Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

X's and O's (and V's and Y's): 20 one-letter entertainment items before W.

Illustration for article titled Xs and Os (and Vs and Ys): 20 one-letter entertainment items before iW./i

1. Q

While George W. Bush remains the first American president to reduce his name to a single letter, he's hardly the first person to try that bit of addition by subtraction. Similarly, Oliver Stone's Bush biopic W. is part of a long tradition of movies that keep it simple. Witness Larry Cohen's Q, which arrived with this tagline: "Its name is Quetzalcoatl… Just call it Q, that's all you'll have time to say before it tears you apart!" Easy enough, especially since most people couldn't pronounce "Quetzalcoatl" anyway, whether or not they were being torn apart. The 1982 horror movie stars David Carradine and Richard Roundtree trying to catch a hideous winged beastie, the living embodiment of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who's gotten into the bad habit of snatching victims off the top of New York buildings. Trouble is, only Michael Moriarty knows where Q has made its lair, and he isn't giving the information up without a little something for himself in return.

2. X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

Cohen might have been taking a page from Roger Corman when he gave Q its title. Corman scored a 1963 hit with X, the tale of a scientist (Ray Milland) who enhances his powers of sight well beyond human limits. That's great so long as it lets him peer through clothes and detect undiagnosed illnesses, but not-so-great when he can't stop the power's progress, his eyes turn black, and he starts to see stuff that drives him mad. The weirdly effective film also stars Don Rickles, for some reason.

3. Z

Given how steadily My Morning Jacket's fan base was building, the Southern rockers' 2005 album probably would've been a breakthrough no matter what they titled it. But everything about Z—from the simplified name to the tight 10-song track list—represented a band in lean form. Z is My Morning Jacket distilled, jumping easily from sexy, falsetto-racked R&B; to chunky quasi-reggae to lonesome Dixie boogie—not because of a lack of focus, but because all those styles represent who they are.


4. Mr. X

Originally published in 1983 by Canadian indie outfit Vortex Comics, Mr. X started out as a surreal little pulp gem that would eventually be home to some of the biggest names in the world of alternative comics. Originally scripted and drawn by the Hernandez brothers, whose Love And Rockets was years from being a household name, Mr. X featured the mysterious title character—an insomniac architect out to save the citizens of the futuristic Radiant City from going insane—careening through a world of science-fiction noir. When Los Bros quit over money issues with Vortex, series creator Dean Motter took over; originally criticized for too slavishly aping Jaime Hernandez' look, he eventually developed his own Art Deco style that gave the book a highly distinctive feel. While the series didn't last long (the Hernandez brothers weren't the only ones who had trouble with Vortex's financial dealings), it did go on to feature contributions from other future stars of indie comics, including Canadians Ty Templeton and Seth.


5. Mr. T

Sylvester Stallone was so taken by a contestant in an '80 "America's Toughest Bouncer" competition that he placed the mohawked, bedizened tough guy in Rocky III as Clubber Lang, immortalizing the line "I pity the fool" (which T borrowed from Bobby "Blue" Bland). Soon T could be seen in The A Team, an eponymous cartoon, a cereal, professional wrestling events, and educational and motivational videos. In case you were wondering, T was born Laurence Tureaud. But in reality, his first name: is "Mister"; middle name "period"; last name "T."

6. X on The X-Files

The man known only as "X" (Steven Williams) served as Mulder's informant within the big government/alien-cooperative conspiracy—or whatever it was—after the death of Deep Throat. X could be reached only by the pre-arranged signal of Mulder taping the letter X in his own window, and then not always. Turncoat alien conspirators are a notoriously unreliable bunch. Still, X proved his ultimate loyalties when he died in the line of duty, scrawling a final message to Mulder in his own blood.


7. P

The story behind the band P is far more interesting than its music, which is often the case when actors try to rock. Johnny Depp went to L.A. to pursue rock dreams, but found more work as an actor. Still, he had the rock itch, and with a friend, Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes, he started the impossible-to-Google outfit, which only released one album. Their song "Michael Stipe" was a very minor hit, its bloozy talk-sing relating the apparently true story of Haynes' encounter with the R.E.M. singer. Far more notable in the band's short history is the fact that they were onstage at the Viper Room when River Phoenix (who's actually mentioned in "Michael Stipe") died outside—he was supposedly going to join the band (which also occasionally included Flea) for a jam session.

8. S

Seattle band Carissa's Wierd (the misspelling is intentional) has spawned several bands, none nearly as popular as Band Of Horses. (Others: Grand Archives and a solo set from Sera Cahoone.) But singer Jenn Ghetto got virtually no attention as S, which may have something to do with the name. She was good at titling albums, at least: Her last, 2004's Puking And Crying, was also her best. It's claustrophobic, gentle, and weird in all the right ways.

9. X

There was always something overtly seedy about the West Coast version of the punk movement that set it apart from the brainier New York scene or the politicized, art-school-beholden UK edition. Though the members of the band X were every bit as socially and culturally engaged as their inter- and intracontinental punk brethren, they also embraced L.A. skuzz, singing songs about motel rooms and adult books, and brandishing their name as both a warning and a come-on.

