N.B.

Please read carefreely

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No Talking

Ponder the person who pauses, a word
for the fellow whose phrases disincline to herd:
Though his diction is dim, often his causes
are noble indeed, though badly obscured.
His phonemes are fleeting but his mind thoroughbred;
He keeps regular quiet but in fact the fact is
though he isn’t bleating—he’s assumed to be dead—
and at causing a riot he is out of practice
(a good thing, too, for the communicator
who yells down a banshee and outshouts a train
is pretty much never that seldom tomater,
a stirring orator with full use of his brain)
the ponderous person, we’ve noticed, the blight
on the landscape in which we’re conversin’—he might
cause an air of festivity slowly to worsen,
but sometimes he’s also conceivably right.

—SBT 2014

Filed under poetry rhetoric rhyme ripping off nabokov

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Q&A With Dan Harmon

This is my interview with Harmon, another guy whose work nearly always appeals to me; I even bought a collection of Scud: The Disposable Assassin comics because he’d written some of them (they’re okay. Not great, but okay). I condensed it for this Q&A and wish I hadn’t had to, but alas, we can only afford so much paper each week. Harmon is a brilliant, funny, interesting guy and he’s awkward in a way I find fascinating. He’s not shy, though, and as you can see, I ask only a few questions and he just talks nonstop. I love both of his shows; I loved Community so much I was afraid it’d turn out to be a fluke and he wouldn’t be able to carry it off again, but I like Rick & Morty, if anything, better. The start of that show was the occasion of this interview. This was just after Harmon had gotten his job as Community showrunner back, but before it had been canceled.

So how did this all begin?

Justin [Roiland, co-creator of Rick & Morty] had always been sort of playing around with these very intense, strange characters through the Channel 101 sandbox. They started off as a kind of punk rock, sneering immolation of a relationship we all grew up on, which is the one between Doc Brown and Marty McFly (the characters were originally called Doc and Mharti), and they kind of evolved from there. I think there was something about this insane, sociopathic, gruff character who keeps burping while he’s talking and this kid who keeps asking these questions, the answers to which are, “I don’t have time to answer that question.”

Like everything on Adult Swim, Rick & Morty has a really distinctive look. How much input do you have into that?

If somebody puts something in front of me and asks for an opinion, I’ll give them one, but I’m not the person whose eyeball one should be deferring to, especially not with Justin. His eyeballs are very specific and very passionate. What I can provide for him is, if he says, “Well, I want there to be a giant testicle monster with testicles hanging off of it, and it has a vagina in the middle of it,” what I can provide is OK, how does that feel? What kind of story might make use of that? Does the testicle monster come in on page one, and what are we learning on page five?

It’s kind of dark, man.

It’s from the opposite corner to Community—the character who makes everything happen is a scientist and an ingenious one, who, like a lot of smart people, is burdened with the knowledge that a lot of what you think matters doesn’t matter. He knows that there are different timelines, and that there’s a universe where Hitler won World War II, and just as many as there are where Hitler lost World War II, and people who live there feel like their universe is the normal universe.

But you’re also saying that the stories are specifically different from Community stories.

Community starts with the idea that we are all people, and part of some family, and then usually, in a Community story, the call to adventure is the insinuation that there’s a system or ideology that’s more important than people, and it causes chaos. And they eventually come to the conclusion that when they got out of bed that morning, they were as good as they were going to get and they need to give themselves permission to be who they are. Rick & Morty is an inversion of that: science rules supreme, marriages are on the rocks, and things get so chaotic that it does boil down to the petty, emotional issues of humanity. And when you come back into the third act of a Rick & Morty story, the moral is that let’s not forget we’re all pretty insignificant.

And that’s a lot more palatable for the younger audience on Adult Swim than it would be to, say, NBC.

Even if they are older, they’re watching animation—the young part of your brain is kind of the revolutionary part. It’s fun. The Adult Swim audience is going to be more amenable to this—it’s the god they’re worshipping when they’re out there skateboards trying to break their legs.

