Saturday, March 18, 2006

Wizard World Los Angeles 2006

Wizard World Los Angeles is a large annual comic book convention with a focus on superhero titles. It's but one facet of the Wizard universe spanning multiple magazines, a website, and conventions across the country each year. This is only the third year for the LA show, and the first one actually held in LA following initial outings at the Long Beach Convention Center.

The move to the LA Convention Center gives the show plenty of room to grow, which was plainly evident by the booths that didn't quite stretch to the limits of the single hall hosting this year's event. Wizard World's biggest event is its annual Chicago summer show, and for anyone who has attended that one, the LA event space appeared to be roughly half its size.

Wizard has a tough market in Southern California competing with San Diego's Comic Con International, the world's largest, but its new location makes it ideal for ease of access by entertainment industry guests. The only problem is that Hollywood hasn't really caught on to its existence yet, so the caliber of guests thus far has leaned decidedly toward B-list status or less. On the upside for comic fans, the lack of Hollywood attention makes this much more of a true comic book convention that the mass media spectacle of San Diego.

The show ran for three days this year, with the biggest concentration of special guests and visitors on Saturday. I hit the floor after noon on Saturday and immediately noticed how much easier it was to move around compared to the hysteria of San Diego. I'm not suggesting that the show was dead, but it definitely wasn't overcrowded.

The media company booths were all aligned by the front doors, so visitors were funneled past the big players first and gradually moved back through smaller publishers to the retailers in the back section of booths. Yes, there were actual dealers selling real live comic books at the show, not a ton of them, but enough that visitors could easily shop for classic golden and silver age comics or the latest releases, as well as graphic novels, manga, toys, dvds, and apparel. Past the retailers was a lonely assortment of gaming tables and an artists alley with a few top artists such as Tim Sale and David Mack tucked in between the up and comers.

Comic book artist Jim Mahfood and friends were painting art live at the Golden Apple booth, a stunt that proved to be a hit with the attendees passing by.

The pieces were all for sale after completion.

While the celebrity quotient was fairly small, the collection of comic book creators was strong, with many key players from the big houses of Marvel and DC on hand to sign autographs and offer previews of this year's coming attractions. The biggest draw was probably DC's Jim Lee due to his blast back to the top of the artist popularity charts with key runs on both Batman and Superman over the past few years. Former Image mate Marc Silvestri was on hand to preview the upcoming releases from his Top Cow studio, while Silvestri's former protege Michael Turner was also onhand with all the latest exclusives from his Aspen studio. Image co-founder Rob Liefeld (creator of their iconic "i" logo, but no longer a part of the label) was also spotted on the fringes with his Arcade comic releases.

As for celebrities, Charisma Carpenter from Buffy and Angel appeared to sign autographs, but 2006 is apparently the year where Buffyverse fandom has finally hit a wall since her booth was a ghost town, causing her to leave within about 20 minutes. A few other players from Angel were appearing in another booth, but didn't look to be faring much better.

Lou Ferigno was on hand to prove again that he's the Dick Clark of superhero actors, still looking exactly the same as his Incredible Hulk days.

Jack O'Halloran from Superman 1 and 2 made a rare appearance, and Margot Kidder was also scheduled to appear.

The Wayans Brothers were on hand to discuss a new comic book they're producing.

Comedian Brian Posehn was pimping a new comic book he's writing, and seemed somewhat uncomfortable to be on the signing side of the table rather than circulating with the rest of the fans as he usually does in San Diego.

The big media star of the day was undoubtedly Kevin Smith, the one celebrity who unquestionably belongs at a comic book convention due to his longstanding comic book fandom, writing, and store ownership. He held court in the show's largest meeting hall for two hours during which he took questions from the audience and made his responses in turn hilarious, endearing, informative, and dirty. Jason Mewes popped in for a minute but left the proceedings to Smith as usual, cueing Smith to note that their real life roles are the polar opposite of their film roles as Jay and Silent Bob.

The audience questions were fairly stupid at first, but eventually somebody got around to asking about his latest acting roles, which allowed him to talk about his involvement in both Richard Kelly's follow up to Donnie Darko called Southland Tales, as well as his role as the "fat friend" in an upcoming Jennifer Garner romantic comedy. He particularly relished recounting his experience on the latter film as he apparently had an acrimonious relationship with star Timothy Olyphant. Smith decided to improvise his lines because they didn't sound natural to him, and Olyphant wasn't a fan of the results or his acting in general, believing that nobody would appreciate Smith's contributions to the film. Fast forward a few months to a test screening Smith crashed where he had the pleasure of spying on the focus group. The group leader asked the viewers what they liked best about the film, and somebody said "Kevin Smith", to which the leader said that was interesting and asked if anybody else thought that...and all 20 people raised their hands. "Fuck you, Olyphant!" indeed. He also discussed his upcoming sequel to Clerks when prompted, but didn't dwell on the subject for long.

