So a post for the car nuts among you

Which really I’m not, aside from general appreciation of random aesthetics. However, the reason why I visit Carmel around this time each here is a bit of a family reunion as my uncle Bob comes out for the Concours d’Elegance, which I know I’ve mentioned on here in previous Augusts. It’s another August, Bob and my mom’s sis Cheryl are out, family get-togethers and good times are being had and so forth. So yesterday was one of the related events, the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance, and in keeping with past practice that meant a number of us went down to La Playa for lunch and, as noted above, there was a rather fancy car out front. The first of many seen on the day, it’s a 1926 Hudson Super Six, which featured in the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath.

My batch of car photos can be found here, while here’s the three videos I took of them all revving up and heading out after lunch in Devendorf Park was over:

“The Politics are Not Obvious” by David Lester

"The Politics Are Not Obvious"

“The politics are not obvious” is a painting I did that a banjo player bought after seeing it displayed in 2004, when Mecca Normal played a barber shop in Olympia and a bookshop in Seattle during a west coast tour. The man later sent me a cassette of his banjo playing. He recorded just this one copy to send to me. This was art. This was political.

Further information about David Lester and Mecca Normal can be found in this post.

Introducing a guest poster — David Lester of Mecca Normal

Quite honestly I never thought I would get to the stage where there’d be such a thing as a guest poster on my blog, but hey!

David Lester is one of the two members of Mecca Normal, a wonderful band from Canada currently celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. Jean Smith, the band’s other member, was one of the first people I ever interviewed formally as a music writer back in 1993, shortly before a great show she and David did on the UCI campus.

Mecca Normal’s anniversary tour is not simply one of music straight up — in keeping with their long-stated political and philosophical beliefs it’s much more akin to Ian Mackaye’s spoken-word tour earlier this year emphasizing involvement and awareness in general. To quote Jean from their tour site:

I wasn’t expecting to be impacted by the economic downturn when I was laid off from my retail job at an eco-friendly clothing store. The company decided to close the much-loved, quaint, creaky-old-floorboard store to concentrate on their wholesale and online business. As an almost fifty-year-old (single, debt-free) musician, novelist and painter, I am perhaps better equipped to deal with variations on the theme of employment and income, better than people who felt they had security. Rather than look for a new part time job, I’m hitting the road with Mecca Normal to present “How Art & Music Can Change the World” — an art exhibit, lecture and performance event in university and high school classrooms, bookstores, art galleries and music venues.

In cities where we don’t have a confirmed lecture yet, we want to connect with journalists, bloggers and radio people to inspire readers and listeners towards cultural activism — to fortify a new optimism that cultural activists can impact progressive social change.

David wrote me about providing occasional posts and artwork about a month back, and I admit to being quite initially surprised that my own small blog would be of interest to him. But I’m quite honored and flattered to be able to host some of his work. I’d certainly say David takes more of an active approach politically than I do in the end — I tend towards the discursive and reflective, for better or for worse. As a musician I quite admire, and as someone who like myself is careful not to let himself simply be defined just by music, he is someone who can and does show the importance of continual activity to best contribute to a wider world.

David’s contributions here will appear as he’d like to provide them! I’ll be putting up the first one shortly.

Today on the Quietus, my interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance

This interview was done a couple of months back around the time of the release of the RTZ comp but functions better now as more of a stand-alone collection of reflections on music, technology and art — and if that sounds too vague, trust me, this was some very thoughtful stuff. Part of it very much made me think of M. Matos’s Slow Listening Movement, but the issues touched on cover wider areas than that. To quote a section:

…the other day I came across the first Sun City Girls LP on a blog. It’s absolutely out of print, no way I will probably ever see it in a store or on eBay for a sum I could afford, so that left me with a clear conscience about downloading it for free. But I realized, how much pleasure would I get from it anyway? Why do that? Just to say I have it, that I have heard it? I decided not to download it because it would be much more enjoyable to at least share the experience with someone else. Maybe someone will play it for me one day. Until then, it’s just information.

And I do believe we are becoming addicted to information. You only need to look at those people who have hard drives filled with songs that they have never even listened to. They are not even collecting music. They are collecting information. And the more people become addicted to information and the faster they can obtain that information, the less they will be able to contemplate that information, and it is the contemplation of the information which makes it art.

And there’s much more besides, ranging from Paul Virilio to the value of community. Pleasure of an interview and I have to thank Ben again for taking the time and placing such thought into his answers.

Congratulations to my friend Matt Maxwell on the serialization of “Strangeways”

To explain a bit — you can find Matt’s site via Highway 62 over there in the blogroll. Great guy and great gentleman, and his comic series Strangeways is a damned good treat — in simplistic terms, a horror western, but much more than that.

