Mundane superpowers

I’ve long been drawn to the idea of mundane superpowers and just found out about the documentary Confessions of  a Superhero, which pretty much steals my thunder. Apparently, it’s a documentary about the ordinary people who schlep around Hollywood Blvd dressed as superheroes and, I gather, sort of follows in the same vein as Anvil! bio-pic by simultaneously portraying them as spirited fighters and obsessed sad sacks. Then, more to the point, there’s this promo photo for the film:


Love the green cast and wallpaper. Still, just as it’s Superman’s fate to be eternally upstaged by more personable superheroes, so does his photo eventually pale in comparison to this completely amateur and totally great image of Spiderman struggling to get back into shape:


I found this on the site of a Swedish designer and emailed him to ask for info about the shot, but apparently his entire server just got wiped out and he’s too deranged by grief to recall where he got the image himself. Shame.

I’ve often thought that if you were to aspire to a reasonably-attainable mild superpower, a good choice would be to have the ability to make people’s limbs fall asleep (either numb, or occasional wracking pins-and-needles, depending on what the situation called for). This would be reasonably useful, but you wouldn’t be over-reaching by asking for something like, say, the ability to fly, which is – let’s face it – a bit far-fetched.

Update: Rasmus Andersson (whom I previously introduced as the grief-stricken Swedish designer) has apparently come to his wits sufficiently to source the spiderman photo:

I managed to track down where I found the Spiderman picture — from photographer Chris Leah:

Thanks, Rasmus! The Chris Leah site is great and has a little vignette of spidey photos. Check it out.

A Journey to the End of Taste

celineI am reading, and very much enjoying, this little book about Celine Dion.  It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of books about single albums (link is to the series blog), which is pretty awesome — for a retired record collector, the books (each of which is pocket sized and featuring the album’s cover on its cover) recall a little of the fetishistic pleasure of buying the record itself.

I previously read the edition on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, which was great, but mostly in a sort of “extended Rolling Stone article” sort of way (great stories and interviews about the album’s creation, etc.).  This one is a little deeper than that — it’s written by a self-confessed music snob (a music critic named Carl Wilson) who grew up in Canada, and who therefore hated Celine Dion above all else, and it represents his effort to explore and better understand an artist who is both hugely, hugely popular, and also widely despised.  He traces her roots in a particular French Canadian “chanson” tradition, and speculates that one reason she is so hated (more, for example, than certain equally cheesy African-American singers) is that it is so difficult to locate her in any sort of well-understood musical tradition that it makes her seem all the phonier.  This is a topic that holds great interest for me, because I was raised in a snobby indie rock musical tradition, and worked for a college radio station where you would get in trouble for playing records that were on major labels, etc.  Anyhow I have always taken great pleasure in certain Top 40 hits, while truly despising others, including Celine, so I’ve spent some time puzzling over the question of what value there is in my snobby view, if so many millions disagree with me.  (One of my fondest classroom memories from college is the graduate seminar on Popular Music where the professor spent a 2-hour session purporting to demonstrate, objectively, why “Sweet Caroline” was so horrible and tasteless.) 

I’m not done yet, so I don’t know yet if Wilson comes to any significant conclusions, but it’s great poolside reading in any case.  I’ll also note, without comment, that James Franco somewhat mysteriously name-dropped this book on the Oscars red carpet earlier this year.


In one of James Joyce’s letters, he assigns each of the Seven Deadly Sins to a nation in Europe. Ireland is, of course, Envy. Germany, delightfully, gets Lust. Gluttony, he said, was English, Pride French, Wrath Spanish, Avarice Italy, and the Slavic countries, collectively, Sloth.

Along similar lines, it struck me that it would be fun to match up European countries with U.S. States when a friend of mine dismissively described Belgium as ‘the Kentucky of Europe’. Here are a few ideas along these lines:

  • Bavaria = Texas. Yes, I know Bavaria isn’t a country, but this works on too many fronts. Both are large, semi-autonomous, countrified southern entities with a similar kind of hospitable/jingoistic vibe. (Plus, this gives me a chance to poke fun at the Central European proclivity for Country Western:


  • Czech Republic = Ohio. Industrial, Midwestern, practical. Both have a tendency towards tiny bath towels– no, wait, that’s only Czech.
  • France = New York. Both have capital cities that were once the center of the world but are now of diminished global significance. Both tend to live in denial of this fact.
  • Netherlands = Massachusetts. Small, progressive, mercantile, weirdo. Similar strange mixture of ideological open-mindedness and conservative impulses.
  • Sweden & Norway = Minnesota & Wisconsin. Duh.
  • There’s probably a Balkans-Arkansas joke in here somewhere.


