I’m celebrating San Diego Comic-Con this week by reading some new comics. As you may remember, Constant Reader, this is something I try to do all the time.
Last week, among the new titles I picked up was Calexit, which caused varying political outrage because people thought it was a commentary on Trump (maybe it is!) but I liked because it reminded me of two of my favoritemovies.
I also bought Skin & Earth, which is apparently based on a music video and I didn’t even know that was still a thing, unless you are Beyonce and you rule the universe.
Anyway, I liked these titles, but they are both the beginnings of multi-part stories and I don’t feel like I have enough insight yet to say anything pithy about them. If, from these columns, you think we have similar tastes, you might want to check them out.
I’ve also been reading some old comics in a different format. I missed a few titles at my local comic book store that I wanted to read, so I downloaded them onto my iPad. At the same time, I read two prose books on paper, something I have done rarely since falling in love with my Kindle, nearly a decade ago.
Reading is weird.
One of the things I like about reading comics is the act of turning the page. A good creative team knows how to play with this physical reality by pacing the story so that there is a cliff-hanger every time. This doesn’t have to be life-or-death on every page. Sometimes one character asks a question and the reader doesn’t discover the answer until the page is turned. Sometimes the story demands a two-page spread, so there is one less page to turn.
Using my finger to swipe the page is less suspenseful. Of the comics I read, there were no two-page spreads. There were also no ads until after the story finished, so I was never taken out of my fictional world.
And the colors! The colors glowed!
If I had wanted to, I could have manipulated the size of the panels, changing the way I perceived the page. I don’t want to do this. Now that I have the giant-size iPad, I don’t have to do this to be able to read the story.
The backlit screen on my Kindle Paperwhite is one of my favorite features. It means I can read in bed without a reading lamp, so I don’t have to turn anything off to go to sleep. My absolute favorite thing about my Kindle, however, is that it’s a compact, lightweight way to take dozens of books with me everywhere I go. It even fits in my purse!
Hardcover books don’t do those things. Hardcover books can be heavy, and I can’t adjust the size of the type when my eyes get tired and I want bigger print. Hardcover books require me to move my arms, a lot.
With all of this, I had forgotten the very real, physical pleasures to be had sitting in a comfy chair with a heavy book in my lap. I had forgotten how grounded this could feel. It made what I was reading feel more important, perhaps because they were non-fiction.
There are people who think one format is morally superior to another, and I am not one of them. If you like paper, read paper! If you like electronic books, read electronic books!
It was delightful to switch it up for a bit. More than ever, I know that there is no way to read or buy books that I don’t like.
There has been a bit of tension since the surprise victory of Donald Trump on election night. There are many on the Left who are vociferous in not liking or accepting the outcome, and there are plenty (not all) on the Right whose attitude appears to be “We won, you lost, get over it.”
A couple of incidents stand out. Vice-President Elect Pence attended a performance of the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Some of the audience booed him and, during curtain call, the cast read a (I thought) polite letter explaining their concerns about the upcoming Trump/Pence Administration. I’ve seen objections that doing so was rude, out of place, and (in the opinion of the President–Elect) it needed an apology. There are those on the Internetverse who evidently believe that politics have no place at a Broadway musical; Pence was there to be entertained, not lectured, and the cast should just sing their little ditties and behave themselves.
Some Trump supporters declared they were going to boycott Hamilton, a feeble threat in that a) it’s theater and they wouldn’t be caught dead in a live show, b) it’s sold-out for the next two years, and c) Hamilton is already a political statement, using a variety of musical styles (including hip-hop) and color-blind casting.
I’ve seen different artists have also made statements either on Facebook or Twitter, including Sarah McLaughlin and Bruce Springsteen, and have been verbally pummeled by trolls. I saw one posting regarding Springsteen that said he should just sing his little songs and shut up. Did this person ever listen to Springsteen? There are those who think that the song Born In The U.S.A. was a nationalistic or even jingoistic anthem. They might have listened to the chorus, but they ignored the verses.
Art is not merely there to entertain you. Art is meant to challenge, to show different perspectives, to introduce new ways of thinking and feeling. The best way to open a mind is through the heart and art is the best way to do that. A closed mind comes from a closed heart.
A song, a drawing, a story, a dance, a touch of theater – these can all open heart and mind. It’s why authoritarian regimes always look to control and dictate the arts, to turn it into propaganda; the arts are dangerous. They should be. That’s part of their value to society. They can challenge established notions and perceptions, in small ways as well as large.
Some of the more virulent responses to artists dissent on Trump that I’ve seen are disdainful. They denigrate the artist and the work. “Siddown and shut up!” they seem to say. “Our side won and we don’t want to hear it! We don’t want to put up with whining little babies!” Some even go misogynistic suggesting those that don’t support the manly Trump are bitchy little girls. (Yes, I’ve seen that, too.)
