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Attack of the pop culture references

At some point in the mid-nineties, I noticed it. In everything from TV shows to music and movies, pop culture seemed to be folding in on itself; more and more referring only to other TV shows, music and movies. Rather than a dialogue, it seemed like mass media had been busy transforming itself into an echo chamber, culminating with phenomena like I Love the 80s (literally 100% pop culture references), bands like The Darkness and Chromeo who trade on sending up the musical cliches of the past and tee-shirt based attempts at humor that consist of nothing more than a silhouette of Fat Albert. (Which isn't to say that Chromeo doesn't rock my booty; they do.)

I'm not immune from pop culture reference disease, of course -- heck, my "Attack of the Parasites" video for mental_floss is constructed entirely of Mystery Science Theater-worthy clips from old movies -- but more and more it seems like artists who are really trying to say something new and profound are being hampered by their dependence on -- nay, addiction to -- pop culture. Take the new Richard Kelly film Southland Tales, for instance. I won't ruin it for you if you haven't seen it, but it's a story that purports to take on such heady subject matter as the breakdown of modern society and the end of the world, and yet it's so hyper-concerned with making too-cool in-crowd pop references with everything from its casting (why else would you cast Kevin Smith, The Rock and John Larroquette?) to its soundtrack (Blur, the Pixies, Radiohead) and even its tagline ("This is the way the world ends ...") that the film never ends up making enough sense to make a point at all!

Whew. (Rant over!) For the record, I loved Kelly's previous film, Donnie Darko -- also full of pop culture references -- so no harm, no foul. I suppose what I'm getting at is that pop culture references certainly have their place, but they often become a substitute for actual (or at least original) communication. It peeved me so much that a few years ago I wrote a bizarre little comedy sketch called "Pop Culture Reference," and this is it:

What pop culture references get under your skin?

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The Origins of 36 Marvel Characters, Illustrated
Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

No matter what their powers, every super hero has an origin story, from Spider-Man’s radioactive bite to Iron Man’s life-threatening chest shrapnel. In their latest poster, the designers at Pop Chart Lab have taken their infographic savvy to the Marvel Universe, charting the heroic origins of 36 different Marvel characters through miniature, minimalist comics.

Without using any words, they’ve managed to illustrate Bucky Barnes's plane explosion and subsequent transformation into the Winter Soldier, Jessica Jones’s car crash, the death of the Punisher’s family, and other classic stories from the major Marvel canon while paying tribute to the comic book form.

Explore the poster below, and see a zoomable version on Pop Chart Lab’s website.

A poster featuring 36 minimalist illustrations of superhero origin stories.
Pop Chart Lab

Keep your eyes open for future Marvel-Pop Chart crossovers. The Marvel Origins: A Sequential Compendium poster is “the first release of what we hope to be a marvelous partnership,” as Pop Chart Lab’s Galvin Chow puts it. Prints are available for pre-order starting at $37 and are scheduled to start shipping on March 8.

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