I’m listening to Entombed’s “Wolverine Blues”, released in 1993 with an exclusive mini-comic starring everybody’s favorite Canucklehead.
Though sometimes noted by serious metal fans as less of a “true” death metal record than their previous records (remember, we’re talking about a genre with a disproportionately high percentage of “classic” first records), “Wolverine Blues” is nonetheless a standout and is frequently cited as one of the better and most enduring death metal albums of the 1990s.
That the album was not written or titled with comics’ most popular characters in mind was not a concern of Earache records, which seized upon the coincidence as an opportunity to make some quick scratch. When the album was released in North America with an alternate (one might even say “variant”) cover, Earache and Marvel’s cross-promotional venture managed to cash-in yet again. Given comics fans’ willingness to buy seemingly ANYTHING in the early 90s, and record’s eventual stature as one of the all-time greats in the history of Swedish death metal, nobody on either side of the deal seems to mind that Earache and Marvel basically succeeded in turning Entombed into a late 20th century version of the Banana Splits.
The borderline “berserker” aspect of Logan’s character has been a tension explored ad-nauseum ever since Chris Claremont renewed focus on the character in the late 70s and early 80s, and it’s not like the anthropomorphizing of a notoriously dangerous Midwestern quadruped isn’t the most subtle of metaphors to begin with. But that level of juvenility has always been what made both Logan and death metal itself so appealing to early-teenaged boys, as well as a natural commercial pairing.
On the title track, LG Petrov growls out the lyrics like he’s the best he is at what he does, and what he does is pretty stupid: “Vicious mammal/the blood is my call/pound for pound/I am the most vicious of all!”
Meanwhile, in the accompanying comic entitled “Just Don’t Look in its Eyes” (written by Ann Nocenti, art by John Bolton, originally printed as a back-up story in September 1988′s Classic X-Men #25), Logan continues his illustrious history of straight-murdering a grizzly bear out in the snow, spending between three and five panels feeling bad about it, and then proceeding to straight-murder the jerk who made him kill an innocent beast. Good times.
And even if it’s not, strictly speaking, the most over-the-top brutal offering Scandinavia might have offered, the death n’ roll on “Wolverine Blues” still makes for an appropriately nauseating soundtrack to enjoying comics’ most popular (and often silliest) psychopath.
BONUS! Despite the band not wanting the album to have anything to actually do with the Marvel character, Earache still managed to get them to do an entire music video with Wolverine all over it. Warning: it’s pretty terrible (so much so, it was featured on an episode of “Beavis and Butt-head” and largely ignored by the duo).
The passing of Harvey Pekar requires acknowledgment, not just because we’re a comics blog and this is news from our geeky world, but because Pekar was a legitimately important writer who deserves the recognition and appreciation of all of us, whether you’re a nerd or not. With comics’ longevity in our culture comes the sad fact that there are precious few true innovators of the medium left with us. We lost another titan today, as Harvey Pekar passed away of causes yet-undetermined. He was 70 years old.
His creation, American Splendor, was a pioneering effort in independent comics, an autobiographical book depicting the real-life “drama” of the human condition told by an anonymous file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio, far away from Gotham and the center of the comic book universe. His book was populated by Pekar’s own friends, his co-workers, and anybody he interacted with in the day to day, and the stories told within its pages all came from incidents in his own life. The book was illustrated by dozens of artists since its first issue in 1976 (including, famously, Pekar’s legendary buddy R. Crumb) and over the course of its run became recognized as one of the best and most influential creator-owned properties ever.
Harvey’s writing in American Splendor was favorably compared to greats like Anton Chekhov in its narrative focus on the ephemeral emotionalism of moments between moments rather than any definitive set of linear events as they might relate to a traditional style of storytelling. But unlike Chekhov, who wrote initially for money on the side before formally committing himself to the craft of writing, Pekar was never any kind of literary genius. Rather, he was akin to those other DIY-ers that dotted the artistic landscape of latter half of the 20th century, driven by something innate and maybe a little profound, to stay up all night to write down the things that he wanted other people to see in his world, even if it meant being extra-tired during his double shift at the VA the next day.
