Tag Archives: Journalism

Review: A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies 

Many of you may recall a webcomic recounting the horrible 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Except for a smattering of bare essentials, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen, lost everything in the fires. Mr. Fies chose to set his recollections down as soon as possible and posted them as a webcomic. His on-the-spot reportage struck a chord and it led San Francisco PBS TV station KQED to adapt A Fire Story into a five-minute animation, which was subsequently picked up by NPR. That animation went on to win an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, in 2019, that 18-page webcomic has been refined and transformed into a 154-page full color graphic novel, published by Abrams ComicArts, that includes an entire community of people.

Graphic novels, I can tell you from firsthand experience, are a glorious beast to tame with their myriad of details to tackle. So, it is quite remarkable and commendable that Fies stuck it out and built a full length graphic novel upon a small scale webcomic. The reader will immediately sense the urgency of a determined storyteller within these pages. Fies is not only telling his story but involving thousands upon thousands of individuals affected by this disaster. In honest words and pictures, Fies shares his loss: “I used to have five redwood trees in my front yard. I saw a refrigerator and the rough shape of a car I used to have in my garage. I didn’t recognize anything else. A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot  heap of dead, smoking ash.” And Fies shares the loss of others, like Dottie, an 81-year-old woman displaced from her mobile home: “My niece called me. She said, ‘Auntie, if you’re on any kind of medication, grab your medications and come up to my house.’ She didn’t say ‘fire,’ she just said, ‘Get up to my house.’ I could tell by the tone of her voice to listen to her.”

Fie’s artwork has a nice clean, crisp and spare quality to it which lines up well with the urgency of the narrative. Fies still prefers to draw by hand and that added human touch is apparent. The same can be said for the coloring, direct and resourceful with just the right amount of flourish. In fact, the coloring might be made with markers, or at least it has that look to it. So, you get the best of both worlds: hand-drawn ink on paper artwork married to digital components. When Fies chose to document this disaster in real time, he managed to cobble together a purchase of some basic art supplies and it worked out just fine. Someone told him that he must have been compelled to “bear witness” and that is exactly what Fies did in the best way he could, through comics. That need to bear witness is palpable on every page.

A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.

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Filed under Abrams ComicArts, Brian Fies, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Journalism

Review: The Comics Journal #303

The Comics Journal #303

This is a very meta thing to be doing but here’s a review of a magazine that features reviews. Dating back to 1977, in its heyday, The Comics Journal was a monthly source of comics news and reviews, a trailblazer for the burgeoning field of comics journalism and criticism. It has always maintained a certain quirky attitude, consisting of a mix of features and topped off by a expansive soul-searching interview a la Playboy magazine. It mainly attracts those who consider themselves comics aficionados. In 2013, it ceased its print version, staying online, but now it makes its return to print with Issue 303. TCJ returns this month with new editors RJ Casey and Kristy Valenti.

Now, I go pretty far back. I have fond memories of picking up this magazine at Tower Records back in the day (circa 1995), usually with a recent release from Sub Pop Records. I also fondly recall a special dynamic, or synergy, at play between the magazine and its online counterpart that led many of us to the forums section that let you interact with subgroups within subgroups of people in the comics community. This was long before Facebook or social media as we know it today. I think the monthly magazine, as we knew it back then, is still sorely missed. Towards the end of its print run, it came out less often and each issue covered a big theme and came out in different sizes. The consistency of a monthly had been lost. I think, in a perfect world, this latest return to print would do well to go back to that monthly format. Alas, with this latest #303, we’re seeing the start of a twice-a-year format. You might argue that TCJ is simply working with today’s print reality and is offering up a taste to a new generation of what is possible.

