Wednesday, July 23, 2014

‘Velvet’, And More Words About The Portrayal of Women in Comic Books


Image Comics’ ‘Velvet’, by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting – the team that originally concocted Captain America’s ‘Winter Soldier’ stories – is a story about a secretary at a 1970s spy agency who turns out to herself be a former top agent. It is unusual not so much in that the lead character is a woman, but that she is in her mid-40s. That would be a rarity in most popular entertainment mediums, let alone comics, where the ‘major’ female characters – Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, etc. – are all perpetually in their 20s or 30s. Even alternative comics (not that ‘Velvet’ is really an alternative title) struggle for middle-aged female protagonists, with Luba in ‘Love and Rockets’ being perhaps the most notable exception.

The choice of age for Velvet Templeton does help the title stand out, visually and narratively. Writer Ed Brubaker has said in an interview for ‘Wired’ that some of the advantages of choosing ‘a mature, middle-aged woman’ was that she could have ‘a secret history’, and she is ‘someone who’s lived a real life’. This does indeed give the character a depth that might be lacking in a young or rookie agent; dangers lie not only in Velvet’s present, but may emerge from her past as well. Steve Epting’s workmanlike art – in a good sense – also helps to diffuse the focus away from Velvet’s sexuality and place it upon the plot. In that way, it is almost the antithesis of something like former Image spy series J. Scott Campbell’s ‘Danger Girl’, and even TV series like ‘La Femme Nikita’ to some extent.

However, there are still some things that might make people longing for empowered female characters bristle a bit. In one scene in issue #3, Velvet’s only way of gaining some important information is to have sex with one of the men who have access to it. Now she is hardly alone in using this tactic, and compared to the number of times that, say, Sydney Bristow seduced men in ‘Alias’ it is relatively minor. Other potential mitigating factors are that Velvet is able to exercise some measure of control in picking her target – spurning a fat, bald ministry officer for his more attractive assistant – and that perhaps it is part of the point that, unfortunately, this was the primary way for a female secret agent in the 1970s to be effective.  Nevertheless, some might wish that the story had not resorted to this fairly ‘simple’ method for moving the story forward.

In addition, in terms of the Bechdel test, the series almost fails completely. Most of Velvet’s friends and acquaintances are men, and she seems to have gone through a few male companions in her time. The only other even semi-substantial female character that shows up in the ‘present-day’ story is the wife of a general Velvet is targeting, whose main fixation turns out to be her husband and who is quickly swept aside. This absence of women is partly forgivable – realistically, a lot of the people in Velvet’s world would be men – particularly in the era the story is set in. The series also redeems itself on this aspect to some extent through its flashbacks in issue #5 to Velvet’s tutelage from Lady Pauline, a war hero that provides both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to the young agent.

Still, I think it would be an overly curmudgeonly reader that would hold these potential shortcomings against the series. All in all ‘Velvet’ is for the most part an intelligent and intriguing read, and a refreshing change from portrayals of women in comics like this. Alas, in the same ‘Wired’ interview, Brubaker recounted how when he pitched the series as a TV pilot, notes came back insisting that the main character be 25 years old. Kudos to Brubaker then for sticking to his (metaphorical) guns on that count, and for having brought a little more balance to the types of characters and genres available to comic book audiences.

Velvet #6, which begins the second storyline, is out this week.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five – July 2014

Well, it has been a long, circuitous route through punk, post-punk, prog rock, Britpop, American indie, Christmas songs, and Eurovision, but the Wooden Finger Depot’s musical ears have finally caught up with the present day again. Note also the numerical order of this month’s five tracks – yes, the order is deliberate; we’re doing a countdown here.

