Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A silent Arrival

A couple weeks ago, just before reading Laika, I took the opportunity to pick up Shaun Tan's 2006 graphic novel The Arrival from the library.

Claire bought The Arrival as a gift for her cousin, who at the time was exploring her family's immigration from China, about a year ago. While it looked intriuging laying on our floor prior to the gift-giving, I never bothered to pick it up as I literally judged the book by its cover. The sepia-toned cover of a man looking at what appeared to be a small alien made me think of it as a sci-fi novel, and I avoided it. Mistake.

In the book, we follow an unnamed immigrant who begins a new life. He starts off saying goodbye to his family in what seems a familiar (perhaps Eastern European) land at the turn of the last century. As he crosses the ocean, we start to see a little bit of strangeness. His fellow passengers, for example, seem a motley bunch. They dress unusually (compared to our immigrant) and are not at all ethnically homogenous. As the ship approaches the new country, we see unusual, unidentifiable birds fly by. The ship comes into a port dominated by strange statues, wild architecture and populated by strangely dressed people of an indeterminate race. We follow the immigrant around in his explorations where even the alphabet is strange, where the food seems unusual and people keep what seem to be aliens as pets. We are as disoriented as the immigrant, and that's the point.

Oh yes, there's not a single written word in the book. The story is completely art-driven.

I caught on pretty quick to The Arrival's main twist: the fantastical creatures and landscapes are simply meant to represent a new immigrant's disorientation in a strange land. But that's fine, it's not meant to be a Sixth Sense-type reveal and I certainly don't think it's a spoiler to talk about it. The beauty in Tan's approach is that had the artist taken the straightforward approach of realistically showing an immigrant going about his business in 20th Century America or Australia, we wouldn't empathize as much with the protagonist because we wouldn't feel the same sense of disorientation the immigrant feels.

As for the other distinguishing feature of the book, silent comics have been around for decades. The first one I remember reading was 1986's Marvel Fanfare No. 29, a fun John Byrne Hulk story that had been pulled from the regular series due to Jim Shooter's editorial interference (despite continuing Byrne's underrated split-Hulk storyline and having a key appearance in the ongoing line-wide Scourge story). Marvel again went silent in December 2001, with "'Nuff Said!" -- a nearly line-wide run of silent comics named after Stan Lee's famous catchphrase. That event was a mixed bag, but did reveal some gems.

The trick works well in The Arrival. Tan's art, though it looks like it was sketched with charcoal, is crystal clear. Tan is a good storyteller, with a clear panel flow. Despite the intentionally unfamiliar surroundings and backgrounds, I never once had trouble following what was going on. The immigrant's adjustment to his new home, his search for work and his quest to reunite with his family are all well-documented despite nary a sound effect.

(Below: No words, no problem.)

The Arrival is a fine addition to one's graphic novel library. It has a unique style which combines both extreme realism and the fantastic, often in the same panel. Tan's work will appeal to anyone with an interest in the struggles of the immigrants which made up this country.

(Update: Aug. 28, 2009. Upon further reflection, I now recall that Marvel Fanfare 29 is not completly silent, it just includes long stretches of art without dialogue. The story is still notable, however, in that it is composed entirely of splash pages.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Une taille pour Sarkozy

Gracieuseté de dailymail.co.uk.

Pauvre Nicolas. Il veut vraiment être un grand garçon.

Le Huffington Post est un "court" sur l'article Sarkozy debout sur son tiptoes pour réduire la différence de hauteur entre sa jolie femme, Carla Bruni, et les Obamas. Comme le Daily Mail. Détendez-Nic.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Not just another dead dog story (Or, Fictional History, Part 3)

About a year ago, I checked out Matthew Brzezinski's "Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age" from the library. The book richly detailed the early Soviet space program and gave a brief insight into the life of Sergel Korolev, the USSR's "Chief Designer." While a good introduction, I felt I didn't have a great insight into Korolev's mindset.

I recently found some in an unexpected place: Nick Abadzis' graphic novel "Laika." This was another case of "Fictional History" (or, in other words, "History") coming to the forefront, which I have written about a couple times before, including Louis Riel's comic-strip biography.

