Category Archives: Books, Comics, Music

Besties

In looking back over 2018 posts, I found that I’d kept up with new comics releases much better than I’d thought, and probably better than most years. It’s not easy, there’s a ton of worthy material coming out each year now, and my budget is small, while the library can be slow to have available copies, especially with the critical attention some of these things are getting. Comics’ first Man-Booker prize short-listed graphic novel appeared this year (Sabrina). There are several must-reads I’ve not gotten ahold of yet, such as Sabrina. I don’t count my favorites down, like a lot of the media lists. Some are very different from others, so I try to characterize and categorize, rather than rank.

Bestiest:

New World, Mauretania Comics, Chris Reynolds: Monitor is a strangely earthbound superhero in a helmet and visor, with no discernible powers, but an urge to piece together his story in a vaguely dystopian England.  I  found just three issues of Mauretania in the 80’s, and was unable to get a sense of an over arching narrative. But its brooding air of mist and mystery was palpable, and its thick dark inks bathed in Norman light were seductive.

Incompleteness and floating anxiety turn out to be characteristic of the series as a whole, even when placed in context in this collection by cartoonist Seth. In episodical snatches, characters drift in and out, small mysteries proliferate; aliens, detectives and disciples of a mystery religion wander blasted, yet pastoral landscapes, mostly unpeopled (Reynolds hails from Wales and Sussex). Yet nothing really resolves in a narrative sense, and the stories haunt.

Rest of the Besties, No Particular Order:

Young Frances, Hartley Lin: We’re used to referring to superhero comics from big companies like DC and Marvel as ‘mainstream’. But with their shrinking sales- Saga, hardly mainstream, is outselling Superman-do they deserve that? This true graphic novel (as opposed to collected story arc) is emblematic of ‘mainstream’ in a literary sense: its heroine navigates the corporate politics of her job, while yearning for the authenticity of her bohemian friends. Its roots are in the Chick Lit or socially conscious novels of the publishing mainstream, rather than the hippie- or punk-inflected undergrounds and alternatives of 80’s self publishers and zinesters. It’s well written and cartooned, an absolute page-turner.

Mean Girls Club, Ryan Heshka: Doubling as outrageous, ultra violent feminist screed; and retro 40’s tough chick noir, all in dry brushed blacks, grays and lascivious pinks, it’s laugh out loud funny, and a comics masterwork. Heshka channels Golden Age Batman and Dick Tracy, along with a healthy dose of Thelma and Louise, and a soupcon of S&M.

Love and Rockets, Los Bros Hernandez : Always. It never is less than one of the best, but we take it for granted because it never slackens. Not sure how many issues came out this year, but #’s 4-6 included a Locas reunion/punk rock show.

Love That Bunch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb: I’ve mentioned that she’s pioneered in both the underground comics, and the transition to the alternative comics as artist and/or editor of the first feminist UG comics; and then the early alt-comics anthology Weirdo. These are autobiographical comics about a suburban, sex and drug loving Jewish teen who moves west to make art, marries an underground comics legend, and moves to France. Obsessive and raw.

Coin-Op Comics Anthology, Peter and Maria Hoey: The writing is lively and unique. And though the Hoeys deploy a retro 40’s-50’s commercial style, updated with computer graphics, the stories are not mere illustrative nostalgia. Their subject matter ranges from classic 50’s movies and Rock music, to modern alienation.

Somnambulance, Fiona Smyth: bawdy, urban primitive, 1980’s third wave feminist Nocturnal Emissions comics collected by Koyama Press. Her subjects- tattooed, sexy and sex crazed punkerettes, sexualized mannikins, transgendered goddesses, are perpetually emergent. They slide from asses, mouths and cunts to float in an atmospheric scrawl of tribal squiggles, dots and hatchings, as if the very world they inhabit is tattooed. A “Complete Twisted Sisters” collection of ground breaking feminist comics also came out recently, and along with Kominsky-Crumb’s overdue reprinting (above), I think people are beginning to realize the role of the humble comic book in providing a pioneering venue for female voices in pop culture.

Honorable Mentions:

Hawkeye, Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero: A surprisingly strong follow-up to Matt Fraction’s acclaimed masterpiece Marvel Now!- era run with David Aja (and Kate Bishop, Hawkeye’s protege in episodes by Annie Wu). Thompson doesn’t stray too far from a successful formula- struggling, marginal superheroes, bruised and bantering. But Kate must face the question of whether her father murdered her mother. Romero never overworks the art, a rarity in superheroes.

Saga V.9, Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Bit of a warning sign, perhaps, as some of the bizarre humor has flattened out a bit. The honest sex, ultraviolence and family values are still there though, as Hazel, lovechild of a forbidden marriage between two warring cultures, narrates their flight from prejudice across galaxies.

Sex Crimes V. 5: Fraction’s satiric tale of the power of sexual outsiderness started meandering, so he ended it at the right time. Funny and relatively forthright on America’s squeamishness about sex.

Monstress V. 3: Horror fantasy with fairly complex LOTR-style plot and great, art noveau tinged illustration. Too soon to call a classic, but fun to read so far.

A Clunker:

Jessica Jones: Blind Spot, Kelly Thompson and Mattia DeIulis: This is an example of how things can go way wrong in ‘mainstream’ (superhero) comics. The character was created by, but of course not owned by, Brian Bendis and Gaydos as a PI/failed superhero working the margins of the superhero world. After a promising but uneven early series, Bendis pretty much ditched the superheroes for a second series emphasizing a straight up hard-boiled crime fiction and spy thriller hybrid and really hit his stride. The Secrets of Maria Hill aspires to stand with Chandler and Westlake, with the eye opening proviso that both its hero and its villain are women (they are both, like Marlow and Parker, both hero and anti hero). An edgy, neurotic single mom trying to survive a violent career, Jessica takes her failures and rare victories straight, with a side of Jameson. I will note here that comics fan sites take the opposite view, with the issues that emphasize costumed heroes rating higher.

After Bendis left Marvel, they brought in Thompson to do the character. She’d done well with the superhero/PI parody Hawkeye (above), but here, showing no real understanding of the character, she tries to bluff her way through with a weak plot and standard issue superhero antics complete with banter. Here we get a suddenly very domesticated Jessica lecturing her client on how to be a woman, exactly her most compelling failing in Bendis. She winds up in a latex superhero kit, a bit of attempted irony that only highlights that her scruffy charm has gone missing. In combination with DeIulis’ very routine illustrations and bubblegum colors, this was a huge disappointment. Perhaps Thompson will ‘grow into’ the character.

Still Need to Read. These absolutely might change this list:

Berlin, Jason Lutes: I have actually read this ambitious, 20-year project about Weimar Berlin  in three intermittent collections, but not the whole thing at once.

Blammo #10, Noah Van Sciver

Why Art?, Eleanor Davis

Coyote Dog Girl, Lisa Hanawalt

Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, Ken Krimstein

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso

Fall Into Books

I cherry picked quotes from Rodolf Arnheim, The Genesis of a Painting; Douglas Hostetler, and an article by James Geary to put together my relatively abstract post speculating on the formation of ideas. It was neccessary to do that as I’m not that confident in my own thoughts about ideas, and I called in reinforcements. I haven’t finished Genesis  (about “Guernica”) yet, nor have I finished Picasso the Printmaker, another rich text on art and printmaking. It’s getting dark and cold, so I hope to finish them and write a post on them, and other art related readings soon, if the wine holds out. But some other, lighter reading from the Fall is blurbed below:

Herge, Son of Tintin, Benoit Peeters: A microscopic examination of the life of Tintin cartoonist Herge. His conservative yet humanist attitudes, his love affairs, his dreams, and importantly, his relationship to the collaboration during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the war are all examined in depth. This is not unusual in Europe, where Herge occupies a place akin to Disney here, though he never mechanized, nor monetized, to that extent. 

I discovered Herge, who began appearing in this country in the early 60’s, in the late 70’s in my college bookstore. It was my first real introduction to Euro comics. I later developed a bit of an obsession with Asterix, and read Heavy Metal regularly, but my Tintin reading has alway been incomplete. I enjoyed the well constructed plots, and the colorful details, along with the slapstick humor. But Tintin was always sort of a cipher, without context. I read some of the most well regarded tales, then never sought out the rest, unlike Asterix, whose context  in the Roman Empire and the fun loving characters seemed to have appeal. 

This book places all the adventures in the context of historical and biographical events in Herge’s life and thus enriches the stories on the page. I pulled out the few remaining copies I still had and re-read them. I had early stories such as Tintin in America, filled with stereotypes about Native Americans and a lot frenetic action. Also, I had an unexpurgated reprint of the original Tintin in the Congo, replete with racist caricature and a fairly appalling attitude toward hunting animals. 

Later adventures, such as the breakthrough The Blue Lotus, exhibited a much more humanist attitude, as well as more concise storytelling, but with the coming of World War II, Herge made the unfortunate choice to ally with his right wing friends and join the collaborationist staff at a Nazi-fied Le Soir  daily during the occupation. Anti-semitic caricatures popped up in one book, then were later edited out when Herge went back to his early black and white work to add color. The popularity of his character, not to mention its commercial potential, insulated him to an extent from the legal backlash after the liberation, but he remained close to many of his friends who served prison sentences for collaboration. This led to later complications, both legal and psychological.

