2010 - %3, January

Bart, Lisa, Marge, Homer, and...

| Mon Jan. 11, 2010 6:33 AM EST

The Simpsons celebrated its 20th anniversary on network television last night, with an hour-long special "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3D! On Ice", directed by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Super Size Me. It was an exploration of how The Simpsons has affected pop culture, along with the usual celebrity appearances, including a cameo by...Mother Jones magazine.

Back in 1989, Mother Jones art director Kerry Tremain was smart enough to realize that Matt Groening (rhymes with "complaining") was going to be able to make the jump from his dark, smart, comics which explored how love, work, school, and childhood are hell, to the medium of network television. Groening's Simpsons animations had appeared on the Tracy Ullman Show for two seasons, but whether the series would appeal to the larger network television audience was still up for grabs. Mother Jones ran a cover story about Groening's work, which included an image drawn by Groening of Bart and Bongo (the worried child from the "Hell" series) on the cover.

The cover previewed The Simpsons' tactic of entertaining while satirizing; it presented Bart and Bongo as approachable, lovable celebrities tweaking the jargon of revolution (Bart: "Kids in TV land—you're being duped!") with a punch line that undercut it (Bongo: "We Are?")

A year and a half later, on the May/June 1991 cover, Tremain again used Groening artwork, this time to illustrate the cover story, "America's Dirty Little Secret: We Hate Kids". It worked similarly to the '89 cover: Lisa Simpson exhorts the reader to "Free the Oppressed Children!", adding, "Except my brother." Bart is visible but silent; Lisa has her foot over his mouth.

Several months ago, the production company that's putting the special together contacted us, asking for permission to use the '91 cover in the show. We told them about the '89 cover, and enthusiastically gave them permission to use both. Last night I gleefully watched a media montage of the Simpsons on the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Mother Jones.

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Joe Sacco's Gaza Strips

Fri Jan. 8, 2010 8:06 AM EST

Cartoonist-slash-reporter Joe Sacco is back with his densest work yet, a 418-page plunge into a little-known episode of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the 1956 shooting of 386 Palestinian refugees by Israeli soldiers in Rafah and Khan Yunis, impoverished towns in the Gaza Strip. As in earlier works such as Safe Area Goražde, Sacco combines rich black-and-white illustrations and extensive interviews to unravel a tortuous history. Footnotes in Gaza is heavy, but never feels like homework. Read an interview with Sacco at motherjones.com/joe-sacco.

Is Sherlock Holmes Gay?

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 8:47 PM EST

Last weekend, I finally got around to seeing the much-anticipated Sherlock Holmes flick. Directed by Guy Ritchie, it features Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson—sleuthing superheroes trying to thwart a sinister black magic plot.

Oh, and they might be gay.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert remarked, "Both of them now seem more than a little gay; it's no longer a case of 'oh, the British all talk like that.' Jude Law even seemed to be wearing lipstick when he promoted the movie on Letterman." (Wait…that means he played a gay character?) And Robert Downey Jr. himself said on Letterman that Holmes may be a "very butch homosexual."

Naturally, this suggestion isn't sitting well with some folks. Hollywood honchos are apparently worried a homosexual subtext could drive away their audience.  And the executors of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate have threatened to revoke Ritchie's rights to the film if he tries any funny business in the sequel. Said Andrea Plunket, who controls the remaining US copyright: "I am not hostile to homosexuals, but I am to anyone who is not true to the spirit of the books."

Which raises two points:

#1: Why does everyone think they're homosexual? From what I saw, they're two guys who are very close, protective, and fond of one another. So were the female leads in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and no one called them lesbians. Might it have something to do with the peculiar way our society perceives masculinity and male bonding? Furthermore, why isn't anyone assuming they might be bisexual—especially considering they both have female love interests in the film? (If only Kinsey were still around to help Americans with their rigid perceptions of sexuality).

#2: So what if they are gay? Putting a homosexual spin on existing popular entertainment is nothing new (see: Bert and Ernie, Fan Fiction). More importantly, the purist argument doesn't really hold water. This is a film in which Sherlock Holmes is an ass-kicking action hero and the plot is straight out of The Da Vinci Code. If Sir Doyle is rolling in his grave, it's not because his heroes may—or may not—be gay.

Vegas Covers Its Nipples

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 5:27 PM EST

Absurd development in the national capital of reckless abandon: County officials in Las Vegas are putting their foot down about some nipples featured in a painted mural decorating the Erotic Heritage Museum. (See the mural here.)

The Las Vegas Sun reports: 

The exposed nipples on portraits of women in the Ho-Down Mural Project violated a county sign code that bans (among other things) the showing of the areola of female breasts, the county says.

