Friday, March 5, 2010

The Return of the Thin White Duke

David Bowie
20 June 1990: Richfield Coliseum, Richfield, Ohio

Before moving to Central Florida in August 1990, I had some incredible concert-going experiences growing up in Northeast Ohio. By virtue of my
connections at the CD store I worked at, I knew the box office manager of the Richfield Coliseum, the main concert venue in Northeast Ohio at the time (and the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1974 until they moved to Gund Arena – now Quicken Loans Arena – 20 years later). So I had connections for good concert seats, and I took advantage of the opportunity twice: once for front-row, center seats for the Cure’s Prayer Tour on August 29, 1989, and again for David Bowie’s Sound + Vision Tour on June 20, 1990.

This was at a time when it wasn’t easy to get pictures at a show; you didn’t have cameras built into your cell phones. Hell, you didn’t have cell phones. I attended the Bowie show with the box office manager, and snuck in a camera (he knew I was doing it). During the latter half of the show I pulled out the camera and snapped off a quick picture. Almost immediately, security started towards me, intent on confiscating the camera, but a member of Bowie’s road crew who we had befriended at the front of the stage intervened and called off the security dogs. I was then free to snap as many shots as I wanted. At one point, the road crew guy even motioned for Bowie to come up and pose directly in front of me, resulting in some spectacular photos (the best ones are below) – and I can only imagine how much more impressive the photos would be if I’d had a half-way decent camera at the time.

During the encore, after I had blown through the entire roll of film
(yes, film), Bono joined Bowie on stage for an incredible rendition of “Jean Genie” mixed with Van Morrison’s “Gloria”. I do wish I’d had film left in the camera, but I was so mesmerized by the fact that not only was I staring Bowie in the face but also Bono, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take a good picture.

After the show, we chatted with Bowie’s road crew som
e more, and I was able to snag the setlist directly off the stage. I have kept that setlist, along with the guitar pick, ticket stub, photos, and negatives from that night in a cigar box for 20 years. Recently, all these memories and the desire to dig out the physical evidence of that long ago night were stirred up by a Twitter conversation with friends and couldn’t be ignored.

I tried directly scanning the negatives into our photo software, but couldn’t get a clean print, so I ended up scanning some of the photos I had developed two decades ago directly into the computer. At the time I took the photos, I had no idea about photo composition or lighting or the proper use of a flash, and considering the quality of camera I probably had, it’s a miracle any of the photos came out at all. A couple of them are horrible, but a handful, amazingly, actually look pretty good.

When I have mentioned attending the Sound + Vision Tour to older Bowie fans and rock snobs in the years since, I’m often met with derision, but seeing Bowie that night with his then-musical director Adrian Belew, and a Bono encore... well, that was religion to me.

(As a cool side note, five-and-a-half years before I would meet her, my wife was also in the house that night, taking in the show from the rafters seats.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Marvel Unbound - The Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus

I didn’t read any Power Man and Iron Fist comics back in the day. In fact, it wasn’t until I started reading things like the House of M trade paperback and the current New Avengers run and playing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance that I really got to know who Luke Cage, née Power Man, really is. And Iron Fist? Well, I didn’t know who he was beyond a kelly green and lemon yellow costume obviously born out of the Me decade obsession with chop-socky film culture until I started reading Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s revival title.

It’s no secret I’m
a fan of Brubaker and Fraction. So it should come as no surprise that I love what they did in energizing this Marvel ’70s staple character. Back in 2007, my local comic book shop guy knew I was reading Brubaker on Captain America, and recommended I give The Immortal Iron Fist a try. I was blown away by the first trade paperback collection and immediately started picking up the current monthly issues on the shelves. Knowing how cohesive the first story arc was, I put off reading “The Seven Capital Cites of Heaven” storyline until it was complete, eventually taking them all in one sitting.

After I had collected the entire run, I bought the story in trade paperback and immediately reread The Immortal Iron Fist, Volume 1: The Last Iron Fist and Volume 2: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven in quick succession. And when Marvel solicited The Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus last year, I couldn’t resist its call. My amazing wife came through in a huge way by ensuring this gorgeous book found its way under the Christmas tree.

Because this title was originally recommended to me before I was completely aware of who Brubaker and Fraction were, and I was fairly ambivalent about the character going in, a large part of the appeal was initially David Aja’s art. If ever there was a poster child for cover art that can sell a book, the first year and a half or so of Immortal Iron Fist are it. I was consistently blown away month after month by Aja’s (and other’s) cover art on the title, and if I hadn’t been reading the book I would have definitely been considering it on the strength of what was peering out from the shelves of the local comic book shop. And Aja’s interiors are the best of the series, a perfect pairing of story and art.

The tales contained within by Brubaker and Fraction and illustrated by Aja create one of the richest tapestries of character history, ongoing adventure, and Eastern mysticism. The writers introduce a simple but compelling premise to the Iron Fist mythos: that for sixty-six generations there has always been an Iron Fist. This “legacy power” idea enabled the writers to weave one-offs into the title (two within the ongoing series – issues #7 and #15; and two over the course of book – Annual #1 and Orson Randall & the Green Mist of Death; all collected here) chronicling the exploits of past Iron Fists and add emotional weight to the current character.

Although I have heard others complain about it being disrupted by the sequential placement of some of the one-offs, there is a logical flow to the omnibus. It moves from “The Last Iron Fist Story,” introducing Orson Randall to the mythos, to the traditional battle between the seven Capital Cities of Heaven’s analogous Immortal Weapons that occurs each generation.

