Friday, March 20, 2009

Each One, Teach One

My one-time NYU professor dropped science on Tavis Smiley last night. Now, I never watch Tavis, but Tricia Rose was an influential mentor back in my "When Am I Going to Make a Living" days. (Peace, Sade.)

I really liked the point she made about the Unholy Trinity of gangsta, pimp and ho coming to dominance in the mid-90s and the contradictory tensions that emerged as a result. Also loved the point she made about hip-hop being a gateway for people to talk about race.

Here's a snippet:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Comics for Obama

Much has been made of the fact that Barack Obama’s a nerd and a (former?) comic reader. I’ve not been a fan of all the quick cash-in “appearances” of the 44th President in various comics. Unless the creators are making a point about a certain political era or such an appearance organically fuels story and character development, the use of any President never really shakes the stunt dust off of it.

A hallmark of the “Bang! Pow! Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore” era of media coverage has been a list of comics anyone/everyone should read. I haven’t seen this type of list compiled for the Commander-in-Chief, which is odd considering how popular he is.

Here’s my stab at it:

1. Conan: Born on the Battlefield by Kurt Busiek and Greg Ruth
When the initial shock of those first reports of Obama’s nerd pedigree wore off, the first thing I thought was, “The brother read Conan comics?!” My guess is he probably read a mix of Marvel’s long-running color series–Savage Sword of Conan, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the King. Barry probably snuck in some of the racier, raunchier material that Marvel put out in a more “adult” Black-and-white format. Dark Horse got the rights to Robert E. Howard’s characters a while back and Kurt Busiek’s run polishes the source material to an irresistible sheen and extrapolates it in ways that feel faithful and fresh. Born on the Battlefield serves as the “origin” story for a modern Conan, but centers a palpable sense of place amongst all the well-executed blood-letting, lust and thievery that fans of the character would expect.

2. Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughn & Tony Harris
Fictional political intrigue is probably the last thing our new POTUS needs, but Vaughn’s well-researched work shows some insight into infrastructure and personality juggling that I think Obama would appreciate. With the hook of Mayor Mitchell Hundred having been a former superhero, Ex Machina also mines the rich territory of the gap between people’s expectations and what a person’s actually able to deliver. It’s very much a comic about how people view public figures, which should strike a chord with Obama.

3. Incognegro by Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece
Yes, this one’s kinda obvious. And, I do kill zombies with Mr. Johnson on a semi-regular basis on Xbox Live. But, I really do feel like Incognegro’s one of the best graphic novels in the last five years, on the basis of its meditation on race and the American identity. Its facility with weaving its themes into the plot keeps everything going at a nice clip. I also think Obama would appreciate its tonal shifts, too.

4. Invincible by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley
Given his age, it’s a pretty safe bet that Barack was reading Spider-Man comics in the 70s and 80s. Kirkman and Ottley’s creator-owned Image book comes closest to matching those books’ sudsy mix of melodrama and fast-paced superheroics. The family drama– Invincible’s got daddy issues, too–and a sprawling cast of characters make for good escapism.

5. Orbiter by Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran
The economy being what it is, ain’t nobody thinking about spending money on NASA and the space program. But, the most affecting part about Ellis ad Doran’s collaboration is how it treats space exploration as metaphor for the human spirit. True, it’s not the newest idea in sci-fi, but I especially like how they frame it as the universe calling to us. Because we belong there.

6. Krazy & Ignatz collections by George Herriman
You can tell by the way dude speaks that Barack’s got a love of language. No, strike that. He’s got a love of dialect. When he slips into vernacular, there’s a slight smile that betrays his enjoyment. There’s a certain mischief itch that simple usage can scratch and to my mind, nobody did that better than Herriman. I think he’s the closest thing American sequential art has to a creator laureate, with themes about class, passing and identity that, depending on how you read the strips, may or may not even be there. There’s something sweetly lyrical about the dysfunction of connection between the lovelorn cat and the torturous, brick-throwing mouse and I kinda think Barack would get it.

7. Concrete by Paul Chadwick
Achingly beautiful in the draftsmanship and character dynamics as well as smoothly naturalistic in dialogue and viewpoint, Paul Chadwick’s signature works never get mentioned in all-time best comics list. I’ve choked up reading these stories and Chadwicks’s prescience about celebrity, media culture and the human consumption debate make these stories damn near timeless. The best thing about these stories is how they use the one fantastical element–a speechwriter trapped in an unfeeling rock body– as a lens on mankind’s behavioral wiring.

8. The Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson
It’s the kind of coming of age story that Barack doesn’t have any need for, but Johnson evokes the Hawaiian setting beautifully, in terms of art and atmosphere. It’s a bit dark, what with the fraying friendship and meth addiction, but I could see him giving this to the girls when they’re old enough.

9. Curses by Kevin Huizenga
This collection of Kevin Huizenga’s existential, ephermeral short stories represents the kind of sincere, literate and mature creations that best showcase the depth of the medium. Huizenga uses his Glenn Ganges character to reflect on how personal faith drives our interactions with the world and each other.

10. We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Sure , the gummint’s the bad guy in this series but it’s mostly about weaponized cyborg animals looking for home. Seeing as how the First Family’s search for a pet dog made headlines for weeks on end, Morrison and Quitely’s adventure story might resonate with Mr. Obama. Way too dark and violent for the girls, though

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Work in Progress

I haven't talked a lot about the book I'm working on this here blog, because (1) no one comes here and (2) I haven't been entirely comfortable with how work has progressed. The first assertion is probably true and the second is slowly changing. Things are ramping up and, starting in 2009, I'm going to be delivering a couple of entries a week to my editor.