These are all examples of cyber-bullying. They seem to believe they can make others shut up. They’re predictable, they’re pathetic, and it won’t work. The bullies don’t get it; this is what artists do – they speak up, they challenge, they question. It’s in the DNA. Donald Trump will need to grow a thicker skin and not get into Twitter wars with musicals, Saturday Night Live, and stand-up comics. He won’t win and he won’t look good losing.
Only 57? Well, we were all younger when Bruce Springsteen wrote those lines. Now? I actually don’t know how many television channels I can summon to the flat screen that dominates our living room and no, I’m not going to count them. Leave it at this: a lot.
An upside to tv’s heterogeneity is that we have spread before our eager eyes a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment and some of it is good and some of it is very good – and yes, I’m aware that you and I might define “good” differently. There’s no way I know of to verify my hunch that there is more good stuff on the home screen than at the multiplex where it sometimes seems that film makers sacrifice drama in their rush to serve up yet another explosion. Does what I believe is the widespread devaluation of dramatic verities that date back at least to the fifth century BCE harm the audience? Hey, I’m not gonna touch that one.
Once, the absence of a household tv set or five might have indicated a family with very high standards – it’s Mozart and Shakespeare or nothing! Now, though, ‘t’aint necessarily so. If you abstain from tv watching, you deny yourself some of the best that current culture has to offer, even if you can make frequent trips to the theater and concert hall.
But there is a downside to video’s largesse and to find a precedent we have to go to nineteenth century Vienna. The late and wonderful Hans Fantel, musicologist, critic and writer, once argued that the waltz served as social glue in Vienna and was largely responsible for the city’s relative tranquility at the close of the nineteenth century
Because everyone, from the peasantry to the elite, could share in an esteem for this music. I think that the television of the mid-twentieth century did something similar.
There were no 57 channels, no sir. When I left Missouri in the early 60s, St. Louis had maybe five channels, and three of those belonged to the networks. So if a show was popular – I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, The Beverly Hillbillies – people often talked about it the next day. (The cute schoolteacher I share quarters with said she sometimes watched shows because she knew her colleagues would be discussing them and she didn’t want to be left out of the dialogue.
The Viennese had the waltz. We had Dragnet.
And now, the deluge. Only 57? Piff!
The United States is, arguably, more divided than at any time since the Civil War and if you think that I’m about to blame television for that… sorry to disappoint. Television did not cause the problem. But television may not be helping it, either.
Passionate and principled capitalists believe in the rights of workers, investors and creative people to reap the rewards of their efforts. If you start a business, invent a new product, or plant in your own field, you should get to keep the profits… after paying your workers fairly, of course. We’re talking about capitalists with principles.
In an ideal world, this can be a good system. I’m motivated to work hard because I get paid in a manner that is equal to my effort and my risk. Because I live in a world in which I, personally, cannot do everything myself, I rely on other people to work hard and get paid so that there are goods and services for me to purchase.
In an ideal world, everyone benefits.
We do not live in an ideal world.
In the entertainment industry, it is more than a little common for major entertainment conglomerates to own the work of the artists who create it. While I acknowledge that these studios and record labels are entitled to a return on their investment in distributing and marketing, I don’t think they are entitled to own the work outright.
They are not entitled to all the profits.
I bring this up because Harry Shearer has brought a lawsuit against Vivendi because of their accounting of the profits from the 1984 movie, This Is Spinal Tap.
That’s right. The movie has been on television, on videotape, on LaserDisc, on DVD, on Blu-Ray, on cable, streaming and On-Demand for more than 20 years, and it’s only made enough money to let the talent buy themselves dinner at a mid-price restaurant in Los Angeles.
It’s clear that Vivendi didn’t come up with the idea of making a Spinal Tap movie, but sometimes issues of ownership are murkier. Comic book fans such as myself might be familiar with the issues surrounding the work of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. In the 1960s Lichtenstein created a sensation with his paintings that reproduced small comic book panels on large canvas. To quote from the Wikipedia page:
“His most celebrated image is arguably Whaam! (1963, Tate Modern, London), one of the earliest known examples of pop art, adapted from a comic-book panel drawn by Irv Novick in a 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War. The painting depicts a fighter aircraft firing a rocket into an enemy plane, with a red-and-yellow explosion. The cartoon style is heightened by the use of the onomatopoeic lettering “Whaam!” and the boxed caption “I pressed the fire control… and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky… This diptych is large in scale, measuring 1.7 x 4.0 m (5 ft 7 in x 13 ft 4 in). Whaam follows the comic strip-based themes of some of his previous paintings and is part of a body of war-themed work created between 1962 and 1964. It is one of his two notable large war-themed paintings. It was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1966, after being exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1963, and (now at the Tate Modern) has remained in their collection ever since.”
Lichtenstein did not pay Irv Novick when he used Novick’s work. Neither did he pay DC Comics, the corporation that owns the work. I’m pretty sure the painting sold for lots of money. Smarter people than I can debate whether or not Novick should have shared in the success of his image. There is also a school of thought that says Lichtenstein changed the image by putting it into a different medium and context, so that his painting was not a duplicate of the original but a comment on it and the society that produced it.
