Sunday, September 14, 2014

What it meant



One of my earliest memories is of reading a comic. We were at one of those highly-regulated and organized suburban vacation spots called Camp Dearborn. It's actually owned by the city of Dearborn, MI but is 35 miles away in Milford, MI. I have no idea why. They had canvas-roofed cabins that you could rent, a small lake, a swimming pool, a golf course, hayrides, and the whole nine yards. Very Midwest; very "get away for a weekend"-type thing, and that's exactly what I remember us doing. I was four years old and I was sitting in one of the cabins reading an issue of Man-Thing, Marvel's answer to DC's Swamp Thing (in fact, the same writer had worked on both as many of them drifted back and forth between the Big Two in those years) and another example of Marvel's return to horror comics after its neutering of the Comics Code a couple years earlier. We had been sharing a couple of the cabins with another family we knew and I was in the "boys' cabin" and had a small pile of comics with me. My vague memory says that most of them were mine, but I knew that one of the older boys had a few with him, as well. They had decided to leave before us at that point or were perhaps just running home for a while (the camp at the time was only about an hour from our home) and he burst into the cabin, grabbed a bunch of the comics, including the one in my hand, and ran out. I don't remember which issue it was and I don't remember being particularly outraged that I'd been interrupted and perhaps even had something stolen from me. I just remember that the images of that comic stayed with me and turned into an almost lifelong obsession.

I met someone recently and dropped a Stan Lee reference. We'd been texting about being enchanted and it turned into an exchange of synonyms: beguiled, befuddled, bamboozled, bemused. She mentioned that she liked the alliteration and I said I couldn't help it. I'd read too many Stan Lee comics as a kid. Lee frequently titled his columns "Bullpen Bulletins" or "Stan's Soapbox" or was fond of referring to the readers in ways like "the fightin', ferocious, fantabulous fans of fun!!" Any quick look at many of his early characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Peter Parker) demonstrates that this was a regular habit of his. My new friend mentioned that she wasn't really a fan (fightin' or otherwise) but she was fascinated(!) by people that were and what they got out of comics or why they enjoyed them. That, of course, got me to thinkin'...

Alliteration fer reals. No one has ever really determined why he has to wear pants, either.

I think most kids are into superheroes to one degree or another. One only has to look at Marvel's film success over the past decade to see some of that. I don't remember what my particular attachment became early on and what led me to collect over 30,000 of them in the intervening years. I do remember that I was far more interested in the stories themselves than the accompanying artwork. I wanted to know why Cyclone had kidnapped J. Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man #143 and why Mary Jane Watson seemed to be having a really hard time in her relationship with Peter Parker (my own parents were getting divorced around this same time.) Furthermore, I really wanted to know why Mary Jane ended that issue by uttering the phrase "Far freakin' out." which was the same exclamation that Green Arrow used at the end of an issue of Justice League of America! (Drifting writers again.) That's not to say that I wasn't interested in the accompanying art. I remember picking up my first copy of magazines like Heavy Metal (the American version of the French Métal Hurlant) or Marvel's own Epic Illustrated and being engrossed in the painting of artists like Mœbius, Richard Corben, and Jim Starlin. Both Marvel and DC would also later venture into more daring artistic approaches with people like Dave McKean and I would remain a fan of the moody approach of Matt Wagner and many, many others. But it was really always the stories that hooked me and what had led people to create them...

Beta Ray Bill, FTW!

... which is kind of funny in one respect because I'm a ferocious critic of story and when you look back at many of the comics that I loved at the time they were produced, like the above issue of Thor, produced by Walt Simonson who has long been considered the best writer/artist to ever helm the book, the pace and dialogue are awful. There are long stretches of clunky exposition or explanations of what's going on in the establishment shot (which can be a regular cityscape) or re-statements of who Thor is and why he is. Editor-in-chief of the time, Jim Shooter, always said that you have to have a continuing story to retain regular readers but that every issue is always someone's first read, so the story couldn't be so dense that they wouldn't be able to get into it. That philosophy is blatantly obvious in reading those old series and makes them kind of painful to get through. That approach was standard in TV for much of its history, as well, and it's only comparatively recently that it has changed such that trying to drop into the middle of things like Breaking Bad would have been difficult for new viewers and it's by far the better experience to watch from the beginning. The way to tell good stories is to let characters grow and develop, especially if they're character-driven stories like almost all superhero comics. You can't have that growth or development if you have to keep explaining what's going on to the new readers. Thankfully, the emergence of limited series in the 80s enabled many writers to escape that Minosian circuit and other series developed with that principle firmly in mind, such as Sandman.

