All posts by keithpille

A Song A Day: The General Lee

THE GENERAL LEE | JOHNNY CASH | THE DUKES OF HAZZARD

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

When I decided to start this project, I don’t think I could have hoped for an easier layup to start things off.

I’ve loved this song since the late 90s, since my peak of Johnny Cash superfandom. This song is the kind of ridiculous shit that only Johnny Cash could make cool- from a cash-in album put together to capitalize on the success of The Dukes of Hazzard, this song is written from the point of view of a muscle car, describing its thirst for fun and adventure in tones that make it sound like a kid’s loyal dog. The arrangement’s nuts in a very early-80s way, with way too many backup singers oohing and ahhing and a piano part that sounds like it came out of an old-west saloon.

But turning kitsch into gold was always a Cash long suit, and he does it here (it helps that the tick-tocky guitar parts on this thing chug along righteously; and note that, despite the video above, I’m pretty sure that’s not Waylon Jennings playing guitar). Goddamned if this thing doesn’t sound like an anthem of some kind. It’s the magic of Johnny Cash’s voice that he can make lines like “I’m the best pal the Duke Boys ever had / I’m thunder on the highway lookin’ bad, bad, bad” sound, well, if not cool at least vaguely serious and fun.

There’s a vague reference to the flag waving proudly, and that’s a little squicky given that the roof of the car has a Confederate battle flag, but I think this is the kind of thing you have to just shrug and consign to being from the past. Having read a bunch about Johnny Cash, I actually think there’s a decent chance he’d be on the right side of the Confederate monuments debate. That’s unknowable, of course, but that’s my read. Anyway, this is a really fun song that revels in its own dumbness, despite that weird little extra contextual thing. The ending is more of the same: cheesy bad car engine sound effects, and a problematic-but-atavistically-fun sounding of the General Lee’s “Dixie” horn.

Artpal!

You should go check out my new podcast project, Artpal!

And what’s Artpal!, you ask, and why should I check it out? Season 1 of Artpal! is a DIY audioguide to a bunch of works on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I try to provide a different point of view than what the institutional voice of the museum can provide, talking about stuff like Chuck Close’s gross side or why the gender ratio of the museum’s art collection is so skewed. I also try to keep it fun and accessible. The entire first season is available for download, if you want to put it all on your phone and go to the museum in full audioguide fashion. Or the episodes are written so that you could just listen to them anywhere and do image searches if you need to.

The show’s also on itunes and Google Play if you want to skip the website (which does have full show transcripts) and go straight to the podcast experience.

Oh yeah, and remember that I have that other podcast about Uncle Tupelo…

ArtPal! A Demo tape

I’ve been working on a new art-focused podcast project. The whole thing should drop in the end of September or in October of 2018.. Here’s a demo version of the second episode (the first episode is kind of an atypical introduction to the whole thing). If you hear this and have thoughts, I’d love to hear them as I work on producing the actual full first season!

APPROACH THE THRONE: SERENA WILLIAMS, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, AND THIRD-WAVE FEMINISM

I’d like to start out by laying out a few background statements to take for granted in the interest of time. First, that Serena Williams is a remarkable figure in terms of dominance, significance, and public profile in the sport of tennis. Second, that Williams’ outsized public profile has largely been mediated by photography. And that these photographs have existed within an environment of toxic discourse on Williams’ appearance, in a pattern mirroring that of such other prominent black women as Michelle Obama and Leslie Jones.

The discourse.

Continue reading APPROACH THE THRONE: SERENA WILLIAMS, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, AND THIRD-WAVE FEMINISM

THOMAS EAKINS, BRUSHING AGAINST THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE

Suppose you’re a painter, and you want capture a realistic scene of two men playing chess in a parlor. How would you do it? Most people, I think, would sit in the room and paint what they saw. Or, depending on their era, maybe they’d work from a photograph. A very meticulous artist might pencil out  couple of single-point perspective lines to guide the recession of the room’s furniture. Vanishingly few artists would use a separate sheet of paper to create a 3-dimensional gridded space where everything in the room was geometrically plotted out with each object considered as its own individual study. But this is exactly what Thomas Eakins did.

Eakins’ perspective workup for The Chess Players
The Chess Players, Thomas Eakins

There’s a decent chance your reaction is: Thomas Who? Eakins is an odd case, a man considered one of the leading American painters of the back half of the 19th century who has slowly slid into something that isn’t quite obscurity but is pretty far from household-name status. You’ve probably heard of the people considered his peers at the time: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, (kinda) Mary Cassatt. A combination of scandals (Eakins was heavily involved in art education, and was involved in scandals revolving around nude models and students, and it’s a dense thicket that’s almost impossible to judge from 130 years out without getting lost in the gap between then-contemporary and current social mores; last time I looked, his wikipedia page was dominated by speculation about his sexual preference), changing tastes, and the random drift of history have shunted him off to the side. But in his day, Eakins was a big deal, renowned as a new kind of big-brained artist.

Eakins was a creature of his time. He worked during a period of unprecedented exuberance about the progress of science. He brought that spirit into his artistic practice, pursuing representational realism through a combination of techniques derived from science and mathematics. His approach was powerful but flawed, with inconsistencies that led to visual paradoxes; similar paradoxes lurked around the edges of the very science world that inspired him.

Eakins’ belief that perfect representation of reality could be attained in painting through advanced science-based technique was a manifestation of a mode of thought pervasive in late 19th-century American and European intellectual circles, an idea that science and knowledge had reached a summit. His social position in the academic elite of Philadelphia put him in contact with scientists, artists, and thinkers whose output presents a similarly teleological outlook. He basically soaked up their hubris. And this isn’t something I can claim to prove, but I’d guess that the passing of that particular scientific worldview has something to do with the slow drift of Eakins into semi-obscurity.

Continue reading THOMAS EAKINS, BRUSHING AGAINST THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE

YOUR FAVORITE BAND IS PROBABLY JUST FINE

Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
  1. A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS

I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).

In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.

There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).

More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?

I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.

Continue reading YOUR FAVORITE BAND IS PROBABLY JUST FINE

SOMEBODY GO BACK AND GET A SHITLOAD OF DIMES

or Postmodernism is Closer Than You Think

So, right now social media is aflame with talk of Jordan Peterson, the latest half-bright pile of mud to figure out that there’s money to be made telling angry young men that they’re right and special. Peterson and the controversy surrounding him are too dull to get into here, but I bring him up because part of his program includes bemoaning postmodernism and accusing it of destroying our morals, corroding society, corrupting the youth of Athens, yada yada yada.

I yada there because this isn’t a new thing. Howling incoherently about postmodernism has turned into a byword of the American right, especially its angrier, weirder wings (for instance, the vague acquaintance from high school, now blocked, who swooped into a facebook thread about the US withdrawal from the paris climate accords and told all of the participants that we were postmodernism-poisoned liberals and cultural Marxists who should kill ourselves). And I say “incoherently” advisedly; I just finished a master’s in art history, wherein I spent a lot of time talking and reading about postmodernism, and I can assure you that very little of it had to do with a vast liberal conspiracy to undermine the work of brave patriots like Alex Jones.

