Bob Woodward, Inside Dope


ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Nobody in Washington — and certainly not in a White House by now incapable of telling wheat from chaff, crisis-wise — is saying the obvious thing about Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, which is that the book itself is inconsequential. It’s not as if the fecklessness and crossed purposes with which Clinton’s rookie team brought forth last year’s budget went unreported at the time. Having the story regurgitate in Woodward’s familiar, dreadful, see-Jack-govern style is bombshell stuff if only the reader following the author’s lead, considers what everybody had for lunch to be the key detail, scandalously withheld. (It seems they all ordered the smoking gun.)

Yet inside the capital, you’d waste you time bringing up The Agenda‘s debatable merits as a chronicle, because here the book is being appraised more sportingly — as a chess piece that’s just been brought into play. While Woodward, as usual, declaims taking sides, he hardly needs to take one to be on one: in his hometown, whoever denigrates his work is instantly rated a Clinton apologist, which naturally no one cares to be accused of.

And yikes, me neither, although I do admit that The Agenda did get me feeling a certain sympathy for old spume-haired Bill, on purely humane grounds. The tip-off to how few scoops Woodward got on the policy front is that he’d  been touting the book’s inside dope about Clinton’s character, chiefly that the chief executive often blows his top in private and that he says “fuck” a lot. (Hortense, fetch my drool-cup.) The revelation of Clinton’s awesome inability to make up his mind, however, is a good deal more devastating, and the embassies concerned have presumably wasted no time telexing Woodward’s hot flash to Pyongyang and Sarajevo.

In fact, there’s nothing in the book that deserves to seriously alter anyone’s opinion, pro or con, of either Clinton or his presidency. Yet the overall effect is insidious simply because Woodward has chosen to put every nattering tidbit he culled between hard covers, thereby giving the mundane a frequently unwarranted air of the fraught. While the narrative’s flat, remote tone conceivably meets some abstract standard of reportorial objectivity, it’s scarcely neutral. True, Woodward interviewed every White House wallah worth talking to, but when their recollected watercooler squabbles are given the same weight as important developments, the one safe bet is that they’re going to sound like boobs — boobs in crisis.

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Woodward recounts last year’s near debacle over the hudget as the story of an education — that is, of the newly arrived Clintonites’ “slow and torturous awakening” to how Washington does business. Step by dispiriting step, he traces president-elect Clinton’s early acceptance of the conventional wisdom that deficit cutting mattered more than the economic policies he’d campaigned on, leading to a futile  scramble to salvage at least some of the budget package’s rapidly dwindling reformist components (investments in infrastructure, an energy tax) from the contending demands of the Senate, the House, and rival camps of presidential advisors. He describes how it became a crucial test of of Clinton’s presidency to pass a bill so out of whack with his original intentions that he’d already all by disavowed it to his aides. After their squeaker victory, the White House team recognizd with chagrin that they’d turned into exactly the sort of makeshift managers of business-as-usual that they’d come to town hoping to dispossess for good.

If Woodward gave a rat’s keester about the Clintonites’ abandoned goals, The Agenda would make powerful reading. But as far as he’s concerned, the point of the story is it’s happy ending, which is this pack of newcomers’ bloody-nosed acquisition of (that is, acquiescence to) insider savvy. He isn’t hand-wringingly dismayed over what happened, or even attractively sardonic: he’s approving. The book’s complacent equations of change with amateurishness, and of shrewdness with business as usual, are a little breathtaking — it’s How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the District.

Woodward, of course, is himself an old hand in institutional Washington — which means that, at least in some circles, his standing is rather more assured than Clinton’s is. To the permanent political population, all outsiders are parvenus even if they happen to be living in the White House. That’s why the permanent popula­tion is unconfessedly nostalgic for Bush: sure he stank as a presi­dent, but he was one of their own.

