Tag Archives: Reading List

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.

 

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.

The World Is a Funny (Book) Place

I read some big, brainy, brick shaped books this summer. A respite was inevitable, and when my eyes want a rest, I very often pick up some comics.

Comics, A Global History 1968 to the Present, Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner: The 50’s suppression of comics in America had echoes in Europe and Japan, but they weren’t as long lasting, and thus innovation came sooner there. This is one of the valuable areas of context offered in Comics, which despite its limitations, is the most comprehensive survey of the creative maturing of the medium around the world I’ve seen. I was searching for a history of Euro comics from WW II onward. This isn’t it, but it’s a very readable account of the modern era of comics in their three largest markets.

Any art form requires context for informed interpretation. Comics, a form that has been subject in this country to an infantilizing censorship and commercialized lassitude since the witch hunts of the post war era, have lacked any sort of critical context for decades. This is finally changing, and important scholarship is proliferating, often at a pace that stretches the budget of an amateur scholar.

I thus passed this book up in the store both for cost, and for its scope, which cuts off the crucial 50’s Mad Magazine/EC era, roots of the seminal undergrounds. Mazur and Danner choose to start in 1968, a year rich in a larger cultural sense, but an odd place to start here in that it was the industry’s self-censorship push of ’54 (the infamous Comics Code Authority seal on the comics of my youth) that really led to the Underground comics movement of the 60’s, and ultimately, the innovation of the 70s and especially the 80’s. By putting EC out of business, the Code created an artistic void into which the young fans who missed those raucous comics (such as R. Crumb) ventured when they started Zap Comix, et al.

Mazur and Danner, limited by page count, did find a rich time to start, but nowhere else in the book is cultural ferment linked to pop culture innovation, so it seems arbitrary, and a missed opportunity. The reactionary Reaganauts and the dystopian Dark Knight Returns or Otomo’s Akira? Grinding, punitive Thatcherism, and Judge Dredd, or Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta? Not explored. To be fair, the book runs to 300 pages already, and it’s my only major complaint. The book, which I finally got from DPL, certainly does provide a creative context, if not a cultural one.

Instead, I was impressed by its integrative vision of comics as international art form. Within its narrowed time frame, it examines both Euro and American mainstream comics against underground/alternative upstarts, and provides a nice survey of alt- and mainstream manga, not to mention the frequent cross pollinations, such as Akira’s influence on Dark Knight or the “British Invasion” of creators that led to DC’s Sandman and Watchmen.

This survey attempts to link these culturally disparate but creatively interlinked threads in the development of a more literate and adult oriented comics media. Its authors appear to be knowledgeable about this complex period in comics history, where the rebellious spirit of early 20th century comics found rebirth in reaction to the post war censorship movements.

They note that there was in the late 60’s and early 70’s a movement to different marketing dynamics. The Franco-Belgian comics went to an album format (as American comics are doing today) while American comics began to be sold in the direct market, opening opportunity for creative experimentation. By then, Manga and Euro comics were already appealing to a more mature reader, often in the form of Science Fiction and other genre. This movement came to our shores in the form of Heavy Metal magazine, which despite its T & A editorial bias, published many interesting comics auteurs, as they point out.

At around that time, I  discovered Herge’s Tintin. This was a real revelation when I first encountered it in the college bookstore. His ligne clair (clear line) style defined Euro comics as a whole new simplified graphic style different from over-rendered American superhero comics, a real breath of air. The authors clarify the roots of different European styles of the time, tracing clear line to Brussels, and another looser style, epitomized by Goscinny’s Asterix, to Charleroi.  By the early 80’s Fantagraphics and Raw Magazine had begun publishing Jacques Tardi, Jooste Swarte and other European artists, who’d re-appropriated clear line with an ironic, post modern twist.

I was immediately hooked. Naturally, these early discoveries were on my mind as I read Comics, so I returned to two Euro comics pioneers.

Tintin has been recently repackaged in a smaller format, and I don’t recommend them. The whole appeal of clear line is its simple, open lines, allowing the art and story more space and air. Reducing the size of the panels defeats this. Herge is very funny and engaging in his details. The older format is often found on eBay or in used bookstores at great prices, and allows Herge’s dynamism and visual pacing to shine. The early stories, such as King Ottakar’s Sceptre, echo romantic genre fiction, such as the Prisoner of Zenda, but with interesting political overtones in the approach of WWII.