So how do you run two shows with two totally opposing worldviews?

You be absolutely mentally ill. When it’s prevalent, we call it diagnosable. When you can observe two diametrically opposite things and just perceive them as coexisting—well, if you work in a bank you’ll probably get fired. If you work on a TV show, you assign each part of that circle to a different character. This universe is gigantic and there’s no way that either of us can be any more significant than a grain of salt, but at the same time it’s unhealthy to not go with the instinctive emotional feeling that everything is so important. Nothing could be more important than what’s happening to you right now. Every breath you take is another story. What could be a bigger crime than ignoring that that time is passing? That’s the triumph of this naked ape that we are over the awareness that we’ve jailed ourselves in. But you have to be just as enthusiastic about how insignificant we are.

With that kind of darkness, did you ever think about working with Dino Stamatopoulos, who worked with you on Community and has a couple of shows at Adult Swim already? Seems like you guys are pretty close.

Dino is above me, in a certain sense. He’s older than me and has been working longer. I’m more comfortable collaborating with someone younger than me. I wouldn’t want to give Dino notes on anything, ever. It’s something about the inherent hierarchy among creatives—there’s more at risk there than there is with a writer ten years younger than you who’s passionate about things you’re not passionate at all about. Justin loves to pay attention to these beautiful backgrounds that you’re describing, and he looks at me as a person who’s always right on the things that he doesn’t have any opinions about. There’s no Gaza strip there where two people think they’re both supposed to be calling the shots. We get to be ourselves, and they help so much. I will collaborate with Dino for sure, but we’re partners on so many projects.

What was it like doing an animated show for the first time?

It’s catastrophically different from [what I thought it would be like]—what you call post-production in television you call pre-production in animation. In live action you end up with a rough cut that can be twice as long as what you end up with in runtime. You can decide what the final product will be in the edit bay; in animation you’ve got to edit down to the second. You can’t just lift out swaths of it and call it sculpture. If I’d known all the different things you have to care about in animation, my knees would have trembled. My weird laziness combined with my naivete and impulsiveness… something brought me to Justin, who is one of the best producers you could ever ask for. This is stuff that he’s absolutely compelled to dwell on. He’s an artist himself. He has no problem dwelling among these cubicles and making the character designers’ lives a living hell, because he cares about every background and every pixel. He works hand in hand with Mike Mandel, the line producer. Like an idiot, I was thinking, oh, now I’ll have full control! I’ll have a show like The Simpsons! I could not have been further off the mark.

What’s it like to be back on Community? 

It’s fantastic to be back. It’s very humbling, because we got started so late. Sony made the decision to do 13 episodes so late and to put [fellow Community writer Chris] McKenna and I in charge of them. It’s like an underdog sports movie: everybody had been snatched up by Parks & Rec or somewhere else. It’s not that there’s been a shortage of good people, it’s that you’ve had to work very hard to find them. We’ve got a lot of really good new faces in there who are just zealously professional, and they’ve read the stories about the supposedly horrible hours a writer has to work on Community, and they’re in there because they think it’s good. Being among people like that can make you kind of nervous. I was kind of always the guy who had to tap his glass with a fork in the middle of a conversation and say how much more important it was than they thought; I was the crazy Howard Hughes guy who had to lock himself in a room and do the story while a board waited to see it. The people who are able to write it, they find you and you find them. I’m in a position for the first time in my career where I struggle with a position of unworthiness relative to the people who are underneath me. I feel like the reason I have to go work hard is not because of the audience first and foremost, but because of these kids who think this is the best thing in the world to work on. I don’t have bad guys lurking over me. I’m not surrounded by ungrateful people. Self-loathing and combating all the people around you can be a luxury. If you screw up, it’s your fault now. If season 5 of Community sucks, it’ll be because I suck.

It’s funny—you describe Rick as this kind of troubled guy whose perspective is so macro that other people don’t understand him. That sounds a lot like Abed to me. Why have such similar characters in such different shows?