History, as I wrote, is determined by those who write about it -- with the author's personal impressions unavoidably influencing the outcome. "Laika" is no different, and in fact fictionalizes the story more than most, but it at least is up-front about doing so. The story of the eponymous Laika, a stray from the streets of Moscow who in 1957 became the first mammal to orbit the Earth (barring any alien abductions), the graphic novel gives Laika -- and Korolev -- interesting back stories and puts them on parallel paths that fatefully intersect.

Left and below: In one of the books more illuminating scenes, Korolev explains his motivations to the dog he will send to an uncertain fate. (Click to enlarge.)

Since Laika's story is on the historical record, I don't think it's really spoiling the ending to say that Laika eventually meets the same fate as "Old Yeller," "Sounder" and countless other literary dogs. But Abadzis does a good job in showing how the stories of Korolev, Laika and animal trainer Yelena Dubrovsky (whom I believe is a fictional composite character) interrelate in the grand scheme of things and how all contributed to the growth of man's knowledge. The end of the novel is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful despite what happens to its main character.

The art is simple, but works really well in terms of establishing the cold Russian winters, the urban Moscow streetscapes and the steppes of Kazakhstan where the story takes place. Abadzis doesn't make it too cartoony. While dogs are shown talking among themselves, they do not talk directly (outside a brief dream sequence) to the humans, who have realistic, adult conversations about the topic on hand.

The Swedish-born Abadzis won an Eisner Award (the comics' equivalent of the Oscars) in 2008 for "Best Teen Graphic Novel," and I think that audience will respond to the deep storytelling of "Laika" well.

While the morality of using animals for such experiments is both then and now a topic of controversy, all the main characters are presented sympathetically. Quite refreshing to my eyes was the lack of Cold War ideology presented in the novel. While it is very clear that Nikita Kruschev (who appears in a few panels) is backing the Soviet space program as a propaganda coup against the United States, the scientists are shown to be working for science as best they could under the limitations of a party system.

While the otherwise-excellent Louis Riel biography might have been a little more realistic and its subject a little more historically important (at least to Canada), "Laika" is a more personal story and one that I think resonated more -- and I say that as someone who doesn't like "dead dog stories."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Take me out to the ballgame

Barry Zito threw seven shutout innings.

Yesterday, I got tired of sitting about and took advantage of my now-standard long weekend to go to the ballpark for the first time this season. In doing so, I was able to have a surprisingly cheap and fun afternoon out as the San Francisco Giants hosted the San Diego Padres.

The Giants have something they call "variable pricing," which is similar to airline pricing: the higher the demand for a game, the more-expensive a ticket. Conversely, the lower the demand, the lower the price. Seeing as the game Wednesday was the lowest-attended (with 26,593 tickets sold) in the 10-season history of AT&T park, I'm not surprised I was able to snag a bleacher seat for just $7 from the automated ticket machine outside the park. The same seat for next homestand's tilt against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Giants' traditional rival, is going for $15.

To top off the bargain, there was a one-day only promotion that if I flashed my Visa Signature card at the Visa booth, I'd get a voucher for a free garlic fries and soda. Having done so, I only had to buy a hot dog (a ballpark-reasonable $5.75 for a "colossal dog") and I was set. With the low attendance, there were plenty of open seats in the lower area and I retreated there to avoid the sun.

The game itself was one that myself and other baseball purists would love, but non-fans would probably think was boring. I saw some great, tense pitching as the Giants beat the Padres, 1-0. Bengie Molina pinch-hit a ground-rule double in the 10th inning (see, I even got a little extra baseball at no added cost!) in a game the San Francisco Chronicle called "gripping."

I almost had a third great bargain, as the game moved along crisply and I thought I might be able to use the same $1.50 Muni ticket that I used to get to the park on the way back. As fast as the game was (2 hours, 44 minutes -- for an extra-inning game), I just barely missed the 3:30 p.m. expiration of my transfer. Oh well, it was still a very good deal.

I fled to the lower bowl more to avoid the sun (and skin cancer) than to improve my view.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A day at the beach

Ian at Pacifica State Beach, April 20, 2009.