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But Clinton annoys them. True, he frequently caves in to their pri­orities, with an alacrity that to us bystanders looks like unseemly haste. Yet the mere fact that he has to cave in, instead of having shared those priorities from the start, keeps him suspect. He’s also what people used to call goal-ori­ented, to the somewhat manic de­gree that, when unable to choose between conflicting goals, he pur­sues all of them at once with equal heartiness. (It never occurs to him to do nothing: quite often, he ends up with worse than nothing, be­cause he’s expended so much en­ergy to so little effect.) Yet among Washington’s permanent popula­tion, results aren’t ranked all that high — like presidents, they come and go. The imperative value is the process, which is, like them, permanent. Little offends them more than some freshly elected clown’s misperception that the process is a way they get things done, and not the thing they do.

To permanent Washington’s mind, Clinton’s presidency still doesn’t seem quite valid. In this, curiously enough, they’re at one with the Christian right, which has by now merrily embraced a conviction that the outcome of the ’92 election was fraudulent. (Not the vote, just the outcome; it’s all pretty mysterious.) The curiosity is that nothing rattles permanent Washington these days like the rise of fundamentalist populism­ — though it’s the populist part, not the ideology, that gets the insiders nervous. Yet between them, per­manent Washington’s contempt and the Christian right’s broad­sides have gone a long way toward fostering a widespread if vague public perception, of a fascinating­ly unprecedented sort, that Clin­ton is somehow less than legiti­mate — an impression Clinton himself doesn’t do much to dis­courage with his chronic tendency to act as if he thinks he’s won a game show called President for a Day.

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Unlike Rush Limbaugh or even Newt Gingrich, Woodward is hardly trying to cripple a presiden­cy. (He’s already done that, right?) But like his fellow perma­nent Washingtonians, he thinks it only fitting to put Clinton in his place. In The Agenda, with nig­gling exceptions, all of the people Clinton brought to the capital with him come off badly. Every­body who was already in Washing­ ton comes off well. The atrocious Lloyd Bentsen, whose status as America’s most overrated public figure gives a fair idea of perma­nent Washington’s taste in self-­regard, is portrayed as a distin­guished and sagacious old sort even when he’s undercutting his new colleagues by making public pronouncements at odds with their strategy, as Bentsen acciden­tally-on-purpose managed to do twice during the budget fracas. Al Gore gets both kinds of treatment: he’s depicted as a numbskull when he’s being pushy about the environment and such, but viewed with new respect when he’s skill­fully carving out a niche for him­self in the White House turf wars, the latter being the kind of en­deavor that permanent Washing­ton has no trouble understanding and endorsing.

Also handled with noticeable cordiality is David Gergen — who was hired, of course, as Clinton’s desperate signal to permanent Washington that he was giving up on bypassing them. At one point, we’re urged to empathize with Gergen’s melancholy when young Clintonites tactlessly make “parti­san” — i.e., anti-Reagan — com­ments in his presence. Woodward is silent on whether Gergen’s ecu­menical sensitivities were similarly agitated by the backroom banter during his tenures in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses­ — although it is nice to know that Gergen, who accepted Clinton’s job offer with a much-praised speech about his duty to answer his president’s call, dickered be­hind the scenes for some days to make sure he’d get a high-sound­ing title.

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Last week, the White House trundled Gergen out on Face the Nation to respond to The Agenda with some welcome news. Nowa­days, said Gergen, the president was getting much better at con­trolling his temper. This was duly reported. It was also appropriate, since the book’s most damaging characterizations of Clinton’s out­bursts are written from Gergen’s perspective — “It was truly awful, on the edge of controlled violence … He had never quite seen an adult, let alone a president, in such a rage.” Presidents on the edge of controlled violence used to fire aides for such indiscretions, but Gergen leads a charmed life. He could cook Socks on a spit at the next press barbecue and the Clintons would still have to keep him on, because he’s their perma­nent-Washington status symbol­ — sort of a cross between a hostage and a trophy wife. They can only hope that when he quits, it won’t be at a juncture that will actively embarrass them.