No. 5 Dogs – Sun Kil Moon

47 year old Mark Kozelek’s most recent Sun Kil Moon album, ‘Benji’, talks a bit about death and getting old. ‘Dogs’ however sets its sights backwards, recounting the first girl Kozelek kissed, the first girl he loved, the first girl he fumbled around with, and well … you get the picture. (The ‘Dogs’ title by the way refers to the Pink Floyd track of the same name and Kozelek ‘panting like a dog’ with lust, rather than being any comment on the girls themselves – I think.) Double-tracked vocals are employed fairly regularly throughout ‘Benji’ but they are used to best effect here; like ghosts of past Kozeleks have arisen to help the current day man remember his formative sexual and romantic experiences, and speculate on how they have affected him.

No. 4 Broke – Tom Vek

London’s Tom Vek’s new album ‘Luck’ is OK, but some of the vocals and sounds can seem a little insubstantial at points, as if there was not the budget for some real studio time. Not so on ‘Broke’, on which Vek throws some sizable beats and multiple instruments behind his fullest vocal on the LP. Strangely, it reminds me of Big Black’s ‘Kerosene’ and its memorable ‘dinga-da-dinga’ guitar intro but it is far less harrowing than that track (most things in this world are). I am still not sure what the Middle Eastern-sounding instrument is; in the end I settled on just plain old guitar.

No. 3 Spook – Adult Jazz

Upon first hearing it, I wondered if Adult Jazz’s ‘Spook’ was not a single but an EP, as it seemed to stretch on for 15-20 minutes (it actually goes for ten). The haunting movement of the track (wow, I used the adjective ‘haunting’ to describe a song called ‘Spook’ … lazy) make the lyrics feel like poetry, if that poem was something akin to an early 21st century college version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. Further examination reveals that those lyrics are not quite as profound as ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’ or ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’; instead they are lines like – I think – ‘spook at the door, I spoke with a whisper’, ‘bow down on me’, ‘and I do not take it lightly’, ‘I was always poking around the suburbs with a heart of glass’ and ‘with your weak words, and your weaker will’. Still what standards am I holding Adult Jazz up to here? This beautiful track is itself a fine achievement.

No. 2 Premonitions – Vaults

Listening to London band Vaults’ first single ‘Premonitions’, you will definitely feel as if you have heard something like it before. That would be the case even if the melody to the line ‘But we never look back’ did not sound very close to that of the line ‘And I’m so down caught in the middle’ from London Grammar’s ‘Strong’.  Nevertheless, even amongst chanteuse-led, bar lounge pop it stands out as something special. For example, ‘Strong’ kept pretty much the same dynamics all the way through, but in ‘Premonitions’ – just  when you think that you have heard all it has to offer – suddenly some strings drift in and seem to boost the tune upwards through its final forty seconds. On a scale of 10pm to 4am, it comes in at about 1.30.

No. 1 Bamboo – Deers

Two young, shaggy-haired brunette girls from Madrid mixing Californian surf rock with the ramshackle fuzz of the Velvet Underground? Dios mio!! it’s hipster heaven! (On your bikes Haim.) Their track ‘Bamboo’ is not just all about cool, cool style though; it is a vocally intriguing song in which the duo bounce hoarse, laconic phrases off each other, each of their voices distinct but blending with the other. Think of a rougher, multitracked version of Best Coast. Here’s hoping las mujeres can chuck together more stuff as appealing as this.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Who Has Ended Up With The Easiest AFL Draw in 2014?

With a split round in the AFL I am not posting any updated AFL Power Rankings this week. To fill the gap though I thought it might be interesting to revisit which AFL team has had the easiest draw in 2014. At the start of the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons I have rated the difficulty of each team’s draw, based on the ranking of teams at the end of the previous year. But something I should have done before is gone back and re-calculated the results based on how strong teams turned out to be. Fortunately I had the foresight this year in designing my Excel file to make it simple to do this.

Basically, the difficulty of a team’s draw depends on three factors:

- The effect of not playing themselves. For example, Sydney’s draw becomes easier relative to every other team simply because they do not have to play Sydney. If you do not believe this should be taken into account, just subtract this effect from the results.