Following the underground success of American Splendor, Pekar would be “discovered” any number of times in the ensuing years by any number of outsiders who found novelty in glimpsing the mundane existence of this glum little weirdo from the distant Mid-West. In his willingness to indulge potential readers, he even became a bit of a side-show attraction at times, as when he appeared eight times on Late Night with David Letterman, culminating with an acrimonious airing of grievance that once again relegated him to national obscurity, save for those few viewers who might have actually gone on to pick up a copy of his most recent issue.
But Harvey’s insistence that he never be “co-opted” was equal parts a commitment to his art and to himself, knowing that he could not make his comic if he ever believed himself to be another phony. Even as neurotic, cantankerous and put-upon as the man could be, he was also never nearly as self-serious as his public persona might have lead one to believe. How could he be? American Splendor was downright severe in its sincerity, and showed not one iota of inauthenticity in the four decades that it was published. His body of works are paradoxically the least self-aware metatextual texts ever created. It simply couldn’t have worked otherwise.
Harvey Pekar was a Great in the world of comics, if never more than a regular guy in the real one. And he will be missed.
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The 2010 Eisner Award nominations have been released, and if you’re like me, you probably had a mixed reaction, something along the lines of: “Hooray, comics I like! Boo, comics I didn’t read!”
…which is why you and I shouldn’t be chosen to hand out the industry’s most prestigious and coveted award: we’re amateurs! We’ve got way too many things going on in our lives that prevent us from reading all the comics we wish we could. I mean, right now I’m finishing a masters thesis, sculpting the minds of impressionable college students, and preparing a move across a state that’s bigger than most European countries, and you’re… making some sort of contribution to society that doesn’t require an orange jumpsuit on the side of a road, I’m sure. The point is that comics readers like you and me possess neither the breadth of familiarity with the vast quantity of books that are printed every year, nor the time to read them. Any picks we’d make for the “best” comics of the year would be a woefully incomplete selection from the pool of whatever titles we’ve both read and liked in the last twelve months.
Luckily there’s a group of dedicated professionals behind the most important honors in the industry, right? Well, yes and no. The truth is that while the Eisners are a fine and meaningful flagship institution dedicated to a criminally under-publicized art form, they’re far from perfect. It’s no crime. Every awards system has to revamp every once in a while, and when they do and Sandra Bullock can still end up winning an Oscar for the fucking Blind Side, perhaps they can revamp again. It’s just the way of things. So here now is my three point plan to help make the Eisner Awards the prize they deserve to be.
Point #1: Enlarge the Nominations Committee
The Eisner nominees are currently selected by some of the finest experts available from all types of comics people, be they from the industry, academia, retail or general readership. Their pedigrees are unimpeachable, and they should be, since these are the folks who have to read every submission for potential nomination and then whittle the entries down to just five nominees. Unfortunately, there are only five judges selected every year to comprise the pool of judges.
This is just comically small, and can’t possibly represent the full spectrum of styles and sensibilities spoken to by the massively diverse number of potential nominees every year. I understand that these folks are the crème de la crème, but can’t we keep an acceptably excellent standard in a pool of, say, 25 judges? Not every judge can have 25 years of experience running a store, but there are plenty of folks who have ten years and the time to read the submissions. Widening the pool would also increase diversity, meaning that maybe we could see more than one woman, or hell, anybody that isn’t white.
Finally, this diversity would also translate to a broader spectrum of experience in readership, thus hopefully limited the effects of conventional wisdom that sometimes plagues the Eisner nominations. Too often the judging committee keeps the old guard of previously-nominated books in play for slightly too long, taking away valuable spots from other deserving potential selections. A bigger pool of judges would keep long-running, previously honored books honest, and give every opportunity to elevate younger titles a fighting chance.
Point #2: Reduce the Voters Pool
Here we have a problem that’s the opposite of the nominations process. Simply put, too damned many people get to vote for the Eisners. Of the literally thousands of people will cast their votes for the dozens of nominees, how many do you think were made having read each of the other nominees in a given category?