As for The Agenda‘s descrip­tions of an administration in per­petual disarray, I’ve got no doubt that they’re accurate so far as they go. But the impression that’s conveyed of floundering bumpkinism occupies a void, because we’re giv­en no comparisons to how previ­ous White Houses handled deci­sion making. More lopsidedly, the other players in the budget-crafting process — Congress, the Republican opposition, the lobbyists, and the mucky-mucks of high finance­ — aren’t held up to the same scruti­ny. (One noteworthy exception: Bob Kerrey, who must have failed to pay Woodward due homage at a dinner party or something, since he’s depicted as an arrogant, self­-deluded prick — though just why he should be singled out on that score escapes me.) Clearly, Woodward can’t imagine any reason to view these fellow insiders critically. They may be the people who wrecked the country, but at least, unlike the Clintonites, they know their jobs. ■


To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

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The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

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For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

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The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

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The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

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Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

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If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

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Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

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Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

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Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

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“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

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Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

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Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

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It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

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Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.


The Fiscal Cliff Deal’s Impact on New York

Well, contrary to Mayan belief, America made it to 2013 without jumping off the fiscal cliff. Yesterday, at around 9 p.m. or so, the House passed a bill sent from the Senate by a 265-157 vote. After weeks of non-toiling, it’s finally over . . . but, in more ways than none, the war has only begun.

We’ve reported in the past about the fiscal cliff’s possible consequences for New York State. These ranged from billions of dollars worth in tax increases to massive school spending cuts. You can find all the details of the shitshow here and here.
Now, with this “compromise” in hand, we can address a few of its provisions that relate to these aforementioned dilemmas. And let’s just say that there’s an emphasis on the word “few.”
Before we move on, it’s important to mention that the deal passed in Washington yesterday is, for the most part, a tax compromise. President Obama said this point himself: “While I’ll negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether to pay the bills they’ve racked up.” In leaner terms, the majority of this bill is the permanence of 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts, meaning that taxes will rise (for the first time in two decades) for individuals making $400,000 and couples making $450,000, as well as for capital gains and dividends. Everyone below that tax bracket cutoff is keeping their current levels intact.
Back to New York: This compromise averts the $43 billion increase in taxes that faced 8.9 million people. Also, it stops 3.4 million New Yorkers from falling under the federal alternative minimum tax category. Hooray for more cash in your pocket.
Another huge consequence we mentioned last week was the possibility that 200,000 New Yorkers would lose unemployment benefits. Luckily, the Democrats didn’t cave on this one: The final compromise will extend these benefits into the new year. Kicking the can a bit further down the road goes a long way for those dependent on welfare, especially 200,000 of them.
The final feature of the compromise that will impact New York is, essentially, a non-feature. In other words, it’s not in the bill but, soon enough, it will come back to bite Washington in the ass.
OK, so one of the largest downturns the fiscal cliff posed to Albany was a loss of $609 million in funds and an additional $164 million cut in school spending. Immediate cuts of this caliber would have unleashed a budgetary tailspin on lawmakers upstate. Also, schools would have been forced to raise taxes 1 to 2 percent to make up for the funding void. Needless to say, it would have really sucked.
And, OK, so we mentioned before that the compromise was all about taxes. In order to pass this damn thing, Washington completely ignored the enormous spending side of this boondoggle. This was done as an effort to get it passed through the House, where Republicans there are hesitant to pass anything over $10 (this, unfortunately, includes the $60 billion Sandy relief package).
With that being said, Congress placed a two-month hold on the “sequester” — the name given to the automatic spending cuts in place, which included the Big Ones for Albany mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Now, the whole “war has only begun” thing at the beginning of this blog post might make a bit more sense to you guys.
The Hill has given itself a ticking time bomb, one that we’ll be talking about in weeks to come. In the end, the winners in New York State are limited to taxpayers and those seeking unemployment. The losers? The governmental institutions that make up New York State, many of which will have to hold their breaths (yes, agencies can be personified) until this sequester is addressed.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see what Washington has for us.

What The Fiscal Cliff Means For New York


New Year’s Eve is a night to reflect on the year that’s past. It’s a night to commit to a resolution you’ll never follow, a night to face the next year with a massive hangover and a night to over-plan and over-commit to.

And, for Washington, it’s a night to jump off the fiscal cliff.

