Monday, May 21, 2007

Rediscovering the Classics

One of my part time jobs is working with teenagers at my temple. I teach 8th and 9th grade confirmation and also serve as the youth group advisor. It’s a great gig, and the kids I deal with are motivated, smart and full of life. I often times poll them to see what TV shows, music, books, etc. are popular with them, and have even discovered some cool stuff I never would have otherwise. So it was particularly funny to me when, the other day, over a gourmet dinner of Chinese takeout, one of the 8th grade girls in my class, stated, very matter of factly, “I just discovered Jimi Hendrix.”

This got me thinking about the classics. After nearly four years of riding the new alternative comics wave, breaking my back to keep up with reviewing all of the hot new releases, working hard not only to engage these works in an honest way, but also to be among the first online to get his opinion out there, I’ve more recently taken a back seat, letting those who are better and smarter than me carry that particular torch. Instead, I’ve enjoyed going back and “discovering” some of the classics that I never experienced before.

Obviously, the most notable of my discoveries is Love & Rockets, which I continue to dissect in my ongoing Shelf Life column. But its not the only one.

I also discovered Bill Griffith's classic Zippy the Pinhead. I used to be one of the many who always just assumed that Zippy made no sense, based on the few syndicated versions I'd seen in various alternative newspapers. But after reading the Comics Journal interview with Griffith, I realized what a sharp, intelligent advocate for comics the creator is. I started by tracking down some more recent strips which were released in the first issue of Fantagraphics' quarterly “compendium” in the early 90s.

Zippy is, to me, biting social satire and absurdism mixed to perfection, a cocktail of intelligence and surreality that just somehow works, even when you don’t quite understand it. That Zippy’s physical appearance is downright disturbing – think a drunken, misshapen child abuser dressed up in second hand clown robes – is part of the weird charm of the strip. In the same way that Kaz’s Underworld strips make you laugh at the seamy underbelly our overheated consumer culture, Zippy somehow just seems like the perfect, demented commentator on modern life. After reading the Fantagraphics book, I went back to the earlier stuff, published by Last Gasp in the late 70s. This, as you would expect, has a rougher look and feel, and contains less satire and more absurdism. Less to connect with, but still enjoyable for its consistent comedic value. I can’t help but laugh at the bizarre non-sequiters and random quotations that Zippy seems to have in endless supply.

I also recently "discovered" Tennessee Williams. Well, not exactly. I have read a few of his plays in the past – Summer and Smoke, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – the classics. But it was only a few months ago that I learned he actually wrote a play set in the very neighborhood I grew up in. It’s called A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, in reference to Creve Coeur park in the western suburbs of St. Louis county, a park in which I spent many happy childhood hours hiking, smoking and, as a teenager, working as a camp counselor. This play is obscure enough that it took several visits to different NYC bookstores before I was able to track down a copy, but in the end, I did manage to find one. The play itself is unremarkable, other than to someone who can picture exactly the places casually referred to by the characters. The plot, as is so often the case in Williams’ plays, centers around a debutante woman caught between the pressures of upgrading her social status and her faithfulness to her lower class roots. It is a tale of the colonization by immigrants and white flight to the suburbs, an urban blight that plagues St. Louis even now, and insomuch as it was all painfully familiar, I enjoyed it, however, on the whole, it is, for good reason one of Williams’ lesser plays, and one that belabors its point with very little dramatic action to compel its audience.

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