I found Adele Blanc Sec, by Jacques Tardi, in a favorite used bookstore. Tardi was a pioneer of more adult-oriented genre comics in France in the mid 70’s, mostly in the realm of the murder mystery, but also in a history of a soldier’s (his father) experience in the WW I trenches. In Adele, plots pile complication upon complication in lieu of a cohesive narrative about a mysterious prehistoric bird terrorizing Paris, but his cartooning, hovering stylistically between Herge’s clear line style and George Pichard’s texturally voluptuous landscapes, is atmospheric and evocative of the Edwardian era he seeks to evoke.

Empire of a Thousand Suns, Mezieres: 70’s Euro sci fi in a stylish “Charleroi School” art but fairly unsophisticated plot. Had hoped for something like Barbarella, a sexy pioneering sci fi fantasy, but got a pedestrian space mystery instead. The parallels between it and the slightly later first Star Wars movie are quite striking, though.

It was also in the early 80’s that I had my first taste of Manga. This came in Raw, too, which published 70’s Garo magazine alumni such as Yoshiharu Tsuge. They also introduced such important Punk/DIY (“Do It Yourself”, a movement of self-publishing and music recording) creators as Gary Panter and Mark Beyer. More recently quite a bit of pioneering  alt-Mangaka such as Tezuka and Hayashi have become available, and Mazur and Danner have done a good job of tracking their impact in the Japanese market and elsewhere.  If you become curious about these European and Japanese creators, then any of the better anthologies, such as Kramer’s Ergot or  Mome (Fantagraphics); Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, or the massive Drawn and Quarterly 25th Anniversary collection ( D&Q); or back issues of Raw can provide good samples. Comics: A Global History unfortunately chose to present examples in the original languages (easier to get rights, I’m assuming), but the anthologies’ translations are pretty easily and cheaply available online or at a good used bookstore.

Comics continues into the 21st Century, with brief examinations of web comics; the “Fort Thunder” collective, working in what Mazur and Danner call a “Cute Brut” style of edgy, primitivist graphics merged with Disney-style anthropomorphism; and the autobiographical movement.  It is a real renaissance in comics right now, and the book will quickly become dated. I really hope they revise it then.  In terms of defining creative trends in the three main comics-loving regions, USA, Europe, and Japan, Comics makes for absorbing and necessary reading, and I did find myself referring back to it as I re-discovered old works.

Adult Contemporary by Bendik Kaltenborn: This Norwegian cartoonist is very much in the vein of Brecht Evans (The Making Of, below) and Brecht Vandenbroucke (White Cube); that is, very edgy satire with urban themes in a cartoon brut style of hyperactive color and unrefined line work. They really grew on me as I settled into their neurotically absurd humor.

The Making Of, Brecht Evens: Gorgeous and dense watercolors and absorbing layout in this tale of artistic ego turned loose in the hinterlands of creativity.

City of Glass, Paul Auster: adapted by Paul Kurasic and David Mazzuchelli. A Noirish thriller of identity and social interaction by Karasic, who once worked on Raw Magazine, and Mazzuchelli of Asterios Polyp and Batman Year One where he brought back a purer cartooning style to the over-rendered medium of superheroes. Mazzucheli’s stylizations sometimes carry real elemental power, as in Batman; and sometimes seem overly self conscious or precious. But it’s a compelling story.

Tales to Designed to Thrizzle, Michael Kupperman: bizarre non sequiturs and 50’s style ad graphics collide in this often funny satire of capitalist messaging. Best in small doses, possibly.

Drawn Together, Aline and R.Crumb: Another worthy anthology in the 80’s was Weirdo, where these unexpectedly affecting collaborations between R. Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb appeared before being collected in this 2012 edition. Aline influenced him to try autobiographical comics, which she helped popularize, and he alertly recognized the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts harmony of her scratchy primitivism with his iconic retro-E.C.Segar Zap Comix style. It is a visual analogy of what makes a relationship work; neuroses, kinks, self-absorption and all. The whole becomes a funny and romantic page turner and ultimately tells the fascinating tale of 35 years of their unconventional marriage. And, by extension, of the maturing and broadening of the conventions of an always vital medium.