There was record-breaking heat in the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday, prompting a heat advisory, in fact. So Ian and I made lemonade from lemons, metaphorically speaking, and went to the beach.

Ian's school is literally about two blocks from the beach,as I've outlined before. So after grabbing him, we headed down to the shore. As an indicator of the heat (86F/30C, but it felt hotter), we had to circle the lot three times to get a parking spot.

The boy wanted to take off his shoes and run on the beach as soon as we got on the sand, only to tearfully beg me to pick him up as soon as he realized the sand was blazing. But once we got to the tide line, Ian had a blast. He ran in and out of the small waves (the tide was receding) and seemed to get a great thrill from throwing small rocks out to sea.

We were covered in fine, black sand afterward but had a good time over about half an hour. But I'm already done with summer and it's still only early spring. Bring on the April showers!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who says there's nothing good on Saturday night television?

A satisfying special. Too bad I had to resort to illegal means to watch it.

Saturday nights have long been a dead zone for anything worthwhile on TV. I don't know how many episodes of "Cops" I've watched simply because it was the only thing on. (I suppose I could go out and DO something, but hey, I'm getting old -- recently got a notice that my 20-Year high school reunion is coming.)

Anyhow, imagine my surprise when the two most entertaining moments of my week -- aside from Wednesday's concert -- came via Saturday night TV, albeit British Saturday night TV.

First, on Sunday, Claire and I watched the Doctor Who Easter Special "Planet of the Dead," which had aired the previous night on the BBC. Yes, I downloaded it illegally ("Free the Pirate Bay Four!"). Do I advocate illegal downloading? No. But if either BBC America or the Sci-Fi Channel had gotten off their duffs and shown it, I would go the legal route (I'm still waiting for the 2008 Christmas special, by the way). Heck, if the BBC had put in on Hulu or streamed it internationally over their website, with or without advertising, I'd have happily watched it that way. But I watched it the only way I could.

And I'm glad I did. It was a straightforward adventure story with some moderate tension. Michelle Ryan, who starred in the ill-received "Bionic Woman" remake in 2007, did a fine job as a one-off companion to the Doctor. She gave off an appropriate "sweet but bad news" vibe and her co-star got a "I'm really going to miss David Tennant" reaction from Claire, who's probably seen fewer than 10 episodes of the series.

I think "Planet of the Dead" resonated with me because it didn't get too ambitious. While there was a world-threatening danger, it wasn't over the top. There was a lot more humor (humour?) than we've seen in Who the last few outings and the plot was simple fun without being dumb.

Claire thinks "Doctor Who" is still a little too scary for Ian, and he did exhibit a little fear when the stingray-like aliens were shown in a clip, so he didn't watch the episode. Ian does occasionally watch a little "Sarah Jane Adventures" with me, so I have no doubt he'll be hiding behind the sofa with me some day soon.

Update (April 19, 2009, 9:59 a.m.): I found a YouTube link of a couple Scottish sock puppets reviewing the episode. The puppets tore the episode apart, but their review is hilarious. Warning, contains spoilers.

Left: Anyone who can do this to Simon Cowell deserves a shout out.

What show beat "Planet of the Dead" in the ratings? "Britain's Got Talent," which aired opposite "Planet of the Dead" on ITV. I generally hate "talent" shows and am happy to say I haven't seen a lick of "American Idol" this season. But sometime on Monday I was sent a link to the Susan Boyle segment.

If you haven't seen it yet, go to YouTube and report back. Bring tissues. The main video on YouTube has 26 million hits as of this afternoon (all that in one week!). I got in early, when it was at about five million.

I admit to have gotten a bit teary the first couple times I saw it and I've rewatched it a few times since. In fact, the only segment I've watched more on the Net recently was the latest Star Trek trailer (I can't wait until May 8!).

Boyle's performance was a huge "f**k you" to all those who judged her on appearance alone and a good affirmation that the public will still appreciate talent even if it isn't in a tiny, young and cute package. Thank the Gods!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I went to a Ting Tings concert

The Ting Tings perform at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium on April 15, 2009. Forgive the quality, as the iPhone does not work well under low-light conditions.

