Monthly Archives: March 2017

Double Bill: The Vinyl Cafe and Welcome to Night Vale

Under the heading of unusual grieving processes, there’s how I seem to be dealing with the recent loss of a Canadian cultural icon.

Since I was a kid, one of the fixtures at CBC Radio has been the Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean. It was a radio variety show featuring musical artists and McLean’s specialty of humourous and introspective stories, both anecdotes and fiction. If you’re American, it’s roughly analagous to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion – in fact, the first time I heard the Vinyl Cafe, I actually thought it was Garrison Keillor.


McLean died at the age of 68 in February, as the mass extinction of great celebrities of 2016 continues to bleed over into the new year. The Vinyl Cafe was frequently recorded in live performances in venues all over Canada. When I was in university we made a semi-regular thing of going to see the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour show at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. I count myself lucky to have once met McLean in the grocery store and expressed my enjoyment of his shows while I had the chance.

And, coincidentally, I decided to finally get into something a lot of friends of mine follow, and which, it turns out, is somewhat the Vinyl Cafe or Prairie Home Companion’s mirror universe twin: the podcast Welcome to Night Vale.


Stuart McLean used his show, in part, as a platform to exhibit Canadian musical talent. I remember one broadcast that featured the famous Jeff Healey Band as well as Molly Johnson in particular. During some of the Christmas shows he reliably had the jazz singer Lisa Lindo and the pianist John Sheard – his sometime musical director – in tow, and he once exhibited a then-twelve-year-old master bass guitarist named Jimmy Bowskill and promptly knocked our collective socks off.

Interspersed with the music would be stories, and this is where the Vinyl Cafe and McLean himself really shone. The stories were often ones from McLean’s own experiences, and some episodes – studio ones mostly, as far as I remember – were dedicated to stories sent in from around Canada by listeners about experiences they’d had of one kind or another. But the heart and soul of the Vinyl Cafe for me and a lot of people were the fictional stories McLean wrote featuring Dave and Morley, a married couple in middle-class Toronto, their children, their neighbours and their madcap adventures.

Dave is a record store owner who is the most hilariously neurotic person you could ask for, getting into farcical misadventures alongside his long-suffering wife and bemused children. The most famous one is the story of the frantic, insane lengths he goes to in order to cook the Christmas turkey at the very last minute. My favourite one is when they’re attending the neighbourhood Christmas party and Dave mixes up the adult (rum-laced) eggnog bowl and the kids’ bowl. Wackiness ensues. McLean’s Mr. Rogers-esque voice, deadpan delivery and impeccable comic timing mean that I’ve seldom laughed at anything so hard in my life. I put on the Vinyl Cafe Stories podcast the other day (I’ve only recently begun to actually understand what a podcast is), listened to the story of Dave’s son Sam secretly turning the yard into a water park for his friends and nearly fell off my chair. It says a lot about the show’s long standing and distinctive style that McLean’s live audience would sometimes start laughing well before the punch line, prompting him to remark, “don’t get ahead of me now.”

Welcome to Night Vale has something of the variety-show outfit, although it has an entirely fictionalized frame. Rather than being a radio show where stories are told, the radio show is the story.

Night Vale is an isolated desert community in the American southwest somewhere, and the podcast features its community radio broadcaster Cecil reporting on the latest goings-on; community events, municipal politics, civic affairs, local business advertisements.

Things like: the appearance of a forest that whispers at passers-by, reminders to take cover before the Street Cleaners’ prophesied return, festivals with compulsory attedance, and the election of a sentient luminescent gas cloud to the School Board (All Hail the Mighty Glow Cloud!).

