Jacobean revenge drama: The death of Jane Jacobs prompts the Absorbascon to reflect on one of my favorite themes, comic-book urbanism.

Suburbs and small towns do not foster abandoned warehouse districts, giant props, and the poorly guarded banks, jewelry stores, and art museums that are the necessary backdrops for caped conflict.


McNew album: James McNew on the new Yo La Tengo record, out September 12.

More friendblogging: A full article on Jake's movie, also in the NYT.


Death and Life and Death

It sounds weird to say, but I think about Jane Jacobs (clothed) pretty much every day. I don't think I would be able to express what I like about where I live, or where I've ever lived, without her. For some reason it's nice to learn that she used to have imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.

What the NYT doesn't really say is that she basically won the battle with Le Corbusier et al. It's not just the New Urbanism (which, apparently, is quickly becoming a Disneyland-style parody of itself). It's that the principles she laid out in D&L are now pretty much universally accepted as desirable. Even many of those horrible exurban developments, which pretty much violate every other Jacobsian commandment, now have alleys in the back for parking, which is a small thing, but it's something.


Kasdan wins coveted Best-American-film-Stephen-Holden-was-
able-to-see Award:
The NYT's Stephen Holden on Jake's new movie's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival:

The best of the American films I was able to see, Jake Kasdan's sharp, funny satire The TV Set, features an award-worthy performance by Sigourney Weaver as a gung-ho network executive who sabotages a writer's pilot during its filming.
If the role recalls Faye Dunaway's dragon lady in Network, Ms. Weaver's character camouflages her iron will behind a surface of sugary agreeability in an exceptionally witty portrayal. How perfect is it that at a network convention her character shamelessly gloats over the runaway success of the network's new hit series, a piece of trash called Slut Wars?

Vist off

Paul Thurrott, writing in a very appealing Microsoft-fan-betrayed tone, offers a lengthy critique of all the bullshit we can expect in Windows Vista. The biggest problem, it seems, is that Microsoft's version of beefing up security consists of attaching a warning dialog to every single task, so that whenever anything goes wrong the operating system can say, Hey, it's not my fault! You left me unlocked! This is not security; this is ass-covering.

Elsewhere, Jeff Atwood concurs:
The problem with the Security Through Endless Warning Dialogs school of thought is that it doesn’t work. All those earnest warning dialogs eventually blend together into a giant “click here to get work done” button that nobody bothers to read any more. The operating system cries wolf so much that when a real wolf — in the form of a virus or malware — rolls around, you’ll mindlessly allow it access to whatever it wants, just out of habit. [Link via Daring Fireball]
Here's what's strange: Atwood's point is basic, basic stuff. It has been demonstrated and verified in lab tests and confirmed by the everyday experience of millions of users. No one working professionally in interface design can be ignorant of this principle. And yet the biggest software company in history has apparently allowed it to cripple their flagship release of the decade. That's what happens when a company becomes dependent on anticompetitive practices -- on leveraging its monopoly position, rather than winning an actual head-to-head contest for users. This has been the Microsoft story for a decade now, but it's still shocking to me that their competitive skills have atrophied this badly.

Chick Lit Blogging

As Yglesias puts it: "Behind every random thing, there seems to be an interesting story." The random thing in this case is the inspiring story of the 18 year-old Indian-American Harvard freshman whose made-for-movie-adaptation debut novel about a high-achieving Indian-American high school girl who realizes she needs to get a social life to get into Harvard (and presumably, through the course of the novel, comes to learn that having a social life is a nice thing for its own sake too) has made every Indian-American person I know jealous. The interesting story is that it now appears she plagiarized parts of it, or else, even more interestingly, that parts were written/plagiarized by some kind of third party "book-developing" company which admits to having helped her not just conceptualize but also "plot" the book. This seems like a murky thing which, when you think about it, must obviously go on all the time, but no one knows or talks about it. Or maybe people in the teen-lit world talk about it all the time but no one pays attention.


