Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Decemberists in Milwaukee

At the end of May, two friends and I bought tickets to the Decemberists, hopped in a white Corolla, and went on a not-quite-spur-of-the-moment evening Milwaukee adventure. In about five hours, Milwaukee, which I had only visited in one two-hour late-night burst early last summer, both exceeded and failed to meet my expectations.


1. Rockin' concert! The Decemberists, who I've heard are an absolute delight live, played TWO SETS. In the first, they ran through the full tracklist of their latest album, Hazards of Love, only before taking a brief introduction and proceeding onto another (more "normal") Decemberists concert! That being said, I was done after the first half. Hazards of Love is grandiose and emotive, and I felt quite satiated after the full album run-through. Frankly I could never listen to that CD fully again, so beautifully was it represented on stage. And the stage design! Wavy crepe paper in the background was sculpted to look like trees, adding to the folksy sound of the Decemberists, and representing the story quite well. In short, the Hazards of Love, a bona fide rock opera slash concept album, is the story of the love between Margaret-- a girl living at the edge of the woods-- and a shapeshifter, William, who was saved by the Forest Queen as a child and "given the shape of a faun to inhabit by day" (lyrics straight from the album). The Forest Queen gets jealous (as any crazy mother would), and meanwhile the village rake tries to rape Margaret, and the Queen won't let him leave. A creepy fairy tale within the boundary of folksy indie rock! Except even better: the instruments follow the emotional variances, so the album veers from almost cliche indie or "chamber" pop (the first few tracks) to intense guitar licks so prog-rock-y that it sounds like an even more melodramatic version of Tool (from me, a former Tool-head, quite the compliment).

2. Sweet Canals. Milwaukee has some (i.e. one) pretty sweet river. In parts it looks like Philly, almost. Plus cheese. And cheesehats. And beer. None of which were consumed in the making of this Milwaukee adventure.

3. GEORGE WEBB. Only the best diner EVER! Cheap eats, a man in a chicken suit, and one sassy waitress who never brought me my coffee! Big tips all around. No joke. "Webb's in the mornin', Webb's at night, breakfast at Webb's is always right!" (sung while doing chicken dance in video link)

4. GOD. Well, not really God. A very friendly African American man at the Pabst theatre who found us wandering alone in an abandoned mall (as if malls aren't scary enough by themselves) and directed us WITHOUT ASKING to the Riviera, with a benevolent and all-knowing smile. Plus neon orange vest.


1. Crappy concertgoers, disappointing venue. The concert was supposed to be at Pabst Theatre. After hours of fretting over directions, I seem to have forgotten that Milwaukee is small. Very small. Nearly impossible to get lost in the downtown area. Alas, when we were told the venue was changed to Riviera Theatre, I expected another confused trip around the city, hours of asking strangers for directions, etc. Lo and behold, we walk two blocks and arrive, still early enough to catch the slightest bit of the opening band before being told that we couldn't go to the GA area because we didn't arrive early enough to get "wristbands" and we'd have to sit in CHAIRS. Waaaaay up. And then the usual Milwaukee bros decide to tell us that we can't sit somewhere because the seats are "VIP" for "special people who are going to meet the band." Please. We didn't even get to dance, and NOBODY was singing along. Midwestern pride my butt.

2. No "Mariner's Revenge Song," Colin Meloy? Not even a whale? No whales? What kind of Decemberists concert doesn't have whales?? I WANT MY WHALES!

3. What kind of a city's downtown is dead on a Friday night? Milwaukee. That's what. Also, highways are scary.

Final Tally:
Milwaukee: B-
The Decemberists: A!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Do not read this graphic novel. There should be an enormous advertisement in the back, saying: WARNING: Reading may result in lower opinion in society and human beings in general. Depression will inevitably ensue.

This is not to say that Adrian Tomine is not a good artist. He's wonderful. I love his New Yorker illustrations. He draws skinny naked girls like nobody else. He also seems to have a bizarre indie following, which I was completely unaware of until I saw his wiki page. But "Shortcomings," even if well-drawn, was ultimately not fulfilling. It was supposedly about "falling out of love" (according to the ad online), but really I doubted if the two main characters were ever in love at all. There was no tragic need for togetherness, no pathos, no desire. From the very first page they bicker, by nature completely incompatible. Usually I am a fan of art involving unfulfilling relationships. I thought it would be something like the film "Closer," which tracked the relationships between four inherently flawed people. But the two highly bigoted and mildly racist characters in "Shortcomings" had no real positive traits. The male was negative and pigheaded, and female overly proud (albeit quite pretty). I was left despising all of them. I experienced the ultimate example of schadenfreude, and I don't think it was Tomine intended: when any of the characters were upset, I was joyous. I even loved seeing them get hurt, I loved seeing them cry, I loved seeing other people comment on how terrible they were. Even the side characters, such as a hotheaded Korean lesbian, were at heart detestable.