- Net home ground advantage. This is simply the net effect of the adjustments I make for home ground advantage across the season. It is not always zero, particularly if you are a team with a tendency to ‘sell’ home games interstate.

- The teams played twice. Obviously if you play harder teams twice rather than once, your draw becomes harder.

At the start of the 2014 season, based on the end-of-year 2013 rankings, these were the results (higher score means easier draw):


However, if I recalculate the results based on teams’ rankings at the end of Round 17 2014, this is what I get:

 
(Those who really pay attention to the rankings will notice that the effect of not playing your own team is slightly different to the reverse of the team’s ranking points as of Round 17. I have adjusted each team’s ranking so that the sum of ranking points across teams is zero; normally the sum of ranking points across teams is slightly negative.)

The Gold Coast Suns are now assessed to have the easiest draw in 2014. Part of this is because they have somewhat improved in 2014, so it is more of an advantage to them not to have to play themselves. More important though is that two of the teams they play twice, Brisbane and St. Kilda, are the two teams whose ranking points have deteriorated the most so far in 2014. Sure, this means that the Lions and the Saints have just gone from bad to atrocious. But at the start of the season the Lions were rated more highly than Gold Coast, and the Saints were considered by the rankings as likely to beat the Suns in Melbourne, so the drop-offs of those teams are still significant.

Richmond is still rated as having the second easiest draw, and its draw is only really considered worse than it was at the start of the year because the Tigers themselves have gone backwards. (As a Tigers supporter I am going to go hit a brick wall now…)

Adelaide, North Melbourne, and West Coast are all still considered to have relatively easy draws. The Bulldogs are also still considered to have a relatively easy draw, but significantly less easy than it was considered to be at the start of the year. Four of the five teams that the Dogs play twice this year – Melbourne, GWS, Essendon, and Gold Coast – are much more highly rated than they were at the end of 2013, particularly Melbourne and GWS. However in contrast to Gold Coast, that may not have affected the Bulldogs’ win-loss record that much; Melbourne and GWS have gone from horrible to not as bad but the Dogs would still be favourites against them.

At the other end of the scale, cellar dwellers St. Kilda, Brisbane, and GWS pay dearly for not being able to play themselves although Brisbane also plays some tough teams twice. Hawthorn though looks to have the most difficult return bouts. At the start of the year Geelong was rated as having the most difficult second engagements, but two of their opponents – Brisbane and Carlton – have dropped off significantly so far in 2014. Meanwhile Essendon’s draw is not as bad as it first seemed as, aside from its own improvement, the other ‘Big 4’ Victorian clubs that it plays twice have all taken a step back.

In general though, the fixtures for most clubs have turned out to be of about the same level of difficulty as they were assessed to be at the start of the season. This is because, with some notable exceptions, most clubs have played at pretty much the same level so far in 2014 as they did in 2013. Now excuse me as I resume hitting a brick wall at the thought of Richmond blowing the best draw they will have in years.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Blog For This Basketball Assessment

With the return of former Miami Heat forward LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Vegas have installed the Cavs as the new favourites to win the 2014-15 NBA title. Hold on a moment though – the return of the Cavs’ all-time leading scorer and four-time NBA Most Valuable Player is certainly cause for optimism, but should they really be favourites?

As Nate Silver has pointed out reasonable estimates of LeBron’s value put him as being worth 20 wins per regular season. The Cavs won 33 games in 2013-14 (see LHS of the chart below), and Silver estimates the addition of LeBron would likely take them up to around 52 wins. This will probably make Kyrie Irving and the rest of C-Town somewhat happier (see middle of chart). But it is unlikely to take them to a level where they can match it with top teams such as the mighty San Antonio Spurs (see RHS of chart).


The other notable new addition to the Cavs, No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins, might be a handy asset to have, but rookies rarely add a lot of value. Even Rookie of the Year winners James and Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant threw up a lot of bricks in their first seasons and their teams had mediocre records.