Night Vale is built of very Lovecraftian materials with a dollop of internet conspiracy theories. A Vague But Menacing Government Agency is well-known around town, there are sinister hooded figures everyone tries to ignore, a piece of civic statuary known as the Shape, which reacts badly if people take too much notice of it, and regular implications that the town itself doesn’t exist in quite the same reality as the rest of the world. It’s a little like something out of the Laundry Files crossed with Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s quite creepy, the creepiness of something just out of sight, there but not there. But to the people of Night Vale, this is just everyday life, and they regard it with such relaxed disinterest that it’s hilarious! As with McLean, Cecil (played by actor Cecil Baldwin) sells a lot of the comedy by deadpan delivery, often of things that are so completely out of nowhere that you can’t help but laugh. The Community Calendar segment is particularly good for this sort of thing, with things like Tuesday being “hornet-free dining at the Olive Garden” or “Monday has been rescheduled to Wednesday, and Wednesday has been doubled.” The wordplay of the opening segment and the ‘today’s proverb’ in the closing segment are also entertainingly random while sometimes having hidden depths.

Since its inception, Welcome to Night Vale has ballooned into a phenomenon including merchandise, spinoff podcasts, novels, and live shows featuring musical artists including Disparition, composer of the series’ theme song and incidental music.

That’s another overlap with the Vinyl Cafe: the guest musical artists in both the live shows and the podcasts – exhibited every episode when Cecil announces the weather forecast. The artists I’ve heard so far include everything from rock to country to rap and hip-hop style tunes.

Night Vale has its own cast of supporting characters as well: the various and usually short-lived radio station interns, plus intern Dana who goes on to greater things, Old Woman Josie and her friends who are definitely not angels all named Erika, John Peters the imaginary corn farmer (the corn is imaginary, not him) and Tamika Flynn the pre-teen bibliophile guerilla army leader. Among those who give voice to some of these characters are noted actors Jasika Nicole and Wil Wheaton.

And of course there’s Carlos. Dear, sweet Carlos with his beautiful hair. Or so Cecil reliably puts it. At various moments during his early broadcasts, Cecil occasionally stops to wax eloquent on his massive crush on the scientist whose team has come to study the assorted bizarrities of Night Vale, and who eventually finds something worth protecting in his beloved Cecil. It’s masterfully seamless. The fact that theirs is a gay relationship is not even once remarked upon, and is frankly adorable.

This is a subject that McLean, to the best of my knowledge, never included so casually. Of course, times were different, but diversity is not much of a priority. I was actually startled that one of the neighbours in ‘the Water Slide’ story was named Fatima. Creditably nothing was made of this, she was just another neighbourhood kid. There was also the story about comedically gaslighting a racist at the restaurant of Dave’s friend Kenny Wong, so McLean was perfectly willing to tackle social injustice, but it wasn’t a tacit part of the mission statement. Of couse, I may be selling the Vinyl Cafe a little short since I have by no means heard every episode.

I will say, though, that for all I’ve played up the comedy side of the Vinyl Cafe, McLean’s stories could be very solemn and thoughtful. Dave’s observations of his elderly neighbours in ‘the Fig Tree’ or their impromptu Christmas with a bitter old motel owner in Quebec especially capture this. Christmas really was McLean’s natural habitat, a time for togetherness, warm feelings and a good laugh.

Welcome to Night Vale is intentionally a bit more subversive and countercultural, with Cecil simply being gay, and occasionally expressing disgust for Native American cultural appropriation, among other things. There are some more solemn episodes, such as ‘the Carnival’ and especially ‘Remembrance Day’ which has some startlingly moving themes about war and intergenerational alienation. Denominational holidays like Christmas and Easter also just don’t factor in Night Vale – except Valentine’s Day, but that means something totally different there – and the cast is more obviously diverse.

The Vinyl Cafe stories acquired a certain continuity – Dave and Morley’s kids grow up in roughly real time, and of course people would occasionally needle Dave on the subject of turkeys. Night Vale takes it to another level in that sometimes some apparently random element in one episode can come up again as mission-critical a dozen or more episodes later. As for ‘real time’ I’m not convinced that concept applies in Night Vale.

I suppose the one drawback they both share is that, since they both have new musical guests in every performance, if you don’t happen to like the music being exhibited, you can find it getting in the way of the other elements. With Night Vale’s streaming format you can skip it, but it also makes for a pleasant surprise when you do like it. Oddly enough both of the songs I have really enjoyed and remembered from Night Vale seem to fall within the rap/hip-hop zone, a genre which is mostly utterly alien to me. While some great artists got exhibited on the Vinyl Cafe, I feel like the genres covered were pretty much jazz/rock/folk and not much else, but since those are the genres I generally prefer, that mostly suited me fine.

