Undead Notes - The Walking Dead - Issues 79-84

When last we left our survivors, they had settled in -- if that's possible in post-apocalyptic America -- with a group of survivors in a walled compound just outside of Washington DC.  Rick, Andrea, Glenn, Abraham, Michonne and the rest had just found places for themselves in The Community (what else are you going to call it), when a gang of baddies showed up.  Rick Grimes, of course, led the fight against them, there was a lot of gunfire, and, in the end, the baddies left, and The Community's leader, recognizing the better man, turned over management of the place to Rick.  The problem is, all that noise from the shootout attracted every walker from miles around.  Good luck in the new job, Rick! (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Issue 79 has the feel of a breather in the narrative, although some attention is paid to the problem not so much of the walking dead but to people.  When a Community member is stabbed by a loner on the outside -- even when an offer of help was no doubt in the making -- the question of the value of even sticking together in a community is raised. Eight-year-old Carl Grimes, clear-eyed and cynical, responds to the news of the the stabbing in his typically blunt manner: "Now maybe everyone will stop pretending we're safe."  Andrea, too, for all she's been through, is distrustful of the possibility of a normal life, and prefers the edgy solitude of her sniper tower and the company of her rifle, keeping the Community safe from on high.  It's clear that the roamer who's been attracted by all the noise are becoming a herd of thousands of zombies outside the walls, and that, in the end, no wall will likely keep the survivors safe for long.

The "No Way Out" storyline begins in Issue 80, with a bit of a misdirection -- first in a reminder of the stark zombie-killing force of Abraham, and second in the reasonable and comforting leadership of old One Hand, Rick Grimes.  "Keep as quiet as possible," Rick advises.  But the Community walls are quickly surrounded several zombies deep on all sides.  It's winter, so there's no easy way to grow food and no chance to to forage.  Rick admits that it's not ideal, and further suggests that, to conserve heating energy, people should start sharing living space.  All of this unfolds amid pages that are surprisingly white, made so by the effect of snow created solely by irregular white blobs that spatter each panel.  By nightfall, Michonne and Morgan are in bed together, and -- surprise -- Rick is hosting Jesse, the wife of the man he just killed.  Andrea, having taken her post in the sniper tower at the start of the day, looks to be there overnight and through the foreseeable future.

Before you know it, there's a breach in the wall -- small at first, but the weight of a thousand undead can move things, you know.  At the same time, Glenn decides to lead a mission to help out Andrea, stranded in her tower, by climbing across a rope suspended over a sea of walkers -- see the image at right. Issue 81 offers some more familiar zombie-killing fare and narrow escapes (or not), but it's clear that the herd outside must be dealt with directly in issues to come.  As a side note, WD 81 was one of the first comics I read in digital form, and the application for doing so requires you read panel-to-panel, not page-to-page; it seemed to me that the dramatic impact of certain moments was enhanced by the digital format, while the visual sweep was lessened --despite the ability to zoom in or pan any of the images.  At any rate, by the final panel, members of the Community are being eaten.  There maybe no way out, after all.

Much of Issue 82 takes place inside Rick's house as the Community is overrun.  "There's too many of them" is a line repeated by several characters as they battle the walkers.  Michonne is in fine form here, unleashing her samurai sword on the herd in defense of Morgan, who gets himself bitten.  (No worries, Morgan: your lady-friend Michonne will lop that arm off with your hardly having to ask.)  One particularly effective image is that of Abraham, looking out from his house while, reflected in the glass, we see the very procession of zombies he's observing.  Young Carl has got his hat on and his gun loaded, and is watching Morgan, now bandaged up and (possibly) heading for zombiedom.  Carl will shoot him if necessary.  With the Community now overrun, there is the question of what to do next, as cooperation will likely go out the window and survival takes precedence.  Take care of yourself and your own.  When asked about what is to be done about the children, Rick puts it unsentimentally: "The thing to keep in mind about other's people's children -- they're not our children."