His own work took a turn toward fantasy that resulted in some of his best work, including the Robert Louis Stevenson-esque The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, and the two-part Destination Moon, with Explorers on the Moon. These books occasioned, and benefitted from, the expansion of his cast of characters, as he added  Capt. Haddock and Professor Calculus. Secret and Red Rackham still provide laughs and entertaining reading. I haven’t read either Moon book, but may have to revisit Herge’s middle period, which has been re-released, albeit in a smaller format, in recent years.

The book makes a minute examination of his transitional life events during the 50’s, which culminate in his separation from his wife, and the psychologically complex tale Tintin in Tibet, which examines what we owe to friends and others, not to mention the creatures of the natural world. Some may find Peeters’ interpretation of this period perhaps too detailed, but it’s hard to discount his ultimate conclusions on the relationship between Herge’s life and work. Even in comics ostensibly for children, artists draw on their own experiences.

But then, is Herge’s work only for children? Herge never domesticated his characters, as Disney did; nor did he dumb down his humor, which even in its most slapstick moments, always carried a bit of Monsieur Hulot’s sophistication. His modernist obsession with speed and movement, as well as his famous ligne claire (clear line) style influenced many  later cartoonists, for example, Joost Swarte, who used it to both pay homage to a master, and satirize Herge’s racial tropes.

Tintin remained a cipher, without family or lovers, and his creator’s politics remained naive and ham-handed at best. But his humor and humanism showed through, and was ultimately redemptive.

Berlin, Jason Lutes: I rushed through the final six chapters of this 23 year old epic of the rise of Nazis seen from street level in Berlin. I had recently re-read the earliest chapters after reading the middle chapters for the first time. So like a lot of these long term GN projects, I feel the need to reread the whole thing in proper sequence. The entire finished work has just been published, so I’ll tackle that later this winter, perhaps. The final chapters are, as one would expect, bitter and depressing, much like our current politics.

Super Mutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki: Another re-read after I found a beat up copy at the library used book sale for a couple of bucks. It’s still brilliant compared to the highly praised, but somewhat calculated Boundless, partly because its humor adds to its pathos. It holds together quite well as an entire narrative, despite its origins as a single page web comic. Its main character, a lesbian who eventually comes out to her boarding school roommate, grows in maturity and self realization, and begins the process of accepting herself, and thus, accepting her friends. It’s underrated, though both this and Boundless seem like attempts to escape her ‘Award Winning Young Adult Illustrator’ shackles. They are clearly, two different responses, but the latter book could benefit from some of the hilarious, subversive humor of Super Mutant.

Reading Comics, Douglas Wolk: an unexpected find at my favorite used book store. I’d never heard of it. This 2007 book is constructed as a five chapter introduction to what Wolk calls a ‘golden age’ of comics, followed by reviews of specific works, mostly mainstream works of the 80’s and 90’s; or early stars of alternative comics.

The beginning chapters function as essays on various cogent topics, such as a general speculation on “What Comics Are and What They Aren’t”; a survey of the alt (“art”) comics of the 80’s and early 90’s; and the complex history of “Superheroes and Superreaders”, or why superheroes continue to dominate mainstream comics publishing. These are all worthy subjects, examined not in the laughably faux-academic style often seen in these early days of comics criticism; but in a personalized yet uncompromising vision of comics as a transcendent yet flawed art form.

The reviews that follow the overview exhibit some of the most clear-headed looks at the 80’s-90’s renaissance (there are a few later examples) in both mainstream and alternative comics that I’ve read. I didn’t read everything- one hallmark of the renaissance is that there suddenly became far too much interesting stuff to keep up with- but enjoyed several on artists I was never able to clear time or money for, Chester Brown and Grant Morrison, for example. I read many that I was very familiar with- Alan Moore, Los Bros Hernandez , Jim Starlin, etc, and Wolk had some very bright fresh takes.

The book will stay on my shelf, and be returned to. It’s subjective, and can’t be counted a comprehensive survey even for its time, as Wolk admits. It’s not dated, per se, but it’s amazing how much has happened in comics since this book. He strives to represent female artists, Hope Larson and Allison Bechdel for example, and predicts a flowering to come (and has been proven right), though Lisa Hanawalt, Eleanor Davis, Gabrielle Bell, et al, are all later stars. Julie Doucet and Fiona Smythe might’ve been a bit too far off the beaten track for him, though their influence will only grow. One wonders why Aline Kominsky-Crumb isn’t here, but so too with her husband, Robert, and many others such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.

It’s not often that both mainstream, and alt comics get examined together. It’s a compare and contrast that highlights their strengths and weaknesses, while explicating the universal appeal of the medium. Wolk is nothing if not versatile, and this book, instructing with out pretension, matches the medium’s spirit of creative fun.

Collective Wisdom

I’ve always collected books and comics. As a kid I amassed a pile in the closet of Superman and Fantastic Four comics along with others. My brother and I stretched our comics budget by teaming up on purchases. He’d buy Batman and Spiderman, and we’d trade. One day, we came home from school and found our extensive closet floor library emptied out in some sort of Spring cleaning catastrophe. Such are the injustices of youth.

When I got a job bussing tables at a restaurant and started commuting into the city for school, I discovered the direct market. This was the transition of comics sales from the drug store spinner racks of youth to dedicated (and often dingy) urban comic shops, spurred by the growth in the collector subculture. During my freshman and sophomore years, I began collecting again, searching out the Silver Age classics of my childhood.

I came out west, where the occasional bookstore carried only current, not-very-classic Bronze age issues. My interest waned, but fortunately, European humor and Sci-fi comics were beginning to appear in Heavy Metal Magazine, and the college bookstore began to carry classic Euro comics such as Tintin and Asterix. The Sci-fi trend began to carry over into obscure mainstream titles, such as Jim Starlin’s delightfully weird Warlock series, and the passion was back, though frustratingly hard to satisfy.

My return to the city in the mid-eighties changed all that. The direct market had led to a flowering of small publisher and independent or self-published “alternative”comics which inspired by the  undergrounds of the urban 60’s and 70’s, explored more sophisticated themes, but without the drug references and sexist imagery. The renaissance had begun, and I was back to collecting in a big way, with the medium growing up along with my tastes.

I’ve said that the alt comics that led to the comics renaissance we currently enjoy grew out of the Punk zines. This is partially true, in that the Punk movement in music caused a sudden profusion of music zines, and cartoonists, like Los Bros Hernandez for example, punk music fans, naturally began to emulate self publishers in their own medium. Early Love and Rockets is often centered around the punk scene in L.A.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as comics fans were publishing zines long before punk, and made a major contribution to the collector culture which later led to the direct market. Squatront, a zine about EC Comics, which had been essentially censored out of existence in the 50’s by the Comics Code, a comics industry self censorship agency, was publishing by the early 60’s, along with a few others. The first mini comics seem to have popped up around the same time, if you don’t count the Tijuana bibles of the 30’s. Even Siegel and Shuster self-published an early version of Superman, before (to their eternal regret) shopping the character around to the nascent comic book industry.

The minis seem to have really begun to flourish with the alt comics of the 80’s. With that, mini comics broadened as a category, from the tiny photocopied, hand-stapled, self published and frankly amateurish efforts one spied in music stores and small bookstores, to fairly sophisticated small press numbers. Some well known artists got their start in minis, and for what ever reasons, have continued to put them out. Even after securing contracts with established publishers, some artists have emulated mini comics formats in their major publisher output. Chris Ware, Jessica Abel and Gabrielle Bell are examples. I recently posted a brief review of one newer artist, Sophia Foster-Dimino whose mini comics relate to the current conversations on sexual ethics. I’ve mentioned recently that comics, a fairly accessible publishing medium, can offer opportunities for expression for marginalized creators, such as women. Mini comics are at the frontline of that battle. A Frontier Comics mini by alt comics star Eleanor Davis, for example, is one of the few sensitive, un-sensationalized treatment of S&M sex that can be seen in any pop culture medium.

Smaller presses have sprung up to specialize mainly in minis and in the emerging artists who make them, and an ad hoc network  of distributors and web sites can now be found that carry a wide variety. It’s become easier to access minis from all over, and in that sense, collecting minis can be pretty fun, as you’re getting in on the ground floor creatively, and can also access rarities by well regarded artists. They certainly don’t take up much space, and with their mostly small print runs and relative rarity, and with alt comics very definitely beginning to be a presence in the secondary market, you can tap into the quintessential collector’s high: owning breakthrough early work that you can brag about when it gets popular, or sell on to latecomers when the artist becomes popular.