10. M

The "M" in Fritz Lang's proto-noir film M has been chalked onto the jacket of child-killer Peter Lorre, to make sure everyone knows of the crimes he committed. But that same "M" also shadows the face of every German citizen who gives in to mob rule and goes after Lorre vigilante-style, rather than entrusting him to the justice system. According to Lang, in a Germany rapidly falling under the spell of the Nazi party, no one was innocent save for the children, who were having the life strangled out of them.


11. E

In 1987, DIY musician Mark Oliver Everett moved to Los Angeles and adopted the moniker "E," which he used on solo albums attributed to A Man Called E, and then as the frontman for the pop-rock collective Eels. Everett's reduction of his last name is partly an affectation, and partly an attempt to recast himself as an everyman observer, witnessing disease, death, jealousy, and hope from the eye of the storm.

12. V

With its then-impressive special effects and creepy scenes of rodent consumption, the 1983 TV miniseries V became a nationwide event, offering a vision of history repeating itself when seemingly friendly aliens land and quickly insinuate themselves into human civilization. But beneath those clean-scrubbed human faces and Nazi iconography and social practices, they hide a serpentine secret, one that prompts skeptics to form a resistance movement. The two-part movie spawned a sequel (V: The Final Battle) and a spin-off series, but neither found the tone of cheesy effectiveness that marked Kenneth Johnson's original.

13. G

With his cinematic Great Gatsby revamp G, filmmaker Christopher Scott Cherot put a hip-hop spin on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic tale of upward mobility gone awry, updating the sad saga of the ultimate self-made man for an era of Diddy and Russell Simmons running amok in the Hamptons. But his underwhelming, muddled film about a Diddy-like mogul and the woman he pines for didn't do justice to Fitzgerald or to Kool G. Rap, in spite of Blair Underwood's lusty, charismatic performance as the film's take on thuggish, womanizing Tom Buchanan.


14. O

Just as G moves The Great Gatsby to the nouveau riche world of the hip-hop elite, Tim Blake Nelson's film O took William Shakespeare's Othello from the backbiting, intrigue-filled, hierarchy-crazed world of the Venetian military to the backbiting, intrigue-filled, hierarchy-crazed world of high school. Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, and Julia Stiles scored some of the best reviews of their careers as the teen Othello, Iago, and Desdemona respectively, but it turns out America wasn't hungering for a teenybopper take on one of the Bard's greatest tragedies, especially after the film's release was postponed following the Columbine massacre.

15. J Records

After a legendary stint as the head of Arista, star-maker supreme Clive Davis was given $150 million to form and run J Records. The label scored a high-profile, critically acclaimed smash in piano lady Alicia Keys, though J Records sank so much money into promoting Keys that she needed to go multi-platinum just to break even. Since then, the label's commercial and critical record has been spotty at best, though at least its executives can sleep soundly knowing they're consistently outselling K Records and holding onto the crown for top-performing one-letter-named label.


16. K Records

While Sub Pop was documenting the nascent Seattle scene, former Sub/Pop fanzine writer Calvin Johnson started K Records to issue dispatches from nearby Olympia. With a logo consisting of a hand-drawn shield around Johnson's chosen letter, K Records emphasized the childlike and homemade, releasing brat-punk and riot-grrrl records that leaned toward fast, lo-fi, and fun. It's music as easy to listen to as "K" is to say.

17. Z

An entire generation of political thrillers was kicked off by Costa-Gavras' Z, a thinly fictionalized, bitterly satirical nod to the 1963 assassination of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis. Thumbing his nose at the military dictatorship that was ruling Greece at the time, Costa-Gavras opens the film with a now-famous epigram: "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE." (Later, in the closing credits, the filmmakers list a number of things banned by the government, from artists, authors, and popular musicians to the free press, labor unions, and long hair on men.) Costa-Gavras tosses this Molotov cocktail via the story of a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) who's killed by a passing motorist, but has his death covered up by official reports of an auto accident. The truth comes out, but once it does, the tragedy deepens.


18. Y: The Last Man

The "Y" stands for "Yorick," the sole survivor of a global event that's wiped almost all male animals off the face of the earth. It also stands for the Y chromosome, which has suddenly made Yorick the most sought-after person on the planet, although generally for reasons far removed from the usual last-man-on-Earth fantasies. In their popular, now-complete comic-book series, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra use the scenario to explore the high stakes of sexual politics by imagining what would change and what would stay the same in a world (almost) without men.


19. V in V For Vendetta

In the future fascist Britain of the graphic novel and film V For Vendetta, the masked V wages an underground war for the forces of freedom, sometimes using questionable methods. Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd created V as a response to Margaret Thatcher's Britain in the '80s, but he's outlived his origins. The 2005 movie adaptation was strictly so-so, but it brought new attention to the story at a time when privacy, civil liberties, and tolerance were on the wane.

20. Mr. F

In season three of Arrested Development, Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) dates a woman (Charlize Theron) who wears a bracelet stamped with the name "Mr. F." He and the audience are led to believe that Mr. F (who has his own tremendously catchy theme song, which consists entirely of the singsong words "Mr. F") is a spy out to bring down the Bluth family. But in fact, Mr. F is actually "MRF," which stands for "mentally retarded female"—Michael Bluth's new girlfriend, whom he doesn't realize is mentally challenged because he's too caught up in himself to see anyone else around him.


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