Not a Sandman cover, but one of my favorite McKean images

But the mention of Sandman is important here because it led to the most significant shift in comics since the Code destroyed EC. While the book has always been written by Neil Gaiman and he had a definite path in mind for it, since it was in the DC Universe he had to play along with the superheroes in his backyard for the first year of its publication, although he tried hard to skirt them as much as possible. Once Karen Berger finally convinced DC to let her take books like Sandman and Swamp Thing into their own imprint, Vertigo, they were finally free from the thing that has held back comics in many ways for the past half-century: superheroes.


Don't get me wrong: I love superheroes. I grew up with them. I've read tens of thousands of stories about them. The nostalgic pull is strong whenever someone brings up stuff like Iron Man under David Michelinie or Amazing Spider-Man under Roger Stern in the 80s. I think the Wild Cards series of anthologies, edited and contributed to by George R. R. Martin, are brilliant. But, as with any genre, there are limits to what can be done with them. Despite my history, I haven't read a superhero comic with any regularity since the early 90s. I can't. The stuff bores me to tears because in many ways it's still following the Jim Shooter model. My friend, Curtis, who is the owner of the local shop in Ann Arbor, Vault of Midnight, tried to sell me on a new version of Iron Fist a few years ago and I devoured the first six-issue collection which was about the character coming to grips with his past and the spirituality surrounding the strange city of K'un Lun and what it meant for him to hold the power that he acquired. I was like: "Yeah. This is the shit!" It was thoughtful, but retained enough touches to Chinese mythology and 60s-era kung fu films to have just a bit of camp to lighten it at the right points. Plus, having practiced martial arts for many years, I was on the same page with the concept of trying to express oneself physically and conform to the art as laid down by those before you. I was totally geeked. And then I picked up issue #7... and it was Villain-of-the-month again. Bzzzt! Thank you for playing! Lovely parting gifts, etc.

Gothic #1 by me and Kevin Leen, cover by Guy Davis

When we started the studio in the early 90s, it was with the same idea that so many other comics companies have begun: do it differently and better than the big guys. Almost by default, that meant no superheroes. If you wanted superheroes, you knew where to go. Dark Horse didn't do them (except for one brief excursion around that time that I actually kind of enjoyed) because they wanted to avoid competing directly with Marvel and DC and they frequently stated that they thought the concept was more than played out. Image started around that time with the very brash and public announcement that they were going to do things differently from the Big Two. What they produced at the time was utterly similar and essentially the same stuff that all of them had been doing for Marvel with different names. Alan Moore and Frank Miller had shown what superheroes could be taken to in the mid-80s and that limit had pretty much been set. Trying to keep going after that wasn't interesting to me nor was it to many readers who really wanted to read good stories. Fifth Panel Comics produced creator-owned material, though, so amongst our early producers were people that did their hero-of-the-moment stuff but they soon gave up and left. The small core that remained continued with the idea that the medium could only really be advanced with good stories that had little to do with bright costumes and stopping bank robbers or alien invasions.


I read very few comics these days and the closest I come to superheroes is Kurt Busiek's Astro City, which is essentially Busiek using the world he'd created as a kid to convey stories about the human condition. The facade is "superhero" but the stories are very human. Otherwise, ironically, I actually read a lot of Image output as they decided somewhere along the way that most of their stuff was played out, as well. Most of the original creators had moved on and they've attracted a stable of artists and writers that produce good stuff from many different genres, like Greg Rucka's Lazarus. But I still have a deep attachment to the medium as I tend to think of stories in a cinematic fashion (comics being far closer to film than prose.) When I pitched the idea of Coding Time to Ghostwoods, I did so with the idea of a film called The Machinist firmly in mind and I wrote it in that fashion. I could see the panel transitions in my head. I still have a ton of stories for Fifth Panel that never saw the light of day (or the black of night) and I'd still like to see them published somewhere. My friend, Margot, suggested to me a few years back that I try to convert them to prose. It's something I considered a few times but always abandoned because, again, of the chasm between the two media. There are tricks that you can perform with comics that are very difficult, if not impossible, with prose. When you can let the artwork tell one half of the story and can tell a conjoined but disparate story at the same time via captions, that's a technique that's not feasible in prose and that wouldn't be easy to do in film, either. But comics can make it happen because your reader proceeds at his pace, not the film's which gives more time for reflection and understanding. If you have eye-catching art to go with it, so much the better.

