Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Grown-Ups Deserve Some Playtime, Too

Steve McDonald, Fantastic Machines: a Coloring Book of Amazing Devices Real and Imagined
Cate Anevski, Invisible Cat Activities: a Complete-the-Drawing Book
Tim Leong, Star Wars Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Dude, why the hate for adult coloring books? We know coloring helps children improve manual dexterity, spatial recognition, and tri-dimensional vision. Coloring increases the chance your kid will become an engineer, doctor, or other highly qualified professional, besides being just fun. Do we think adults don’t deserve such educational play? Or have we become so strangled by social roles that we cannot allow ourselves to breathe freely for five minutes?

Despite the title, line artist Steve McDonald’s coloring book mostly spotlights real (or realistic) machines: a souped-up funny-car engine. The International Space Station. An ore extractor. A pump-bellows pipe organ. His one-tone illustrations, which look like they were done with a simple lining pen and basic drafting tools, are massively complex, inviting children and adults to apply colors and make the pictures look as realistic as what he’s already begun.

But he does more than that. By inviting participants to color the components of, say the Mars Rover, or a Victorian diving bell, he encourages users to understand the relationships between the components. A London city bus is even more complicated than McDonald’s drawings, and most people don’t contemplate how dependent we are daily on thousands of moving parts. McDonald encourages us to think about things we take for granted.

One of McDonald’s inventions is purely fantastical: a jet-powered flying ice cream truck. It’s pure Jetsons escapism. Yet McDonald renders even this d with intense attention, not only to the device, but the cityscape behind it. That’s why adults should color: because this seemingly escapist gewgaw actually jibes with something more complicated and profound. It makes us think. It encourages us to see the moving parts beneath the surface.

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Cate Anevski goes a different direction. Inspired by those “invisible” cat memes, she presents minimalist illustrations of cats caught mid-motion, and asks us to fill in the missing background: monkey bars. Duelling pianos. Volleyball. Where coloring books encourage users to imbue life into somebody else’s drawings, Anevski wants us to create new drawings around highly expressive cats doing, y’know, cat-ish things. Because who wouldn’t love that?

The back-cover synopsis shows simple line drawings around Anevski’s cats. But the pages themselves are wide-open beyond the cats, which Anevski depicts as simple line drawings with sepia-toned accents. So be as ambitious, or as simple, as your imagination moves you. When Anevski calls for the invisible beach ball, give her the entire beach: swimmers, partiers, waves, and Jaws. That’s the point: you control the final outcome.

Like coloring, this activity book works for children or adults. It encourages imagination, but sets limits for audiences to work against. It disguises practising complex motor function and brain exercise as simple play. And the pages I’ve tried are simply fun. It requires more personal motivation than coloring books’ pre-established lines, but it works similar parts of the brain, with similar rewards in both mental practice and grown-up playtime.

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Tim Leong, chief graphic designer for Entertainment Weekly, sadly disappoints with his attempt to create graphic representations of themes running through Star Wars. Not because it isn’t colorful, or packed with content, but because there isn’t much to do. Though beautifully designed, this paragon of licensed merchandising has little content per page. There’s little to hold my attention, and nothing I, the audience, can contribute.

Leong’s brightly colored illustrations sometimes are just cute pictures, like Chewbacca or C-3P0, with colors supposedly representing something informative: how often C-3P0 says “We’re doomed,” for instance. Others are actual statistical graphs, like how much of certain characters have been replaced by cybernetic parts, or who saved whom how many times. Sadly, with little text, readers will flip past Leong’s quite good designs quickly, in less time than most dinners.

And unfortunately, anybody considering this for Christmas presents will be sorely disappointed. By then, Episode VIII will have premiered, and this volume will already be out-of-date. What good is a gift book that’s destined to be obsolete before gift-giving season? This book offers no participation, little complexity, and minimal content. I like the idea, but Leong, a designer, needs a writer to give his content heft.