As soon as that ball drops in Times Square, America will witness the immediate expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and wealthy, as well as automatic spending cuts worth billions across the federal and state levels. It’s the dilemma that has the Hill and the White House panicking every hour and every minute of the 24/7 news cycle.
One day, Rep. John Boehner and the House Republicans are refusing to talk to the President; another day, the President is telling reporters that he’s optimistic that a compromise will be reached. And if that compromise doesn’t have higher taxes on the wealthy like the President wants? Well, then it’s a whole other story. Hellooooo, veto power.
However, if no compromise is reached, then the President will just have to wait until the ticking time bomb self-destructs. He’ll get his higher taxes for the 1 Percent but what about the rest of us? New Yorkers, here’s what the fiscal cliff means for you.
“There is real danger ahead for New York’s economy if America goes over the fiscal cliff,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.
In a statement released last week, DiNapoli pointed to a few (extremely) inconvenient truths of the impending implosion: all 8.9 million working New Yorkers will see a $43 billion increase in taxes and 3.4 million people will be forced to pay the federal alternative minimum tax, joining the 500,000 who currently pay it. Overall, Albany lawmakers will witness a drop of $609 million in federal funds – an enormous migraine that could send local budgets into a tailspin.
I know you may be asking, “But what about the children?” Well, if the immature adults in D.C. can’t get their act together, New York schools may lose $164 million in Department of Education monies. According to an analysis done by the New York State School Boards Association, 87 school districts will have to raises taxes by 1 or 2 percent to make up for the huge loss.
And, at the tail end of a stagnant five years for future generations, that is the last thing we need.
This bleak scenario is one shared by all fifty states, not just New York. Hence why, last week, a group of both Republican and Democratic Governors penned a letter to the President and the Speaker of the House. In it, they urged the parties to get along and avoid a budgetary catastrophe (probable subject line: “GUYS! COME ON!“). These leaders know that this federal gridlock will bleed the already-near-death states, no matter what the politics of the situation are.
So there you have it, fellow Empire State-ers. We have two weeks before the shit hits the fan – both metaphorically and (kinda) literally. In terms of federalism, this is a situation where the federal government needs to step up to save its state subsidiaries. We’ll see what happens.
At least we have the holidays to mull us over… right?

Where To Eat in Washington, D.C.

This is how your seven-course meal begins at Little Serow, with pig skin, fish dip, and a giant basket of local herbs and crudite.

Most New Yorkers find themselves in D.C. from time to time for business reasons, to visit friends, or as patriotic sightseers. I found myself in the nation’s capital last week for the first time in a couple of years to receive an award on behalf of Fork in the Road at the Association of Food Journalists. I shouldn’t have waited so long to visit.

Who could resist a place that looks like this late at night?

I hit the ground running on Wednesday and, apart from some convention-related events, never stopped eating till I boarded the Bolt Bus ($13 down, $17 back!) on Saturday afternoon, eating more than a dozen restaurant meals in the process.

I found a new energy to the food scene there and almost didn’t have a single bad bite. In fact, Washington, with its eclectic mix of eateries in all price ranges, beats New York in a few categories, though it pains me to admit it.

Washington hasn’t always enjoyed a reputation as a great food town. Years ago, I traveled there on behalf of Gourmet to seek out West African restaurants, of which D.C. has a greater range than New York. Even before that, I’d gone to Washington and surrounding areas to eat Vietnamese and Ethiopian food — the city has always been unsurpassed in these categories on the Eastern seaboard.

And don’t miss the ML King National Memorial, best viewed at night.

But oftentimes, I found the food lackluster there. Adams Morgan, known for its multiplicity of ethnic restaurants, had few really good ones, and the prices were elevated, and while the lettered streets north of the White House had plenty of places aimed at lobbyists, legislators, and visiting business people, most of these — with the exception of a Jose Andres place or two like Minibar — were rather unmemorable and more expensive than they should have been. Sadly, other restaurants were branches of places headquartered in other cities. And much of Washington was simply too poor to have many restaurants of any sort. (I’ve seen the same thing other places: Jackson, Mississippi, for example.)

But this visit, I tweeted requests for recommendations, consulted with friends and colleagues, and assembled a list of places that turned out to be rather amazing. Here are my suggestions for what to eat in D.C. right now.

The Metro is asset number one in getting around — though so deep underground, it takes forever to get to the platform.