Matt just sent around this note:

October 23, 2008


Matthew Maxwell, creator and author of the Western-horror graphic novel STRANGEWAYS, today announced the serialization of the sequel, THE THIRSTY, at Blog @ Newsarama. The series will debut on Monday, Oct. 27, with new pages posted every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“I’m very pleased to enjoy this opportunity,” Maxwell said recently. “I talked to quite a few potential partners before deciding to serialize THE THIRSTY on Blog @ Newsarama,” Maxwell said. “It isn’t a typical webcomic, as it wasn’t written with online publication in mind. So, I sought a different kind of partnership. Working with a comics news and commentary site as opposed to one known for syndicating webcomics seemed an intriguing and beneficial arrangement. It’s my hope that many more readers who’ve never followed STRANGEWAYS will be introduced to the series now.”

THE THIRSTY follows ex-Union officer Seth Collins from the events of MURDER MOON as he drifts a little further west to a town called Cedar Creek, which is about to find itself under attack from people who are neither dead nor alive, but somewhere in-between. However, just as MURDER MOON was about a lot more than just cowboys and werewolves, THE THIRSTY is more than just cowboys and vampires. Those readers who liked the concept of “Lone,” which was the backup feature for MURDER MOON, will eat up “Red Hands,” which will serve a similar role in THE THIRSTY.

THE THIRSTY is illustrated by Gervasio and Jok of Estudio Haus in Argentina, who drew the story “Lone” in MURDER MOON. Luis Guaragna also returns in a backup feature, as mentioned above. “It’s great to continue my relationship with all of these artists,” Maxwell said. “They understand what the stories need visually, which is a deceptively simple task, it seems.”

A fine break, and a well-deserved one. The site in question:

So start checking it out on Monday!

RIP Bill Melendez

Today I have lost another of my childhood heroes. Bill Melendez is dead.

Everyone knows Bill Melendez’s work, if you’re an American at least. I exaggerate but surely only by so much. He was omnipresent since the mid-sixties, impossible to miss. And he was simply stellar at what he did, which was bringing to life the work of another into a new field and arena.

That other was Charles Schulz, and when he died I penned this piece, still one of my favorites, and one of the saddest I ever had to write. His passing I felt very profoundly, on a level I can’t describe beyond that of the personal griefs I have had as family members have left this life. But I did Melendez a disservice there, by not talking about him more.

Melendez I initially knew by name at the most — but as time went on, by sight. He would appear in books celebrating the strip, and then on specials, looking back on the many marvels he had created. And it’s important to note that he did not simply have the animated Peanuts to his credit — in fact, one reason he got the job in the first place was the face that he had had such a stunning resume already, to quote the previously linked obituary:

Born in Sonora, Mexico, in 1916, Melendez moved with his family to Arizona in 1928, then to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. He was one of the few Latinos working in animation when he began his career at the Walt Disney Studio in 1939, contributing to the features “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi” and “Dumbo,” as well as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts.

Melendez was an active participant in the bitterly fought strike that led to the unionization of the Disney artists in 1941, after which he moved to Schlesinger Cartoons, animating Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and other classic characters for Warner Bros.

In 1948, Melendez joined UPA, whose innovative approach to animation delighted him. “The animation we were doing was not limited, but stylized,” he recalled in an interview in 1986. “When you analyze Chaplin’s shorts, you realize people don’t move that way–he stylized his movements. We were going to do the same thing for animation. We were going to animate the work of Cobean, Steinberg–all the great cartoonists of the moment–and move them as the designs dictated.”

After animating numerous UPA shorts, including the Oscar-winning “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (1951), Melendez served as a director and producer on more than 1,000 commercials for UPA, Playhouse Pictures and John Sutherland Productions. In 1959, he directed the first animation of the “Peanuts” characters for a series of commercials advertising the Ford Falcon.

And from there to that most perfect of specials — A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is and remains one of the finest half-hours of television ever, a summation of the holiday and its spirit, a lovely embrace and understanding of the religious tradition that underpins it while at the same time acknowledging its secular nature, and of course a translation of much that was Schulz’s obsessions and themes — he wrote the scripts for this and all the shows that followed, after all — into a new format. The many specials that followed ranged in quality but at their best were a lovely series of works, from holidays to general themes, and helped to bring the strips to life in a series of adaptations that, as with so many similar adaptations, were not the strips straight up and yet were their own works of art in turn.

I would guess it was such a special that first awoke me to the possibility of Peanuts, though I am not positive. It could even have been Snoopy Come Home, the second of the four feature films the team of Schulz, Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson made together separately from the TV shows. Whatever it was, my obsession and knowledge of the strip was part and parcel with those shows and movies, and to extract one from the other would be a disservice, and so my earlier piece on Schultz’s passing, while accurate, is flawed for not giving greater prominence to them beyond a passing mention.