I gravitate toward these characters for self-serving reasons. Either through nature or nurture I have decided that what makes me likable is not whether or not you like me when I’m talking to your face but whether or not you like what I do. So I love stories about guys… not guys you love to hate—”oh he’s so bad he’s good!”—but guys like Mark Zuckerberg or Howard Hughes or Temple Grandin. People who are discounted for reasons that are fundamental to human nature and so have to answer to a higher power. The Steve Jobs mythology. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like “Oh, I think I’m one of these people!” It’s not that. I put all my eggs in my writing basket and for better or for worse I just decided that if what I make is good, I’m good, and if what I make is bad, then I’m bad, and we live in a world where everybody agrees that that’s not true! Somebody’ll do something good and everyone will say “Oh, but he’s a bad person.” I like examining that conflict between the people who don’t fit in but are consumed with the contribution to these people who kind of don’t like them. Self-loathing and self-worship are kind of both the same side of narcissism. It’s kind of like, “Jesus Christ, get over yourself.” [It’s like] the scene in the Aviator where Howard Hughes is trying to perfect some kind of aspect of an aircraft and he starts saying uncontrollably “Show me all the blueprints!” and can’t stop saying it, and you have that amazing moment where you feel sorry for someone who has so much power, because they have this relationship with some kind of God above them; even if that God is just mental illness. The Rick character is just the absurd expression of that. It’s very much like Doctor Who and Ford Prefect in Hitchhiker’s Guide, and Willy Wonka. They just don’t have time to interface with the people around them in a way that makes anybody comfortable. I think the answer over time is that you’ll come to believe that he’s a real person. I think even by the end of these first ten episodes, we’ve figured out that the more hours you log with this guy, he never really jumps the shark in terms of revealing that he loves all the people around him, or crying and saying “oh, it’s so hard to be this big a prick,” but you get it, or you get that you don’t get it. It made me so excited that this character could possibly live for a long time. I’m looking forward.

How do you make Rick resonate like that?

Dimensionalizing him means bringing the audience more and more into this infinitely-sized multiverse. By the end of the first ten episodes, we don’t really reveal that there’s some big enchilada like Fox Mulder’s sister getting abducted; we don’t reveal that he’s been trying to bring his ex-wife back to life, but we do realize how vast the universe he lives in compared to ours is, and how existentially exhausting that has to be. Morty basically has to have it beaten out of him. If you bring your hangups into a world of infinite adventures, you’re gonna die or you’re going to let them go.

Filed under Dan Harmon Community Rick & Morty Adult Swim NBC

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Some Thoughts on Women and Church Leadership

Last week a Christianity Today blog called, hilariously, Leadership Journal, published a hair-raising confessional by a child predator who’d written the piece from behind bars. The structure of the article was probably the worst thing about it, although you’re spoilt for choice in the “worst” category: he described what he called “an extra-marital relationship” with “a friend” who turned out to be, you guessed it, one of his students, someone he’d known since she was in middle school. He was in his thirties.

"The ‘friendship’ continued to develop," the author, who is eligible for parole in 2015, wrote. "Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit’s prodding so many times, there was little­ to ­no willpower left. We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted. How many smokers have quit smoking only to cave in at the next opportunity for a cigarette? We quit so many times, but the temptation of ‘one more time’ proved too strong. Like David, my selfishness led to infidelity. Then, to destruction."

Eventually, after several days of angry pressure from the social justice Twitter crowd, the piece was taken down and the site’s editors posted an apology that would ring a lot truer if it had come a lot sooner.

Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” widely considered one of the best-written novels in English, is narrated by a predator and contains a confession worth considering: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” And so you can: Note the repeated use of “we,” the passive voice when the author (name withheld, naturally) talks about his “constantly escalating” proximity to this child. Note the comparison the author makes between himself and King David. Note the characterization of statutory rape—and he must know it’s rape, because he’s in prison on two felony counts—as “infidelity.” He blames his wife elsewhere in the article, though if you look at it only briefly, he appears to merely be put-upon and henpecked. Look at this tangle of thorns.

