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I was just going to eat this medical cannabis peanut butter bar and catch up on Gotham (it’s not good, which is fine by me, a connoisseur of ‘meh’ television), but when I signed into Hulu I was greeted with an AVENGERS TRAILER, and now I feel that it would be irresponsible for me (a connoisseur of ‘meh’ internet punditry) not to provide some Hot’n’Ready Takes:

  • No Vision, which is absolutely bogus, I swear somewhere in the rumorsphere we were promised Vision, my favorite-ever Avenger and, obvy, a shoe-in for key player in any Ultron-centric tale.
  • No Hank Pym either, as far as I saw. Is Ant-Man Hank Pym in that Ant-Man movie no one wants to see (prediction: it will be six times bigger than Guardians of the Galaxy, another “no one wants to see that!?” film). If there’s no Hank Pym, who invented Ultron? More importantly, if there’s no Hank Pym, who’s dating Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp?
  • Did you know that the Wasp and Havok (that would be Cylcop’s little brother, who shoots his super-eye beams out of his nipples instead of his eyes) had a child together, who they raised for five years, until those five years were wiped from reality in order to preserve the greater good, or some-such? Kind of like that episode of Star Trek when Picard lives out a whole lifetime on some idyllic vineyard planet with Margot Rose. See kids, that’s the kind of original, but still ripped off from Star Trek, storytelling that you’re missing if you’re not also reading the comics.
  • Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the Wasp’s super-powers were to always be wearing tennis whites and firing the maid for stealing petty cash even though you know it was probably the twins, Chip and Brad, when they were home from Choate last weekend? But no, her superpowers are actually based on the insect, not the awesome/horrible people who invented gin and tonics at five o’clock.
  • What the trailer DOES have is Hulk Buster armor. APPROVE.
  • It also has Mark Gruffalo looking hecka emo. Someone give Dr. Banner a hug please? Maybe he’s angry because everyone acts all tense and scared around him all the time. Like, could someone please throw this guy a bone? Although it would suck if he Hulked out mid-coitus.
  • Oh. My. God. Thor dropped his hammer ON THE GROUND. Shit is serious, ya’ll.
  • Why are these all these B-roll clips of ballet dancers thrown in here? It’s like a 90 second trailer for a superhero action movie. How could anyone think three seconds of out of context ballerina shots are a good use of that limited time?
  • We are dangerously close to approaching peak Spader. *sigh* I miss Boston Legal. That will always be MY peak Spader.

Howdy Ho loyal readers and Malaysian spam robots. It’s been awhile — practically the whole summer, it seems — since I hollered at ya. Sorry, things got real. I helped open a restaurant and music venue. I took a 3,000 mile road trip around the midwest and southwest (shout out to the great state of Colorado :) :) :) ). And oh yeah, I got married!

Now things are settling back into something of a rhythm around Casa Disastercouch, and there’s just so much to write about. I’m watching The Flash, Gotham, Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., obvy, and eagerly awaiting the premiere of Constantine, so even if all I did was recap trash tv I’d have plenty to write about. Oscar-bait season is also about to start, and since I now live down the way from a movie theater, I might catch a movie or two this year.  I haven’t talked about rap music on here in forever, even though I absolutely need to lay the hate down on Riff Raff and Iggy Azalea, and take a moment to big-up The Underachievers and YG.  And of course, the last time we checked in with Heavy Metal Survey it was only like, 1982.

But first, always first, there’s comics. I just went to my LCS and cleaned out my pull box after a five week absence. That cost me a cool 135 bucks. My priorities as an adult man are pretty garbage, I know. But here are my thoughts on what I had been missing in comics for the last month-plus:

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The Frost Giants of Jotunheim attack underwater mining operations in the North Sea

Thor #1 by Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman with Matthew Wilson. Marvel (Disney), 2014.

The basic conceit of this series is that “Thor Odinson” is a specific Asgardian, but “Thor” is more like an office or title. After all, it says right on Mjolnir, anyone who is worthy to lift the hammer will wield the power of Thor. Plenty of Marvel Universe residents have proved themselves Worthy in the past: Eric Masterson (Thunderstrike), who was and then wasn’t and then was again Thor’s human alter-ego (the ’90s were confusing); Beta Ray Bill, who is an alien horse (the ’70s were confusing); Captain America (that part isn’t confusing); and Storm (Thorm! Weather-themed Heroes Unite! Yeah, the ’80s were confusing).