The lovely thing was how Melendez took the basic color schemes (given the Sunday strips) and simplicities of the strip as a whole and brought them to life just enough. By which I mean — sometimes he simply had the characters walking down a road, leaning against a brick wall, talking in a room — all familiar situations from the strips. But he also allowed for more detailed backgrounds, sometimes flights of fancy (literally, as with Snoopy’s dogfight in the second special the team did together, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown), even trips to other countries and settings such as England and France. The characters moved and looked a little differently to the strip, by default, and yet close enough — it was an approximation that honored Schulz’s wonderful clean lines but brought a sometimes frenetic energy to things that was not always possible in the strip.

And then of course there was Snoopy, who Melendez voiced for the Christmas special due to a last minute time crunch and who from then on was the only choice for the role. And what a job! While Snoopy of course thinks and thinks and thinks again in the strip, his thoughts covering everything from failed novels to thoughts on economics, in the specials and shows and movies he had to act without a legible voice or an internal one. By both animating and voicing the character, Melendez gave Snoopy his own wonderful spark, his not-very-doglike-but-damn-funny moans, howls and murmurs suiting the mad explosions of movement that he often exhibited on the screen. Melendez’s background with that more kinetic style of animation familiar from his Schlesinger/Warner Bros’ work reached its later apotheosis with Snoopy, and of the many moments I could name where look, voice and script all came together, consider his audition for the roles of all the animals in the Christmas pageant (scroll ahead to 3:30):

But just as great — and as representative of what Melendez could and did do — was a voiceless bit from the same show, where Snoopy’s enjoyment of Schroeder’s music gets a little too involved:

How he just crawls away never fails to get me to laugh — in recognition — every time.

Compared to the famously self-tortured Schulz, Melendez came across as vibrant, positive, aware of how to deftly suggest the darker shades of Peanuts without losing the easy-going, inviting feel of the strip, a perfect match. Imagining other possibilities — what if Hanna-Barbera had done it! — doesn’t bear thinking about. The right man for the right job, an artist in his own right who found a perfect partnership — and I can’t thank him enough.

Señor, Usted es magnificado — muchas gracias.

The obituary links to this interview on YouTube, where he talks of some of his many different animation experiences (you might need to turn up the volume), and other interviews can be found from there. A treasure trove of experience and stories that should not be overlooked. The family has indicated that donations in his memory can be made to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

Rest well.

For better, for worse and…for worser

Okay, I’m sorry, but no:

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston can’t bring herself to abandon her fictional family. For years, the “For Better or for Worse” creator mulled retirement, then lightened her workload by creating flashbacks and repurposing the archives of her popular comic. Finally, she knew she needed to conclude the Patterson family’s 29-year saga.

This Sunday’s cartoon is an adieu of sorts to readers, but not a final farewell. She announced this month that she would retell her strip’s narrative, beginning Monday, by taking her continually aging characters back to 1979, but creating new artwork and some dialogue. Her syndicate says it’s the first time a mainstream cartoonist has set out to tell the same story twice.

….on Monday, the strip will time-travel back to 1979 and do it all over again, but with new drawings, new conversations, new wrinkles. (And in some cases, fewer wrinkles — John and Elly Patterson will return to parenting tykes.)

“It’s going back to the beginning when Michael and Elizabeth were very young,” Johnston says of the approach, which she is dubbing “new-runs.” “I’m going back to do it how it should have been done. . . . I’m beginning with all this knowledge, so it’s a much more comprehensive beginning. I only have an insular world of characters [from 1979] to work with.”

As far as Johnston knows, “new-runs” — in which a strip’s continual story line is retold — have never been attempted by a syndicated cartoonist (“Nobody has done it before — most people die or the strip ends,” she says).

“All of September will be brand-new material,” Johnston explains. “In October, it will be [a ratio of] 50-50. The color Sunday comics will be all-new material. . . . I think it will be 50-50 for the first year, at least.”

I really don’t have the words.

That said, I do have some, I guess. Thing is, there is something perversely tempting about all this from a creative point of view, the whole ‘well now that I know what I do know, I’m going to get it right this time.’ Trust me, I feel that way about most of my writing work in general (though sometimes I can be surprised — yesterday I was somewhat flabbergasted to receive a huge compliment about some decade old AMG reviews from one of the two lead musicians of the band in question — we’re not talking U2 famous but this is a very well-known and respected group indeed — and I admit to have been dancing on air a bit since).

And I want to take Johnston’s words on it all at face value. Still, there’s something just so…well, again, where are the words, I don’t quite have them. But I’ll try.

