On the inedibility of turkeys

The phrase “talk turkey” is one that basically only survives around Thanksgiving time as a “hilarious” “pun” about talking the business of Thanksgiving itself, which is built around turkey. As though the very idea of discussing turkeys as the centerpiece of a feast holiday is to laugh.

Turkey has no place as the center of a feast holiday.

Oh I get it. Turkeys are big, and they’re a break from hams and stuff, but honestly. Think to yourself the number of times you’ve had a truly good turkey. I mean really, actually a good turkey. There can’t possibly be that many, because the best-case scenario for a turkey1 is that it’s almost as good as a chicken. And not even that close, just kind of in the same neighborhood.

1 in The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten recommends to turkey breeders that they stop working on spherical turkeys, and increasing their dry, sandy breast meat, and start breeding turkeys that are basically flat as tables, so that they have more skin than meat, the skin being the only part of the turkey that’s worth recommending over another animal.

Julia Child, and, via interpretation, America’s Test Kitchen and also Serious Eats, recommend cutting the bird apart, because the standard practice of roasting the entire ball of  bird flesh in one go is a way to basically create several pounds of scarcely-edible near-meat. And even then – EVEN THEN – each of those sources also provides advice for how to also roast the thing in its “natural” whole-bird form, because TRADITION.

Obviously, this is pure, uncut bullshit.

Obviously Thanksgiving is a period where what matters is the traditional stuff. People get together and eat the stuff they eat for Thanksgiving every year, and that’s more or less how it works. I’m not here to disparage that. Family – or whatever – traditions are the point. But turkey, as a meat, as a foodstuff, is godawful.

I won’t take up too much of your time here, but man, you should fill up on rolls, or mashed potatoes (the most noble of man’s efforts in the kitchen, frankly), or god, anything. Anything at all but turkey.

Because when you pretend that you want to fill up on turkey, you’re only fooling yourselves.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

The 2015 American Music Awards Part 2

Behold – Part 2, where all of your questions about Meghan Trainor and Sam Hunt stand answered for all time until next year!

Favorite Album – Country
Well, at least keeping it down to three means I can safely go back to ignoring all of these people still. Although the Sam Hunt record isn’t that bad.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sam Hunt, in the most begrudging award-granting of the evening.

Favorite Duo or Group – Country
Nothing will bring me more pleasure in these awards-writing-about stints than when Florida-Georgia Line stops being around. Allow me something of an aside, since I didn’t write about the CMAs here1. There’s a problem that pops up periodically in country music. You see, like almost all popular forms, country and western started out as music to accompany dancing2. Since country is one of the most tradition-minded popular forms, there is a wide body of work that describes the preferred activities to the song, rooted in the dancing-oriented “calling” of early material3, which means there are occasional stretches (the late eighties were another) where every goddamn song is about what sort of wish-fulfillment activity should accompany the song. And thus, while it’s unfair to blame Florida-Georgia Line for what is a genuine continuation of a genre-based trend that’s been around longer than the genre itself, it’s what I’m doing here anyway, because they’re there. Little Big Town has a similar problem, but they’re not as annoying, so while they can’t possibly win, they aren’t blamed as hard. I have liked the Zac Brown Band in the past, and I won’t rule out liking them again, so they get the nod.


1 in the CMAs case it was because of the World Fantasy Awards, and also if I’m going to deny myself the pleasure of writing about the BET Hip-Hop Awards, which are generally the most fun to watch due to the ciphers, I’m also going to allow myself the luxury of taking a year off from writing about the same twelve people every year in the CMAs.
2 because this was, generally speaking, the function of music until about the sixties, when record players replaced “going out and hearing it” as the dominant way to listen to things*, and “dance music” became a useful descriptor, rather than just, like, a state of being.
* there is no way to compose that sentence that doesn’t sound super dumb, because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing this footnote. The upshot is: people used to listen to music in a handful of ways, most of which involved dancing, and as it became possible to buy the record, and as the radio became a promotional device for record sales rather than a replacement for going to, say, a concert hall or a place for dancing, it also changed the way it played, the number of dancing purposes for music dwindled and the number of reasons for listening as, say, accompaniment or whatever, increased. Really, there’s a lot more to say about this. Back to the footnote into which this aside is embedded.
3 I hate to keep interrupting my own flow to say “this is an oversimplification,” but it really is an oversimplification.

Favorite Female Artist – Country
OK, so in addition to the fact that I feel like I’ve typed out most of the above paragraph before, I also feel like I’ve mentioned that considering the artistic “merits” of the Florida Georgia Line makes me feel charitable. Of course, most of the music here is just dreadful. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert have this in common: they seem like pretty cool people. Terrible music for the most part, though. I kind of like “Dibs,” but really didn’t like “Love Me Like You Mean It.” As a bonus, I haven’t written about Kelsea Ballerini yet, so I’m going to give it to her for novelty’s sake.


Favorite Male Artist – Country
Aaaaaand right back to feeling non-charitable. I still don’t have anything insightful to say here, guys! This is some serious country music doldrums!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: It doesn’t seem right for it to be Sam Hunt twice, given that that’s like, five times what he really deserves in a fair and just world, so nobody gets it this year. Let’s all just take this year off and reconvene next year when all of this isn’t so terrible. Hopefully.