The most fun part is watching Thor, Odin, and the Warriors Three all engaged in a bro-off about lifting Mjolnir. None of them can, and the hammer is left embedded deep in the surface of the Moon until an unnamed woman lifts it in the issue’s final panel. As the next chapter in Aaron’s strong Thor run, this will be essential reading, at least until the resolution of two big mysteries: what did Nick Fury reveal to Thor at the end of Original Sin that suddenly made Thor unworthy? And who is the new female Thor? Is it the All-Mother Freyja? The legally-embattled battle angel Angela? Some character that ties more directly into another Marvel Studios blockbuster movie? Only time — like three or four issues time, most likely — will tell. And if you miss ‘ol Thor Odinson, he’s been repurposed as Savage Thor, missing his hammer, his ability to fly, and any semblance of a shirt in Avengers/X-Men: Axis: Book One: The Red Supremacy.

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Whatever else I thought about the comic, this spread ensured that I’ll be following this title and artist for a bit. Buttons pushed.

Gotham Academy #1 by Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl with Geyser and Dave McCaig. DC (Time-Warner), 2014.

Part of me is like “what is this? WHY DOES THIS EXIST?” by part of me is like “Gotham Central was pretty baller, give it a chance.”

The idea of getting a lot of granular Gotham/Bat-verse background detail is intriguing. For example, the first issue features a short segment of a class on the history of Gotham — a chalkboard outlines some of the relationship between Gotham’s three great families of the Arkhams, the Waynes, and the Cobblepots. Not that there’s not already enough Bat-material out there for someone to write a six-volume historical analysis of Gotham society…but no one has yet, as far as I know, so I’ll settle for a little nod to continuity here and there.

The art is kind of amazing, in that it’s richly colored and finely detailed, and looks like cells captured from a really high budget Studio Ghibli or Disney film. It’s also kind of plastic and unengaging, because it looks like a high-budget animated film.

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Oh no! Not the….Mini-Mall! I would just about die if I walked into an actual mall and saw a store called the Fandom Zone that specializes in “comic books and paperbacks.” Every once in awhile you’ll see a Games Workshop or a BAM! or something that has a few comics, but a full-fleged comic shop in between the Journeyz 2: Electric Boogaloo and the Express Men Junior Plus? Not in this crazy modern ebola world, my friend.

New Mutants Classic Vol. One by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod.  Marvel (Disney), 2006.  Collects Marvel Graphic Novel #4 (1982), New Mutants #1-7 (1982), and Uncanny X-Men #167 (1982).

I love the X-Men, but when I think X-Men, my vision pretty much stops at characters that were included in the 1990s cartoon series: Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Beast, Archangel, and Iceman. I never got into X-Factor, or X-Terminators, or X-Force, or X-this-or-X-that. Maybe a little Generation X, because they were kind of like Gen 13, who were my fave.

But you get the gist. Core X-Men only!

But I started listening every once in awhile to this podcast where maybe the nerdiest, most sickeningly adorable couple ever talk in detail about the X-Men. And they recently got to the point in X-Men history when Chris Claremon’ts Uncanny first branched off into another title: the New Mutants, introduced in Marvel Graphic Novel #4 in 1982.

I love a good yarn set at the School for Gifted Youngsters, and the international cast of characters sounded pretty bonkers; very CW. It turns out it is pretty bonkers, at times a little-lot racist, and extremely hokey, but superfun.  Bob McLeod draws a little like the 2000 AD gang and a little like George Perez, and basically epitomizes Marvel’s House Style circa Flock of Seagulls, so if you’re into that sort of thing (and I am, with bells on), you’ll love it.

And if you don’t know how you feel about Claremont’s hypernarrative, way over-the-top super-soap style writing by now well…it’s not for everyone. This is a book that I may return to for some more sophisticated analysis down the line, as there is a lot to unpack when you’re talking Mutants and Metaphors. But suffice to say it is waaaay fun and features a ton of wolf attacks. Cannonball!

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Avengers & X-Men: Axis #1 by Rick Remender and Adam Kubert with Laura Martin and Matt Milla.  Marvel (Disney), 2014.

