Sunday, December 28, 2008

It's Impressive What Grad School Can Do To a Man

Well, the semester is finally over. My first term at Virginia Tech was a fruitful one; I got A's in all my classes—Food Processing, Packaging, and Chemistry (or Food Proc/Pkg/Chem as they became known)—and some of my thesis proposal work out of the way. I won't deny that it's been stressful, more stressful than college ever was. Grad school is a weird world if you pause and think about it for too long. You're given more responsibility than an undergraduate ever was, and in a lot of cases (though not mine, not yet) you're given money as well. Even with that, though, you can't help feeling like undergrads have a bit of a better deal. They're paying to go to school and therefore are seen as a source of revenue. Grad students get paid (at least in most I being a little too obvious here?) and therefore are seen as something of a benign liability by some professors. It boils down to a very feudal perception of things; you're still a serf but with the duties of a noble. (And if you think that academia isn't a society built on classism, even of an artificial nature, then you are what experts call "wrong.")

So I'm pleased with the way the first semester turns out, although I'm a lot more nervous about the next few semesters than I was in college. I've never written a thesis before, and it's frightening, to be honest. I put off doing a thesis in college for an extended research paper due to this same fear of contributing to a body of knowledge. At some level it's probably a fear of rejection, of feeling like I don't know enough or have enough experience to put myself out there. Samuel Johnson summed it up nicely:

"He that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgement. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honour, but at the hazard of disgrace."

It seems that the "aspiration to honor" and the "hazard of disgrace" are the things that are frightening me the most. Here's hoping that the aspiration is warranted and that the hazard never has the oppurtunity to present itself.

But I'm still going to keep repeating: "Only three more semesters..."

(I'm still flying.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Questionable Content

I’m going to start this off by saying that I am well aware that I am not another John Solomon. This fact may still be pointed out to me at length in the comments, even with that initial assertion. However, there is a webcomic that merits the merciless eye and the red pen of the reviewer, and I consider myself inspired enough to take on the job. This comic been called many things—pointlessly dramatic, a t-shirt factory, a webcomic version of Friends, etc. All of these comments underscore the fact that Questionable Content is bad and Jeph Jacques (or Jeff Jacks, or whatever the hell his name is) should feel bad.

This is a somewhat personal post. I used to enjoy this comic; it was on my sidebar for several years. Like Saint Paul, however, I gave up childish things (and webcomics), and moved on. I bring this up because, as someone who used to think it was decent, I feel ashamed for ever liking it. It was never any better than it is now. In a way, this post is penance for not seeing through the shallow, callow “plots” more quickly. Unlike some webcomics, the art isn’t what kills it. No, it’s the writing. There are a variety of sins that Jacques commits, and we’ll go through them in order of severity.

First off, the jokes. Jacques shoehorns, bludgeons, and maims a “joke” like no other webcomic author that I’ve run across. The man simply has no idea when to quit. In the first link above, the joke would have been slightly more tolerable if it had stopped with Marten’s line. Granted, the joke was sort of pre-empted by Jeph (speaking through Steve, the guy on the couch) giving us a Wiki entry on cubist art, but I'm going to overlook that in favor of Faye’s final comment, which makes no goddam sense. Seriously. Read it. Even if she were a former member of the Velvet Underground, her comparison of masturbation and Andy Warhol paintings would still bring this panel to a grinding, screeching, crashing, halt. Mostly because it is—or was intended to be—the punchline. Except that it illicits only frustration and perplexity instead of amusement.

“But surely Jacques has changed between then and now,” people will no doubt say. “This was only his ninety-fourth comic! He’s done over a thousand!”

Yes, and the jokes are still just as bad. Look at that second link again. A joke that should have lasted half a panel—or better yet, no panels at all—is dragged out for three panels, giving an initially ham-fisted attempt at comedy the grim aura of a death march. Overall, though, I find this joke less offensive than his comment on the newspost at the bottom of the strip:

“This is probably my favorite kind of strip to write- two or three characters just taking an idea and riffing on it for a few panels. I think it's because I grew up watching MST3K religiously.”