After I died laughing, I just had to come back to life and write about this. Clark County maintains that the murals are signs for the neighboring Déjà Vu nude club, and the nipples have now been covered with pasties. What a relief! Now we can all go about our business without having our eyes burned out by areolas.

This is the third mural in recent years to provoke an ironically Puritan hissy fit. Four years ago, a member of the Las Vegas Centennial Committee whined about a mural by Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith that featured an upside-down rendition of the 18th-century Thomas Lawrence painting "Pinkie" covered with the inverted letter "A." (The Scarlet Letter turned on its head.) The reference to adultery, of all things, was seen as a problem. Adultery! This was right around the time that Las Vegas was riding high on the wildly popular "What happens here stays here" advertising campaign. At that time, Libby Lumpkin, former director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, explained that "people in the community see art as an intellectual retreat from the hyper-sexualized world we live in."

Meanwhile, back in the hyper-sexualized world we live in, Michelangelo and the creators of erotic frescoes at Pompeii rolled over in their graves. 

The only time I ever went to Las Vegas, I was too young to gamble, but I remember emerging into the sunlight the day after our arrival to find the sidewalks papered with pornographic advertisements. These too featured breasts, with stars printed over the nipples. The fliers rolled down the street like tumbleweeds, blown by the hot desert wind.

Who are you trying to fool, Clark County? When Vegas eventually does go the way of Pompeii, will its erotic heritage, unearthed by archaeologists, be one of covered nipples? Perhaps the conspicuous coverage actually provides more erotic allure than the uncensored version, sort of like when the Victorians covered up the legs of their tables and pianos, concerned that the bare shafts of supportive wood beneath their furniture might turn somebody on.

On a blog at Flavorwire, Kelsey Keith responds by covering up nipples in canonical art images.

Follow Evan James on Twitter.

Music Monday: 15 Minutes With Alex Ebert (aka Edward Sharpe)

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 8:00 AM EST

When Alexander Ebert performs with his new, 10-plus-member band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, he does so barefoot, sometimes shirtless, and with his long wavy hair tousled into a messy bun of sorts. (Rolling Stone referred to the ensemble as an "L.A. hippie clan.") Ebert's lack of footwear and clothing facilitate his desire to gleefully jump about the stage leading a unique ensemble of vocalists and horn, piano, accordion, tambourine, and banjo players that put on warm yet captivating live shows. After releasing their debut album Up From Below last August, the Zeros launched a cross-country tour and sold out nearly every show to hand-clapping, foot-stomping fans who can't get enough. Now, they're working on an epic, 12-part rock opera and hoping to put out one, if not two new albums this year. I spoke with Ebert, 31, about the origins of his talents, the dark side of signing to Virgin Records with Ima Robot, and what it means to be driving what some consider a folk-rock revolution.

Mother Jones: How did you first become interested in music?

Alexander Ebert: I took a lot of long summer road trips with my dad, and the mix of music we listened to on the road skipped around from classical to Western to new age to hyper-cinematic. You know, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and 100 others. But when I was 7, I got really into hip-hop and was all about rapping and tagging. When I was 13 or 14, I started taking rap more seriously. I had loose affiliations with other hip-hop groups and some inroads, but I was too young and I lost interest. After '94 I became totally disenchanted. The music coming out at that time was redundant and boring to me. It was no longer about the grit of making money. It was about the gloss and floss of having too much money.

Jonathan Mann's 365 Songs in 365 Days

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 7:30 AM EST

Jonathan Mann, a.k.a. the Song A Day guy, has more than a little musical chutzpah. Not only did the Berkeley, California, songwriter compose a new ditty every single friggin' day during 2009, rain or shine, in sickness or health, but he also created daily music videos to post on his website, called (WTF?) RockCookieBottom.com. Some are simple, some reasonably ambitious; a handful are truly inspired while another handful are shameless ploys to win contests or get media attention—and he's gotten his share, particularly on MSNBC. When you write a song every day, as Mann intimated to Rachel Maddow—who'd invited him on her show to perform his ode to economist Paul Krugman—a few of them are bound to be pretty lame. But occasionally you'll get a gem.

Rather than go back and listen to all 365 songs Mann wrote in 2009, I invited him to sum up the year for Music Monday, giving us his best and worst for each of the past 12 months. By the by, what began as a motivational experiment begat a lifestyle. Logging into my email on New Year's Day, I found a message from Mann in my inbox. Subject: "Song A Day #366!" In the past year, Mann also formed a band—the Rock Cookie Bottoms—with whom he performed his best creations live at an Oakland club. Recently the group went into the studio to record a five-song EP titled Barefoot in the Family Tree. You can download any of his songs, and will soon be able to purchase the EP, through his other website. And now, heeeere's Jonny….