So, yeah. That (and so many, many more details) is what I get from comics/what they mean to me/why they still hang over me even though my connection to them is fairly tenuous these days. My creative outlook is shaped by them and always will be. I analyze plot and story of films through the glass of comics in many ways (noting that Snowpiercer worked well as a comic but not very well as a film, for example.) I think it's a powerful medium that doesn't get a lot of the respect that it deserves because it's tied to the shadow of the cape and cowl, despite the billions earned by Marvel's increasingly Bay-like films, which are still regularly trivialized as "summer blockbusters" from an artistic standpoint and deservedly so in most cases. But there are still gems to find. I'd like to think that one or two of them are still in my head.

Friday, August 22, 2014

It's always someone else's fault


I'm going to do a horrible thing to my fellow Michigan fans. I'm going to bring up The Horror. Not because the Rematch That Only an Idiot Would Schedule is a week away, but because of this article on The Wolverine.com. Dave Brandon, Creating the Future™ was kind enough to offer another litany of excuses about the expected sparse attendance at next week's soiree and, per usual, blame everyone and everything but the most obvious factors (i.e. those connected most closely to him.)

"The biggest shift was in the student section. There was a big decline in level of interest, and we've seen historically there's a lot of correlation between success the previous year, strength of schedule and level of excitement. And television does such a great job covering games that younger people are more comfortable getting content in digital fashion on a screen."

Yeah! Those damned kids these days! No responsibility. No tradition. No willingness to get kicked in the face and come back for more! I mean, really, Dave. It couldn't be because you've treated them like ATMs and are charging them the highest student ticket prices in the conference (the nation?) for a declining product and an awful home schedule, could it? No!

"But it's a one-year transitional situation. I don't like it any more than anyone does. It was not my idea to play at Michigan State two years in a row."
No, it wasn't. But it sure as shit was your idea to schedule Appalachian Fucking State. I mean, it probably seemed like a lark to you, didn't it, Dave? You'd roll in here, pick your genius successor to RR and, coming off the undoubted conference title and Rose Bowl win three years later, we'd exorcise the demons of debacles past.

Except...

No one really wanted to revisit that debacle except App. St. fans and MSU fans who still count that as their greatest sporting memory from their years at State. I can go out on a limb here and speculate that almost no Michigan fans wanted to be seeing the greatest upset in the history of the game every day on BTN for the next week. (I know that ESPN likes to claim that the Stanford upset over USC (JBC!) was somehow bigger because it was on their network and the spread was bigger, but there's only one team in college football history that has gone from a top 5 ranking in the polls to out of them in a single week and, uh, that's Michigan. Because they lost. To Appalachian State.)


"Combine that with what he expects will be a great year with young talent and you'll see a bigger response from the student section next year. At that point, he said, they want to make sure those tickets are available to them.

That, of course, puts pressure on Brady Hoke and this year's team to win at a high level."


Uh-huh. You see, I was at that game in 2007. I picked up a couple tickets for free because, well, there were a lot of them available, just like this year. No one wanted to see a game against App. St. then, when Michigan was coming off an 11-2 season with one of the most dominant defenses of recent memory (albeit with a season-ending duo of losses to both OSU (again) and USC in the Rose Bowl (again.)) Michigan was ranked in the top 5 with seniors aplenty, but there were gaps throughout the crowd from the opening kick to the miserable ending. So, as long as you're insisting that people's TVs are what's keeping them from attending games and not the ridiculous prices ($65 face for App. St. this week), you're likely to keep being mystified and blaming everyone else 3 or 4 years down the road, too.

"I've been able to get to a couple practices, and I can tell you the pace and the tone and tenor are different than what I've seen in the past. Everybody is extremely focused, understand this is a real important season we have ahead. There's a lot of disappointment people remember from last year, and we want to fix it. The best way is to achieve great things. I'm excited about the season and can't wait to get it started."

I've been to a practice, too, and I can say that it looked pretty much like every other practice I've seen over the past 40 years. Everybody spouts the same bullshit in between seasons that didn't end "successfully". They're always going to be "more aggressive", "more focused", and "more intense". The problem here is that they're also "more expensive" and the first game is against an opponent that most Michigan fans would like to forget about and which the rest of the football world simply deems forgettable. And no one scheduled them but you.

"I don't go into any season with any coach laying out standards by pulling a record out of the air. Too many things can happen over the course of the season in any one sport that create variables. We can't predict the future. My expectation is like anybody else's. We're going to play like Michigan plays football. We have a lot of great talent coming back on defense, a fun and exciting defense to watch, and it will be really interesting to see the work Doug Nussmeier is doing with the quarterback and offense, how we can clean up some things that led to last year's disappointment … we just want to see continuous improvement."