I wish I could stop here, but I don’t feel like I can. Last week, Kevin William Reed, a 35-year-old youth minister, was arrested on one count of sexual battery for allegedly molesting a 17-year-old in the church kitchen and on rides in his car to and from church. Reed used to be the mayor of Camden, Ohio starting a term in 2011 that was marked by accusations of fraud, embezzlement and theft. But for some reason, Higher Heights Church in Camden decided he was worthy of a second chance—not as a child of God, not as a fellow fallen brother in Christ, but as a leader. I came up with this case by searching for the phrase “youth pastor indicted” on Google News. The same week a cardinal in St. Louis went so far as to say that he wasn’t sure raping children was a crime (it is).

Feminism does not have a strong enough foothold in the church, and without it, men do not understand the way rape polices women’s lives. The experiences of women, sexual minorities and people of color (particularly Asian Christians, who have close ties with majority-white churches and are frequently the victims of surprising racism) are parallel to, not in communion with, those of the straight white men who occupy, without meaningful exception, every single place of leadership in the evangelical church. Not a couple but several women of my personal acquaintance have been abused within the walls of a church, and this is in large part because men do not understand what threats to women look like.

Men say things to each other and themselves like, “I’ve heard Bill’s testimony about chasing tail in college; nobody who likes tits that much could be into little kids;” sometimes they talk about children who are “old enough.” It’s a culture that dismisses pedophiles as creepy perverts and in truth, many of these dudes probably aren’t into little kids. They’re into kids who are maturing physically, not because they have some kind of deviant attraction to sexually immature people, but because they’re complete psychos who feel entitled to whatever arouses them. Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor and blogger for Religion News Service, quotes a child protection expert in a recent post who said, “it’s not the guy sitting alone at the party that we should be most concerned about, it’s the one hosting the party,” and he’s right. People who crave attention, people who love giving orders, people who exude charisma: these are the absolute last people who should be in positions of leadership anywhere, least of all the body of Christ.

A close friend who recently graduated from a prestigious seminary confided in me that he’d encountered, with awful frequency, incidents of infidelity and plain old cruelty and narcissism among his fellow students, and (a family man himself), he no longer wanted to go into the ministry where a culture of tolerance and generosity toward that kind of sin was nurtured and encouraged. Meanwhile, any notion that homosexual Christians are our brothers and sisters is rejected out of hand—less, I think, because of some kind of fundamental objection to homosexuality, than because of its affront to masculinity.

There just aren’t enough women leading the church, especially not when the majority of parishioners are female. Evangelical culture still privileges men, and worse, specific kinds of men over others. It worships charisma. It cheers on big bags of shit like Mark Driscoll when they talk smack about gay people. It turns a blind eye to gossip and stigmatizes single mothers to such a degree that abortion becomes the only reasonable alternative to shame for many young women. And it offers wicked men opportunity after opportunity, not to be forgiven, but to hurt their fellow Christians, sometimes by causing them to stumble, and sometimes by brutally and remorselessly assaulting their sisters in Christ, because it puts them in positions of authority.

I guess I’m writing this to say to the women I know in the evangelical church, please step up. If you are organized and thoughtful and know how to talk to people and don’t much enjoy public debate or office politics, I’m sorry to report that you are the ideal candidate for church leadership. If you are already in church leadership, may every blessing be on you and your family and may God raise up a hundred others like you. Let us know how to support you. Men, support them. If you see someone in authority who does not appear to have much of a working conscience when it comes to his personal life or his dealings with other people, shout him down. Do it with love in your heart, but by all means do it. Misogyny is a wicked trap for everyone, not just women, and the people it gives a voice and a platform are the people whom Christ himself said would be better off with a millstone tied around their necks and cast into the sea.

Filed under feminism christianity evangelicals christianity today crime sin

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This is one of my favorite comics covers, from Miracleman #24. The image is borrowed from the website of the artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, because when the book was originally printed, the cover was so low-res you could make out the individual dots from the printer with the naked eye. I have a copy, but I’d rather you saw the painting in its full glory. 

