age “live for the moment” fortune cookie revelation with this understated imperative from “Classic Girl”:

They may say those were the days

But in a way, you know

For us, these are the days

Even at their most self-indulgently nonsensical, Farrell’s lyrics boast a strangely stirring confidence and charm. Consider this excerpt from Nothing’s Shocking‘s “Ted… Just Admit It”:

I am the killer of people
You look like a meatball
I’ll throw away your toothpick
And ask for your giveness

Because of this thing!
Because of this thing!
Because of this thing!

Is “giveness” even a word? No matter; it sounds brilliant.

I caught sight of a Jane’s Addiction T-shirt once, and the only words that appeared on the shirt were those three truncated repetitions: “Because of this thing! Because of this thing! Because of this thing!” It packed the revelatory wallop of true poetry, as does this similar but not derivative cry from Ritual’s “Three Days”:

All of us with wings!

All of us with wings!

All of us with wings!

(My daughter had a complete emotional meltdown at age five after skipping a nap and consuming too much sugar, and she refused our every attempt to calm and soothe her, and eventually she started rocking back and forth on her bed and shouting, “Everything no! Everything no! Everything no!” It could almost be a Jane’s Addiction lyric).

Farrell has a unique knack for understanding the rousing power of repetition; in “Then She Did”, a beautiful ballad mourning his dead friend and his dead mother (unless I’m missing something or being too literal-minded), Farrell closes with a so-mournful-it’s-somehow-angry observation:

She was unhappy just as you were

Unhappy just as you were

Unhappy just as you were

Unhappy just as you were

(The opening lyric is a heartbreaker: “Now her paints are dry”. “Then She Did” may well have been still more resonant had that been its only lyric.)

Earlier, I mentioned “No One’s Leaving”. Its closing lyrics are Farrell’s best. Again, Farrell offers a take-it-or-leave it sentiment, ‘cause it’s not a command, it’s a yearning:

I wish I knew everyone’s nickname

All their slang and all their sayings

Every way to show affection

How to dress to fit the occasion

Fittingly, this winning expression of longing draws to a close with yet another infectious repetition, this one almost startling in its sweetness:

And I wish we all waved

All waved

All waved

I wish we all!

Wish we all!

Wish we all!

Waved

Lyrics like these were among the only positive messages I consumed from pop culture in my teens, but such was their quiet power and humble, unassuming earnestness that they were enough to keep my head above water until I made good my escape from Oroville.

So thank you, Perry Farrell. If only for one angry, small town stoner, you rose to the challenge Prince laid down in “Alphabet Street”:

Put the right letters together

Make a better day