4/18/08

Oh, Cap'n, my Cap'n...

What's happened to our cereal mascots? Why have they become so excitable over the years? Sure, Sonny was always coo coo for Cocoa Puffs, which made him a little hyper, but consider Tony the Tiger or Sugar Bear, both laid-back advocates of their product, despite its sugar content. And what about Cap'n Crunch? Back in the day, he was the poster kid for takin' 'er easy:


No big whoop. Nothing that troublesome Smedley could ever do would upset the good Cap'n. He was just kickin' back, enjoying that peaceful, easy feelin'. But look at the poor bastard today:

Dude, what happened to you? Diet pills? PCP? Are you simply so amped up on your own, sugary product that you can't even hold the spoon steady?

I mean, look at this freak! Is he hooked up to car battery? He's obviously in the throes of some sort of manic episode, shaking and hyper ventilating like that. I ask you, do you want this man near your children? I say, never trust a character who's eyebrows won't stay attached to his head.

And it's not just the good Cap'n. Take a look at the cereal aisle. Almost all your old favorites look like amphetamine addicts these days, their bulging eyes and waggling tongues indicating a fit of screaming night terrors.

Personally, it's not putting me in the mood for cereal.

4/16/08

The Drag


Jack Webb didn’t invent television, but he understood the form from the beginning better than anyone. Granted, Dragnet had already been a radio hit and much of television’s format had been borrowed from commercial radio. But Webb understood that, despite the added appeal of visuals, television retained the intimacy of radio. Unlike the Cinemascope majesty of theatrical motion pictures, popular television depended on establishing a quiet, personal relationship with the viewer. It was about telling smaller, economic stories, with small casts and limited locales, inviting viewers to spend time with familiar characters in familiar environments, almost as if spilling gossip about the neighbors over the backyard fence.

He understood that television could not be complex. The format was rigid; sponsor’s commercials had to appear in exactly the right spot, interrupting the story on the same beat each week. Worse, a complete story had wrap itself up in only 30 minutes, hardly time to gum up the works with ambiguous character development or multi-faceted issues. Television only had time for the simplest of ideologies, and anything too oblique was likely to upset the consumer confidence so necessary for TV’s bottom line. Television’s morality worked best in black and white. Two genres were ideal for the rigid new medium; the Western and the cop show.

It was perfect. A cop’s job is to solve crimes. All you needed to understand the premise of Dragnet was Joe Friday’s weekly opening monologue, where he explained, “I’m a cop.” A new crime each week, borrowed from the actual police files of the LAPD, plugged smoothly into the conflict/commercial/resolution formula of TV. And one thing Jack Webb had mastered was formula. He was the Henry Ford of television, applying no-frills, factory production methods to the art of the TV series. Dragnet opened and closed with the same voiceovers in every episode. Joe Friday’s story narration, written to mimic the reading of a dry police report, never strayed from its journal entry style (“Tuesday, April 19. It was hot in Los Angeles. We were on a routine stakeout on West 17th Street. The boss is Captain Brown. My partner is Bill Gannon. My name’s Friday.”). One imagines Dragnet scripts were pre-printed with a fill-in-the-blank format.

Stock shots often filled a good 25% of any given episode. Friday and Gannon (and Frank Smith before him) wore the same suits invariably, so the stock shots of the two men entering police headquarters or driving down Ventura Blvd. would always match. Sets were so spare as to often simply be one blank wall representing the interior of an apartment or business. If the scriptwriter (often Webb himself under a number of pseudonyms) were feeling apologetic, he might have a character explain the lack of furniture with, “We just moved in yesterday…and right away someone robs the place!”

To cut down on costly rehearsal time, Webb had his actors read from Teleprompters, further enhancing the minimal, monotone delivery that Dragnet was famous for. He kept a stable of actors close by to avoid unnecessary casting calls. The same handful of Dragnet regulars appear in a wide variety of roles. Virginia Gregg might appear as a con artist one week and a con artist’s victim the next. Many actors who appeared on Dragnet in the ‘50s returned to the series for its color episodes in the late ‘60s. But beyond Friday and Gannon, there is little consistency in the cast. Art Balinger might play Captain Didion in one episode and Captain Brown two weeks later. Webb knew you wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care if you did. The important thing was to get it done quickly and cheaply and get it on the air.

Close-ups helped. In the early days, Webb recognized that TV screens were small, and close-ups of faces or simple objects had the best chance of registering on a blurry little Philco. But it also cut down on costly backdrops. Some Dragnet episodes seem to consist entirely of nodding heads in close-up, batting dry, Teleprompted dialogue back and forth. When the series returned for its color run, some early episodes sported surprisingly lavish sets. But you can see when Webb becomes budget conscious again and returns to the blank walls, empty rooms and perpetual close-ups.