As Danny Rand’s immediate predecessor as the Iron Fist, the first story arc is as much Orson’s story as it is Danny’s. Much of the history around Orson and his friendship with Danny’s father Wendell is explored here. Brubaker and Fraction weave a familiar theme into the book, one of brothers. There is Danny and Orson, Orson and Wendell, Wendell and Davos (the Steel Serpent and one of the book’s antagonists). That last relationship in particular echoes Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow’s from Marvel’s original G.I. Joe series.

Both James Hilton’s book and Frank Capra’s film adaptation of Lost Horizon are among my favorites of their respective mediums, and I see elements of both woven throughout these Immortal Iron Fist tales. From the hidden city concept to the references of the “Kuen-Lun” mountains in Lost Horizon (“K’un Lun” is the Iron Fist’s city) to the powers of Eastern mysticism, there are threads throughout Brubaker and Fraction’s stories that lead directly – if not intentionally – back to that influential work.

As far as the omnibus itself goes, it’s the complete package and near-perfect in every way, right down to the color-coordinated green cover with yellow-gold embossed lettering found under the dust jacket. Apart from the stories contained within, the book also includes a wealth of extras. The Origin of Danny Rand (reprinting Marvel Premiere #15 and #16 with a Fraction framing story) i
s incorporated here, along with the repackaged and original Marvel Premiere covers.

Spanish artist Aja’s covers for the first six issues of this new series are truly graphic art, and seeing them presented in the omnibus, unencumbered by corporate logos and UPCs, is stunning. The curtain is pulled back a bit on Aja’s cover process for issue #1, along with the inks for that cover and pages from issues #0, #1, and #7. Eleven pages of character designs with commentary by Aja are also presented (this feature has quickly become one of my favorites among collected edition extras). Along with Aja’s work, we get Gabriele Dell’Otto and Kaare Andrews’ variant covers.

Text-based extras include the lengthy Iron Fist OHOTMU entry, the original story pitch by Brubaker and Fraction, original script excerpts for issues #0 and #1, and a slight-but-fun early “Behind-the-Scenes E-Mail Exchange” between Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja about the development of the Mechagorgons.

My one and only complaint is that Civil War: Choosing Sides (The Immortal Iron Fist #0) is presented in the back of the book as a part of the extras when it actually should be read first from a chronology perspective. But that’s hardly worth getting your little yellow silk booties in a twist over when everything else presented here is spot-on!

I can’t recommend The Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus highly enough. Other than the seminal Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, Brubaker and Fraction’s run on this title is the only comic series I have spent money on and read in three formats: single issues, trade paperback, and omnibus. And even after reading and rereading this story so many times, it has been worth every penny.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The End of the Eighties, Track 11

Depeche Mode
Black Celebration

In the late ’80s (and maybe still now, I don’t know), Black Celebration was the album of choice for fans who wanted to let people know they didn’t jump on the Depeche Mode bandwagon with Music for the Masses or 101 or Violator. Citing Black Celebration gave the person a certain credibility as a true DM fan.

For me, Black Celebration is tied up in my girlfriend at the time (Pam, the same one I attended the Cowboy Junkies concert with). I remember Pam had Black Celebration on cassette and us listening to it in her room. Also wrapped up in those memories are my working at a local warehouse wholesaler (a precursor to Costco and Sam’s Club), and ultimately Bowling Green.

The album, and “Stripped” in particular, evokes a brooding melancholy in me. There are flashes of light, but darkness is the pervading theme. On its surface, “Stripped” comes off as a bit of a seduction song, but dig deeper and you find a theme that reoccurs over the entire course of Black Celebration: sadness, disappointment.

I love singer Dave Gahan’s powerful delivery of the title word throughout “Stripped”. It’s forceful, provocative, and works perfectly with the strength of the music and samples. From 1983’s Construction Time Again on, Depeche Mode was never afraid to incorporate key Industrial traits into their synthpop, and “Stripped” fits that description. Opening with a distorted car ignition starting and propelled by hard beats, “Stripped” provides a clear path from Construction Time Again’s “Pipeline” through to the alternative feedback fuzz of Songs of Faith and Devotion.

Interestingly, “Stripped” was released as the first single off of Black Celebration in the UK, but not in the US. Stateside, the record company stepped in against the band’s wishes and the “But Not Tonight” b-side was included on the soundtrack to the little seen and rarely heard of Modern Girls movie, released as a single that flopped, and included on the US edition of Black Celebration.

Still probably my favorite Depeche Mode album, even ahead of Violator, I guess I’m still trying to assert my alternative music credibility by spreading the Black Celebration love. And “Stripped” remains one of my all-time favorite Depeche Mode songs.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Definition of a Good Day

Much like Brian Michael Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan is a comic writer and fellow Northeast Ohioan whose work I hold in the highest regards. There’s a reason Pride of Baghdad, Runaways, Y: The Last Man, and Ex Machina are so successful, for the same reasons they are among my favorite books up on my shelves... they are well-crafted, entertaining stories with emotional resonance.

I devote an entire chapter to Vaughan, Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Matt Fraction in my book, Deus ex Comica: The Rebirth of a Comic Book Fan, exploring their works and the affect they’ve had on me as a comic reader. Because of his influence on my rediscovered love of the medium, I rather clumsily reached out to Vaughan via email, offering to send him a copy of my book as a gesture of appreciation for that positive influence and as thanks for all the great reading he’s given me over the last few years.

Not really expecting a response, I was shocked and thrilled to find an email from him this past week congratulating me on my book! Then, in one of the classiest moves imaginable, he politely declined my offer to send him a book directly, instead saying, “since you've been kind enough to support my books over the years, I thought the least I could do was buy myself my own copy of your book, which I just ordered off Amazon.”

There was another line or two to the email, and although the effort may have been minor on his part, much like my experience with Neil Gaiman last year, the acknowledgement and encouragement he offered has been a tremendous boost for this self-published author.