Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Watchmen (the graphic novel): A Review

With the anticipated release of the film (I saw the trailer for the first time before The Dark Knight), I decided that I wanted to read the Watchmen graphic novel. A general review of my peers indicated I would be satisfied: people whose artistic taste I respect said that it was very well written, as good as any other true work of literature, and specifically, it all sort of comes together very well and completely.

After having read the comic entirely now, from cover to cover, including each additional set of a few pages of text that come at the end of every chapter, I must say, I don't agree with them, those peers of mine. I would probably give the comic an overall grade of B, maybe B+. Naturally, there are things I think it did well and others it did poorly, but overall, comparing it to an average work of fictional literature, I don't think it was that great. But perhaps my thesis is undermined by the fact that I have little to compare it to; I'm no graphic novel nut and its the only one I've ever read. But as some people have told me, that it was good as an average work of lit, that I must say, in my opinion, is false.

As the comic began, it had me entertained with psychological introspection and back story for the more major of the major characters. Nite Owl, Silk Specter, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan (the only character with technically real superpowers, though Ozymandias arguably has some superhuman traits if not actually "superpowers"), their development into superheroes, their past alliances, their particular socioeconomic backgrounds, and interestingly what they may have done with their inherent fame from being a superhero. Basically, each chapter was an in depth analysis of why they chose to become a superhero: their back story.

This is a very didactic approach to story telling. It makes sense for a large work with many central characters, and is very useful in explaining the different aspects that drive each individual to become an extremist for martial justice. Some of them are from very honest blue-collar backgrounds who seek justice, some tormented as children and seek vengeance on the criminal world, and others driven into the profession through familial influence. But that's all the comic is: back story. As we are introduced to each character we learn all about them, each chapter a new character, and just when you think the back story is over, that the comic will quit reflecting on the previous majority of the 20th century and something in the present (1985 NYC) will happen, the chapter is just more back story, even practically till the very end.

Again, I enjoyed most of these biographical, short novellas that come in the form of each chapter of the book for what they are. They combine superheroes with something that they are not usually associated with: realism. I personally enjoy realism in media and deter sensationalism; generally I like a good and exciting story, but things do need to be believable for me (and most other people too, I believe). The author, Alan Moore, does a good job of examining the way, were it actually attempted and achieved successfully, a person may actually become a superhero as we know them in fictional culture. Watchmen actually does reference Superman and highlights the whimsicality and ridiculousness of one actually attempting to become a superhero with thoughtful realism, care, and style. This is evident in the character's costumes, bizarre behavior, and their relationship with the media. And that's what I like: the characters are all centrally human, even the most powerful, Dr. Manhattan, can be seen as flawed and incomplete. But each, for different reasons has chosen to adapt this albeit strange lifestyle for better or for worse, and each history examines exactly why, what motivated them, what they did with their fame, and even the political associations they assumed.

So, that's all well and good, but nothing really happens till the end of the fucking book. As I consider the story more and more, it must be understood that each chapter was released separately from the others as a series, a new one introduced every week or every month till the story was complete. In that form, the book does seem to make more sense, or at least I can understand why the author chose to make each chapter a novella of just back story. But that's the pro side of work. The con side is that the story contemporaneous with the present is really supposed to be the main aspect of the work, or at least well-fused with back story and its affect on the present. But in Watchmen, this central story seems as more of a side to each individual back story. Each character in present day just looks back on the way things were and laments. The only character who seems to do anything and be concerned with the present is Rorschach (my favorite character by far because he's the most bad ass), who refused to quit being a superhero when the government outlawed it and now serves as a vigilante detective, wanted by the law himself, as well as despised by the criminal world for his particularly cruel treatment of them. That leaves each chapter with back story, a few small events in the present day that don't explain much, and a few reoccurring marginal characters who seem to be there to provide more plain human touch, but I find their presence irritating and distracting.