Funny, because what you're saying is indicative of why people aren't buying tickets this year. So, you don't have a guideline for Coach Dante's ("He's not even supposed to be here today!") success, but it sure is important to be more successful because, otherwise, people will gladly stay home and watch... their... TVs? Hey, if the team really is bad and/or the opponent really is unappealing, what makes you think that people are going to bother to watch the game on TV? "Continuous improvement"? Yeah, that's be great. Is that just within this season with the awful schedule or is that a brand-new philosophy that you coined right there in front of Balas, because looking back at the last three seasons under your hire, I see 11-2, 8-5, 7-6. Something doesn't seem right about those numbers...

"I like the recruiting pipelines, the quality of student athlete Brady and staff bring in to program. I like all the things I hear from players about growing, and believe the program is going in the right direction despite the second half disappointment. That' spilled milk. What we're focusing on is the future."

Dave Brandon, Creating the Future™.

Oh, and don't forget that part of the scheduling problem is that stadia might be used for other events.


Anybody getting married? Head to the App. St. game and be reminded 7 or 8 times where you can hold it...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My sympathy equates to zero


A short article appeared in the Newspaper of Record today about the changes coming in the college athletics (mostly football) landscape as a result of both the O'Bannon ruling and the NCAA's change that gives the top 5 conferences (mostly football) more leeway to decide how they want to conduct business. As with many Times articles, the reaction to anything new or different is viewed through a prism of general distaste and trepidation for anything that might disturb The Way Things Have Been. The paper doesn't have the nickname "The Gray Lady" for nothing.

My reaction to the article is simple: Yeah, life is rough makin' millions, isn't it?

You want to pay your coach $1.4 million and another 3/4 of a million in bonuses? Pay your players for the money they generate that enables you to do that. You want an athletic center that costs $6.7 million? Pay the players that are spending more time there than they would at a full-time job, in addition to their schoolwork. You want to play with the big kids while a reporter says that your "relative isolation in California's vast Central Valley" gives you a big fanbase? Pay the players that attract that fanbase.

It's just like major companies bitching about raising the minimum wage. You say it's not worth it to do business in the area anymore? Fine. Seeya. I'm quite certain that a smaller, local business will gladly step into the shoes you left and do quite well for itself because you didn't feel like your employees were worth a living wage. The examples of that are prevalent.

If all of this is an extended whine about how you won't be able to attract the best players because of the costs involved, I'm afraid you'll have to remind me of the last time Fresno St. attracted the best players. Oh, right. That would be never. Also, there's only so much room on the rosters of Stanford, USC, and UCLA, so anyone that wants to play big-time ball that doesn't make those rosters will probably still come to Fresno St., providing that you're willing to do those things that the Times is currently bitching about on your behalf: like stipends so they can travel home or their families can travel to see them play, or health insurance post-college for injuries they incur while making you that money, or access to people who can represent their best economic interests, etc. You know, all of that stuff that means treating them like any other person in any normal economy who's trying to extract value from their talents and skills.

The galling thing is that people like (now former) FSU athletic director, Thomas Boeh, even refer to what they do as an "industry" and then somehow gloss over the fact that the workforce of that "industry" is about one step above indentured servitude (they get room and board and a degree that's worth less and less every day and are denied mobility and any access to the real value of their abilities, from their employer or anyone else.) But if you bring this topic up to most NCAA or university officials, they'll insist that it's about "education". So, which is it?

So, no, I have no sympathy for FSU's desire to keep up with the USCs and UCLAs of the world. The only reason that Fresno St. is even in the conversation is because of the millions that institutions like ESPN have been willing to throw at the school to show its students risking their bodies on the field for money that they won't see a cardinal red nickel of. Until now. It's a brave, new world out there, filled with rights and moneymaking opportunities that other workers claimed a long time ago. Feel free to start crying me a river anytime, Mr. Boeh. It may be the only way you can build a new aquatic center if you still want to pay your football coach more than most Americans will earn in 30 years...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Lost in the cosmos



So I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last night and was fairly underwhelmed by it. Critics are raving (92% on RT), Charlie Jane has suggested that it’s spiritually redeeming on i09, and everyone that I went with (a group of 8 other people) basically loved it. I feel like I’m missing something essential here but I’m not quite sure what it is.