The current system is susceptible to the same problems as the Academy Awards: with so many voters, it’s inevitable that most folks make selections that are woefully under-informed. Worse still, the system is hopelessly biased toward the major publishers. The companies that have the money to advertise titles and move the most books are more likely to have been read by the voters, crowding out smaller comics in the pages of the trades and capturing the attention of comics people at large. It’s impossible for the little guy to compete. Cutting the pool down to, say, a few hundred voters would likely yield results that better reflect the quality of the nominees than simply what’s been popular lately. The system would benefit from being slightly more selective in whom it allows to vote for the Eisner’s winners.
Point #3: Split the Categories More Fairly
The big versus small dynamic also presents another major problem: No matter if you limit the pool to some respectable degree, the major publishers have an unfair advantage in sheer number of books sold. If more of those books have been read than any other, it stands to reason that inevitably that will translate to those books being voted for more than the others. It’s just unavoidable. So what can we do?
Easy: Split the categories by sales. Books that cross the threshold of X copies shipped/sold (a number that I’m sure can be fairly chosen based on some metrics of sales figures from both the major and independent publishers) qualify for one of two designations: “Major” (X or more sold) and “Select” (X or fewer sold.) A title/writer/artist/publisher should not be punished for the fact that not enough people bought an issue, and this adjustment allows for the books that fall through the cracks to earn the same honor as the best of the big boys.
If this idea proves favorable, you can create as many tiers as are fitting. The true “blockbusters” can duke it out amongst themselves in one category, while self-published books vie for the win in their own. Parity in awards can be restored for quality instead of quantity, and winning an Eisner can truly be called the birthright of the best of the best.
The best comics start with a great premise. Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets starts with two. The initial hook is all about revenge: Agent Graves can offer you an attaché case containing a gun with one hundred untraceable rounds of ammunition, indisputable proof implicating the person responsible for ruining your life, and the guarantee that you’ll get away with murder should you choose to do something about it. The moral implications are already riveting enough, what would you do, how far would you go for a grudge? And could you ever really find peace of mind in violence? But the pulp stories eventually give way to a broader tale, and the epic scope of the 100 Bullets’ narrative (told across the span of- you guessed it- one hundred issues) is a crime saga larger and more complicated than any ever committed to page or screen.
Most of the credit goes to 100 Bullets’ creators, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso develop a fully-realized world of people who occupy a world that’s highly-stylized, yet unmistakably authentic to our sense of both the highest heights and the farthest margins of society. Azzarello is, without a doubt, the best writer of dialogue in all of comics (and no, it’s not even close). No other scribe in the decade ever attempted to work across such a fearlessly broad spectrum of humanity, nor did any succeed so consummately in capturing the depth and variety of dialects plumbed from all walks of American life. Risso’s art is equal parts glitz and grit, the perfect complement to the “realness” of Azzarello’s writing for figures who emerge from- and retreat back into- shadows both figurative and literal, all blood sparkling on gold jewelry and sharpened teeth.
While 100 Bullets’ early arcs are fodder for some meaty noir tales of dirty deeds and payback, it’s only a matter of time before members of the huge cast of seemingly unrelated characters realize the underlying truth behind Graves’ labyrinthine “game”: Everybody is connected, and if you’re not playing an angle, somebody else is probably playing you as part of theirs. Along the way we uncover the sprawling, mysterious world of the Minutemen, the Trust, and the Greatest Crime in the History of Man. Knowing the long and torturous path ahead for so many of these characters it makes me really wonder- if you knew what was coming at the end of it all, would you have ever opened up that briefcase?
If you’re not reading Graphic Content, Vertigo’s official blog, you probably should. That’s because along with news and previews from the favorite publisher of, like, all of my favorite books ever, Pamela Mullin and company thrown In some pretty sweet prizes every once in a while. Recently, GC had a contest to give away 20 copies of the Fables Deluxe Vol. 1 autographed by none other than series creator and writer Bill Willingham. The contest was X-Mas themed and everybody who entered went into a drawing for this fancy-schmancy hardcover, perfectly suited for prominent bookshelf displaying to make all of your nerd friends go super-crazy jealous on you. Awesome.
Now, Fables was the first book I picked up in mid 2009 after years of not reading comics, and it pretty much sucked me back into the world of all the great stuff that had been going on during my hiatus. It’s also the first title that I ever used to get my girlfriend into comics, so Fables even has a place in my heart now for bringing me closer to the woman I love, on top of just being generally awesome and already a personal favorite. (Oh, and it’s also featured fairly prominently on HF!C’s forthcoming “20 (Or So) Best Comics of the Decade” list. Stay tuned!)