The showcase item in this issue is, of course, TCJ founder Gary Groth’s interview with a legendary firebrand, the satirist and children’s book author, Tomi Ungerer. For those of you unaware of Mr. Ungerer’s impressive career, I highly recommend that you read this interview and, before or afterward, check out the 2013 documentary, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” directed by Brad Bernstein. The title is one of Ungerer’s sayings, along with “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected.” I interviewed the documentary’s director and its writer and the fact that Ungerer is a true force of nature was the overriding theme. So, it makes perfect sense for someone as outspoken as Groth to sit down and talk it out with someone as outspoken as Ungerer! It’s a match made in heaven.

From Ben Passmore’s story in Now: The New Comics Anthology #3, published by Fantagraphics

Among the various features to be found here, you’ll find them under such titles as “From the Trenches” and “Fair Warning.” For example, under the former is a think piece by cartoonist Ben Passmore, who shares his insights on the alt-comics scene from an African American perspective. And, under the latter, you will find an interview by RJ Casey with emerging comics talent, Fifi Martinez. The thing to always remember about TCJ is that its focus is a serious look at comics as an art form. That leaves little room, if any, for superhero comics, per se. What you’ll mostly find here is a focus on the independent artist-cartoonist. It does a heart good to see cartoonists like Passmore and Martinez provided with a platform.

Ultimately, TCJ remains what it’s always been, a valuable resource that is most appreciated by those who take the comics medium seriously. It’s a niche audience but a fiercely loyal one. In the new more fragmented world we live in, it’s all about niches. That is actually a very positive thing. And niches are supposed to attract outside readers too, right? You can only calculate so much as to how strong a presence you can make on today’s newsstands. For some special readership out there, it will be a great treat to see TCJ on a shelf. Newsstands aren’t going away anytime soon from such places as Barnes & Noble, specialty shops, comic book shops, and even airports. TCJ might just want to make a real push into these venues and see how it goes. I asked about TCJ at my local B&N as well as the Pike Place Market newsstand, one of the granddaddies of newsstands. Neither place had ever heard of TCJ or had any plans to carry it. I asked around a couple of nearby comics shops. They heard of it but were not carrying it. This is TCJ’s return to print, right? Let’s see it out there in the real world.

The reality is that creating any kind of magazine, digital or print, is a big challenge. Everyone in the comics community is rooting for TCJ to make as big of an impact as it can. Those of us already in the choir, can keep singing its praises and wish it well. You can find your copy of TCJ #303 by visiting the Fantagraphics store right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comics History, Comics Journalism, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Gary Groth, Independent Comics, The Comics Journal, Tomi Ungerer

Seattle Focus: Bob Woodward and FEAR

Bob Woodward in Seattle, 28 November 2018

Bob Woodward has a book out on Trump. You may have heard of it. It’s entitled, Fear, published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Woodward, a legend in journalism, was in Seattle for a Q&A at the Paramount Theatre this Wednesday night. Local pundit Knute “Mossback” Berger was the moderator. Mr. Berger asked a series of mellow questions. He asked, for instance, about the book’s title. The great thing about interviewing someone like Bob Woodward is that half the battle is just to show up. No matter the question, Mr. Woodward will proceed to paint a vivid picture. Regarding the book title, that took him back to Candidate Trump, long before his campaign was considered substantial. It was the job of Woodward to still pose serious questions, the same sort he’d posed to Candidate Obama and others. That day, the pivotal question was asked: What does power mean to you? The scene that played out was something close to Shakespearean. Trump seemed to turn his attention out toward a confidant in his mind’s eye. Power, and holding on to power, Trump said, is achieved through striking fear.