Favorite Album – Rock/Pop
Well they couldn’t have made this any easier. Especially since the world is filled with actual girl Adele right now, and so has less of a need for the musical stylings of Sam “Boy Adele” Smith. This is, of course, also leaving aside the fact that no one ever needs the musical stylings of Ed Sheeran. Ew.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, 1989

Favorite Duo or Group – Rock/Pop
Oh god. Uh. Jeez. I was not prepared for this. OK. So. Maroon 5 is definitely one of the worst bands on the planet. I mean, Walk the Moon is terrible as well, but they’re not all-time bad, which is where we’d find Maroon 5 in just about any reckoning. But One Direction is a house divided! A band diminished! Without Zayn, can any award given to the lads be truly called an award given to One Direction? I guess the only way to find out is to hand it to them and see what happens. Maybe Zayn will appear, as if by magic, buoyed on by the existence of an American Music Award. A boy can dream.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: One Direction, and our collective memories of happier times.

Favorite Female Artist – Pop/Rock
You know, it occurs to me that this year is the year that the corporate interests of the AMAs have laid alongside the categories in the most comfortable fashion possible. Oh, sure, the last category was a messy trainwreck, but for the most part I haven’t been cursing the name of UMG any more than I usually do. Part of this is because Taylor Swift is currently the starriest pop star in the constellation, and she’s (after a fashion, via Big Machine) on UMG. Anyway. This is basically a way to have something to say beyond “Taylor Swift is better than Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor”, which, of course, she is.


Favorite Male Artist – Pop/Rock
This is literally the album category with Nick Jonas swapped out for Taylor Swift. Luckily for Mr. Jonas, he’s still well above the “not Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith” bar required to eke out a win in this category. I’m sure he’s very proud.


Collaboration of the Year
Justin Bieber tried as hard as he could all year to present the New Bieber, but turned out to be so intransigently Bieber that there is basically no such thing. “Where Are U Now” was one such brick in that wall, and it’s as close to not-awful as he’s managed to get, but it’s still pretty bad. Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” seems, as its video implies, to require having seen Furious 7 to really have the full effect, which I haven’t, and also that’s a sign your song isn’t any damn good. “Bad Blood” is a pretty good Taylor Swift song, but a terrible collaboration, as nobody bothered to wake up Kendrick before he recorded his verses. “Four Five Seconds” is fine, I guess, but I would think the Paul McCartney/Rihanna/Kanye partnership could do better. “Uptown Funk” is overplayed to the point where ever time I hear it I think it must be a joke, but it was pretty good there for awhile.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk”

Song of the Year
OK, so “See You Again” is still kind of bad. Ed Sheeran remains execrable. “Uptown Funk” was good enough to win in the last category, but things are much better down here. The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” is pretty good, but it’s not even the best single he had charting at the time4. “Blank Space” is infinitely better than “Bad Blood” and, hell, who am I kidding, all the rest of this.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”

4that would be “The Hills”

New Artist of the Year
Since the “new” artists on here that are good (Tove Lo has been a songwriter for ten years, and spent most of that in a band; The Weeknd’s top-dollar work was several years ago, in the form of a set of mixtapes that were rereleased as his first album5) aren’t new, and the new artists are either largely unproven (Fetty Wap could be the next Young Thug. He could also be the next French Montana. Or, like, Trinidad James) or only good when graded on a context-dependent curve (Sam Hunt is better than, say, Luke Bryan, but still doesn’t really deserve to be considered for the same award as even Fetty Wap). So I vote this become an anti-award. None of these people has made anything as great as Walk the Moon is terrible6. So instead of an award for New Artist of the Year, let’s give the opposite of an award to Walk the Moon and make them pay a fine for existing, as the Worst New Artist of the Year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Walk the Moon. I believe, technically, that their name is supposed to be in all caps. I hate that, also.

5 I mean, I probably don’t have to tell you about this. I’ve been riding for The Weeknd basically the whole time I’ve been writing in this space.
6 a statement which is not, in fact, true (see FN 13), but which sounds nice.

Artist of the Year
Ah the plain ol’ non-new artist of the year. The place where the AMA shoves a bunch of people so they can invite them to show up without doing the work of actually promoting their albums. Why, many of these people aren’t on UMG at all! My goodness. So, the easy ones: Sam Smith is dull. Luke Bryan is annoying. Ed Sheeran is dull and annoying. Maroon 5 and Meghan Trainor both make music that I’m in no way interested in, but that, when they’re lined up after Sam Smith, Luke Bryan and Ed Sheeran, I feel somewhat more charitable towards. One Direction are a shadow of their former selves without Zayn. Ariana Grande’s intolerable scream-singing is exhausting, if not as life-sapping as some of the other terrible purveyors here. That leaves Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and The Weeknd. While I like Nicki Minaj as Nicki Minaj quite a lot, I haven’t been super into her music of late. While I like Taylor Swift’s music just fine, I find most of the non-musical aspects of the Taylor Swift Experience to be irksome. The Weeknd managed to not only emerge from the Kissland7 chrysalis as a bona-fide pop contender, which is an impressive turnaround, an unlikely result, and considerably more compelling.


7 that’s the album before The Beauty Behind the Madness, on which The Weeknd was halfhearted as a pop musician, but had decidedly left behind the left-field experimentalism of Trilogy.

The 2015 American Music Awards Part 1

Ah, the American Music Awards. One of the two signs that the music-awards-intensive half of the year is about to start1. This is good! And it’s also the most ridiculous, self-indulgent awards show there is. My vote counts, guys! As much as anyone’s! It shares with the People’s Choice Awards that would-be flattery that comes from pretending the vox populi is important, and with other Disney properties the Disney-focused brand-extension2 that is something of their hallmark.