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In conclusion. I’m a new convert to coloring and activity books for grown-ups. We adults deserve both the sensory pleasure and the mental complexity that completing the picture provides. But a pretty picture isn’t enough; we need something we can contribute to creating the finished product. Audience members who consider themselves too cool for coloring, only deny themselves the pleasure and education that finishing the picture can provide.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Steve Earle, Road Warrior

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 21
Amos Poe, Steve Earle: Just an American Boy

Back in early 2002, after American politics took a hard nationalist turn, Steve Earle’s producers at Artemis Records challenged him to write a political album. Earle’s politics have always skewed further leftward than his Nashville singer-songwriter would imply, making him a polarizing figure in country music. But when dared to make an explicitly political album, he found himself in a surprisingly optimistic place. The product, Jerusalem, starts bleak, but maps a journey back to hope.

Earle invited punk filmmaker Amos Poe to follow his subsequent tour. Having already directed Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” video, the two had a level of creative trust that permitted The product, a fly-on-the-wall documentary reminiscent of DA Pennebaker’s classic Don't Look Back, shows Earle on a massive creative kick, mixing live performances and in-studio interviews with moments of candid insight. It shows Earle fighting the system, but it also shows his deep, fundamentally traditional Texas heart.

The documentary basically follows the trajectory of Earle’s album, without being yoked to it. Like the album, Poe begins with Earle performing “Ashes to Ashes,” Jerusalem’s opening track. A dark, backbeat-driven take on social Darwinism, it depicts history’s winners reveling in a social structure that is simultaneously both godless and foreordained, and whose eventual collapse provides the world justice, while denying it meaning. Earle clearly intends listeners to realize this describes an imminently collapsing edifice.

In interviews, Earle describes the thought processes bringing Jerusalem together. He describes growing up politically engaged and progressive in a Texas already hewn to increasingly right-wing principles. He recounts his rapid run up Nashville’s singer-songwriter hierarchy in the middle 1980s, a run harshly interrupted by an arrest for drug and gun charges. This arrest transformed his previously nascent political leanings, mainly background noise from childhood, into commitment to a whole host of social reform movements.

Steve Earle
This transformation hasn’t been entirely peaceful. He has a history of run-ins with police, sometimes justified (his headstrong ways haven’t smoothed with age), sometimes pure harassment. In one telling moment, Earle expresses terror to be in the passenger seat while a bandmate speeds along crowded commercial roads. You don’t want to get stopped in Nashville, he warns, headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police, with a celebrity convict and anti-death penalty activist in the car.

Earle growls into the microphone at one point: y’know that saying about just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you? Well, he reminds a stadium full of fans, paranoia is an irrational, unfounded fear of being watched. And while the system might not be watching you, they’re certainly watching me. Earle possesses a well-honed fear of social hierarchies, one earned by hard time, but also probably tweaked by his experience with hard drugs.

Between these political diatribes, Earle wedges in plenty of time for music. This includes not only his politically oriented New-Millennium recordings, like “John Walker’s Blues” or “Christmas in Washington,” but also classics like “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road.” Earle proves himself a master performer, throwing himself wholly into his songs, hair lank with sweat as he pushes himself to give the audience the concert they deserve. He dials it up or down with graceful ease.

>As filmmaker, Poe possibly suffers from excessive intimacy with his subject. His camera lingers much closer to Earle than Bob Dylan ever let DA Pennebaker get, sometimes so close that, in one telling moment, Earle has to adjust his microphone during a live radio interview to accommodate both in his personal space. Where Pennebaker paints Dylan as a dynamic but angry, sometimes untrustworthy, character, Poe’s treatment is undisguisedly heroic. It takes some getting used to.

Some critics dislike Poe’s sludgy, handheld camera work. We accept such limitations with Pennebaker, who shot directly to film with technology from around 1965, but Poe, working with broadcast-quality video, nevertheless gets lost in crowded, low-angle, poorly lit shots. Yet I find myself willing to accept this, because it resembles the atmosphere you’d get in a jostling performance venue. This isn’t a controlled Hollywood production. Poe drops us into a performing musician’s real, unprettified life.

Like the album, this movie ends with Earle’s song “Jerusalem.” Rather than a stage performance, Poe directs a serious video, one which combines new and found footage to embody Earle’s transition to hope. This video also makes explicit Poe’s debt to Pennebaker, implicit throughout the rest of the film. Like the album, it charts one artist’s journey from despair to optimism. In so doing, it gives us reason to hope for progress in reactionary times.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Best Comics Artist You've Never Heard Of

John Higgins, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: the Art of John Higgins

As the title suggests, Liverpool-born comics artist John Higgins is best known as colorist (“colourist”) on Alan Moore’s Watchmen novel, and elaborate handpainted watercolor strips in Britain’s Judge Dredd series. He doesn’t have name recognition like Frank Miller or Jack Kirby. Yet this book makes a persuasive case that we should know him: he’s collaborated on Batman, Doctor Who, the Terminator, Star Trek, and more.

