All posts by BenjaminBirdie

Bureau Chiefs Roundtable: Mad Men Season Premiere

Public Relations

WARNING: There will be plenty of spoilers in this frank and open discussion of the fourth season premiere of Mad Men, “Public Relations.” So hold onto your hams, because here we go.

BENJAMIN: I’ll just start off by saying that it’s going to be tough to be objective about the entire episode when it ended on such a ridiculously high and thrilling note. Seeing Don grasp the spotlight with both hands with the zeal we’ve previously only seen him have for finding translations for “Hilton” was a practically fist-pumping moment. Nashville Teens’ booming “Tobacco Road” didn’t hurt either. It was like the end of an episode of Entourage only I didn’t feel like stabbing anyone.

That being said, there were a lot of things worth noting and discussing. First off, the show is clearly a lot more overt about its theme of the business of creativity. Usually personified in the friction between Don and Roger, it’s now the thread running through nearly every interaction Don has. Whereas before it was easy to see Don framing himself in the trappings of business — nuclear family, house in the suburbs, successful midtown office — he’s now built himself a bit of a ’60s hipster life. He lives downtown, the firm’s office is a ramshackle ode to modern-at-that-time prefab design, and he doesn’t mind getting into some freaky shit in the old boudoir. As Bert also points out to him, now that he’s partner, every single thing he does in the company is a business move, not just a creative one.

It’s one of the reasons why his reaction to the Jantzen people was so shocking. It’s already been established how important business is to the firm, and Don’s reasons for kicking them out on their asses is so directly tied to a creative choice. (It’s also telling that he refers to the benign and crippled Conference Room as “his office,” claiming ownership of the entire floor [and probably any other fictional additions above or below].) The lie that Don built his life out of has always been a potent reflection of his work, but now that Don needs to be the face of the firm, that lie takes on a greater meaning and a much larger risk.

ANNA: One of the things that I appreciate more and more about Mad Men is the temporal shifts between seasons. By skipping several months in between seasons, many of the characters have developed and the audience is able to appreciate these changes more than if they’d been more gradual. I loved seeing the new, more confident Peggy. In her new position she’s developed a good relationship with an underling and she’s not afraid to stand up to Don. The role reversal is complete when Peggy is forced to call Don for bail money. When Don chews Peggy out she’s not afraid to explain herself and she’s free to needle Don about what he’s done to the agency by refusing to sell himself in his first interview. Her mannerisms, dress and exuberance in her new job signal that it is finally “her time.”

BENJAMIN: She’s also dating Karl from Lost, so she probably shouldn’t walk past any big open windows with him.

On a serious note, though, what I like about the subtlety of Peggy’s character is that her relationship with Don is much more emotional than Don’s relationship is with her (or perhaps how much he’d ever let on). As much as she’s paving her own way, her line about everyone doing their work for his approval (whether or not it might have been true for everyone else) brings her whole Surrogate Father relationship with Don screaming to the foreground. There may always be a part of her that holds back for Don’s approval.

ANNA: I’m wondering if Betty will ever have any redeeming qualities. While it is easy to see how she ended up as the spoiled princess that she is based on her upbringing, she no longer has the excuse of an unhappy marriage with a philandering and secretive husband to excuse her horrible treatment of her children. While Betty and Henry seem to have plenty of sexual chemistry, Betty still seems to reserve her harshest treatment for her daughter. Why a woman so preoccupied with appearances thinks it is OK to force feed her daughter at the Thanksgiving table is beyond me.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of Henry’s mother. She’s pretty accurate about her assessment of Betty’s parenting skills. In contrast, while Don’s parenting habits are nothing to write home about (as he plops his kids in front of the TV in his dark apartment) at least he seems to actually care about his kids even if he’s unable to express it well. He promises to help his son fix is pajama button and lingers in the doorway of their room after putting them to bed. I don’t think Betty’s ever shown to be sharing a quiet moment like that with her children.