So what’s postmodernism? That’s a complicated thing to lay out, actually, for several reasons. For one thing, postmodernism manifests itself differently in different cultural spheres; architectural postmodernism isn’t exactly the same thing as literary postmodernism, and both are slightly different from postmodernism in visual art, and so on. This is a thing—THE thing—about culture, that answers are usually more complicated and boundaries more fuzzy than we’d like. But that’s the way it is. Anyway, in all of these spheres, postmodernism is (as the name would imply) a cultural reaction to modernism, which in turn was a reaction to (or at least existed in the context of) the romanticism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Again, I’m simplifying the hell out of things here, but hopefully in a useful way. Speaking really broadly, modernism was a push towards a theoretical rational order, often marked by form-follows-function minimalism. Think the paintings of Piet Mondrian, or the geometric glass buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or the sparse, structured prose of Ernest Hemingway. The uniting theme here is a desire to pare things down to their essence, and (generally) to make the world make sense in terms of rational, quantifiable systems.

Postmodernism (once again, speaking really broadly) rose from the recognition that the world couldn’t really be contained, described, and modeled in the tight, orderly boxes demanded by modernism. And it can’t, for reasons too complicated to get into here, but 20th century developments in math, physics, and culture all ran into some kind of uncertainty or incompleteness on the outer fringes. (Thus, the squishiness of defining postmodernism is both ironic and kind of the point.) Where modernism implies (if often between the lines) a crystalline objective order to everything, postmodernism recognizes the semiotic implication that just about everything in human culture exists in relation to something else (this, I guess, is what drives the political right nuts, if they see it as a push back against tightly-strictured, clear, rational morality handed down by god; I submit that postmodernism isn’t really the problem in that model). Think of it this way: how do you define a word, any word? You do it through other words. Which in turn are defined by other words. It’s a giantic, neverending web of connections that sort of resembles the surface of a waterbed rather than a crystalline bedrock. Which sounds bad and confusing, but the good news is that by this part you’ve read more than 500 words-dependent-on-other-words about the subject and hopefully picked up some kind of informational content; in other words, it turns out that human culture gets along just fine without fixed points.

Anyway: a few hallmarks of postmodernism emerge from what I just said. One is a (usually) playful sense; you can think of postmodernism as a trickster Bugs Bunny character constantly tweaking modernism’s rules-bound Daffy Duck. Another, reflecting the whole interconnected-web-of-referentiality thing, is a propensity towards reference (see the previous sentence for an example; by the way, ever notice that Bugs Bunny is essentially an animated Groucho Marx, even repeating some gags?). Finally, especially in literature, architecture, and film/TV, postmodernism shows an obsession with form and playful tweakings of it.

Which brings me back around to the American right. I’ve noticed a persistent love among people on the right for the movie Blazing Saddles. Jason Lewis, now a tea party republican congressman from Minnesota, often played the theme from Blazing Saddles during his time as a right-wing radio shouter in the Twin Cities. Conservative moaners about political correctness love to hold up Blazing Saddles as a movie that couldn’t be made today because the mean liberal scolds would kill it for being too un-P.C. The overlap between these people and people who decry postmodernism is for all intents and purposes total.

Which is dumb, because Blazing Saddles is a profoundly postmodern movie. It openly takes the constituent chunks of old-fashioned westerns and playfully remixes them, critiquing them in the process. This is the essence of postmodernism. It’s highly referential- some of the jokes don’t make sense unless you know about lawsuits Hedy Lamar filed. It deconstructs itself- look at the last act of the movie, where the action spills off of the set where the movie’s being filmed and takes over an entire movie studio. It’s hard to find a more postmodern moment than Slim Pickens, maybe-and-maybe-not breaking character, yells “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!” before beating up Dom DeLuise. Honestly, if someone ever asks you what postmodernism is, you can give them a pretty good answer by just telling them to watch Blazing Saddles and think a little bit about what they’re seeing.

I’m not saying that Mel Brooks and his crew sat down and said “we’re going to make a movie that’s a massive exercise in postmodernism, and also includes fart jokes.” I’m sure they didn’t; that’s just not the way things work. Labels like these are almost always worked out after the fact, except for weird vanguardy cases where someone’s writing a manifesto. It’s more accurate that the cultural moment constantly moves forward and seeps into everything that’s created, and some time after the fact someone looks at it and says “yeah, that’s postmodernism” or “hey look, all of that stuff is similarly ornate, let’s call it baroque” or “boy, sure seems like some kind of rebirth, a renaissance if you will,  happened in Europe there.” Postmodernism started popping up in at least the 40s and eventually came to be the dominant cultural mode of the west in the back half of the 20th century, continuing into today.

Which is to say that people moaning that postmodernism has made immoral soyboys out of all of us don’t know what they’re talking about. They are, ultimately, fish unknowingly complaining about the water they’re swimming in. And if, after complaining, they tune into any cultural product more sophisticated than Little House on the Prairie, they’re being pretty hypocritical.


(Postscript: since I brought it up and then just left it there, and someone’s bound to ask: the “it couldn’t be made today because it’s so un-PC” belief about Blazing Saddles has nothing at all to do with Saddles’ status as a profoundly postmodern movie. It’s a profoundly postmodern movie that happens to be about American race relations; Infinite Jest is a profoundly postmodern novel that has nothing much to say about race relations. Just because a work is one thing doesn’t mean anything about the other thing. Anyway, I don’t know that I buy that statement to begin with. The original possibility Blazing Saddles had a lot to do with Mel Brooks’ clout and production capabilities at that moment; the movie was pushing boundaries then, too, just as it would be now (even if the boundaries in question are different). Anyway, several movies come out every year that are more intentionally offensive than Blazing Saddles (and generally not as good). People who live in a world where multiple Human Centipede sequels have been filmed don’t have very strong legs to stand on when they talk about stuffy atmospheres stopping movies from being made.)

(Post-Postscript: another good moment of unacknowledged 1970s postmodernism was pointed out by pal Max Sparber, who observed how weird/great it is in the theme from Shaft that the backup singers get angry at the lead singer and then reconcile in admiration for the subject of the song, all within the text of the song itself.)

A BRIEF VISUAL WALK THROUGH THE HISTORY OF BLACK MILITANT IMAGERY

Public Enemy, 1987

I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. They were one of my primary gateways into hiphop. Loved the production, the politics, the interplay between Chuck’s and Flav’s voices, the whole package. And the aesthetic. Let’s not kid ourselves, Public Enemy has a very distinct aesthetic.

It’s a very militaristic aesthetic. Uniforms, military signifiers, a lot of berets. The guys in the berets, of course, are the S1Ws (for “Security of the First World” in PE parlance). Theoretically, they’re PE’s security force. Functionally, they dance at shows and look cool at press events.

Anyway, Public Enemy is a smart band and Chuck D is a smart guy in particular. This isn’t random. This resonant look came from somewhere. It’s naggingly familiar.

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers
Chuck D

 

It’s naggingly familiar because it’s pretty much a direct visual quote of the distinct aesthetic of the Black Panthers. It’s clearly not an accident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Panthers, for what it’s worth, were very savvy about the use of imagery. They were great at mass communication; I’ve seen some fascinating presentations about their use of visual art in their newspaper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK. A militant rap group borrowed some visual tropes from a militant political group. So what?