Book Porn

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A computer crash and a temp job in a shorthanded college bookstore really cramped my writing though I do have plenty of raw first drafts, typed shakily into my phone or tablet on public transit. So I’m posting some summer reading commentary now as I try to catch up: 

I finished The Novel, A Biography. It’s an eleven hundred page survey of novels and their authors, written by Michael Schmidt.  I’d intended to cherry-pick it, for authors I love, or am curious about. But its many and various cross referencings made it hard to put down. And its subject matter is undeniably as significant as any art history, about which many back-breaking tomes have been published.

The novel exists as both high and low culture, though it must certainly qualify as the world’s first pop culture medium, having come into being roughly at the same time as the printing press. It’s inherently ironizing, which is undoubtedly why it very quickly outgrew its early tendency to masquerade as “true” memoir, and became wildly popular with Cervantes and then Fielding’s introduction of contemporary satire. It goes without saying that most of the novels discussed in the book I haven’t read, though in choosing examples here, most I have.

I’m especially callow in regard to books written before the height of the American Romantic era, around 1850, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I’d tiptoed around English Victorian novels like literary quick sand and somehow avoided finishing anything by Dickens in high school, actually bragging of not having flunked the class.

In university it was easy enough to concentrate on modernist writing. Summers then and non-term months were for pop culture heroes, genre and post-modernists. Yes, I probably read every Vonnegut novel before 1985. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the novel’s roots, though. I had a vague familiarity with and attraction to the picaresque and the Gothic, having read enough of my parents’ collection and literary criticism to make ad hoc connections between Cervantes, Melville and Pynchon.

But placing those things in the context of the novel’s development from Cervantes to Fielding; from Richardson to Austen to James, requires a road map and that is what Schmidt ambitiously attempts to provide- a bird’s-eye view.

Schmidt generates critical dialogue through the device of writers writing about writers. It’s a shifting perspective to be sure. He has his favorites (Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Vidal), but often includes contradictory critiques, and thus one is left to compose one’s own critical map through a sort of triangulation. Nor does he hew to strict chronology, especially after 1900. This leads to pairings that are useful (Richardson with Austen), brave (Bruce Chatwin with Daniel Defoe), unimaginative or even stereotypical (a gaggle of early gay novelists followed by a murder of Jim Crow-era black writers) and plain bizarre (fellow paranoids, but political opposites Ayn Rand and Pynchon). A passage on John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) alludes to Kurt Vonnegut (Billy Pilgrim, get it?). And if “Biography” can be defined in one sense as “mistakes made, lessons learned”, then what are we to make of the fact that the last chapter of the novel’s “Biography” features Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth and Martin Amis?

The point being that seeking the definitive would be a fool’s errand in such an expansive undertaking and Schmidt mostly avoids it.

 Schmidt does not attempt to rank or qualify writers, though he does give oblique commentary and his likes and dislikes are often easy to suss. Likes include picaresque adventures (Cervantes, Fielding) Late Romanticism (Melville) and early modernism (Woolf). Dislikes include Richardsonian romance, the Gothic (Scott), late Modernism (late Joyce) and most Post Modernism (watch out, Thomas Pynchon). Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Sade is not mentioned despite his fairly obvious, though often unacknowledged thematic affinities with Dostoyevsky and others (including Rand). Yet contemporary mainstream writers who’ve had best-selling decades ( Jane Smiley, John Irving) also don’t merit a walk-on.

Schmidt does include a chapter on genre where he discusses Raymond Chandler and Walter Moseley as artists before giving a wave of the hand to the putative heirs of Austen and the Brontes such as Barbara Cartland, who has sold hundreds of millions of books if not over a billion. This gives one an idea, when seen with the advent of mass market and trade PB market in the 50s, of just how massive and diverse the reading public has become. He imposes a cutoff, sensibly set at Y2K. It seems far less sensible after reading this, to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the book is dying. After the apocalypse, who will survive along with the cockroaches? Jane Austen in various paperback versions, my adventures in bookstores both new and used indicate.

Having a road map is important, I think. I’d like to read Fielding’s Tom Jones, influenced by Cervantes and very influential in its own language. I can probably live- and die- without Richardson, but my sense -or sensibility (?!) is that Austen, inventor of what Schmidt characterizes as a “free indirect” interiority is of far more importance than the commonplace rubric “inventor of the romance genre” that’s often assigned her. I will probably continue to avoid Dickens. I feel I should try to get all the way through a Bronte sister, perhaps Charlotte this time. I can no longer avoid James, I fear, though that brings me to Woolf’s doorstep, a safe haven.  As the “too many books, too little time” shopping bag franchisees remind us, life is short- but novels are long. When the hell will I re-read Ulysses?  And can I get back the hours I spent with the overwrought moral and psychological convolutions of Iris Murdoch?

add to these the regretfully unread (Barthelme, Gaddis, and I did happen to read an old Granta excerpt of a then-prospective Martin Amis novel that Schmidt praises as a modern classic, and I’m very curious about it), the under-read ( Bellow, Roth and always, Woolf), and the untried (Hardy? Conrad?).