When I inquired at a faculty meeting last spring, whether there was finally any level of writing low enough to merit a failing grade in the Columbia writing division, I was told by one tenured colleague—to general nervous laughter—that she felt bad failing anyone paying so much money.... What we have is something resembling a diploma mill hiding, unbelievably, under the Columbia name.
Mark Slouka shits all over Columbia's MFA program.

We have a winner! Everything Idol, the lengthy tournament aimed at determining the Best Thing Ever, has wrapped up over at GLFC. (I was one of the noncelebrity judges in the quarterfinals.)

Things you didn't know you needed until the Internet delivered them to you, part XXIV: A short history of the massive, resonant tone that plays during the THX demo clip.


Columnated ruins domino: If you like in-jokes about NYT op-ed columnists (and who here does not?), check out Kinsey's amusing riff here.


Speaking of the NYT mag's graphic novel thing...

...I'd be interested to know what you thought of Chris Ware's maiden effort. I loved it. Sometimes, as a reader new to the form, it was hard to figure out which box you were supposed to read next, but I loved how realistic the dialogue was, and how perfectly he captured those everyday feelings of ennuie and sadness. I really grew to care about that poor one legged woman and to hope that she found love and happiness. Unfortunately, I missed what seemed like the key, penultimate, installment, so when I read the last one which was set five years later, and she had a baby and partner, I didn't know how that had come about. But I assume the partner is that nice Tom guy who she met at the restaurant and then had the abortive couch-kissing session with, and that their courtship was predictably awkward/poignant. Right?


Hey, kids! Comics! I missed this when it first came out: in a remarkable sign of how far this graphic-novels-are-for-adults thing has come, Houghton Mifflin is adding a Best American Comics annual to their megapopular Best American line. In similar (but more recent) we-have-reached-the-
promised-land news, Chris Ware will be followed by Jaime Hernandez as the author of the New York Times Magazine's weekly strip. My money was on Seth, and my big hope was Clowes, but Hernandez is as great as either of those and woefully overlooked. (He peaked 10 years too early for the graphic-novel boom.) Hopefully, this will bring Love and Rockets to the attention of the masses.


Jody Rosen on the new Streets album

I heard from someone it was bad. But Rosen says its awesome. Well, it takes all sorts, I suppose.

With lines like this, though, I'm with Rosen so far:
"When you are a famous boy, it gets really easy to get girls/ It's all so easy, you get a bit spoilt/ So when you try to pull a girl/ Who is also famous too/ It feels just like when you wasn't famous."


Boot Camp counselors: The smartest comments on last week's Macs-will-boot-Windows announcement came, unsurprisingly, from John Gruber and John Siracusa.

Teen Titans #34

"New Teen Titans Part I: One Year Later"
Story by Geoff Johns, art by Tony Daniel, Kevin Conrad, and Art Thibert.

Every superhero comic has to contain at least one fight scene. That's not a 100% hard-and-fast rule: I can remember an issue of the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans in which the characters did nothing but talk about their relationships. (I thought this was the very height of maturity; my friend Nick Chin thought it sucked. In retrospect, it's obvious which of us was the more sophisticated reader: if you want to read about people not fighting and you buy superhero comics, you are a moron.) But it's enough of a rule that I can't think of another example. Explosions and fisticuffs are part of the form, like the discovery of the killer in a mystery. A superhero story has a fight scene in it.

But an individual comic is not a superhero story anymore. This issue of Teen Titans, for instance, contains the first 22 pages of a multipart story that will run at least four issues. That story only makes sense on the heels of the seven-issue Infinite Crisis miniseries, in which one Teen Titan died and another went into a coma. Teen Titans #34 is not a story; it's a chapter. (And it will be presented that way when "New Teen Titans" is collected into a paperback.) Requiring every chapter to contain a fight scene makes for some wack storytelling.

