Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Comics for big boys (and girls?).

Correct me if I’m wrong. These days, the syndicated comics strips in your daily and Sunday newspapers (Calvin and Hobbes, Dennis the Menace, Peanuts, Dilbert, Garfield, for instance), so full of irony, angst and other trendy stuff reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall days, are strictly not for kids. That goes for many of the full-length animated cartoon feature films showing your local multiplex like Shrek and Ice Age.

Some of the contemporary comic book superheroes from the Marvel Comics family, to wit: Thor, Xena, Valkyrie, Elektra, Hellboy and X-Men's Jean Gray, are known to have Wagnerian antecedents ─ in many cases in the Asgardian universe ─ and operatic connections too. They are most likely to appeal to grown-up sensibilities, agreed?

A question for culture vultures: Are many adult readers of comic books in the US opera aficionados?

Forgive me but I, as is not unusual for a recently arrived stranger, don’t really know the answer.

I googled for comic reader demographics surveys, though.

Among those I found on the first page of my search results, a 1995 DC Comics survey described them in the following terms: 92% male; 80% ages 18-39 (median age: 29); a little over 70% attended college; 60% single (never married); 37 spending $100 or more in a month on comics (on an average 50 comics bough every month).

Another one ─ circa 2007 or thereabouts probably but hotly disputed ─ portrayed the average mainstream (superhero) comic book reader as ‘Male, 20-25, video-game player, disposable income, “techie”, single‘. More than 90% of the readers, it said, were male. There was some debate here on whether it was due to the predominance of T&A content. (Sidebar queries: Don’t you see a lot of it in the Marvel and Japanese Manga Comics? Doesn’t it suggest a preference for soft porn [Girls Gone Wild anyone?] ─ presumably an important cultural cue?)

However, whatever may be the exact nature of the latter-day US comics reader constituency, the most demography-sensitive marketer, Hollywood, has acknowledged its importance and significance as a body of consumers worth its focused and undivided attention. In the recent past, many of the successful movie franchises (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, X-Men, Daredevil), television series (Smallville, Witchblade) and video games (Spider-Man) have had their roots in comicsdom or graphicnovelville. As a matter of fact, Hollywood has been the saviour-in-chief of the comics book industry after the lean times it went through in the 1990s. In a late 2002 article (“Comic Books: Bang! Wham! Pow!”), Bill Jemas, President, Marvel Enterprises, was quoted as describing comic book reader as ‘bell cows’ — opinion leaders and adding that they “may not be socialites, but they're certainly affluent and influential and ... they’re enthusiastic about the things that they love." They are consumers of “… other entertainment media, especially music, movies, TV, and video games … and packaged snack foods, candy, and cereals”, according to David Ward, the columnist who wrote the cited article.

While I still do not know the answer to the riddle, what I see in LA book shops and libraries and read in the LA Times nudges me to wonder if superheroes and fantasy are very much a sine qua non of the contemporary American psyche or not. To continue in the belief that you’re the leader of the world, you cannot have anyone less than superheroes for icons. The more, the merrier.

That Middle America gets near-orgasmic pleasure from mere hints of the likelihood of American culture spreading especially among people in the Third World whom they believe the US was appointed to “save” from fates as varied as Communism earlier and Islamic terrorism now is fairly evident when you read rave reviews like this Bahman Ghobadi’s Farsi feature film about how rock and roll gets dispersed in the Iranian youth underground, No One Knows about Persian Cats, was shot “on the run in just 17 days and without a government permit” (as film critic Betsy Sharkey gleefully reports) and became “a favorite on the festival circuit after winning Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009”. All these frills add extra value to its provenance and gravitas in American eyes ─ a bit, I suppose, like converting films shot originally in the 2-D format to 3-D in post-production (Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, to cite two recent examples) in order to be able to justify $3 extra slapped on to the movie ticket price.