1 one of the others is actually the BET Hip-Hop Honors, which I didn’t write about this year, because 1) I’ve been pretty out of mainstream hip-hop this year and 2) obviously 2015 has been a light year for posts here, and I didn’t wind up able to sit down and study the stuff necessary for it. Mea culpa, I’ll probably come back to it next year.
.2 although the AMA’s also take place in something of a crossover territory for Disney, backed as they are by an unorthodox agreement with Universal Music Group regarding distribution and promotion and shared responsibilities. I explained in a footnote last year, and if you want you can always ask, but it’s probably not worth typing back up here.

Anyway, as every year I look at the nominees and shake my damn head. I have literally no idea what’s going on here. But it’s up to me to forge a path for you peopel, so here goes.

Top Soundtrack
I just feel like this awards show is the awards show with the least amount of effort applied to it. Case in point: this category, at this awards show, which is run by two different film-studio-owning corporate interests (not to mention aired on the broadcast network owned by one of them) has three damn nominees. I mean, part of it is that they all have three down here. But the awards aren’t in the pocket of EDM-studios. They’re in the pocket of film studios. Come on. Three. That’s dumb. That’s lazy. That’s par for the AMA course.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Empire. Maybe they could teach the AMA-granting body something about a damn work ethic.

Favorite Artist – EDM
So, three again. But this time that makes it less onerous. Not as onerous as it would be if one of these people weren’t super-annoying, but what are you going to do? So, David Guetta does less than any other music-adjacent famous person ever. Calvin Harris long-since squandered his early talent in favor of following the David Guetta path to doing nothing and being famous for it. I guess that leaves Zedd.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Zedd, mainly by default.

Favorite Artist – Contemporary Inspirational
Every damn year this happens, and every year I don’t know anything. So this year I set out to listen to some of this stuff, and here’s what I know: this stuff operates differently from stuff I would normally like. There’s clearly something more going on with these guys than their bland, watery music. I don’t understand it, and that’s fine – it’s not for me, and it’s clearly something that means a lot to the people that do understand it. Rather than make some sort of standing judgment that could be making more of a statement, I’ve decided to give this one to the one with the most compelling publicity photograph on the American Music Awards’ website.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Casting Crowns. Their picture is very blue.

Favorite Artist – Latin
This seems like a bunch of bunny hill bullshit, and I’m not happy about having to play along with it. On the other hand, I am also not in the audience for this kind of music, either. On the other other hand, I hate nearly every single thing I’ve ever heard about Ricky Martin. I don’t dislike Enrique Iglesias nearly as much, but that doesn’t put him in the “positive” column, either.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Romeo Santos, largely by not falling victim to a pre-arranged anti-him bias on the part of your correspondent.

Favorite Artist – Adult Contemporary
Man, if I were a kid, like all of these people, I would be real annoyed at being lumped in with this Adult Contemporary business. Of course, if I were, say, Ed Sheeran, I’d probably be unhappy with a lot of things, and being called adult contemporary would be just about the least of them. Being Ed Sheeran seems like its own set of problems, full stop. Anyway, Adult Contemporary is such a poorly-defined sort of genre that it’s just going to come down to the music of Meghan Trainor vs. that of Taylor Swift, which is unfair to Ms. Trainor, but such is the world of the AMAs


Favorite Artist – Alternative Rock
So let me tell you a true thing: I kind of rode for Fall Out Boy for longer than you’d think. While I didn’t much care for their records2, but they seemed like they were coming from a pretty genuine place – that is, they were bland sellouts, but it seemed like the kind of bland sellout-y music they were making was the music of their souls, and they were at least invested in it. This would’ve been up until around 2007-2008, the point at which the current demise of Commercial Rock Music became undeniably apparent. I mention all of this to say: their reunion material has been execrable in a way that I wouldn’t be able to defend if I felt compelled to. But that still isn’t the most depressing sentence in this paragraph. Hozier proved to wear very thin very quickly – for awhile I was only hearing “Take Me To Church” in contexts that were flattering to it, and made it sound much better. His follow-up singles have not, and have made it clear that the Elton John lane he’s cruising in is pretty much all he’s got. I can’t think of a single thing to say about Walk the Moon that isn’t “I wish all of their fingers were broken all of the time so they couldn’t make that terrible music.” This brings us back to Fall Out Boy. I would like to clarify, I am no longer riding for Fall-Out Boy here. Convention demands that there be a winner, and of the three they’re the ones that least make me want to hang myself.


2 with the exception of the songs “This Ain’t a Scene (It’s an Arms Race)” and “Moving Pictures,” each of which I like for different reasons.

Favorite Album – Soul/R&B
So here we have a case of an album that I think holds up better as an objective thing vs. something that I enjoy the experience of despite not really being able to defend it. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is a relentlessly top-notch piece of lightly progressive R&B. It’s conscious, mildly artsy in a way that seems like catnip to the folks that talk about R&B, and easy to like. The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness is The Weeknd’s (seemingly successful) bid for pop stardom. But you pretty much have to believe his insistence that the lyrical focus is akin to that of a horror movie3 – which is pretty unsatisfying. That said, The Weeknd’s record has better production, Abel Tesfaye has a better voice4, and his music, even with most of its thorny bits removed, is still more interesting than D’Angelo’s more formalist R&B studies.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ah, what the hell. They can share it, right? I think they should share it.