Spinning out of the pages of Uncanny Avengers, and Magneto, and for some reason Loki has his own series…and also spinning out of the pages of A vs. X, and Civil War, and Inhuman, and Original Sin…and copying pretty explicitly from DC’s Forever Evil event which had totally the same premise minus the Nazis…and taking nine issues to tell a story that Steve Ditko could probably have knocked out in six pages…

…for the twelfth time this decade, every marketable character that Marvel still holds the rights to faces the total and complete destruction of the entire multiverse…against the “most powerful” and “deadliest” threat they have ever faced…again…

presenting:

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SIXIS.

Wait, what? That says Axis? So…to be clear, the full title of this comic book is Avengers/X-Men: AXIS (spelled liked Sixis) : Book One: The Red Supremacy?

I give up.

***

Well Kids, I want to finish up this whole stack of comics-to-review before I head off to work today, but I somehow hit 1,300 words already, I need to leave in about an hour, and something tells me this:

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is going to take a bit longer to wade through.  Oh well, more fuel for the blogging furnace next week!  Dont’ forget to spay and neuter your pets.

Each of the three episodes that have aired of Agents of SHIELD‘s second season have featured a constant refrain from Skye, the show’s point-of-view character: “Why are things being kept from me? What aren’t you telling me?”

This was a theme throughout the first season as well. It is the question at the core of the relationship between Skye and Agent Coulson, the show’s patriarch and ostensible protagonist*. I interpreted this dynamic as a commentary on or reaction to the Privacy versus Security debate that has risen to a cacophony in the post-Snowden era. Coulson represents the position of fascistic security agencies (the NSA, Shabak, MISIRI, the Chinese Ministry of State Security) who hold that privacy is the provence of governments, that states have the right to both keep secrets from their citizens and to monitor those same citizens lest they attempt to harbor any secrets of their own. Skye, who before joining SHIELD operated with the hacktivist cell Rising Tide, represents the position of groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous who hold that information beckons to be free, and that is the right of citizens to monitor their governments and not vice-versa.

There is another interpretation, another layer, another secret. In episode three of the new season, Fitz, the brilliant engineer brought low by hypoxia-induced brain damage, asks** Coulson the same question Skye has been asking.

Coulson’s response: “I am the Director. There are a lot of things I am keeping from you.”

Coulson is of course referring to his new position as Director of SHIELD. But might not that word, “director,” have a double-meaning? Even more so than other media, television programs have a tendency to become ‘about’ the creation of themselves. Viewed from that angle, perhaps Skye and Fitz’s constant questioning of Coulson is not unlike the constant clamoring by fans for explanation and resolution. The fans that hounded the creators of Lost into attempting to tie every loose end. The fans whose unending speculation has seemingly ruined the ending of George R.R. Martin’s yet-unpublished final Song of Fire and Ice novels. The fans who spent all summer dying to find out who Skye’s father is and why Coulson has started carving Kree electrical diagrams into every flat surface. The fans whose intense interest sustains shows and franchises for years and decades.

And Coulson, the “Director,” would then represent the *cough* beleaguered showrunners. Who are keeping a lot of things from you.

For your own good.

*Although May, the Spock to Coulson’s Kirk, is the more nuanced and ultimately rewarding character.

**Though not in so many workds

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Annihilator #1 by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving. Legendary, 2014.

Did I mention I’m not ‘keeping up’ with comics anymore? It’s not something that happened on purpose, like

“ARRRRRGHHH comics! I’m so mad at you! I’m not going to pay attention to the latest news and gossip about you Any. More.”

It just kind of happened accidentally. I blame Google Reader shutting down, a reality I’m just beginning to accept like…I don’t, seven years after the fact? This technologically driven 21st century time dilation is really fucking with my perception of history. What came first, Faith by George Michael or the Iraq War by George Bush? The world may never know.

Anyway, I couldn’t even begin to guess at what Grant Morrison is up to these days. I saw my local comic book shop had lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of copies of another new book of his, Multiversity. I thought Multiversity was already the name of a site that does in depth breakdowns of the latest issues of Morning Glories and shit, so that’s already confusing, and then Morrison is naturally confusing, and then obviously from the title there are multiple universes at play so I was like

“Girl, nuh uh. I am not going down that road again. He say he changed but no, we all remember Final Crisis.”

But, way in the back of the store, there’s this other new Grant Morrison comic. From a publisher I don’t really know. And a proper Grant Morrison artist — that is to say, British, weird, and mostly famous from 2000 AD.

Hmmm. Intrigued.