MATT: Maybe the most interesting thing in this episode for me was how Peggy and Pete have discovered guerrilla marketing well before the term became part of advertising parlance, how well it worked and how terribly Don reacted to it after Peggy had to reveal their stunt. Don’s trying to push the envelope, but within traditional bounds. He simply tries to make the ad more titillating, then throws a tantrum when the clients, who said that wasn’t what they wanted, tell them again that’s not what they wanted. Peggy and Pete, on the other hand are doing something really new and have got the clients behind them. Don’s just so used to being right, and he’s coasted on his usually terrific marketing sense up to this point. Could this be the season he discovers that his every instinct isn’t always the best idea? I’m not sure how I feel about his big ego-trip statements to the interviewer at the end. On the one hand, it’s a reversal from his tight-lipped asshole approach, but now he’s just being a prick. I’m not sure that’s better PR. It’ll sure be interesting to see how it plays out.

I loved the theme of the episode. The title, “Public Relations,” refers not only to the news story Don is interviewing for at the beginning and its many unexpected repercussions, along with the news story Pete and Peggy stage, but also to how Don is again presenting a facade to the world — the lonely ex-husband — when in fact he’s go so much more going on with his mysterious mistress, the situation with Betty and the house, and his kids. Plus, Betty’s having to do some PR of her own, presenting a good-wife front for her new husband and his family, who don’t seem to be buying it for a minute. Mad Men’s always been a show about how people present themselves versus who they truly are, and I like the portrayal of how things are bumpy when you have to shift the story.

One character that remains seemingly unchanged? Roger Sterling. Man, that guy is just a beautiful asshole. In the first 10 minutes, he had three huge asshole moments: 1) Complaining that Ad Age couldn’t afford to get a whole reporter in regards to the reporter with one leg, 2) the crack about needing “someone white” to carve his Thanksgiving turkey and 3) inviting Don to “stuff” his wife’s actress friend after a few dates. And yet I can’t help but love the guy. That kinda makes me feel awful.

BENJAMIN: I actually thought that stuffing joke was a little beneath Roger’s usual expert wit. I’m hoping this season we see not only more great Sterling comedy, but episodes like the one last season where his old flame came to the firm with her father’s ailing dog food company. The scenes between those two were absolutely fantastic. I want more of that maudlin Fitzgeraldian Roger Sterling!

One things for sure, not too many shows can land a season premiere like Mad Men does. If this episode is any indication, we’re in for a pretty spectacular season.

Built To Spill: The Ballad Of Scott Pilgrim

ONE TWO THREE FOUR!!!

The year is 1994. I’m sitting in someone’s basement with about thirty other people. Three bands you’ve probably never heard of are playing: Brainiac, Lazy and Honeyburn. Even sixteen years later, I’ll be hard pressed to think any bands now that were better than they were then. But that’s the way music works. When it’s landing, hitting you at the right time and the right place, it’s not hard for you to figure that no experience before or since will ever be as good, or feel like this.

While the eponymous protagonist of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series (which just ended this week with its sixth volume, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour) spends more time making music than sitting back wth a dixie cup of beer and listening to it, you get the sense that that kind of appreciation of those moments has always been a huge influence on the work.

Scott Pilgrim gets a lot of attention for its use and adoration of video game tropes and visuals, but just as potent (if not more so) is the influence of music on the work, specifically the music that Bryan Lee O’Malley undoubtedly listened to for most of his young adult life. (Also backed up by his helpful list of the stuff he was listening to while working on printed in the back of several of the volumes.) One of Pilgrim’s trademark shirts is built out of the Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins logo (and several chapters and even one of the volumes derive their names from Pumpkins songs), Ramona Flowers got her name from a Flying Burrito Brothers song, and I’d be willing to bet that the pivotal and strange physio-psychic phenomenon “The Glow” is based on that fantastic song by The Microphones.

Ramona!

But hey. Scott plays bass, so none of this should really come as a surprise. What is surprising and interesting is how the entire Scott Pilgrim saga works in the same way as that kind of small and intimate show you fold yourself into in the bottom of some record store owner’s house. O’Malley’s voice has always been one so authentic and funny that you find yourself looking over your shoulder wondering if anyone else just got that reference to a mythril skateboard. And emotionally it hits the same beats that any good show would. You have the fast parts that make you want to punch your friend in the shoulder, and the slow parts that make you think about your old girlfriends. But most of all, you feel the connection of someone working their ass off to entertain you and doing it in a way that feels so relevant to your experience that it couldn’t have been directed at anyone else but you.