Well, last month the drawing came and went, and…
What would ya know?
Dreams really do come true, kids.
Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe that it took such long-lived American industries so long to get together. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the motion picture world devoted significant attention to comics, but after a few notable successes in translating iconic pop figures like Superman and Batman to the silver screen, Hollywood discovered that mining the major publishers produced a winning formula: (Moviestars + superpowers) x explosions = $$ (+/- a remainder of quality storytelling, character development, direction, etc…)
The trend continued to snowball through the 80s and 90s, until it came to be that the 2000s were so thoroughly dominated by adapted works as to be the first true “Comic Book Movie Decade.” Dozens of films were produced. Some of the managed to range from good to even great: Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman, Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man”, and two-thirds of the Spiderman franchise spring to mind. Others fell somewhere between bad and just god-awful: “Daredevil”/“Elektra”, “Catwoman”, not one but two stabs each at both the Punisher and the Incredible Hulk- I could go on for entirely too long to bother.
Still, the overwhelming majority of comic book movies this decade fell into a third category, amounting to nothing more than forgettable also-rans, straightforward re-treads of the same old Hollywood templates dressed up in capes for varying degrees of mindless viewing “enjoyment”: four installments of Hugh Jackman with sideburns, Keanu as “Constantine”, a pair of not-so-Fantastic 4s, three (THREE!) iterations of “Blade”, a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and- (shudder) even the defiled corpse of Watchmen…
So with the glut of comics-inspired fare producing far more output ranging from poor to mediocre, you couldn’t really blame a serious movie fan for thinking comics don’t have so much going for them. Hell, if the only non-superhero comic book movie I’d seen was “Wanted” I’d think it was a bankrupt form too. But the truth is, there’s a plethora of excellent films out there that your average cinephile will love, and source material that’s just as top-notch (and thus the perfect gateway drug…)
Sin City- There has been perhaps no more literal a translation of any comic’s complete aesthetic than Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s “Sin City”, based on Miller’s eponymous series. In most cases, that’s a good thing, since usually the most damning trap that comic book movies fall victim to is to equate “comics” with “cartoonish”- over-the-top violence, outlandish character designs, and slap-dash CGI are enough to pass muster for most studios (and, sadly, audiences.)
But Miller’s Sin City already had an extremely cinematic style all its own, combining more action and noir touchstones than you’d find in Raymond Chandler’s closet to make a moody, stylish, hard-boiled world that’s as fun as Hell to watch- every second of which shows up on screen for the filmic adaptation. Add in some terrific performances from the exquisitely-cast rundown of Academy-favorites like Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, and especially Mickey Rourke (three years before The Wrestler heralded his return to mainstream respectability) and you’ve got the perfect popcorn companion, in movie or comic form.
Ghost World- You think comics are only good at producing popcorn flicks? Alright. How about a dourly comic stroll through suburban ennui depicted in the failing friendship of two teenaged girls? Can you believe Michael Bay passed on this one? Maybe the most low-profile comic book film ever, fans of the film (which stars independent film favorites Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, and pre-starlet Scarlett Johansson) rarely seem to know that Daniel Clowes comic exists. But the indie spirit of film and comics are kindred, for sure, and the graphic novel as a medium shares celluloid’s capacity for conveying the ephemeral qualities of the human condition. Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 take on the comic is the perfect match for people who “get” films about people not really doing anything.
A History of Violence- If Ghost World shows the literary commonalities between film and comics, A History of Violence exemplifies how the addition of a new creative point of view can offer something different in the jump from page to screen. Yes, the movie changes some of the specifics of John Wagner’s most famous post-Judge Dredd funnybook, but it’s impossible not to appreciate director David Cronenberg’s thoughtful, slow-burning take on the film’s central tenets.
It’s also got outstanding performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris and John Hurt, all of whom bring a compelling and thoughtful depth to their characters. As such, “A History of Violence” arguably does a better job than its namesake of deconstructing comics and cinema’s shared convention of violence, and examining the emotional and intellectual implications that brutal acts really should have on real, living, breathing people.
