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Books, Comics, Music Ideas Reading List

Matters of Style: Small ‘p’ Pop

I don’t often write about art books, which often for me, take the form of technical research, and is thus not as much of an ‘escape’ from the day-to-day grind of what is, after all, a business. The ways in which technique translates to expression are naturally of a major concern, make no mistake, but they’re hard to process, and then write about as general interest topics. I much prefer writing about other people’s graphic solutions, whether as art or comics.

Here’s a nice middle ground: Pressing Matters magazine. It’s a beautifully produced celebration of creative solutions in the graphic arts. Interesting design in magazines is part of what attracted me to alternative comics- Raw magazine sought to highlight the expressive potential of comics by placing them in an attractively formatted magazine, and Pressing Matters does the same for printmakers, by putting them in a coffee table showpiece type of publication. It’s expensive, with shipping placing it in the higher end that international design magazines inhabit, but it understands the appeal of printmaking to artists, designers and collectors.

The magazine is published in England, which has a strong contemporary printmaking scene, but it features artists from around the world as well. It’s diverse and progressive- as in many out of the way areas of the creative economy, women seem to have more access to positions of leadership in printmaking, for example- and it downplays purely technical reportage in favor of a lively and very visual presentation of the final result, the textures, bold color schemes, and spirit of innovative graphic simplicity that forward looking prints communicate. In printmaking, the proof is in the pudding; rarely do pundits and experts extoll it for conceptual leaps, rarely do its practitioners seek to wholly reject the past. It inhabits the gray area between mass communication and stripped down visual syntax. It requires no manifesto, the medium truly is the message.

This is no screed against the loftier aims of painting. Pop art is still, even now, misunderstood because people, even Pop art lovers, almost willfully downplay its conceptual brilliance. Warhol made a complete break from the idea of craft in both printmaking and painting with his deliberate mis-registrations and advertorial iconography. Campbell’s soup cans are camp, not kitsch, and as such, are powerful commentaries on the construction of taste. This must be a huge contributor to the rise of printmaking since abstract expressionist days, and the liberation of printmaking from subsidiary roles as advertising and bourgeois decoration. The prints in Pressing Matters hew most often toward the Mid-Century Modern in style and spirit. Like comics, film posters and Warhol himself, they are a distillation of High Modernism for popular (populist?) tastes, but merely a step from expressionism, or even a Neo-Fauvism, as in zines, mini-comics and punk posters.

The art in Pressing Matters is of a working class, rather than academic, discipline. Pictures of ink-stained wretches are common. There is no Ingres in printmaking. Toulouse-Latrec advertised cabarets; his acolytes, booze and bicycles. Russian Constructivism is a high water mark, and Bauhaus its holy center. Red and black are the colors of revolution, and still hold an honored place in printmaking. The magazine celebrates those colors often, along with the generative void of white space.

There is a transparency of process, rather than transcendent technique, in most images here. It is in modern printmaking’s almost necessary disassembling of illusion and gesture, its ever so slight displacement from craft and perfection, that allows it to seduce the eye, and simultaneously to vaguely disturb assumptions about art, not to mention the means of its production. Pressing Matters zeroes in on this disjunct. Pictures of brayers, talismanic and dripping with candy colors, and presses, the machinery of free expression, often cooperatively owned or shared, symbolize printmakers’ close relationship to the nuts and bolts of creativity and to work. At the same time, making multiples, while it began as a way to make art more accessible, is, as Warhol so succinctly demonstrated, a basic commoditization of it.

Printmakers, art collectors, and fans of popular arts- not to mention magazine design- will see in Pressing Matters a loving and lavish home for one of the humblest of art forms, and the complex histories and aspirations it encompasses.

Illustration of Subject Matter
You can subscribe or order bundles of back issues at pressingmattersmag.com

#pressingmatters #printmaking

Categories
Besties Books, Comics, Music Ideas Reading List

Fast NonFiction

It’s in the nature of comics to feel like light reading. I’m not sure that’s true- I have a Yoshiharu Tsuge book of seminal manga stories that is still waiting for me to settle into a slower routine after MoPrint, as I just don’t feel I can give it the focus it needs. Manga is a bit tricky as the format is backwards, not a natural flow for western eyes, and these early, alt-manga classics are very subtle in construction.

The lightest reading is often non-fiction, especially with an old, familiar subject matter. I put down my medieval histories and picked up a few books on the dark ages in comics themselves: the 70’s and early 80’s, when the Marvel Comics renaissance of Kirby and Lee had slackened, and the alt-comics explosion not yet started. Manga was not widely translated yet.

Undergrounds, widely known, were killed by the Supreme Court’s ‘local standards’ ruling, which led to a crack down on head shops (their distribution network) and raids on bookstores. This is a point made by multiple authors here, notably Roger Sabin. There were stirrings in the mainstream with Heavy Metal bringing Euro-comics to these shores for the first time, and Marvel experimenting with Sci-Fi, and there was Arcade, an attempt to mainstream the UG’s, which failed with the antiquated newsstand network. The direct market (comics shops) was still getting started.

I was embedded in the reddest of states at the time, and non-mainstream comics were literally a distant idea to me. When I got to the city just as the alternative boom was beginning, I caught up quickly. Now the internet makes finding obscure publications easy, but at the time, as disenchantment with mainstream offerings took hold, I figured I’d ‘outgrown’ comics. I was wrong, of course, and eventually became curious about those pre-renaissance years. It’s easy to assume there was a gap, but as always in art, there were things bubbling, half noticed, below the surface.

Adult Comics, An Introduction, by Roger Sabin: I found this, partially unread, 1999 Routledge chestnut on my bookshelf. Sabin is a very insightful writer, with a lot of quirks. One is his desire to elevate the British comics industry’s role in the history of comics history. There was a publishing phenomenon in Victorian England known as ‘comics’, but they were more akin to a humor magazine, with prose features and captioned picture stories. He utilizes this semantic glitch to claim the British invented comics, but I see this as equally chauvinistic as the claim that the Americans did. In the broad perspective, comics seem to have developed along a long continuum from Northern Europe through Britain and then to the US, with each commercializing and advancing the medium (and often, infantilizing it) in greater numbers. The Japanese get ignored in this timeline, I agree, but with few translations available, their rich and somewhat belated innovations had little influence until the 1980’s.

I’d of course ignored the European history narrative that begins the book, in favor of the American half when I first read it. Big mistake. Though the repressed 50’s-60’s were largely irrelevant in Brit comics, the 70’s began a Sci-Fi resurgence that led to the ‘British Invasion’, referring to the appearance of Alan Moore (Watchmen) and numerous others in the American mainstream, which finally killed the Comics Code censorship regime and dragged the Marvel/DC mainstream superhero schtick into more adult territory.

Sabin does detailed research, does not ignore minorities, especially women creators, and provides a vital link between the undergrounds and the coming of the alternatives, a punk fanzine-inspired movement in both Britain and America. He demonstrates clearly how Moore, et al’s desire for creative freedom and creator rights brought them- and those issues- to the US. That, and the concurrent emergence of Raw magazine and others such as Weirdo, were to revolutionize the comics form here.