I read a few reviews online which described his stories as "relatable". To whom? Complete misanthropes? What is the "message" being portrayed here? (I'll be Kantian here and pretend all works of art have some sort of moral agenda) That all relationships are doomed to fail? That human beings are never as beautiful or intelligent or personable as they think they are? Why must every single character lack a redeeming trait? Perhaps other people can read this without being so repelled by it. It has received stunning reviews, and I spent weeks waiting for a single library copy (all of the others were checked out). Perhaps it is in the way I prefer to view human beings... as both endearing and imperfect, full of cracks and holes and history, all somewhat miserable yet revelling in happiness when it does come. Nonetheless the good traits are there, even in the muck-- maybe charisma, a good sense of humor, a genuine sense of caring and selflessness, a quick wit... traits completely absent in "Shortcomings."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Chris Ware

Last weekend at Chicago's Printer's Row Book Fair (or, excuse me, Mayor Daley's "Lit Fest") I had the pleasure of seeing cartoonists Chris Ware and Lynda Barry in conversation. Lynda was absolutely hilarious-- there's nothing as funny as seeing an outspoken middle-aged lady making jokes about everything from turkeys to testicles. Also my friend Kirsten had a class with her, so I expected her to be the brilliant woman that she was. I, however, went to see the talk because of Chris Ware, who was in the background the entire time but one of the most fascinating artists I've ever encountered. While Lynda Barry made the audience fall in love with her wackiness, Chris Ware talked about how he never had friends as a child, how life sucks, how relationships suck, how he hates speaking in public. Blonde, eyeglassed, protruding forehead and all, I have never heard anyone so honest about the reality of life, and how utterly disappointing it is.

Chris Ware often does covers of the New Yorker, and you might recognize his particular comic book style: simple, geometric figures, snapshots of the everyday lives of people, zeroing in on how miserable and terrible life is for everyone. He described it in one of his books as "schadenfreude," but I don't really buy it... the reader doesn't feel a delight in the misery of others, but more of an endearing camaraderie. That "I'm not alone in what I feel"-ness. This is especially evident in his "Acme Novelty Library" series, in which he inspects a few days in the lives of 7 or 8 characters, in varying times in their lives, interacting with each other on occasion, shifting between various points of view. I think we can't help but find a character we feel a kinship with. For some reason I was quite fond of a lonely brunette amputee living in Chicago, worrying about her weight and so intensely wanting in love that she messes it up completely. I forget her name, but she works in a flower shop, and originally went to art school before hating its pretentiousness. A pretty familiar tale, I think, among a lot of my friends.

Of course I didn't say all of this to Chris Ware when I met him. When I went to get my book signed, I blubbered out, "So, er, where do you get your characters from?" which isn't only an imbecilic question but completely bad grammar (ending interrogative sentences with a preposition? ew). Then I continued in this gross middle-school vein by asking, "'Cause, um, some of them sure do resemble you..." He definitely had to stifle a snort after this one, smirking a bit and trying to avoid the question. And of course I heard him speak without reading most of his series. I read the entire series a week later, and whadya know, he even names one of the characters Chris Ware, and he's a slightly lecherous and extremely pretentious art teacher in a public school in Omaha (his hometown). Question answered. I was so embarassed that I almost pulled the Ivy League card, which I tend to do whenever my intelligence is questioned. This is how I rewrote the conversation in my head: "Oh by the way, I go to Columbia University. You know, the Ivy League. You know, in the top ten schools in the United States. Oh, and my GPA happens to be freakin' fantastic. Want to grab a drink and co-author a paper with me? Totally platonic, scout's honor. We can even get Art Spiegelman in on the deal." Oh, a girl can dream.

What I love about Chris Ware has less to do with his artwork-- which is still quite beautiful and idiosyncratic-- but his genre-bending success. He is somewhere between a writer and an artist, and I was completely inspired by his work. His graphic novels are listed in the fiction part of the library, but I first heard of him when I saw his "Jimmy Corrigan" exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (still my favorite museum in the United States). I forget what else I stammered out when getting my book signed (in shaky, but still near-typed-perfect drafting script), but it must have been something about my separate and equal love of art and literature, because he asked which one came first. I said, "Well, neither, really. I think they came about at the same time," which is 100% true, but he seemed not to believe me. Oh well.

In any case, Chris Ware is now (one of) my favorite artist(s) and will henceforth graze the walls of my summer cubicle. I'm convinced if anyone reads a Chris Ware comic, they'll get me. Period. One hundred percent. It's also inspiring to have an artist so famous living in Oak Park, of all places. Not Manhattan. Not even Lincoln Park, or an equally prestigious Chicago neighborhood. Instead, a slumbery Northwest suburb. It's almost... sweet.

This is a comic about my favorite character, the lonely amputee girl mentioned above:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Graffiti Article

Hooray, my article is finally out on the Gadfly's website! If you open the PDF, it's pages 8-11, photographs provided by both yours truly and the lovely Jess. I was very proud of it originally, but, as often the case, things like these go through several stages of hardcore editing, often under dubious superstition (the Gadfly isn't the New Yorker, after all). So at a certain time in the editing process I gave up on retaining any element of the original. So it goes. Check it out!

Full magazine PDF:

I also illustrated the "To Delight in Disorder Only" article, but those are only quick drawings.

By the way, one good thing that came out of the whole procedure: Shana, the editor-in-chief, and Mara, a layout editor, became inspired by my article and photos and decided to make some graffiti of their own! The photos on the cover and back cover are bona fide graffiti in an *undisclosed* location on Columbia's campus-- the "gadfly" that is the logo of the magazine. Old-style stencil and spray paint. Which I think is pretty damn cool.