I know everyone loves to complain that Miracleman is ZOMG EXPENSIVE and why are there only 24 or 25 pages of story in a 48 page book and who cares about the Silver Age reprints that get thrown in as filler, and Book 1 didn’t even have 120 pages of story in it, etc. All I can figure is that none of these people have ever seen more than an issue or two of the original series, which, starting with issue 7, ran to no more than 17 pages of story per issue with some of the ugliest coloring on record (until Sam Parsons came on board, anyway) right up to the double-sized finale story in issue 16. Miracleman #8 didn’t have a single page of Alan Moore script in it—it was all reprints. A Dream of Flying, the first collection, was 79 pages long and didn’t include the prelude chapter. Fully four crucial eight-page strips from various anthologies were entirely left out of the American series, including the collected editions. They’re all in the new Marvel ADOF. 

The entire Moore run is 327 pages long, soup to nuts. Watchmen takes up more than 400 pages, all told, and that book shipped in 12 issues, no tie-in shorts, no promo strips, no nothing. Miracleman 16 shipped 13 months late. The publisher filed for bankruptcy in the middle of a Neil Gaiman story. It does not get much worse for a comics fan than the original Miracleman publishing scheme. 
Look, I know $5 for a monthly comic book is incredibly expensive, and there ARE problems with the way Marvel has gone about its work—Axel Alonso’s explanation for the censorship of one naughty word is frankly horrific and I’m glad he’s not my publisher (“you have to consider changing sensitivities and the impact — and context — of certain words” in a restoration project, apparently, so look forward to a new, more racially sensitive Huckleberry Finn in a bookstore near you). But Steve Oliff has done a magnificent job recoloring the pages, the editors have done the nearly impossible in tracking down all the original art and bringing it back to life, and sometime next year we may finally, *finally* get to read at least the next chapter or two in what, for my money, is some of the best comics work Gaiman ever did. And a whole new generation will get to read the Andy Warhol issue, and John Totleben will wow people who’ve never seen his art before, and much more will be right with the world than was before.
This is one of my favorite comics covers, from Miracleman #24. The image is borrowed from the website of the artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, because when the book was originally printed, the cover was so low-res you could make out the individual dots from the printer with the naked eye. I have a copy, but I’d rather you saw the painting in its full glory.

I know everyone loves to complain that Miracleman is ZOMG EXPENSIVE and why are there only 24 or 25 pages of story in a 48 page book and who cares about the Silver Age reprints that get thrown in as filler, and Book 1 didn’t even have 120 pages of story in it, etc. All I can figure is that none of these people have ever seen more than an issue or two of the original series, which, starting with issue 7, ran to no more than 17 pages of story per issue with some of the ugliest coloring on record (until Sam Parsons came on board, anyway) right up to the double-sized finale story in issue 16. Miracleman #8 didn’t have a single page of Alan Moore script in it—it was all reprints. A Dream of Flying, the first collection, was 79 pages long and didn’t include the prelude chapter. Fully four crucial eight-page strips from various anthologies were entirely left out of the American series, including the collected editions. They’re all in the new Marvel ADOF.

The entire Moore run is 327 pages long, soup to nuts. Watchmen takes up more than 400 pages, all told, and that book shipped in 12 issues, no tie-in shorts, no promo strips, no nothing. Miracleman 16 shipped 13 months late. The publisher filed for bankruptcy in the middle of a Neil Gaiman story. It does not get much worse for a comics fan than the original Miracleman publishing scheme.

Look, I know $5 for a monthly comic book is incredibly expensive, and there ARE problems with the way Marvel has gone about its work—Axel Alonso’s explanation for the censorship of one naughty word is frankly horrific and I’m glad he’s not my publisher (“you have to consider changing sensitivities and the impact — and context — of certain words” in a restoration project, apparently, so look forward to a new, more racially sensitive Huckleberry Finn in a bookstore near you). But Steve Oliff has done a magnificent job recoloring the pages, the editors have done the nearly impossible in tracking down all the original art and bringing it back to life, and sometime next year we may finally, *finally* get to read at least the next chapter or two in what, for my money, is some of the best comics work Gaiman ever did. And a whole new generation will get to read the Andy Warhol issue, and John Totleben will wow people who’ve never seen his art before, and much more will be right with the world than was before.