It is during an audience Q&A that things can get quite interesting. For Woodward, this was a time to riff, to explain, to clarify, in any way he pleased. Each response turned out to be a gem. It meant he took his time and didn’t get around to everyone who dutifully lined up with a question. Each answer took on a life of its own. One question might begin a discussion on a related subject. One answer would emerge prompted from a question asked earlier. It would result in such gifts as Woodward recollecting the day that he finally got former President Gerald Ford to reveal the details of the Nixon pardon. The common assumption had been that a deal had been struck. And, indeed, a deal had been offered by White House chief-of-staff Alexander Haig. Ford refused a quid pro quo. There was no reason for it since he was to replace Nixon anyway. It was only later, with the prospect of Nixon continuing to damage the country, that Ford chose to pardon him. It wasn’t an easy decision and it was clear that this decision would seal Ford’s fate. It was a decision that he would never be able to recover from as a candidate for president in his own right. In retrospect, it was to be acknowledged as a courageous decision. Ford went on to be the recipient of the Profile in Courage award in 2001. It was presented to him, at age 87, by Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter. A lesson in not be too quick to judge.

FEAR by Bob Woodward

The final answer, again originating from one question and yet seeming to answer them all, was a true showstopper. This last gem found Woodward looking back to some of his earliest memories. He was playing with two previous questions: the idea of what in his life caused him the greatest shock; and summing up the crisis we live with today with a dangerously incompetent commander-in-chief. Woodward had already painted a picture of an easily distracted Trump. And that got him to thinking of how some things should be fundamentally understood, like the difference between right and wrong. As a young Naval officer, Woodward served aboard the USS Wright, and was one of two officers assigned to move or handle nuclear launch codes. This was circa 1965. It was seared into Woodward’s psyche that the fundamental responsibility of an American president is to stay out of a nuclear war. But Trump was oblivious to the most basic facts. He openly questioned the existence of NATO. He did not understand the most basic facts of global interconnection. So, in order to best answer that question asked a while ago regarding what shocked him the most, Woodward just had to refer back to Trump, a president so brazenly ignorant that he compels his Secretary of Defense to have to answer, “Mr. President, we do these things in order to avoid World War III.” That’s enough to make anyone lose their lunch.

Fear is surely required reading. It is definitely a worthwhile book and measures up with Mr. Woodward’s best.

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Filed under Bob Woodward, Books, Donald Trump, politics, Richard Nixon, Washington DC, Watergate

Open Letter to Media: Help Seattle and Win Pulitzer!

Live from New York: a Seattle punchline!

Commentary by Jennifer Daydreamer

On October 6th, 2018, during the Weekend Edition of Saturday Night Live, Michael Che riffed on our City: “Starbucks baristas in Seattle are saying that they are being forced to dispose of hypodermic needles left behind in the stores everyday by drug users. Meanwhile, over at 7-11, they’re using them as stirrers.”

Not a great joke but point well taken.

SNL is our modern day court jester. It’s live and communal and mirrors our society in a humorous manner. In another era, it was the court jester who gave the King the very bad news that nobody else dared to deliver.

The news SNL delivers is that baristas across the U.S. are not in contact with hypodermic needles en masse. It’s a Seattle phenomenon. Not a general big city problem. Not even a New York problem. A Seattle problem.

Seattle has a drug crisis and a homeless crisis resulting in a patently predictable Civics 101 crisis: when you allow lawlessness, criminals take advantage and hurt people and property.

What dangers have been happening? Well, in the past month, a Wallingford condominium under construction was burned down by drug addicts. In the SoDo area, a woman was mauled by a homeless pit bull and other dogs. Recently, I saw addicts threatening customers in a business, one man was particularly violent, and gave witness to the police.

As well-meaning as the local news outlets have been, the facts reported have been conflicting. We could use an outsider, a very thorough and ambitious investigative reporter(s) to get to the crux of it. I’m not kidding when I say I see Pulitzer Prize worthy material because there’s a lot to uncover. Hopefully, an expose can help keep everyone, including the homeless, safer.

Shawn Telford describes a harrowing and out of control homeless crisis.

This video of Seattle native Shawn Telford describes how homeless encampment and car prowl problems turned his life upside down. All because the homeless issue is out of control. This is just one of so many compelling stories. There’s a new story each day. Some stories manage to get on people’s radars for a while, like the hypodermic needles in Starbucks.