He is over-reliant on reflexive filler phrases such as ‘It should be noted’. These are empty calories in the literary sense, and annoying as hell. The book is quirky but informative.

Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels, Roger Sabin: Sabin does better with this Phaidon publication from 2004. The larger format, better editing and longer timeline make his case for Brit comics a bit stronger. He puts the undergrounds and punk/alternatives into context with the mainstream, with strong sections on feminist and European (and even Japanese) voices. I’d love to see an update, but he’s put the alternative revolution into an international context here, a valuable statement that I’m sure I’ll go back to often. It sits next to Mazur and Danner’s Comics: A Global History 1968-Present on my shelf, along with Gravett’s Comics Art, as antidotes for the poison of American comics exceptionalism.

Profusely illustrated and intelligently argued, it draws a clear line between the Marvel superhero resurgence, the undergrounds, and the British/Euro revival that led to what he calls “The New Mainstream” and the alt comics renaissance in the US. It does a lot to illuminate the foggy yet significant era of creative and market diversification in the 70’s.

Comix, Dez Skinn: This book drills down deep into the underground comix movement and includes sections on the Brit comics resurgence, and the American alternatives, which it treats as linear outgrowths of the UGs, despite being quite obviously more influenced by the punk/DIY aesthetic of the Thatcher/Reagan years, rather than the hippie movement, as were the undergrounds. But it’s interestingly written and nicely researched, with the glaring exception of the illustrations, which are often shambolic. This is the reason I can’t recommend the book.

It appears to have been self-published, but in any case, no attempt was seemingly made to access publishable images and it’s quite possible that many of them are simply lo-res images skiped from the internet, then blown up to unsustainable size. It’s lazy, unprofessional and distracting. The Phaidon Sabin book is a much better overview if, unlike me, you are interested in just one comprehensive look at the era.

The Book of Weirdo, Jon B. Cooke: Again, this is possibly far more detail on this transitional era than most will want. But Weirdo, 28 issues of underground holdovers, alt-comics future stars and primitive/outsider weirdness, really does do more than any other publication to bridge the gap between the undergrounds and the alternatives now plumping book sales everywhere.

The book is arranged as a quasi-scrapbook of history, interesting sidelights, and then a compendium of contributor memoirs, which forms a fairly compelling, if long-ish oral history of sorts. Robert Crumb founded the magazine, deliberately choosing outsiders and unknowns to go alongside his gorgeous and innovative post-underground autobiography comics and Mad mag style covers. Here, we see just how revered Crumb is among the early alt comics pioneers, his generous and egalitarian nature forming a magazine part incubator, part call-to-action, noted in numerous testimonials. His dark side is not glossed over. The misogynism of Crumb and the undergrounds is mentioned often, especially by female creators. And it was in this periodical that Crumb published the deadpan parody “When the Niggers Take Over America”, which fell decidedly flat among more conscientious artists, and was in fact (illegally) appropriated by Neo-Nazi publications.

Peter Bagge took over editing with #10, moving Weirdo more toward the Punk/zine movement, then Aline Kominsky-Crumb finished up 10 issues later, making an important effort to continue offering a place for female artists, as she had with Twisted Sisters in the 70’s. All three were important threads in what alternative comics were to become: a place for unheard voices.

I’ll add here one of my occasional raw counts of creator gender, from the earliest available (to me) issue by each editor: Crumb, issue #3: 12 male, 1 female; Bagge, #14: 13 m, 2 f; Kominsky-Crumb, #18: 6 m, 5 f. This is regardless of page count, which in the first two might heighten the disparity, and in the last, might tip toward the female. Weirdo‘s ground-level editorial spirit was often compared to Spiegelman and Mouly’s much-lauded and artsier Raw magazine. I’ll include a count for my earliest Raw, #3: 19 m, 3 f. Comics were an area where motivated feminists could make a real difference in pop culture.

So for a confessed comics geek/historian, this is an essential read. There are plenty of illustrations, valuable, as a Weirdo reprint collection does not exist, though copies of the original are pretty moderately priced on the internet. Especially in Kominsky-Crumb’s run, it’s a very important pop culture artifact.

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Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Close Your Eyes and Think of Besties

Over their long rich, history, the Besties have established a tradition of… um, being 3 years old and changing in format every time. Of ignoring SEO-building topics such as best-selling novels and important prose non-fiction to concentrate on the best comics. Of not always focussing on the past year’s comics and being mostly about what my limited budget and the public library gets around to offering. Not even counting down, like a proper, click-bait, end-of-year list, and sometimes starting with the Bestiest. I see no reason to change a winning formula.

A little history: I have honestly always tried to start with books published in the last year or two. Mauretania, Comics From a New World, Chris Reynold’s haunting, dystopian 80’s comics in a new collection by Seth won the first; White Cube, by Brett VandeBroucke, a very penetrating and hilarious satire of the fine arts world, the second, and Pretty Deadly: The Rat, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s noir mystery about 30’s Hollywood, last year.

I have been known to count (known) gender representation in anthologies; So I’ll give a rough count here (excluding anthologies), of white males, versus non-white male, in the 4 years I’ve named names: 30 and 33, respectively. I’ve been known to mention rampant American exceptionalism in comics history; so I’ll give an estimate of North Americans v. European/Japanese: 35 and 19. It looks relatively balanced, though of course, not an exact study.

I’ll add some Resties (honorable mentions), which include things I’ve rediscovered or newly discovered, critical writings and surveys. There will be a Bestiest of the Resties: There was none the first year; the second was Dan Mazur’s and Alexander Danner’s Comics: A Global History, 1968-Present, a much needed, non-American exceptionalist survey of comics from leading producers which opened my eyes to Japan as the first to explore comics’ potential for creative self-expression; and none the third year. I’m bringing it back.

The rules, looking suspiciously like no rules, having been murkily defined, the envelope, please:

Besties: This was a tough one this year. I eliminated a few very good ones, including Coin-Op #8, by Peter and Maria Hoey, that is actually from 2019, but I ordered it this year. The winner is also from 2019, and one of the Resties is from 2017, I just forgot to include it last year. I never got to current books by Tillie Walden and others that will undoubtedly be seen next year. I only now ordered a Tsuge collection that will almost certainly skew next year’s list. There should be an investigation:

Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber, 2021: Matt Fraction wrote the 2011 Marvel series being referenced by Disney+’ Hawkeye series. He brought buddy-movie thrills and spills to that, and now takes on the uber absurd Comics Code era DC comics featuring “Superman’s Pal” and a whole bunch of gorillas and aliens and monstrous transformations that Jimmy went through. So maybe you have to have grown up in the era of the 12-centers to appreciate the humor and the in jokes, but it’s a comic book, for gosh sakes, and Fraction, with all his meta narratives, gets that.