Oldboy- The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes (and was Quentin Tarantino’s choice for the Palme d’Or), but even as a filmic property it remains unknown to most save for the truly hardened cinephile. But those who HAVE seen Park Chan Wook’s take on the disturbing (but really just plain bizarre) manga regard it as a film of the highest order. If the popular themes of revenge, love, and borderline-nauseating ultra-violence don’t reel in your movie fan pal, just tell them that it’s all in Korean. They’ll probably dig the subtitles.
American Splendor- Art imitating life imitating art. Chances are that any cinephile who sees Paul Giamatti starring as real-life comic book curmudgeon Harvey Pekar will immediately be drawn to the outsider-ish comic that inspired this Academy Award-nominated screenplay. Every bit as emotionally resonant and affecting as the film that bears its name, American Splendor’s slice-of-life stories themselves then another gateway drug, this time to the works of the litany of famous independent illustrators who have collaborated with Pekar over the years (including legendary underground weirdo R. Crumb and the Hernandez brothers, of Love and Rockets fame.)
Brendan’s a speech/comm grad student somewhere in Texas and an old buddy of ours. He can drink two of us, hell – maybe all of us – under the table. He can make with the smart so we gave him a column. Look out for him to pipe up every now and then. You know, when we can convince him to stop working on his thesis or whatever.
Earlier this month, Vertigo released the seventh trade paperback of Brian Wood’s creator-owned title, the phenomenal DMZ. The seventh in the series’ run (which began late 2005), “War Powers” collects three story arcs spanning issues #35-41.
For those unfamiliar with my favorite ongoing title, DMZ follows Matty Roth, a young twenty-something photojournalist residing in and reporting on happenings from the island of Manhattan- now a demilitarized zone between the United States army and an uprising of separatist militias collectively known as the “Free States.” As both sides vie for strategic advantage over the now largely-evacuated city of New York, those who stayed behind live in a setting that Wood has described as resembling Escape from New York and Katrina-aftermath New Orleans, as violence and disrepair plague the front now known as “The DMZ.”
As you might imagine, the series finds plenty of action in a world in which warring locals trade sniper fire, Central Park is patrolled by special forces deserters–turned-conservationists, and rocket attacks periodically rain down flaming rubble upon the lower east side. But the book is especially fulfilling when read as an extended parable, examining the effects of real life American military adventurism on civilian life. DMZ has become a standout comic in recent years for the ways in which it mines human drama from its premise. As Matty is pulled in every direction by forces political and personal, he grows up before our eyes right in the middle of all that chaos.
And such chaos is of a kind that many of us will find our generation defined by. I just turned 27 years old, which means I’ve spent essentially my entire adult life in the George W. Bush age. The twin towers, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the entire War on Terror- they’ve all loomed large over my life. Yet as the decade has dragged on toward its close, even the most geopolitically aware among us have had a hard time making sense of it all. Our input’s been so thoroughly overloaded in recent years that we’ve developed an estranged relationship to the global brand of tragedy plastered over the daily news. As Americans, we know that we are somehow connected to it, and intimately so, but we still can’t really fathom it fully.
With the constant, deadening flow of information, it sometimes feels as though we’re expected to place everything into context in real time. But the truth is that only now, years after events’ first acts, do we truly have the perspective to produce a unique creative lexicon in which to discuss them.
It’s good that new works of art are being produced through which to share a cultural experience, rather than just slapping a Buffalo Springfield song over images of bombed-out buildings and dead bodies in the desert. When considering what art will help define our uniquely terrifying times, a few authentic-feeling documents do come to mind: “The Hurt Locker” and “Generation Kill”, sure; and “The Wire” in a more roundabout way. But right there with (and arguably foremost among) them, DMZ takes its rightful place.
The three stories in “War Powers” make that case as well as anything else from DMZ to date. The first arc follows Matty during his recent sojourn away from Manhattan across the narrows, and examines the bonds of camaraderie shared by opposing soldiers serving on the remotest fringes of the actual fighting. That premise offers up several scenes that ring with an almost absurdist quality- one that’s rendered all the more surreal for its totally natural plausibility. The men’s party-filled run of seemingly endless downtime gives way to a tense, frightening string of hours when something goes wrong, forcing new friends to act like instruments of war again.