The movie is intended to be a comedy, even with the darker overtones of the backstory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe™. The main character, Starlord, is pursuing an orb (MacGuffin) that also happens to be one of the Infinity Gems in the long lead-in to the Thanos saga (we’ve seen two of the others in the form of the Tesseract (typically known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube, which was wasn’t an Infinity gem) from Thor and The Avengers and the Aether from Thor: The Dark World.) In the course of his efforts, a small group of criminals, misfits, and outsiders ends up banding together to essentially save the galaxy; hence, the ‘Guardians’ title, which ends up being more appropriate in this context than the original team could ever aspire to.


The original team was created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan and was part of the surge in sci-fi topics surrounding the success of the Moon landings and the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a pretty straightforward story of Earthlings and Earth-colonials banding together against an evil reptilian race known as the Badoon. They appeared off and on over the decades until the early 90s, when Jim Valentino helmed a regular series for 62 issues. The membership has changed over the years to more closely resemble the group from the film but, last I knew, when I flipped through a couple issues at Vault of Midnight a few years ago, Dan Abnett was still playing them pretty straight. Yes, even with the talking raccoon wielding the big gun.

This film doesn’t do that. It’s clearly meant to be sort of slapstick, especially when one notices that the best and funniest lines come from Rocket (the raccoon), voiced by Bradley Cooper, who is constantly disgusted or bemused by the “stupid humans” all around him. In fact, the best part about the film was the dialogue, as the story was completely linear and loaded down with the usual tropes of intro-crisis-resolution in clearly delineated acts, the love interest, the heroes winning through with not a scratch on them, etc. Combine that with the fact that the characters were pretty shallow and the acting ranged from bad to adequate and it’s really hard for me to recommend the film to anyone. From my perspective, it’s the poorest offering by Marvel Studios in the modern (post-2000) era, largely because it’s a couple explosions away from being a Michael Bay film that most critics would rightly savage. It’s a lot of flashing lights with a few characters that I’m familiar with, which makes it something I’m fine with sitting through rather than walking out of, but that's about the best thing I can say.

And, yet, everyone else loves it.

Now, you could assume based on how well you know me, that I’m just not a fan of the absurd or chaotic and this kind of action comedy simply doesn’t play to me… and you couldn’t be more wrong. Before we went to the theater, several of us were sitting in a local restaurant, drinking and cackling hysterically about old Venture Bros. episodes. That show, along with AquaTeen Hunger Force and Archer, are some of the greatest cartoons ever made and they’re all in the same vein as Guardians. The one essential difference may be somewhat subtle: Venture Bros. is designed to be a parody of well-worn sci-fi/adventure tropes, specifically Jonny Quest. Archer is similarly a spoof of Bond/Bourne stories and ATHF is just a trip into the strange, but still loaded down with cultural cues from the geek world (like the Mooninites.)


The difference, of course, is that I go into those cartoons expecting the absurd. I’m entertained when things go awry for the characters in the weirdest possible manner. I didn’t go into Guardians with that mindset and, even though it was apparent by the trailers that this was going to be more of a frolic than a fight, I still wasn’t sold. The easy contrast is with The Avengers from 2012, which had all the makings of a “serious” superhero drama, and the story of which was equally shallow in relative terms. But I loved that film both because it was non-stop action and because it was done so well. They highlighted the “heroes meet for the first time and beat the crap out of each other” trope and you could tell it was being presented as a trope because people expected it. In other words, the audience was kind of in on the joke. Do people really expect the paint-by-numbers plot of Guardians? Are they disappointed when it doesn’t happen? If Gamora had never come close to kissing Peter Quill, would there have been howls of outrage that there was no “love interest” in the film, even though that demeaning role for women should have been completely annulled by the fact that the screenplay was clearly written to present Gamora as vastly more dangerous and capable than the lead male, Starlord?(Putting aside the notion that women should be presented as more than just "interests" of the male leads to begin with...)



Granted, sometimes you play to the capabilities of your actors. Comparing Guardians to Avengers once again, it’s obvious that there’s far more ability in a cast of Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Helmsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, among others. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace, and the voice of Bradley Cooper just can’t quite keep up when it comes to watching people do interesting things on a screen. That stuff matters to me when I’m watching a film and one can argue that the personal talent and gravitas of someone like Downey keeps the one page plot of Avengers moving along, whereas Pratt doesn’t quite have the cachet to do the same thing for Guardians. Strong actors can work with weaker material and make it into something worthwhile. Not-so-strong actors often can't.