It’s a damn shame that that’s his favorite type of strip to write, because he is terrible at it. In fact, if you “riff off” of a joke—any joke—for three panels in the verbose manner that Jacques employs, you’re going to wring out any vestiges of humor it once had like the last drops of blood from a recalcitrant stone. As for the MST3K reference, I am just gobsmacked. In what way does he think his comic bears any resemblance to MST3K? Perhaps the inclusion of a sassy-talking robot gave him delusions of grandeur. At any rate, Questionable Content is in no way, shape, or form anywhere CLOSE to amusing, let alone close to an MST3K level of humor, and Jacques should feel bad for that self-congratulatory remark alone.

Secondly, QC doesn’t verge on the disgusting, as “verging on” would imply that it held back—that Jeph Jacques had some measure of restraint. Which he doesn’t appear to have. That last link comes at the end of a wonderfully hilarious “arc” wherein the goth chick, Raven—against ALL logic whatsoever—decides to use lubricant as a hair product. Tasteful. The pain doesn’t end there, though, as we are treated to a special episode of QC Women Say Things That No Woman Would Ever Say In Real Life. In the third panel, Dora starts off with a joke that even Jacques didn't want to finish. Raven continues the trend by hypothesizing about Faye and Dora’s menstrual cycles. Ha ha! We all know from Family Guy that period jokes are comedy gold. Jacques apparently believes this, because Dora AGREES, giving us more information than we could possibly ever want about the state of her underwear. (Assuming this wasn’t meant to be a medical emergency, we can only assume that Jacques has never heard of the invention of feminine hygiene products. Consider that the man is married when you read that last sentence.) Marten takes the final punchline to a whole new level with a joke about defecation, because that’s exactly the finishing touch that this utter monstrosity of a strip needed. Bravo, Mr. Jacques. Well played.

Finally, the man apparently has no concept of how to write a dramatic storyline. None. (As an aside, the one comic I didn’t include in that list contains a joke about Joan Rivers'…well, read for yourself. Ugh. Quit with those jokes already, Jacques.) Like Dave Willis, the author of Shortpacked!, Jacques appears to have thought his comic could gain street cred via drama. Unlike Willis, however, he wasn’t funny before the drama, and he sure as hell ain’t funny now. Faye’s stilted and unrealistic conversation with her mother proves that he also has no clue how actual drama—as opposed to drama cooked up to explain why a character is a horrendous bitch—plays out in people’s lives. A comment from one of his newsposts during the suicide arc shows how oblivious he is:

“…I figure two weeks is more than enough time for exposition, by then it will be time to explore some of the interesting (and hopefully entertaining) ripple effects caused by Marten and Faye having this little chat.”

...Because nothing is more entertaining than the aftermath of paternal suicide.

I give up, and I haven’t even gotten to Marten and Dora’s completely improbable and implausible courtship. Jacques, your attempts to show off your indie hipsterism through awkward and drawn-out jokes, your apparent preoccupation with various human bodily functions, and your astoundingly inept fumblings with "dramatic" "plotlines" combine to make this comic a festering, cringe-inducing eyesore. It’s a real shame that, in other ways, QC is such a “success story"—making its way from humble beginnings to massive popularity (and prosperity, in the form of T-shirts and ads)—because it’s pure, unadulterated tripe.

And, one more time, because it needs to be said, and I feel like saying it: Jeph Jacques, your webcomic is bad, and you should FEEL BAD.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mr. Mistletoe’s Sundial

If you ever walk along Charlottesville’s University Avenue, you'll go past what's called the Corner. The name is misleading—it’s actually more of a long stretch of restaurants, bookstores, bars, and kitschy little shops between Chancellor and 14th Streets. Or at least it used to be; the restaurants and some of the bars are still around, but a Starbucks replaced one of the old businesses that used to be there, and I’m sure there have been a few other changes as well in the time I’ve been gone. That place still carries a lot of emotional currency for me, though, because of a few weeks every year I’d spend there with my dad, selling mistletoe.

This all happened when I was about five or six years old. My dad was self-employed, and therefore was his own boss when it came to budgeting his time. I’m not sure how the idea came about, or why he settled on mistletoe particularly. He disdained the typical method employed by local Buckingham County natives, which involved shooting the mistletoe off the tree with a .22, as it caused too many berries to fall off and required a gun and the ability to shoot it besides. For those reasons, he had my brother-in-law fix him an eighteen-foot pole with a hook welded onto the end of it. In late November, usually right after Thanksgiving, he’d drive around the county, looking for mistletoe-infested trees in people’s yards. If he found one, he’d knock on the person’s door and ask them if he could climb the tree in their yard and pull the mistletoe down. Most of the people he asked were obliging, though no doubt amused by the idea of a man climbing up a tree for such a purpose. He’d clamber up the tree and I’d hand him the pole, and he’d hook the mistletoe and half-lower, half-drop it onto a tarp below.