3 this actually used to be easier to do – those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I seriously rode for The Weeknd from basically the moment I heard House of Balloons – when his music was weirder and more progressive. As time has gone by and he’s sanded down his edges, it’s become all the more incongruous that his popstar aspirations have gone along with a continued lyrical focus on being a drug-addled misogymonster. Whether this is because of his own beliefs, or because he isn’t aware, or because he is aware and has decided to keep on with it anyway for whatever reason, is not easy to discern.
4 THERE I SAID IT. HE’S A BETTER SINGER THAN D’ANGELO, WHO HAS A WEIRD, REEDY VOICE THAT I’VE NEVER GOTTEN INTO. Even if The Weeknd’s thing has become basically a minor-key, darker Michael Jackson impression, I’m still pretty ok with saying he has the better voice.

Favorite Female Artist – Soul/R&B
This is the one American Music Awards category that feels like it’s a much bigger question. I feel like the Beyonce/Mary J. Blige/Rihanna divide is, like, the divide between the three different kinds of people in the world. It isn’t , of course, it’s about pop stars5, but it feels much bigger than that. It is also probably important to set out that I feel like if you win an award in an annual award show, it should be for the work you’ve done in that year, which pretty much rules out Beyonce6. And also Mary J. Blige, who put out an ok record toward the beginning of 2014, and as far as I can tell, not much else. So. Rihanna, then.


5 not that there aren’t revealing questions whose answers revolve around pop stars, just that this isn’t one of them.
6 “Helping your husband launch a streaming service that no one uses” being the least-illustrious resume item of the three women.

Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B
This is one of the easier categories, but mostly because it helps to know that a few years ago I took to describing The Weeknd’s first few mixtapes as sounding like a “weirder, better Trey Songz.” I maintain that’s true. By now he’s not really weirder (Trey Songz got a little weirder, The Weeknd got a little more normal), but he’s still better.


Favorite Album – Rap/Hip-Hop
Oh good. It’s time to renew my personal vendetta against J. Cole. Quick refresher: it will never ever ever ever be J. Cole that is the rightful winner of any award ever7. Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is better than Drake’s last record, and parts of it are even pretty good, but it would’ve been better if it had been released as a mixtape, as it was intended to be. And of course it’s not as good as The Pinkprint.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint

7 I don’t know what kind of betting pool there was, but if anyone bet on the “John Aaron is affronted by the continued existence of J. Cole” running gag outliving the “Mrs. Coach’s hair” running gag, which was retired earlier this year, feel free to collect your winnings.  

Favorite Artist – Rap/Hip-Hop
Wait, how come Fetty Wap isn’t nominated in the album category? That’s dumb. Anyway, Drake teeters on the precipice of being, well, too Drake to function. Nicki tends to fall over into making music that’s less interesting than she is. The only complaint so far about Fetty Wap is outside the purview of this awards show8, so it’s gotta be Fetty Wap.


8 It is, specifically, the recent release of Coke Zoo, his mixtape with French Montana, and it’s outside the criteria for inclusion at the AMAs. It also continues French Montana’s unbroken streak of getting to work/have sex with impressive people on merits that are absolutely inscrutable to the average public.


The End of a Weird, Slow-Moving Era Part 2

So what does the passing of Apartment 3G mean? Not much, really, except that it’s another step in the slow-motion collapse of the submedium of daily newspaper comics, which is so far the only submedium1 that will have died out in my lifetime. But it’s happening so slowly. Soap opera strips are actually the oldest form of reproduced serialized narrative that we can get new installments of today – they’re several decades older than television, and  even predate radio serials2.

1 a submedium here being defined, here, as a medium in conjunction with a delivery system – other submedia of comics, say, would include floppies or trade paperbacks.
2 the first serial comic strips were in the 1920s – Popeye among them – while the first radio soap operas and the like didn’t start until the 1930s – Popeye among them.

In part 1 I talked mostly about how weirdly anachronistic and displaced Apartment 3G was, and part of the reason for that was that it’s an interesting test case in how long these things can go on. Comic strips don’t die out as quickly as it seems they should3 – syndicates will run them forever on whoever they can get to draw/write them. So when one – especially one as far-ranging and venerable as Apartment 3G – ends, it seems like a big deal. Of course it almost, by definition, can’t be actually called a big deal, because if it were a big deal, people would be noticing it, and it wouldn’t be ending.

3 it’s often harder to notice when they do, however, because they’ll be re-run in zombie form for a long time. Popeye, for example, was phased out years ago and replaced with “classic” strips. The same happened more recently to non-serial Archie.
There’s actually another, much sadder, reason, that Apartment 3G might not actually be a mile marker on the march to serial comics irrelevancy. For the last several months, the strip has been beyond a formal metacommentary, and has descended into the realm of unregulated….problem. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not good at speculation, so I’ll set out some things4. The first is that it was apparent that no one was watching by how terrible the strip has been for several months. The storyline, putatively, is that Margo has hyperthyroidism5. This follows her wandering from site to site in the strip’s own non-urban, decidedly unpopulated, weirdly-colored Manhattan, the backgrounds sparse and blocky when they’re there at all. She’s currently in a hospital, and a bevy of former men in her life (a summary of which would both 1) take a very long time and 2) sound more outlandish than it needs to) are coming to visit her. It has completely superceded, and not followed at all from, the previous storyline, which was about Margo’s father marrying his maid, who was also Margo’s biological mother, which she didn’t know until a few years ago. But even the amount of lunacy contained therein isn’t really speaking to the full extent of the damage.

4 things which are, in their alarmingness, a large part of the reason for this piece, really.
5 this was revealed, like, two weeks ago. It has not, as far as I can tell, been set up at all, except by the preceding information, see above.