Standard disclaimer: although early independents (80’s and 90’s) are beginning to pop up on secondary markets such as Ebay and Amazon at solid prices (30-$50 is not uncommon for significant artists, and breakthrough comics can get up to 400-$500), this is not usually a good way to get rich, though it can help support your reading habit, while clearing space on your shelves! You are of course, required to plow the profits back into obscure comics, or lose your street cred. As I’ve said, the alternative and small press stars of the 80’s are now best found in traditional hardbacks, with impressive print runs, in good bookstores, and sometimes on the short list for the Mann-Booker Prize. But inexpensive comics can still be found. Here are some good minis I’ve found lately, and after that, some good places to find minis and indies.

Lovers in the Garden, Anya Davidson: featuring the same raw, choppy brushwork, fractured perspective and garish colors as School Spirits, her 2013 Small press debut with  Dan Nadel’s PictureBox. This is a crime tale, modeled on the blaxploitation narratives of 70’s B-movie Hollywood.  Its characters all have aspirations, even the drug lord who wishes to open an asian art gallery. It has a fairly arbitrary, though open ended conclusion, and doesn’t match up to School Spirits, but is a worthy read by this rising star. I found this on John Porcellino’s web site (below).

Coin Op Comics 1997-2017, Peter and Maria Hoey: This anthology collects the mini comics of this brother/sister pair. There are seven issues collected here, along with some of their older work from the Blab anthology, where they were regulars. They got their start in illustration ( Blab mined both comics and illustration for its yearly collections), but have become interested in comics and printmaking. They seem to love the freelancer’s life, and self-publishing. This hardback was put out by Top Shelf, a fairly small comics publisher. Their other output, including Coin Op’s 1-7, are available on their website in small print runs, and includes hand-pulled items such as accordion books and silkscreen posters, which taps into another love of mine, printmaking. 

The writing is lively and unique as well as the visuals. And though the Hoeys deploy a retro 40’s-50’s commercial style, updated with computer graphics, the stories are not mere nostalgia. Along with collaborator C. Freund, stories cover a wide range of formal and topical subjects, including an ongoing series, Saltz and Pepz about vagabond dogs, one white and one black, that touches on, without indulging in, 40’s racial stereotypes. Other subjects: Jazz, Blues, and movies, including a fairly brilliant mash-up of Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog with Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and a biography of Nicolas Ray. All are rich with historical and stylistic allusion, comics for intellectuals- but still laugh out loud funny!

Your Smile at the Top of the Dial, Peter and Maria Hoey: This mini , formatted like a 45 rpm single, features a hand silkscreened cover and a somewhat retro, slightly surreal tale of cross country radio stations. The Hoeys dedication to the small press model means it may never really be a collectible, but like many of these comics, it’s certainly unique.

Vulture City Stories, Sam Spina: Kilgore Books product that I got at DINK, it features the zany, over-the-top misadventures of the characters that live in an anachronistic old west town where a Saguaro cactus has been appointed sheriff.

Here in Denver, the DINK Expo, a yearly mini-con for mini- and indie comics comes around in April. It’s cheap, $20 (early bird tix) for a whole weekend, and the line up is strong, with small press stars like Dash Shaw, Sammy Harkham and Los Bros Hernandez, along with lesser known talents, such as Peter and Maria Hoey, and Sam Spina. It’s still small enough to have nice chats with creators, and you can get a small pile of (signed) comics for $50. A personal treasure: a silk screened accordion book in an edition of 350 by Peter and Maria Hoey, signed by Maria.

Kilgore Books and Comics on the Wax Trax block carries a nice selection of minis, including some that their associates at Kilgore Books publish. The Denver mini-comics scene has always been fairly strong, with well knowns Noah Van Sciver and John Porcellino having spent time here.

These connections remain strong, and Porcellino’s website, Spit and a Half, provides a source for mini-comics by up-and-comers and indie projects by bigger names. They’re packed well and most are under $20.

Coin-Op Books is really one of the few places to get work by the Hoeys, though they do a lot of small press expos like DINK. Other websites to visit: Retrofit Comics, Youth in Decline, publishers of Frontier, a series of minis by cutting edge authors both new and established, Uncivilized Books, and  Kilgore Comics.

 

Summer Reading

A small monotype can often suggest larger concepts to pursue. I was experimenting with the idea of bramble patches when it dawned on me the creative process often resembles being in one. “Bramble”, Monotype, 11×15″, 2018

 

As promised, I’m trying to catch up on my reading list. Then, I must knuckle down and finish my three-parter on starting, transforming and finishing idea, with possible related theme of Story in Art, which I will eventually convert to a Keynote presentation, for a possible standalone lecture.

I have first drafts of all these posts, but have been procrastinating/ wimping out on finishing them up. Eventually, they’ll go into a downloadable section on this site, also a much postponed project.

But I have been enjoying a lot of reading time, and in view of my irregular posting schedule, it seems a shame not to share it. One part of this list seemed to tie in with my World Cup/American exceptionalism observations from last week, which included observations from England’s surprising run. While I jettisoned the precious little segue I’d dreamed up for that (Yes! I DO edit these things), I’m re-boarding that train of thought now.

I think we tend to regard one part of the outside world, England, with a comfortable familiarity. We speak the same language (hah! sort of), read their literature in high school, adopt laughably poor fake accents to evoke sophistication or eccentricity. Even the high-fat, low information voters adore their fish ‘n’ chips! When we examine Ol’ Blighty more closely, however, we begin to see a place that’s alien, and not just in high quality of medical care. 

When I came to this city in 1985, having been starved on the Wyoming High Plains of anything interesting in comics besides the occasional sci-fi or eurocomics gem in Heavy Metal Magazine, I immediately began to haunt the comics shops on Colfax. 

My timing was pretty good. The Alternative/Punk/Zine scene was burgeoning, and I was able to locate back issues of the legendary Raw Magazine, along with new discoveries in the exploding black and white indy comics then beginning to appear. Each week I would go down on delivery day to a shop that regularly ordered one or two copies of the new comics to pick up the latest Love and Rockets, Hate, or Eightball. I’d grab any other interesting new titles I saw as well. These included more and more, comics from across the pond. One was Mauretania Comics, from England, an oddly titled and -produced number that fit right in with my punker’s sensibility for avoid-the-mainstream. 

Mauretania was an anthology featuring most often, three cartoonists of similar, unique mood, working in stark black and white, or drizzly grays. Paul Harvey and Chris Reynolds worked in thick murky b&w, and Carol Swain in her exquisite graphite crayon grays. Swain had been appearing in early Fantagraphics anthologies, and her comics were the reason I picked it up.

New York Review Comics, published by the New York Review of Books, has recently been publishing avant garde gems from the past, such as Mark Beyer’s exquisitely neurotic Agony, first published by Raw. Their latest project is a thick collection of Reynold’s eerie “Monitor” stories from Mauretania Comics, edited and designed by cartoonist Seth.

Monitor is a strangely earthbound superhero in a helmet and visor, with no discernible powers, but an urge to piece together his story. I only found three issues of Mauretania in the 80’s, and was unable to get a sense of an over arching narrative, though its brooding air of mystery was palpable, and I saved them.

A sense of incompleteness and floating anxiety turn out to be characteristic of the series as a whole, even when placed in the context of a 275 page collection. Episodically, in snatches, characters drift in and out, small mysteries proliferate; aliens, detectives and disciples of a mystery religion wander blasted, yet pastoral landscapes, mostly unpeopled (Reynolds hails from Wales and Sussex); yet nothing really resolves in a narrative sense. 

It makes for compelling reading with the emotional distance implied by the sometime third person narration countered by the immediacy of Reynold’s thick brush work. There are few comparisons I can make to this unique body of work, though Swain and Harvey fit in quite well in the original issues, which I re-read. Mario Hernandez of early Love and Rockets also comes to mind. Though not really similar in either narrative or graphic sensibilities, Eddie Campbell’s The King Canute Crowd body of work is also emblematic of the appeal of these mid-late 80’s alternative comics from England. Alan Moore and others had already begun to make a mark on mainstream American comics. Those troubled by the libertarian violence of V For Vendetta might find these comics a more subtly poetic evocation of England’s Thatcher-era dystopianism.

Reynolds and Swain continue to publish, in print and on the web, but we may not see Mauretania’s quiet, slow-paced angst again. Seth himself comes closest.

Lately the torch of British alternative comics has been carried by NoBrow, with their occasional anthology NoBrow Magazine, and other published work. A new NoBrow (#10) is out and I recommend it highly, though I haven’t seen it. I’m going on issues 6-9. 

Their esthetic hews more closely to mainland eurocomics artists such as Blexbolex, or America’s Fort Thunder ( cartoon brut) style cartoonists. These are characterized by expressionistic color, retro-big foot-style or neo cubistic images, transgressive or even picaresque characters and situations.  Nobrow also publish cutting edge illustration, much like Monte Beauchamp’s Blab Magazine. Another aspect of American exceptionalism is to gloss over English contributions to the advent of the comics, which Americans like to say we invented (Wrong! It was a Swiss guy, Rodolphe Topffer). Nobrow and the Mauretania collection  bring needed focus to British and European artists.