But, again, here I am attempting to make my case in technical terms when everyone else seems to “get it”, without question. I’m pretty far removed from the superhero days, as I haven’t regularly read anything of that sort other than Astro City (which is only barely a “superhero” comic) since the early 90s. Part of why I gave up on most of it was because they weren’t showing me anything new. When I could read a story in 1993 that instantly recalled something I’d read in 1978 because it was essentially the same plot, I start getting bored or I feel like I’ve passed the point where that stuff will ever be interesting and they’re just pandering to the new, younger audience which clearly doesn’t include me. By the same token, I’m still willing to watch most of what Marvel produces on the screen because it’s kind of dredging up that excitement and hope for exactly what I’m seeing from 20 and 30 years ago. I always wanted to see Iron Man on film and the first one was a great film; not just a great superhero film, but a great film, period. The ones that followed were not so much, but I’m still willing to see most of those classic characters in the theater because of what I’d read as a kid and an adult. I didn’t read about Rocket Raccoon 20 years ago (even though he first appeared in the 70s.) Is that the disconnect? I have a hard time believing that just being more familiar with the characters would have convinced me that the plot wasn’t complete boilerplate and Zoe Saldana could act her way out of a paper bag (even though I enjoyed her performance as Uhura in the first Star Trek reboot; again, it's possible that it was just the shallowness of the characters that was the main impediment.)

I guess there is something to be said for simply kicking back and "enjoying the ride" and I'm fine with doing that if the story intrigues me at all, but this one simply didn't. So, what am I missing? What is it that the vast majority of both public and critics seem to see in this movie that I simply don't get? This is far from the first time this has happened (see: Forrest Gump and Titanic), but it's the first I can recall where I was as baffled (I know precisely why I think those latter two sucked, but that's another post.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Brief thoughts about language



I’ve run across several little points of interest regarding language in recent weeks, much of which was based around the World Cup as the confluence of many different cultures and peoples. As most of those who know me will be glad to irritably point out, I’m a bit of a grammar marm (“unique” is an ultimate; you can no more be “kind of unique” than you can be “kind of pregnant”) and mildly concerned about the degradation of the English language (the one I know best) and communication, in general. It’s one of the supreme ironies (genuine) of life that the world’s greatest communication tool, the InterWebs, is also the thing that is most reducing the ability of the species to communicate, whether by the reduction of text to something approximating alpha-numeric Streetspeak or the echo chamber created by only frequenting information sources that agree with your worldview. But the occasional pitfalls in communication only really become prominent when trying to bridge the actual gap of language, as we saw in this year’s tournament.

Hulk fall!
 The Croatian team had basically outplayed the hosting Brazilians in the first match of the event until the referee made an atrociously bad call in the box and awarded a penalty kick to Brazil. The Croats immediately surrounded the Japanese official, protesting the call, to which he responded with a couple mumbles and hand signals. Why? Well, because FIFA, in all its brilliance, had somehow assigned a mono-lingual official to the opening display of the biggest sporting event in the world. He knew only Japanese, which none of the Croatian players knew. However, that wasn’t what upset them. What really got to them was that he didn’t know English because almost all of them were at least roughly fluent in that (as are many other officials in FIFA’s ranks…) English, as many world travelers are aware these days, has become the lingua franca of the age. Here’s where we try to wrap our minds around the idea of English being the target of an Italian term for “Frankish language”, a pidgin communication used around the eastern Mediterranean by the dominant Italian and Ottoman merchants in the 16th century. Strangely enough, actual French (the descendants of the Franks) became the lingua franca of the 18th and 19th centuries before English began to dominate in the last 100 years because of the spread of American culture and hegemony.

Smażyć się w piekle?
That moment reminded me of the Euro championships two years before in Poland and Ukraine, where anti-Russian demonstrators would often appear outside the venues for the soccer matches with various banners like the “Anti-Putin League” written, obviously, in English since it was the surest way of communicating among Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and the thousands of international visitors. What makes this reality odd to many of us is the concept of the Ugly American; that famously abrasive traveler who appears oblivious to local custom or communication except to believe that by speaking Tourist (loudly and slowly via Twoflower of Discworld fame), they’ll be able to communicate anything to anyone: “CAN… YOU… TELL… ME… WHERE… THE… LOOV-REH… IS?!” These days, he’d probably be right.

Of course, the spread of English has largely been conveyed not only by American economic dominance but also by American entertainment, including sports… making it even stranger that it would be the dominant vehicular language of the largest tournament of a sport that continues to have little traction in the US, relative to other major sports, and which many Americans actively reject as “un-American” (no accounting for taste or intelligence there.) But forms of American slang are also spreading.

