R.I.P. Stan Lee: Take His Free Online Course “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture”

"I grew up in an exurb where it took nearly an hour to walk to the nearest shop, to the nearest place to eat, to the library," remembers writer Adam Cadre. "And the steep hills made it an exhausting walk.  That meant that until I turned sixteen, when school was not in session I was stuck at home.  This was often not a good place to be stuck. Stan Lee gave me a place to hang out." Many other former children of exurban America — as well as everywhere else — did much of their growing up there as well, not just in the universe of Marvel Comics but in those of the comics and other forms of culture to which it gave rise or influenced, most of them either directly or indirectly shaped by Lee, who died yesterday at the age of 95.

"His critics would say that for me to thank Stan Lee for creating the Marvel Universe shows that I’ve fallen for his self‐promotion," Cadre continues, "​that it was Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and his other collaborators who supplied the dynamic, expressive artwork and the epic storylines that made the Marvel Universe so compelling."




Marvel fans will remember that Ditko, co-creator with Lee of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, died this past summer. Kirby, whose countless achievements in comics include co-creating the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk with Lee, passed away in 1994. (Kirby's death, as I recall, was the first I'd ever heard about on the internet.)

Those who take a dimmer view of Lee's career see him as having done little more artistic work than putting dialogue into the speech bubbles. But like no small number of other Marvel Universe habitués, Cadre "didn’t read superhero comics for the fights or the costumes or the trips to Asgard and Attilan. I read them for fantasy that read like reality, for the interplay of wildly different personalities — ​and for the wisecracks." And what made superhero stories the right delivery system for that interplay of personalities and those wisecracks? You'll find the answer in "The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture," an online course from the Smithsonian, previously featured here on Open Culture and still available to take at your own pace in edX's archives, created and taught in part by Lee himself. You can watch the trailer for the course at the top of the post.

If you take the course, its promotional materials promise, you'll learn the answers to such questions as "Why did superheroes first arise in 1938 and experience what we refer to as their “Golden Age” during World War II?," "How have comic books, published weekly since the mid-1930’s, mirrored a changing American society, reflecting our mores, slang, fads, biases and prejudices?," and "When and how did comic book artwork become accepted as a true American art form as indigenous to this country as jazz?" Whether or not you consider yourself a "true believer," as Lee would have put it, there could be few better ways of honoring an American icon like him than discovering what makes his work in superhero comics — the field to which he dedicated his life, and the one which has taken more than its fair share of derision over the decades — not just a reflection of the culture but a major influence on it as well.

Enroll in "The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture" here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Jazz Deconstructed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical?

John Coltrane bore an unusual burden. Many experimental artists who radically change their forms of music, and music in general, are so out on the edge and ahead of their time they elude the public’s notice. But Coltrane was responsible for both “furthering the cause” of free jazz and “delivering it to an increasingly mainstream audience,” as Lindsay Planer writes at Allmusic. This meant that he achieved the kind of recognition in his short life that most musician/composers only dream of, and that his every attempt was heavily scrutinized by critics, a listening public, and record companies not always ready for the most forward-thinking of his ideas.

His immense popularity makes Coltrane’s accomplishments all the more impressive. While 1959 is often cited as the “year that changed jazz” with a series of landmark albums, two releases by Coltrane in 1960—My Favorite Things and Giant Steps—completely radicalized the form, with repercussions far outside the jazz world. In the latter recording, writes Planer, Coltrane was “in essence, beginning to rewrite the jazz canon with material that would be centered on solos—the 180-degree antithesis of the art form up to that point. These arrangements would create a place for the solo to become infinitely more compelling,” culminating “in a frenetic performance style that noted jazz journalist Ira Gitler dubbed ‘sheets of sound.’”




The saxophonist’s “polytonal torrents” upend the “cordial solos that had begun decaying… the genre, turning it into the equivalent of easy listening.” There was nothing easy about keeping up with Coltrane. The title track of Giant Steps has become known for a rapid chord progression that cycles through three keys, built on an earlier technique known as the “Coltrane Changes.” Improvising over these chords has become “a rite of passage for jazz musicians” explains the Vox Earworm video above, making the tune "one of the most revered, and feared, compositions in jazz history.”