Scott Pilgrim has always felt like one of those works. As scattered, touchstone-wise, as the past twenty years of pop culture that inspired it, there’s a reason why throngs of people across two countries flooded dozens of Midnight Release parties to pick up the final volume Monday night. It simply resonates.

One of the key aspects of Pilgrim’s story is how the most mundane things; a trip to the mall, meeting an ex’s father; can explode into the most epic action set-piece. It’s no surprise that this is the perfect fit for a culture that’s so intent on grand-scaling every aspect of their lives. It’s not just a night at the movies it’s a “DUDE, YOU SO WOULD NOT BELIEVE THE NIGHT I HAD.” And like four guys from Idaho building 10 minute rock songs out of a couple of guitars and a drum kit, or a kid from Chicago who can only express himself through arena rock fantasy, or any band you’ve never heard of playing their hearts out next to a keg of beer; Bryan Lee O’Malley just built his own six volume epic out of whatever he could find.

The End

Great Pages In Comic Book History: Marvel Boy #4

Marvel Boy #4, p. 5. By Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones, Avalon Studios, Matt Milla, Richard Starkings & Wes Abbott.

Marvel Boy #4 features what is probably a more well known sequence, just a few pages after this one. Marvel Boy and Oubliette chase each other up a building in a phenomenal two pages made up of 12 Panel Grids. It’s truly fantastic, no doubt, but something about Page 5 resonates just a little bit more with me.

First of all, you’ve got the first two panels, which are just a textbook example of fantastic action sequential storytelling. Jones knows precisely where to place Marvel Boy in the frame in both panels to convey the perfect and proper level of momentum. I could just go back and forth between those two panels for a few minutes, and just study them.

Artist J.G. Jones also does some amazing things with the subway flare that makes Oubliette’s position, slamming out of a subway on a motorcycle (RIGHT?!?), so dynamic.

Avalon Studios and Mr. Milla also take a fantastic little chance in panel two with the color shift. I’m not a hundred percent sure what exactly in that Subway Station is causing it, nor do I really care. Green is certainly a predominant color throughout the series. Marvel Boy’s only surviving pal, Plex, is a green blob, his own costume is mostly green, there’s a lot of green all around. By bathing the whole panel in the color, it almost gives at a kind of strobe effect, as if an alternative to the Impact Burst you might find at that moment in the panel of a more traditional comic.

And then the last two tiers give us that great tumble and final pose that’s not just static, not a moment of Ex taking a breather, but one where she immediately fires at Marvel Boy.

There’s not a moment of pause in the action on the entire page.

Also of note, this issue is lettered in one of my favorite Comicraft fonts, Cutthroat. I first fell in love with it in the pages of Grant’s New X-Men, before that painful edict was handed down, and lowercase letters joined uppercase letters in a horrifying and completely un-comic-book-like combination.

So congratulations Page 5 of Marvel Boy #4. You are officially one of the Great Pages In Comics History.

Great Pages In Comic Book History: The Punisher #13

In what will be an ongoing feature on this site, I’m going to take a rather in depth look at some of my favorite and most inspirational individual pages throughout the great pantheon of my lazily-strewn-about-my-office comics collection.

From The Punisher #13 by Rick Remender,  Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorne,  Dan Brown, and Joe Caramagna

In a medium that gets its fair share of bad raps, the latest storyline in The Punisher gets its own volatile breed of bad rapsterism from many fans.  Write Rick Remender had the audacity to kill Frank Castle, gritty urban vigilante, and turn him into a Frankenstein’s Monster.  Remender had been tasked with integrating Castle into the Marvel Universe proper, which is the same where a family of weirdos has the biggest building in the city and keeps like four or five black holes in its sub-basement. This particular issue has Frank defending an underground city of monsters from an elite team of samurai monster killers.