I’ve often felt Morrison lives and dies by the artists he works with. His writing can be accessible, enjoyable and fun, or obscure, masturbatory, and overblown, and it depends more than anything on who is turning the script into art. Frazer Irving immediately brings a grandiose and cinematic vision to this series that complements Morrison’s big imagination perfectly, but he also possess the visual storytelling skills to keep the focus on the imagery over text. The first few pages of this story could be totally understood without any of the accompanying captions or dialogue balloons, and that’s a real strength. And the digitally painted textures give everything a bit of a peak 90s-era Vertigo look, which certainly puts me in the mood for a vintage Morrison yarn.

Here’s the broad outline of the plot, as I understood it: There’s a black hole called the Annihilator at the center of the galaxy. There’s a fight in space that pits an evil empire against a lone hero. There’s a guy who looks a bit like Terrence Trent d’Arby who is very okay with the fact that the house he is about to buy is a legendarily haunted murder house. That fellow is Ray Spass. He is a screenwriter and he hasn’t had a hit for a long time. He wants to write a ghost story — hence the importance of moving into a haunted house. The studio wants science fiction.

So just put the haunted house in space.

The screenplay Ray is writing is Annihilator, and his protagonist, equal parts Riddick and Thanos, is Max Nomax, a hero in the capital R Romantic mode.

From there the comic caroms back and forth from Ray’s world to the fictive world of Annihilator, each reflecting the other as such things tend to do. All very predictable until…Max Nomax shows up at Ray’s doorstep.

Oh bravo Mr. Morrisson. How very meta of you. No one would expect the author of Animal Man from THIRTY YEARS ago to play with the ‘ol boundaries between creator and creation, would they?

But I guess I asked for some vintage Morrison, and that’s precisely what I got.

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Wild’s End #1 (of 6) by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard. BOOM! Studios, 2014.

From the Improbable Mash-Ups Department: Anthropomorphic Animals + Edwardian English Countryside + Alien Invasion = Pretty Fun.

You could also call it H.G. Wells meets George Orwell, which is convenient because I get them mixed up (along with Orson Welles) all the time anyhow.

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Southern Bastards #3-4 by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour. Image, 2014.

Four issues into this series and every major character has been beaten either to death or within an inch of their life. Some of these beatings we are supposed to interpret as bad and undeserved. Others are supposed to be good and well-earned.

All of the major characters are also white men. There is apparently one woman in Craw County, Alabama — the waitress at Coach Boss’ BBQ restaurant. There is also precisely one black man, the Sheriff, who is actually a puppet sheriff controlled by Coach Boss.

Jason Aaron’s previous creator-owned series Scalped (which, like Bastards, was the story of a disenchanted adult man returning to the hometown he was supposed to have left behind in order to work out some not-insignificant Daddy Issues) featured a complex moral universe in which it was rarely clear who was a hero and who was a villain. The book pivoted around the idea that there is no universal morality. The institutional morality of the American justice system, the personal morality of assorted cops and killers, and a higher morality hinted at by the few remaining practitioners of the traditional Oglala Lakota way of life were all constantly at odds with each other. Death and violence, which are rampant in all of Aaron’s works with the possible exception of the lighthearted Wolverine and the X-Men, took on a new meaning in that context.

In Bastards, Aaron seems to be hinting at a conflict between City morals and Country values, with the suggestion that there is no higher value than high school football. And no better way to resolve a problem than with a hickory stick. The trenchant realism of Scalped’s Prairie Rose Reservation (based on the actual Pine Ridge res in South Dakota) is here replaced by an uncomfortable pastiche of the rural South, a South that I suspect will be more familiar to regular viewers of Dukes of Hazzard reruns than to contemporary residents of Alabama. So far the flatness of the characters, the dullness of the setting, the emptiness of the message, and the repetitiveness of the violence does not impress.

Prophet Strikefile interior detail by Grim Wilkins

Prophet Strikefile interior detail by Grim Wilkins

Prophet Strikefile by Brandon Graham, Simon roy, Grim Wilkins, Sandra Lanz, Matt Sheehan, Malachi Ward, Bayard Baudoin, Onta, Giannis Milonogiannis, Joseph Bergin III, Ron Ackins, Tom Parkinson-MOrgan, and selected colors by Amy Clare.