The Saturday show wrapped up around 6, and while it was far from a runaway success, it did show quite a bit of growth from last year's event. Attendance in future years would most likely benefit by a push for more presence by the niche corners of the industry such as small press and manga, more programming, as well as more Hollywood involvement to increase the must see factor. It would be great to see this event grow to fill the entire LA Convention Center someday, but for now it's a fun event for mainstream super hero fans.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Music of Central Asia Vol. 1 - Tengir-Too: Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan

Before you tune out from the unappealing idea of folk music from a country you may have never heard of, just give this a chance. The Smithsonian Institution has launched this ambitious project through their Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label to document the traditional music of Central Asia over a 10 cd collection starting with this lavish release focusing on Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan has historically had a nomadic, rural culture due to its remote and mountainous location. The Kyrgyz music reflects this isolation and solitude as the songs are largely meant to be played solo. So, while the featured group Tengir-Too is a touring ensemble, it generally acts more as a showcase for each individual performer and guest rather than presenting a concerted group effort. The performers utilize an intriguing set of instruments that are primarily local variations of flute, upright fiddle, Jew’s harp, and the main tool, a three-stringed, long-neck lute.

While most of the songs are instrumental only, vocalists make key contributions on a few tracks, none perhaps more impressive than the rhythmic spoken word of Episode from the Manas, a performance that bears striking similarities to Jamaican dancehall chatting, Korean pansori storytelling, and of course US hip-hop. Elsewhere, Jew’s harp takes the lead on two songs which is perhaps one too many as a little bit goes a long way. The rest of the tracks are fascinating glimpses at the artistry of this nomadic people, echoing the vast, empty landscape of their homeland. You can quite literally hear the solitude and beauty of the region in these simple and enchanting compositions.

It’s interesting to note that the fall of Soviet rule 15 years ago opened the door for this project as it allowed the traditional Kyrgyz music to emerge from decades of subjugation to socialist themes. On the same token, this is a crucial time for the recording of this work as the resulting turn towards capitalism has fostered an accelerating cultural shift away from the traditional rural nomadic life to a modern urban lifestyle where simple folk music may eventually lose its appeal and significance.

The cd package is phenomenal, including an exhaustive booklet as well as a bonus dvd featuring a brief documentary filmed in Kyrgyzstan about the music, an interactive glossary, and a map of Central Asia. Even the map is worthwhile as you can see how the folk music of this country must have been informed by its location next to China, south of remote Russia, and north of Iran, Afghanistan, and India. The cd booklet gives an overview of the region and its music, the formation of the ensemble recorded for this project, a glossary of the traditional instruments, highly detailed background of each track, as well as full original lyrics and their English translation. It’s a beautiful package that serves as a fantastic showcase for this music.

Zemog El Gallo Bueno - Cama de la Conga

Zemog El Gallo Bueno has an odd name, but an even more unconventional approach to song composition as the band blurs the lines between individual genres to deliver a truly original listening experience. The band has been labeled as a Latin rock hybrid, which is a fair description but doesn’t adequately convey the extent of their musical reach. It’s difficult to identify all of the influences swirling through this heady concoction, but elements of salsa, jazz, mambo, flamenco, and jam band rock rise to the surface at times.
Led by Puerto Rico-born Abraham Gomez-Delgado, Zemog (Gomez reversed) kicks off their second studio release with the rock/experimental jazz combo of La Costilla, followed by salsa rhythms and brass on Assimilate Asimilar, leading into shades of big band jazz on Atawalpa. The stylistic jumps continue throughout the album but surprisingly don’t come off as erratic, just different facets of a complex talent. Other selections include a downtempo track anchored by accordion and guitar, an upbeat mix of salsa brass with electric guitar, and a sweet combination of flamenco, acoustic guitar, and saxophone. A couple of tracks veer too far into jam band noodling with no real purpose or payoff, but on the whole you’ll never know what to expect next, and that’s all part of the charm.

Gomez-Delgado sings predominantly in Spanish with a raspy, not entirely in tune voice that carries a great deal of emotion but not much technical skill or range. He’s somewhat along the lines of a Tom Waits, possessing a smoky, bar room voice that has obviously seen a lot of use and doesn’t particularly care to reach for difficult notes. His lyrics cover topics including Latin American folktales and history to protest about US imperialism (Assimilate Asimilar) to light-hearted tales about discarded toys (El Jardin Suspira) and even jolly old St. Nick (Gordo Rojo). The latter track is especially impressive as at first glance it’s just a comical story about the concept of Christmas being introduced to Puerto Rican school children prior to the Cold War, while subtly serving as a metaphor for the larger picture of US imperialism being forced upon the next generation.