Another key aspect to the work, and thus it shows its age, is the emphasis it has on the cold war. The actual story of the work culminates with The Soviet Union and The United States on the brink of nuclear war that will surely end the world. It turns out that, in this strange plot twist that came completely out of left field from anything that actually fucking occurs in the piece, that the Watchmen, basically Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Silk Spectre, are hunting one of their former alliances Ozymandias, who has composed this goofy scheme to save the world from nuclear holocaust by simulating an alien attack on New York City that kills 250,000 civilians. I think it sucks: with so many great characters, if Moore had just taken more time and space, I feel he could have written a better story altogether, with less back story, or if not less back story, certainly more front story, if you will. Something that could have actually involved the governments of each opposing country maybe, and gave more orderly clues as the mystery progresses, and not just conjure some weird crap about a simulated alien attack on the earth that it feels like Moore just tapped on at the end after he finished writing each individual character's story.

But I'm a story man, and I suppose that's only half the comic book. The other half is obviously the illustrations themselves, which I think are undoubtedly done very well and are works of great talent. The artist, Dave Gibbons, gives life to all of Moore's creations with style and breaks the mold of the simple comic book sets of boxes by expanding them and manipulating them as he pleases, at times with illustrations that stretch entire pages, and others just simple and to the point.

So all in all, that's my take. I certainly enjoyed parts of it very much, but perhaps in the end my expectations were too high. If you are considering reading it, and if that is the case I hope you didn't just read this because I gave away the ending, perhaps read it as something not on par with timeless works of western fiction, but instead as a damn well-written comic book, as comic books go.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Tribute to My Old Band

Here's a little something I wrote about the X-Tet a while back. I was entirely ready to leave the band when it came time for me to do so, but I will always have fond memories of time spent in that old Fulton Recital Hall.

Much like higher education itself in this country, jazz higher education programs around the United States are certainly not created equal. In Chicago, an aspiring jazz musician is lucky to be able to choose from the noteworthy jazz studies programs of DePaul, Roosevelt, Northwestern, Columbia, and Northern Illinois Universities. Outside of these examples in Chicagoland, one’s list of options grows thin of finding a university jazz ensemble ripe with highly creative and artistically mature musicians.

That is what is so unique about The University of Chicago’s Jazz X-Tet large group jazz ensemble (“X” symbolizing the unknown variable of mathematics, referencing that the ensemble’s size is subject to change). The group played its most recent concert last Thursday, June 5th, 2008 in Fulton Recital Hall on the campus of The U. of C. This third and final concert of the school year featured guest artist Jeff Parker of Tortoise on guitar. Though the University does feature a music department unsurprisingly renown in many academic circles as one of the top places to study musicology or music theory, the school does not actually feature a music performance major (they do offer a music major with emphasis on theory and musicology), and certainly not a jazz studies major.

Nonetheless, the Jazz X-Tet in concert is a beaming example of artistic large ensemble cooperation mixed with large doses of individual creative freedom. At the helm is director Mwata Bowden, a legend in Chicago known for his lifetime of contribution to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). With the X-Tet, Bowden follows his own personal avant garde rubric on jazz direction by dissecting each piece to its core elements and allowing practically limitless freedom for his musicians to creatively improvise in extended free sections, often going beyond appropriate key signature or even the commonplace way of making sound out of one’s instrument. With collective improvisation that can begin with one soloist and often expand to include the entire band, it may seem that Bowden has completely lost control. However, like the conductor of a highly disciplined symphony, Bowden instead masterfully orchestrates the band to an intense climax, then back down into the piece. This is perhaps more a testament to the student musicians in the X-Tet, who, as young as they may be as mostly college students (some are graduate students), display a deep artistic maturity in understanding Bowden’s avant garde creative wishes.

The concert on Thursday featured the X-Tet weave through familiar jazz standards like Gingerbread Boy and Ellington’s Stray-Horn, both by somewhat esoteric jazz legend Jimmy Heath, coupled with two contemporary compositions from the modern jazz scene, the mellow yet cerebral Blue After Two, by New York based trombonist and band leader John Fedchock, and Count Bubba, a ubiquitous heal-stomper by composer and band leader Gordon Goodwin which served as the heavy handed finale to the evening. Without a doubt, each piece carried the signature creative stamp given by Bowden and the band with sectional and ensemble improvisation, and an “anything goes” artistic vision that constantly challenges the audience, making it utterly impossible to imagine what could possibly come next in the hour and a half show of rich, live music.