In the annals of "making a break for it," Issue 83 offers a clear instance of failure, giving full meaning to the title of the story line "No Way Out."  Rick and Carl and their latest charges grab a zombie and pull the old guts-on-a-poncho trick.  But, once outside, people are too freaked out to keep quiet and keep moving, and several folks are eaten before Abraham comes outside and starts shooting.  Many zombies are killed, and other survivors join the carnage, and it appears that, if the gang just keeps blasting and chopping and bashing away, they might just put down the couple thousand zombies in the herd after all.  Sadly, Carl is shot -- not fatally, it appears -- but badly enough.  One of the most gruesome panels in the entire run of The Walking Dead is that of Carl, wounded, turning to his father.

In a moving sequence, the epic battle of the survivors against the herd really comes down to a simple narrative imperative.  If Rick can get Carl to the doctor and he and the others can destroy the herd, Carl might live. Michonne joins the fight, as do Glenn and Andrea (having gotten themselves back into the compound), and the dead pile up.  As they fight continues, they come to realize that they can win.  By the end, in one remarkable panel, we see the core group amid a pile of hundreds of downed walkers.  As "No Way Out" concludes, in a very touching epilogue of sorts, Rick comes to realize that "people are the problem," and that the walkers can be dealt with if the proper steps are taken.  And Carl is hanging on, hope against hope. People are the problem.  Again and again, in the world of The Walking Dead, the problems of the zombie apocalypse have more to do with human nature than the narrow imperatives of the undead.

NOTE: This review is cross-posted at Mort-Vivant, my blog about zombies (and science fiction and comics). These cross-postings will continue until Halloween 2011, when Mort-Vivant finally walks alone!

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Reader's Notes - Publishing's 'Radiohead Moment'

For those of you who might have missed the news, JK Rowling has circumvented print publishing altogether and released a huge archive of material related to the Harry Potter universe.  It's called Pottermore, and it will allow fans to download, in essence, the outakes, rough drafts, dead ends, and other manuscripts-by-the-wayside on her path to the original seven Potter books.  Olivia Solon at Wired UK offers a concise and fair reading of what Pottermore means -- that is, it's publishing's 'Radiohead moment.'  For those who might need explanation of what the Radiohead reference means, go here.

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The Information - James Gleick

I can't remember when I first read James Gleick's Chaos, but I'll take a guess that it was late in my undergraduate years, probably at the recommendation of the brilliant biology major I was dating at the time.  In truth, although I'd always been interested in science by way of my affection for science fiction, in my early 20s, it would have taken affection of another sort entirely to get this English major to read a book about (mostly) mathematics. I'm still not sure I understood everything in Chaos, but the counter-intuitive gist of its subject fascinated me -- as did the terminology: Butterfly Effect, Mandelbrot set, Julia sets, and Lorenz attractors. Although I haven't had the chance yet to read Gleick's Genius, Faster, or Isaac Newton, I knew as soon as I heard about The Information, I would be reading it.  Gleick's latest, coming as it did (in my reading life)on the heels of Tim Wu's The Master Switch, was an inevitable book.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, like many great books, has the effect of changing your way of thinking about the world. In much the same way that Chaos pulled fields of study like meteorology, the stock market, and ecology together around the idea of nonlinear systems, The Information demonstrates -- in a far more sweeping manner -- how the challenges of transforming and transporting ideas run throughout the history of civilization.  Not only that, but Gleick clearly shows readers just how radically different today's information universe is from what existed just 150 years ago.

Gleick begins his story with the example of the West African talking drum to demonstrate the two basic challenges of moving information from one place to another.  The first challenge is that of encoding -- how to convert information into a form suitable for transmission.  The second challenge is attenuation or signal loss -- how to prevent the encoded information from being lost or distorted.  The manner in which users of the talking drum have solved these problems is striking, and the strangeness of the example serves well to lead the reader into a deeply counter-intuitive (there's that word again) exploration of the all-too familiar systems of information around us.

We take these systems so much for granted we hardly notice them at all.  Something as simple as the alphabet -- a system of signs encoding of the sounds of words -- had to be invented, as did standardized spelling and the use of alphabetical order.  This last item of alphabetization could easily be overlooked, but Gleick spends a great deal of time explaining how, without a system for organizing all the names of things that could be written down, the names themselves are not nearly as useful.  There's a good reason why, when toddlers are getting ready for kindergarten, one of the first songs they learn to sing is their ABCs.