It’s the classic ‘if I only knew then what I knew now’ deal, and I don’t like it. In my life there are mistakes and regrets and I don’t pretend to have been prey to dwelling on them, but I try not to do so exclusively. This just seems like a strange way to literally rewrite history, and by doing so in such a programmatic fashion. One of the distinct advantages of a story like Johnston’s strip, one that is open-ended and lets the characters grow and age, is how this by default forces them into being in and of their times. They may react in ways that are classically mainstream as such, but that is life, and the whole point of the world of the Pattersons in the strip is that they were almost overarchingly so mainstream in a comfortable sense.

By default, Johnston’s decision moves her work from being an ‘of the time’ story to one where every move is a signifier of a different time — the contemporary becomes the retrospective, and if one has been working with characters for thirty years reacting to the changes around them, going back and trying to place oneself in a mindset without that knowledge is seemingly impossible. (If anything the fact that Johnston says she is coming from a place with greater awareness is all the more troubling — every word and frame now is done with the knowledge of not only what happens to the characters but their setting and society, their very place. Is this creativity or day-by-day nostalgia, and what is the purpose of such an obsessive retracing? Given the nature of the strip for its entire existence, why not live and work in the now?)

This all said, what about the strip itself? I suppose if I’d followed it more recently I’d care more — but I did follow it for a long time, actually. Stepping back a bit, I first remember reading comic strips in the mid-seventies or so, with Peanuts unsurprisingly being my way forward (though I’m sure I was reacting to the stellar run of early TV specials first), though I can’t be sure. A slew of strips first caught my eye in the late seventies and early eighties when living in the Bay Area, most notably The Far Side, which rapidly became a deserved family favorite, while For Better or For Worse caught my attention too.

I’m not sure why, per se, or what attracted me. It’s almost hard to put into words now — but I suppose because it was easy enough to understand, even for an eight year old kid, and allowing for the fact that the family situation was, after all, pretty similar to mine — married well-off white couple with older brother and younger sister, plus a dog. In fact one of the things that most ended up defining the strip in the end, its Canadianness as perceived, didn’t strike me at all until many years later, late eighties I think, when a character idly mentioned something somewhere that made me realize “Oh…wait, this isn’t set in the US?” (The fact that one of the characters was named Gordon should have given it away earlier, I admit.)

And so while I don’t remember ever laughing out loud over it, I liked it well enough and as a matter of course followed it, even as over time I was following — far more completely and obsessively — strips like The Far Side as mentioned, plus Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, FoxTrot (Jason Fox IS ten year old me, believe me), Dilbert and The Boondocks, among many others. But those were the ones I actually bought book collections for — For Better or For Worse, never. Yet I knew the basic storyline and idly followed things and still remember the huge kerfluffle over Michael’s friend coming out as gay (needless to say I had no problem with that) as well as Farley the dog’s death (okay, I had a HUGE problem with that — I’m just a sentimentalist when it comes to dogs, as I’ve talked about here before) and…I think that’s about all I do remember.

As with so many things one picks up out of habit, letting it go can be a protracted process, and one that you only figure out in retrospect more than anything else. Similarly with this strip (but also a lot of comic strips — I don’t regularly read them much any more, and like TV it’s a shift in habit that never felt monumental, more simply a sense that I was done with them as a matter of regular interest), so aside from a random glance or two I never quite knew what was going on beyond that point, and happily so.

So when I looked at this related article to the one above, detailing the obsessive habits of those who follow the strip just to mock it — I can relate to this impulse as well on other fronts, believe me — the part that made me go ‘?!?!’ the most was this:

Their son Michael hit it big with a best-selling novel (About what? We never learned) and he and his wife, Deanna, bought the old Patterson family home, somewhere in the suburbs of Toronto. Little sister April Patterson’s band, the Archies-esque 4-Evah, broke up, then got a new singer, making them 4Evah & Eva. Elizabeth (a.k.a. Lizardbreath) gave up her new life teaching native people in the Canadian hinterlands to move home and marry Anthony, her boring high school boyfriend.

What, was this becoming The Royal Tenenbaums? (Don’t answer that.) The most confounding (and, from where I sit, at the least troubling and at the most insulting) detail was Elizabeth’s fate if only for the implied grappling with the traumatic issues revolving around the First Nations and how the Canadian government and society treated them in the past, only to apparently ditch that for conventionality and a comfortable existence back in the comfortable Ontario exurbs of suburbs or whatever. Of course.

So I don’t know. I think I’m content to let my final memory of the strip be Johnston’s tribute to one of her mentors, Charles Schulz, on the day when a slew of comic strip writers paid a similar joint tribute to him (it had already been planned for that year but his death beforehand made it a true memorial):

Snoopy forever

And I’ll try and keep this example in mind if I ever want to go back and ‘improve’ something I’ve done once it’s formally published. Take note what’s been done — and then do something else instead.

[EDIT: A friend posted this interpretation of things elsewhere. Very, very silly.]