Nobrow has also just released Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn, by Canadian artist Ryan Heshka. Doubling as outrageous, ultra violent feminist screed and retro 40’s tough chick noir, all in luscious dry brushed blacks, grays and lascivious pinks, it’s laugh out loud funny, and a comics masterwork. Heshka channels Golden Age Batman and Dick Tracy, along with a healthy dose of Thelma and Louise with a soupcon of S&M. All in a fast paced story that delivers arson, cigarettes, gunplay and booze along with a Sweet Gwendolyne type submissive heroine who sees the light, gets herself a leather jacket and becomes a femme fatale. It’s all good fun until someone loses an eye; which they do, along with other body parts in a tale that delivers a “stiletto-stab to the crotch of the patriarchy”. 

A lesser noticed aspect of the 80’s punk/zine-inspired alt comics renaissance is the role that it played in giving a voice to female artists. At the time, largely due to the cost and old boys connections required of producing movies, television and books, second wave feminist artists were shut out of pop culture. Black and white comics changed that. Trina Robbins pioneered cheap to produce, easily distributed feminist underground comics as early as the 70’s, and the punkers and zinesters of the 80’s did not slack the pace. 

Fiona Smyth, another cartoonist I discovered at the shops through her stylishly executed Nocturnal Emissions mag, has just released a collection of her bawdy, urban primitive, third wave feminist comics with Koyama Press. Her subjects- tattooed, sex crazed and sexy punkerettes, sexualized mannikins, transgendered goddesses, are perpetually emergent. They slide from asses, mouths and cunts to float in an atmospheric scrawl of tribal squiggles, dots and hatchings, as if the very world they inhabit is tattooed.

This is no didactic screed, more a hallucinogenic trip through alternative sexuality and punk tribal lifestyles. Like many documents of subcultures, it’s very in-your-face. Her heroines meet injustice and disrespect positively and forthrightly with unabashed sexuality and compulsive art making, two very related impulses in the war against American Puritanism. Or in the famous (unattributed) dictum: “Everything in the world is about sex. Except sex; sex is about power.”

It’s important to give these 80’s artists (I’ll add Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, Carol Lay, Debbie Drechsler and Phoebe Gloeckner, to name a very few of many) their due in the gradual inclusion of female voices in pop culture, which in the USA, is an important source of cultural power. I really don’t think it could have happened without them. 

The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing as a Way of Thinking; Ball and Kuhlman, editors: French Situationists! Oedipal superheroes! “Comics and the Grammar of Diagrams”! And, at least one Roland Barthes citation. It will not be easy to explain to my grandchildren why I was reading stuff like this when I should have been earning money for their college funds, or at least,  enough cash to ask someone on a date, so that I might consider even having them (grandchildren!).

Chris Ware, the somewhat misanthropic cartoonist ( Building Stories, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth) who, as much as anyone, spearheaded the comics’ charge into the book market and critical significance, garnered his own collection of critical essays in 2010, which I’m now reading.

The interpretations in this wide-ranging set of academic papers are very thought provoking in terms of all art and ideas, very validating in that I’ve collected everything from Ware I could afford, and a very pleasant way to escape the grind of Trump’s new feudalism for an hour. Surprisingly readable as these things go, and for someone who’s new to the medium’s ongoing renaissance, but past the Buzzfeed listicles of “Graphic Novels You Must Read” phase, it just might serve as an intro to the unique aesthetic advantages and challenges comics are now posing.

I’ve also been reading some novels and books on art and printmaking. I’ll post those, along with my own thoughts on art soon.

Between the World and We

I’m working on new work for the Summer Art Market, June 9th and 10th. I’ll finish in studio in a couple of weeks, then shift to framing and prepping for it. A couple of days after the show the World Cup starts. In theory, I’ll have lots of money from the show, and I’ll spend many afternoons in downtown bars, starting my day with eggs and beer and football. That’s the theory.

The USA isn’t in the Finals this year. Since making a relatively strong run in Brazil 2014, they’d sputtered under two coaches, Juergen Klinsman and Bruce Arena, before an unlikely but mostly well deserved combination of results eliminated them on the last day of qualification. The team had a certain amount of talent, but never any real consistency in play.

There was a real howl from the fans, many of whom were 20-somethings who’d bought their first USA shirts in June, 2014. It’s heartening to see such a failure evoke  an indignant reaction to those of us who remember decades when not reaching the World Cup Finals meant…crickets. But youth is not given to reflection,  and many of the reactions were simplistic and not very well informed:

The US should NEVER fail to qualify, they howled, ignoring the fact that some far more consistent performers, e.g. Italy, Netherlands, Chile, had failed to qualify, and the quality of play in the US’ confederation has been rapidly improving. Getting into the World Cup is hard, no matter who you are.

The US Soccer Association leadership is corrupt and only interested in selling rights fees, they wailed, ignoring the fact that the leadership has been actively campaigning against FIFA corruption for years now, and the rights fees they’re selling are World Cup rights fees, which went down in value by millions when the US did not qualify. There is corruption in football, yes, but applying a blanket stereotype to an organization working for reform is ignorant.

Other, even more preposterous pronouncements followed: The USA will never challenge for the World Cup unless a laundry list of “reforms” meant to mimic the structure of their favorite ‘proper’ football league, the British Premier League, were immediately instituted in our own domestic league, MLS, they screeched. These include promotion and relegation, and a 20-team ‘balanced schedule.’

This ignores the fact that though Major League Soccer, formed in 1996 as a condition of having the World Cup here in ’94, is making solid growth, with four well established major leagues ahead of it, it is unlikely to match the BPL’s position in Britain very soon. It’s likely that BPL is more popular in THIS country, in fact, if we are to judge by TV ratings and the expensive English kits collected by adoring twenty-somethings. Because of that, MLS has had to find its own formula.

MLS has stretched the level of corporatism already rampant in world football with a single entity league structure and salary caps. This has made investment in the still fragile league attractive to the types of oligarchs that tend to own big teams around the world, but those billionaires are unlikely to welcome relegation to a lower league, especially as infrastructure in the lower leagues remains spotty. And TV networks see no profit in imposing the 20-team footprint of a country of 50 million onto this vast land of 300 million. Euro-snobbery is when you unreflectively expect all leagues to operate exactly like the Premier League. This is textbook euro-snobbery.

Nonetheless, some reforms are definitely needed, particularly in youth development, which tends to serve suburban white kids while ignoring Hispanic and African kids. Soccer is now ranked number two (behind NFL) in popularity in certain prized demographic groups, and the fact that the new fans see it as something worth agitating about, however magical their thinking, is a great sign.  Football, and the World Cup, are kind of about magical thinking, anyway. After the USA crashed out, many fatuously vowed to not watch the Cup this year, or to become permanent fans of other nations. Fat chance. But millennials are not the only football fans who lack logic.

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, editors: As in the 2006 World Cup. This is a book about how football affects entire nations in ways that defy common sense. I got this during the run up to the highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing, USA run in the Germany World Cup. The US was ranked number five in the world that year, in complete defiance of common sense, as was proven on the pitch.

It was to go in the bag of culled books to take to the used book store for trade and for shelf space. But as sometimes happens, in scanning it, I got hooked again. Though it sounds outdated, the editors’ approach, much like Franklin Foer’s in How Soccer Explains the World, (highly recommended) is not to concentrate on what the world says about football, but on what football says about the countries who play it. In this case, many of the national teams are the same ones back for the current World Cup, and the observations here are still quite relevant to the cultural landscape, as football tends to be.  

As great change and the frustrations of progressives shakes the country, we acknowledge  that American exceptionalism in sports and in other areas is a real obstacle to American progress, but even liberals might not realize how steeped in it we are. After all, even liberals wear shirts that proudly proclaim their home city’s league team “World Champions”, when the only teams they’ve beaten come from suburbs outside of Boston or Atlanta. The essays here form a travelogue of footballing nations and bring their own failures and triumphs, baked into their cultures, into relief. The millennials who howl do value the power of travel and football to bring nations together. They distrust the spread of global corporatism. Their complaints about Team USA are simplistic, but they are not xenophobic. In them, we hear hope for real change.

There is a weird sort of justice in football. Thomas Jones talks about the justice of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal vs. England in Mexico ’86 (One of the first WC games I can remember watching on American TV) in the context of the fall of the Argentinian junta after the Falklands War of 1982. He is not the only one to mention that war, with the posturing of a conservative government in England that the dispossessed hooligans in England instinctively lashed out against.

Tom Vanderbilt and Eric Schlosser write about exceptionalism in other white, progressive societies, Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. And Sayid Sayrafezadeh and Binyavanga Wainaina wrestle with the complexities and culture shock of leaving more anglicized societies to visit ancestral nations (Iran and Togo). Strong men, ayatollahs, and juntas use football no less than corporate oligarchs. Supporter culture often stands in opposition to these forces, and that’s why, in the world, football is the only game that matters.

Other favorites: Robert Coover in post-Franco Spain, watching the 1982 WC in an immigrant neighborhood, in the stadium of the OTHER Barcelona football club, and Wendell Steavenson on the political currents surrounding football in Tunisia under Ben Ali, later deposed in the Arab Spring, along with James Surowiecki, who writes about disillusionment in Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain. 