Now Liverpool UP collates a massive selection of Higgins’ portfolio for an oversized book that’s half coffee-table art spectacle, half autobiography. The assortment ranges from his early days, paying dues on medical illustrations and line art for children’s game books, through prestige work on the best-known comics titles, for every major publishing house. The story of how he became John Higgins is as engaging as the visuals with which he peppers his memoir.

A school-leaver (what Americans call a high-school dropout) who joined the military to find discipline and guidance, Higgins found himself naturally using available time to draw. Eventually he completed his education at a prestigious British art college. But good-paying art jobs aren’t plentiful, not even in the 1970s, when ambitious young upstarts could schlep their portfolios directly to publishers’ doors. So he spent years paying industry dues.

Before the comics which became his mainstay, Higgins did multiple freelance jobs to develop cachet. He spends an entire chapter on his children’s line art, a style my generation will recognize from our family-friendly horror novels and game books. He shares a selection of cover art he did for science fiction novels. This selection includes full-page spreads at the end of most chapters, allowing readers to revel in the majesty of Higgins’ elaborately detailed art.

A recent watercolor of Judge Dredd in Higgins' distinctive, hyperrealistic style

This diligence eventually paid off. Artist Dave Gibbons discovered Higgins by reputation, then eventually met him face-to-face. So when Gibbons and writer Alan Moore created Watchmen, Gibbons knew exactly who to contact for colourist work. The trio collaborated to a degree seldom seen in the 1980s, a time when comics creators were salaried work-for-hire, and colourists about equal to pack mules. This collaboration helped start a new trend.

Higgins deconstructs the comics coloring process for untrained eyes. Though famous for his intricate watercolors, Higgins was forced to compromise for the industry standard in pre-digital comics, CMYK dot printing. As he demonstrates this involved some anonymous color separator, working for pennies per page, probably at a kitchen table in Illinois, literally distributing Doctor Manhattan’s eerie blue glow across the page with the corner of one thumb.

Over thirty years later, it’s easy to forget how innovative Higgins’ pathbreaking color work really was. Though he minimized bright primary colors for Watchmen, favoring muted tones and secondary hues, he lit scenes cinematically, bathing characters in one another’s castoff glow. But he took the exact opposite tack in The Killing Joke, oversaturating colors so everything appeared painfully bright, trapping readers in the Joker’s carnivalesque mindscape.

At times, Higgins was strictly a hired man. His art for cross-marketed properties like Carmageddon and BattleTanx, video games that needed the heft a printed comic provided, showcase his style, but only in serving another’s vision. Later, Higgins graduated to having greater creative control. His title Razorjack never found its commercial stride, but that’s probably an effect of media saturation; the art reproduced here is stunning.

Higgins’ survey of comics technology mingles with his life experiences, though he’s sparing in sharing his personal life. He laughs about finding his three-year-old daughter “helping” complete an early line drawing, with a green permanent marker. Nearly forty years on, he remembers the scene with good humor, though since he describes looming deadlines, I suspect it wasn’t comical back then. Such details, rare but apropos, give Higgins’ professional memoir a poignant touch.

And the art is spectacular. By his own admission, Higgins is best-known for images of monsters and carnage, from orcs and zombies in kids’ books, through the horror boom of the 1990s, and the noir pervasion of Razorjack. Here, his early-career work doing illustrations for medical journals shines: looking at a shuffling corpse, or a cyborg offering a child a flower, one can clearly imagine the bones and musculature necessary for that moment to happen.

It’s possible to read Higgins as only a memoirist of the industry. His autobiography, supplemented by powerful artwork, allows such casual consumption. But there’s something greater happening here, an investigation of how the medium’s capabilities change within one career. Though not famous, Higgins demonstrates why audiences love comics, by pushing the capabilities of the visual form.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Whose Career Is It Anyway?