Well, the interesting thing is that the Panthers pretty clearly borrowed a lot of elements of their look – the military signifiers, the regimentation – from the Nation of Islam. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know who the Nation of Islam are; if you don’t, they’re a major combination Black nationalist/religious group. They have supporters and detractors, but you can’t really minimize their importance in the history of 20th century America.

Members of the Nation of Islam
Muhammed Ali in NOI regalia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s where it gets really interesting… the Nation of Islam, in their turn, clearly borrowed a lot of their imagery from Marcus Garvey, the pioneering pan-Africanist / Black nationalist who was active in the early part of the 20th century.

Marcus Garvey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These pictures of Garvey are from 1924. The one on the right was taken by James Vanderzee, a prominent Harlem photographer.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey, photo by James Vanderzee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK, we can trace this thread of visual signifiers for Black militancy back to the 1920s. What of it?

Well, here are some paintings of heroes of the Haitian revolution, the only successful rebellion by African slaves. Pretty obvious thing to hearten back to if you’re Marcus Garvey.

General Toussaint Louverture
Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Henri Cristophe

 

 

 

 

 

Pictured above, we have Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Cristophe. Those uniforms look a lot like the uniform Marcus Garvey was wearing, which of course inspired everything after.

 

 

 

(By the way, do Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military uniforms make more sense now? They should)

 

So… Public Enemy is old news. Barely a band now. What does this have to do with today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show wasn’t that long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that freaked some people right the fuck out.

This imagery is obviously still present, and still powerful.

–Fin–

Oh, but:

Emperor Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David
Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

THERE AND BACK AGAIN, FOR ONCE

One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

Continue reading THERE AND BACK AGAIN, FOR ONCE

Wicket Don’t Surf

ABOUT THE DEPARTMENT OF STAR WARS STUDIES

On one hand, I’m pretty tired of Star Wars as an omnipresent cultural phenomenon that’s now going to be marketed to death every year for the rest of our lives, and the behavior of hardcore Star Wars fandom often makes me want to poke my eyes out with chopsticks.

But on the other hand, the Star Wars movies are as close to a cultural lingua franca as we’ve got these days. Everybody knows them, everybody understands references to them, and so they make good universally-accessible subjects for critical thought. And for me, well, I was born in 1974, grew up watching the original trilogy, and then spent my early brain-tuning years obsessing over the movies like any late-80s/early 90s nerd; the critical faculties that I use now to argue about the role of science in the paintings of Thomas Eakins or the use of autobiographical comics as vehicles for the assertion of female identity, well, that all got started in thinking about how the first chunk of IV is pretty much a Western and why Han and Lando share so many of the same lines in V. Thinking about Star Wars is how I got started thinking about culture to begin with, so really, I’m just sort of coming home by thinking about it some more.

So the Department of Star Wars Studies is my catchall name for a recurring thing I’ll be doing where I poke and prod at Star Wars stuff and try to apply some of that fancy critical thought to a bunch of movies that usually feature a walking dog who flies spaceships.

Punch it:

WICKET DON’T SURF

This is a real comic that was licensed by Lucasfilm.

In 1983, George Lucas quietly entered the shit-stirrer hall of fame. The United States was still trying to figure out how to deal with the end of the Vietnam War, and was in fact about to kick off a decade of (retrospectively terrifying) cultural freakout about it. And in that milieu Lucas tricked the entire country into paying to go into theaters and root for thinly-veiled stand-ins for the Viet Cong.

I mean, think about it. In the last act of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has forces stationed on Endor, a place known for rough terrain filled with thick vegetation that impedes conventional open-field tactics and rewards hit-and-run ambushes. Imperial troops, with armor, laser blasters, speeder bikes, and various armored walkers (which are impractical but really cool-looking) have vastly more firepower and conventional training than the local insurgency they’re trying to put down, but the Ewoks overwhelm this superior conventional force with their guerilla tactics and knowledge of the local terrain. This is barely subtext; it’d be hard for it to be any more blatant. The parallels couldn’t be more clear, down to the fact that American forces suffered greatly in Vietnam from being built around theoretical open-field tank battles with Soviet forces on the plains of Europe; tanks don’t look as cool as AT-STs, but they’re clearly filling the same role of having their battlefield usefulness blunted by thick foliage and resourceful guerilla fighters.

You just have to be amazed at the politics of this. If the Ewoks are thinly-veiled stand-ins for the Viet Cong, what about the other side of that analogy? The Empire is the US. With the timing of this, there’s a curious historical hiccup: Return of the Jedi was released in May of 1983; Ronald Reagan first referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” in March of 1983. So it’s not possible that Lucas was specifically tweaking Reagan’s usage with his US-Empire conflation, nor that Reagan was directly responding to it. But one of the strengths of Star Wars is that it is built out of easily-applied analogies, and both men were no doubt looking at bigger-picture parallels that were obvious to them (or their speechwriters, in Reagan’s case).

Continue reading Wicket Don’t Surf

The Past is Another Country

Hank Fuckin’ Williams

It’s hard to admit, but I don’t really have a lot of good memories of my mother, or much of a sense that I got any great legacy from her (except for being alive, which I guess, yeah, that does count for something). Mostly, I remember her needing stuff from me – a lot of going to the kitchen to fetch her drinks or cigarettes when I was younger; writing her resume, engaging in one of her ritual “debates” about the Kennedy assassination, or lending her money as I got older. And emotional validation all the way through.

On the cultural front, not much. She introduced me to Herman Wouk’s books about World War II, and that’s something that’s paid off in a bunch of ways throughout my life. So that’s a definite plus. Otherwise, almost nothing.

Except: my mother loved country music. Not the country music that was current when I was a kid – this was the 80s and early 90s, so I guess the current stuff at that point would have been Randy Travis and Garth Brooks – but the country music of her parents’ generation. We had this enormous 70s-vintage console stereo (turntable, radio tuner, and yes, an 8-track) and when my father wasn’t around she’d often put a Hank Williams or Johnny Horton record on and crank the fuck out of it. And the giant console stereo had giant console speakers, so when it cranked, it really kicked out the jams. And, like punk, classic country is music that really, really benefits from volume. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (along with Roger Miller and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’m sure a bunch of others) do this thing where they’re singing out at the very edge of what their voice can handle, and you can hear their vocal chords distort just like an overdriven guitar amp and it’s fucking glorious at extreme volume. And Hank’s wonderfully spare arrangements sound great when they can fill up a room with sound.

Continue reading The Past is Another Country

KP|CIA

And here’s my first stab at a new direction after Nowhere Band. After reading and thinking about autobio comics a ton for my thesis work, I couldn’t resist making one of my own. And this is a story I’ve always wanted to tell. I wouldn’t bet against more of these coming out in the next few months.









Tarot Sketches of the Major Arcana

So here’s another art project I’ve been working on for the past few months: drawing my way through the major arcana. I wanted an excuse to try some different stylistic stuff and not always have to draw guitars and drumsets (I didn’t count on finishing Nowhere Band before I finished this). Some of these are pretty rough, but I really like a bunch of them. I wound up learning a lot about artistic technique, archetypes, and a bunch of weird little bits of European history. So, good project all around.