Bradley of Him, Conor Willumsen, 2021: I liked the post-apocalyptic hedonism of Antigone better. Willumsen is always edgy, disturbingly so, and the protagonist here is obsessed, like many of our current public figures, politicians, media figures, celebrities. The setting is Las Vegas, capital of narcissistic obsession. The soft, rubbery pencils only add to the tension, which is of course left unresolved at the end.

Monstress Volume 6, Charlotte Liu and Sana Takeda 2021: These types of ongoing series are tough to judge in installments, as I’ve mentioned before. This horror/fantasy tale is not ended yet, and I never did track down Volume 4 with the library closed for shutdown. But rereading Volume 1 did not dissipate its skin-crawling intrigue and its world-building grandeur, all its steam punk glory and dark tangled relationships. This volume was no different, and if it sometimes felt a bit pot boiler-ish, I’m not ready to make that assessment yet. So did Lord of the Rings, and that’s the echelon this tale aspires to, though it is much more violent and racially charged.

Le Grande Odalisque, Jerome’ Mulot and Florent Ruppert 2021: Three luscious, lusty, bisexually hedonistic women decide to steal an Ingres, arousing all the fire power the police can muster; and I’m sure, the scorn of the cultural guardians, both right and left. But reasonable readers will see these as action heroes with brains, wit and verve. And above all, agency- they drive the spectacular action and the loose limbed art allows for a sexy physicality without the static airbrushed obsessiveness of most action comics. This is a caper movie waiting to happen, with a subtext of revenge sex bringing a tinge of melancholy to the almost non-stop thrills. Traditional, Euro-comics genre with a modern twist.

Bestiest:

Press Enter to Continue, Ana Galvan, 2019: In candy colors, faux offset textures and simple, cipher-like drawings, this Spanish artist offers vaguely surreal stories of people who don’t quite trust their own realities. This is precision paranoia, where tigers appear to feed on the workaday masses, and people dive into pools only to run up into the inside of a TV screen. There is no rhyme or reason to these tales, only a feeling of alienation and dread.

Galvan’s style is evolving quickly. An earlier appearance in Now anthology featured a Steven Weismann-influenced short about two adolescent girl ponies lying to each other as one steals the other’s boyfriend. The pony imagery heightens the sense of loss of innocence. There is the realization that it would be nearly impossible to do this sort of story in TV or film. She has a new book out this month. The drawings are emblematic, almost ideographic, and the combination of words, colors and drawings reads like a new language. You can read it in a half hour ( though it demands to be returned to) and it costs less than $20 and is in fact, art. It’s why I like to do these Besties.

Resties:

Everything is Flammable, Gabrielle Bell: 2017. I don’t seem to have included it when I read it, probably in 2019-20, and I haven’t had the occasion to include any of Bell’s work, which is wry, subtly compelling and quietly hilarious autobiographical diary/memoir comics about her own life. The Voyeurs and Truth is Fragmentary cover her earlier years as an introverted but driven comics artist appearing at comics festivals worldwide.

This is her first full length memoir and tells of her off-the-grid mother’s struggles after losing her house to a fire in Northern California’s notorious Humboldt County. It deals with Bell’s strange ‘feral’ childhood and her fraught relationship with her mom, in light of her stepfather’s abusive behavior. All in simple yet very evocative caricature and subdued color. Again, the quality that I think makes almost all of these comics here appeal to me is that their stories can really only be told in pen and ink.

World Map Room, Yuichi Yokoyama, 2013: A quirky, recondite story of three men traveling into and thru a sprawling city to a mysterious appointment. There is a graphic unity in the way the angular black and white buildings, planes and people interact with the copious (Japanese) sound effects as if Onomatopoeia (sounds) were a player in the strange drama. Remember when Lynch parlayed ambient machine sounds into a sort of subtle steampunk horror in Eraserhead? The whole effect is unease, as if violence were imminent. However, the story remains open ended, with other chapters promised in the author’s notes, which I haven’t found. I found this on CopaceticComics.com, my go-to for catching up on the manga translations of the much lamented PictureBox books, now deceased. I became obsessed with their revivals of Garo-era alt-manga pioneers such as Hayashi and Sugiera, so I’ve been exploring modern Japanese alternatives. Japan, which has the largest comics industry in the world, has been easy to ignore because there are so few canonical translations, but that is ending, and we should pay attention.

Art vs Comics, Bart Beaty, 2012: As revealing about modern art as it is about comics. Understanding Liechtenstein’s appropriation of 50’s juvenile comics is not easy for comics fans, who often see a copyist who made millions. Incorporating pop culture innovations into fine arts is not easy for ‘high’ art aficionados, who often willfully ignore, e.g., Crumb’s obvious influence on Phillip Guston’s best work. These are essays without jargon, and without the reverse snobbery of ‘Team Comics’ that examine important visual truths about comics and art in a balanced way. I’ll be reading it again soon.

Trots and Bonnie, Shari Flenniken, 2021: Underground comics epitomized the underlying sexism of the 60’s ‘free love’ movement, but also provided a voice for the second wave feminist rebuttal. Shari Flenniken’s was a forgotten voice among those of Trina Robbins’, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s, and others’, but no more. Her 70’s National Lampoon series has finally been collected, along with extra material and her comments. Her dark, yet very non puritanical sexual satire satisfies a need for sexual truth to counterbalance the programatic puritanism of both right and left, as evidenced by the fact that they consistently pass the laugh test. She published a new comic ( hilarious!) in a 2020 Rotland Press “Dreadfuls” anthology that was under consideration for this list. We can only hope that means her return to the fray is imminent.

Bestiest of the Resties:

Dal Tokyo, Gary Panter, 2011: I’ve gotten myself on a another Gary Panter jag. This was originally started with my Raw magazine obsession during the punk years, and revived by a purchase of Cola Madnes on the Copacetic site, from their ‘Deals’ section, which I plunder regularly, looking for gems that escaped my attention or budget first time around. Panter filters American pop culture through his own experience, separating signal from noise in dense, punk-inflected images.

Dal Tokyo is a 4 panel comic strip, first serialized in the L.A. Reader in the mid-80’s, then in Japan’s Riddim magazine in the mid-90’s through the oughts. It takes place on Mars, in a colony populated by Japanese and Texan immigrants (‘Dal’), but the original storyline peters out during its second run.

What’s fascinating about Dal Tokyo is the ways it pushes the the then dying strip medium forward at a time when other formats were beginning to emerge to stretch comics’ legs creatively. This was post-underground comics and in the middle of the punk/zine/ DIY wave of the late 70’s early 80’s.

Panter’s ‘ratty line’, an ironic, expressionistic commentary on Herge’s ‘clear line’ and classic strip masters such as Caniff, rather than a repudiation of those things, is emblematic of his punk roots. It sometimes obscures the real innovations he brought, and his relation to classic masters, such as even Winsor McKay, whose fantastic world-building Panter equals in this noir sci-fi. It relates to his harrowing Jimbo Adventures in Paradise (1988, recently re-released by New York Review Books), and the punk slapstick Cola Madnes (early 80’s, unpublished until PictureBox rescued it in 2000).