For all their vast differences, I find the Vinyl Cafe and Welcome to Night Vale evoke similar emotions through similar formats. I laugh at their deadpan humor and smile at the positive-feeling moments. The Vinyl Cafe made you love and laugh at the lives of ordinary people. Welcome to Night Vale takes the concept into a new generation by opening up the notion of ordinariness. I’ve grown fond of both sets of characters and both narrative voices. I don’t suppose the creators of Night Vale have heard of the Vinyl Cafe, but it’s nice to know that someone’s taken up the same sort of idea and keptĀ it alive. Or at least shamblingly undead. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an ear open for reruns and audiobooks of the Vinyl Cafe, for I know there to be a huge amount of it as yet unknown to me.

Good night, Night Vale, and so long for now, Mr. McLean.

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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Podcast/Radio


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Jem and the Holograms: Why the Heck Not

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, honestly.

I don’t mean why I’ve been on hiatus so long. That makes sense, to me at least. What confounds me is why I’m reviewing what I’m reviewing.

A while back I admitted to being, to my own bafflement, a adulthood viewer of the tacky, cheesy, badly animated 80’s girlie cartoon Jem, starring the band Jem and the Holograms. I’m still not sure why. The show’s terrible in that particularly 1980s glorified toy commercial kind of way, the music is hit-or-miss at best, and the animation is so stilted it’s like a musical put on by a company of badly-assembled paper dolls. I didn’t watch it as a child (as far as I remember), and genre-wise it’s a ways out of my orbit.


Out with the old…

As I speculated whilst eviscerating the even worse live action movie trailer, it might be partly that it is cut from the same cloth as my early childhood, but since I actually encountered it by way of fanworks, I think it’s also because the fans have done a surprisingly good job at keeping it alive by working on the subtexts, implications (intentional or otherwise) of the show’s creators, and all that they’ve learned about storytelling as they’ve grown up.

Which meant that, despite the manifest weaknesses of the source material, I took notice that IDW is running a comics version that’s been attracting some positive press. I’ve acquired the first three volumes through my local library to check out.


…and in with the new

Quick recap: in the cartoon, Jerrica Benton assumes the secret identity of Jem using a hologram-generating AI built by her late father, to lead her sister and foster sisters in a band in order to support her private foster girls’ home and retain control of the family record company. Her nemesis, promoter Eric Raymond, tries to undermine her by the success and general hell-raising wrought by the rebel band the Misfits. Jem/Jerrica has to hold their schemes at bay, support the so-called Starlight House children, and maintain her disguise from even her beloved Rio.

That last point is the biggest stumbling block of the cartoon once you’re in double-digits ages, because for one thing, there’s no apparent reason why Jerrica has to assume a secret identity at all, and it makes no sense to keep Rio, the band’s road manager and her boyfriend, out of the loop. For another thing, since Rio was notoriously depicted as a short-tempered, possessive jerk who dallies with Jem not knowing she is Jerrica and then goes off about hating deception, the double-standards and outright creepiness, while presumably unintentional, are a bit of a deal-breaker.

The comic, meanwhile, creates a much more reasonable scenario: Jerrica and her sisters, Kimber, Shana and Aja, are in their own garage band, which volunteers with the Starlight Community Centre. They are trying to record a video for a contest sponsored by their idols, the Misfits. Jerrica is an excellent singer but has crippling performance anxiety that renders her mute in front of cameras. In her hour of need, she discovers Synergy, the AI her father had created prior to his early death, who is able to use holographic projections to both jazz up the band’s music video and alter Jerrica’s appearance to create a persona for her to hide behind, called Jem. The band thence becomes Jem and the Holograms. The Misfits find themselves upstaged in the contest they themselves were sponsoring, and the jealous and hot-tempered Pizzazz, their frontwoman, leads the way in a war of popularity between the two bands, with the abetment of their manager, Eric Raymond and his right hand man, the computer whiz known as ‘Techrat.’ At the same time, members of both bands deal with their own relationships to each other and such romances as come their way, including Rio, here a music journalist who covers both the Misfits and the Holograms, and Kimber’s star-crossed romance with the creative talent and softer side of the Misfits, Stormer.