Dave Eggers writes the USA segment (surplus to requirements this year!) with an exaggerated humor that manages to both highlight and embody American sports exceptionalism. Foer himself contributes an afterword on which political system is more likely to win the Cup. Fascist dictatorships and military juntas have gotten a large share, but social democracy is still the best system. Proto-fascist, post-truth oligarchies are not mentioned, and perhaps we can get a more winning approach at the voting booth soon; by relegating the oligarchs, and promoting someone less a buffoon. Here is the real corruption.

All of the essays are interesting, even the second time through; some barely touch on soccer at all. All in all, this is a hard book to put in the trade bag, and I would welcome something like this for each World Cup, but sales were probably never impressive. The millennials, who are way ahead of most Americans in their understanding of why the world is so passionate about ‘proper’ football, will change that, and sooner than we think.

My Favorite Mistakes

“Did you know when you go

It’s the perfect ending”

Sheryl Crow, My Favorite Mistake 

 

“My Favorite Mistake” is the title of my list of books I thought would be great, but couldn’t finish, or even start.

I’m not bored with writing blurbs and reviews, but do they really tell as much about my reading life as the couch potato drama that is my Coffee Table Stack or the labor of love between the covers of my Nightstand Stack? Aren’t the eye-crossingly soporific failures just as revelatory of my intellectual struggles as the PMBs (Post Modern Bricks) and Victorian classics I’ve triumphantly crossed off my bucket list? Sure, it’s a bit of an obscure question, but that’s why we have obscure blogs. Onward-

Reasons for not finishing, or not starting, a book:

Readability: An ex-girlfriend once got me an academic critical study of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, because she knew I loved ( and repeatedly read) them. Though I’d read many Pynchon exegeses before, I put it down quickly as it was clotted with post modern jargon and elliptical syntax.

By the same token, I admit I recently put down a book on post modernism’s misuse of higher mathematical principles because I really didn’t understand academic postmodernism’s basic concepts, not to mention those of higher mathematics. That was the point of the book, of course, I GET THAT, but obviously didn’t get it.  I was not well read enough to understand why PoMo philosophy is often unreadable.  I got a few sentences into the first, struggled through a chapter of the second.

I kept the first book, though, because she wrote a nice note in it. I occasionally pull it out, in case something clicks, but inevitably the first sentence I pick out to read is a clotted mess. Although challenging oneself is clearly a good thing sometimes, I think  it’s very healthy to read stuff that appeals to us, for whatever reason.

Shove me in the shallow water: The Enlightenment and the Book, by Richard B. Sher seemed, despite its fussy academic aspirations, to offer perspective on the Age of Reason. Cultural histories are an exciting genre, and getting my history of ideas through a history of publishing excites my nerdy, bookish little mind to no end, at least in the abstract. But I probably needed a bit more basic explication on the Scottish Enlightenment itself and a little less on the effects of quarto and octavo editions on the marketing of Locke’s ideas. Got through a chapter, I think.

This differs from The Novel: A Biography, whose oblique evaluations of ancient books I (mostly) hadn’t read I loved so much I snatched up a used copy to keep at home and refer to, and have actually referred to. I finally got through Part One of Don Quixote, and read all of Mill on the Floss (rather than Dickens), because of Novel.

Book not what was expected:

A Traveler’s Guide to the Restoration, I’ve forgotten the bloody author’s name: This just happens to be the tome I was reading when the idea for this post occurred to me. It looked like one of those day-to-day, street-level cultural histories that can breathe air into heavily historicized and romanticized eras (in this case, England’s return to monarchy after the beheading of Charles I, and the ensuing Puritan Interregnum).

But it could have used a bit more historicization. We get precious little on Charles II and James II and VII (really, isn’t a king with TWO succession numbers worth a bit of historicization!?), and quite a lot on the prices paid for each of the 17 or so meat dishes included in the typical upper middle class Sunday meal.

Plus, he really does sporadically attempt t0 maintain its awkward conceit of being an actual travel guide, thus killing its potential appeal as traditional history/cultural history hybrid, which is what I wanted. I cherry picked a few of the more interesting chapters, then sort of slid it into my bag of returned books one Sunday afternoon. So I can’t really tell you why I didn’t finish this book, because I never really finished not finishing it.

Book Duplicative: The Best Non Required Reading, 2017, Sarah Vowell editor: It’s an impeccable anthology, and I think most would agree there’s no shame in not reading every morsel of an anthology, even one edited by the irrepressible Sarah Vowell.  It includes short fiction and essays, and I impulsively grabbed it during a binge of short fiction and essay reading from a stack I’d squirreled away against those dreaded, and mostly imaginary, moments when I tell myself there is NOTHING TO READ.

Currently, those include  a stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concerns I scoop up for $5 everytime one appears at my favorite used bookstore, a George Saunders collection, Denis Johnson’s newest and a Fitzgerald collection. There are a couple of essay collections, too, and I pretty sure I’ll die alone.

Secondly, the non-fiction in the collection mostly concerns, unsurprisingly, Trump, and I regulate my intake carefully. ‘Read rage’ is painful and counter productive, however worthy. Trump will be hammered by any and all thoughtful writers in the next two decades, then relegated to the end of the presidential shelf, with Millard Fillmore and Warren G. Harding. It’s an irony how many trees will die for this anti-environmentalist thug.

I did read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ My President Was Black, and a couple of great stories. It’s recommended, if you don’t mind recommendations from anthology-grazers.

Bus/train reading, not on bus/train: Superficial perhaps, but a book of a certain size, optimal chapter length and expendability, I will often put in my kit bag for the ride to work.  I really loved Adam Gopnik’s essay on comics and high art in High Low, where he bravely and convincingly documented R.Crumb’s influence on Phillip Guston,  so when I saw At the Strangers Gate on the freebie advance reading pile at work I speculatively picked it up.

I soon happened across a review in the NYT somewhat dismissive of this memoir of life in 80‘s and 90‘s New York because nothing bad ever really happens to him. It’s true that Stranger reads like a history of white liberal entitlement at times, but it turns out that Gopnik can make almost anything, including copyediting fashion magazines, seem interesting and culturally significant. But the book never really left my book bag when I got home.

I actually began the ‘Reading List’ portion of this blog in homage to Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, published originally in Believer Magazine then collected into a tidy little (kit bag-sized) paperback that yo-yo’ed up and down the E-Line with me and was titteringly ingested in perfect little DU-to-Union Station’-sized bites. Part of the appeal of Hornby’s blurbs are his admissions of when a book just isn’t for him, like losing a lover: some one had to make that call, but you’ll always wonder what might have been in the next chapter.

Call of Duty: I had long ago read a euro comics version of DeSade’s Justine, and when I saw a thick Collected Works at the library it seemed superficial to base my whole impression of this very influential writer on that, so I read a couple of introductory essays and some Dialogues and Philosophy in The Bedroom.

Then I was done. I’m pretty sure I’ve read more DeSade than most who presume to judge him, and I understand why he’s influential- doesn’t Raskolnikov later pose the same moral questions, albeit with his ax, as DeSade does with his dick? And what does that say about us that we avoid such an influential writer because of anal sex?

But how much lecturing on the libertarian fantasy should we have to subject ourselves to before we decide that its absolutist seductions are not morally defensible and thus not possible? And shouldn’t fantasy, whether sexual or political, contain some small kernel of possibility? Or philosophy, less self indulgence and more rigor? I’ve crossed it off my bucket list and installed it on my ‘rhymes-with-bucket list’. When I need to get up someone’s ass, reading-wise, it’ll probably be some actual porn, rather than bedroom philosophy.

Finishing books is a positive character trait, I believe. But so is admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Life is short and procrastination is the mind’s way of telling you there are better things to be done with your time.  I’m certain that my list of mistakes will grow. But I should stop here and try to finish a book, or at least start one.

 

Don’t Get Short With Me

Garden, Monotype, Joe Higgins, 2017
Trace monotype is a very simple form of printmaking imagery. This image features trace monotype in combination with acetate collage elements.

As I write this, it is apparently both Fat Tuesday and Valentine’s Day eve. This is super apropos, since most of my valentines have ended in smoke and ash. I‘ll have many girlfriends ( and others) between the covers. Book covers. I’ll try not to get chocolate on the naughty bits.

A current home project is to clear shelf space. A way to do that is to read, or re-read, a bunch of things that have been on my list.  Many of them can then be carted down to the bookstore for store credit. A never finished George Saunders collection; a Denis Johnson skyped from the advanced reading copies pile at work; another from the pile, a re-release of Fitzgerald’s bread-and-butter stories for Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines; my David Foster Wallace Reader, and of course, my teetering stack of McSweeney’s Quarterlies and a related 2017 Non Required Reading Anthology. I’m thus surveying about 100 years of short stories, after exploring the history of American essays. No short jokes here.