And not to be outdone, guest artist Jeff Parker, the Chicago-based experimental guitarist of post-rock group Tortoise, contributed his rich knowledge of diminished jazz chords as well as his willingness to explore the avant garde with use of pedals and effects on his feature tune, Ellington’s Stray-horn. Parker’s superior technical knowledge of the guitar as well as familiarity with experimental music allowed him to not just feel at home within the X-Tet’s musical philosophy, but star. His musical spotlight was unsurprisingly one of the top highlights of the evening.

Parker’s star may have shined brightest, but it was not untested by tremendous X-Tet student soloists Donnie Bungum on tenor saxophone and Ben Neuman on piano, each a junior in the college, majoring in chemistry and philosophy, respectively. Bungum’s tone and technical prowess with the saxophone is practically uncanny for someone not found deep in the jazz studies department of one of the nation’s leading musical institutions of higher learning. Meanwhile, Neuman’s skill of quick tempo bop-like rhythms on the piano could not also go unnoticed by even the most casual observer.

For all those willing to travel down to Hyde Park for a Thursday evening concert (The X-Tet’s next show will not be until Fall of 2008, check The U. of C.’s music department website for details: http://music.uchicago.edu), you will be reminded that jazz is not dead among today’s young people, but alive and well, continuing to occupy its necessary place within the artistic consciousness of America’s new generations.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Four Burmese Guys and Me: Basically our First Session Together

As I write this, I am watching the movie Caddyshack, a film that I basically wasn't that into until recently when I did realize a subtle comedic brilliance to it. This isn't that pertinent except for that it makes me consider the luxuries I have as someone born and raised as an American. This is naturally a somewhat cliche thing to begin a post about refugee immigrants with. The first thing one realizes when working with such people is how little they have upon their arrival, and then the amount of amenities we take for granted as Americans; my family is by no means that rich or well off, but I still have Comcast, two TVs, two computers, and all the money I need to over indulge myself with high caloric foods to keep myself overweight. That's just a taste of the reflection that working with people from other cultures can have on your own.

And there it is: food. It is actually over food that my first real meeting with the four Burmese Chin immigrants came to pass. These four are from Burma, or Myanmar. They don't speak English very well at all, of course, and although that fact makes them labeled and disadvantaged in the US, one should recognize that they do already speak 3 languages: Burmese, Malay, and their Chin language. The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma and are hated and oppressed by their totalitarian government. They were never in a refugee camp because there are not camps in Burma or at its borders, but instead, were constantly on the run from the Burmese military that would put them in jail or forced labor for merely being Chin (and Christian I should mention, the Chins were Christianized by I believe Baptist missionaries). So calling them refugees I guess is kind of incorrect, but perhaps it is useful to indicate what is basically their situation in the US.

Their names, which I am still trying to get right, are Tawk Zel (age 22), Khua Tin Han (35 or so), Neng Sian Lian (45), and John (22). They live in a pretty shabby apartment on Roosevelt Road and Blanchard in Wheaton. I met them earlier in an extraordinarily awkward first meeting mediated by Jenna, the volunteer coordinator for World Relief, and another Chin man who spoke English and lived in the same apartment. That is one plus, actually, that there already are a lot of other Chin living near them and have some community base. At this first meeting, we got it through to them that I was going to be their American friend and would see them sometimes, that's about as far as I think we got.

Therefore, because of the mere simplicity our interactions must take, I constantly wonder what is going through their heads. For one thing, the fact that I was chosen to be their friend, and that they didn't chose me, seems like it may be a strange concept, at least to a Westerner like myself. But maybe they haven't considered that at all. I often wonder if they question my sincerity, or why I would want to try to spend time with them, but again, with more consideration I think both of these anxieties are figments of my own culturally constituted psyche. Hopefully, they truly appreciate me as much as they can and believe that I am making an effort to help them assimilate and get the feel of our commercially consumer-driven society.