We got a joke coming out of a big network studio in New York City. We’re going to need far more than just a joke to get people’s attention and make serious progress. The City of Seattle government is not responding in a serious and competent manner. We need outside resources to examine what is going on. Seattle seriously needs help. We need a TIME magazine cover story, not an SNL gag.

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Filed under Homeless, Journalism, Seattle

White House Correspondents’ Dinner Unlikely Yet Reliable on Edgy Comedy

Aunt Lydia, Dear Lydia!

These White House Correspondents’ Dinners always seem to sneak up on me. It seems that this year’s crept up on me all the more-so given the absence of a president. There was Trump in Michigan doing another one of his weird rallies and that got me to thinking, Why is Trump in Michigan? Oh, wait up, is he avoiding the WHCD? Why, that rascal! Say what you will about dowdy ole C-Span and humorless inside the beltway elites, the WHCD proves each year to be good for some very good laughs. All you need is a sense of humor.

The White House has already had to deal with one Wolf (Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury) and now they’ve got Michelle Wolf. If you listen to her set with a healthy sense of humor, you would probably be hard put to dismiss her out of hand. Her material is not beyond the pale by contemporary comedy standards. And, if we focus on the roasting of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, nothing is particularly unreasonable within context. The art of great comedy is to synthesize down to the essentials a myriad of ideas. To compare SHS to Aunt Lydia, the villain in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is utterly hilarious on so many levels. Obama or Dubya would have taken a similar jab and laughed it off. But not Her Royal Highness of Deceit. Is there something wrong here? Well, it sure don’t look good.

C’mon Sarah, all you would have needed to do was chuckle!

There is a moment in Wolf’s monologue when she lets loose with a real zinger at former beleaguered chief of staff Reince Priebus. What did he do? He laughed! He even gave the joke a thumbs up! That displays a level of sophistication that is completely lost on Sarah. For her to look upset shows she still has much to learn.

Hmm, Sarah, it would be pretty awkward to chuckle, wouldn’t it?

Getting to the heart of the Aunt Lydia comparison, consider this excerpt from an excellent piece by Megan Wood at Rifinery 29:

Sanders is used as a mouthpiece to protect those in the Trump administration. Much like Aunt Lydia, she lies to Americans who are having their rights stripped away. For instance, Sanders falsely stated that immigrants coming to the U.S. through the diversity visa program aren’t vetted before their arrival. Meanwhile, Trump has been working to remove Dreamer’s rights to undocumented immigrants who were legally allowed to work and study in the country. She has tried to tell American woman that the Trump administration’s effort to remove birth control from mandated health coverage is all about religious freedom. Apparently that is more important, and more endangered, than having control over ones own body. Sanders has also protected those who are accused of crimes against women (much like Aunt Lydia). Recently, she came under fire for protecting former White House aide Rob Porter after accusations of disturbing alleged domestic abuse.

Finally, the myth about Trump is that he’s been this amazing disruptor. He doesn’t stand on ceremony and gets the job done. So, why can’t we also embrace the disruptive force of Michelle Wolf and let her not stand on ceremony and get the job done? Don’t worry. She got the job done.

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Filed under Comedy, Donald Trump, Humor, politics

Comics Industry Review: The MNT monthly comics newsletter

The MNT monthly comics newsletter

The MNT is making a monthly comics newsletter and I’m excited to tell you about it. This is a special place to keep up with the comics industry put together by some of the leading talent in comics journalism. For as little as a one dollar pledge on Patreon, you can read this highly informative and entertaining monthly magazine along with monthly news reports.