In my youth, during the post-World War II decades when the US was taking over the mantle from the UK, France and other lapsed Imperialists and those posted on US Government duty abroad to handle this newly acquired “white man’s burden” were vilified by the much shunned Ugly American nomenclature chiefly thanks to their insensitive and heavy-handed treatment of their charges, the symbols of American culture for me ─ not necessarily in chronological order of appearance on my mental landscape ─ were Coca Cola, comic books, denim jeans, Hollywood, hot dogs and rock and roll (kicked off by Bill Haley and the Comets in Rock Around the Clock I watched in the Strand Cinema in South Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood in the early 1950s). Those were the six principal conduits through which I remember distance-learning ─ and imbibing ─ American culture from across the oceans. These were, again for me at least, gradually reinforced over time by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Jim Morrison, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Presley, Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Answered Prayers), Woody Allen (and Annie Hall), The Groucho Letters, Erica Jong, Kurt Vonegut, Andy Warhol, John Updike, John Irving, Mad Magazine, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, even Ellery Queen ─ and, last but not the least, by those dishy 1950s black and white sci-fi movies in which men in crumpled white lab coats kept muttering to one another: “There’s no hope. We’re doomed, Professor!” as well as by the equally scrumptious pulp fiction from those great times that are gone forever.

"Life is full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness ─ and it's all over much too quickly," is what Woody Allen’s middle-brow Jewish comedian Alvy Singer confides in us somewhere at the beginning of Annie Hall. What better way to drown the resultant post-modern angst than slumming with the ever pumped-up-for-action superheroes in fantasyland, pray tell?

Monday, April 19, 2010


The signs I have seen almost throughout my stay in the US so far, first in New Jersey from 13 March to 2 April and later in Los Angeles, have made me feel the recovery in selective perception. Wherever I've been I have seen Middle America spending money and having a rollicking time. On Saturday afternoon, I went with my young son Abhi, and his even younger children Armaan, 9, and Anika, 7, to the Dodger Stadium to watch the local team being outplayed and getting clobbered by the San Francisco Giants by a wide margin. (To their credit, the Dodgers avenged the defeat the very next day to gladden the hearts of the local followers,) Two home runs by the Giants I could understand - one done with a deft tap to land the ball close-by - but not much else. I am ignoramus as far as the rules of baseball go. The cheering and the general prevailing mood of bonhomie got to me, though, I am happy to confess. The fans really knew how to have a good time in spite of everything else. We were sitting plumb behind the catcher in - what seemed to me to - exorbitantly priced seats ($90 a pop), consuming unconscionably steep priced food and drinks and ice cream and what have you. We reached late (the Dodgers' first inning had already begun) and left early at the beginning of the sixth to avoid the rush hour traffic. It was, if I may hazard a guess, a bit like attending an IPL Twenty-20 cricket match back home. Anika in her wisdom wanted to know why we could not have watched the game on the idiot box in the evening. Very astute of her, considering her tender age. For me, it was a first of sorts and also a rare insight into the American psyche and culture. On Sunday, I got the opportunity to once again watch Middle America at play, this time in a swimming competition for school-going kids who were cheered by their enthusiastic parents, grandparents and peers. Armaan did really well for himself coming third and then second in the first and second of the three events he participated in. During the evening visit to the Glendale mall, the Borders bookshop and dinner at the Outback Steak House, the signs seemed all hopeful. By the way, I also got a virtually touchy-feely glimpse into the wondrous world of the iPad and the iPhone, courtesy of Anita's friend, Sheena. She teaches Gender & Women's Studies at California State University, Northridge and, to my untutored eye, looks like a spare-time techie. More importantly, she qualifies as a favourite "aunt" of Armaan and Anika.

How to turn the kiss of death into Midas touch.

The seemingly sudsy saga of Conan O’Brien is a classic example of sympathetic “positioning”. Positioning, if you care to recall, is the advertising canon (“how to be seen and heard in the overcrowded marketplace”) evangelized by Al Ries and Jack Trout originally between the late sixties and early eighties.