Bob Kulhan with Chuck Crisafulli, Getting To “Yes And”: the Art of Business Improv

Back in the late-1990s through late-2000s, when improvisational comedy ruled America’s nightclubs and Whose Line secured constant ratings, certain big-city improv troupes invented an idea for increased income. They rented themselves out to corporations for team-building workshops and executive activities. These events possibly encouraged group unity and mutual trust, maybe. But improv performer and management consultant Bob Kulhan questions whether they actually improved bottom-line corporate outcomes.

Kulhan, a Second City graduate, still moonlights in improv, while running his consultancy and adjuncting at Duke University’s business school, a genuine triple threat. He brings his interdisciplinary approach to asking: does improv actually teach anything useful for business? Yes, Kulhan says, but only with modifications that full-time actors probably don’t realize they need. Arguably, though, Kulhan doesn’t realize he’s resurrecting improv’s original purpose.

Improv instructors have an activity called “Yes And.” Two (or more) performers construct a scene by agreeing with one another. One posits some statement—“Well, here we are in Egypt”—and the other agrees, while adding something further—“Yes, and destined to discover King Hatsupbashet’s lost tomb!” Ideally, the performers hear one another clearly enough to build something profound, without contradicting or opposing one another.

This, Kulhan insists, represents how business professionals ought to communicate. Rather than battling for terrain or engaging in one-upmanship, the twin banes of loners seeking individual reward, business people should collaborate, listening intently in the moment without preplanning rejoinders or seeking ways to torpedo colleagues. MBA teachers will say this freely, of course, but actual professionals, desperate to make themselves immune to automation, often squabble for insignificant territory.

Bob Kulhan
Good improv teaches students to listen closely, without preplanning, but with gazes turned toward whatever will produce a unified scene. Self-seeking behavior and stardom undermine the product; improvisors learn to succeed by lifting the whole company, sometimes at individual expense. Likewise, successful business professionals can improve their outcomes by centering their efforts on the project, team, or company, whether that means sacrificing their glamorous personal promotions.

Kulhan delves into particular ramifications, like idea generation, team-building in time-sensitive environments, and generating enthusiasm even when individuals are fatigued. He doesn’t waste busy professionals’ time with stage games like Freeze Tag or Word Ball, which hone performance skills but have questionable offstage outcomes. Instead, he side-coaches readers on productive conversations where they strive to advance others’ ideas and build team momentum, without seeking the next response or personal reward.

Having done improv in college, and having seen the disastrous outcomes of self-seeking teammates in working life, I applaud Kulhan’s enthusiasm. I’d love the opportunity to employ the principles he describes in my workplace, and perhaps someday, if circumstances break my way, I will. That said, I wonder if he realizes he isn’t actually adding anything new to the discussion. Though the original purpose has gotten lost, the ideas Kulhan describes are why modern improv was first invented.

Viola Spolin used her WPA grant to create numerous improv games, some original to her, others reclaimed from Italian commedia dell'arte tradition. She taught these games in Chicago-area schools and community centers, believing that poor children didn’t learn at home the critical listening skills common to children of the wealthy and upwardly mobile. Her son, Paul Sills, carried these games into theatre, when he co-founded Second City in 1959.

Despite his Second City roots, Kulhan never mentions Spolin in the text or index. She gets one fleeting citation in the endnotes, so transitory that I suspect he doesn’t realize how close he’s stumbled to gold. Rather than creating something new, he’s recaptured the reason Spolin invented improvisation, a reason lost behind a richly decorated history of unscripted theatre. This gives Kulhan’s message a certain poignancy, one which I suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s uncovered.

Honestly, I did improve in college, even staging a successful team performance, without ever discovering this history. I didn’t know Viola Spolin had non-theatrical ends in mind until after graduate school, when I stumbled upon the information accidentally. I presume Kulhan similarly never knew improv’s history as professional skills development, or he’d cite more sources from Spolin and her peers. Like me, Kulhan probably doesn’t know the full lost history.