I like to imagine what would transpire if you wrote all the normal emails you write in a week – for most of us, a mix of personal, professional and bureaucratic – but steadfastly signed them all ‘Love, ___’ just to see what would happen. I think this would be a good wager for a small bet– loser has to do this and see what the ramifications are.

Futurism and the Musee Mecanique

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, when F.T. Marinetti (the self-proclaimed ‘most modern man in Europe’ at the time) introduced his cult of dynamism to the world through a combination of incendiary rhetoric, genius publicity stunts and Fascist agitating. The Futurists were fascinated by speed, technology, war, Moussellini, masculinity, action and loud noise; they were contemptuous of civility, history, culture, women, and everything else they associated with polite society and the existing status quo. The only avant-garde art movement I’m aware of with a strong right-wing orientation, Futurism remains weirdly alluring and seriously off-putting.

As Futurists were obsessed with the dynamics of the early machine age, I had the idea many years ago to illustrate their manifesto with photos taken from San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique, a highly-enjoyable collection of antique arcade machines. The common link is that both the Manifesto and the MM collection show the imaginative possibilities of the early machine age, and both produce results that are both appealing and monstrous. I printed a few copies of this as accordion-folds.

Front and back cover:



(Note how much the giant doll on the cover looks like Moussellini- a happy coincidence!)

Inside spreads:







Why the short blog posts

0876853904.01.LZZZZZZZThere’s a chapter of Charles Bukowski’s Women that opens with this:

I began receiving letters from a girl in New York City. Her name was Mindy. She had run across a couple of my books, but the best thing about her letters was that she seldom …mentioned writing except to say that she was not a writer…
Most people are much better at saying things in letters than in conversation, and some people can write artistic, inventive letters, but when they try a poem or story or novel they become pretentious.

I began receiving letters from a girl in New York City. Her name was Mindy. She had run across a couple of my books, but the best thing about her letters was that she seldom mentioned writing except to say that she was not a writer.


Most people are much better at saying things in letters than in conversation, and some people can write artistic, inventive letters, but when they try a poem or story or novel they become pretentious.

Maybe this is especially true nowadays with email. Email is closer to the exact mid-point between conversation and writing than traditional letter-writing in my experience (writing a letter by hand always seemed to morph into a labored literary exercise for me, despite my efforts to keep it light and conversational). At its best moments, email can produce a kind of resonance that’s rarely present in conversation and entirely absent from the labored writing of those of us who are not good writers.

I find that with any creative undertaking – be it writing, design, or something else entirely – the key is in finding a context that removes this weighty sense of trying, the self-consciousness that makes the process labored and ultimately un-fun. I had a drawing teacher who, for the first five weeks or so of the course, would only allow you to draw for 10 or 20 seconds at a time before stopping you. His intent was to isolate the initial sense of possibility and fun that exists in the first few moments of drawing before the labored feeling of “Oh no, I’m creating a drawing… what should I do next?” quickly kicks in. His idea was that once you’re able to isolate this first sensation from the second, hopefully you’re gradually able to carry it further into the process and delay the onset of the second. I think he was definitely onto something, although his manner of teaching it was admittedly frustrating at first.

Fun with bribes

I’ve always been fascinated by the protocol of petty bribes: the folded bill nonchalantly inserted into a functionary’s pocket, the suavely encoded ‘suggestion’ indicating what the bribe is for. One of my unrealized goals in life is to subtly condescend to someone by pretending to try to bribe them with a one dollar bill. Imagine your friend drags you to a posh nightclub that you don’t want to go to anyway and the doorman refuses you entry because you’re wearing sneakers instead of fancy shoes. Theatrically slip him a crumpled $1 and conspiratorially murmur, “My friend George Washington would like to join the party,” then enjoy the series of expressions that pass over his face as he realizes that you’ve essentially tried to buy him off with a candy bar.

