Saturday, March 29, 2014


Okay. I'm not proud of this, but if I'm gonna come clean and move on, now's the time to do it.

Last last year I went on a Magic: the Gathering binge. I made a monoblack EDH deck. I got caught up on the mythology, particularly of Mirrodin and Phyrexia. (For the record, the Scars of Mirrodin block was brilliant.) I even opened up Magic Set Editor, made some fake cards based on my old webcomics, you all laughed (or snickered lowly). As far as costly and time-consuming relapses go, the whole thing was a lot of fun. I've left my cards with a friend living in the backwoods of Massachusetts, so the habit's good as kicked...for now.

But it didn't stop there.

Long story short: over the last year or so, during fits of writers' block or everyday procrastination, I'd open up Magic Set Editor and make more phony cards. I'd already had my fun with 8EB cards, and it seemed even more unforgivably self-indulgent to make any more cards along that theme.

So....well, I made a bunch of cards based on Moby Dick. I hardly even noticed how many I'd slapped together over the last ten months until I stopped and looked them over. I'm not even sure I intended to show anyone but the two or three people with whom I've played Magic since my relapse. But I'm posting them here as a kind of confession.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Life is beatiful."

Mr. Brainwash
"How's life?" is what I usually ask people instead of "how's it going?" or "how are you?" I don't remember when or why I started saying it.

You know how these rote greetings work—most of the time when we ask someone how it's going with them, we have as little interest in hearing the answer as they have in giving one. Admittedly, when I say "how's life?" to someone at work or to a passing acquaintance, it's usually spoken as much as an incurious courtesy as "how's it going?", but it has a greater likelihood of surprising me by eliciting responses that aren't worn into automation. Even if the person simply answers "good," there's usually still a half-second during which they actually process the question and consider their answer (or consider whether to consider their answer).

There's one response that gets my goat: "beautiful." Especially when it terminates a recapitulation of the question. "Life is...beautiful."

It's usually the damn kids who say it—the damn kids and the double-damned buzzed single thirtysomethings. And they usually say it like they're epiphanizing on the spot or imparting some profound truth.

It sounds like a premature conclusion, especially when it's coming from the mouth of an undergraduate on spring break or a late twentysomething enjoying their second gap year. It has a tinny ring to it; it strikes me as the evaluation of someone who's visited life from time to time, but has never strayed far from the touristy parts.

To these people I have a few friendly suggestions toward a more multidimensional conception of life so that they may more accurately appraise it: 

Outlive your child; have a stillborn child. Live your whole life enjoying the use of your limbs, and then break your neck and live as a paraplegic; or otherwise suffer a debilitating injury that renders you incapable of doing what you're most passionate about. Lose your home, your pets, and every material object you own in a hurricane, an earthquake, or a freak accident when a train carrying crude oil jumps the track. Suffer from an incurable chronic illness that slowly kills you and puts you in constant pain that only gets worse. Believe in someone and watch them let you down. Repeatedly. Believe in something and watch it betray you, watch it fail. Repeatedly. Fail at something yourself—try something, believe in it, stake everything on your success with it, and then fail utterly. Then try something else and fail at that, too. Watch people—more than one person, two, three, ten twenty—who can be objectively judged as unscrupulous, mean, and generally awful human beings, watch them enjoying more success and happiness in their lives than you. Struggle with addiction for a few years. Get raped. Have a traumatic experience that you never get over completely. Happen to be at the bus station, the mall, or the college campus when the pipe bombs go off and the armed zealots or psychopaths start indiscriminately shooting people. Get in a really bad, really stupid fight with your significant other and then lose them in a car accident before you have a chance to reconcile with them. Suffer third degree burns all over your body and live the rest of your life with hideous inoperable facial scars. Get cancer, beat cancer, and then get another kind of cancer. Be lonely for a long time. Be constrained to work a job that you hate, that exhausts you physically, mentally, and spiritually, for many years. Get beaten up for no reason. Get beaten up by a cop. Get your ass kicked by a group of belligerent motherfuckers in a public place and watch people hurry past and pretend not to see you as you bleed and scream for help. Live in a war zone for a few months or years. Live in a place where people are regularly dying from starvation. Stand trial for a crime you didn't commit; go to jail for it. Witness something awful happening to someone you love, something you might have personally prevented. Do something really fucked up, something you never imagined you'd do, and get away with it, and live with yourself knowing you really are the kind of person who'd do what you did.