We’d gather up as much as we could into giant black trash bags. Once we got it home, we tied the mistletoe—about two or three sprigs at a time—together with ribbon, curled the ends of the ribbon, packed the tied sprigs into Ziploc bags, and put them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. The day after that, we would pack up the car with an assortment of objects—equipment and gear that started out in a rudimentary, utilitarian fashion and evolved into something much larger and more complex than selling mistletoe would seem to require. At the height of his career as a salesman, my father had a huge sign made of pieces of paperboard that spelled out “MR MISTLETOE” in individual letters, which he suspended between a hook on the outside wall of LittleJohn’s Deli and a streetlamp. He put a sign on a wooden gardening post that said “Mr. Mistletoe” as well, and he made up a box that he decorated carefully with wrapping paper and signs that announced his name, a third time, and “$2”—the price of each bag of three sprigs.

His target demographic on the corner was college students, more specifically college girls. Two bucks was an affordable enough price, and many such girls were so taken with the idea and carried away with the double ecstasy of holiday fever and the end of exams that the shrewdness of his plan became evident rather quickly. College guys were targeted as well, in much the same way as girls; a gift that says—no, demands—“kiss me” is likely to appeal with such a group. The simple genius of his plan would become clearer to me, much later, when I was at William & Mary; no doubt I would have shelled out a few bucks myself, albeit more out of hope than certainty.

At one point, his advertising campaign included making a giant wooden sandwichboard sign that said “Buy Mistletoe from Mr. Mistletoe,” putting it over my shoulders, and having me walk up and down West Main, from the Lucky Seven convenience store way down to the corner of West Main and 14th Street, across the street from where the Orbit bar is now. Mistaking the amused laughter of passers-by for ridicule, I would wear the sign with a prominent blush searing my cheeks, and would dutifully trudge my appointed path as rapidly as was possible while wearing two heavy pieces of board across my back and chest. For this task I was paid a quarter, enough money to play one of the arcade games in the basement of a nearby comic shop and thus ease the heartbreak of the perceived indignity of my ambulatory marketing.

At a certain point in the afternoon, my dad would pack up his stuff into the car and go around peddling his wares to various businesses. Being a computer programmer and a mathematician, his salesman’s plan was stylized and deeply planned out. At my age, I was not entirely curious about where we went, so long as there was the possibility of soda, food, or toys. (However, I did learn, from conversations in the car, that hairdressers were often his best sales.) There were scattered locations all over town where he was guaranteed to sell quite a few bags, just as there were a few locations where he knew that the managers were likely to be unfriendly to him—much in the way Depression-era tramps used to leave symbols on houses as reminders: “Mean dog,” “Nice lady,” “Good food.” He never seemed deterred by rudeness. I suppose, in retrospect, he considered it the other person’s problem, much the way Ronald Reagan once said, when an aide showed him an article harshly criticizing his presidency: “Yeah, I wonder what’s eating that guy?”

I could go on for hours about those few weeks in December: how I explored the gardens on the UVA campus, sitting on the wall of the University park eating hot hamburgers from the White Spot and drinking cream soda, buying my dad a latté every morning (from a coffee shop that no longer exists, sadly). However, something that really sticks in my mind is the way my dad kept time. He would go inside LittleJohn’s and find the times on the hour. Then he’d go outside and use his nail file to make a mark on the knee wall behind his sales table, scratching a line where the shadow of a nearby tree fell on the surface. That way he didn’t have to go inside and check every day—once he had each hourly time, he could tell what time it was based on the shadows across the wall.

I was on the Corner this past winter (right around the time of year my dad would have been selling mistletoe sixteen years ago), shopping at Plan 9 and getting a cup of coffee at the Starbucks that’s up towards Bodo’s. While walking by LittleJohn’s, I paused at the wall. I was sure I could see the etchings in the stone, made by a man living life on his own terms and doing what pleased him; a man who, rather than buying a watch, decided to leave his mark on this world in his own quiet but determined way.

(I'm still flying.)