Along with my brief return to Hemingway in the late Fall, I’m moving from the buoyant though disillusioned charm of Fitzgerald’s O.Henry-influenced magazine pieces, filled with the sort of froth and banter soon to become a staple of radio and Hollywood movies which later supplanted them, past the vacated emotional landscapes of Hemingway, to the dark obsessive humor of Wallace, Saunders and Johnson, and the casual magic realism of the not-quite quarterlies to which the short story has retreated (McSweeney’s, in case you are wondering, adds a bit of balance to this mostly male list with favorites like Judy Budnitz, Rebecca Curtis and Kelly Link).

Long story “short”, there are practical considerations, for this. It’s actually a very busy time for me, with the Month of Printmaking Colorado fast approaching, and many shows and events to supply or organize. Short stories and essays provide absorbing escape without the novelistic distraction of keeping a narrative thread alive in my head. And there’s the underlying shame of a large stack of books collected ‘for later’ and not read. It’s sort of like mental housecleaning: read some stories, then check them off your list, then take them to the book shop and trade them in for more. A ‘peace’ of paper, so to speak.

A sidelight: always on the lookout for linkages, I’ve discovered that short fiction and short non-fiction have a semi secret meeting place: the ‘letters’ section of McSweeney’s, where odd bits and half-ideas ‘come through the letter box thick and fast’.

To Show and To Tell, Phillip Lopate: I’m dipping into this collection of essays on essays gradually, especially at times when my own writing is likely to happen. One I recently read is an opinion piece on why showing AND telling are important. Lopate is conversational and didactic,  which makes a nice, if fairly conservative read on why students often indulge a current prejudice against objective explication (telling) in favor of narrative (showing) to their detriment. Examples given include George Elliot, who certainly uses the omniscient voice in The Mill on the Floss in effective and humorous way; and Virginia Woolf, whose essay on going to buy a pencil in LoPate’s excellent collection of great essays certainly leaves a very powerful impression.

In Our Time, Hemingway: Target of opportunity when I was looking for The Sun Also Rises at DPL. Against a background of Hemingway youth as presented in Everybody Behaves Badly, about the writing of this book and Sun;  and Hemingway’s Boat, which has informative background on his Michigan summers, the stories have renewed intrigue, and still carry their lean intensity of feeling.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other of Jazz Age Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald: This obviously goes along with my Hemingway binge, and is certainly a target of opportunity, plucked from the advance reading pile, as it’s a newly issued compilation of two early Fitzgerald collections, rereleased to take advantage of a movie. Not sure I would have picked this up intentionally, but glad I did. I won’t read all of them, but I’ve read several, and they are clearly much more than ‘Lost Generation’ nostalgia. In fact, they seem to link the ironic innocence of O. Henry and Thurber with the offhand magic realism of the McSweeney’s ilk, making them pretty darn readable.

Tenth of December, George Saunders: I have not found anything yet to match the shattering, ‘funny-animal’ fantasia of “Fox 8”, but nor have I been disappointed by any of these.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson: Again, from the advance pile, but I’d already been hipped to it by critics. I told a young Johnson acolyte on the bus who saw me reading it, that he should check out Tom McGuane, and I do not so far regret the comparison, but there’s no doubt that the cool emotional reserve that McGuane inherited by way of Hemingway is now a distant echo in these tortured, obsessed, and very circular characters with their recidivist voices.

David Foster Wallace Reader: “My Appearance”, about a Late Night with Letterman Show gig, is the only actual short story I’ve read here, along with some chapters from Broom of the System, and of course a couple of the essays, including “Authority and American Usage”, my second time through this track-jumpingly uproarious grammar-Nazi screed-slash-footnote rondel. DFW transcends any Post Modernist labelling and is indispensable.

The Thinking Man’s Guide to the World Cup, edited by Sean Willsey : It’s from 2006, back when Americans were actually capable of thinking rationally about the World Cup, partially because there was no real expectation of competing for it. Now, the lack of progress toward that end, and the profusion of millennial fan boys who, being young, do not understand the simple, immutable, and somehow poetic truth that football IS life not despite, but BECAUSE of the fact that it is mostly about disappointment, makes me sometimes wish for the days when no one paid attention to it, though only a little bit.

This is a brilliant travelogue, in the form of essays about then-participating countries for people who DON’T think you get to call yourselves ‘World Champions’ when you haven’t actually played the World. At least Millennials, bless ‘em, are the first American generation that GETS that.

The one comics album that sticks out this time around is Anti-Gone, by Connor Willumsen: a brilliant bit of creepiness about a post-apocalyptic slacker and his disaffected girl friend, searching for ‘mindless pleasures’ in a world of casual fascism.  It’s the sort of dystopian tale that would have seemed exotic before November 8, 2016.

I have some speculations on developing ideas in monotypes which I’ll post soon, in the spirit of Month of Printmaking, which actually runs a couple of months, through late April. So we lied. “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” said Picasso, and who am I to argue?

 

Dangerous Conversations

America is a Puritan country, it is often said, though we very rarely talk about the implications. It’s kind of assumed there are implications, in a piecemeal way, but we really tend to talk around it. The reason is; we don’t like to talk about Puritanism, because that would require us to talk about sex.

This is true of both sides of the polarized political spectrum. Not talking about sex corrupts our conversation about a wide range of subjects, including art and culture, smut and politics and feminism as well. A recent upsurge in reports of sexual misconduct in public life makes this timely. Though calling out politicians and entertainers for past misdeeds may clear the air for real conversation about women’s opportunity or lack thereof, it may also harden attitudes and postpone real dialog indefinitely. It may do both at once, creating further polarization. In these repressive times, outrage can be weaponized to the detriment of thoughtful dialogue.

All social change entails risk of course, and it’s no reason to postpone an accounting of these deplorable attitudes toward women and girls. It’s always necessary to point out that much of what happens to women and girls does not fall into the category of healthy sex at all. But prudery and squeamishness about sex allows Trumpists  to eviscerate logic and stifle activism by stifling real conversation. Our attitudes about women and girls are unhealthy because our attitude about sex is unhealthy. America is not a well country, and won’t be until this conversation happens. Yet these are fraught conversations, which demand subtlety and restraint, which is difficult to master in the press of public pressure. There are many women writers, such as Rebecca Solnit, Laura Kipnis, and Hannah Rosin who have written forthrightly and with subtlety about sexual-social matters. There has been a real surge of women using the medium of comics for this purpose. This is one of them:

Sex Fantasy, Sophia Foster-Dimino: Not really about sex, so much as the attitudes surrounding sex. I ran across this randomly at the library and picked it up mostly for its very transparent stylistic blend of Manga and clear line cartoon brut; but also for its testimonial blurb from Gabrielle Bell, one of the most restrained, inventive and intelligent of the memoir-style of comics artists that grew out of the zine/mini comics sub culture. Sex Fantasy is formatted like a mini comic; small, square pages, short segments numbered 1-10, though no previous publication data is seen in the indicia. It has recently popped up in several “Best Of” lists, along with recent works by Jillian Tamaki, Bell, and Eleanor Davis.

Actual sex fantasies are rare in the early segments, which favor a sort of vaguely sexual, synaptic word/image association that in light of the provocative title, seems a bit arbitrary, even deflective. Beginning with #4, however, Sex Fantasy begins to grow into its title’s complex implications. Sex fantasies (and narrative) do appear, though often as subtext behind all the emotional and spiritual complications they entail. Foster-Dimino thus begins to parse the title phrase- sexfantasy; sex,fantasy; sex:fantasy- and as she does, the small surreal details she assigns to characters and situations become less arbitrary and more meaningful, though still quite open-ended. The dialog becomes richer- we’re talking about sex! Or at least, the things that keep us from talking about sex.

Sex Fantasy is about the conversations, fantasies and deflections that surround our fantasies. A woman goes to visit an internet lover for the first time, seeming to shrink and to require help from strangers as obstacles to communion proliferate. It is vaguely reminiscent of “Sex Coven”, Jillian Tamaki’s recent story where internet fantasy and “IRL” realities intersect.

Another character must contend with her own ambivalence as a married friend confesses a long time attraction. The watery cave and the subsequent dinner party where the action takes place calls to mind Virginia Woolf, and a restaurant meeting between two women in another story makes us wonder if we’ve witnessed a seduction or a counseling session. Confusion, control, style and power all vie for predominance in this conversation, just as they do in Hollywood. These are the complexities of sexual relationships that cannot be codified in Rules of Conduct, though of course, we must try, especially in the business place. Bell’s blurb: “Sophia Foster-Dimino has a masterful command of the language of comics.” And, I would add: the American Puritan pidgin English of sex. Foster-Dimino is someone whose continued growth in this visual/verbal dialog on sex I look forward to.

This brings us back to the current trend of women speaking out bravely about sexual harrassment. Though in a way, I dread it, because its long suppression lends itself to extremes of thought and action on both sides, I also welcome it, and intelligent voices  in comics such as Foster-Dimino, Davis, Bell and Jillian Tamaki are there to lend a thoughtful tone to a conversation that increasingly, tends toward blind anger.

Notes From the Comics Underground

While The Comics Journal did not lead to mass suicide in the mainstream comics corporate offices, it certainly did question the way comics were created, marketed and critically evaluated. Image from Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware, published by Fantagraphics beginning in 1993.