So Schmidt’s unwieldy bucket list gets two thumbs up here.  It’s the kind of book one would keep in a home with limited space because one would refer to it often, as each bucket list entry gets crossed off. If it is eccentric in its realization, then so are many readers.

My own bucket list started with Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Digging down to the very roots of the novel, I found an agreeable translation/annotation by Tom Lathrop. Ignoring the clunky framing conceit of a “true history” so characteristic of the era, I dove in. The tale is most ‘modern’ and vibrant when the indefatigably deluded would-be knight-“errant” argues strategy with his faithfully self-interested squire, but I guess we all knew that. The story is culturally imprinted, whether from childhood excerpts or Broadway lyrics, and the copious broken ribs and loosened teeth that incited Europe’s first ever viral laff-riot now seem tiresome and gauche, but the interplay between the Woebegone Knight and Sancho is still pure gold. Cervantes popularized the novel, it is often said. Less often he gets credited with the first buddy movie.

I had to stop near the end of Part I (1605) and skip Part II (1615, partially a Cervantes reaction to pirating) to move on to my temp job. It’s in a college bookstore; life plays some cruel jokes.

The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate, Ed: Another bruising, categorizing war-horse that I found on the shelf next to Novel and couldn’t resist lugging home. Some of the major players from Novel are here also; notably Virginia Woolf. Again, there are the early pioneers – Seneca, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt taxing syntactically, but they lead eventually to 20th Century riches. Joan Didion, Max Beerbohm, Walter Benjamin and George Orwell, the list goes on in easily digested five to ten page bites. The editorial work is exemplary, with underlying themes emerging, then carrying from ancient Rome to Edwardian London. These are indexed for ease of comparison, and cherry-picking. My favorite, “Walking”, led to an exquisite, sublimely transporting gem by Woolf, “Street Haunting”, in which the artifice of needing a pencil leads to an impressionist’s fantasia reminiscent of the ‘House’ chapter in “To the Lighthouse”, along with the emotional coda of a domestic squabble and make-up. The kind of piece that in a small way, leaves you a different person coming out than going in.

It’s been a Woolf summer. I found, and dallied with, before I put away for Fall reading, a collection of critical essays on each of her books. I also inhaled Orlando, before savoring each crystalline Woolf-ian blurb on each Victorian and pre-modern writer in Schmidt. All the while repeatedly reminding myself that it’s now been decades since I read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. Add them to the list.

Masterpiece Comics, R.Sikoryak: Sikoryak, a Raw Magazine vet from the 80’s, has been writing and illustrating these sly little mash-ups of high- and low culture and publishing them, very much under the radar, in anthologies all along. They’re collected here, and they’re funny because they get to the heart of the artificial divide between high and pop culture. In the process, we get a good laugh and confront the question of how and why we tell ourselves tales.

Here again, context is essential. Most can appreciate the hilarious sight gag of Dagwood in “Blonde Eve”, a biblical Garden of Eden retelling in the iconic “Blondie” style, carting arm loads of apples, waiter style, as he prepares to snack on the tree of knowledge. But a real shock of recognition comes to fans of Golden Age comics in seeing Raskolnikov, with his exaggerated sense of moral agency, compared with Batman’s vigilantism in Jerry Robinson’s dark Gotham City alleys.

 “Lil Pearl”, a Scarlet Letter retelling, gains far more satirical punch if one is familiar with Dell Comics’ Little Lulu, arguably one of the most widely read feminist voices of the benighted 50’s, who was continually and subtly turning the tables on, and claiming moral high ground from, the boys. And “Crypt of the Brontes”, a Wuthering Heights pastiche, becomes creepily compelling as a spot-on take of EC horror comics, complete with the narrating housekeeper in the iconic EC framing role as Crypt Keeper.