In his usual manner, Gleick weaves what might appear to be disconnected topics into a cohesive narrative synthesis around this core concept of information: the history of dictionaries, the optical telegraph, the electric telegraph and Morse Code, logarithmic tables, Charles Babbage's difference engine, Alan Turing and encryption and algorithms, Claude Shannon and digital design, Watson and Crick and the human genome, packet switching and the Internet, the meaning of Wikipedia, right up to the latest developments in quantum computing.  By the time the reader finishes, the true significance of that smart phone in the pocket will be more clear than ever before.  Always surprising, challenging but never obscure, The Information is an essential book for understanding one of the defining elements of contemporary life --just how much information surrounds us at every turn.

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Joe Lovano Us Five - Bird Songs

Joe Lovano’s Us Five - Bird Songs
Blue Note, 2011

Joe Lovano and his Us Five, the mostly young and all-talented band that’s been together for a few years now, offer a meditation on the work of Charlie Parker in Lovano's 22nd album for Blue Note, Bird Songs. In excellent form, Us Five follows up on 2009’s Folk Art and 2010 awards from the JJA and the Downbeat Critics Poll with an unexpectedly relaxed consideration of Bird tunes.

A recording of this nature – a major contemporary tenor playing the work of a bebop legend – does not escape Lovano, who has written about the project: “Putting this recording together I kept wondering how Bird would have developed within these tunes, not just as the incredible soloist that he was but as an arranger and band leader. From what we know about him it is clear that he was into the world of music beyond so called Jazz and Be Bop and I’m sure we would have all been surprised at every turn in his approach just as we were with Miles, Coltrane, Rollins and Coleman, four of his most distinguished and celebrated disciples.

The US Five lineup finds Lovano joined by recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding on bass and James Weidman on piano, and features two drummers -- Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela. As one might expect, the possibility exists for the double-drumming to become a clattering distraction, but both Brown and Mela stay away from the lower and louder timbres of their kits and spend much of their time working the cymbals in very careful interplay. Each drummer is mixed to his own side of the recording – left or right – and headphone listening will immediately reward the percussion-minded.

The manner in which this music is mixed and mastered takes a bit of adjustment, with the tenor and drums most prominent across the sound space, the bass and piano down under. I found myself repeatedly turning up the volume to hear the piano and bass, which made the percussion and sax all the more prominent. It appears that the rhythmic qualities of the playing are a feature Lovano wants to make more obvious. Overall, the album sounds light, airy, and rhythmically dense – an all the more notable contrast with Bird's playing, which was often intense, solid, and harmonically complex.

The album's first tune, “Passport,” opens with a fanfare of sorts – a rising phrase alternating with a suspenseful low vamp – that builds tension before the band's entry into Bird land. The rest of the song is a moderately paced take on the familiar “I Got Rhythm” changes, save for a couple of rip-snorting choruses, when Lovano plays not just fast but a little outside the changes. The usually brisk “Donna Lee” becomes a ballad in Lovano's reworking, and although the Brown and Mela sound at times as if they want to go galloping off, Lovano always keeps the phrasing drawn-out and the tempo thoughtful.

The lilting “Barbados” makes the most of Spalding’s facility with Caribbean rhythms, with the drummers working very nicely off each other and Lovano having fun with the earthier tones his horn can produce. The playfulness continues on “Moose the Mooche,” taken here at a slower pace, with the feeling of walking the bar, hanging on a single bluesy riff of the melody while Lovano explores some fine post-bop ideas.
The bright ballad “Lover Man” is a bit more recognizable in tempo and arrangement, and features some of Lovano's most lyrical playing. On a tune where two drummers could be most disruptive and distracting, Mela and Brown show great taste and restraint. Spalding and Weidman do their best solo work on this tune, one of the strongest on the album. If you want to hear how Us Five swing best from bar to bar and phrase to phrase, this is the tune to listen to.

After this point, the explorations become more notable. “Birdyard” is distinguished by Lovano on the aulochrome (the double-soprano sax), heard over a simple descending vamp. “Ko Ko” is simply Lovano and his drummers, finding bits and pieces of the tune in a primarily rhythmic context; interesting listening, but nothing to get your toe-tapping. A counterpoint to this is “Blues Collage,” Lovano just with piano and bass, a brief exploration of many of Parker's riffs played in a clever, layered jazz round. “Dexterity,” another short tune, begins with the instruments in disparate places, then works its way back to a familiar form.