I chose this page for reasons that should probably be pretty obvious.  What probably catches the eye first is the fantastic line art of Tony Moore and Mike Hawthorne.  Detailed, expressive, and in no way afraid to be completely and luxuriously exaggerated, it’s a fantastic style.  And Dan Brown’s colors simply enhance it.  Dig a little deeper, though (as I am frequently wont to do), and you notice the simple but wildly effective rhythm of the panel to panel storytelling.  Each image is a perfect segment of an even, 4/4 beat of action and sound (aided by the often overlooked art of lettering, here by Joe Caramagna). Thus, Remender is almost unfairly aided in the delivery of this incredibly stark but snappy bon mot from Frank Castle.

Yes, there’s a huge explosion on the following page, and yes, it is awesome.  But I like to linger on this one sequence, this one moment.  Frozen in amber, the joke can often carry as much weight, or even more, than the punchline itself.

And those are just a few of the reasons why these four panels, in sequence, form one of the Great Pages In Comic Book History.

Marooned: Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach

On the making-of documentary included with the “Experience Edition” of Gorillaz’ latest album, Plastic Beach, band creator (and former Blur front man) Damon Albarn bemoans the state of the cohesive album in the age of iPods and Random Play.  It’s a legitimate problem, and one that the first two Gorillaz albums tended to accommodate.  Collections of relentlessly catchy singles alongside more esoteric pieces, neither Gorillaz’ self-titled debut nor their follow-up Demon Days ever really cohered as an album.  You’d start one, get hung up on listening to “Feel Good Inc.” fourteen times in a row and then never make it too far past that.  Plastic Beach is a completely different animal.

When we last left Murdoc, 2D, Russell, and Noodle, the not-as-young-as-she-used-to-be guitarist was plummeting to the ground after her Floating Windmill Island was shot down by black helicopters.  Now, five years later, Noodle is presumed dead, at least for sure missing, and currently replaced by an Android that Murdoc has built from her DNA.  He’s also kidnapped 2D and taken him to Plastic Beach and left Russell to his own devices, recording the entire new album without him.

Not your typical New Album Press Release, to be sure, but one of the best parts of any Gorillaz release is the expansion of the band’s surprisingly dense mythology.  In this instance, that mythology dovetails perfectly into the thematics of the album.  The titular Plastic Beach is a lump of garbage in the middle of the ocean, made from the refuse of every living person on the planet.  And like its namesake, the album Plastic Beach is an amalgam of a very large number of different styles and musical voices.  (And that’s got to be about 7,439th time someone has made that comparison in a review but, hey, it works.)

“Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach,” the album’s first genuine track, serves as the perfect introduction to where the album is headed, what it’s trying to do, and just how different an album this is going to be compared to Gorillaz’ previous ones.  It starts off with a brief intro from Snoop Dogg (guest rapper, check).  The electronic thud of the dub bassline and electro beat rolls beneath it, also check.  The familiar synth wash carries it forward as well, all classic Gorillaz.  Then, just shy of a minute in, everything changes.  Keyboard-synthetic horns blast through the track, the click track of drums is matched with a live beat, and those horns morph into a melancholic but weirdly joyous melody.  Before Snoop shows up again, 2D’s warbly vocals appear, almost tenuously auto-tuned; artificial but warm.

At that moment, the album tells us exactly what it’s going to be.  The fifty or so minutes that follow carry the same fake/real aesthetic. Although mythologically, Russell has had nothing to do with the album, the drum performance of Gabriel Manuals Wallace is the literally beating heart that ties the album together, much like any Gorillaz fan might imagine Russell always did on previous tracks.  Thematically, the album touches on these aspects of the modern world as well.  The word “plastic” shows up in practically every song at some point.  And though it features a tremendous amount of guest artists, it still feels more coherent than any other previous Gorillaz album.  There’s no massive stand out like “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc,” but the album is better off for it.  I haven’t personally ever listened to any single part of the album on its own.  It simply works so perfectly as a single entity.  Albarn got his wish.

Without ever being too preachily “green,” Plastic Beach is very much about garbage and artificiality in its constant and pitched battle with authenticity.  The album basically shows us that this kind of artificiality has become the new authenticity.  There’s no escaping it.

We’re all happily marooned.