I picked up a used copy of We Told You, So Comics as Art, a massive self-celebration of Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books’ 40 years as alt-comics publishers and industry provocateurs. At 630 pages, this 40th anniversary brick is a hefty read, especially for those unfamiliar with the alt comics/zine/ punk DIY subculture of the 80’s. But for those who’ve caught themselves wondering how the scruffy pamphlets collecting dust on the squeaking drugstore spinner racks of their youth became the cinema multiplex/Netflix and library/mainstream book publishing phenomenon they are now,  it’s an essential read.

We Told You So is an oral history-style chronicle of the (sometimes literal) trials and tribulations of this pioneering publisher of many alternative comics landmarks. Anyone familiar with their signature publication, The Comics Journal, knows that “interview” and “Fantagraphics”  (and this book is essentially Fantagraphics, interviewing itself) is not a recipe for concision. Gary Groth, spiritual leader, is not really an editor, so much as publisher/advocate. I think there is way more info about the early days of alternative comics than most people who weren’t fans from the beginning, like me- really want. But Fanta was a leader in transforming the grassroots energies of the fanzine subculture into a real renaissance for comics, and if the process of pop cultural subversion is interesting for you, no book explicates it more.

Comics fanzines actually predate the punk rock music fanzines/DIY movement of the late 70’s-early 80’s, going back to the 50’s, where they were an outgrowth of sci-fi fan culture. By the late 70’s there was quite a bit of overlap. Groth, a zine publisher since his teen years, and Fantagraphics, the small publishing company he took over as a young adult, soon began to rather stridently question the entire structure of the entrenched mainstream comics business in ways that the undergrounds of the 60’s and 70’s never did. It’s not really a coincidence that FB’s history encompasses the move toward more creator’s rights, less censorship and a general flowering of comics’ more literary qualities in the last four decades. When Groth and co-founders Kim Thompson and Mike Catron decided to publish their own books, artistic milestones like Love and Rockets, Jimmy Corrigan and Ghost World followed, and are still coming (see below). Movies, television and New York Times book supplement coverage came next.

This book’s design mirrors those roots, deliberately expressing a fanzine aesthetic,  with the oral history format an obvious nod to Punk Rock: An Oral History by John Robb.  A chapter in this book also explores FBI’s somewhat tenuous relationship to the concurrent Grunge scene of early 90’s Seattle.

There are major differences in style, tone and attitude between Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, a slightly later alt- and Euro-comics publisher. Their self-published histories are both essential to understanding the growth of the medium from spandex youth fantasy through mature sci-fi fantasy, then punk/fanzine ravings, and on into auto-bio memoir, literary art and the experimental comics that share cultural space with fine art today. These are the people who finally rescued comics from the imposed infantilization of the 50’s, and brought them back to the creative vibrancy seen in the turn of the 20th Century period, when they rivaled another new medium, movies, for cultural relevancy. We Told  almost miraculously, given Groth’s exhaustive editorial ‘style’, somehow comes in under Drawn and Quarterly’s recent 730-page 25th anniversary doorstop, though in fairness, D&Q’s self-homage is in a slightly smaller format, and features quite a lot of actual comics.

How well I remember the day, spotting my first issue of Love and Rockets in a grungy little shop on East Colfax. It fit right in with my then lifestyle of grinding, oppressive day job, followed by loud punk rock show or raucous art opening at night. We Told You So gives voice to others who experienced the same epiphany, many of whom went on to become published creators themselves, and their stories are surprisingly moving.

Fantagraphics gradually lost its seat-of-the-pants DIY aesthetic.  Its seminal publication, the Journal, is a (still very useful) shadow of its former self, an online-only show case for critique of comics from the margins and reconsiderations of classic comics and their creators, stripped of its confrontational New Journalism-style news function under editors Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler. A 26 volume Complete Peanuts project seems to have finally erased their continual money woes. Its history of frat-rat type hijinks mellowed with time and growing respect and the loss of one of its co-founders, Kim Thompson, to cancer. I didn’t really need a 4-page account of Fanta’s early shooting parties, complete with a two page photo spread of people shooting things, and the things they’d shot. But comics, from their beginnings in the yellow journalism period of the 1890’s, to their reimagining as comic books in the rapacious publishing world between the wars, to the 60’s undergrounds, have always been characterized by a boisterous approach to business, and they are currently in the midst of another such creative explosion. Fantagraphics’ rollicking history is inseparable from the comics’ growth as a mature medium.

Book of Hope, Tommi Musturi: Fantagraphics found these unusual comics in Finland. Lovely, lyrical and existential, these contemplatively paced 2-paged segments are formatted like gag strips, but inevitably the punchline is death or at least loneliness. Nonetheless the uplift promised in the title does arrive, if belatedly and in surprising ways.
In tidy, luscious clear line style and hallucinogenic, somewhat ironic colors we follow a middle aged man through peregrinations both mundane and fantastical in a lush landscape of quotidian wonder and dreamlike dread. The narrative pacing is exquisitely slow, allowing subtle sight gags to bubble up and themes to simmer. Spanish artist Max is an influence, though Musturi is less given to the psychologically surreal; as is Chris Ware, though Musturi is not as emotionally bereft. Musturi reminds us that in game of cards against death, the only winning card is the Joker.
Thus, mortality coexists with pratfall, the existential with the trivial, the end seems near, whether in the form of spaghetti western desert, or nature’s slow seasonal decay. The book starts with autumn’s existential emptying and ends in winter’s deathlike peace, but is redeemed with the slow relentless nagging of love, in the form of our hero’s companion who opines: “So what do you do? You live”. They go to pick Lingonberries.
It’s a sublime synthesis of comedy and contemplation, alternately silly and poetic, that Musturi arranges in 5 subtly themed yet fantastical chapters, as if Mr Hulot was taking a holiday in Valhalla, or a John Ford film had been shot in Oz. And it can only be done in comics.

Hellboy’s World, Scott Bukatman: A fairly recent book which the author touts as the first full length critical study of the horror comics character Hellboy.

Hellboy is a guilty pleasure of mine since the early 90’s, when it began as a short black and white feature in a Dark Horse Comics anthology. A formally sophisticated comic about an exiled demon from Hell who appears on Earth to hunt down paranormal and occult evil doers, Hellboy blends seminal pulp horror tropes with folk tales, Nazis, zombies and vampires; not to mention Nazi vampire zombies, to present a unique mythos. The comic features expressionist cartooning by creator Mike Mignola (and his associates) and moody earth tones by colorist Dave Stewart along with quite a bit of blacker-than-black humor. In Hellboy, we see an expansive pastiche of pulp fiction tropes woven with symphonic richness into a cohesive visual/linguistic language that transforms genre. Mignola’s is a very unique and synthetic approach to genre- Hellboy is part wise cracking superhero, part monster, but done in an engaging and simple style that sets it apart from over wrought mainstream books.

Thus, Hellboy became one of the titles that changed comics, and helped usher in the creative renaissance for the medium. It’s also a book that is owned by its creator, changing the economics of comics, even as auteur Mignola has taken on other artists and writers to expand the franchise to other titles set in other decades. It was, for example, one of the first titles to move into bookstore collections in tpb form, now a surging market niche. Though eschewing the bombast and self seriousness of the mainstream superhero books, Hellboy is a comic that has become serious business indeed.

Bukatman is obviously a fan, though it doesn’t cloud his judgement. He approaches Hellboy in seven thematic sections, and his book is well researched. He cites sources ranging from iconic early 20th Century critic/essayist Walter Benjamin on reading and children’s literature to experts on illuminated manuscripts to the new wave of comics literary criticism that has grown up around the recent resurgnce in the medium. The examples he cites are often recognized critical darlings in literary comics, such as Chris Ware and Jerry Moriarty- rather than the many genre comics still crowding the comic shop racks. This is in keeping with Bukatman’s thesis: Hellboy comics are effective and significant not so much because of their roots in genre escapism, as with their approach to how we read. Large parts of Bukatman’s book are about that: the diegetics of how comic artists tell a story, and the phenomenology of how we read it.

Bukatman is conversant with academic criticism and a related thesis, that Hellboy’s world of monsters and liminal meanings is analogous to the marginal world that readers of children’s books, comics and monster lit as well as genre collectors themselves occupy, is interesting enough to contribute to pop culture study, but not so esoteric as to put off the fan.

I pulled out my old Hellboys. I came to them late, having left mainstream genre behind in the alt comics boom. In many cases, having assembled them in a monthly frequency, I’d not read them as a unified tale. It’s a frequent problem with ‘floppies’ (pamphlet comics), and one of the reasons that I, and I assume many others, are transitioning to collections (so-called ”graphic novels”).