The Vegas odds may reflect that people now think that there is a good chance that the Cavs will land Minnesota’s rebounding machine Kevin Love. Depending on what the Cavs gave up for him Love could add over another 15 wins to the team, and take their win column up into the high 60s. Of course the Cavs have been in that realm before and not come home with the trophy, but they would probably deserve favouritism at least.
Regardless, the Cavs are probably going to be a lot better than James’ old team the Miami Heat. Essentially the Cavs and Heat would be expected to swap win-loss records, with James’ production of 20 wins being transferred from Florida to Ohio. Even with their recent signings and a terrible Eastern Conference the Heat may struggle to make the playoffs.


Silver argued, as did these ESPN scribes, that James would have had a much better shot at a title if he had managed to get to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he could have teamed up with stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. As it is the Cavs may still find it tough to get past the Indiana Pacers (assuming they keep free agent Lance Stephenson) and the Chicago Bulls if the injured Derrick Rose can become productive again.
Remember when Chris Judd left the West Coast Eagles and there was that blog post about the song he might write about moving back to Melbourne? No? Well, I still like to think that as LeBron James drives his Ferrari on the northbound out of Miami that he might be singing the lyrics below to the tune of ‘Miami’ by Foals. Yes, I know that even if LeBron was inclined to change lyrics to Miami-themed songs – which he wouldn’t I expect – that he would be more likely to choose the track of the same name by Will Smith. Like millions of other sports fans, I am projecting on to an athlete something that is happening in my imagination only.
I promised you rings, not two, three, or four
Not five, six, or seven, or even more
But why did the fans boo when I stepped on the floor?
 
Would you be there, cheering, stay in your seat?
(In Miami)
How could I say no to someone like Pat Riley?
(In Miami)
 
After two titles though things aren’t the same
I’m playing with the remains of Dwyane Wade
No wonder the Spurs just brushed us away
 
Now what’s the best place to go chase ring number three?
(Not Miami)
It’s the place where my hometown entourage will be
(Not Miami)
 
(Miami bad, Miami bad, Miami bad, Miami bad)
(Miami bad, Miami bad, Miami bad, Miami bad)

Before we vamos:

·         The James/Wade/Bosh era in Miami will be mainly remembered by me for two things: the Welcome Party, and Game 6 of the 2012-13 Finals.
·         But here are some other moments to remember from basketball’s most famous, divisive, Drake-loving team of the past decade.
·         What if every other NBA player pulled a LeBron and went back to their hometown?
·         And one more link: here are some reasons why LBJ might have chosen Cleveland instead

Sunday, July 13, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 17 2014

RISING UP

The Sydney Swans won their twelfth game in a row on Saturday night, giving them their equal longest winning streak ever, and easily their longest since the ‘Foreign Legion’ was decimating teams out at the Lake Oval in the 1930s. More importantly, I am sure, they are now the number one ranked team! As mentioned last week the Swans do not have the best average net margin in the league over their past 22 games, though it was boosted somewhat by showing Carlton who their daddy was on the weekend. But Sydney’s recent form shines – their net margin over the first 10 of those games was a mediocre -8; over their past 12 games: +42.

FALLING DOWN

Collingwood fans are now starting to worry that their team will miss the finals, and the rankings now show that the Pies are outside the eight best teams. This is not unprecedented in the four-year history of these rankings – Collingwood slipped to ninth in Round 14 last year – but it is a rarity. They have now lost over two goals worth of ranking points in the past five weeks. What may end up saving the Carringbush from an early off-season is that the team mentioned below looks like they could be in trouble as well.