For his much flaunted martyrdom, the underdog in the present scenario has no one else but his erstwhile-mentor-turned-Judas and his own banishment from the idiot box till September 2010 to thank for. It is to O’Brien’s eternal credit that, instead of moping around and shedding copious tears over his tragic exit from the NBC late night line-up, he turned the setback into the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour. His audacious coup reaped for him a bountiful harvest of support from his loyal fans in the shape of monumental Twittering and the “I’m with Coco” blitz on Facebook.

Meanwhile, he also managed to net the 11.00 pm spot on the TBS cable channel effective November 2001. In the process, the Red Skeleton look-alike (at least that’s how he has made an impression in my memory bank) did unto George Lopez, the incumbent of the said slot at TBS what he had refused to let Leno do to him at NBC and got fired for his effrontery. The far-seeing Lopez in his wisdom saw O’Brien’s stupendous young following as a desirable asset capable of adding an extra zap to the young but limited fan base of his still-in-the-rookie-stage “Lopez Tonight”. Does his ready and willing acceptance of O’Brien reflect his belief that one plus one is greater than one plus zero? Or, is he harking back to the tried and tested logic of Vaudeville and stand-up comedy artistes that the later acts in the evening continuum gain momentum from their predecessors?

Ries and Trout would applaud the O’Brien stratagem and his “NBC and Leno done me in” positioning whole-heartedly, I would think. What’s incredible, creditable and remarkable is that he did it all by subtle indirection: not a single Jay Leno joke, I understand, in his on-the-road comedic routine. This would be a sure way to earn him greater goodwill of and credibility with his loyal fans. As well as respect all round.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Better safe than sorry in the times of the Internet. (Or, how vulnerable r u, m8?)

Read very, very carefully the scary ─ I say scary because it has an eerie “it could happen to you and me” feel ─ Chapter 8 (pages 51 to 58) of David Baldacci’s Hour Game (Pan Books, London, 2005), America. Especially if you want to learn how easily and effortlessly a criminal can steal your personal details. In the course of these eight pages, a hooded killer in a “virtually untraceable” blue VW ─ who happens to be the real-life Zodiac killer copy cat ─ is able to acquire, within a highly productive twenty-minute span, the following information on three potential victims he spots in the shopping district.

1. He sees an old couple tottering out of a super market and notes the license plate number of their relatively new Mercedes station wagon. (After an Internet search, he would have their home address.) He already knows from the condition of the car and the logo of a country club on the man’s cap that they are not living off mere Social Security. The fact of them doing their own grocery shopping tells him they have no live-in help or grown children living nearby.

2. Next he notices an attractive thirty-something woman stepping out of a pharmacy carrying a large shopping bag. She withdraws cash at the nearby ATM and thoughtlessly throws away into the trash bin the receipt which he later retrieves. From this veritable treasury of personal information, he knows right off her name (D. Hinson) and would later get her home address from the phone book and her workplace details from the business listings. From the vanity license plate on her bright red Chrysler Sebring convertible (‘DEH JD’; JD = Juris Doctor, i.e., Doctorate of Jurisprudence), the current-year American Bar Association bumper sticker, the absence of a wedding ring, her healthy tan and a gold anklet on her left leg, he deduces she is a still-single, well-heeled practicing lawyer probably just back from a vacation.

3. Finally, there is the scatter-brained careless soccer mom her T-shirt bellows her status to the whole world!) of three kids (the baby strapped and totally unguarded in the back seat plus plenty of telltale clues about the other two strewn in the messy interior of the van). While doing her shopping, she has left her car unlocked, her keys in the ignition (he takes a putty imprint of what look like her house keys) as well as her cell phone in the holder (he takes shots of all the pages of her phone book with his mini digicam). By then, he knows enough about Jean and Harold Robinson and the names and phone numbers of those who matter to them. He also has in his possession the impression of her house keys.