I *might* go back and do more polished versions, at least of some of them. Not sure.

FWIW, my process was pretty simple: I looked up the Rider-Waite version of the card (since I like the style of them, and they seem to be default) and just sort of stared at it for a few minutes and then started drawing, trying honor whatever popped into my head at the moment.

Continue reading Tarot Sketches of the Major Arcana

Do You Want to Know More? You Do Not.

As I write this, it’s June of 2017, which means that I’ve spent at least the last 18 months preoccupied with politics at a level that I’d never matched before; and I was pretty preoccupied with politics before. But now, for me and big chunks of the rest of the country, it’s saturation level.

In this headspace, I reread Dune recently and started thinking about how often I see it cited as a novel that has things to say about politics. And to me, that’s a really interesting question to poke at. Can a book about future feudalism and giant sandworms really help us understand actual nuts-and-bolts politics in our mundane world? Looking beyond Dune, what about other novels that get mentioned as “political?” Is it that crazy to look to fiction for insight when we appear to be living out a William Gibson rewrite of the Johnny Gentle stuff from Infinite Jest?

So, then, here’s my overview of books I’ve read recently(-ish) with a “political” reputation. Looking at it, I’m keenly aware that it skews towards books by men, and science fiction. For the former, that’s definitely a problem; I’ve actively been trying for a couple of years to read more books by women, but it’s a case of a few years of active effort taking a long time to counteract the sausage party that results from decades of reading guided by systemic sexism. And for the latter, hey, no regrets: science fiction is a perfectly cromulent area of fiction.

With that in mind:

Dune, Frank Herbert

As I mentioned above, Dune has a reputation for being a political novel. But is it, really? The book’s largely about schemes and counterschemes (I think you could argue that Dune Messiah is more actively concerned with politics, or with a mixture of politics and its close cousin governance); the action consists of a move, a sneak attack, an escape, and then years of acculturation and training before a battle. But insight into politics does undergird all of this. Most especially, Paul Atreides’ realization that having the power to destroy a resource gives you control over it is an apt crystallization of a real principle from strategic power politics (CHOAM is modeled after OPEC, after all). Along the same lines, the discussion of the three-legged nature of the Imperial power structure, where the interests and capacities of the Imperial army, the combined armies of the Landsraad League, and the economic power of the Spacing Guild all press against each other to create a roughly stable equilibrium is another good demonstration of a real-world strategic power politics situation. Moreover, Duke Leto’s exhausted dismissal of his own use of propaganda to win public loyalty doubles as an nice observation of the power of cultivated image (especially when contrasted with the just-below-the-surface examination of how the Harkonnens propagandize their own population in the chapter where Feyd-Rautha fights in the arena). This look at propaganda extends into a discussion of loyalty and how it is earned.

Overall, Dune winds up having a lot of good nuggets that may or may not add up to anything useful; it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump reading Dune and coming out of it any better at his job.

 

A Song of Ice and Fire (series), George R.R. Martin

I understand (and share) many of the frustrations and qualms about Martin’s series. But the fact remains that, buried in the thousands of pages of text are a great many astute observations about power, persuasion, and governance. The two core goals of the series are an examination of political systems and a deconstruction of standard fantasy tropes (I’d argue that the TV series retained both of these more or less by accident for a while, in greatly watered-down form, before just ditching them in the name of streamlining into an action-adventure narrative).

Continue reading Do You Want to Know More? You Do Not.

DAVID BOWIE IS__ A BIT OF AN INTERPRETIVE MUDDLE, BUT PRETTY WORTHWHILE IN THE END IF YOU’RE INTO THAT SORT OF THING

quiltedThis was originally written as a paper for an art history class in curation.

Last year, my birthday fell shortly before David Bowie Is, the “first retrospective of the extraordinary career of David Bowie,” closed its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. My wife surprised me with tickets to the long-sold-out show. We packed for a crash road trip, hopped into the car, and drove from Minneapolis to Chicago, listening our way with mounting excitement through the entire Bowie oeuvre during the 10-hour trip.

Viewing the exhibit was an overwhelming rush; the line to enter the museum had stretched around the block. The show was designed to hit attendees through multiple senses – as one walked through the space looking at objects, a location-sensitive headset would blast music or interview clips related to the object under view. The crowd itself – packed into the galleries as tightly as the fire marshals would allow – provided a constant buzz of energy as several rooms full of Bowie superfans communed with artifacts connected with the great man.

We left the exhibit exhausted and happily dazed. But on the drive back to Minneapolis, questions started to bubble up as we talked it over. What had we learned in that exhibit? It didn’t really seem like we’d gotten much in the way of new information. The experience had been intense and fun, but had there been an intellectual point? Had the whole thing really been an enjoyable but ultimately empty wallow in pop idolatry? As months passed and the undigested bolus of David Bowie Is lingered in my head, a slow, slinking surety settled in that it had all been a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Continue reading DAVID BOWIE IS__ A BIT OF AN INTERPRETIVE MUDDLE, BUT PRETTY WORTHWHILE IN THE END IF YOU’RE INTO THAT SORT OF THING

The Many Cars of Keith Pille

(this is an updated version of a piece I originally wrote in 2004; it was updated again in September of 2016. Hopefully it will not need to be updated yet again for a while)


1. 1978 Dodge Warlock pickup 

Period of use: December 1990- early 1991
Comments: customized for racing on the dirt tracks of rural Oklahoma; idled at 35 mph, requiring constant use of the brakes while driving. Famous throughout Blair, Nebraska for glasspack mufflers which allowed the truck to be heard over a mile away and for gas mileage below 10 mpg. Lacked rearview mirrors of any sort.
dodge_warlockEventual fate: sold due to constant mechanical problems of varying magnitude, shortly before a massive systemwide collapse left it looking like Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s car at the end of Smokey and the Bandit.

2. 1982 AMC Spirit 

Period of Use: early 1991- March 1993
Comments: one of the curiously large “compacts” of the early 80s. Much-beloved and far more reliable than the truck, although hardly free of mechanical trouble (the driveshaft fell off during one drive to Omaha; the clutch burned out on a country road). At one point my father installed a dashboard 8-track, against which I railed vigorously.
Eventual fate: retired from service after chunk of transmission housing broke off and fell into clutch assembly.

Continue reading The Many Cars of Keith Pille

I’m A Punk Rocker Yes I Am | A Meander

A portrait of the artist as a young punk.
A portrait of the artist as a (very midwestern) young punk.

As I write this, I’m about halfway through a master’s program in art history. And for the most part, I like it a lot. I like being exposed to new art and new ways of thinking and being able to get into deep discussions with smart people about works of art and lesser-known artists.

There is a side of it I don’t like, though – one that doesn’t come up in class too often, but dominates when I’m talking to people outside the program about it. If I mention that I’m studying art history, people naturally seem to want to jump to talking about classifications. Is Van Gogh impressionist or post-impressionist? Is Frank Gehry a deconstructionist architect?