If you ever obsessed over the lavishly illustrated sourcebook to a tabletop game without playing the game, if you owned any edition of the Star Wars Technical Manual, if your favorite Punisher issues were the Armories*, if you think any drawing of a machine or vehicle could be improved by making it a cutaway, if you’re obsessed with properly ordering the timelines of completely contrived universes, if you ever bookmarked an online encyclopedia of Babylon Five aliens, if the numbers 1701-C and 1701-D mean anything to you…

…then for chrissakes be the nerd you want to be already and buy this book. Also if you’ve been reading Brandon Graham’s Prophet and have suspected the whole time that you have no idea what’s going on, this might help.  I can’t wait to go back and reread the series — I could never have guessed how epic and psychedelic it would become.

 

*

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From 1990, the Punisher Armory was basically just a bunch of really detailed drawings of guns accompanied by some thoughts from the Punisher about those guns, and how much he likes guns.  I’m not a gun guy or an NRA fan or anything, but I loved this comic just for the way it dug into technical minutiae.  The issue was illustrated by Eliot R Brown, a technical illustrator who was called in by the Big Two from time to time to illustrate things like cutaway diagrams of Iron Man’s armor, a topographic map of Gotham City, or the Teen Titan’s satellite base.   I strongly recommend a visit to his website.

 

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My essays on here have been getting less frequent and more personal.  I’d guess that means that I’m just more focused on my personal life than on comics and pop culture right now.  Probably for the best, as I’m getting married in eleven days — an event I’d certainly hope would be more important to me than Future’s End or the Death of Wolverine.

The following review of Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley contains spoilers for the entire book as well as for the entirety of my own life.

***

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That’s the opening to the first proper chapter of Seconds, the second proper graphic story from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the first proper cartoonist many people of a certain age fell in love with.  And if the preceding sentence seemed improbable and convoluted, it’s only because it is so freighted with meaning.

For readers of a certain age, that is.

When I first started reading O’Malley’s breakout work, Scott Pilgirm, I was in much the same place in my life as the titular character.  Fresh out of school, in a cramped and highly unglamorous living situation, at best marginally employed, and dating a much younger and more innocent girl largely because it was the easiest thing to do at the moment.  I was, too put it mildy, a selfish whelk woefully unprepared for the realities of adult living.

Fast forward a few (too many) years and very little has changed.  I mean, I’ve got a fairly grown-up looking apartment, I make a decent living, and I’m in a stable and healthy relationsihp of equals.  But I still see myself reduced to the simple clean lines of a Bryan Lee O’Malley comic.

I’ve been talking to myself more than usual.

***

I’m twenty-nine years old.  I work in the restaurant up the road.  I love the restaurant.  It’s not my first one.  Restaurants, like women, mark phases in your life, lessons learned.

My first one was a neighborhood star that had shone brightly for a year and since fallen on hard times.  This place, let’s call it The Café, had already broken up the chef-owner’s marriage and sent one general manager running for the hills.  The new manager was a hard but humorous fellow who had worked his way from dishwasher to maitre’d in the most legendary dining rooms in New York before relocating to Chicago, which he viewed as the hinterlands.  We at first seemed to have little in common, but soon discovered that we were both alcoholics, and for that reason perceived each other with a grudging sort of respect.  I grew closer with the crew there than at any other place I’ve since worked; I watched my coworkers get married, have their first children, move across the country, and in many ways grow into themselves.  I was the youngest of the bunch but I felt in many ways like we were all growing up together.  Still, after a couple of years the whole environment proved too volatile, and I walked out at the end of a particularly tense shift.

The next place, which I shall call Lé Chic was a very elegant and very expensive lair with a prime bit of real estate just close enough to downtown to draw the big crowds but just far enough away to maintain some illusion of edginess.  They had just brought on a new rising star to run the kitchen and undo the damage done by the previous chef (another alcoholic — the world is positively full of us, if you know where to look).  Those ambitions were rewarded in my first year there, when the restaurant earned a Michelin star.  After the turmoil of my first restaurant,  Lé Chic showed me what a real, functional restaurant could be: the attention to detail, the completeness of the experience, the overwhelming emphasis on going well beyond the guest’s expectations, and more than anything, the level of complexity and technique that was actually required to make deceptively simple food at high volumes and ensure that every morsel was delicious every time.   Although the sense of pride I felt in being a small part of such a place was immense, I also knew that  Lé Chic was, for its owner at least, more a business than a passion, and as I saw more and more decisions being made solely in the service of profit margins (often at the expense of employees’ well-being), I had to once again move on.