We can intuit the difficulty of Coltrane’s compositions by listening to them, but without a background in music theory, we won’t understand just what, exactly, makes them “so legendary.” Earworm’s “crash course” in theory from musicians Adam Neely and Braxton Cook demystifies Coltrane’s intimidating progression—so challenging it tied up pianist Tommy Flanagan during his solo, and his halting stabs can be heard on the record, followed by Coltrane’s astonishingly fluid cascade of notes. “That’s messed up,” says Braxton, in sympathy. “I would want another shot.” What, besides the maddeningly fast tempo, sent Flanagan into the weeds?

As with most music based in Western harmony, the song’s structure can be demonstrated by reference to the circle of fifths, a method of organizing notes and scales that Coltrane made his very own. His brilliance was in taking recognizable forms—the standard II-V-I jazz progression, for example—and pushing them to their absolute limit. “There are 26 chord changes in the 16-bar theme of ‘Giant Steps,’” notes Jazzwise magazine in its history of the album. (Watch them all fly by in the animated sheet music above). The progression “provides a formidable challenge for the improvisor with its quickly changing key centres.” Coltrane himself, “handled patterns derived from pentatonic scales, transposed to fit each chord as it flew by, exceptionally well.”

Keep watching the Earworm video to find out how the “Giant Steps” progression is like a “musical M.C. Escher painting,” and to understand why Coltrane is considered a god, or at least a saint, by so many who have followed—or struggled to follow—his work.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Map of the U.S. Created Out of 1,000 Song Titles That Reference Cities, States, Landmarks & More

According to Leonard Cohen, songwriting is a lonely business, but there’s nothing for it, he sings in “Tower of Song,” when you’re “born with the gift of a golden voice" and when “twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond” tie you to a table and make you write. Just where is Cohen’s tower? Maybe Montreal, his hometown, or his adopted city of L.A.? He doesn’t tell us, though we do know Hank Williams lives 100 floors above, so there's a good chance that it's not a place on earth.

Cohen the poet had a gift for making metaphysical trips seem perfectly natural, but most songwriters, lonely or otherwise, rely on more realist conventions of narrative storytelling, including specific settings, whether mentioned in passing or forming a central theme.




Songs like "Little Old Lady from Pasadena," “Rockaway Beach,” “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” or “Straight Outta Compton” helped put their respective locales on the map.

Design house Dorothy has taken that phrase literally, creating a map of the U.S. “made up entirely from the titles of over 1,000 songs” that “reference states, cities, rivers, mountains and landmarks.” In the playlist below, you can listen to the country’s geography, as sung by Lynyrd Skynyrd, David Bowie, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, George Strait, Kings of Leon, Jay Z,  Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, and hundreds more artists who have little in common other than their use of a U.S. city, state, landmark, natural formation, etc. as an anchor for their lyrics.

Like Homer’s Iliad, which maps the ancient Greek world with its copious references to ports, cities, mountains, and so on, the pop canon could be used by some future civilization to reconstruct the geography of the U.S. And if so, it might look quite a lot like this. But not only does the map situate well-known songs about well-known places in their proper coordinates, it also locates somewhat obscure locations name-checked  in songs like The Band’s “The Weight,” whose mention of Nazareth refers not to the Biblical town, but rather to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of Martin Guitars. (The city gets another boost, though not on this map, in Mark Knopfler’s “Speedway at Nazareth,” which refers to another local landmark.)

“Some of our favorite song choices are the ones which require you to think a little harder about connections,” Dorothy admits, “such as ‘Space Oddity’ (David Bowie) which signposts Cape Canaveral, ‘After the Gold Rush’ (Neil Young) which references Sutter’s Mill, and ‘Homecoming’ (Kanye West) which is placed near the rapper’s home town of Chicago.”

Perusing the map (zoom into a high-res version here) and playlist will doubtless alert you to other choices with oblique or implied references. In one instance, on the map of Florida, we see Green Day’s “American Idiot,” whose lyrics take on the whole nation, “under the new mania.” Dorothy finds a single address for the song's vitriol, one suspiciously close to the so-called “Winter White House.” Somehow I doubt the band would object to this creative geographical interpretation.