I know there’s some value to that kind of discussion, but I think it’s minimal. It’s more interesting to talk about Frank Gehry’s architecture itself than whether it fits into an arbitrary category (a category made up, in this case, retroactively for a museum exhibit, borrowing a really unrelated term from lit theory). And more importantly, these discussions remind me of another ongoing argument that’s been annoying me for years: is Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” a punk song?

Continue reading I’m A Punk Rocker Yes I Am | A Meander

Rough Mixes of Vandalized Husker Du Songs

So, the desire to transform Husker Du songs in weird acoustic ways just seems to be this year’s obsession (see the last post, ferinstance).  As threatened there, I’ve gone further down this road. Here are rough mixes of ganked-up versions of Celebrated Summer (yeah, again, but with more thought into the arrangement on this one) and Powerline. These mixes aren’t final at all, but they’re good representations of works in progress. There will probably be more of these, and for that I apologize.

Maybe my apology should take the form of an acoustic cover of I Apologize.

Celebrated Summer

Powerline

A Walk Through the Process of Creating Nowhere Band

A couple of friends have asked me about the nuts and bolts of how I put a Nowhere Band strip together; I’m in kind of a dead spot as I recover from a vacation and wait for class to start, so I thought now would be a good time to do a quick walkthrough of the process. So (click on all pictures to embiggen):

1-scriptSTEP 1 : SCRIPT

Naturally, I start with a script. Actually, that’s not true. I start with a vague idea that gets jotted down in a notebook or a google doc, and then fluffed out to a badly-written paragraph with chunks of dialogue embedded, and then on to a full-on script.

My scripts are pretty minimal (and casual as far as spelling and grammar and those niceties), since I’m just writing for myself and I’ve already internalized all kinds of strip conventions about locations, expressions, gestures, and such. At this point, it’d be really weird to write a script for someone else to draw. I should try it some time.

The hardest thing in the script stage is making sure lines of dialogue don’t get too long to fit gracefully into balloons. I can get pretty wordy – I still basically think of myself as a writer who sort of knows how to draw – so this is a challenge.

1-redlineSTEP 2 : REDLINE

This is the worst step; in any sort of creative work, the hardest part is sitting down and facing a blank piece of paper, and that’s what’s going on here. Everything after this point is basically a form of editing and refinement, cleaning up or enhancing something that already exists. Here, I’m wrestling something into existence. Mornings when I wake up and have to go downstairs and do redlines are the times I’m most tempted to sleep in or volunteer to walk the dog on Rebecca’s day of the rotation.

Anyway: I start out by laying out the panel grid in red pencil (doing this stage in red makes it easy to remove all of this rough early work in Photoshop once the strip’s scanned). The script’ll tell me how many panels I need (I try to keep it around 5, give or take a couple, but different strips need different lengths). Relative panel size usually comes down to a function of how much dialog is in a given panel (remember, I get wordy), how big a thing or space needs to be shown, or how many characters appear.

Continue reading A Walk Through the Process of Creating Nowhere Band

Rumours

This is one of the first long-form comics I ever drew, back when I was pretty clearly just beginning to learn how to draw. It’s an adaption of an excellent essay / short story by Twin Cities music writer Jim Walsh, who was nice enough to let me take his words out for a spin. Resurrected because Fleetwood Mac seems to be having some kind of goddamned renaissance.

Rumours-01
Continue reading Rumours

All This Sounds Past

The_Replacements_-_Tim_coverThe other night, while cooking dinner, I listened to the Replacements’ Tim. It’s one of those weird cases where Tim’s been one of my favorite albums for decades, but between the march of time, the constant ingress of new music, and my slow disengagement from the practice of listening to albums straight through, it’s actually been years since I’d listened to the whole thing straight through.

Now, I can’t claim to be unique in being a middle-aged white guy in south Minneapolis who has Tim in his Pantheon of Great Albums. The conventional wisdom with the Replacements has always been that the 3-album sequence of Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me represent the band’s apex. I never quiiiite agreed with that (I think Hootenanny’s more fun than Let It Be), but it’s definitely been a settled matter in my head for a very long time that Tim was one of the best albums by one of my all-time favorite bands.

So it was really weird to be cutting vegetables, drinking a beer, and thinking that Tim actually kind of drags in a lot of spots. There are great songs, for sure, and the album works really well as Bob Stinson’s last stand. Buuuut. “Hold My Life” never really did sit well with me as the rockin’ opener to a rockin’ album. And the production here is terrible all the way through, even if a Ramone was doing the production.

And hey- isn’t “Here Comes a Regular,” while an undeniably great song, kind of self-pitying? Westerberg’s singing this elegy to his own life, when the Replacements were notoriously self-sabotaging. That’s… it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t ruin the song, but it does really color the whole Replacements thing. Self-destruction isn’t as fun when paired with self-pity.

So as my spaghetti sauce simmered, I recognized that, at least in this case, you can’t really go home again to music that you loved when you were younger. Listening to Tim as a 39-year-old homeowning cartoonist just inevitably creates different associations than approaching the album as a 25-year-old bass player in a shitty apartment in St. Paul who’s convinced that music semistardom is right around the corner as soon as the correct mix of onstage drunkenness and energy gets worked out. I still do love Tim in particular and the Replacements in general, but it’s changed.

I’ve long believed (this is the one useful thing that I got out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that art actually happens at the intersection of the work and the person experiencing it. If I’m a different person now than I was 15 years ago (and I’m pretty comfortable making that statement) then there’s a different thing going on when the person interacts with the work.
I don’t know. I try not to view everything through the lens of the past. But then again, as we get older, past is one thing we steadily have more of.

Longevity and Comics and Who the Hell Knows What Else

nwb-panels

OK.

I’ve been talking on and on all summer about wrapping up Nowhere Band this year. The idea was pretty simple: I’m turning 40 at the end of the year, and on some level it felt weird to me to think about continuing to do a strip about dudes in a band after I’d turned 40. Especially since it’s been a good 3 years since I’ve had an active band going. There was a bunch of burnout involved as well, much of it centered around a bunch of rules I’ve imposed on myself.

But now that I’ve thought things over and life has calmed down a bit, I think I’m going to keep the strip going. Part of what convinced me was the abrupt realization that some of my favorite comics are Jaime Hernandez’ ongoing run; he obviously didn’t feel weird about making comics about aging punks as he whizzed past 40, so why should I? Also, I recognized that lots of the things that were bothering me were completely self-inflicted. Tired of fighting with Photoshop in the coloring stage? You can always go back to black and white for a while. Feeling pressed by self-imposed posting deadlines? Who gives a shit? It’ll come out when it comes out. Don’t want every story to center on the band? Fine, they all have outside lives, tell some stories there.

The truth is that I do love the strip. Somehow, sneakily, it seems to have become my life’s work. I can live with that. I didn’t mean for it to be when I started out… but at least for now it feels like that’s where things are. I guess that gives some shape to my 20s- I wasn’t wasting my time in half-assed bands, I was gathering material. You always wish more people read a strip when you put this much work into it, but I love the readers that I have. people whose tastes and worldviews I respect tell me they like it; that means a ton to me.