1. Little Serow — This new spot is like a Thai answer to our own Mission Chinese, a place founded by cooks who are Siamese culinary scholars become obsessed with Isaan food and, instead of creating pallid examples using so-so ingredients, raided the farmers’ markets here for fresh herbs and crudite, and created a menu with verve and heat that manages to achieve authenticity by being true to its model in a new way. Expect lots of fish sauce, heat, nuts, and things that look like heaped salads on the set seven-course meal ($45), which includes way more than you can eat. Highlights of my meal: pork laab with lemongrass and sawtooth basil, the wonderfully named “phat fuk thong” (pumpkin, egg, and holy basil), and the pork ribs cooked to melting tenderness in Mekhong whiskey (above). 1511 17th Street NW,

2. Fast Gourmet — This wacky sandwich shop located in a gas station is open 24 hours and staffed by Uruguayans. Already got your mouth watering, right? Among many lunatic sandwich choices, the thing everyone raves about is the chivito, a pressed hot hero sandwich served with fries that’s piled high with beefsteak, ham, bacon, green olives, eggs, and a vegetable escabeche. You won’t be able to walk back to your hotel after that. 1400 W Street NW, 202-448-9217,

From upper left clockwise: cappy ham, mortadella, soppressata, beef navel, bresaola, and pate campagne
From upper left clockwise: cappy ham, mortadella, soppressata, beef navel, bresaola, and pate campagne

3. Stachowski’s — The owner is Buffalo native Jamie Stachowski, who worked as a line cook in the kitchen of Jean-Louis Paladin, at one time the most revered French chef in the nation, and one who extolled local sourcing in the days when most French chefs got their raw materials from France. Now his disciple is installed in a homely corner deli in Georgetown, were he makes his own sausages, cured meats, and other charcuterie, some of it off-the-wall bizarre. Most memorable were his versions of mortadella, cappy ham, and beef navel — which is a sort of beef bacon, sublime eaten raw. The homemade pastrami (below), sliced thick and put on dark rye with mustard, is similarly incredible. 1425 28th Street NW, 202-506-3125

4. Ben’s Chili Bowl — This venerable old-timer is a late-night zoo of types from every walk of life, who come to chow down in the colorful and brightly lit interior on chili-cheese fries (below) and “half-smokes” (above) — something like a Polish sausage dressed with more of the strange, almost chalky and slightly bitter chili. Throw in chopped raw onions and “cheese” sauce, and it somehow works, and any reservations you might have about how good the food actually is vanish once you take a bite. We sat at Obama’s table (no, he wasn’t there right then) one night after a cocktail-hopping spree, and Ben’s was the perfect antidote. 1213 U Street NW, 202-667-0909

5. Toki Underground — Paradoxically located above a bar in a pleasantly cramped space that makes you feel instantly at home, Toki avoids the pretentiousness that pervades many contemporary hipster noodle parlors. It’s located on a stretch of H Street in the Northeast quadrant of the city that feels a little like Williamsburg with its mix of bars, coffee shops, and cafés. The tonsoku (pig-foot broth) is superb, deeper and denser and more brownish red than the straitlaced and doctrinaire Japanese versions here. What’s more, there’s a Taiwanese tinge to the menu that also makes the place unique. Great dumplings (below) round out the picture. 1234 H Street NE, 202-388-3086,

Pachinko machines are set into the bar at Toki Underground
Pachinko machines are set into the bar at Toki Underground

6. Wagshal’s — Located in a Colonial-style strip mall on the northwestern outskirts of Washington in a pleasant residential neighborhood, Wagshal’s is a maverick Jewish delicatessen that seems to have invented its formula in the absence of any New York influence. Think you know Jewish delis completely? Drop in to Wagshal’s. First and foremost is a bodacious pastrami sandwich. Oops, did I say pastrami? It’s called smoked brisket and owes more to Schwartz’s in Montreal and Mile End in New York than to pastrami. The flesh is ruby colored and shot with fat, and they don’t care whether you like that fact or not. The sandwich is absolutely scrumptious, and the baked goods are good, too. At $7.99, the sandwich is as big as Katz’s, and half the price. 4855 Massachusetts Avenue, 202-363-5698,

Three other places I’ve visited and loved before this visit and continue to recommend, even though I didn’t re-check them on this trip: Eden Center, a Vietnamese food mall in Falls Church, VA; Dukem, an Ethiopian place on Avenue U; and Minibar, one of the country’s foremost temples of molecular gastronomy.