Hellboy has recently returned to his roots (in Hell).  There are collections of both short stories and longer story arcs, most of which feel self contained enough to reward casual reading. But in the back of each volume can be found a chronological list of Hellboy publications, if you want to follow from his first appearance in a blast of light in wartime England to his final, epic, and apocalyptic return to the circles of Hell. With Hellboy, we find a story that retains its consistency and narrative progression over a long period of time (since the mid-90’s). “Is anybody else doing this?” Mignola asks in an interview (The answer is yes, actually. The Hernandez brothers have kept Love and Rockets, with their amazingly consistent narrative world-building, going since the mid-80’s. This is not even to bring Frank King’s Gasoline Alley into the mix).

As Bukatman points out, it also utilizes the unique qualities of comics- their interplay between often poetic- or folkloric word and picture, their simplified colors and Mignola’s preternaturally dramatic sense of pace to craft an atmospheric narrative that really gets at the heart of what horror is. Mainly, a desexualized expression of floating anxiety, a place where puritan America gets under the covers with its issues about things that go bump- if not horizontally “bop”, in the night. All this, in color, for a dime. Okay, $17 for five episodes, actually. In the midst of our nation-wide Drumpf-dread, this qualifies, in my book as real art.

Hellboy contains pulp vigilantes (The Lobster, a Shadow-like avenger); aliens and Kriegsaffen (Nazi war monkeys!) -a spectacular anachronism, really. Why does one need a secret Alpine redoubt and a Wehrmacht general’s head preserved in a robot’s body to revive fascism, when a few Citizens United billionaires and a minority of low-information racist voters can install it in the White House?

In the best of pop culture, we often find both truth, and a place to escape from it.

 

 

 

Islands in the Scream

A relatively short reading list. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading; in fact I’ve got a ton of others I’m working on. But these were sort of a breather after my summer of dense Victorian and Edwardian Impressionist novels. This lead, for reasons set forth below to a Hemingway mini-binge. Even the comics I read tended toward an early 20th C. European theme.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox FordThe book is very odd and compelling. It advances the concept, taken from James, of very subjective narrative voice, sometimes categorized as Literary Impressionism, while anticipating the dissipation and moral rootlessness of the Lost Generation. Thus, my subsequent and somewhat accidental Hemingway binge.

Good Soldier  is a story of unfaithfulness and emotional alienation. It reads quickly enough, but its deliberately disorienting plotting and somewhat dated language and syntax mark it as transitional between the Victorian and the Modern, especially in comparison to The Sun Also Rises, similar in spirit but leaner and more direct, a few years later. Soldier inspired critical inquiry for its use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ as the years went by; Sun, a distinctly un-critical craze for trying to turn hangovers into art, which still held when friends and I hit our college years after Hemingway’s death.

Everybody Behaves Badly, Lesley Blume: A spur of the moment pick-up and a natural one after reading Edwardians. Hemingway’s then extreme life- and writing- styles still  generate exposes that read like long Vanity Fair pieces. Imagine my shock to read the author’s blurb and discover that she’s a Vanity Fair regular. But he epitomizes Literary Impressionism, and the “Lost Generation” ethos of dissipation as art. This book attempts to examine the process by which Hemingway turned his life into the groundbreaking novel The Sun Also Rises, but as with most EH bios, often reads like a high-toned gossip rag.

The Sun Also Rises was the birth of the modern literary tendency to romanticize the self, indulged in by many of us in sophomoric ways during our actual sophomore years. We glamorized the self-glamorized heroic drunks in the book to justify  drinking and boorish behavior. Around us, some did not move on, and the same is true with the real life models of characters in the book. Donald Ogden Stewart (Bill) had a good career, until blacklisted by Hollywood, but came to revile Hemingway and his work. Pat Guthrie (Mike) died of a drug overdose, and the real-life “Lady Brett” also died young having spent her life drinking. The Cohn character’s real life model enjoyed a fairly successful life by most standards, but remained obsessed with Hemingway’s venomous portrayal of him.

It gets to the heart of what makes a successful life- and novel- and its author’s eventual suicide, only a few years after having won the Nobel Prize, poses some of the toughest questions of all. Now I have to re-read the original again, not an onerous or lengthy task, so bring on the cheap cabernet.

Hemingway’s Boat, Paul HendricksonThe stated purpose of this book, which had the full cooperation of much of the author’s family, with whatever was expressed or implied in that arrangement, is to step away from the studies by ‘psychologizers’ so popular in literary criticism and provide a more “benevolent” view of this troubled author. It covers a specific part of his life and career from 1935 when he acquired the Pilar, a 38 foot cabin cruiser, to his death by suicide in 1961.

Hendrickson set out to avoid the sort of literary psychoanalysis that has been a hallmark of Hemingway bios for decades. That’s hard to do. The tough questions remain. Beyond the simple fact that five of the eight immediate Oak Park Hemingway family ended their own lives, sometimes violently, Hemingway’s pattern of rejecting old friends and marriages, seen in Everybody Behaves, along with drinking and gunplay, invite theories. And his son Gregory’s gender identity travails invite comparisons to the author’s own transexual themes as seen in the posthumously published Garden of Eden. So Boat drifts sometimes, especially in the last half, where Gregory’s story takes over, despite the fact that it has little to do with the boat.

Hemingway’s life is undeniably interesting, and Hendrickson often writes lyrically about it. But one wonders how relevant is the question of who or what was up ‘Papa’s’ ass, compared to the fact that increasingly, he’d crawled up it himself.

“Something bad happens when Hemingway writes in the first person” Hendrickson quotes Edmund Wilson, formerly a defender, in a review after the publication of Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway never reacted well to these sorts of reviews, and it seemed to set the tone for the rage and alcoholism that dogged much of his later work. Though For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea were still to come, and the Nobel prize, so also, the not well received Across the River and Into the Trees and the first shock therapy sessions. An idiosyncratic career makes for a very idiosyncratic book that often digresses into accounts of people fairly tangential to Hemingway’s writing, possibly in search of “benevolence”.

Arnold Samuelson is one, a North Dakota journalist, novelist wannabe who shows up at Hemingway’s Key West door. Hendrickson makes the very useful point that Hemingway, having already abandoned or betrayed his Parisian literary friends, was starting to welcome more sycophants and hangers on into his daily life, even as his closed world gave itself to somewhat self reflexive themes of sportsman against nature, as opposed to emotionally disaffected lost generations. The psychologizers  began to theorize Hemingway macho behavior as hypercompensation for being dressed as a girl in childhood.

Hendrickson says he set out to distance his book from this, but then speculates- benevolently? on more recently revealed incidents and writings as a possible sign of support for his troubled son. How are we to judge any of this?

The boat winds up on blocks in Hemingway’s tennis court. It’s a fairly confused tale, and almost impossible to put down.

Boundless: These are very experimental stories from Jillian Tamaki, who is apparently trying to break out of the YA category she has often brilliantly claimed, with cousin Mariko Tamaki, in clean, sharp, but quiescent rite-of-passage stories  Skim and This One Summer.

Changing direction can be much harder than a youngish artist may think. A solid first step was Superhuman Mutant Magic Academy, a hilarious web comic sequence of short one-a-day gags which nevertheless added up to a different sort of rite-of-passage tale that still hit all of her concerns dead center. That book is honestly, better than this one in several ways, but the formal innovations she is trying to incorporate in Boundless may serve her well in future books.  A couple of stories were published in smaller magazines. Most deal with self and many with media iterations of self. I’m reminded of the vaguely futuristic short stories of Eleanor Davis, another cartoonist who may be casting about after initial success.

There are formal experiments, such as the placement of images on the page; shifts in narrative voice and tone, for example, from the omniscient and reportorial to the personal biographical in “Sex Coven”, but in other stories the art and story are a bit self conscious. It smacks of an artist trying to break out of what she may see as too constraining a success and she seems determined to see it through. Brava. But I’ll be rereading Super Mutant.

Fog on Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi: Gorgeous black and white noir murder mystery based on a novel by Leo Malet. One of the first euro comics that Fantagraphics published, in serial form, in the mid 80’s. I’d encountered Tardi’s work previously in Raw Magazine and possibly even before, in Heavy Metal. It sticks with you, and I was glad to see it in album form, as I’d missed some chapters the first time, so this was my first time reading the whole thing in one sitting. A fairly standard genre piece about a between-the-wars anarchist found murdered in 50‘s Paris, but it is worth it for the ambience alone. Tardi captures in drizzled ink lines the appealing wet gloom of Parisian backstreets in winter, and is so specific about researching his locations that he includes a map. At a time when American comics were lost in fan boy minutia, this jazz age elegy was a glimmer of hope for lovers of the medium’s potential.

Berlin City of Smoke, Jason Lutes: Long-running, slow building tale of the Weimar Republic’s slow dissolve into Nazism. It really is in a very traditional form, espousing a relatively sedate, slightly claustrophobic clear line style as opposed to Tardi’s more dynamic homage. It’s a masterpiece of comics in that it tells a complex cultural and historical tale using both visual and narrative information, avoiding the wooden characterization and creeping didacticism of some historical fiction. It is the first fiction I’ve read that treats the degradation of liberty and the rise of social control under fascism as an epic societal tragedy, and it seems to spare no person or faction. I haven’t read Isherwood, but Berlin seems to take up where the movie Cabaret left off.