This Fantagraphics edition is 6 1/4” high, a big improvement over previous collections. But these are not the only innovations that a larger edition is good for. Panter, in Dal Tokyo, has also revived the lost art of page design in comic strips. While 3-4 panel dailies have not featured this in decades, since Milton Caniff, few explore its potential like Panter, who creates kinetic 4-panel vistas on dynamic diagonals with cross-hatched grays vying with blacks and whites.

I doubt it’s an aesthetic reach to ascribe his layered darks and lights to Japanese Edo printmaking, as Panter is a) a printmaker, and b) clearly interested in Japanese culture. At the same time, it’s arguable that this is the last of the great comic strips. Paradise and Madnes were conceived as graphic novels, however segmented and fragmentary they are. Dal Tokyo was always a strip, four panels put out at regular intervals (first weekly, then monthly).

By the second run, Panter had changed his style, working with nibs instead of Rapidograph, and his narrative approach, from sci-fi noir to abstract free association words and pictures. Yet the first two (-ish) years of Dal Tokyo, which is not part of the Jimbo stories, but features Okupant X, a kindred soul, continues Panter’s exploration of the everyman’s search for meaning in a dystopian society.

We who are passionate about the music of the era have often failed to see the fragmented poetry of Panter’s punk comics art, and how it tread a pioneering path between high and low art, as John Carlin so well described in Masters of American Comics. Dal Tokyo’s spotty publishing history shouldn’t obscure its achievement.

Note: I would provide an image here, as it would definitely be fair use, but both Besties are published by Fantagraphics, which has an extremely restrictive excerpt policy.

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List Uncategorized

Reading Edge:

Place With Stars and Dragonflies, Monotype, 2021, 21×15″. This image combines trace monotype with relief elements, and kicked off a series of existential chair images I used to explore presence and objective reality.

An extended period of downtime following a very successful Summer Art Market, and the end of my part time day job in a college bookstore is to blame for a lengthy lack of posts. This list of abbreviated book blurbs is a pretty good summary of what I’ve been up to as I emptied out my days with a view to building a new routine.

Classes and studio work have continued, of course. And with MoPrint ’22 fast approaching, a bit more urgency will be needed there. But for now, the order of the day for the last few weeks has been coffee and books- with excursions to bookstores to stack literature, non fiction, comics and art like cordwood against the bitter winds building.

Here’s a downpayment, culled from a diary I keep where often these thoughts first appear. There’s no theme, to the blurbs at least- the daybook includes a lot of rumination on what time and work actually are- and perhaps I should try to bring those deeper contemplations here sometime, but for now, just the books.

Bradley of Him, Connor Willumsen’s newest, was a bit too complex for just one reading. This is the downside to library books. Like Antigone, about slackers in a vaguely post-apocalyptic beach town, it was palpably brilliant, but hard to describe why. Extreme protagonist meets slightly dystopian hyper-capitalist paradise in Las Vegas. In both books, art that is watery and a tinge neurotic with narcissistic characters seemingly unaware of the strangeness they are immersed in.

Stroppy, Marc Bell: Again, I originally read it from the library, and decided when finances loosened up, to reread and add it to my shelf. Stroppy is an oafish schlemiel in a dystopian urban oligarchy, where even art is in service to the powers that be. Bell invokes E.C. Segar (Popeye) and mini-golf to tell the tale of a song contest that perpetuates a pop culture kleptocracy.

Bell is a central figure in the ongoing mini-comics/zine subculture, which small websites make it easier to experience. However, he’s long since broken through into mainstream publishing, not to mention gallery sales and this is just one of his highly entertaining hardcover albums. I also picked up Pure Pajamas, a collection of his alternative press weekly strips.His artistic lineage, after Segar, stretches through Crumb and even Phillip Guston, before looping back around to Rube Goldberg. An amazing talent, whose deadpan protagonists are always being imposed upon, and even physically occupied, by other characters.

S! #32 Kus: A pocket sized anthology, published in Latvia, of alt comics auteurs from around the world, in this case, Japan. They are available from online sellers such as Copacetic, or John Porcellino’s Spit-and-a-Half. This one, however, I found at Matter, the letterpress/bookshop on Market St. It’s well worth the trip on a Rockies away day. They also publish single-artist mini comics as Mini Kus.

The artists featured here belong to a later era of Garo magazine and other current publications, and thus provide a view of the current state of alt comics in Japan. Here, and in AX, a collection of alt manga published in 2010, the interchange with American styles seems more apparent, than in Garo’s earlier days, which took cues from pop art and French Nouvelle cinema. Fort Thunder influences are visible and Heta Uma (bad/good) styles the equivalent of the comics brut of Johhny Ryan, et al, are prominent. Who influenced who I can’t say, but these comics lack the sense of Japanese cultural ferment that the early manga pioneers like Hayashi and Sugiera drip with. Not that there aren’t some very intriguing short pieces here, and the internationalization of comics is sort of implicit in the Kus! project to begin with, but the downside of anthologies is you get only a quick glance at a given artist. The small format may also inhibit real engagement, but there are definitely artists here I intend to look for. One, Yuichi Yokoyama, I already found and sent for from the Copacetic site, and it’s in a stack of things I’m saving for when the flurries fly.

Bad Ball, Samplerman: Samplerman is a French comics artist who cuts up and reassembles old comics to create surreal adventures. Again the small format in this Mini Kus may not be optimal, as I’ve seen him play in a piece in Scratches with intricately shaped panels to bring the negative space of the gutters ( space between panels) into play, and here he limits himself to a 6 panel grid. Thus, the vibe is sort of constrained surrealism, like the early Dr. Strange comics by Ditko, or even the cluttered strangeness of Ogden Whitney’s Herbie.

Gold Pollen, Seiichi Hayashi: This is also a reread after I got it from the library a couple of years ago, then found the book online for a decent price. It’s rare to find it under $75, partially because it’s a beautiful book published by the sadly departed PictureBox of Dan Nadel, with a very interesting essay by Ryan Holmberg.

Nadel was an apparently huge part of the re-discovery of Garo Magazine-era manga of the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve become a bit obsessed with these artists and Holmberg is part of the reason, as he explicates Japanese culture both pre-WWII, and in the turbulent years of Garo‘s establishment as the first magazine devoted to alternative, avant garde comics in the world, in 1964. Our ingrained American exceptionalism makes this massive contribution to the art of comics easy to ignore, but at the time, Marvel’s angsty but violent superheroes were about it in this country for those looking for comics for an adult sensibility. Even Undergrounds and the often adolescent boob-a-licious sci-fi of Heavy Metal were still in the future. Not so in Japan, where dramatic gekiga manga led to a real avant garde.

Hayashi and others, such as Tsuge, Sugiera and Tezuka were experimenting with Pop Art and avant garde Carnaby Street graphics and French New Wave cinema as inspiration for their charged stories of relationships and change in Japan.