Check out our Baltimore or Austin guides.


N.Y.C. Vs. D.C.: An Urban Culture Breakdown

WASHINGTON D.C. – Every year, during the hot, humid, heat waves of summer, my father and I plan a historical trip of some sort to escape the hustle and bustle of New York for a few days and surround ourselves with nothing but some good ol’ Founding Father lovin’.

Last June, we traveled to Gettysburg and Antietam to check up on the once bloody Civil War sites. After endless amounts of shirts that said “Don’t Tread on Me,” faux Confederate flags and that fine line between insanity and historical re-enactment, we left the small towns full of antebellum nostalgia and headed back to Yankee Town.

This time around, we headed down to Washington D.C. for three days vacationing in our nation’s capital. As homegrown New Yorkers, it was only natural that we stressed the fact to people where we’re from, whether it was in a hotel lobby or in the back of a cab. While we explored the federal metropolis, our city instincts began to notice inherent differences between D.C. and N.Y.C. Streets, museums and general infrastructure aide, the urban cultures of both have striking characteristics that defines what it means to be from New York… and from D.C., we guess.
And there’s more than enough to scrap them all together into this blog post. Here’s a few snippets from this tale of two cities:

D.C.’s bike share program is on point. One of the first things I noticed about D.C. was this row of red bikes right outside of Union Station – D.C.’s equivalent of Grand Central. Back in 2008, Capital Bike Share was the first city-wide attempt in America to place bikes across the city for free public use. And, with over 1,500 cycles on the streets of D.C., the red bikes are seen all over town, being rode by businessmen and partygoers alike. This makes us look bad, especially after the news that our bike share program’s start will be delayed another month. And that’s just a guesstimate.

Jaywalking here isn’t a crime – it just doesn’t exist. Giuliani would be in paradise; the street-walking ethics of Washingtonians is proper, controlled and obedient to the red light. Pedestrians there are assigned these white “walkways” where they have the right of way no matter what. Drivers were amazed when my father and I would dash across the middle of the street, willingly against traffic. Because we’re New Yorkers – that is our right of way.

D.C. folk spot politicians, not celebrities. The minute I stepped out of Union Station, Frank Luntz came flying past me with an enormous piece of luggage. For those of you who don’t know, Luntz is that pollster on Fox News who has an affinity for focus groups made up of red state senior citizens. Soon after, during my tour of the Capitol, I sat in on an empty Senate. All of a sudden, John McCain, Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman – collectively known together as the Tripod – stormed into the halls and faced off on the Syrian conflict. So, if you’re in D.C. and you happen to be a political nerd, you’ll love every minute of it. But don’t expect to see Lena Dunham on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nobody in Washington curses. In New York, you hear the F bomb dropped five times before reaching the corner. Here, you’re lucky if someone standing next to you decides to go with “hell” instead of “heck.”

New Yorkers really are the most aggressive drivers. I found myself fuming over the fact that my more-defensive-than-my-grandma cab driver didn’t cut off the guy in front of us, who decided it was a brilliant idea to parallel park on a crowded one-way. I offered back-seat alternatives and I don’t even drive when I’m in New York.

A Washingtonian always met my claim to New York residence with an extended “Ahhhh!” To them, we are the classic urbanites, coming to a foreign city to take in, take home and brag to our friends about how D.C. is no Big Apple. Although Georgetown is not SoHo or the Village, and the streets there are as clean as a whistle, D.C. was a well-needed break from Manhattan. But they need to learn how to walk across the street.


Has The New Yorker Gone B & T?

The White House Press Correspondents dinner is on its way. Better known to many by the very apropos Twitter hashtag columnist Ana Marie Cox created for it: #NerdProm, it’s the one day each year the media’s tireless habit of self-administered proctology is rewarded. This year, as tradition goes, The New Yorker is throwing a hot, exclusive jam, with a door tighter than the asses of their most Upper West Side rent-controlled lifetime subscribers. But why’d they go lowbrow?