In the Czech Republic, these ‘My friend so-and-so…’ lines take on an added dimension because the historical figures printed on Czech bills have biographies that are both more dramatic and obscure than their American currency counterparts. Imagine the fun/confusion that could result  from slipping someone a 100 crown note (equivalent to five dollars) and indicating, “My friend Jan Komensky would like to come in and develop a language where false statements are impossible.” Or: “Excuse me, but I think my friend is late to his defenestration.” A Tomas Masaryk would set you back about $250, but you would get to say, “My friend would really like to join the League of Nations.”


Czech currency, incidentally, is really beautiful–  I will be sad when it’s eventually retired in favor of the Euro. The very first Czechoslovakian bank notes (along with the first stamps) were designed by the great art noveau artist and Czech patriot Alfons Mucha.

When Natural Disasters Collide

MG1The worrying mention of an unholy alliance between ants and bees in Krafty’s ant domination post (clearly the animal kingdom’s answer to Stalin + Hitler in 1939) reminded me of my pilot idea for one of those Fox lowest-common-denominator TV shows about things blowing up and people experiencing horrible accidents and whatnot: When Natural Disasters Collide. The idea would be to film footage of various natural disasters encountering one another: earthquake vs. tidalwave, killer bees vs. hurricane, etc etc. I can just picture something like this airing after Cops

One issue this raises is the need to clearly define the official canon of natural disasters involved. When I was a little kid, these were all-to-clearly defined in my mind and only shifted in terms of ranking– earthquake, tidal wave, hurricane and tornado as the Big Four; killer bees as a close fifth. I even remember exacting a stern promise from my father that we would not go vacation in Barbados ever, because I had somehow heard about that island being hit by hurricanes. Anyway, I think it would be important to define natural disasters, and to limit their inclusion to occurrences that are either easy to dramatize (earthquakes, tidal waves, etc) or involve more amped-up versions of things people are already afraid of (killer bees), or both (giant killer bees). I think this is a lot more fun than including things that are more abstract, grown-up and legitimately dangerous (Swine Flu, climate change, etc).

The Uncanny Valley


Dan’s Robot Double post reminded me of one of my new favorite terms, “The Uncanny Valley.” It’s a hypothesis that humans have an instinctive response of revulsion to facsimiles of themselves. The “valley” is based on the idea that if you encounter a very crude and not-really-that-human-like robot, you are OK with it, but at a certain point as it gets too close to human-like, you have a response of revulsion that can be graphed as a dip or “valley” (and then you get out of the valley, presumably, when it becomes so real that you can’t tell the difference).

So in the handy chart above, industrial and even “humanoid” robots are fine, as are stuffed animals, “healthy persons,” and “bunraku puppets” (whatever that is) — but corpses, zombies, and prosthetic hands all fall within the Valley. These examples all seem to conjure up images of death, which may be what it’s all about — or maybe an instinctive fear of being replaced by robots? Anyhow, Dan’s robot doubles would surely have to contend with the Uncanny Valley as they went about their masters’ business.

More here, including a laundry list of possible explanations, with both the fear of death possibility alluded to above and some other interesting ones.

Warehouse of lost stuff

jest1221365735In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the main character has an attack of existential dread where he envisions a giant room containing all the food he will ever eat in his life (it’s basically a visualization of the fact that we’re all organic, decaying, mortal creatures on this earth, etc etc.)

I prefer a breezier version of this idea. I think each of us is haunted by the memory of a prized possession that we somehow lost or even gave away in moment of crazed misjudgment. My list includes, among other things, a few choice and irreplaceable cassette tapes (tapes always seemed expressly designed to break your heart by either getting lost or getting eaten) and several items of clothing, some old drawings, a few vinyls, and so forth. I like the idea of a giant warehouse that contains everything you’ve ever lost or regrettably given away. You have 30 minutes to root through the warehouse and take with you anything you can find. But, the challenge lies in rooting out the prized possessions from all the piles of random junk that you didn’t care about then and don’t care about now. The most pernicious thing would be the temptation to yield to distraction– imagine all the crazy random mementos you would stumble on, and how hard it would be to keep focused on your laundry list of a few prized items that you’re intent on finding.