Hayashi is not easy to find here. I’ve tracked down 3 of the 4 collections that have been published in English. Red Colored Elegy, about doomed, disaffected lovers is his masterpiece, but one will want the title story in this collection as well, a tensely constructed minimalist visual symphony. Mike Mignola’s measured cinematic pacing and love of folklore in Hellboy might offer a hint of what Hayashi was doing while Marvel’s The Thing was immersed in clobberin’ time, but that would not do justice to Hayashi’s sense of ordinary people caught between a fascist past and a hyper capitalist occupier.

Valley, GG: Ordered this Mini Kus from Copacetic after running across She’s Not There at the library. Misty images, disturbing implications, and ambiguous plot lines in both.

Comic Arf, Craig Yoe: This is an odd project; a bit of an ego trip, but not without merit.On one hand, it’s over designed, with not much to say about the artists it presents, and is editorially dodgy as it attempts to shoehorn Yoe’s own mediocre work as an equal to the accomplished past professionals. Those artists, however, are very interesting, and some I’d never heard of. He employs current illustrators as part of his design, which adds to the jumble, but certainly leads to some nice individual pieces. There’s a great Milt Gross feature, “Draw Your Own Conclusions” in which current cartoonists complete Gross cartoons originally offered for readers to finish. There’s nothing wrong with having Gross and other classic cartoonists on one’s bookshelf. But it lacks the editorial/design unity of Scratches or Blab.

Cola Madnes, Gary Panter: which gets too much credit in the afterword for being a masterpiece, but which is an early, fairly improvisatory Panter romp that features the mutually disaffected characters and post industrial wasteland of his Daltokyo and other classic punk comics. The graphics are amazingly… graphic. “Ratty line” is a common descriptive for Panter’s slashing, textural ink work, but his rich blacks are always well placed and add depth and detail to his dystopian suburbia. It’s mostly hyper grungy, hyper violent slapstick, and I keep wanting to assign manga influences to it that may not really be there, but it was originally intended for Japanese publication before being shelved for 20 years so the urge is irresistible. Very interesting item, and I want to re-read other Jimbo I have.

Comics vs. Art, Bart Beatty: Always a fascinating subject, and ambivalence is of course high- I’m not one to denigrate Pop Art, or to deride its superficiality, which is actually a big part of its complex point. This is a facile trap that “Team Comics” often falls into, though thankfully not Beatty. Nor do I consider war and romance comics of the 50’s to be under appreciated artistic gems. I have a respect for Kirby, Heath, even Novick, from the pulp escapes of my youth, but for the most part, I do not attempt to elevate them as high art.

Nonetheless, the appropriation of the imagery in all the great museums is a bit troubling. Russ Heath gives it a wry reflection in a one pager about his image Whaam!, appearing at MOMA ( the painting is actually a mash-up of panels from Heath, Novick, and Jerry Grandinetti, from two comics that Liechtenstein undoubtedly bought at the same time from the same newsstand. One imagines an unknown but soon to be wealthy artist being regarded a loser as he buys comics on the street. Or one does if one is an unknown artist who often buy comics on the street.) “Quotidian” is about the most complementary term I’ve seen applied to the original work in several sources, including Comics vs, and Wikipedia. Nonetheless, the original imagery was conceived by these artists, took time and effort, and often displayed a level of compositional creativity that clearly places it above the sort of mundane disposable image Liechtenstein and co. implies it is. This is a common stereotype in all graphics. While the irony in “Whaam!’ Is all Liechtenstein’s, Heath was certainly no stranger to camp and irony, having executed Michael O’Donahue’s hilariously arousing bondage/romance/war/western comics parody Cowgirls At War in National Lampoon. Buxom dommes and subs, viewed through binoculars in blasted landscapes. We don’t know how much of that is in O’Donaghue’s script, and how much Heath’s imagination, but what is suppressed in pop culture is often telling. While Ditko struggled to realize comics’ creative potential on Dr Strange in the work-for-hire sweatshops of Marvel, he was also inking Eric Stanton’s luscious underground kink across the studio they shared. In the case of war comics, the industry was not interested in irony, and with the exception of Kurtzman and co., rarely even questioned the morality of war.

Collectors certainly have always valued these originals, to an extent, but they never approached the cultural cache of Kirby’s superheroes, let alone Liechtenstein’s appropriations. My search on ebay for All American Men of War #89 ( the “first appearance” of the “Whaam!” image) brought up a listing at $325 in nice condition with Liectenstein’s name in the heading (not Novick’s, as would be the case in most comics listings). Another comic in similar condition from the same era, same Johnny Cloud character, AAMW #100, Heath’s name in the heading, is asking $30. However, for whatever reason, interest in these books is higher than I recall, whether Roy gets credit, or not.

This is an interesting book, very readable ( like most comics critics, excepting Thierry Groensteen, Beatty proudly eschews the lit theory jargon) and raising ponderables about both high and low arts.

Worst.President.Ever. Robert Strauss: Not about who one would think, published in early 2016, with a title that was outdated by the end of that year. James Buchanan, the last president to have a chance at avoiding the Civil War, provides a parallel lesson to today in what happens when personal ambition *trumps* civic responsibility. While 15 was not as corrupt as 45, he apparently was just as willing to adopt a racist stance to further his career. Sometimes a bit frothy, sometimes a bit sketchy on the research, but certainly timely, in a weird sort of way.

Robinson, Muriel Spark: Robinson is a recluse on a small island, onto which our heroine’s plane crashes. With a controlling hermit and 3 marooned strangers, suspicion is high, and human nature being what it is, there is tension. Spark, like Hemingway, packs a lot of meaning into the simplest of sentences.

Trots and Bonnie, Shary Flenniken: NYRB resurrects this unfairly forgotten 70’s gem from the pages of National Lampoon. Flenniken wields the subversive power of second wave feminism combined with utter, tits out horniness and narrative anarchy to come up with an authentic statement about growing up during the war of the sexes and the necessity of comics and other pop culture for social change. In other words, it’s hard to believe that voices like Flenniken’s, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s and Julie Doucet’s would have been heard without the relatively accessible medium of comics to provide a platform.

The back material, including interview, sketches and annotations, is a real plus. Many of these cartoons, especially the earliest, are laugh out loud funny. Like many at this time, Flenniken brilliantly reprises, then revivifies early newspaper comics’ styles to move the medium back into its rightful place as pop cultural touchstone. This was America’s reply to Garo Magazine’s creative experimentation, and a precursor to Raw. The rise of female cartoonists is one of the Underground era’s most redemptive features. How about some new material, Ms Flenniken?

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Reading Edge:

The promised end of quarantine is just as slow to arrive as the sun. Snow and rain, which we’ve had a lot of, means movies and books. Mostly movies, these days, but that leaves room for larger book reviews. This post has sort of a theme, but begins with a personal weakness of my always associative reading agenda, a book on books.

The Book, Keith Houston: I get geeked out about books. That’s the point of this column. Books on books? Better not get me started. Oops- too late. The Book, with its cute diagrammatic design and very definitive-sounding subtitle: “A Cover-To-Cover Exploration Of The Most Powerful Object Of Our Time”, was always going to be a must-read.