And this factory production, this penny-pinching art direction, is part of the show’s eternal charm. It is simple and formulaic to the point of insanity. But its simplicity is both visual and philosophical, particularly in the color episodes. Dragnet of the 1950s, despite its bizarre allegiance to the mundane, has a certain noir coolness on occasion. Webb knew the cinematic value of low-angled shots and sinister shadows, though they rarely came into play in stories about stolen purses or lost dogs. Joe Friday, though strictly a by-the-book man of the badge, seemed to inhabit the same LA that kicked Philip Marlowe in the gut. Though he never said it, Friday’s tough street lingo suggested he had a passing familiarity with hard drinks and loose women (Webb’s other hit radio character, the jazz jamming Pete Kelly, left nothing to doubt about his connections to the seedy underbelly of the big city).

But, by the late ‘60s, any subtle hint that Joe Friday was anything but the very embodiment of wholesome, Republican law and order went out the window. And it’s here, in the turbulent world of war protests and generation gaps, that the severe simplicity of the Dragnet Method fully flowers. No longer is the show simply a gritty drama about unwashed ex-cons knocking over liquor stores, Dragnet in the 1960’s becomes a propaganda vehicle for the LAPD, a “scared straight” PSA extolling the virtues of The Establishment to a viewership confused by the counterculture. Hippies, drug-addicted kids, LSD gurus, protesters and thinly-disguised Black Panthers are now the primary villains.

In addition to his awkward one-liners (“Unless you’re growing, sit down!”), Joe Friday is now prone to lectures. College professors and their confused students appear as empty-headed straw men, pitching Joe softballs about the harmlessness of marijuana, then sheepishly gazing at their feet when the wise Policeman’s superior logic knocks them out of the park. There are no two truths allowed on Dragnet. The public, whether flower children, crime victims, reporters, parents or simply concerned citizens are Wrong. Dangerously, stupidly wrong. Explaining basic concepts about social justice becomes Joe Friday’s full time job. It’s a wonder he finds the time to solve any crime with all the lecturing he’s now forced to do, straightening out citizens of all stripes about good parenting, police brutality and, especially, the danger of drugs.

Apparently, for an aging Jack Webb, it was no longer enough to gossip over the fence about criminals and their nefarious deeds. Formulaic simplicity wasn’t just a method of producing TV shows on the cheap; it was the founding principle that would clear up any confusion about morality from the freaks and the dropouts. Those close-ups and spare sets weren’t just frugality, they were meant to eliminate any confusing details, to keep us focused on a clear, simple message. The cop show was perfect for TV drama, but it was also the perfect educational film for America’s values. If there were any doubt about who was espousing a wrongheaded view of reality, that person appeared at the end of the program, looking shameful against a dull, gray wall, while a disembodied voice delivered their punishment. You are invited to wag a finger at the screen in judgment.

Did Webb merely bring the necessary simplicity of television to its obvious conclusion? Or was he a man who wanted to remake reality, to remove all the unessential details from his man-made reflection of the world until his personal Truth was revealed? Dragnet is hilarious, its simplicity of form and ideology so extreme as to be taken seriously only by the most brutally numbskulled. But Webb has the last laugh. Dragnet’s world is so streamlined as to be almost perfect. If we could change anything about it now, if we tried to impose any form of complexity into its near Randian cohesion, we would instantly ruin it. An episode of Dragnet where Joe Friday experiments with LSD, discovers police corruption that goes unpunished or faces an intellectual opponent he cannot match could never be shoehorned in without rendering the rest of the series null and void. Dragnet constructs a formula for reality that is unquestionable. Something that can only happen on television.

Ye Olde Obama



Here's a piece I did for The Progressive a few months back. I've done a few caricatures for that publication - and lemme tell ya, if you're in the freelance illustration game you definitely want to hook up with progressive, bleeding heart liberal clients. Three times now The Progressive has paid me for work they didn't run or that I had to redo because of some editorial misunderstanding on my part. You get that? They pay me twice for something I screw up!


Anyway, I don't usually put the Progressive work on the site because they're in black and white (and would wreck the precious full-color flow of the design), but also because I'm never terribly satisfied with them. The deadlines are usually very generous, but as we've discussed, I always want another three days to tweak and redraw or completely reinvent the piece. And, oddly, something about The Progressive brings out my Zach Trenholm influence - even Zach has commented on it. It's not a bad thing, but I can't figure it out. Maybe because they're political articles, I imagine the illo as a Salon piece. At any rate, my Progressive caricatures are always much more line-oriented.


This was the beginning of Obama's troublesome affiliation with South Carolina churches with hardcore, anti-gay leanings.

4/15/08

The Thing That Shouldn't Exist!


Adam Koford has resurrected the old Atlas Monsters collective in the form of a flickr set: http://www.flickr.com/groups/atlasmonsters/ And the best part is he's still looking for contributors! So help Adam keep the dream of destructive giants alive by drawing a classic Atlas (or "pre hero", if you must) era monster of your choosing. Don't forget their giant underwear!

4/9/08

Here's the new cover to the long-awaited reissue of Four Hankie Triumph, my multi-hit record from 1997. I've spent ages remastering the old 4-track tapes to polish up the sound for better digital comsumption. If I do say so myself, it sounds pretty damn good. Stay tuned for an official release announcement.