The last two tracks are the most ambitious. “Dewey Square,” stretching over eight minutes, is at times a familiar recasting of Parker's original, while at other it breaks down completely into a free, open form. Even more generous is “Yardbird Suite,” stretched out over almost 12 minutes, opening like a dream, with a raucous uptempo center, and a return to a lush ending. At this point, listener's will hopefully have made the adjustments to the band's deconstruction and reconstruction of Parker's tunes, and the music should carry them along just fine.

Joe Lovano - Saxophones
James Weidman - Piano
Esperanza Spalding - Bass
Otis Brown III - Drums
Francisco Mela - Drums 

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Undead Notes - White Zombie (1932)

My survey of the zombie in popular culture begins with the 1932 film, White Zombie, directed by Victor Helperin and starring Bela Lugosi. Making full use of re-dressed sets from the 1931 hits Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as the cinematography skills of Arthur Martinelli, White Zombie introduces viewers to a concept of the zombie that is different from what we know these days, but in a visually interesting and consistently creepy film.

The plot is a stretcher from the beginning. Convinced by the wealthy white Haitian Beaumont to come to Haiti and be married on his plantation, the dashing young Neil and beautiful Madeline are drawn into Beaumont's trap. His plan? Enlist the services of the sorcerer LeGendreKarloff) to fake Madeline's death and bring her back as Beaumont's sonambulistic mistress. But Beaumont underestimates the deviousness of LeGrand, and before you know it, practically everyone has been turned into zombies. It's up to the pure-hearted Neil, working with the scientist Dr. Bruner, to save the day.

Now, these zombies aren't your modern-day walking dead. The flesh-eating, shuffle-footed rotters we know today are the evolution of monsters imagined by Richard Matheson (in the 1954 novel I Am Legend), adapted into the film The Last Man on Earth (1964), and given their real nasty edge by George Romero in 1968's Night of the Living Dead. More on those narratives later. In truth, the zombies of White Zombie are mindless automatons, but operate fully in the service of the magician LeGrand. Think of these old school zombies as a victim of mind-control brought about by a pop culture version of voodoo.

The carriage driver (always a useful chap in a horror film) explains the basics of these Haitian zombies to Madeline and Neil in the opening minutes of the film. Who are those fellows up there on that hillside digging around in the dark? “They are not men. They are dead bodies. Zombies – the living dead. Corpses taken from their graves who are made to work in the sugar mills and the fields at night.”

The concept of slavery is clearly impressed upon the film. Set in Haiti, the only modern nation to have had a slave uprising in which the oppressed prevailed, White Zombie depicts blacks often in the same state of servitude – this time as animated corpses, and a disposable work force at that. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a tour of the sugar mill, where we see black workers lurching through the machinery of the industry. One black zombie falls directly into the gears of a giant machine. Only the audience cares.

All the more disturbing is the implied horror – perhaps lost on contemporary audiences – of white people becoming zombies (that is, being enslaved) in similar ways. When LeGendre turns the tables on the selfish Beaumont and takes control of a white man, this seems to be depth of the horror the film takes us to, but not before a white woman (Madeline) has met a similar fate. The complications that the plot moves toward – the enslavement of white men and women – is a telling glimpse into the racial psychology of the first half of the 20th century. White slavery, anyone?

The pacing of and performances in the film will feel awkward at times, as both the actors and the filmmakers are clearly coming out of the age of stage and silent film. It seems that few people understood that the power of film requires that many aspects of the presentation be understated. Bela Lugosi as the mastermind and sorcerer LeGendre gives the most distinctive performance, but many viewers will feel as though they are watching camp and not a legitimate horror film. Nevertheless, White Zombie has many interesting moments – mostly of a visual and atmospheric nature – and, with the film clocking at just under 70 minutes, it's worth your time.

For those of you who are wondering about the heavy metal band White Zombie, yes, they did take their name from which took the movie, and it's been a primary source of inspiration for former art school student Robert Cumming, AKA Rob Zombie, who has been nominated three times for a Grammy, as well as becoming a noted director of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil's Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007), Werewolf Women of the SS (2007), and Halloween II (2009).

Up next: I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

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