As a happy warrior myself, both as a comics creator and freelance writer, I am thrilled to see this particular comics vision realized. The MNT is made up of folks I’ve kept up with over the years. It’s smart of them to band together in this unique format. The team: News co-editor Christian Hoffer is a writer and editor who can currently be found writing extensively at ComicBook.com. News co-editor Vernieda Vergara is a freelance writer and manga critic. Her work can be found at Book Riot and Women Write About Comics. Features co-editor Steve Morris has written for a number of websites, including CBR, ComicsAlliance, and is a former Managing Editor for The Beat. Features co-editor Megan Purdy is a freelance writer and editor, and the publisher of Women Write About Comics and Bleating Heart Press. The Process editor and social media manager Kirsten Thompson is a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to The Frisky, Teen Vogue, Femsplain, Women Write About Comics on topics such as feminism, pop culture, and LGBTQIA issues.

The MNT kicked off its first issue in February, 2017. That first issue included: guest essayist Rosie Knight on her experiences within the direct market pointing out the distribution system’s pros and failings; Steve Morris interviews retailer Ariell Johnson about her first year in the industry and her plans for Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse; Megan Purdy reviews Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro’s Decelerate Blue; analysis on Donald Trump’s unexpected impact on comics; analysis on Marvel and DC’s recent changes in price and digital strategy; and a tribute to the career of John Watkiss.

The MNT team has created a highly consistent publication. And that is saying quite a lot. This is a seasoned group of committed comics journalists who dig deep and know how to deliver professional and compelling content. Each monthly edition features news, interviews, reviews, and guest essays written by some of the best critics and creators in the business. The MNT mid-month News Report delivers breaking news and bite-sized features. Your Patreon subscription goes directly into the pockets of MNT guest essays and staff, ensuring that the MNT can continue to break news and offer critical industry commentary. I’ve become hooked and consider the MNT a reliable source for superior comics commentary and journalism. You will too. Go visit them and see for yourself right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Journalism, Comics News, Patreon, The MNT

Book Review: ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ by Michael Wolff

FIRE AND FURY!

Michael Wolff’s political bombshell, “Fire and Fury,” is like a “Harry Potter” book event: mana for political junkies as well as a breakout book for a much wider audience. It has certainly proven to be an excellent go-to book on my nightstand these past couple of weeks. I felt it in my gut, from the start of the media campaign, that here was something that would hold up to a full reading. Wolff is not Carl Bernstein but he proves to be the right man in the right place and time. Some of the book’s juiciest bits that were placed under the media spotlight helped to distort the narrative. However, it’s not farfetched at all to find that Wolff has compiled something credible. Just don’t tell that to Sarah Huckabee since she swears the whole thing is a “fantasy,” not worthy of the American people.

January 17, 2018: Trump with communications director Hope Hicks and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

What I find most useful is that, by and large, Wolff has neatly organized and presented the machinations of all the oddball characters running amok: the mighty Steve Bannon; the royal duo, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, or Jarvanka; assorted misfits and minions such as Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer; and especially both Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, highly unqualified special assistants to the president. The important blocks of activity add up for the big picture: Jared Kushner’s highly suspicious dealings around the globe; the inept advice of Jarvanka to POTUS taking its toll; how all things Trump cannot help but inevitably fall like a house of cards. Time will tell just how much Wolff got right. It is in his best interest that the book holds up as it would make for a great movie. In his favor, he has a credible and lengthy acknowledgements list at the back of the book.

One day prior to FIRE AND FURY book release, Jan 4, 2018: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was flanked by two large television screens as President Donald Trump delivered a video message on stock market increases and economic gains.

This is much more than just about Trump sneaking a cheeseburger into bed or Steve Bannon’s pontificating. It is about a White House in crisis, even before it started, one stoking an international crisis. It is definitely about an accidental presidency, one that repeatedly abuses power, and is illegitimate. While that may sound too harsh for some hardcore Trump supporters, this book lays out the case for why the whole Trump phenomena is a shell game with players who shamelessly want to hang on to power. And it’s surprising how often Steve Bannon comes out sounding like the more sensible one in the bunch–but not for the reasons his supporters might think. The main reason he seems to have any sense is because he knew what a mistake it would be for Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey.