Sikoryak has retold Shakespeare, deSade, Camus and Dante ( as Bazooka Joe!) He apparently did not make a fetish of avoiding classic literature, as I did. Might Emily Bronte be rolling over in her grave at the thought of her masterpiece re-cast as  pre-code horror pulp? Possibly.

But she might also be tempted to grab Raskolnikov’s ax at the sight of one billion Barbara Cartland novels.

A Good Used Bookstore, For the Love of God

Size does matter. Mine is a bit small by most people’s standards I’m sure, but honestly, I’d rather it be a bit small than too large. Because really, it’s what you do with it. And mine does a lot. I don’t often brag about it because I don’t want to attract a crowd, but it’s time people knew.

I left the house a bit later than I intended on a radiant fall Sunday- cerulean blue sky with mare’s tails stretching above the skyscrapers, rattling papery gold leaves helicoptering languidly down, a slight breeze eliciting chatter and whisperings from the already fallen ones. After getting off the bus, I tunneled the remaining four blocks through dappled sun and golden, leafy arcades. I was in no hurry.

Kilgore’s is a cramped little storefront among all the various Wax Trax storefronts on that cramped part of 13th near Washington in Capitol Hill. Inside, there is barely enough room for two to pass in its aisles, and there are only three aisles, connected by a passageway in the back, and a bit of an open area where the counter is in the front. If there’s been an influx of books, there are un-processed piles and you must stifle your rush to the stacks and pause to let another get by. There’s no sense hurrying anyway. There is plenty for all.

A tiny used bookstore like Kilgore’s must balance the discrete buying of books to avoid an unwieldy, energy sapping selection, with the need for an almost curatorial concision and intellectual focus in order to stock a good selection of the type of books a certain kind of buyer will come back to week after week, not just in golden autumn but in slushy, leaden winter. The reason I keep coming back here is because I know that with a few extra bucks in my pocket and an hour to kill, I will be able to circle the sections that interest me, without getting bogged down in some one else’s offloaded dreck, and find something interesting and unique for a reasonable price. A good used book store must give the impression of a selection of books and journals only reluctantly parted with by their previous owners, and Kilgore’s does this better than any of the larger stores I’ve haunted.

I almost always find something I can’t bear to pass over, and which gets immediately read. Today: The Ganzfeld #2, a 2002 anthology of graphics, comics, design and articles on same, a little used and banged up but certainly quite solid, for under $10. I’d scooped up the #4 edition of this strange yet compelling magazine when it was published back in 2005. I’m a lover of odd and intermittent magazines, especially the type marrying cutting edge comics with good layout and interesting articles, so this find really made for a good visit, but that’s the point: you want a book store that buys enough weird, ephemeral books and magazines to make the trip worth your while more often than not. Kilgore’s also offers a good selection in good condition of (their specialty,) used and new graphic novels and comics that shade toward the alternative press side of things, a small section of literary criticism and essays, including comics criticism, art books, and some of the good fiction anthologies. Their large fiction section is restrained yet timeless (or soon to be), though they also offer quite a bit of genre.

Mostly what they offer is informed good taste. Someone there knew enough to buy this obscure well thought-out magazine from someone, who knew it would both find a good home and bring a couple of bucks (for more books!)

In the Ganzfeld, I’m reading an article relating early English novelist Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) with modernist Science Fiction (!) such as J.G. Ballard. This relationship between the early imperial picaresque and the post-imperial dystopian is something I didn’t know existed or that I’d need to read about until I walked into Kilgore’s on a fine fall day. I’m not sure the article successfully proves the connection, though in mentioning Pynchon, Vonnegut, Huxley and Attwood and others as “serious” fiction inspired both by Sci-Fi’s spirit of dystopian possibility and Fielding’s subversive satire, it certainly comes close.

The issue also features sketchbook pages from Chris Ware and a wildly abstract take on Popeye and Olive Oyl by Here auteur Richard McGuire, the only other work I’ve found by him outside The New Yorker and Raw Magazine. At Kilgore’s, I’ve also recently picked up albums of comics by Seth, Dash Shaw and Mike Allred, an old issue of McSweeney’s, and several old copies of The Comics Journal.

I’m betting they have a copy of Tom Jones with my name on it, or at least, Henry Fielding’s.

Reading List:

Bound and Gagged, Laura Kipnis: an examination of the issues surrounding pornography, organized around a central question: does it benefit us to censor people’s fantasies?