You can purchase your own copy of the map here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stan Lee (RIP) Gets an Exuberant Fan Letter from 15-Year-Old George R.R. Martin, 1963

martin-LETTER

The letter above goes to show two things. George Raymond Richard Martin, otherwise known as George R.R. Martin, or simply as GRRM, had fantasy and writing in his blood from a young age. Decades before he wrote his fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, which HBO adapted into Game of Thrones, a 15-year-old George R. Martin sent a fan letter to the now departed Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the legendary creators of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four (called "F.F." in the letter).

When you read the note, you can immediately tell that young Martin was steeped in sci-fi and fantasy literature. He could also string together some fairly complex sentences during his teenage years -- sentences that many adults would struggle to write today. Above, you can watch Martin read his 1963 fan letter note, and Stan Lee's short reply: "We might want to quit while we’re ahead. Thanks for your kind words, George." We're all surely glad that Lee and Kirby kept going.

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Photo by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

The arts and humanities are afterthoughts in many American schools, rarely given priority as part of a comprehensive education, though they formed the basis of one for thousands of years elsewhere. One might say something similar of preventative medicine in the U.S. healthcare system. It’s tempting to idealize the priorities of other wealthy countries. The Japanese investment in “forest bathing,” for example, comes to mind, or Finnish public schools and France's funding of an Alzheimer’s village.

But everyplace has its problems, and no country is an island, exempt from the global pressures of capital or hostile interference.

But if we consider such things as art, music, and dance as essential—not only to an education, but to our general well-being—we must commend the UK’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, for his “social prescribing” initiative.




Hancock wants “the country’s doctors to prescribe therapeutic art- or hobby-based treatments for ailments ranging from dementia to psychosis, lung conditions and mental health issues,” reports Meilan Solly at Smithsonian. The plan “could find patients enrolled in dance classes and singing lessons, or perhaps enjoying a personalized music playlist.”

In a speech Hancock delivered on what happened to be election day in the U.S., he referred to a quote from Confucius that represents one particularly ancient educational tradition: “Music produces a kind of pleasure, which human nature cannot do without.” (He also quotes the Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction.”) Hancock’s idea goes beyond aristocratic traditions of old, proclaiming a diet of the arts for everyone.

They’re not just a right in their own terms as the search for truth and expression of the human condition. We shouldn’t only value them for the role they play in bringing meaning and dignity to our lives. We should value the arts and social activities because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing. And that’s not me as a former Culture Secretary saying it. It’s scientifically proven. Access to the arts and social activities improves people’s mental and physical health.

We’ve likely all come across research on the tremendous health benefits of what Warnock calls “social activities,” maintaining friendships and getting out and about. But what does the research into art and health say? “The medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded,” Solly writes, citing studies of stroke survivors making great strides after performing with the Royal Philharmonic; dance lessons improving clarity and concentration among those with early psychosis; and those with lung conditions improving with singing lessons. Additionally, many studies have shown the emotional lift museum visits and other cultural activities of a social nature can give.

Similar trials have taken place in Canada, but the UK project is “simultaneously more comprehensive and less fleshed-out,” aiming to encourage everything from cooking classes, playing bingo, and gardening to “more culturally focused ventures.” The proposal does not, however, fully address funding or accessibility issues for the most at-risk patients. Hancock’s rhetoric also perhaps heedlessly pits “more prevention and perspiration” against “popping pills and Prozac,” a characterization that seems to trivialize drug therapies and create a false binary where the two approaches can work well hand-in-hand.

Nonetheless, a shift away from “over-medicalising” and toward preventative and holistic approaches has the potential to address not only chronic symptoms of disease, but the non-medical causes—including stress, isolation, and sadness—that contribute to and worsen illness. The plan may require a rigorously individualized implementation by physicians and it will "start at a disadvantage," with 4% cuts per year to the NHS budget until 2021, as Royal College of Nursing public health expert Helen Donovan points out.

Those challenges aside, given all we know about the importance of emotional well-being to physical health, it’s hard to argue with Hancock’s premise. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health,” he tweeted during his November 6th roll-out of the initiative. “It makes us happier and healthier." Art is not a luxury, but a necessary ingredient in human flourishing, and yet "the arts do not tend to be thought of in medical terms," writes professor of health humanities Paul Crawford, though they constitute a "shadow health service," bringing us a kind of happiness, I’d argue with Confucius, that we simply cannot find anywhere else.

via The Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hundreds of Wonderful Japanese Firework Designs from the Early-1900s: Digitized and Free to Download

The Japanese term for fireworks, hanabi (花火), combines the words for fire, bi (), and flower, hana (). If you've seen fireworks anywhere, that derivation may seem at least vaguely apt, but if you've seen Japanese fireworks, it may well strike you as evocative indeed. The traditional Japanese way with presenting flowers, their shapes and colors as well as their scents, has something in common with the traditional Japanese way of putting on a fireworks show.