As Bannon explains it, it was Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner (he nicknamed them, “Jarvanka”) who pushed Trump into firing Comey. This Jarvanka push was triggered by the fact Kushner was part of Comey’s investigation into Russian meddling. And it just gets worse from there. Forget about Russian meddling for a moment. It’s all this Jarvanka meddling that’s pretty scary in and of itself. As the following excerpt demonstrates, despite the tabloid style to this book, Wolff puts together a narrative that most likely will be confirmed over and over again, especially by special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation:

“Most problematic of all, Hicks and Miller, along with everyone on the Jarvanka side, were now directly connected to actions involved in the Russian investigation or efforts to spin it, deflect it, or, indeed, cover it up. Miller and Hicks had drafted–or at least typed–Kushner’s version of the first letter written at Bedminster to fire Comey. Hicks had joined with Kushner and his wife to draft on Air Force One the Trump-directed press release about Don Jr. and Kushner’s meeting with Russians in Trump Tower.”

From left to right: White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; Hope Hicks, White House director of strategic communications; and Omarosa Manigault, director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, listen during a daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room, at the White House, on February 14, 2017. White House press secretary Sean Spicer discussed various topics, including the resignation of Michael Flynn from his position as National Security Adviser. Hicks is now one of six past and current Trump administration aides whom Robert Mueller reportedly wants to question. ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

A key player in the Jarvanka faction is Hope Hicks who provides some good grist for this book. A former model and aspiring actress, Hicks finds herself in the improbable position of being an essential link between the press and the leader of the free world. Hicks regularly provides digestible pits of information to Trump. She was responsible, for instance, in giving Trump a recap on the famous piece in The New Yorker that first connected the dots on Michael Flynn and Russia–except she failed to mention Michael Flynn. Hicks has no qualms over sending out disparaging leaks to the press about anyone deemed a problem, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and members of Trumps legal team, Mark Corallo and Mark Kasowitz. It is no surprise that Robert Mueller is interested in questioning her.

And it all goes on, getting worse and worse. Just as one scandalous scene plays out, another rears its head to fill an endless news cycle. So, plenty of opportunity to deflect, distract, confuse, and alarm. It was just that strategy that led Trump to threaten to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It is a well-documented fact that Trump said this since we can clearly view it on numerous news feeds. Unlike some other comments and activities by Trump & Co., there is no hiding behind the trickery of the Trump White House in this case. Wolff does an admirable job of exposing this spin doctor trickery. Sorry, Sarah, this book is significant and so far removed from your claim that it is mere “fantasy.”

If you’ve seen any of the segments Wolff has done during his book tour, he makes a compelling case: after being embedded in the White House for most of 2017, an informative book results, one that makes sense out of the political crisis of our time. Now, I will be the first to admit that Wolff seems just a little bit out of his depth. It’s like a fisherman going out to make a catch and snagging Moby Dick. And I did see his appearance with Bill Maher where he suggests Trump is currently having an affair with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He doesn’t come right out and say that and only hints that he would only say as much if he had absolute proof. It’s that whiff of the salacious than can take away from an otherwise even-tempered book. Ultimately, it doesn’t take away much of anything.

“Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” is a 336-page hardcover published by Henry Holt and Company. For more details, visit Henry Holt and Company right here. And you can get this book at Amazon by just clicking the image below:

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Filed under Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Journalism, politics, Russia, Russiagate

SIFF Review: ‘The Reagan Show’

All Hail, the Gipper!

We’ve heard plenty about how the media helped to construct Donald Trump. We see how another White House and the media interacted in, “The Reagan Show,” a new documentary by filmmakers Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall). Pacho Velez was on hand this weekend for a Q&A after the film’s showing at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Ronald Reagan is as much icon as enigma. He managed a life and career treading upon the surface. In their documentary, Velez and Pettengill work mostly from archival footage, made up of official White House video and network news segments, to revisit a man who was at his best as a flickering image just beyond reach. The Reagan administration made the big switch from documenting the president in video instead of the traditional, costly, and confining 16mm film. Video allowed for continuous unencumbered recording. It became known as White House TV, perfect for a former Hollywood actor. The documentary perfectly mines all the irony attached to our first reality TV president. What we get is not so much bloopers, or even anything substantial behind the scenes, but a better sense of a president who was painfully too old and woefully disengaged.