Heads or Tails, Lilli Carre: Lyrically surreal narratives in shifting, allusive tonalities that are filled with the sort of subliminal psychological non sequiturs that feel both dreamlike and gut-punchingly real. A guy’s roof leaks, he drives to another town, meets a woman , gets stuck on a Ferris wheel with her and has sexual fantasies of her, but when they go to his room, they don’t quite have sex. A woman meets, and is subsequently replaced by, her own double. I found it in the shelves at a library where I was giving a workshop. I’ll undoubtedly search for my own copy the next time at Kilgore’s.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano: I’m reading it slowly, since its compact passages make excellent reading on the bus or train. I thumbed through it last year during my habitual World Cup Soccer book-buying binge, but read Golazo! instead, because I felt that that more traditional social history would provide background to the many short poetic, almost fabulistic vignettes that Galeano weaves together in his book.

The book is surprisingly cynical about the beautiful game, which is refreshing in a way, since the figures in the game, and the game itself can be brutally cynical. See: Blatter, Platini, et al. The game is universal enough to touch all of the deepest dreams and failings of people across the globe, and it needs no propagandist. The haters and throwball fantasy zombies can never know how much of soccer’s humanity and populist aspiration can be found in just one quote from a man who calls himself

“… a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: A pretty move, for the love of God.”

"Valley 149" is a view from the small mountain above the Jentel Ranch where I spent a month long residency in November-December 2004. The view is looking across the valley past the railway flat car bridge over the little creek that ran just outside my studio ( just out of view to the right). Most of my Wyoming landscapes of the time contain the relevant route number in the title, and I could easily spend another year eyeballing through the other numbers.
“Valley 149” is a view from the small mountain above the Jentel Ranch where I spent a month long residency in November-December 2004. The view is looking across the valley past the railway flat car bridge over the little creek that ran just outside my studio ( just out of view beneath the ridge to the right). Most of my Wyoming landscapes of the time contain the relevant route number in the title, and I could easily spend another year eyeballing through the other numbers. This one is one of three now in the collection at the new COBank location in the Tech Center.

 

 

Unpacking the Stacks

What’s in the stacks: A quick post of first impressions about the stuff I am currently reading:

Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia: Libertarian feminist Paglia cannot be ignored, though she sometimes seems more interested in stirring up the academic feminists than in tempering her improvisatory, provocative and oft times counter intuitive views. She is determined to start the conversations that dogma tries to end.

Howler Magazine (#8): Subscriptions to this lushly illustrated large format paean to the beautiful game are pricey; I order it when I can. In this issue, I came for the exquisite cover painting of American hero Carli Lloyd attempting to put Sepp Blatter’s head into the net from oh… 53 yards away. I stayed for the strange and wondrous assertion that FC Torino’s legendary Serie A teams of the 40’s were inspired by the direct attacking style of 1927’s New York Giants (the other, other New York Giants, of the ASL).

American Heritage Magazine, December, 1958 issue. Dimly recalled from my father’s bookshelf, then encountered in a used bookstore. Though I’m sure it was the high drama of the die hard Confederate raider C.S.S. Shenandoah that attracted me as a boy, this time it was a long history of the Hudson River from an art and culture standpoint that made me pick it up, plus a story about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love affair with Sophia Peabody.

McSweeney’s #48: When you read one of these precise yet oneiric short stories, say by Kelly Link or Valeria Luiselli, then you suddenly see their work mentioned or displayed everywhere; the NYT, Atlantic, college or independent book stores.

The Tenth of December, George Saunders: horrifying and delicate, like a love letter written in Exacto knife across young flesh. I first discovered him when Fox 8 was published in McSweeney’s, which brought me back to the short story, now my summer evening’s passion.

Colorado: The Artist’s Muse, Hassrick and others: A collection of critical essays on various subjects in early Colorado art history. A companion volume to the Colorado Public Television 12 documentary on Allen Tupper True by my producer friend and former gallerist Joshua Hassel, (who also produced a spot for me). Contains a long, lavishly illustrated article on the Rocky Mountain School, a descendent of the Luminists and the Hudson River School.

The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby: I savored this, as it was perfect in length and tone for the morning and afternoon train. Compact, funny as hell monthly ruminations of what was in Hornby’s own book stack published in McSweeney’s Believer Magazine. Yes- I am writing about reading a book about someone writing about books he may or may not have read. I firmly believe this is what heaven is like, should it actually exist.