Here’s what happens at NerdProm: A comic roasts the president, who then roasts/flatters the media, who are wined, dined, and surrounded by celebrities with no actual business being at something for “White House Press Correspondents” for any other purpose than to delight journalists. It’s a fun time for everyone — journalists, politicians, professional media personae, and celebrities — to cozy up in an orgy of self-regard, which is why the New York Times has boycotted the dinner for two years in a row, now. Squares. Afterward, everyone has big parties, like the Oscars, but without any actual money at stake, and also a room full of people who want to take pictures with whoever showed up from Mad Men.

Enter Politico, who noted earlier today that this year’s New Yorker party’s going to be held at….

The W?

Yes, The W. As in, that really clubby chain of hotels with “modern” decor people who don’t want to be perceived as “stuffy” for staying at a Westin. In New York, they’re for people who want to stay at a “cool” hotel but think The Bowery’s still too “dangerous” for them. Let’s get real: The New Yorker would never — ever — have a party at a W in Manhattan. Culturally, this is somewhat akin to Malcom Gladwell writing a new chapter of Outliers solely about Snooki’s relationship with The Duck Phone.

Instead, the staff of The New Yorker (okay, just their star writers; editorial assistants, stay seated) and David Remnick (who Politico also notes has an Obama biography coming out in a few weeks) will get cozy with politicians, celebrities, and media at a place some (obviously uncool) Yelpers described as “a thoroughly terrible experience” where D.C.’s “guys in blue blazers and pinstripe shirts” kick it. A place that’s “trying way too hard to be cool,” when it’s not “a darker side of DC that I would not readily like to revisit.”

That said, the view (from the balcony, Toobin) is supposedly wonderful. Granted, it’s not one of the classic D.C. institutions other parties are housed in (the St. Regis, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont’s pad, the Washington Hilton), but seeing as how The New Yorker‘s basically completely immune from Conde Nast layoffs, balling out of control is essentially the order of the hour. Beat on the beat, yo.


These United States’ A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden

On their debut, this Washington, D.C., outfit serves up country-tinged folk sautéed in electronic seasoning; along with artier neighbors Le Loup and Exit Clov, These United States offer melodic and amusing ideas to the post-Fugazi landscape, but they’re still tied to thoughtful ones—in this case, mostly protesting heartless romantic antics.

The “band” is actually Jesse Elliott, whose singer-songwriter strummings are balanced by the psychedelic arrangements of producer David Strackany, who chimes in with vibes, glockenspiel, mandolin, and lots of off-kilter keyboards. A cast of guest musicians (dubbed the Federal Reserve Collective) add flavoring such as tabla, cello, and French horn. The result is cute and sweet, except when it’s not, which is when you listen closely. Behind the cotton-candy arrangements are songs about despair, demons, and D.C. women who cast aside poor Elliott to enjoy “weekends on the wrong side of the tracks.” Elliott’s whispered vocals seduce even when they lack range—he lets his lyrics do the talking anyway, as in “First Sight,” a fantastical narrative that seeks to prove Lou Reed’s claim that in between thought and expression lies a lifetime.

Elsewhere, a fist-raising chorus powers “Burn This Bridge,” while Burt Bacharach–derived horns trumpet Elliott’s classic-pop influences. The short songs too often find him serving up tasty, melodic morsels, only to snatch them away before you’re fully satisfied. But perhaps, just like the deceitful lovers he’s rhapsodizing, Elliott’s trying to leave you wanting more.


Coup Thing

Growing up in Washington, D.C., during the salad days of straight-edge harDCore, Nathan Larson wasn’t interested in mixing punk with politics. “I’m embarrassed to say it now,” the Manhattan-based singer-guitarist admits, “but I’d do shit like show up with a McDonald’s hamburger just to piss people off.” Larson played in Shudder to Think, perhaps the least typical D.C. punk band ever: Fronted by bald-domed opera fan Craig Wedren, Shudder made supertechnical math-core that harbored a secret desire to be glam-rock (before glam-rock was back). They were also one of the first Dischord acts to sign to a major label, an act that once scandalized DIY purists.