So right off the bat the premise certainly makes more sense than the original, ridiculous nicknames notwithstanding. Jerrica has an actual reason to need a cover identity. Rio’s character is recast into someone you can actually stand – crucially, he hasn’t known Jerrica since childhood, and when offered the chance to dally with Jem behind (as far as he knows) Jerrica’s back, he angrily rejects it. Eric’s self-destructive conniving is wound down to simply being a weasel – and a halfway competent one at that. Pizzazz actually cares about music itself as well as her own ego, and however much she despises the Holograms, her schemes aren’t as illegal or suicidal as they tended to be of old. Shana and Aja get much more character development and the Misfits are less of a sackful of angry cats. Synergy herself has much more of a character, which drives the Dark Jem plot in volume 3 when she temporarily goes a bit HAL 9000.

It’s been said that the cartoon has accidentally become something of a period piece of the 1980s. The comic is set in the modern day, and the contrast is both fascinating and hilarious. Because friends of mine currently wear their hair this way, I was particularly struck by characters like Kimber and Pizzazz rocking the long-on-one-side, buzzed-on-the-other style, in contrast to the bouffant look of their original incarnations. I’ve spotted one or two costumes that are clearly 2010s updates of their 80’s-wear, and a couple of characters share some of my contemporaries’ inexplicable fondness for adult-sized onesies.

Character design generally is really cool. All of them look recognizably like their cartoon selves, but more varied. In the cartoon, it’s not hard to see that both bands are mostly made up of copies of the same figure with different hair. In the comic Roxy, the Misfits’ drummer, is built like Avatar Korra, Jetta is now an Afro-Briton (middle ground between the original cartoon conception and what she ended up becoming). Stormer, and Aja to a lesser extent, are big, curvy women instead of Barbie dolls, whereas Kimber is flat-chested and scrawny.

Beyond that, there are lots of little touches that show just how far we’ve come since the 80’s. Twitter, text messaging, video streaming and social media all form important parts of the plot. Techrat goes from the mad inventor archetype to the more modern hacker/troll. The general art style has gone from 80’s Hanna-Barbera to a more manga-esque look. Apt since, in the absence of the 80’s, anime and manga are the logical place to look for over-the-top hair, but the drawing of eyes and use of abstract facial expressions derives from Anime too. The original cartoon gets lots of little nods, such as Jem having the word ‘Outrageous’ written up the leg of her pants in one scene, as does current pop culture, with one issue making references to things like the recently-revived Star Wars and Mad Max franchises. The writers are clearly fans of My Little Pony too, but I try to ignore that. However happy I may be watching kids’ shows, becoming a ‘brony’ is where I draw the line.

Interest in picking apart and interpreting the cartoon has persisted long enough among fans who grew up with it that the series’ fanworks evolved a number of conventions, known to Tropers as ‘Fanon.’ Arguably one of the comic’s major selling points was running with the most common piece of Fanon, that Kimber and Stormer, the respective songwriting talents of the Holograms and the Misfits, are romantically interested in one another. While Kimber and Stormer’s situation is fairly star-crossed, the fact that they’re both women doesn’t enter into it. Kimber is loudly unselfconscious about being queer, and when Aja inadvertently makes a homophobic comment early on, she apologizes instantly. The rift between them is the rivalry between the bands, not the bigotry of others.

That aspect has, I gather, gotten some criticism, not so much because of the relationship, but more because of how fast it progresses. Kimber is crushing on Stormer before they’ve even met; they’re saying ‘I love you’ after having been on maybe two dates, and while that is in character for Kimber, who is wont to love not wisely but too well, it all seems too neat and abrupt.