However, this isn’t the book that I hoped, or fantasized, that it would be: a wholistic examination of books’ development, including the intellectual matter of their effect on culture. Despite the subtitle, little was really said about what makes books powerful.


Instead the narrative stuck close to the nuts and bolts of how the physical item developed, interesting, but not really as powerful as the ideas therein. It made for what is properly speaking, historical trivia- highly readable, take my word for it- but not essential to the understanding of just how books came to be so entrenched in our intellectual landscapes.


To be fair, at 325 pages of mostly fascinating details, there was little room to stop and contemplate the insistent whisper of the flipping leaves. But a discussion of Audobon’s The Birds of North America left one aching for at least some acknowledgement of the sweeping changes in ordinary life that the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible, or science tomes and maps, and maybe even the appearance of the novel, brought.


On the other hand, a fairly concise history of printmaking is found here, a real joy for a printmaker. Paper, we forget, is one of the great innovations in human invention, and here we are reminded. The internet- an earthshaking development in our own lifetimes- but can it compare with the only slightly more distant inception of mechanical presses- mass media? Again, the relationship between commercial printing and the spread of images and info among a rapidly expanding middle class is not touched on. The Book needs context, something that the object itself helped invent. That book is out there, I’m sure, or will be. This book provides diversion for bibliophiles, but only points out the need for something that gives books a bit more their due, culturally speaking.

Red Red Rock and Other Stories, 1967-70, Seichi Hayashi: An elegant trade paperback, published by Breakdown Press in England (2016), It is still available at cover price, unlike others of Hayashi’s work in English. It contains one of Ryan Holmberg’s excellent essays on the history and influences of manga which really add to the richness of Hayashi’s topical, Pop Art-influenced short stories. There are 4 collections of Hayashi’s pioneering early alt manga that have been published, including Red Colored Elegy, a moody, impressionistic tale of a relationship smothered by ennui, and Gold Pollen and Other Stories, which I’ve read, but which is impossible to buy for a reasonable price. I attribute this to Hayashi’s status as a landmark creator in the history of comics, but also to the sheer beauty and attention to detail of Picture Box’s publications before they went out of business.

This one makes for a great overview of Hayashi starting with early efforts in a sort of Euro/satirical leftist journal style, and gradually progressing to his peak style, which incorporates elements of Warhol’s Pop Art, Carnaby Street commercial animation, and even French New Wave cinema. Hayashi is to be considered integral with the Japanese Angura (underground) of the late 60’s, as Holmberg demonstrates.

Remember, all that American comics at this time had to offer to those interested in comics as a creative medium were the innovative but bombastic Marvels, and the raunchy, rowdy undergrounds. Europe was beginning to explore adult genre, such as sci-fi and crime, but the Japanese were the first to truly push the boundaries of the medium, through Hayashi, Sugiera, and and others associated with Garo magazine. Manga is impossible to ignore now, and these spare and thoughtful comics are part of the reason why.

Mysterious Underground Men, Osamu Tezuka: Another Picture Box product that is hard to find at a reasonable price. Again, it’s well designed, contains a Holmberg essay, and is a seminal manga artifact, being published in this country for the first time since its 1947 appearance in Japan.

Unlike the Hayashi and Tsuge works mentioned here, it is clearly aimed at children, and heavily influenced by Disney’s Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, not to mention Flash Gordon serials. But in it, as Holmberg explains, we see a first departure from Nansensu (nonsense) manga for children and toward Gekiga, the ‘dramatic pictures’ that paved the way for Japan’s groundbreaking Garo magazine in the 60’s. Tezuka himself, after starting the equally influential Astro Boy, embraced alternative visions, and started his own similar magazine, Com.

Red Flowers, Yoshiharu Tsuge.: This title story is probably the first manga I ever read, tipped into the pages of Raw Magazine Number Seven ( 1985), the infamous “Torn Again” issue, which also included a small section of alternative manga ( my first encounter with the wondrous strange Shigeru Sugiera). I was impressed by the story, a lush, bittersweet tale of children growing up in rural Japan, but didn’t see enough things like it to place it into context until I read an overview of alternative manga in the very excellent Comics: A Global History, by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner. I began seeing collections pop up on the lists of fave publishers Picture Box and D&Q. This is the importance of good criticism and book editing; it is a form of curation, and the medium needs that. I recommend those above-mentioned starting points for sorting through the vast befuddling landscape of manga, but I’m sure there are others.

I mention all this because the complete original collection is about to be released for the first time in English in the Fall as part of a series of Tsuge collections by Drawn and Quarterly. I’m not saying that this, too, will shoot up into hundreds of dollars on the secondary market, but it’s clear that the pioneers of alternative manga are starting to finally attract attention. They went a long way to making the medium appropriate for adult reading around the world, and they certainly deserve it.

Manga- Japanese comic books, simply put, are another aspect of how ideas and culture spread themselves to all corners through a simple codex of sheaves of paper.

Categories
Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Besties! I’m Going Off the Rails On a Crazy Train ( of Thought)

It’s been quite a year already, obviously. It hasn’t always seemed appealing to spend time on book blurbs, but the book blurbs must go on. They provide a bit of needed stability in a chaotic world.

End of year means: Besties! My own small contribution to listomania, postponed while the Qnazis blew off steam and the GOP felt comfortable enough to get back to white supremacist apologetics. Besties are limited, by design, to comics, allowing me to avoid the traffic jam with mainstream prose. They are now, officially, a ‘tradition’, meaning I’ve done it a few times, and a couple of them have even come out similar. That sort of intimates that there are parameters: 1. There is a list of stuff that came out this year, or close enough. In this case, Rusty Brown, which I wouldn’t have been able to finish before last year’s end, to squeeze it onto a 10 year list. So it got bumped back. 2. A list of stuff that came out in collections or critical/bibliographical works, to which I’m adding past works I discovered this year. 3. Honorables ( Resties) will include both categories this year. 4. They’re comics, of course. I read a bunch of good prose, but everybody does prose, and those are in the month to month Reading Edge lists, yes, but I style comics as my niche, as they touch on both graphics and literature, thus fitting into the blog’s manifesto ( I fancy). 5. A Clunker, a woulda coulda shoulda been bestie that wasn’t necessarily awful, just disappointing.

As one expects, this is a mainstream (Here, DC), but did include an alt title, What’s a Paintoonist? last year. Besties are of course biased, as I tend to choose alt titles to read or take home from the library anyway. Especially during lockdown, with the library closed, and trips to the mainstream/fan boy store limited, most acquisitions were through my cadre of small press web sites and specialty shops. I try new things, of course, but it’s still mostly all about my tastes and expectations. Nonetheless, mainstream titles such as Hawkeye have made the list each year, and did again this year.