So I think I’m going to keep going. I might structure things so that stories or even sections of life have clear starts and ends, but that’s the sort of thing that’s easy to say you’re going to do and then forget. So we’ll see. And I’m sure that there will be breaks and hiatuses at points as I work on prose stuff or other comics. But for the time being, Nowhere Band’s going to chug on. Even if (gasp) the Awesome Boys don’t, necessarily.

The Doctor Is In

doc-001_final

Here’s a comic strip I worked up, kind of a prototype for a thing I might pursue after I finish Nowhere Band (which should be some time this year, unless I change my mind). I think this thing would mutate a little more if it actually went into production, but if nothing else I’ve got a pretty big google doc full of script ideas…

And yeah, inspired by Charles Schulz, of course.

Updated: I did indeed change my mind.

Publisher’s Statement from Chain-Fighting Prospectus #1

Publisher’s Statement, from Chain-Fighting Prospectus #1

by Roger Ehrman, Publisher*

chain-fightingI’m sure we all have a few cherished memories from the glorious days of chain-fighting in our youth. For me, it’s something of a toss-up between two extremes. On one hand, there’s the big-league memory of the day in 1963 when prohibitive underdog Joe Oberg stared into the cameras and guaranteed a victory over Tiny Wallace, and then broke out all of the champ’s teeth on the second swing of his anchor-chain. Stirring, indeed, but equally golden in my mind are all of the Sunday afternoons when I went with my father out behind the Amoco on the outskirts of Mason City to watch the amateur chain-fights; certainly not as glamorous, but it taught this young man a great many lessons on how a man faces pain.  And in that light, I think I can be forgiven for waxing a bit sentimental.

There are those who say that chain-fighting has fallen from those hallowed days, that the cable TV deal and the Snap-On Tools sponsorship have robbed the sport of something essential. These purists are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I feel that they are missing the point. Chain-fighting is about two men, eight feet of linked metal, and the raw will to compete; nothing more, nothing less, and no TV deal will change that.

Chain-fighting is as vital and energetic today as it ever has been.  Indeed, I would argue that chain-fighting is poised to enter a new, golden age as we begin the Twenty-First Century. Witness the revolution sweeping the sport in the wake of Magnus Thorsson’s groundbreaking two-handed swing technique.  Or the team at Stanford investigating the introduction of ringside epidurals. Or the wave of exciting new chain materials– including ceramics– coming out of Japan, truly stretching the boundaries of what chain-fighting is and can be. I am firmly convinced that, for those of us in the happy fraternity of link-swingers, the road ahead has never been brighter.

Continue reading Publisher’s Statement from Chain-Fighting Prospectus #1

Bleeding Edge Has Been Keeping Me Up At Night

bleedingedgeAfter powering through Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s latest work, I keep finding myself having trouble getting to sleep because big chunks of my brain were still engaged with analyzing the book. And it’s great to be so caught up in a book, but the lack of sleep is becoming a pretty big bummer. So I thought I’d try to capture some of this in writing in the hope of getting some goddamned rest.

This isn’t by any means an attempt to put together a coherent analysis; coherent analysis of Pynchon is a mug’s game, especially when you’re going on only one read-through. But a bunch of things jumped out at me, and they’re all similar enough to suggest a kind of overarching intentional pattern.

More than anything else, Bleeding Edge seems to me to be about disappointment. Disappointment in the way the United States has reacted and changed since September 11, and disappointment in the slow but steady shittification of the Internet (and there’s an enormous amount of overlap between these two disappointments; we’ll get to this later, but in the meantime ask Edward Snowden). I might be projecting my own shit onto the book here, but I don’t think so (of course, you never do).

Continue reading Bleeding Edge Has Been Keeping Me Up At Night

BULLETIN: ENGLISH DEPARTMENT COURSE ADDITIONS FOR SPRING SEMESTER

In response to requests from recent graduates who felt that their studies here did not properly prepare them for the realities of the working world for writers in the current market, the Department of English is pleased to announce the following slate of new classes for the Spring semester (registration preference will be given to seniors nearing graduation):

 

ENGL 304: TV RECAPS

(optional lab: ENGL 305, Snarky TV Livetweeting)

Episode-by-episode recaps of popular television shows are one of the hottest – some would say the only – growth sectors for young writers entering the market. In this class, students will receive hands-on instruction in the delicate art of writing 1500-word recaps of TV episodes to post to entertainment websites to attract search engines and spur long, heated discussions in the comments. Special attention will be paid to identifying and coining derisive nicknames for “good” and “bad” characters on reality shows, and to working up witty in-text rejoinders to things said onscreen.

In the optional lab, students will gain practice tweeting sarcastic responses to TV shows as they air, with emphasis on making up catch hashtags. #RequiredTextDuckDynasty

  Continue reading BULLETIN: ENGLISH DEPARTMENT COURSE ADDITIONS FOR SPRING SEMESTER

The Bust-Up: The Clash


In this periodic feature, I’ll take a look at the endings of bands with interesting flameout stories.

The Clash

The more I learn about the Clash, the more convinced I am that their implosion is a lot like the reentry burnup of the space shuttle Columbia– the fiery, visible disaster was just the inevitable result of seemingly innocuous events that happened quite a while before.

In the case of Columbia, a chunk of foam insulation broke off of the shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch and smacked into the ceramic tiles that comprised the craft’s heat shield. These “foam strikes” were common events during shuttle launches, and were considered no big deal. Columbia made it into space and spent 2 weeks in orbit conducting business as usual. Then, as the shuttle broke orbit and glided through the atmosphere at Mach 24, the heat shield failed where the foam had struck. At the speed the shuttle was travelling, this was fatal; the craft wrenched itself to pieces, and the wreckage burned itself down to the ground.

And so, the Clash. I think they were pretty much cooked the second they signed their contract with CBS. Mark Perry of the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue famously said that “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS;” I’ve never agreed with that sentiment, but I do think that the signing of that particular contract started a countdown that led, more or less inevitably, to a rump version of the band releasing a farewell album so terrible that polite society has chosen to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Continue reading The Bust-Up: The Clash

I’m Great at Missing Things

…so it took me a mere 4 years to stumble across this i09 post (by Greame McMillan, who I have thought was awesome for a long time) praising my McSweeney’s COBRA stuff. Which just hits me as funny because this is turning into a trend, my finding stuff like this months or years later. Awesome to stumble across now – it’s been a rough day, so it’s a good time to come across something positive – but it’s weird to me how great I am at missing things.

It Ain’t Easy (in the Country)

As part of a group remake of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, I have committed some pretty serious crimes against Bowie:

In my defense, a) It Ain’t Easy is easily the worst song on the album (Bowie’s version only works because he’s got Mick Ronson there to save the day), and I basically had to destroy the village to save it; b) Bowie didn’t write the damned thing anyway (which really shows in the lyrics, which are pretty Zeppelin); and c) I actually think my guitar parts are pretty cool.

This alternate version from the same challenge is also pretty excellent.