The band includes members from a variety of Latin American countries and the US, and they all contribute their own local flavor to this intriguing amalgamation. While the constant genre bending and blending might give casual listeners whiplash at first, the disparate pieces all fuse together on repeated listenings and add up to a unique and welcome musical adventure.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars #1-2

Hatter Madigan has a huge problem. As royal bodyguard appointed to Princess Alyss, he is duty bound to protect her at all costs…but he has lost her. Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars recasts the Alice in Wonderland story as a real event from the 19th century, with Alice falling through the looking glass into our world instead of out of it. Instead of a jolly, crazy little hatter, the book portrays Hatter Madigan as a ruthless, highly skilled bodyguard who will stop at nothing in his quest to find and protect his princess. The main tool of his trade is his custom top hat that transforms into a whirling blade o’ destruction whenever needed. He’s also equipped with blades that pop out of his sleeves like Wolverine’s claws, as well as long blades protruding from a backpack that don’t seem to serve much of a useful purpose other than limited protection and coolness. In short, he’s a badass, and he’s in an extremely foul mood with his princess missing in a foreign world.

Issue 1 focuses on Madigan’s search in Paris where he promptly loses his hat and his freedom before reclaiming both, while issue 2 moves the action to Budapest where he follows Alyss’s trail as it leads to some other recent arrivals from Wonderland, a few vampires, as well as a pesky reporter interested in Alyss’s story. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t get bogged down with needless exposition, making this a thrilling ride told mostly through the visuals. While it’s a dark and serious tale, a few comedic touches are thrown in to lighten the proceedings, such as the Parisian tendency to lapse into an occasional Pepe Le Pew homage (“le huh?”) and Madigan’s delight upon entering a hat store (“an armory!”). It’s not clear where the story is going next, but it’s very clear that it will be worth reading.

The key hook to get most comic fans interested in this book is the artwork by Ben Templesmith, who rose to prominence primarily through his work with writer Steve Niles on the 30 Days of Night series. Templesmith has a distinctly singular vision and may not appeal to more mainstream sensibilities, but fans of his loose and gory style will find much to appreciate in this series. His art is well matched to the material as he’s called on to portray numerous beasties and Madigan’s gruesome disposal of them, although the brief inclusion of vampires immediately pulls any 30 Days fans out of the story as it so closely recalls his past work. As usual, he shoulders all art chores himself, and his dramatic use of color is especially effective in this series. Love him or hate him, there’s no disputing that he’s a unique talent with an original approach to sequential art.

The Alice story has been re-imagined many times, but this approach is so unique that it feels fresh and exciting. In addition to the core comic pages, each issue of the book includes some historical fiction such as newspaper clippings and correspondence to flesh out the concept similar to Alan Moore’s work in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The book is written by two relative newcomers to the industry named Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier, with Beddor also responsible for a trilogy of full-length novels with the same title that will see US release beginning this fall. Beddor and Cavalier are welcome additions to the scene and will hopefully be players for a long time to come.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sugarcubes - The DVD

Before Bjork conquered the music world as an eccentric solo artist, she fronted the even more eccentric Icelandic band The Sugarcubes. Although the band only survived for three proper studio albums, their music video output was substantial enough to warrant the new collection imaginatively named Sugarcubes – The DVD.

It’s clear that the band had virtually no budget for the videos, making do with sketchy camera work and grainy, unfocused images, but the clips are still mostly entertaining in spite of their technical shortcomings. The 12 videos collected here are a hodgepodge of performance footage and experimental art, and while they are largely unremarkable, they’re still interesting for the glimpses of a young Bjork as well as the odd scenarios she finds herself in during some of the more “artistic” videos.

While Bjork was a key component of the band, she was not the leader and was actually overshadowed at times by the bizarre co-vocalist named Einar who tended to spend much of his recording time speaking gibberish instead of singing actual lyrics. Luckily, Bjork was the featured attraction on most of the band’s singles, but there’s still enough Einar weirdness included in the videos to get a good flavor of the band’s power structure and ultimate short-term lifespan. It’s not every day you get to see a rock star in a lobster costume (Einar in Regina), and that’s probably all for the best.

As for Bjork, she does little to embarrass herself in even their most avant-garde clips, although her fashion is a bit questionable at times. She’s the delightful pixie she has always been in her solo career, just younger and not in charge of the proceedings. Fans accustomed to the video mastery exhibited by her groundbreaking solo videos might be taken aback by these rough, amateur efforts, but it’s still fascinating to see her early work and realize that she’s really not all that weird after all in comparison to her former band.