ALSO OF NOTE

Without their skipper and the Greatest of All Time (yes, greater than Leigh Matthews) Gary Ablett, who is out for the season, Gold Coast dropped their game at the former Bundaberg Rum stadium to the Bulldogs. The loss of an all-time great does not mean as much in Australian Rules football as, say, basketball (more on that in a couple of days); Geelong for example survived the loss of the G.O.A.T. to win another premiership in 2011. But given that Ablett’s replacement was Matt Shaw, a player that is about two-fifths as productive if you take the SuperCoach scores as your metric, the Suns might be expected to slip back a few spots. Which admittedly did not prevent me from tipping them this weekend; perhaps I should have given the effect of Ablett’s absence as much consideration as I have here.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 85

BOOKS: Which of this year’s bestselling books are least likely to have actually been read? I am 25% of the way through the least likely, and it is indeed a laborious endeavour. The style is easy enough to read, but does he really need 700 pages to make his points?

FOOTBALL: The Sensitive Artist’s Guide to the World Cup. Unfortunately for modern-day sensitive artists, Socrates retired twenty-five years ago.

CULTURE/HUMOUR: Australians at Buzzfeed Oz answer their American colleagues’ questions about their country. My wife shed tears of laughter over the responses regarding our dangerous snakes and dingoes.

CRICKET: Do catches win cricket matches? I will have something to say about this topic here soon.

ART: 18 empowering illustrations from a Brazilian graphic designer about women’s bodily autonomy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

BEER!![15] – Rogue Beard Beer

Name:  Beard Beer

Brewery: Rogue

Place Of Origin: Oregon

Type: Beer of El Beardo. Brewed with a yeast created from Rogue Brewmaster John Maier’s beard. Did I mention the Rogue brewery is in Oregon?

Alcohol Content: 5.6% ABV. As in Added Beard Volume.

Why I Bought It: When am I going to buy a drink made from facial trimmings again? Particularly since this beer is a one-time brew, at least for now.

Taste: Oh it’s just an ale. You won’t be spitting out barber shop clippings or anything. I am more at risk of that from my regular Coopers beer that I get with my haircut at Dr. Follicles. (Important note to authorities – this is an exaggeration; never take away my beer at Dr. Follicles.)

What I did while drinking it: I could say I listened to Adelaide band The Beards. Drank to ‘Got Me A Beard’, ‘Beard Revolution’, and ‘If Your Dad Doesn’t Have A Beard, You’ve Got Two Mums’. But that would be a hairy-faced lie. (I listened to Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’. But hey, I’m seeing The Beards at 170 Russell in Melbourne this month.)

What I did after drinking it: Got in some stubble-stroking by watching the second season of ‘House of Cards’. Francis Underwood, you magnificent clean-faced bastard.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 16 2014

RISING UP

It’s Essendon this week. Time was that a win over Port Power, even in Adelaide, was not considered to be all that much, but not in 2014 where the Power’s strong form – particularly at home – has led to Adelaide Oval being dubbed the ‘Portress’. But the Bombers broke through there with a two-point victory on the weekend; even if Port had kicked another goal to steal the win the Bombers’ strong showing would have been enough to see them jump from twelfth to tenth. And reflecting that we are getting to the time of year where the AFL ladder and rankings start to reflect each other, that is where they sit on the ladder as well.

FALLING DOWN

No team significantly fell down the ranking spots this week. But St. Kilda’s stature – or what is left of it – deteriorated further, after they lost heavily to Carlton, who are in no great shape themselves. Since the start of the 2013 season the Saints have lost over 65 ranking points – about the equivalent of the difference between Sydney and GWS – and have dropped in the rankings from sixth to last. Even Lucifer and his rebel angels barely fell so far and fast.

ALSO OF NOTE

Sydney is now on top of the AFL ladder, but Hawthorn is still just holding them off the top of the rankings here. The Swans’ average net margin over their past 22 games is +15 points, putting them in the realm of Port Adelaide (+17), and North Melbourne and Collingwood (both +13), and well below Hawthorn (+31) and Fremantle (+27). But the strength of Sydney’s recent form puts them up with the Hawks and Dockers as the teams rated most likely to take out the flag in 2014.