As he does frequently throughout DMZ, Wood’s deft writing (this time glimpsing into how the psychologies of enlisted men are by turns blurred and twisted by wartime) is almost subliminally tied into a bit of NYC-centric social geography. “The Island” arc is set on the routinely ignored Staten Island, an outer borough of the city that’s largely left on its own and a place that the typical New Yorker likely never thinks twice about.
This arc reminds us that while not every second of war is horror, when a bunch of jacked-up war machines are left unchecked and to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time until something really bad is going to happen. Here, in just two issues, little is wasted in either words or panel space, and “The Island” manages to cram one of the best arcs of book’s run so far into a mere 44 pages.
Most of the remaining pages of “War Powers” are then devoted to the titular story arc. Upon Matty’s return to the DMZ, we find that his relationship with Zee has been strained past breaking, and that she’s nowhere to be found. Their mutual disaffection is the silent culmination of some subtextual elements from the series’ last major arc, “Blood in the Game.”
While “love” has always appeared to be something of an opportunistic venture in the DMZ, it’s clear that Zee and Matty are special to one another and that their relationship is more than grasping onto whatever human connection they could when it became available. But the dedication they share toward their respective works, coupled with their ferocious needs to remain self-reliant seem to have overpowered the urge to actually be with one another (at least for now.)
Of course, Zee was also pushed out of the picture during Matty’s love affair with political idealism and the rise of Parco Delgado, a former gang member and self-styled voice of the people of the DMZ. The transformative power of Matty’s newfound true believer-ism really has made him something very different than the documentarian skeptic he’d become since arriving in Manhattan as a wide-eyed, ignorant kid. Now Matty Roth carries a rifle instead of a camera, and is running errands for Delgado’s nascent regime while they consolidate power in a fortified base of operations called Parco City.
It’s only a matter of time before Parco City begins to feel more like the West Bank than the Green Zone, and as the “Delgado Nation” asserts itself more forcefully, a creeping suspicion sets in that the independent nation of Manhattan might not be the solution after all. Rather, we may be witnessing the rise of the first inevitable failed state that fucks up the region more than anything that was there before its existence. Matty questions his loyalty to Parco and his place within the administration as the boundaries of what Delgado seems willing to do with all that power broaden more and more, and begins to resemble the entities that New Yorkers thought they were rejecting on election day.
For the bulk of the “War Powers” collection, Wood’s words are complimented by the art of series regular Riccardo Burchielli, whose renderings of Manhattan manage to evoke specific aspects of the story’s setting. At times it’s a battlefield, a disaster area, and a reclamation zone, yet it remains the beloved hometown of its inhabitants in spite of it all. And while many reviews will drink in such renderings of the city and take the easy route of dull platitudes (“The best character in DMZ is New York itself!”) that’s really quite lazy, and is wrongly dismissive of Wood and Burchielli’s greater strengths.
The portrayal of New York in DMZ is intimate, sure, and proudly displays a native’s love of his city, but it does so first and foremost through the eyes of people who live in the story. With characters as nuanced and well developed as Matty Roth, Parco Delgado, Zee Hernandez, and a host of recurring players from all over the island, we learn about the place through the characters’ lives. NYC is undoubtedly a uniquely rich backdrop, and it is best used as exactly that- a place unlike any other that quietly informs the motives of DMZ’s characters, adding greater richness to the narrative’s depth.
A fine example of this comes in the one-shot issue that concludes the trade, which follows Zee as she makes her way out of the retaining walls of Delgado’s new seat of power and back into the dangerous, unfamiliar parts of Manhattan. When the violent reality of life in the DMZ reasserts itself, we see the extent of Zee’s commitment to her practice as she begrudgingly helps the scared and wounded agents of an occupying force: a stranded cell of the Halliburton/Blackwater-evoking private military contraction firm Trustwell Inc.
As a coda to this edition’s main plot, “Zee, DMZ” demonstrates the singleton-issue as interstitial storytelling device, and is crucial to both the pacing of DMZ as a series as well as adding to our knowledge of this New York. Some forty-plus issues in, we’re still discovering new parts of the city- and new people to worry about the future for.