Not that the production of firecrackers goes as far back, historically, as the arrangement of flowers does, nor that firecrackers themselves, originally a product of China, have anything essentially Japanese about them.




But as more recently with cars, comic books, consumer electronics, and Kit-Kats, whenever Japan re-interprets a foreign invention, the project amounts to radical re-invention, and often a dazzling one at that.

These Japanese versions of non-Japanese things often become highly desirable around the world in their own right. It certainly happened with Japanese fireworks, here proudly displayed in these elegant and vividly colored English catalogs of Hirayama Fireworks and Yokoi Fireworks, published in the early 1900s by C.R. Brock and Company, whose founding date of 1698 makes it the oldest firework concern in the United Kingdom.

These Brocks catalogs been digitized by the Yokohama Board of Education and made available online at the site of the Yokohama Public Library. (Though I've never seen a fireworks show in Yokohama, that city, dotted as it is with impeccably designed public gardens, certainly has its flower-appreciation credentials in order.) Even if you don't read Japanese, you can easily download them: just click here and scroll down until you see their cover images, click on their English titles, and click the "本体PDF画像" link on the next page to get the PDF.

Organized into such categories as "Vertical Wheels," "Phantom Circles," and "Colored Floral Bomb Shells," the catalogs present their imported Japanese wares simply, as various patterns of color against a black or blue background. But simplicity, as even those only distantly acquainted with Japanese art have seen, supports a few particularly strong and enduring branches of Japanese aesthetics.

No matter where you take in your displays of fireworks, you'll surely recognize more than a few of these designs from having seen them light up the night sky. And as far as where to look for the next firework innovator, I might suggest South Korea, where I live: at this past summer's Seoul International Fireworks festival I witnessed fireworks exploding into the shape of cat faces, whiskers and all. Such elaborateness many violate the more rigorous versions of the Japanese sensibility as they apply to hanabi — but then again, just imagine what wonders Japan, one of the most cat-loving countries in the world, could do with that concept.

via Boing Boing/Present and Correct

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A Firework’s Point of View

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Living Paintings: 13 Caravaggio Works of Art Performed by Real-Life Actors

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the father of Baroque painting, shocked the upper class aesthetes of his day by drafting prostitutes and proletariats as models for his primarily Biblical subjects.

Ten years ago, under the direction of founder Ludovica Rambelli, eight members of the Italian company, Malatheatre, discovered first hand the insanely rigorous poses Caravaggio demanded of his models, creating 23 tableaux vivants inspired by the master’s oeuvre.

The company sought less to reproduce the paintings than the scene Caravaggio would have gazed on from behind his easel.

The 13 stagings in the video above make one aware of the intense physicality evident in Caravaggio’s work.




All those extended arms and inversions are agony for a model. After 30 seconds or so, even a sharply inclined neck or bent back can serve up a small taste of what it’s like to be crucified.

The result is exquisite. The eight players are not just extraordinarily fit specimens, they have clearly devoted much thought to the emotional life of each character they embody, sustaining the moment with great focus and determination.

The action unfolds in the suitably ancient setting of Naples’ Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova.

When not called upon to model, the performers become stage hands, helping each other to arrange the simple, well chosen props and flowing mantles.

(I enjoyed the small joke of a female Bacchus.)

Performed live to selections from Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi, this company has settled on the Lux Aeterna section of Mozart’s Requiem to accompany their archival footage.

The next opportunity to see the show performed live will be in Naples on December 28.

Have a look at the video below, for some comparisons between the original paintings and the 13 tableaux vivants seen in the video:

The Entombment of Christ

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,

Crucifixion of Saint Peter

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

Judith Beheading Holofernes

Flagellation of Christ

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

Annunciation

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Narcissus,

The Raising of Lazarus

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Bacchus

via This Kids Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is a former artist’s model turned author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 12 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

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