My Reading Edge posts are meant to track a stream of conscious reading program, that expands according to my curiosity and day to day musings. They’re meant to track my train of thought. I can’t be the only one whose train of thought went off the rails this year, whether from virus anxiety, or election anxiety? There was presumably less output from publishers both large and small, and more time to search the nooks and crannies of the internet for obscure stuff. Here it is:

The Angriest Dog In the World, David Lynch, Rotland Press: A rather dunder-headed review in The Comics Journal tried to pass off its lazy thinking on this little gem as an expose of this as a ‘ celebrity vanity project’. A massive critical howler. The print run was 500 @ $10, hardly enough to pay for a nice wicker basket to hold the residual checks from Blue Velvet, and thus, not in the same neighborhood as vanity, coming closer to the zip code assigned to charity, as Rotland Press, the small Detroit publisher that marries the subversive wit of the comics with the craft and social urgency of printmaking, must have thanked their lucky stars to even have David Lynch read their proposal. There was also the suggestion that its static repetitions and arid ironies disqualified it from real consideration as a comic, when it is really, the newspaper comic to end all newspaper comics, as Lynch brilliantly intended. And anyone who doesn’t think Lynch has a sense of humor, hasn’t really understood Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. There is more humor in the Julie Cruise/sawmill opening credits in Twin Peaks than a pound of Nancy strips, whose minimalist aesthetic Lynch only amplifies in Dog, and which are lionized by critics.

I first saw this comic in Westword alternative weekly in the 80’s and immediately understood that 1. I really didn’t need to even read it regularly to get its subversive humor and elegant message ( which in fact IS its humor and message), and 2. My days of scooping up the Living section in the break room at work and flipping to the comics section were nearly over. I mean, why? Even Mutts is more tribute than triumph.

The Angriest Dog strains at the end of its chain in an industrial wasteland of art history, paralyzed by the formulaic expectation of newspaper comics ( Goodbye, Garfield) and the toxic irony of modern humor ( Hello, Zippy). The only thing it’s missing is the T.J. Eckleburg billboard from Gatsby. To paraphrase and expand the famous line about Bushmiller’s Nancy: It’s easier to read it, than it is to explain to yourself why you shouldn’t bother to read it. And this slender volume is no chore to read, anyway. It really didn’t need to be that large to point out Americans’ crippling fear of conceptual art, or even (see: 2020 election results) critical thinking.

David, Bianca Bagnarelli, McSweeney’s (57): A very quiet and elegant story about the tragedy and ubiquity of missed connections published as a separate comic in McSweeney’s. After McS #13, curated and MC’ed by Chris Ware, I was hoping for a real steady presence of McS in the comics world, but it never really happened. Publishing sibling Believer did curate a steady comics page, though. This belongs to the Adrian Tomine/ Jillian Tamaki school of understated, somewhat autobiographical literary comics that blazed a trail into the bookstore market in the 90’s and which now seems to have taken up residence in the YA explosion. This makes it hard to track, as not all YA comics appeal to, or are marketed to adults, yet not all are exclusively rewarding for young adults (whatever that is- like the term ‘graphic novel’ it seems to describe a sales opportunity, rather than a real demographic). An essay in The Comics of Chris Ware describes the pitfalls of trying to summarize the rapidly exploding renaissance in comics. For one thing, this is a medium that many still equate with the genre of superhero science fiction, and communicating its diversity to those who labor under that stereotype is hard, in a few sentences, at least. This lovely little psychological drama will go a long way toward that end.

Los Angeles Times, anthology: One person who’s put a lot of time and thought into how to present that renaissance is Sammy Harkham, the editor of the estimable, yet still rowdy, Kramer’s Ergot anthology, still the best single publication to find out what’s going on in modern comics. Kramer’s is the opposite of the YA category, in that it’s probably the first place young adult comics readers go when they chafe at being categorized as young adults. KE has its roots in the alt comics and minis and zines of the 80’s and onward, but it knows its comics history and it gets that Gary Panter can be punk/zine icon, yet still be an influential creator today.

Anyhoo, not The L.A. Times. Harkham edits this tabloid supplement, so it’s like a newsprint Kramers with a very representative selection of vets and newbies. It may still be available (for a penny!) from CopaceticComics.com. And it’ll help cure the lengthy itch until the next Kramers comes out.

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware: Though this is only the first part, and most of it was previously published since a while now, its emergent themes of emotional distance, intersection, and personal fantasy, though not resolved here, make this another Ware work to keep an eye on. Its inherent structure is fragmented, so it’s not productive to speculate on how the eventual whole may stack up to his others, such as Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories. Its narrative schema, such as diagrammatic layouts, exploded time and cinematic pacing, do not always seem as incisive as in previous works, but he’s come up with a more diverse cast of disaffected losers than ever. The implied theme of fantasy as a substitute for love holds real intrigue and is given a more central place than his previous work.

It’s sort of a must read if you want to understand the big picture that is the comics medium right now.

And the Bestiest of the Besties is: Pretty Deadly: The Rat, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios with Jordy Bellaire: Which started in late ’19, but which did not finish till early ’20, thus pushing it onto this year’s list ( I bought it, impatiently, in the traditional ‘floppy’ form, the ‘graphic novel’ compilation should be out by now). As teased in the intro, the Bestiest this year, is indeed, a mainstream book by Image, though Image is of course, the company that changed mainstream comics publishing forever by offering creator owned comics.

This could, back in its first volume, The Shrike, be pinned into a genre or two ( let’s go with Goth Folk Feminist Western), but now mostly inhabits its own mythology. The Rat does touch down in noir mystery and also on the silhouette animation of Lotte Reiniger, and the decadence of 30’s Hollywood infuses it like opium. Here, as in all 3 volumes (The Shrike; The Bear; now, The Rat) we follow members of one family, and they must find meaning in death. Kelly Sue DeConnick, fresh from a consultancy and cameo with Captain Marvel of the MCU offers a strange, complex mythology that encompasses feminist, racial and artistic-folkloric allusion and there are two more volumes to go. It gives up its secrets reticently. If it existed only to offer a venue for Emma Rios’ swirling, shadowy double page spreads, and Jordy Bellaire’s acidic and “acid”-tinged colors it wouldn’t fall much on this list.

It’s a defining principle of this list and really, most of my reading that art doesn’t really exist or succeed until inscrutable concepts have been invoked. Pretty Deadly builds a world where the inscrutable is part of the landscape, as is war, murder, sexual betrayal and art and love. Only DeConnick knows where it’s headed, but comics may be headed there with it.

The Resties: These are my Honorable Mentions, and I’m including older stuff that I have just now gotten to, compilations just published, and critical works in this category as well.

Scratches #1, 2 ,Scratch Books, 2016-18: A European anthology; a natural successor to Raw Magazine, edited by one of its European alums. I had a hard time tracking these down, especially with limited funds for shipping and the cover price of its large trade book format. I finally found #1 through a British seller on Abe Books, and #2 through Canada’s Conundrum Press. And they’re both definitely worthy of the trouble and expense.