For the last several months, characters have wandered into and out of the story like a Pinter play, speaking on some bit of business or other, nigh-invariably as a pair of talking heads with some incongruous bit of background (some of the conversations that take place outside, surrounded by buildings, are labelled as taking place in restaurants, and then other, more different restaurants). The characters themselves have been changing their look from day to day – beyond just coloring5, the actual line art shifting – often to the point of unrecognizability, plus the weirdly-circular, go-nowhere story that wasn’t really being told, it was clear that there was very little editorial supervision6, and little publisher attention going on. Which is a shame, because one way or the other, it’s decidedly necessary.

5 coloring discrepancies are common, and are the result of the coloring of the strips being farmed offsite to do the coloring, so they don’t really signify anything is wrong other than that someone who couldn’t read the strip colored it in.
6 in addition to the above, it’s also worth noting that there are two people involved in the creation of Apartment 3G. In addition to artist Frank Bolle, the strip is written (although I’m unsure if this means she’s writing all of the dialogue and all of the narration, or just the story beats, or what) by Margaret Shulock.

There are, as far as I can tell, two options here. The first, which would require an expert opinion I am by no means qualified to give, is that there is something wrong with artist Frank Bolle. Maybe he’s losing his ability to draw, or recognize his own characters, or read a script or something. It’s possible there is something serious going on, and he could use help. Maybe a member of his family could have him draw a clock or something.

But the other, more likely, and also depressing, response, is that nobody cares. There are two people involved in the creation of the strip, and it goes out to press in such a half-assed, nonsensical form that it’s hard to believe that adults (both of whom are industry veterans and one of whom has other comic strips that she’s a part of) would not figure out a way to change the course of something if they were unsatisfied with it. So we’re left examining the fact that, since it’s there, since two people and at least one editor looked at it and deemed it fit to run, that this is the strip that’s good enough for people to see. That this is as good as they care to make it.

And that’s a shame, because it’s awful. Incoherent, badly-drafted, and generally not worth any time to read. It’s lost that metatextual appeal it once had in favor of just being a daily dose of light blithering. If it were less desultory, less insouciant about it, it might be fun to look at the machinery clanking on as it breaks down. As it is, though, we’re watching something fall apart into a heap of sighs. Not even going out with a whimper, but a kind of gentle whoosh.

So does the world lose something when it loses an already-borderline-nonsensical soap opera strip that hasn’t been timely ever in its existence? No. It doesn’t. There wasn’t much to gain out of Apartment 3G that couldn’t be easily duplicated elsewhere, in an easier-to-track form. And since even its creators7 seem to not care about it at all, you’re not even losing the inherent value of someone’s important work. It’s just bad news, all the way down.

7 really, even if it’s some kind of health problem, there’s still the option of retirement, or somehow addressing it,  or something – comics syndicates aren’t shy about personnel changes. Frank Bolle has, even within my memory, subbed in as an artist on a couple of different daily soap strips, we know they could bring somebody in to pinch hit for him. Again, this points to lack of concern, rather than lack of options.

So whether it’s just another routine casualty or the true sign of the serial comicspocalypse, the result is just about the same: a dying submedium has lost another major player, and crawls one more step toward its demise.

On the plus side, now June Morgan reigns supreme as The Hottest Lady on the Comics Page. That was a tough crown to hold onto, especially depending on the artist. I’m glad to see her pull through this one.

The End of a Weird, Slow-Moving Era Part 1

As you all know, there are many reasons to be interested in living in 2015. One of them – and, admittedly, a minor and specific one – is that with the slow, tortuous death of newspapers comes the slightly-less slow, equally-tortuous death of newspaper comics.

I love newspaper comics, even beyond my extant love for comics in general. Generally, however, what I love are humor strips1, with a dollop of a sort of mordant fascination for the slow-moving, borderline-incomprehensible, consequence-free soap opera strips2.

1 and then usually just the multi-panel ones. There have been, by my reckoning, maybe four consistently-tolerable single-panel strips out of the teeming morass of the ones that crop up impossibly, like weeds. The Post-Far Side acceleration – probably one of the last real “trends” in newspaper comics* – of self-consciously “weird” single-panel humor strips that are neither weird nor humorous is a reasonable topic for discussion fifteen years ago. Or maybe even twenty.
* Newspaper comic strips are extremely slow to move around, trend-wise, and the medium changes glacially. Also: one of the last major trends. There have been a couple of others that haven’t really panned out. .
2 abetted in no small part by Josh Fruhlinger’s indispensable comics blog, The Comics Curmudgeon.

I think it started with the venerable, Sunday-only Prince Valiant, which came along during my youthful phase of interest in knights and horses and whatnot. It was a different portion of the medieval period than the other “charging around on horses and high court” stuff that was sort of in the air then3, which I think made it more interesting, and explained why there was, basically, no action4. At a certain point, my life included a newspaper that had Mark Trail (which I read regularly because I liked the nature drawing, and also it tended toward high-tension plots that I found actively engaging), Spider Man (which was, as a kid, a chance to get some superhero action every day, even if I would later come to realize that it was more “superhero” “action”) and Rex Morgan MD (which I found incomprehensible, but which included June Morgan, and so appealed to at least that part of my brain).