Growing up in the ’80s, I don’t recall that era as particularly quaint but the footage in this doc proves otherwise. One such moment could have come right out of the Eisenhower White House. To illustrate how in command the president was, Chief of Staff Howard Baker recites what is supposed to be a decisive moment between Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Just prior to a tough round of negotiation, Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would autograph his World Series baseball. This gesture supposedly disarmed Gorbachev and left Reagan with the advantage. It’s a nonsensical anecdote but it apparently disarmed the media just enough to look away and move on.

Pres. Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev

There is plenty of obliging on the part of the media to be found here. Some hard-hitting questioning too, especially by ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. But the president’s charm is ever present. The only tarnish comes with the complex Iran Contra scandal. It is complex enough to allow Reagan something of a pass. For the most part, this doc focuses on the work between Reagan and Gorbachev. As Velez pointed out during the Q&A, Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War, whether or not that’s true. Overall, he achieved the status of an icon. In reality, as this doc makes clear, the Reagan administration did a lot of stumbling and had the unbelievably good luck of having Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin.

Under certain circumstances, the press, and various other power brokers, will always look away. There will always be exceptional circumstances (FDR, for example, was never photographed in a wheelchair). But when a president so flagrantly abuses his power, then that gentleman’s agreement is forced off the table. Ronald Reagan remained a gentleman. And, for that, he was saved by the establishment. The media asked tough questions but they were always open to being charmed. And Ronald Reagan could be relied upon to charm with the best of them.

While this documentary has its share of irony and self-awareness (Reagan’s plea to “Make America Great Again” is included), it cannot help but get caught up in the murk of Reagan “charm.” As Velez stated in the Q&A, he aimed for this documentary to follow a narrative of success with a happy ending. Sure, Velez did not want to demonize Reagan. Fair enough. But to allow Reagan off the hook with a story that closes with him achieving a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets is pretty generous. You may as well end a story about Nixon with him opening relations between the US and China. To Reagan’s credit, Velez pointed out in the Q&A, he always seemed sincere. In comparison to today, that does count for a lot.

You can follow “The Reagan Show” on its Facebook page right here. The documentary will air this Labor Day on CNN. You can still catch it at SIFF this Wednesday, June 7th. Go to SIFF for details right here.

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Filed under Documentaries, Movie Reviews, movies, politics, Ronald Reagan, Russia, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF, Soviet Union

Review: ‘Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D’

‘Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D’

Creating a biographical work in comics is a very distinct venture. It requires a fine agility as you’re balancing a myriad of facts, more than you will be able to neatly fit into one graphic novel. Any number of factors can add to the complexity, such as the writer figuring what to use if he has personally conducted interviews. David Kushner was one of the last journalists to interview D&D co-creator Gary Gygax prior to his death. He has now teamed up with award-winning illustrator Koren Shadmi on a nonfiction comic book chronicling Gary Gygax’s life and the creation of D&D: RISE OF THE DUNGEON MASTER: GARY GYGAX AND THE CREATION OF D&D, recently published by Nation Books. It is an ambitious undertaking, the first of its kind, and well worth a read.

Dave Arneson, a true dreamer.

Kushner and Shadmi do a wonderful job of laying down a behind-the-scenes narrative to Dungeons & Dragons, a pop culture phenomena that we all know to some degree. You may have never seen yourself as a role-playing game enthusiast, but you can’t help but get caught up in the details and history of a bona fide subculture. This book succeeds in putting a face to what has become known the world over as Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, there are two prominent faces involved here: Gary Gygax, the original guy to tinker with new ideas for role-playing games (instead of always military themes, why not include wizards?); and Dave Arneson, the guy next in line who refined what Gygax set in motion (don’t get lost in the rules and keep it fun!). Gygax was a middle-aged man with a family and Arneson was a young security guard working his way through college.