So, though Kulhan doesn’t say anything necessarily new, he says something much-needed. In a business milieu long clouded by individualists seeking their rewards while fearing the eternal spectre of automation, improv skills offer the uniquely human opportunity of innovation through team unity. Viola Spolin knew this around 1940, but the information got lost. Bob Kulhan brings it back.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Avett Brothers: Rocking That Old Indie Hillbilly Sound

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Seven
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You

Country music became mainstream in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as “rock” music increasingly favored power chords and screaming vocals. Audiences who loved melody and tunefulness found country appealing, especially as the FCC opened new FM frequencies, and country became available in cities, in lifelike stereophonic sound. But like any field suddenly flush with success, country paid a price, audible whenever programmers flood our ears with slick, urbanized “bro country” and formulaic drinkin’ songs.

The Avett Brothers famously began as a revisionist bluegrass outfit, but drifted into acoustic indie folk rock. They even highlight their transition in the first two tracks on this, their major-label debut album. After the ascending piano-driven title track launches the disc, the banjo lick on the second song, “January Wedding,” sounds old but not tired. Probably influenced by the millennial bluegrass revival, and the O Brother soundtrack, the Avetts lovingly burnish restored antique sounds.

But the lyrics further this theme. The alienation from self, the leaving home, in “I and Love and You,” contrasts with the ironic love lyrics in “January Wedding,” where the narrator laments that when he met his girl, she was “sick like Audrey Hepburn.” Ooh, harsh. This album turns on themes of alienation, loss, and disappointment. The self-flagellating lyrics remind listeners how much the narrator, who may or may not be alternating vocalists Seth and Scott Avett, hates himself.

On “Tin Man,” the singer calls himself “warm as a stone” and sings about how much he misses “the feelin’ of feelin’.” That message of feeling dead inside has country resonances going back to Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells. Yet the mildly twangy instrumentation seems to parody the sound of today’s egregiously self-serious Kontemporary Kountry, suggesting the message is actually ironic, a secret joke we get because we don’t just receive music passively, we’re active, thoughtful listeners.

The Avett Brothers' core lineup, from left: Seth Avett,
Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, and Scott Avett

I grew up enjoying artists like Gordon Lightfoot and Carole King, musicians who disregarded advertizing niches and made music that sounded good, regardless of marketability. The Avett Brothers signal their continuity with that tradition, sometimes blatantly, as in songs like “Ten Thousand Words,” which launches with an intro so reminiscent of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” that, when another song starts, it brutally grabs your attention.

Their ecumenical musical influence increases in the McCartney-ish shuffle of “And It Spread” or the Motown backbeat in “Kick Drum Heart,” though it never overwhelms the band’s distinct musical identity. Heritage, for this band, represents a buffet, from which they sample omnivorously. Country audiences, familiar with how their genre currently appropriates influences from hard rock and hip-hop, may find this approach comforting… or possibly disorienting. Depending on whether you resist the sudden shifts, or accept them.

That same faux-country sound recurs on “It Goes On and On” and “Laundry Room,” suggesting the Avetts recognize their own hillbilly roots, while standing outside that heritage. Use of instruments like kazoo and musical saw play with this duality. But simultaneously, they play with—and subvert—indie rock conventions throughout this album. This continues a tradition much beloved in the “alternative” community, a sly awareness that the featured artist both relies upon, and resists, the record label.

The Avetts accomplish this, partly, by crafting arrangements that radio programmers will never smoothly incorporate into any genre playlist. “Ill With Want” and “The Perfect Space” both feature austere piano-and-string-bass arrangements that complement their lonely, isolated themes. But the latter track features jarring hard rock transitions, ensuring we can’t rest in their sound like a hammock, or phase them out like elevator music. It also ribs an industry dependent on (and hamstrung by) convenient marketing labels.

Finally, the album concludes with the song “Incomplete and Insecure,” where the singer laments that “I haven't finished a thing since I started my life, don't feel much like starting now.” In fact, he laments this over and over, like a Jesuit wailing “mea maxima culpa.” Yet from award-winning artists known for their musicianship and their stage presence, we know it’s fake, a lampshaded display of irony. By closing on this, they declare their position, both inside and outside the music establishment.

The Avett Brothers demand an attentive, engaged audience, and music buyers have happily given them that. They’ve parleyed the momentum from this album into three further major-label releases, several mass media subsidiary sales, and three Grammy nominations. Well, that’s mainstream success; clearly the establishment tweaks them back. The circle of life continues. And because we love their albums, but mock insidership, that means we’re Avett Brothers, too.