3 which there seemed to be a lot of? I remember there being a King Arthur cartoon where King Arthur himself rode, like, a robot horse with a chariot that fired missiles and stuff? I remember thinking there was a bunch of it around, but I can’t really come up with a reason or more than a handful of barely-remembered things. There was, however, germane to this paragraph, a Prince Valiant cartoon for some brief period of my tiny youth.
4 I read it for several years as a kid, which I find bafflng, because I can’t stand to read it now: that “wall of text next to a static picture” thing it does, with its old-style captions and realistic drawings, bores me to tears. It feels like looking at a painting then reading the little plaque next to it, except it takes twice as long and isn’t going anywhere ever. It’s like it’s designed to be the dryest thing ever, to prove that the non-action of traditional soap opera comics can be completely grafted onto the shell of an ostensible fantasy comics. Blech.

I didn’t read Apartment 3G regularly ever – when I was very young, it seemed dull, and when I eventually figured out how to read daily-serialized comic strips, it still seemed dull. Eventually I grew to enjoy it for its metanarrative – things would develop, huge changes would seem to spur even huger developments, and then, because the watchword for newspaper strips is “convervatism”5, you’d watch all of the huge changes melt away, and normalcy be forcibly restored.

5 like, narrative conservatism, not political conservatism necessarily: nothing can change, the status quo must be maintained.

Every soap opera strip has its version of that. Mary Worth never raises the stakes to levels that would be permanent for the main characters in the strip – although this means some fairly horrendous things happen to the tertiary characters that flit through the halls of charterstone. Judge Parker ends with a kind of progress: whatever the peril or disagreement was over the course of the storyline, it ends up with one set of focal characters (there are several after all this time) bettering their life – usually through the infusion of an enormous amount of money. Mark Trail always stops the devastation to the wildlife. And on and on and on it goes. Apartment 3G, then, is the only one that threatens its charactes with the ringer only to withdraw it time and time again.

Over time, the machinations not only became more labored in story terms, but also because of the strip’s inherent anachronism. In the early sixties, Apartment 3G was created to capitalize on the success of (I, and Wikipedia, believe) Mary Worth. Skewing younger, and with characters based on then-current actresses, it was a new, relatively modern sort of idea. But they’re stuck with the fact that they are, but for a brief interlude6, unmarried (or else why wouldn’t they live with their husbands), and unable to find new roommates. They’re also saddled with the jobs that were “womanish” in the sixties7, and, while they still exist today, exist in fairly different forms that make them seem more old-fashioned than they even need to be.

6 Luann was married, and then replaced in the strip by Beth, who not only practiced the Comic Strip Conservation of Hair Color by being a blonde, but I believe was also a teacher.  
7 to wit: Redheaded Tommy is a nurse, blonde Luann (also Beth, see FN6) is a teacher, and brunette Margo is a secretary/agent/event planner*
* a note on these latter two: when she was an agent, it was written exactly like she was a secretary without an office, and the extent of her “party planning” is left unknown, due to the nature of the strip. See following for more on this.

So they are women who do antiquated forms of jobs that still exist in modernity, they live in a New York City that never really existed but that resembles The City of popular fifties entertainment8, and over time this all sort of bags out to lead to the strip existing entirely outside of reality, and also in a world where every time something happens, there’s a guarantee that an equal and opposite reaction will, essentially, allow it to un-happen. It’s entertaining, then, as a sort of light examination of the form.

8 even when it premiered, it was only really modern for a comic strip. So there isn’t much of the sixties – even the early sixties – present in the stirp. Still just something of a mid-fifties, post-television facelift for the daily serial form, even then at the beginning of its decline.

Serial, continuous comics are unlike just about any other storytelling medium, because they have essentially no advantages. They have three to four panels a day to get something across, and, besides, due to the vagaries of syndication, are often sold separately on weekdays and Sundays, leaving some people only reading five, or only reading one, of the installments per week. Besides that, there’s a small percentage of people who can be counted on to read it every single day. What this ends up meaning is the story has to move slow – so that no one misses a day or two will be lost. It can’t do much with the bait and switch, because people are going to guess (or assume, or infer, it’s possible that “guess” is much too strong a word for it) what’s coming and then come back when it’s happened, if they’re surprised they’re going to be lost, and they’re not going to come back again.

All of which is, of course, theoretical, because there’s no real way to measure comics popularity. The one tool they had9 was letter generation: if people wrote in to complain, you were unpopular and could be replaced (there have also been, historically, polls to determine popularity, but as those are more likely to reveal a hierarchy than actual numbers about who is reading vs. not reading they are simply not as useful). This means that, especially with the serious strips, which require continuing readership, there’s even more of a marked tendency to not rock the boat, and to make no changes that could result in a negative response.

9 it is, as far as I can tell, also still one of the primary tools, but I would imagine that, internet response being fairly measurable, it’s also probably no longer one of the only ones. Although it seems to count for more than I think.

Thus, serial comic strips become something of an exercise in formalism. The exceptions to this necessary stagnation are, across the board, strips that are either fully humor strips (Doonesbury takes place in basically real time, and has all sorts of stuff change), or serio-comic (Funky Winkerbean, leaning heavily on the serio-, staggers its way toward blinkered, unrealistic misery)10, but even in their cases the shake-ups are relatively far-between (and tend to be sorted out for many storylines afterward).

10 Funky Winkerbean and Doonesbury are the exemplars here, but the other two most interesting examples come from For Better or For Worse and Gasoline Alley. FBOFW was intended to be mostly humorous, but also true to life, and while time passed at a somewhat-reduced rate, the characters did age. This meant that it was continuing on in the Gasoline Alley mold. Gasoline Alley was, in its youth, a fairly radical strip: meant to be a slice-of-life look at a quaint town around a group of people who had all recently acquired automobiles, it soon broadened its scope** to cover the entirety of the life of this small town, centered around Walt Wallet and his son Skeezix (still alive, and well over a hundred). In the case of FBOFW, the status quo was never really established, and it changed forms years ago to the effect that it never really lost its narrative drive, although the actual writing quality of the strip did suffer somewhat. Gasoline Alley is a bare shadow of its former self, now existing in the same realm as other soap opera strips, and getting around the necessary unchangingness by simply never starting a storyline more complicated than, say, “Skeezix needs a new drivers’ license.”
** because, honestly, how long could it be about the novelty of owning automobiles, given that owning an automobile stopped being a novelty very quickly?