So where do we go from here? Here are some simple safety precautions suggested by common sense. In the 21st century, the “If you got it, flaunt it” advice from good old Salvador Dali dispensed in a 1967 TV ad for Braniff Airlines has become as extinct as the airlines itself. (Braniff went kaput in 1982, remember?) And, totally unacceptable as well. There’s a time and place for everything one does. Wear your country club hat when you’re going there, not when you’re buying your groceries. Vanity license plates may be good for your vanity but not necessarily for your health and safety. Do not ─ repeat NOT ─ throw away your ATM receipts. There’s no such thing as being too careful with your car keys, your house keys, your cell phone and your baby when you go shopping. Be very caution of what you post on Facebook, Twitter and the like, too. Please, please do not tempt fate. Mack the Knife may be sneaking round the corner.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Jane Austen Redux. And how?

When last heard of, Aunt Jane is thriving merrily under the solicitous and caring tutelage from her great grand nephews and nieces across the big pond, wonder of wonders. Now she is solving crime – it’s Austen and not Marple I’m talking of, mind you – in Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries sporting such antique-sounding titles as Jane and the Unpleasantness at the Scargrave Manor, Jane and the Man of the Cloth, Jane and the Wandering Eye, Jane and the Barque of Frailty and so forth. Their authentically Austenesque text reads thusly: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the expectation of pleasure is generally preferred to its eventual attainment – the attainment being marred, at its close, be the resumption of quotidian routine made onerous by the very diversions so lately enjoyed.” (Jane and the Man of the Cloth, Chapter 1) More recently, Aunt Jane has made inroads once again into Regency-era England this time set in an alternative universe and infested by the persistently pesky undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Her other foray into Regency-era England set also in an alternative universe features sea creatures arrayed against humankind (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters). Both the pastiche mash-ups in the gothic horror genre got fairly good (read “enthusiastic to middling”) response. PPZ is slated to spawn a series of spin-offs: a graphic novel, a video game and even a movie. This plethora of multi-media parodies seems to me to be an apt stratagem to lure contemporary young readers, game players and movie-goers to Austen.

All this reminds me of June 2006 when I found re-reading Pride and Prejudice after more than four decades somewhat daunting. I cannot quite recall what I had thought of Austen when I first read Pride and Prejudice, if memory serves, in the 1950s. In the late summer of 2006, I found her 18th-century spelling as quaint ('chuse', 'teaze', 'shew', 'stile', etc.) but her dialogue and storytelling impeccable, to be sure. Imagine keeping me riveted – in eager anticipation – to the exploits of young damsels in rural Regency-era England seeking desirable husbands! Austen's most popular and well-known novel was originally written between October 1796 and August 1797 (qua First Impressions) but published only in 1813. In 1811, her Sense and Sensibility was published and became an instant success. After that, she revised First Impressions and it was published a couple of years later. At the well-organized and copiously informative website, you’ll find more about Austen’s P&P characters, timeline and locales. Don't forget to take a good look at the 1895 edition illustrations by Charles E Brock, either.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Meanwhile back at 3252 Romulus St., L.A.

Arrived at LAX, 4 p.m., Good Friday. Haven’t posted till today, i.e., Sunday. Excuse? Just as I reached the Newark Airport, Friday morning, heard about Suresh, Anita’s dad, being on life- support at Holy Name Hospital, Bandra. Anita was already on her way to Mumbai when I reached LAX. I was picked up by Abhi, Armaan and Anika. No hassles about the baggage reclaim. Abhi’s place is fabulous, like something out of one of Shoiab’s coffee table books on American architecture I used to write folders for in the good old days if there ever were such times I lived through. Nonetheless, I’ve been off mood generally with Suresh’s condition being unstable ─ something everybody else seems already resigned to. I guess I’ve grown to be quite fond of the guy over the sixteen years since I got to know him. Never realized to what extent, though. Didn’t get much sleep Friday night/Saturday morning. Felt awfully cold, tossed and turned in bed. Went out yesterday afternoon to the park with the kids and Abhi for a couple of hours or so. This morning too for a few of their weekend chores, e.g., visit to the library. All’s as well as can be under the circumstances.