I'm picking on this book because the fight scenes feel particularly forced. The story begins as Cyborg wakes from a yearlong coma and thus gets to play Reader Stand-In, as he (and we) learn what's happened to the team in his absence. One of the things that's happened is that Ravager, a former villain, has joined the Titans, and so the first thing Cyborg does on waking is try to punch her out. After that little contretemps has been resolved, the team goes looking for Wonder Girl, who happens to be in the middle of a fight with Gemini from the Brotherhood of Evil. Cue more punching before they implore WG to rejoin the team. The fighting is clearly not where Johns's mind is at -- so why can't he just write an issue about how the Titans have reorganized, and what it's like for Cyborg to cope with these changes all at once? He could get to the fighting next time, or at the story's climax circa issue 40.

Other points: It's cool that Cyborg complains about how crap the new team is, and Robin says, "They're the best I could get right now," but is this what fans want to see? (Possible advertising slogan: "Teen Titans: The Best Characters We Could Get Right Now.") It's also cool that Robin is responding to this labor shortage by trying to (re)clone Superboy, last seen heroically dying in Infinite Crisis. (It's only cool because he's going to fail hard; if this is an excuse to bring Superboy back in six months, it will not be cool at all.) Plot niggle: how do the Titans know where to find Wonder Girl punching Gemini?

This will be the last of these for a while (the One Year Later issue of Supergirl, the last one I'm going to review, won't be out until April 26). Look for some summing-up type stuff later this week.


Green Lantern #10

"Revenge of the Green Lanterns Part One"
Story by Geoff Johns, art by Ivan Reis and
Marc Campos

There's several things going on here. (1) During the Missing Year, Hal "Green Lantern" Jordan's plane was shot down and Hal himself spent a while as a POW. There's a nice bit of psychology involved: apparently Hal, an Air Force test pilot, never takes his power ring with him when he flies. It's a believable instance of test-pilot machismo, and from a narrative point of view it's good to have the guy's hubris get him in trouble. (2) We get some info about the post-Infinite Crisis geopolitical state of play in the DCU: Green Lantern keeps violating the "Freedom of Power Treaty," which governs when superbeings can cross national borders. This sets up an argument between Hal and Oliver "Green Arrow" Queen, who have switched sides since their early-'70s road trip: now Ollie is standing up for law and order, and Hal is on the side of breaking the rules. The reversal is plausible, and the memory of those earlier comics, enhanced by Reis's very Adamsesque art, produces a genuine nostalgia that would be unattainable in a non-serial form: we knew them when they were younger men. (It's too bad Hal and Ollie don't look more than a few years older than they did in 1970, but that's comics for you.) (3) The new emphasis on international law, political institutions etc. is apparently something we're going to see more of in the DC line, and it represents a step Marvelwards. The Marvel Universe is full of heroes who exist in relation to government agencies (the Avengers; Nick Fury; even, in a different sense, the X-Men), or who gained their powers working for the military (the Hulk) or the space program (the Fantastic Four). DC heroes, by and large, are freelancers -- even the Justice League has largely been an independent organization governed by the whims of its members. (4) There's two Green Lantern-specific plots: arch-nemesis Sinestro starts rounding up a "Sinestro Corps," and one of the alien GLs that Hal killed during his late-'90s eeeevil period mysteriously returns in the final page.

It would be a miracle if all this stuff fit together into one satisfying comic, and it doesn't.


Outsiders #34

"The Good Fight Part One: Cain & Abel"
Story by Judd Winick, art by Matthew Clark and Art Thibert.

I approached this one with, if not quite a vested interest, then at least a nostalgic curiosity. Batman and the Outsiders was my favorite comic when I was 11, and the first title that I collected. (I think I had every issue of the original run; I probably still do.) Looking back, it's hard to say what I liked about it so much, except that I got in on the ground floor, so there wasn't a lot of backstory to go over my 11-year-old head. (I hated feeling like I was missing something.) But I still have a certain sentimental attachment to those Mike W. Barr/Jim Aparo issues (an attachment that would surely crumble to dust were I to reread one), and every month, when I see an issue of the current Outsiders series on the racks, part of me thinks I'm supposed to buy it, and then starts worrying about all the issues I've missed since 1986.