I’m going to leave those arguments to people who know more about copyright law and art criticism than me. I’m pleased to see that Irv Novick gets credit now, which is more than he got in the 1960s.
A lot of people who claim to believe in capitalism seem to lose their convictions when it comes to the work of creative people. There are publishers (digital and otherwise) who ask for free material, saying the artist will benefit from the “exposure” – but not the profits. There are clothing companies that use artwork without paying for it, figuring the artist won’t find out until it’s too late, the garment is on sale, and the artist doesn’t have enough money to sue.
In my opinion, the most heinous examples of the disrespect shown by capitalists to creative people might be legal. I’m referring to political candidates who use popular songs at their rallies without the permission of the musicians who wrote the music or recorded the hit version. This is not technically illegal if the venue has a general music license from ASCAP or BMI, and the artists might make a few cents in profit. But it is gross.
It implies an endorsement by the musician without actually asking for one. It implies an endorsement where there might not be one. It forces musicians to be in a financial arrangement with a candidate with who they might have profound disagreements. It can also confuse the public as to what the musician was trying to say. The earliest example I remember is the time Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Clearly, no one in the Republican campaign listened to any part of the song beyond the title, because the lyrics are quite damning of the military/industrial mindset of the party at the time.
Today, we see many musicians objecting to the Trump campaign using their songs. Trump claims to have a licensing agreement that allows him to play whatever he wants at his events. Perhaps he does, but I don’t see why he keeps playing the music when the artists object. I’ve read so much about how Keith Richards hates him, how opposed to his candidacy Neil Young is, and many others. Real fans of the music will see the candidate denounced by artists they admire.
Why not stick to “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood? It’s on message, it’s catchy (I find myself singing it all the time) and I’m willing to bet Greenwood is fine with it.
So what have we learned?
People who make things deserve to get paid by people who want those things.
People who take a risk and invest in people who make things deserve to get paid, too.
Artists are a category of people who make things.
Artists deserve to get paid when someone buys their work.
Artists deserve to get paid when someone uses their work to sell something else.
Nowhere is that more obvious to me in the earworms that I get. Earworms are a song or piece of a song that gets stuck in your head and seems to be on an endless replay cycle. I don’t know about you but I get them a lot. A lot. I wish I could say they were songs that I like but often they’re songs I’m pretty “meh” about and sometimes even hate.
They’re almost always pop songs – nothing classical although I am a fan of classical music. Not of all classical music, but of some. The only opera I really like, for example, is Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. The closest I get to classical earworms are the orchestral movie soundtracks – I like soundtracks quite a bit. For example, the Star Wars Theme is likely to pop up in rotation pretty often, but that’s okay by me.
Others, not so much.
Sometimes an earworm is triggered by songs I hear on the radio or that’s playing in the muzac at the store but just as often they just come into my head for no damn good reason whatsoever. They come in and take up residence and unless I can find another tune to drown them out, I can’t get rid of them. The problem with fighting an earworm with another earworm is that you can get stuck with the second one.
Here’s some that have bedeviled me lately. If you don’t want them stuck in your head, SPOILER ALERT: bail out now.
Today I’ve had “Have You Ever Been Mellow” by Olivia Newton John. I always been so-so about Ms Newton-John and this particular song is not the one I find most endurable in her repertoire but there it is in my head.
Recently, I’ve been inflicted with Abba’s “Waterloo.” I’m not and never have been a big fan of Abba. I don’t hate them; they just never did much for me. I don’t even know the lyrics to the song. “Waterloo! something something something something. Waterloo! Some something something forevermore.” That’s all I got – over and over again. Gaaaah!
That’s another thing about the earworms. I may only know a portion of the lyrics or discover that I have them wrong but there is no autocorrect in my head. If you’ve read this column before, you may not be surprised to learn that.
I’ve also had the opening theme to The Daily Show running through my brain at times. The Jon Stewart version, not Trevor Noah. I like Noah just fine and always watch the show but it’s Stewart’s version my brain coughs up.
A good song that has gotten in my cranial sound loop is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Sometimes it’s that iconic opening that has inspired a thousand lesser rock anthems and sometimes it’s the chorus. One problem, however, is that I’ve never been able to understand what Bruce is singing, at least with this song. To me, it sounds like “Baaarm inna Hew Hess Hay! I was baaarm inna Hew Hess Hay! Ima rap scraggle flaggart inna Hew Hess Hay now!” I’m reasonably certain those aren’t the actual lyrics, but that’s what they sound like to me.
I can sometimes chase that earworm by singing the song in my Elmer Fudd voice. I’m reasonably certain that those who have heard me do Elmer Fudd can hear me doing that at this moment. (I’m looking at you, Tim Brown.) In fact, almost any of the earworms can be banished by singing them in my Elmer Fudd voice. Elmer is sort on an earworm exterminator.