4/8/08

Bounds of Fun!

Meats and a dunk tank - together at last!! This ad would be pretty tough to beat for sheer Freudian excitement. And what a layout!!

Thanks to the happy Christainists at Spartanburg Today for providing all this hilarity. Subscribe now!

Passed on from Grandpappy to Grandpappy


Junior may be training to take over the family business, but he's not ready to leave his rock and roll youth behind quite yet. While dad consistently takes home top prize in the annual Crappie Tournament, Junior is better known for his popular thrash metal band HAWG KALL and his ability to belch the Star Spangled Banner.


While enjoying one of my many visits to a doctor's office this week, I discovered Spartanburg Today, a throwaway adzine that has become my new favorite publication. Nothing else I've seen better captures the true horror of Sparkle City in all it's full-color glory.




Take, for example, this ad for Ike's, a local institution beloved by crooked politicians looking to mingle with the Southern vote. I ask you, does anything make a meal look more appealing than styrofoam plates? How about backing a truck over the food a few times before shooting the photos? Getting hungry? Hey, if that award-winning logo is too tough to figure out, you better not bother with the menu. Just tell Skeeter you's hongry.


4/6/08

Apologies

I didn't realize my entire blog entry was being emailed to my contacts list. That's pretty rude, actually. I figured you were just getting a link to the blog proper.

And, to make matters worse, I broke my own rule about dedicating precious manhours to pop culture criticism. Believe me, the last thing I want is to waste your time with my opinions of Episode One or Lost. I've got bigger fish to clean, I assure you.

Forgive me. I've been too sick to do anything but watch DVDs and too cranky to do anything but bitch. (But seriously, that New Frontier crap chaps my ass.)

My Symptoms

I spent last Tuesday with my face in the toilet all day. I haven't puked like that since my alcoholic youth. Of course, back then I could hurl mid-sentence and go right back to my drunken soapboxing about how the Doors were better that the Beatles, refueling with a fresh beer. I am not a young man anymore.

Since Puke Day, I've stayed remarkably ill, only with varying symptoms. At this stage, the fever is still up and down, causing a delightfully entertaining delerium. I've come up with a little mantra to repeat internally to send my feverish brain to sleep: Fuzzy Bumble Turnbull. Try it, it works.

Now my throat is so sore I can't swallow. The doctor says it's not strep, but I know from strep. This is strep. Last night I managed to eat two pieces of buttered toast. I can't tell you how excited I was about that.

Naturally, I've been watching lots of video. Not having broadcast television, I will occasionally utilize Netflix to check out some tv programs I've been curious about. They're nearly always annoying enough that I have to berate and ridicule the poor, deluded doofus who made that particular recommendation, but I have only myself to blame for watching the Best of the Colbert Report. Look, I'm no expert on political satire, but good-natured guest appearances by the extradinarily evil Henry Kissinger and Bill O'Reilly tend to take the sting out of the parody, don't they? And anyway, I'm seeing very little in the way of political satire at all on this DVD, just Stephen Colbert milking his quickly-tiresome "I'm the center of the universe" schtick. His initial "Truthiness" broadcast brilliantly pinpointed the frightening possibilities of our modern, fact-free culture, but beyond that, the show devolves into guitar shredding contests and flirting with Jane Fonda.

Even more irritating is the DC New Frontier DVD, or as I like to call it, Watchman Lite. I hated the book, so my expectations were low. Darwyn Cooke obviously has talent, but he's got that Bruce Timm cookie cutter thing going on where there's one standard male figure and one standard female figure. The DVD makes thing worse by adding the identical facial shading to every head, regardless of how the light source is moving.

Worse is the "story". Can anyone explain to me the appeal of these ultra-depressing, apocalyptic retellings of the DC and Marvel histories? Don't bother, I already know the answer: they appeal to the modern 30-something comics dork who insists that his childish super hero comics include plenty of heavy, brooding, ultra-goth content to help justify his continued interest. This bozo had to give up reading Curious George books as a an adult because the Man with the Yellow Hat was never reimagined as a cyborg government agent who orchestrated the Bay of Pigs.

Part of the fun of Watchman was it's ridiculous level of cynism, including the rewriting of history as a much darker reality thanks to the pressence of these super goons. New Frontier attempts to preserve DC's publishing timeline while shoehorning their heroes into actual American history. Not only does Cooke refuse to acknowledge that the arrival of super heroes makes moot America's post-war achievements, he actually expects the stirring speeches of John F. Kennedy to have some relevance in a bullshit comic book story about Superman fighting dinosaurs. The juxtaposition is not only laughable, it's completely insulting to JFK and the spirit of the age.

Super heroes are imaginary, people. They fight mad scientists with death rays and giant robots designed to destroy the city. They don't fight in Vietnam, they don't sit in on the Watergate hearings, they don't capture Charles Manson and they don't sift through the rubble on 9/11.