Nothing to worry about, it turns out.

The first three pages of this comic consist of a backgrounder on the child soldiers forced into Mali's civil war; the rest follows Thunder, a superhero, who has somehow infiltrated the highest echelons of Mali's government as part of the Outsiders' effort to stop the practice. Winick apparently thinks he's writing Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the 1970s series that brought superheroes face to face with "issues" like poverty, racism, and overpopulation for the first time. The problem with this approach is obvious after about fifteen seconds of thought: the presence of, say, Superman changes the equation for things like African child soldiers. This fifteen-seconds-of-thought insight was the basis of Watchmen, which after Green Lantern/Green Arrow was pretty much inevitable. After Watchmen, there are two paths a writer can take: he can follow the implications of "superheroes existing in the world," the way Watchmen and Miracleman and The Authority do, or he can decide that his superheroes live in a world that, while superficially similar to our own, does not contain things like African child soldiers, the way almost every other superhero comic does. But having Metamorpho and Captain Boomerang jump out from behind a rock to try to prevent the massacre of an African village by 12-year-olds with machine guns ... no. It won't fly.

The bigger problem with this is factual: according to Human Rights Watch, Mali doesn't employ children as soldiers and indeed leads efforts to eradicate the practice elsewhere. Apparently, when you want to throw a little African-child-soldier action into your lousy superhero comic, one African country is pretty much the same as another.

There are other, less geopolitically idiotic, problems with this issue, but I'm only going to mention one: the absurd last page, in which the team spontaneously organizes into a pinup arrangement (Metamorpho actually flexes a muscle) while Nightwing informs us of the Outsiders' new status quo with this sparkling little gem of dialogue: "Hell, by tomorrow morning it'll be a miracle if the whole world doesn't know that you're all not actually dead." Well put!


Action Comics #837

"Up, Up, and Away! Chapter Two: Mild-Mannered Reporter"
Story by Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek, art by Pete Woods

Superman's powers are still gone, and we still don't know why. Johns and Busiek use this as an opportunity for Clark Kent to act heroic in ways Superman can't: he displays physical courage, for instance, which is tough to do when you're invulnerable, and instead of getting demoralized he keeps fighting the good fight as a reporter. Again, the writers successfully misdirect without cheating. Again, they end with a twist I didn't see coming. Even the most familiar scenes, in which Lex Luthor rounds up a posse of supervillains, don't bog the story down, because (a) they're well-written, and (b) for once, we don't know what Luthor is up to: it's not yet another plan to kill Superman, because Superman's gone and Lex is over it. Johns and Busiek have figured out how to use One Year Later as a springboard for a fresh, surprising story about the most overexposed superhero there is. I'm genuinely psyched for the rest of this.


Catwoman #53

"The Replacements Part One."
Story by Will Pfeifer, art by David Lopez and Alvaro Lopez.

First off: this book has a gorgeous cover. (Click on the image to see a larger version.) Beautifully drawn and effectively, unshowily Photoshopped; sexy without being exploitative; tense without being obvious; relevant without being literal -- after that, the contents could only be a letdown.

No surprise there. I got the general premise of the story -- Selina's having a baby; a teenage girl is replacing her as Catwoman -- but the specifics, which seem to hinge on the complex relationships between a bunch of established players, totally eluded me. (Note to Will Pfeifer: Next time you're writing an issue that's specifically aimed at new readers, start something fresh or throw in a little more exposition.) The art is leaden and stilted, with lots of pointlessly jerky perspectives. And there's a weird computer-lettering mishap -- the words that are emphasized in the captions are underlined instead of boldfaced. (It's a small peculiarity of comics lettering that oddly chosen words are often emphasized, but when this emphasis consists of gentle bolding it's easy to ignore; when it consists of more obtrusive underlining, you wind up with sentences like, "They don't waste any time these days. Must need the bed.") Minor redemption is provided by a visit from an uncharacteristically sweet Batman, who brings a giant teddy bear and tells Selina he'll pay for the baby's college tuition. Awww!