After a couple years spent in the wilderness of sales and marketing for a meat, cheese, and specialty goods purveyor, I missed the fun and flexibility of restaurants and asked a chef friend about a job at his new spot, aka The Hipster.  I realized when I joined up that I had gone from being a young curiosity (a well-educated waiter, probably on a pit stop on his way to some sort of real career) to an old and tired cliche (an over-educated waiter who never made much of himself in a real career, and now knows the restaurant business the way a mercenary knows the war business).  Still, I loved it.  Saturday nights at The Hipster were like being on stage.  The best looking, coolest and richest people in town were all clamoring for a table in the city’s hottest dining room, and I was one of the beautiful people chosen to entertain them for the evening.  The truth is, I never would have left, unless provided with the perfect opportunity for something even hotter, even younger.

Enter The New Place.  My first time opening a restaurant.  It would be the latest project from a chef and a group that had dominated the city restaurant scene for the last half-decade, and best of all, it was just up the road from my house.

***

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Seconds focuses on a crucial period in the life of Katie, a 29-year old chef suffering through some serious ennui.  Unlike O’Malley’s previous protagonist, Katie seems to have life pretty well figured out.  She’s the most popular chef in town.  She’s on the cusp of opening a restaurant of her very own.  But for the time being, she stuck living most of her life out at Seconds, the restaurant she helped create but feels little love for anymore.  All tied up with this is Katie’s fraught relationship with her ex (and ex-sous chef), and her semi-secret relationship with (you guessed it) her new sous chef.  When an ill-advised hookup leads to a chain of events that ends with a young employee being seriously injured in a kitchen accidents, Katie is overwhelmed with regret.

And then things gets pretty weird.

***

Your early twenties are a great time to make, and learn from, mistakes.  Your late twenties are a great time to make, and reflect on, regrets.

I regret changing colleges after sophomore year.  I regret slacking off  and never giving a thought to a job or life after school.  I regret doing what my father (a chef) told me never to do and getting into the restaurant business.  I regret not getting out sooner.  I regret not keeping up with my friends from my old school.  I regret the way I treated every woman I was ever with before the woman I’m with now.  I regret not spending more time with my Granddad Bill.  I regret not sticking with golf like my brother did.  I regret not seeing my brother grow up.  I regret downing a half dozen pain pills and five Guinnesses the day I got fired from my first job.  I regret not letting rehab stick the first time.  I regret not writing almost anything at all from roughly 2006 to 2011, which probably should have been my most productive period as a creator.  I regret all the times I missed a social engagement because I was either passed out or too drunk to drive.

I love the New Place.  It’s the greatest restaurant I’ve ever been a part of, and this time I’ve been there since the beginning.  It has a concert venue upstairs that focuses on musicians native to the surrounding area, a onetime mecca of entertainment that has since fallen into obscurity.  The food is incredible.  The space is full of plants and light and basically looks like an oasis of joy in an otherwise dreary stretch between a strip mall and an L.A. Fitness.   There’s an adorable little coffee bar in the back where I can quietly make myself an espresso and then look over a room full of happy, laughing people, and feel like I’ve actually been a part of creating what I see in front of me.

I also sort of hate the New Place.  Cutting out my long commute and working in the neighborhood was supposed to give me more time at home with my fiancee, but we didn’t count on the significantly longer hours.  I also have less time to write, and I’m exhausted more often than not.  I think about it when I’m not there.  I have stressful dreams about it.  I’m afraid I’m going to regret leaving the easy money of the Hipster in favor of working a lot harder for the same pay at the New Place.

***

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Overcome with guilt after allowing harm to come to a coworker, Katie discovers an opportunity to make things right.  When she wakes the next morning, everything is okay.

She was only supposed to get one chance, but Katie uncovers a loophole that allows her to go back and fix more mistakes.  Despite the warnings of the hip young House Spirit that has started haunting her, Katie embarks on a program of course corrections, going back to change increasingly important moments in her own life.

And all of this, of course, has unintended consequences.

If I had never left home early, and then if I had never changed schools,  I never would have met the love of my life.  If I hadn’t gotten fired from that first job I never would have found something of a calling in the restaurant world.  If I hadn’t hit rock bottom, I wouldn’t have been so lucky as to start curing my addictive behavior early in life.  If I had held on to the same old friends, I might never have had room for the amazing ones I have now.