But then, I feel that way about the stories of a lot of comics I’ve tried out, like Saga or Gotham City Sirens. I think the format is one that makes pacing difficult by nature. In general, it all speaks to me of a story that is good, but in many respects kind of shallow.

While the Holograms all get better characterization, Jetta and Roxy over in the Misfits get less in turn. While acknowledged, their rough backgrounds haven’t really been used for anything. This may be to avoid the trap the cartoon accidentally set, whereby the Misfits were actually more interesting to some fans – Pizzazz still has a knack for stealing the scene, though, and they’ve got a spinoff series all to themselves, apparently.

While a lot of the good character interpretations are carried through from the cartoon, others seem to have gone unquestioned. The Jerrica/Jem duality could be deepened. Some fanon sees the buttoned-down, responsible Jerrica using Jem as a way to cut loose and go, as it were, Lady Ga-ga. But as in the cartoon, Jem and Jerrica don’t really seem that different. Jem looks taller and flashier than Jerrica, but they more or less act the same way. It’s particularly glaring when Rio interviews Jem for his magazine after they’ve been dating for a while, and he doesn’t recognize her unchanged mannerisms. In other words, Jerrica doesn’t bother doing the Clark Kent thing of altering her behaviour to reinforce the disguise.

The old saw that Stormer is supposed to be the ‘nice’ Misfit who doesn’t quite fit in with the band’s punk/rebel image is discussed in the comic. It’s not as bad as the cartoon, but the contrast, while compelling, is still overdone. Stormer is so nice that it doesn’t seem like it’s in her nature to write the kind of songs that you’d expect from a band like this.

Speaking of ‘a band like’ the Misfits, what kind of band are they? What kind of band are the Holograms? This one might be partly my fault since I tend to skim over the song lyrics. But the dichotomy – the Holograms are the happy, sunny ones, the Misfits are the edgy, tough ones – doesn’t seem to exist for any reason than just because that’s the premise the story came with. Pizzazz’s jealousy is almost all that seems to drive the rivalry. It isn’t clear to me what artistic vision unites each band. Incidentally, the Dark Jem arc, where Synergy malfunctions and starts brainwashing the Holograms into a dark, Goth/Emo style not their own, is clearly bad but inadvertantly seems to imply that that style and genre is somehow innately villainous.

Look, I realize I’m slipping into a ‘this isn’t how I would have written it’ tirade, but as much as I’m enjoying this series, it lacks a certain bite I can’t quite quantify. I think that the series is aimed at younger readers – certainly it’s aimed at a generation who can be counted on not to find queer characters surprising. There’s minimal swearing, and somehow it keeps bugging me that despite the main characters all being rock stars, even the ‘bad girl’ band doesn’t have a reefer between them. Kimber’s lackadaisical personality never seems to carry any consequences for her, her relationship with Stormer seemingly the only driver of her character arc.

I think another reason why I find this franchise interesting is that at about the same time I started watching the cartoon I was also re-watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series. The biographies of the musicians, especially during the transition from the Swing to the Be-Bop era and beyond, are hugely compelling. So the idea of applying one’s imagination to the history of a fictional band, especially with some daft sci-fi thrown in, is oddly alluring. Not that I want any of them to go the way of Charlie Parker, of course, but a little extra grit wouldn’t hurt. That said, it’s also worth remembering that this series is basically an origin story about them breaking into the industry, whereas in the cartoon they pretty much hit the big time first time out and go from there.

I don’t know if I like the cartoon as a guilty pleasure, or just study it to understand the better examples of the fanworks it spawned, or because I’m an obssessive who gets into things and it’s best to let it run its course. But I definitely like the comic. It’s progressive, characterful, visually appealing and well written. I like the dialogue a lot, it being very Whedonesque. Kimber reminds me a lot of Michelle Trachtenberg’s character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually. And Pizzazz’s character arc is hitting my ‘bad-guy-redemption’ buttons. I’m looking forward to the resolution of the series. While it didn’t get as edgy or mature as I might have hoped from a millennial-nostalgia-reboot, it’s a fun read. Outrageous, even.

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Posted by on March 9, 2017 in Comic


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