If only this was the most obvious example.
Textspeak, adopted organically as a matter of convenience, continues to leak over into other electronic communications, such that many businesses are expressly forbidding it in any kind of official communication attempt (like, say, a job application.) But it’s interesting to note that the lingo common to much of that new style was adopted much earlier by such things as the TL;DR exercise or simple typos.

An example of the former case is online forum communications, where anything past a hundred words is automatically dismissed by much of the Ritalin-prescribed populace as simply too much information to be absorbed. Thus, Too Long; Didn’t Read prefixing a one or two sentence condensation of the post that, of course, removes any and all nuance and context. The latter case centers on frequent typos. Perhaps the best known is that of “pwned.” The term first arose on the forum for Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft game and was an expression for completely dominating one’s opponent (originally “owned”.) There’s fairly widespread dispute as to whether the first use of the term was a typo or was the mistaken approximation to the intended term by the game’s vast Korean audience. I trend toward believing the former but the latter would add a certain texture to the story that speaks even more about the language difficulties and transformations alluded to above.

In ur base, killin ur d00dz...
Most outside the gaming world have only a cursory experience with terms like “pwned”. In other words, they know that kids and geeks use it, which is similar to many other expressions and shorthands that often separate generations and which become outdated with the accession of a new cultural overlay. With the increased prevalence of technology and the tendency of people of all ages to use things like textspeak, one wonders if we’re looking at a transformation of the vehicular language from English to a pidgin form of English even among English speakers.

Incidentally, the presence of the lingua franca wasn’t the only language issue that cropped up during the World Cup. The famously welcoming hosts, who speak Portuguese unlike every other nation on their continent, were reportedly pretty testy about hearing Spanish spoken around the venues; that being the language of two of the most significant challengers to their presumed victory. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, for NPR, was castigated by listeners for not only speaking Portuguese with a Spanish accent but also supposedly speaking Spanish with an Argentinian accent (she claims otherwise), since Argentina was the most threatening of those potential challengers. The strange interplay among cultures wasn’t solely the province of the fans, either, as otherwise brilliant commentator, Ian Darke, attempted to make a point about fans in the stadium during the US-Portugal match perhaps favoring the latter because of a shared culture and language… neglecting to remember that Brazil was a Portuguese colony which fought a fairly ferocious war of independence to remove that status. That said, the US did the same and you’ll find a lot of casual fans favoring the English national team and the Premier League because them people look like us and talk like us…

Now I begin to wonder how we could increase the spread of Braille with accents. If you’re reading in Boston, do you replace all of the Rs with Ahs?

Fandom





Brian’s recent brief explanation (last question) about how to pick an EPL team to root for got me to thinking. As some of you know, I’m an LFC fan and became one largely because it was the only professional club that we could get footage of when I was a kid (mostly via public TV and occasionally CBC) and that was largely because Liverpool was the dominant team of England’s first division at the time (late 70s/early 80s.) I knew of the other big clubs like Arsenal, but I mostly saw Liverpool so I developed an attachment for the Reds. I’ve been accused of having a similarity in my rooting interests for aged teams with great histories but little recent success to show for it, because Michigan is the same way. But that sentiment is accurate in that I had the geographic advantage of living in the state where one of the most successful college football programs in the history of the game happened to exist. I became a Michigan fan because that’s what I saw and one of the first things I vividly remember is the cool helmets compared to almost every other team that they played against. Coming full circle again, I remember thinking how distinctive the all-red kits of LFC were compared to their opposing numbers (young communist even then…)


But the point that Brian made that triggered this post is his measure of disdain for the “petrosheik” clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City (even though the former is owned by a Russian, not a ‘sheik’, it’s still oil money.) While both of the latter clubs have history in the Premier League (Chelsea’s considerably superior to City’s), their recent success is (ahem) fueled largely by their respective owners’ status as billionaires. This allows both clubs to spend vastly more than most of their rivals and, therefore, sweep up the world’s soccer talent and use it to create championship teams. The Premier League’s spending rules are fairly few; nothing like many American sports’ leagues salary caps or luxury taxes and certainly nothing like the Bundesliga’s defined spending limits, as most of those clubs are municipally-owned. That kind of largesse is looked upon by Brian and many others as, ironically, ‘cheap’ in that the club didn’t work to build its own development system or “play by the rules” in direct competition with its rivals, but instead bought its way to success. Consequently, they’re considered less viable from a fan interest standpoint because they’re seen as artificial and it’s assumed that a new fan would only be interested because they’re two of the best teams in the top division right now, rather than something more genuine. Of course, part of my attachment to teams like Liverpool and Michigan is the fact that they were very successful. That meant it was gratifying to watch them play, because they usually won, but it was also one of the main reasons that I saw them in the first place: lots of people wanted to see them because they usually won. Therefore, TV networks were glad to show them because the networks made money and they also paid out money to the teams in question, enabling Liverpool, at least, to pay more for players and Michigan to at least create better facilities under the NCAA’s artificial “amateurism” system.