Still, I obsess over tiny moments of the past, reliving in minute detail the way things did happen and the way I wish they would have happened.  If I, like Katie, had the power to do-over any moment, the list of things I would change would be almost infinite.

But, given that my past mistakes indicate a life-long history of poor decision making, what would make me think that I would be able to go back and do a better job?

Who’s to say I wouldn’t just make things immeasurably worse?

And that’s precisely what happens to Katie.  She doesn’t just mess up her life by trying to redo the past.  She messes up the whole space time continuum.

***

The inner-workings of a restaurant are a frightening and mysterious thing

The inner-workings of a restaurant are a frightening and mysterious thing

I focus most of my attention on the past, and the rest on the future, often with very little regard to the present moment.  Lately the universe has been conspiring to remind me that that is precisely the wrong way to do it.

In the beginning of Seconds, Katie is the same state.  All of her emotional energy is tied up in the past (her relationship with Max) and in the future (the all-too-distant opening of her new restaurant).   Attempts to change the outcome of the latter by altering the former are met with disaster.  In the end all she has to do is focus on the present, on being present.  It turns out the work of changing the future is difficult.  Back-breaking.  It can’t be done by flicking some single switch in the past.  There is after all no lever of sufficient length to lift the whole world.  Progress can only be achieved in real time.  By focusing totally on the present moment, and on doing the right thing in this moment.

Ha.  Maybe there’s something I can take away from that.

The restaurant I work at recently received a pretty harsh review from a fairly important publication, and it has really gotten me thinking about restaurant criticism.  Restaurant critic was once one of my dream jobs.  Given that my two primary hobbies are eating and criticizing things, it would seem like a perfect fit.  But having worked as long as I have in restaurants, I always view anyone who would deign to criticize what we do with, if not disdain, at least suspicion.  What do you know, anyway?

Almost all restaurant reviews focus on three things: service, food quality, and ambiance.  This is as true in major newspapers as it is on Yelp.   Criticism in this vain offers its readers a service: there are many, many options for dining in any major city, so which ones are worth spending hard-earned money at?  This is the restaurant review as a product review.  Comparing the latest trendy restaurants is barely different from comparing the latest models of Android phones:  give me the technical specs, the price points, and that indescribable ‘x factor’ (which is, 100% of the time, just the reviewer’s totally subjective gut reaction).

But there has to be more to it, right?  What about where that cellphone comes from?  It’s environmental impact?  The kind of conditions the people who made it work under?  In the world of product reviews, that kind of deep data is so far removed from the end consumer that it is more or less irrelevant — or rather, very easy to ignore.

But in a restaurant those factors are more in-your-face.  There’s more than food, service, and ambiance.  The top-tier of restaurants today are a microcosm for some of the most important social issues of the 21st century:  questions about class, race, the environment, economic sustainability, multiculturalism, and labor are all constantly at play.  I believe there is room for a restaurant criticism that looks beyond the surface dining experience to examine and evaluate the real workings of a restaurant.

Here are some possible questions a restaurant critic with a Marxist-Feminist-Ecologist perspective would ask:

  • Who works here?
  • Is the staff young or old?
  • Has the staff, especially the bar, host, and waitstaff, been hired for attitude and intelligence, or have they been hired solely based on their appearance (people outside of the industry may be surprised to learn how many restaurant jobs require you to submit a headshot along with your application)?
  • Are people of color fulfilling many roles throughout the restaurant, including managerial, or are they relegated to support roles (busboy, barback, prep cook, dishwasher)?
  • What is the ratio of women to men on the staff?
  • Is the LGBTQ staff provided with a safe and supportive working environment and provided the same opportunities, in both the front of house and kitchen, as the staff as a whole?
  • Are there women in managerial roles?
  • Are there women working in the kitchen as well as the front of the house?
  • How much are kitchen and front of house workers paid?  Are there benefits offered to full-time employees?
  • Are kitchen staff paid hourly or a day rate?
  • How many hours a day and hours a week do kitchen staff work?  How often are employees actually allowed to take their legally mandated breaks?
  • Is there significant staff turnover?  Are loyal staff members rewarded with opportunities for advancement?
  • Where does the restaurant’s product comes from?
  • Does the restaurant utilize locally farmed products and develop mutually beneficial relationships with farmers?
  • Are the products being served currently in season?
  • What percentage of the product served comes from local or sustainable sources, or from small purveyors, and how much comes from industrialized sources and corporate purveyors such as Sysco and US Foods?
  • Does the restaurant actually use the farms they name or are they just using the name for a marketing advantage?  If a farm is listed, is 100% of that product from that farm, or is it a mix of accurately named farmed product and a substitute product from a different origin? (This is unbelievably common, especially with meats.  Be wary of any high volume restaurant that claims to serve a specific cut of steak from a single family farm.  There’s only so many ribeyes on an animal, people).
  • Are fish and oyster species names and points of origin given accurately?  Does the waitstaff have the correct information regarding seafood sustainability?
  • Is the restaurant committed to serving only sustainable seafood?  Are there red-flag items such as farm-raised salmon, tuna, and Chilean sea bass on the menu?
  • Does the restaurant take steps to minimize environmental waste (forgoing hand towels in favor of dryers, re-using menus, minimizing the size and quantity of to-go containers, using environmentally friendly cleaning agents, favoring draft beer and wine over bottles and cans, converting vegetable oil for use in biodiesel vehicles, composting, using LED and low-wattage lighting, using reusable non-petroleum candles, etc., etc?)
  • Does the restaurant offer bottled water?  In areas that frequently experience drought, such as the Southwest, serving water only upon request or preferring bottled water is often the environmentally responsible move.  In other parts of the country, serving bottled water is an environmental nuisance when filtering and/or carbonating water in house and using washable carafes is possible.
  • What kind of community does the restaurant serve?
  • Are the primary clientele locals, citywide foodies, or tourists?
  • Does the restaurant cater to the wealthy, the middle-class, bohemians, or the poor?
  • Does the restaurant cater to the old, the young, to professionals, to others in the restaurant industry?
  • Does the restaurant staff treat customers of different races differently?
  • Does the restaurant offer options and positive experiences for people at many different income levels?  Does it welcome a young couple that has scrounged every dollar for a modest bottle of wine and a shared entree with the same hospitality it would provide to a wealthy group of white men with black Amex cards?
  • Does the restaurant provide a substantial benefit to its surrounding neighborhood, in terms of economic impact and quality of life?
  • Does the bar serve spirits from independent distilleries and beers from microbreweries?  Or does the backbar represent the numerous marketing categories of powerful global alcohol conglomerates such as Pernod-Ricard, Beam Suntory, and Diageo?
  • Does the wine program feature organic or biodynamic wines from small producers?

What is the point of all this?  There are restaurants out there that, while they may be fun and delicious, are out to do little more than maximize profits.  They may do so at the expense of their own employees, the rest of the local economy , and the environment.  And there are also restaurants that are fun, delicious, and ethical.  If restaurant critics really want to provide relevant information about where we should spend our money, they should do so by providing more information about which restaurants are Doing the Right Things.

Here are some of the restaurants in the Chicago area which I feel are not only generally tasty but also do right by their workers, purveyors, and their environment.  Pretty much all of these are former clients of mine or places that I have worked, so, I guess that’s a conflict of interest, but that’s also how I now that they are upstanding folk:

  • Vie and Perennial Virant
  • The Publican and Publican Quality Meats
  • Frontera/XOCO/Topolobampo
  • The Bristol
  • The Girl and the Goat
  • Trenchermen and Sportsman’s Club
  • Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s and The Promontory

Few of those restaurants are new or still trendy, but they’re also not names that would surprise anybody.  The reason they’ve stuck around for a few years and become so popular might, just might, have to do with the fact they not only put out great food and drink, but they treat their employees well and never sacrifice ethical principles in favor of a quick buck.

Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to expose some of the restaurants that I know are talking the talk without walking the walk.

Next time you read a harsh restaurant review, or sitting at a table wondering why your $28 entree is taking longer than you’d like, keep in mind that a restaurant in an incredibly complex organism that many people have devoted a ridiculous amount of their life to.  And that, while the food is still always the most important thing, there is so much more to a restaurant than just what ends up on your plate.

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30. Drederick Tatum

 

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29. Eddie and Lou

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hutz

28. Lionel Hutz

 

cletus
27. Cletus Spuckler

 

brockman
26. Kent Brockman

 

richtexan
25. The Rich Texan

 

24. Jimbo Jones, Dolph, & Kearney

 

lindseynaegle

23. Lindsey Neagle

 

kirk

22. Kurt Van Houten

 

chalmers

21. Superintendent Chalmers

 

20. Squeaky Voiced Teen

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