Filed under miracleman marvel comics alan moore neil gaiman john totleben mark buckingham barry windsor-smith steve oliff

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A huge, cut bald guy is standing across from me against the door. I’m in the short bench next to the emergency exit. A Dominican kid in an Ecko shirt and a flat-brimmed ball cap on the bench next to HCBG is doodling a surprisingly accomplished picture of a pig-dog with its mouth open in front of a mutant appendage, either a penis or something half-bitten-off (see fig. 1). HCBG whips out his phone and appears to take a picture of me, flash and all.

Me [annoyed]: Please don’t take a picture of me without my permission.
HCBG: Nah, wasn’t you.

Unhurriedly, HCBG takes out a badge that clips on to his belt loop and a pair of very serious-looking handcuffs. I get really interested in my crossword puzzle.

HCBG to Dominican Kid, tapping him on the shoulder: You’re under arrest.
DK: What was I doing?

HCBG gestures to the doodle as he convinces DK to present one wrist, then the other, which are cuffed together behind his back. I take out my headphones and waver over whether or not to put them in and attempt to ignore the unpleasantly predictable proceedings, or eavesdrop. I opt to eavesdrop.

DK: So many people doing other things and you don’t arrest them.
HCBG: [inaudible]
DK: [Argues unpersuasively in Spanish.]
HCBG: [Responds authoritatively in Spanish while taking consecutive pictures of DK’s supplicant, uncomprehending face and his person, both juxtaposed with his handiwork]

I try very hard not to look like I’m listening as I totally violate my own stated values and take a picture of HCBG, DK, my umbrella handle with my hand gripping it tight, part of a plastic bag, and a single headphone (see fig. 2).

HCBG [leading DK to the door, speaking to me]: I just needed to get him.

I nod silently, looking down, trying to compose my face in such a way that it says NO VALUE JUDGMENT ASSIGNED very clearly. Mentally, I try to assign value judgments to each person’s actions, and fail.

Filed under cops new york city art vandalism the n train

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The Genre Fiction Rant      

Breaking my criticizing other critics rule: it always amazes me to read book criticism by prudes and scolds who take pride in dismissing entire classes of writing. Here, in a post admittedly two years old (but new to me!) the fabulously ignorant Arthur Krystal manages to acknowledge the work of both Ursula Le Guin and David Mitchell (though he pretty obviously has no acquaintance with the former beyond her rightly upbraiding him) in this little mini-essay while arguing that literary fiction is innately superior to genre fiction, which the author describes thusly: “Born to sell, [as opposed to lit fic, which they apparently give away at the cash register] these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it.” The distinction between literary and genre fiction has always been nothing more or less than marketing but it’s profoundly depressing to read someone who has been so successfully convinced that the purchase and consumption of the most recent Iowa Writers Workshop thesis, bound and blurbed, makes him the intellectual superior of the woman reading Cory Doctorow or Ray Bradbury; and in The New Yorker, no less! The elephant in the room, and let me just say that if I had the misfortune to argue from Krystal’s perspective, I would ignore it, too, because it is extremely inconvenient, is that contemporary literary fiction simply can’t happen without the very writing Krystal execrates, some of it wonderful and some of it lame. Mitchell could never exist without the great Samuel Delany. Jonathan Lethem is very open about his debt to Philip K. Dick. Michael Chabon once wrote a novel-length homage to the famously overwritten and cheesy swords-and-sandals fiction of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. In my life, “the sea frozen inside” has yielded almost exclusively to the work of genre writers, though perhaps I simply don’t possess the depth of feeling enjoyed by Arthur Krystal. It’s one thing to decline to read a particular kind of good writing; it’s quite another to congratulate yourself on the accomplishment.

Filed under the new yorker arthur krystal genre ursula le guin david mitchell