Kirk and Picard were both on the hook for a bunch of these…

mVOSgUNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS

 

FORM TST-6- TEMPORAL DISPLACEMENT IMPACT ASSESSMENT (PAST)

for temporal displacements to the future, file form TST-7a

 

Filing officer information

Name:

Rank:

Starfleet ID:

Duty vessel:

Stardate of initial temporal displacement:

Stardate temporally displaced to:

Stardate returned to, if applicable:

Displacement involved (circle appropriate): ship / crew / both

Displacement was (circle appropriate): accidental / intentional

Number of Starfleet personnel displaced:

Number deceased while displaced:

Number of non-Starfleet individuals displaced:

Number deceased while displaced:

Answer these questions as completely as possible:

1. List all past-resident individuals encountered during displacement (using red pen, circle names of all past-resident individuals killed during displacement):

 

2. Using a 1-6 scale (1 unimportant, 6 critical), rank all individuals listed in question 1 in terms of their importance to known history:

 

3. Describe, in as much detail as possible, all interactions with past-resident individuals during displacement (attach additional sheets if needed):

 

4. Was any knowledge of future events or technology imparted to past-resident individuals during displacement?

If yes, list future events or technology discussed:

 

5. Were any present-resident individuals left behind in the past?

If yes, list their names and (if relevant) Starfleet IDs:

 

6. Were any past-resident individuals brought forward to the present?

If yes, provide as much identification data as possible:

 

7. Were any physical technological artifacts from the present left behind in the past?

If yes, list:

 

8. In your professional opinion, is it likely that a branching timeline was created by this displacement?

If yes, is it likely that this timeline is dystopian?

 

9. Rank, on a scale of 0-6 (0 is minimal, 6 is severe), your impact on the course of known history during the displacement:

THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMPLIANCE WITH STARFLEET TEMPORAL DISPLACEMENT REGULATIONS. YOU WILL BE CONTACTED FOR FURTHER DEBRIEFING WITHIN 10 BUSINESS DAYS OF SUBMISSION OF THIS FORM.

The Best Idea I’ve Ever Had

bondtuxSCENE: A strip club on ladies’ night. Music’s booming, hunks are prancing around onstage in the standard Chippendales collar-cuffs thing. In the crowd, towards the back, we see a woman who is clearly some sort of arms dealer or terrorist or something terrible, here to conduct some business while taking in the show.

Camera swings back from her to the stage, focusing on one dancer in particular. The music shifts subtly – why, what is that familiar theme it’s moving around?

Suddenly, the dancer in question raises his hands to his neck AND RIPS OFF HIS LATEX CHEST TO REVEAL A TUXEDO UNDERNEATH (which is connected to the collar and cuffs of course) AND OH SHIT THAT’S THE JAMES BOND THEME THAT’S PLAYING AND THEN BOND PULLS HIS GUN AND MOWS DOWN THE BADDIES AND GOD DAMN WHAT AN IDEA.

Disasters and Recoveries and Education and the Return of Nowhere Band

nwiconLet’s start with the executive summary: After being in creative exile, more or less, for the past 4 months, I started work this morning on bringing back my old rock strip Nowhere Band. The new volume will, somewhat recursively, follow the Awesome Boys as they try to get their band back together after a long hiatus and deal with the fact that they’re now edging into being older than their musical peers. First new strip should go up some time next week. It should be funny and human. I’m stoked.

Continue reading Disasters and Recoveries and Education and the Return of Nowhere Band

Why So Quiet?

thin-lizzieWell, it’s simple… since I work for a university, I recently became eligible for free tuition for grad-level classes, so a couple of months ago I started a master’s program in software. Which I’m sure will pay off in the long run, but in the short term it’s kind of meant tossing a hand grenade into my life as I knew it. Work on EYEBALL continues, but at a drastically-reduced pace; I don’t know that I’ll finish more than 4 or 5 pages this semester (although then it’ll pick up over the summer, at least for a while).

Stuff’s still happening, though. Before the coursework shit really started hitting the fan, I had time to work something up for Andrew Weiss’ Ultimate Powers Jam, and I’m actually happier with it than I am with pretty much any creative thing I’ve done for the past year. So there’s that.

In the meantime, yeah. I’m still around, and still working on comics at a snail’s pace. When I’m not fighting with Python.

History Is Hilarious – The Ol’ Fez Switcheroo

goebenI’m about halfway through Barbara Tuchman’s exceedingly excellent The Guns of August; World War I had always been a gap in my 20th century history, and I’ve always heard good things about the book. I’m really happy to say that it justifies the hype. It’s fascinating and – weirdly – hilarious. The more I read, the stronger my impression that Europe in 1914 was under the collective rule of one of the biggest gang of boobs in history, and that if World War I didn’t have such a horrible body count associated with it, it would rank as one of the great comedic acts of mankind.

Consider the case of the German battleship Goeben and her companion, the cruiser Breslau.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Goeben and Breslau were stationed in the Mediterranean. Shit hits the fan. War breaks out. Because of a network of pacts, you abruptly have a situation where noted world powerhouse Serbia is allied with Russia who’s allied with France who’s allied with England, opposing Austria-Hungary and their allies the Germans. The Ottoman Empire is neutral as things start out. They don’t like the Russians much, but they have a longstanding relationship with England, and there are a lot of German sympathizers in the Turkish military. They could go either way. And they’re strategically important, since all of the good warm-water ports supplying Russia depend on shipping traffic through the Dardanelles.

So. The Ottomans, a crucial swing state that could go either way. What do the British do to win them over? They seize a couple of completed battleships that they’d been building for the Ottomans. Ace diplomacy there.
Continue reading History Is Hilarious – The Ol’ Fez Switcheroo

The Awesome Boys: Sub Cauda EP

SubCaudaWeb1So, yeah. After working on it for most of 2012, I’ve finished and put out an EP on behalf of my fictional band, the Awesome Boys. It’s pretty good stuff, I think; if nothing else, it’s a good approximation of what the inside of my head sounds like, processed into something catchy and entertaining.

In an email to a local rock writer, I described the album thusly:

It’s always hard to come up with a description of your own music, but I guess I’d call Sub Cauda “ambitious garage rock.” There’s a lot of guitar and weird noises coaxed out of a Kaossilator. You could maybe say it’s music that draws equally from the Flaming Lips and Guided By Voices. Or probably not. But that’s a start, I guess.

That’s probably as good of a description as I can do. Anyway, go check it out! The whole thing is free to stream or download on my Awesome Boys site; or if you prefer SoundCloud, 5 of the 6 songs (minus a pretty rad Bowie cover) are streaming over there.

Reviews You Would Not Want to See After Renting Out Your Apartment on AirBnB.com

OfficePorchSteve: The place was great! Spacious and sunny, just like the listing said. And the location couldn’t be beat! My wife and I were also really impressed with the strength of the bedframe, and the decorative headboard offers a very convenient number of latch-point options for restraints. Highly recommended.

Emily: It was nice to stay in a place with a full kitchen and easy subway access. The garbage disposal really goes above and beyond the call of duty. But most of all, we appreciated the way the locks and doors took a lot of abuse but stood strong! Also, police response in the neighborhood was superb.

Luther: The living room was in fact as large as it looks in the pictures in the listing. Easily offered plenty of room for both a hardcore band and a mosh pit. The band’s equipment tested the apartment’s electrical system, but fortunately the building’s breaker box is easily accessible and no problem to bypass. GREAT PLACE! Would totally stay there again!