A few months ago, I put up a post about my then-current musical tastes and pointed out that the first full album I'd bought in many years was The Ting Tings' "We Started Nothing." (Since then, I've also bought, thanks to sales on Amazon, Lily Allen's "It's Not Me, It's You" and Morrissey's "Years Of Refusal."

Last night, I continued that trend, going to my first concert in about four years by dropping in on The Ting Tings' gig at San Francisco's historic Fillmore. The Fillmore is one of San Francisco's most famous clubs, hosting everyone from Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead to Jimi Hendrix, and while Wednesday's show probably won't go down to be as historic as those by the acts above, it was still a good time.

The Fillmore is general admission, so I got there about 6:30 p.m. (well before the 8 p.m. time on the ticket), ate cold pork chops in line and was able to get into the third row despite stopping for a bathroom break on the way in. A lot of younger kids attended the show, The Ting Tings being realatively harmless, including a couple tweens in front of me. Of course, they came with one's 6-foot-5 father, who was the only person taller than me in the first few rows, and yes, he was right in front of me.

After the opening act (see below), The Ting Tings came out and played a well-executed, intimate show. They started with "We Walk," and followed up with "Great DJ," my favorite song on their debut album. The duo's music and singing were practically flawless. My only complaint was that, as a duo of Jules De Martino and Katie White, they had a lot of music (understandably) pre-recorded. White's vocals and guitar playing were often drowned out by the pre-recorded stuff and there was a good deal more distortion than I'm used to (some may have come from my nearness to the stage).

The sold-out venue responded well as the band made its way through its catalogue. "Shut Up and Let Me Go" (made famous in an iPod commercial) got a big hand, as did the band's encore, its No. 1 UK hit, "That's Not My Name." As the band has been together for less than two years and has only released one album (from which all 10 songs were played), I'm not surprised that the show was done in just less than an hour -- but since tickets were only $21 (pre-"convenience fee"), it wasn't a bad bargain.

The woman on the left will rap on your shoulders if you let her.

The opening act was a hip-hop girl group from Oakland, "HOTTUB." While their music wasn't entirely my cup of tea, they certainly had a stage presence -- which had they kept to the stage, I'd have been fine with it.

You see, I had a pair of earplugs on to preserve my hearing for the main show, meaning while I heard all the music just fine, the spoken word was intermittent. I heard something along the lines of, "Who likes this woman (something, something)?" by one of the band members. In my not-hearing state, I thought it was a general request for a shout-out to the band. I was surprised when I was the only one with his hand up. One of the girls ("Loli Pop?") then said, "Come here Baby" and directed me to the front of the stage. "Please don't make me dance," I said to myself.

She then made me turn around to face the crowd, then climbed aboard my shoulders and began rapping about "M.A.N.B.I.T.C.H.s" or something (real song title, down to the punctuation) while I held her. Now, I'm a big guy, and she was kind of a big girl -- probably about 160 pounds, so my poor legs were supporting about 400 total pounds. By the end of the song, I was really sagging.

Moral of the story: before volunteering for anything, pull out the earplugs and confirm just for what it is you'd be volunteering.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Captain America vs. the pirates

Sometimes I love computer translations. Le Monde today had a story headlined, "Somalie: le capitaine américain libéré par la Marine, trois pirates tués."

Google's translation was thus: "Somalia: Captain America released by the Navy, three pirates killed."

Steve Rogers would never have been caught in the first place!

Still, kudos to the US Navy and Capt. Richard Phillips for jobs well done.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An economic casualty

While biding my time until my education can advance, I'm working in corporate security at a bio-tech firm (which I will keep nameless for obvious reasons). The company, shall we say, isn't doing so well, having laid off more than 50 percent of its workforce in the past year.

Yesterday word came down (not wholly unexpectedly) that they were cutting one full-time equivalent position from the security staff. I'm proud to say, however, rather than cost someone a job, our department was able to spread the harm out by cutting hours among various people. Not necessarily a good thing, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Therefore, I am now working just four days a week. It won't be great for the pocketbook, but it could be worse. I have decided to not think of it as 20 percent less pay, but rather 50 percent more free time.