If you've had life shit and vomit on you and you can still sincerely say it's beautiful, then wow—that really does mean something. And you're probably right.

In the Zen tradition, the mountains and rivers really are nothing more or less than mountains and rivers, but proclaiming it means nothing unless you've taken the trip and returned again. Life might be beautiful, but it's fatuous to announce such a verdict when you don't know it well enough to understand how poisonously ugly it can be and can transcend it.

Until you're there, I think the most appropriate answer to the original question is "it has its moments." Or treat it like a weather report: "sunny today; chance of rain tomorrow."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bouchard Buffet, Part 4: Saddle Rash & Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil

I was sort of worried about Loren Bouchard for a while. That's probably too strong a way of putting it, but there were a few years when I was concerned that his career was just going to fizzle out with Home Movies.

Home Movies was cancelled in 2004. By 2006,' Bouchard's collaborator Brendon Small had a new show on Adult Swim called Metalocalypse, which hit it big almost immediately. It got better ratings and much more press than Home Movies, its soundtrack became the highest charting death metal album on the Billboard 200, as of today it (supposedly) has a fifth season on the way, et cetra. Bouchard, however, would have to spend another few years wandering in the desert of late-night cartoon obscurity before landing a prime time network hit with Bob's Burgers in 2011.

Today we're going to take a quick look at the two shows Bouchard worked on between Home Movies and Bob's Burgers, beginning with...


Saddle Rash actually aired in 2002, when Home Movies was on its second season. It was Bouchard's first project not to have been produced under the banner of a Tom Synder company, the first for which he could claim complete credit as creator, and the first for which he was the primary writer (though he had help from Holly Schlesinger, who had worked on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies as a production assistant, and who returns as a writer in Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil and Bob's Burgers). It was also his first (and so far only) rejected pilot; Adult Swim didn't greenlight it for a series, but Saddle Rash was fortunate enough to be aired a few times instead of just getting stuffed into a Cartoon Network vault like some of the unluckier pilots.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bouchard Buffet, Part 3: Home Movies


Loren Bouchard isn't a celebrity cartoon maker with the same degree of public recognition enjoyed by the likes of Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane, or even Trey Parker. In some ways, this works to his advantage with a certain type of audience. Bouchard's work has a certain kind of connoisseur appeal: to the pop culture epicure, the cult hit is almost always more interesting than the smash sensation, and Bouchard has built a successful (albeit somewhat quiet) career around cult hits. His current show Bob's Burgers usually gets fewer viewers than the shows with which it shares Fox's Animation Domination block (Zombie Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad), but a quick Google search for "best TV shows 2013" suggests more critics have Bouchard's work on their minds than MacFarlane's or Groening's.

At this point—with a prime time slot on network TV, viewership in neighborhood of five million, and with a confirmed fifth season—Bob's Burgers may not even qualify as a cult hit. It's a breakthrough success; Bouchard's payoff for the decade and some-odd years that he worked diligently on cable shows that were never in much danger of amassing the kind of broad cultural appeal requisite for inclusion in any professional critic's annual "top 20 shows of 200X" list.

Such was the case with Home Movies, which even the A.V. Club—one of the most enthusiastic Bob's Burgers advocates—snubbed in its "Best TV Series of the '00s" roundup. Co-created by Bouchard and musician/comedian Brendon Small under Tom Snyder's Soup2Nuts studio (basically a rebranding of TSP's animation wing), Home Movies is a true cult classic. It aired for a few years, was enjoyed by a small but loyal consortium of fans, and ignored by the rest of the world. TV ratings from 2001–2004 aren't easy to come by, so I can't comment on how well it actually performed compared to the other shows on Adult Swim. Anecdotally speaking, I remember that the friends of mine in college who caught every episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force never, ever made a point of watching Home Movies; overviews of Adult Swim run by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and in 2002 don't even mention Home Movies; Adult Swim moved its time slot around while hedging on twelve-minute ATHF-esque absurdism for its original programming alongside its Family Guy and Futurama rebroadcasts. Home Movies never really stood much of a chance; it is very lucky to have lasted as long as it did, and it's a bona fide miracle that it didn't just blink out of existence forever after its unwatched five-episode UPN run in 1999.