For the love of the game.

The best moments in the book are once we get to observe Gygax and Arneson just being themselves, warts and all. Gygax turns out to be more motivated towards turning his innovations into a profitable business. Arneson is far more the dreamer, only interested in refining the game. Arneson is so caught up in his own D&D world that he is left out of the burgeoning D&D business venture by Gygax and his associates.

“One day, you catch a break that will change your life.”

Kushner’s script places the story in various first-person points of views. At times, the narrative boxes are quoting Gygax or Arneson or simply become omniscient. While this narrative shift can be disconcerting at times, it’s understandable given the many segments to cover. You have a broad canvas to fill with this person saying this and that other person doing that. And, given the interview source material, there are times that you want to do a flashback scene and other times that you want the person to speak in the present moment. Overall, Kushner and Shadmi do a commendable job of bringing this tale to life. One thing is for sure, you will never look at Dungeons & Dragons the same way again.

RISE OF THE DUNGEON MASTER: GARY GYGAX AND THE CREATION OF D&D, published by Nation Books, is a 144-page black & white trade paperback. For more details, visit Nation Books. You can also purchase the book directly from Amazon right here.

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Filed under Comics, D&D, Dungeons & Dragons, Games, Geeks, Journalism, Koren Shadmi

Book Review: ‘How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High’ by David Bienenstock

The Finer Points of Cannabis. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

The Finer Points of Cannabis. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

As a Seattle native, I have had a front row seat to the recent sea change we have seen with cannabis. But, even in this fabled region, you can experience two steps forward and one step back. All you need to do is see how the current state regulations have forced medical marijuana dispensaries out in favor of the more tax revenue to be had from retail marijuana shops. But these are still exciting times for an extraordinarily beneficial plant that has been so terribly maligned. A perfect guide for the times is the newly released book, “How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High,” by David Bienenstock, published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

"How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" by David Bienenstock

“How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High” by David Bienenstock

David Bienenstock is your uniquely qualified host. He is the former West Coast editor of High Times magazine and now a journalist and video host/producer at VICE, where he writes the Weed Eater column and produces a video series called Bong Appetit. He is the guy who will share a joint with you and, as the conversation rolls along, will segue into some history, some science, and some sage advice. The idea here is to show some respect for the plant and yourself. Bienenstock does a great job of balancing his content so it is not too light and yet easy to digest. A book like this can’t help but be a call to action moving along at a good, steady, and stirring pace.

What all the cannabis shops have done is not only bring a plant out from the cold. The shops have welcomed back numerous people who had given up ever again having reliable and trusted access. Many people are coming back who have not gotten high in many years, or who never did in the first place. So, a book like this truly serves any age. Bienenstock, like a good journalist, makes no assumptions on your experience or level or knowledge while, at the same, keeps advancing. If you don’t know the difference between indica and sativa, Bienenstock has got you covered. If you’d like a handy overview of cannabis chemistry, well, keep on reading.

The beauty of the book is that Bienenstock’s good sense for storytelling wins out every time. In tune with his reader, Bienenstock presents a dazzling array of facts, heart-felt observations, and a humanity that should melt the heart of many a naysayer. Mostly, it’s a book there to provide a helping hand in appreciating cannabis. But, as Bienenstock joyfully sings to us, it’s also about a state of mind, dude! The goal is not to necessarily smoke each and every day. The goal is to savor those times when you do. And strive to tap into that bliss the rest of the time. That’s about as highbrow and proper as it gets.

“How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High” is a 288-page paperback, also available as an e-book. For more details, visit Penguin Random House right here.

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Filed under Cannabis, David Bienenstock, High Times, Journalism, Marijuana, Penguin Random House, VICE