And so we come back to Apartment 3G. Long-since (if it ever was) unable to conjure up a compelling storyline in and of itself, the main appeal to the strip is watching it snap back into place after the machinations that drive the (increasingly unrealistic) plots twist it out of shape. This is, obviously, a pretty unsustainable way to maintain an artistic property – the number of people who are inclined to read a dull, repetitive, outlandishly old-fashioned comic strip for metatextual reasons is pretty small, especailly when the metatextual reasons are more related to formalism than sarcasm11. And thus it comes to pass that it is seemingly the least-popular of comic strips, and it’s on its way out the door.

11 I previously mentioned the content of and community around The Comics Curmudgeon, a signal post in the world of online newspaper comics discussion – he tends to read the comics with a sort of “Bad Movie Night” glee, and thus spends a lot more time with Mary Worth and Judge Parker than with Apartment 3G, although if you got and look at the recent archives, you can see him navigate the bizarre, seemingly-brain-damaged turn the strip has taken in the last several months.

NEXT: What does it all mean? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!

The 2015 World Fantasy Awards

Traditionally, from year-to-year, I don’t pay much attention to the World Fantasy Awards. They happen, but fantasy is, generally, pretty outside of my zone of exposure1. That said, this year I decided to give a try. I write about six thousand relentlessly similar music awards-granting programs, I can fit in a few more books. It’s good for me. Builds character.

1 except for that which crosses over incidentally with soft science fiction – see also the Nebula Awards piece.

Actually, it was a lot of fun, but that’s not the point. The point here is that it’s an opportunity for me to be right about stuff. I love being right about stuff.

The actual World Fantasy Award is a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, the man who embodies “problematic.” This is not without controversy – a petition has been circulated2 recommending changes3. It is probably fair to say, in fact, that Lovecraft is where most budding literary-horror-interested young folk (such as your writer here) learn about how they deal with problematic writers.

2 By Daniel Jose Older, the editor of Long Hidden, about which see below.
3 specifically that the bust be changed to that of the great Octavia Butler, who is a much better choice for an enormous number of reasons.

(If you already know stuff about Lovecraft, you can pretty safely skip this next bit.)

See, Lovecraft was a terrible, hate-filled man. He was well beyond an ordinary product of early twentieth-century New England, and into the realm of paranoid, obsessive racism that became, as Michel Houellebecq4, concluded, so much more than just his own foible, but the very engine of creation for his work. The horrors that Lovecraft elicited (and more on that specifically in just a moment) were, in other words, fuelled mainly by the horrors that he saw in his head when he looked at, say, a person of color (or a woman5).

4 the next paragraph contains a quote from China Mieville, and I’m going to paraphrase the bit that precedes it here: this is basically the only thing Michel Houellebecq has said that’s worth agreeing with. And really, I’m giving it to you through the filter of China Mieville, who is often worth agreeing with.
5 although his thing with women seems more based out of dread than disgust. Really, by assaying the varieties and expressions of H.P. Lovecraft’s fears of everything that doesn’t look basically like him, you can really get an education in the different ways something can be feared. He also didn’t like dogs, for example.

But despite all of that, he was undeniably important – if only sheerly in terms of the number of people who would make foundational works (especially in horror) that were inspired directly by him. And the award – a Gahan Wilson sculpture of a caricaturish bust – is stylish and interesting and all that. Plus, it’s given in good faith. All of which leads to The Mieville Solution, whereby China Mieville “put it out of sight, in my study, where only I can see it, and I have turned it to face the wall. So I am punishing the little fucker like the malevolent clown he was, I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft’s back.” Which is an excellent stopgap, really.

In any event, the World Fantasy Awards are not really as closely-followed or as fan-oriented as the Hugos. This means they were not hijacked by groups of people who believe that everything should conform to their vision of the world6, which is nice, and is also why I decided to dive into them this year.

6 honestly, if the World Fantasy Award stops using the likeness of H.P. Lovecraft, they should give it to the Sad/Rabid Puppies, since their stated aims and his are so close in execution.

So, as usual, here are the picks for the rightful winners. I am skipping the two special awards, partly because they’re fairly open-ended, and partly because I had neither time nor opportunity to evaluate them properly.

I am not an art critic! Static visual art7 is just not my bag. That said, I can come up with something here, given that the idea of the art is supposed to be the same as that of the stories: to make one think and consider, to bring to mind the images of the story. To that end, John Picacio’s direct representation isn’t doing it for me. He’s mechanically very talented, but there’s really nothing to devote extra thought to. Erik Mohr is less realistic, but still kind of non-evocative. It looks cool, though. Galen Dara makes great use of color, and some of what she does looks great, Samuel Araya does stuff with light (especially the lack thereof) that I think is awfully impressive, but I have to say, I think Jeffrey Alan Love’s impressionist cutout-type things are really my favorite here. He has a surprisingly versatile range of depictions with them, while also being instantly recognizable as his.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jeffrey Alan Love, although Erik Mohr did the cover to a book called Monstrous Affections that is not the one nominated below, and it’s pretty incredible, so maybe a sub-Howard for him.