Over the years since Shudder’s late-’90s demise, Larson formed the short-lived Mind Science of the Mind (with Mary Timony of Helium), put out an underrated white-soul solo album, and began a lucrative sideline as an indie-film soundtrack composer. (He also married Cardigans frontwoman Nina Persson, whose 2001 solo disc he worked on; the couple split their time between New York and Sweden.) And following the 2000 election, Larson sprouted the political consciousness he once disavowed. “That’s when I started getting politically active in the more traditional ways, giving money to causes,” Larson says. “But I didn’t connect with anything musical until the summer of 2005, when the germ of Hot One came up.”

Hot One is Larson’s new outfit with guitarist Jordan Kern, bassist Emm Gryner (with whom Larson had collaborated with on her singer-songwriter material), and drummer Kevin March (a latter-day Shudder member and manager at the local branch of the School of Rock). On their excellent self-titled debut, the foursome play super-tuneful glam-rock that harbors a not-so-secret desire to overthrow “the loathsome G.W. Bush cabal,” as they claim in a recent MySpace manifesto. Song titles include “Sexy Soldier,” “Do the Coup d’État,” and “Fuckin’ “; riffs come in sizes L, XL, and XXL.

The band finished recording the album back in February, but just made their live debut a few weeks back; they’re having kids from area Schools of Rock open each show, which Larson says rounds out his idea of talking about politics in a way that’s “kind of ridiculous, but with a seriousness about it. It’s awesome: You’ve got these 12-year-old kids playing ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Rush. You can’t be cynical when you’ve got kids playing with you.”

Hot One plays Southpaw Saturday night,


Few Answers as Sago Mine Reopens

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s business as usual over in West Virginia, where the Sago mine reopened Wednesday.

The coal is pouring out in a steady stream. The TV networks are long gone. The signs urging prayers for the Sago miners have been taken down. Neighbors are still telling the few journalists who stop by stories about the 12 dead men who became the center of national attention when the mine explosion happened on January 2, trapping them inside, eventually killing all but one. The one man to live—Randal McCloy—is lying in a rehabilitation center with brain damage.

At a briefing earlier this week company officials continued to say the cause of the explosion was a lightning strike.

Executives of the International Coal Group, which owns the mine, say they just don’t know why they think the way they do. But on Tuesday the company handed out a P.R. release that said, “The explosion was ignited by lightning and fueled by methane that naturally accumulated in an abandoned area of the mine that had been recently sealed.” The company points to strange streaks across the mine roof, which might suggest passage of electricity across the ceiling. But the company adds, “The testing of these unusual features has not been completed to determine if it was created by the passage of electrical energy from lightning.” Through its P.R. firm, the company said it would not talk about the news release or the investigation.

There is one good explanation for not talking. If the ICG people can pin the blast on lightning, then the miners’ deaths may be seen as an act of God. In that case, the possibility of company liability in damage suits could be lessened.

The Sago mine is nonunion, and at rate the once powerful United Mine Workers is reduced to a shado of its former presence. Still, the UMW has been throwing in its two cents’ worth whenever it has a chance. On Wednesday, Cecil Roberts, the UMW president, attacked ICG in a press release: “ICG is essentially saying this was an act of God, and we all know you can’t sue God,” said Roberts. “One can make a case that this announcement is more about future litigation defense purposes than it is about actually shining a light of truth on what really happened.”

At the briefing, the company said lightning might have got into the mine through natural gas pipelines running on the surface above the mine. Or it might have traveled from a nearby power plant. “One of the mapped lightning strikes was 300 feet away from a power pole that supplied power to the mine, and it is possible that the electrical energy entered the mine through this mechanism, traveling perhaps along the conveyor belt structure,” the company said.

Investigators are dubious of this claim, since a lightning strike carried into the mine over an electric line would have knocked the line out.

So, not knowing what caused the explosion, or whether the mine remains vulnerable to that kind of accident, the mine owners started operations again as the federal and state safety officials stood by.