Here's kind of a boilerplate that I've been using to tell people about the book in shorthand:
Black 2.0 [working title] is a project that I'm co-writing with Mos Def for Spiegel & Grau, which is a division of Random House. The book is envisioned as a spiritual successor to The Black Book from 1973, which was commissioned by Toni Morrison back when she was still an editor at Random House. Described in very broad strokes, Black 2.0 hopes to look at the shifts and changes in black culture and the larger American mainstream since the publication of The Black Book.

My awesome editor Chris Jackson and I are trying to make it smart, funny, insightful and incisive. We'll see about all that. Here are some sample entries I've worked up that should give a bit of the feeling we're going for. These are subject to change, blah, blah, blah. The janky-ass layouts are all my work in Word and will be realized to brilliant fruition by our designer. Basically, if you're someone who's asked me how the book is going, this post is for you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

2008's Best Comics (so far)

One of my editors at Time Out New York asked me for my favorite books this year. I put together this list, with contextual descriptions that it turned out he didn't need. It's kind of an impulsive list, but I'd back most of this stuff up if pressed.

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
the whole run, but especially # 10 where Superman struggles against his own mortality to leave a lasting legacy of good.

Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean McKeever
a perfectly dirty and intertwined noir series, full of sex, guilt and violence.

Captain America by Ed Brubaker and various
A solid re-invention of a seemingly jingoistic icon by passing the mantle to a supposedly dead sidekick filled with regret over past sins and the weight of expectations.

Scalped by Jason Aaron and various
The story of Dashiell Bad Horse, a bad seed who returns to his old reservation as an undercover FBI agent. It's ornery yet deeply affecting and every issue feels like a punch in the stomach.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Eight
by Joss Whedon and various
Moving the series to comics form lets Whedon and his collaborators do things that would have been budget-prohibitive on the screen and he chooses to let the characters grow rather than freeze them in time.

Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction and various
Fraction's post-movie series looks shiny on the outside but examines what happens when old mistakes come back to haunt a man who can't afford to be fallible.

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw
A dysfunctional family portrait that manages to avoid being prosaic by the specificity of its internal logic and sharply delineated loneliness.

Path of the Assassin, Vol. 13: Hateful Burden by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
This installment of the fictionalized historical manga about the rise of iconic shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had me gasping multiple at the tightrope walk of suspense and sexual intrigue. I was nearly late for a meeting with my book editor because of it.

Now The Hell Will Start by Brendan Koerner
This WWII micro-history–focusing on the trials of a black GI who shot a white lieutenant–features drug use, brutal racism and cross-cultural lust in a story that seems like it could never be true.

The Jazz Ear by Ben Ratliff
The NY Times writer listens to music with some of jazz's greatest and most misunderstood players. It opened up new understandings about the things driving musicians I already know and introduced me to tunes and people I'd never heard of before. Ratliff does a hard thing: making jazz seem accessible to to those who don't listen to it and deepening the understanding of those already trained to hear it.

Ex Machina #35 by Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris
Superhero-tuned-mayor is the high concept that drives Ex Machina but it's really about the collision of the personal and political. This issue deals with the legacy of slavery in downtown Manhattan, centering on City Hall, and Vaughn avoids easy platiitudes to wind up in an uncomfortable but honest place.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

Grand Text Auto

From pre-release hands-on to writing and talking about the game, it’s been damn near a month of GTA-mania for me. Here’s a few quick links to the things I’ve been working on:

Blazing Prattles
I got a bunch of folks together to talk GTA for Crispy Gamer’s podcast and everybody seems to have had a great time doing it. Let history show that my Crispy colleague Gus Mastrapa made a bold, early prophecy about possible cross-country travel in Niko Bellic’s future. (Gus was answering my question about what might be next in terms of GTA’s forthcoming episodic content.) A few days after the podcast was recorded, the internets went crazy over this shot that appeared on the Rockstar Social Club site. When talking about the Little Jacob character fro GTA IV, Gus (who also writes for Paste, the Onion’s AV Club and Media Coverage at GameDaily) also had my favorite line from the podcast: “I never knew I wanted to be friends with a Jamaican drug dealer…”

Thought/Process 004: Building Better Wor(l)ds

The idea here was to try and work out some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the intersection of story and experience in video games.
With our copter in freefall, I hit the Y button, foolishly thinking I could jump into the pilot's seat. Instead, I followed after our fellow gunsel, as if we had some bizarre suicide love pact.
I don’t know how successful I was in breaking any kind of new theoretical ground, but I’m glad to have gotten that stuff out of my brain.

Time Out Chicago review
Here we have the pitfalls of multiple-outlet deadline crunch, in that you’ll see some of the same thoughts and language I’ve used elsewhere about GTA IV crop again.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Writers I Like

Paul Beatty on Obama:
Yes, I know that after his resounding victory in the Iowa caucus, pundits decided that Barack's win proved that race was of political inconsequence, but I bet that they thought the same thing the day after O.J. Simpson was arrested.

Colson Whitehead on the Brooklyn Writer Mystique:
What do they expect me to say? “Instead of ink, I write in mustard from Nathan’s Famous, a Brooklyn institution since 1916.” “I built my desk out of wooden planks taken from the authentic rubble of Ebbets Field. Have I mentioned how I still haven’t forgiven the Dodgers for moving to Los Angeles?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates on writing his memoir (his blog is a must-read, btw):
Ah well, I can remember cats coming to school the next day bragging about how Humpty ripped it on that "the underground's down for peace among brothers" (how is it that him and Shock G are on stage together). But all I remember watching this clip was that the dark-skin chick in Oaktown 357 was a stunner. We'll get Juicy Got You Crazy in here at some point. No pubescent boy should have seen that video.