7 aw, hell, you guys have read my Oscar writeups, I’m also not big on non-static visual art. OR visuals in general, really.

Rebecca Lloyd’s Mercy and Other Stories had some ok moments, but wasn’t really a standout. Janeen Webb’s Death at the Blue Elephant was a little more distinctive, but also didn’t pop out so much. Robert Shearman’s They Do the Same Things Differently There had one of the best stories I read all year in “A Joke in Four Panels”8, and some other really tremendous top-flight stories. Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After wins points for consistency – every story in the collection is good, and a couple (“Supply Limited, Act Now” and especially “Secondhand Magic”) are great. But The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings was just as good (if never quite hitting the same highs on a piece-by-piece basis), and had the benefit of a puzzlebox, interlocking structure that, once it becomes apparent, makes each of the stories better than the sum of their parts.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Angela Slatter, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

8 unaccountably, it does not appear to have won every award in 2012, when it was originally published. This seems like a tremendous oversight on the part of everyone involved.

I’ve never been particularly into Shadows & Tall Trees, and this year was not really any different. Still too precious and still too self-conscious9. Kelly Link & Gavin Grant’s Monstrous Affections and George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois’ Rogues were both uneven, but largely enjoyable, collections without a whole lot going on outside of their entertainment value (which, admittedly, was considerable). Ellen Datlow’s Kickstarter-assisted Fearful Symmetries shows off Ms. Datlow’s legendary editorial eye. But really, in terms of import, and interest, and of making the world better by the sheer fact of its existence, this year’s rightful winner is Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older’s10 Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, a wide-spanning collection of speculative history/historical fantasy/something like that11, representing viewpoints and styles and things that aren’t traditionally represented historically or in speculative fiction. It’s wide-ranging, super-ambitious, and extremely well-done.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Daniel Jose Older (ed), Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History

9 it also is the original home of my least-favorite story in the Robert Shearman collection, a weird “people have sex with the wrong people” snoozefest called “It Flows From the Mouth.”
10 the guy calling for a change to the award statuette, which will make it somewhat annoying when he wins and is presented with someone who stood foursquare against what Fox and Older are going for in general. Or would have, if it had been a going concern in his time.
11 it is unquestionably great, and deserves many awards, including several for design (it’s a beautiful book), but as historical fantasy is really very much awfully so not my thing, it was also the best book I’ve read all year that I’m unlikely to ever go back to. It’s great that it exists, and it represents something really cool, though.

Short Story
Scott Nicolay’s “Do You Want to Look at Monsters” is a well-executed version of a familiar12 sort of story, albeit with some devices that help it stand out. Alyssa Wong’s “The Fisher Queen” is also just fine, and features an interesting, although not earth-shattering  take on mermaids. Kaaron Warren’s “The Death’s Door Cafe” is the best story in Shadows & Tall Trees, which is something I suppose, but ends up losing steam by the end. Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” is great. Just really great. Kelly Link, who is probably my favorite currently-working writer, also put forth a good effort with “ I Can See Right Through You.”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Though it pains me to not say Kelly Link, I think “Jackalope Wives” is actually the best story of this bunch, so it goes to Ursula Vernon.

12 although undeniably Lovecraftian

Michael Libling’s “Hollywood North”13 is a fine, if unspectacular, story that goes to some admirably weird places but also includes about one too many different threads. Pasi Ilmari Jääskelänen’s “Where the Trains Turn” is even weirder, and does an admirable job at sustaining atmospheric dread, but isn’t very satisfying, and also contains elements that really miss at being “scary” and land on “kind of silly.” Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America” is still a sturdy, adequate piece of historical fantasy. Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine is much more straightforward, but also has ending problems – namely the ending seems like it comes too early in the story (or that there should be some more story before the ending, and doesn’t really match tonally, even if it isn’t at all bad. Rachel Swirsky’s “Grand Jete (The Great Leap)” is awfully good, but I think for an award that is (for the time being) a bust of Lovecraft, something more dread-inducing and unnameable-horror-implying should be the winner here, so we go with Mary Rickert’s “The Mothers of Voorhissville”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mary Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhissville”

13 on the World Fantasy Awards website, italics are used for some novellas and quotation marks for others – it may have something to do with word count, it may be how they were submitted, it may have to do with publication as a freestanding work vs publication as part of a group of works. I have no idea, but I’ve copied their usage here for consistency’s sake.
Jo Walton’s My Real Children is a well-written alternate history work about identity that infuriates me by making its subtext into actual text in the last few pages. Read it, enjoy it, skip the last bit. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is entertaining, but spends a lot of its energy being eliptical, and goes for long periods with insufficient traction (although stretches of it are just fantastic – the chapter that takes place at a Swiss ski resort would finish highly in the novella category, for example). Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is an impressively-told story about empathy, and a quiet sort of heroism in the face of court politics that you don’t often see. Jeff Vandermeer’s entire Southern Reach Trilogy is good14, and deeply indebted to Lovecraft, but it gets a little wobbly in the middle installment, and isn’t as good as Robert Jackson Bennett’s marvelous The City of Stairs, which is an original and incredible piece of fantasy writing, and is also the only novel in this list to have Sigrud, who should appear in more things. Even just extraneously. Like, just be around.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sigrud. But, more broadly, Robert Jackson Bennett, The City of Stairs.

14 it’s also pretty obviously one three-part work. The Nebulas nominated only the first part, which was weird, since even though each of the three books is different in narrative style, they’re all telling one story.