Considering that the NCAA is currently wrestling with critics of that artificial system that prevents giving athletes a share of the money they’re earning and requires schools like Michigan, with vastly more resources and far greater fanbases with even more resources, to play by the same rules as the Ball States, the disgust with teams like City is a bit questionable from a college sports perspective. It’s not as if I don’t understand the reaction. I share it. Liverpool is one of the most successful teams in the history of both the Premier League and international soccer (although they haven’t won the home league in quite some time, just like Michigan…) Man City has long been a member of the top flight, but has almost always been an also-ran. Their recent run of success has been created entirely by their essential status as “Qatar FC”, as Brian refers to them. They lack anything remotely like the fanbase of LFC, Arsenal, or their crosstown rivals, Manchester United, but they’re the hot item of the moment because they’re winning with a lot of the talent from the Continent and South America, bought and paid for by oil money. It seems cheap, in a sports sense, that they simply tapped a few holes in the ground and are suddenly winning the League and competing for the Champions League title on a regular basis.

But, what, exactly is wrong with that?


When the stake is finally driven through the NCAA’s heart and some share of the billions in revenue is distributed to the players of major college football and basketball, it stands to reason that the archaic rules of amateurism in terms of recruiting will also be swept away. If that means that Michigan and its huge alumni base can suddenly bring their full powers to bear in terms of attracting talent, why wouldn’t they? Michigan, the school, can outspend all but a few other institutions. Based on occasionally quantifiable evidence, it seems that the world’s largest alumni organization can outspend anyone. If we can bring the best athletes here, would that make Michigan a different form of Man City?

The counter-argument is that Michigan, while playing by the rules, built up one of the largest and most devoted followings of any program via sustained success. Consequently, the school has money to spend because it won within the rules and isn’t winning because it has money (barring the fact that facilities and other incidentals generated from that success are pretty attractive to the average athlete.) Michigan, ostensibly, earned its fans the “honest” way and now benefits from succeeding in that effort to a degree greater than any other school. But is being a dyed-in-the-wool, “traditional” winner a better choice for a new fan than another school simply because that team has the institutional and historical advantages that other teams do not? Liverpool is in the same situation. Sustained success earned sufficient money and fan support to enable that success to be continued until LFC, too, was purchased by very wealthy Americans (former money managers and now sports, specifically the Red Sox, not oil) who now spend considerable amounts of money trying to keep the club at the elite level.


Contrasting again is the question of: What makes fandom worthwhile? Is it more satisfying to root for a little guy like Northwestern, long the stepchild of the Big 10 until achieving decent success in the last couple decades? Or for a Purdue, which has almost never been able to rise above the traditional powers of its league? Tottenham and Sunderland are good comparisons in the Premier League. But would you suggest that to a new fan, to immerse themselves in the frustration of watching an average or poor team simply because they’re the little guy and it might be extra satisfying once a decade when they make 5th place? Is it likewise a bad idea to suggest that they simply join the crowd and root for one of the other big powers, because that’s what so many other people do (the best example in this case from an EPL perspective being Man U over the past 20 years)?

I guess my answer to that would be: watch what you like. Watch a ton of EPL (or college football) and see which teams’ style you enjoy or which players you really like to see perform. That one is likely to be your favorite almost regardless of record. Winning will still affect things, of course, because people are naturally drawn to successful things. But it won’t be everything. As Brian notes, Chelsea, while enormously successful in recent years, plays godawful, suffocating, boring football. Man City, OTOH, plays an up-tempo, attacking style which is far more entertaining. From my own interest, I’m thankful that Liverpool’s current style is also the attacking game, as they’re striker-heavy. In contrast, watching Michigan’s team in the past couple years on both offense and defense has been an exercise in head-pounding against the nearest hard surface. I can imagine new fans of the game enjoying LFC on the field. I cannot say the same for Michigan, but I know there are plenty of other fans who would say otherwise, because that's essentially what fandom is about.