Annie Q: Before we showed up, I was totally worried about being kept up by noise from the street, and by the logistics of getting the keys to the place. But none of those wound up being a problem, and the apartment was fantastic. My only complaint was with the bathroom- the bathtub was a little small, and it was a real stretch to fit 3 of us in there. But we managed… the bubbly sure helped! 😉

Mike: Boy, their cat was a real trouper.

New project, page 1

So, here’s what I’ve been working on. This is the inked (but not colored or lettered) first page of a graphic novel I’m setting out on. This should be a pretty big project, and I’m actually not sure what my endgame will be as far as getting it out into the world- I want to have a big chunk of pages put together before I start thinking about whether or not to run it serially online, for instance.

The project is (temporarily) called Eyeball, and it’s about spyplanes in the early 60s. Or about not getting too lost in your job, depending on which way you want to look at it.

This one’s been gestating for quite a while; I wrote out the original plot and started scripting in 2006. I was really excited about the project, but eventually bailed because 1) I didn’t think I could draw well enough to do it justice, and 2) the thought of doing all of the visual research to get the look and feel right for a story set in 1960 just scared the piss out of me. But now I’m 6 years better at drawing (I still think it’ll be a challenge, but it’s actually possible this time) and, well, Mad Men has gone and done me the favor of researching what things looked like in 1960.

So we’ll see where this goes.

X-1

x-1

A drawing of the Bell X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier*. First flight in 1946. Design inspired by a rifle bullet because that was the only thing anyone could think of in 1945 that was supersonic.

*a German pilot claimed to have broken the sound barrier while diving in a Me-262 in 1945, but nobody really takes the claim seriously.

I’ll be drawing a lot of planes in the near future, as a warmup for the next biggish project.

 

OTTO is on indefinite hiatus

So, this is one mid-level-upsetting part of a larger, extremely upsetting situation: I’m stopping production on Otto, Protector of the North Woods. Or, more accurately, I stopped a week ago and won’t be starting up again.

What’s the deal? Well, frankly, the deal’s a pretty severe bummer. Some really, really tragic shit happened in my family last week. Bad enough that I’m still reeling from it, and probably will be for a while. At this point, I’m not really capable of creative work. But even after this upset eventually eases, the upcoming Otto storyline is largely about depression and suicide (in some ways, the whole strip is), and that’s not an area of my brain that I think would be healthy to spend a lot of time in right now.

I don’t know if the strip will eventually be revived or not. I know that eventually I’ll pick back up with some sort of creative work, but at this point I have no idea what that’ll be. Keep an eye on this space, I guess, if you’re the sort who cares.

Heroes (rough mix)

Heroes– wherein I take the David Bowie classic to strange (and terrible) places with my Kaosillator.

This is a very rough draft mix; I’ll probably need to bring some things up, take some things out, and add some tracks. But it’s too weird and to large in my mind not to put it out somewhere.

Like the American single version, I cut out two of the opening verses, but a different two than the ones Bowie cut– I think this one makes the narrative of the song a little clearer.

Eschaton Lite

This was originally housed on a side page of my Nowhere Band site; I realized recently that it makes a lot more sense for it to live here.

THE RULES OF ESCHATON LITE

rev 1.4, 2.9.23

GOAL

The purpose of this document is to produce a playable version of the game Eschaton as presented in Infinite Jest.  As we’re making several departures/simplifications from the version laid out by David Foster Wallace, we’ll call this version Eschaton Lite.

Eschaton Lite simulates a Cold War nuclear exchange, using tennis balls  thrown around on a large gamespace representing a polar-projection map of the Northern Hemisphere. Blocs made up of nation-states and treaty groups will flex their nuclear muscles at each other over a strategic prize, and all hell will inevitably break loose.

(for those who care, the departures from the full Wallace version of Eschaton are as follows: Wallace Eschaton is played on a space consisting of 6 tennis courts, arranged 3×2, and missile launches are conducted by lobbing the balls with tennis racquets; Lite’s space will generally be smaller, and balls can be thrown rather than racquet-lobbed. Additionally, Wallace Eschaton calls for heavy use of computers both before and during play; Eschaton Lite will put pre-game decisions at the Ump’s discretion  and use a combination of Ump discretion and pencil-and-paper for in-game computing).

For purpose of example, this document will refer to a game scenario set in 1984, wherein the US, NATO, USSR, Warsaw Pact, and Israel will deal with a crisis in East Berlin.

Continue reading Eschaton Lite

Civil War Ninjas

(this originally ran on a now-defunct site called Modern Humorist)

by Keith Pille

Feedback on Midterm Paper
US History, 10th Grade

Richard:

I find it very painful to say this, but your midterm project is unsatisfactory in virtually every way an academic paper can be. I can only hope that this is a one-time occurrence and not a sign of deeper problems that could compromise what promises to be a fine scholarly career.

I must say that it was rather unorthodox to open your paper with what I can only characterize as a personal attack on me and my so-called “revisionist history.” While I grant you it is academically healthy to question the veracity of the information you are given in your textbooks, it is hardly constructive to couple your claims with crude statements about my family life, moral character, and mental capacities. I did my best to prevent my evaluation of your work from being colored by your opening remarks. Continue reading Civil War Ninjas

A Bad Day to Be A Sturgeon

This is an essay I wrote in 2005 for American Nerd, a now-defunct web magazine I used to run.

1.

Some fish are beautiful works of natural engineering. Northern pike, for instance, are streamlined and powerful-looking and possess the same sort of deadly grace as a fighter jet. Or look at trout; for a hiker, there are few treats greater than hiking next to a clear, swiftly-moving stream and spotting a school of trout hovering in formation. You can almost convince yourself that the piscine evolutionary process includes an aesthetic clause, some hidden set of criteria that weights grace and beauty as highly as survival and reproduction.

The lake sturgeon is proof that this is a hollow conceit. There are uglier things in the world than the sturgeon, but not too many. Long, thin, and rubbery, an individual sturgeon looks like a beefed-up seagoing vacuum hose with a few perfunctory fins, an impression furthered by the limp sucker mouth hanging down from the bottom of the fish’s head. The bottom of the fish is your standard fishbelly white; the top is a dark brownish-green that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a diaper. A set of whiskers (barbels if you want to be scientific about it) represents the sturgeon’s only attempt to snazz it up, and, well, barbels as an accessory don’t even look that great on catfish.

Lake sturgeon, to put it bluntly, don’t look like something you’d want to eat, much less go to any effort to catch. If anything, they look like they’d be useful for scaring children or maybe leaving in someone’s bed if you wanted to send a particularly emphatic message.

It’s hard to believe, then, that the sturgeon is capable of inducing mass hysteria (well, maybe if a giant one rose out of Lake Michigan and started menacing the city of Green Bay). But that’s the case. Every five years, Eastern Wisconsin’s brief sturgeon-spearing season drums up enough excitement to cover the lakes with flash towns of ice-fishing shanties, each one full of normally-rational adults willing to stare for hours into dark water with a spear in hand, hoping for the chance to impale a butt-ugly fish.

Continue reading A Bad Day to Be A Sturgeon