So today, I arrive at 6:15pm as I told them before a previous time I stopped by. I had to stop in a second time, after the first meeting, to change the time we were to meet because I had work. This was another event I was anxious about completing, but got through. This time, we were planning on playing football (soccer, to the layman) the international language, which was practically all I could think of to do with them considering our linguistic barrier. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and rainy, and there was no soccer to be played at all. Arriving at their door, they let me in right away, and said sit down, about the most complex thing they can basically say (I don't mean to sound condescending, but it gives you an idea of the level we can communicate verbally). So, I said, no football today, we can do something else. I had brainstormed all day about what I could possibly to with them if soccer was rained out. I thought of driving them around and pointing out community essentials, like the library, hospital, and Wheaton College. So there we were, sitting around awkwardly trying to decide. But they got the picture and as they spoke among themselves, I asked if they needed to go and buy food. They responded in the overwhelmingly affirmative. First deciding who of the four should go, to which I responded by holding up four fingers, which they understood meant that they all could come.

So we all packed into my piece of shit little car and drove to the Jewel near their house, which is also right next to where I work, Huntington Learning Center. As we walked by Huntington I pointed out to them and said "my work, my work". The parents inside waiting in the lobby looked back at me pointing in their direction with overwhelming confusion and a health dose of indignation. Hence, I moved on into the store pretty quickly.

Once we were in there, the guys basically knew what to do. I didn't think I'd have to explain to them how to use a shopping cart and what not; they had been to the store before. But naturally, I was fascinated and not surprised by what they chose to purchase. I wonder if most of the things in the aisles were unknown to them, like cereal, most spices, processed foods, etc. But I don't certainly don't think they all were. In any case, they pretty much bought purely raw meats and fruits and vegetables, pure salt, sugar, toilet paper, and Coca-Cola. Man, you cannot escape that stuff. But looking at the guys, obesity is clearly not a problem to them with their native diet. God, I hate American food sometimes, but most of the time, I love it.

We packed the food into the car, which already had a pretty full trunk, and had to squeeze along side my soccer ball and cleats and gym bag had I brought for soccer. Neng Sian Lian looked at them and laughed as he said "very big." Of course, my big, well-nourished body towers over all of them. As soon as we arrived at their apartment, Tawk, before even putting all the groceries away (with which I tried meagerly to help with) put on some Chin music videos. The guys have a DVD player and small TV, as well as a book of DVDs and we watched some very basic video of Burma. The people in the video were singing and doing some very simple dancing, featuring views of their countryside and traditional lifestyle. These videos are spliced with clips of some campy scenes from the Gospel being reenacted from some old cheap Christian film.

Neng Sian Lian offered me a Coke, which I thought would be rude not to accept, so I drank it and had an apple at the same time, which is a strange combination. What I couldn't figure out was why Tawk put these videos on so immediately. Maybe, I thought, because he wanted to show me and relax, or maybe I thought, because they are all he has as vision of his homeland that is gone forever. Maybe he missed watching them like he misses his home, or they'll simple all he has to watch, at least that's in a language they can speak. I wonder if they think about home all the time, if they want to go back. They must. They must have family and friends they miss dearly, and they must be afraid of this suburban landscape that has them trapped into a small apartment, with campy videos to watch as their only communion with their homeland, their identity.

But I think that's all I'll say on the matter. I must iterate that it's not as if these men just came from a completely traditional lifestyle into America. They must be pretty familiar with Western trends. Nothing is more evident of this than their clothes. John's clothing was quite nice and trendy, even for America. His jeans looked almost designer brand, and he wore a pretty sweet Nike track jacket. But they do need help. They need help assimilating and learning to live in this very individually driven culture (as opposed to more family based, which America is certainly not as much compared to most Eastern cultures, sorry to generalize).

After having half my Coke, I told them I had to leave, but that we would meet again on Wednesday to play football. I'm certainly looking forward to that, to slowly getting to know them, and for them to get to know me. I hope over time that I can learn each of their stories, about life in Burma as a Chin, and about their feelings on America so far. I know that Neng Sian Lian has children he is separated from in Burma. That must be awful, and soccer will not alleviate such longing. But over time, I know I can help. Hopefully, by driving them around today, I already have.