They differ from Kramers, the go-to anthology for cutting edge comics in the USA, in that they naturally focus on Euro cartoonists, though not exclusively. In this way, they do resemble Raw Mag more than Kramers, though there is some overlap. Ligne Clair (think Tintin’s successors) is the dominant style here, unsurprisingly. Joost Swarte, editor/publisher was at the vanguard of the clear line revival, which was propelled in this country by his and others’ appearances in Raw. However, we also see plenty of what I’ve called Cartoon Brut, always filtered through a Euro sensibility rather than the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad, style, e.g.: Bret Vanderbroucke, last year’s Bestiest. And Euro comics, like Manga, have their own unique threads to follow, such as Brecht Evens’ watercolor surrealism, a vaguely disquieting transposition of traditional children’s book imagery into sexual suggestion.

I guess we’re due for a #3, but who knows what virusworld has done to their scheduling.

Pig Tales/Cartoon Workshop, Paper Rad, Picture Box, 2007: I found this at the CopaceticComics.com store, always a useful site, see above. Big haired pigs party down in a garish materialistic world, with a flip book of Hanna-Barbera look-a-likes and Chuck Norris. Paper Rad/Paper Radio/ Paper Rodeo were early pioneers of Cartoon Brut, but also multimedia art and performance. They have existed where art and comics merge. So too, Picture Box, a much lamented publisher that closed in 2011, who also put out the gloriously eclectic Ganzfeld Magazine, and strange Manga artifacts (below).

The Last of the Mohicans, Shigeru Sugiera; Cigarette Girl, Masahiko Matsumoto; Red Colored Elegy, Seiichi Hayashi; Picture Box, 2011; Top Shelf, and D&Q, 2013: Strange Manga artifacts from the Garo Magazine era. I’m cheating here; these do not really relate to each other, except for being part of a creative explosion in Manga ca. 1964-79, while the alternatives in Europe and America were barely beginning to stir. It was predictable that when I finally made time for Manga, it would expand exponentially in my personal canon. I continue to obsessively haunt obscure websites for more classic Manga.

Mohicans actually predates Garo, the world’s first alternative comics anthology from 1964 onward. It was published as part of the nansensu (nonsense) style for kids in the 50’s and was re-done for the 70’s Garo-inspired comics boom in Japan. It brings the occupation-era Japanese fascination with America culture to a creative fever with Sugiera’s genius for pastiche. Here the James Fenimore Cooper plot serves as a scaffold for swipes from American westerns and superhero tropes in the big-eye manga style.

Later, The Ganzfeld, in their “Japanada” issue published a Sugiera story that conflated Rasputin’s Russian Revolution legends, faux Japanese folk art figures, and Utrillo village scapes that has to be seen to be believed.

Cigarette Girl tells quotidian tales of 60’s Japanese working class strivers dealing with traditional stricture in romance and love. They are quiet stories told in simple drawings, and would be easy to pass over in the hectic publishing world of pre pandemic comics. But during the lockdown, with DPL closed I was unable to return it, and read it twice, as it grew and grew on me. It captures an atmosphere of self repression accompanying the economic miracle, and prior to the youth quake of ’68, of which Garo would have been part.

Red Colored Elegy had been on my reading list for months until I could find bandwidth for it with the virus, election and Klown Koup raging. Its masterful use of inked textures and white space, along with commercial images and nouveau cinematic pacing make it a landmark in comics, comparable with Krazy Kat and Segar’s Popeye, Superman and Batman, and the Marvel heroes before it; and Raw Magazine, Love and Rockets and the alternatives after it. It aspires to high art, like all the best popular media.

There’s a clunker– there will probably always be a clunker, something not necessarily unreadable-though this year’s comes close- but something that could have been much, much better:

Harleen, Stepan Sejic, DC: Ugh. Sejic’s juicy computer assisted art and clever plot twists redeemed Sunstone, an overlong series plagued with plot churn and a didactic approach to its subject, bondage and S&M sex. In that, an insecure blonde finds romantic joy by channeling her creative energies, and making emotional connection, albeit while tied up in latex outfits. A creative woman making positive change in her life without betraying her fondness for sexual submission, a nice breath of fresh air in the BDSM stereotyping so prevalent in pop culture, which often sees sexual fantasy as inseparable from sickness.

Here, the insecure blonde is back, but we all know how the story ends: Harleen falls under the Joker’s psychotic spell to become the fan boys’ fave manic pixie, Harley Quinn. I can’t really judge it fairly, but only because I couldn’t bear to finish it. I read Volume I, that’ll have to do. Perhaps there is an attempt at a redemptive twist later. Harleen, who suffers a cartoonish amount of slights to her abilities, is somehow placed in charge of the DC Universe’s most dangerous criminal. There is no hint of agency or consent here, only an implicit equation of psychopathology with sexual bliss, which surely must allude to primitive origins of the word hysteria? There must be a less pathetic woman than this somewhere in the DCU to star in a comic? Someone who is able to separate fantasy from professional relationships? Someone who is in charge of both her career and her love life.

I’ll go on record right now: I see nothing wrong about a cartoon with nice tits. A nice fantasy, and fantasy is necessary to a healthy inner life. But this is a cartoon with nice tits masquerading as an empowered woman, which makes a complete mockery of any real world issues that cartoon might touch on, which in this gritty crime tale, are many and complex. Fantasy sometimes can’t negotiate those complexities, which is why it’s fantasy. Let’s not pretend it’s realism. This story’s attempt at psychological nuance is clumsy, to say the least.

Sometimes the most impassioned feminists lack the subtlety and nuance to address the complexities of fantasy life, but I can see why they might see a character like this as a threat to progressive, healthy thinking.

That’s Besties for a 2020 of turmoil. I’m having a blast in the studio lately, and will put up a #WorkinProgress post soon.

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Culture wars Ideas Politics Soccer World Cup

Reading Edge: The World is Round

It goes without saying that reading is a good escape. The process itself, of converting symbolic words into imaginary visual images, is absorbing and a form of fantasy. Fantasy is probably necessary to a creative human life, but now, with creative and social freedoms under severe repression from a political order that seeks to colonize truth and harness fantasy in service to the big lie, it’s essential to understand its power.

No more powerful shared fantasy exists than sport , as measured by the passions it excites. No sport has launched more fantasy than football- the kind you play with your feet- a cultural practice that David Goldblatt points out cogently in his exhaustive study of its history, is common to more of the world’s people than any other. No religion, language, cuisine, or most certainly, other sport, can match its hold on the sheer numbers of people football beguiles.

Consisting of infinite complexity within the frame work of a very simple structure, it’s the scaffolding upon which billions of wishes, hopes, playing styles and cultural attitudes are hung, a shared dream.

Within my four walls with a pandemic virus raging outside, and a cynical, uncaring thugocracy in place in the White House, time to kill and a more than virulent need for escape, it’s become a comfort. It helps to have a new TV, which the long dark approaching winter of a quarantined society almost demanded.

New streaming services, in a jostle for customers are offering cheap packages, and mine provides football from some of its artisanal centers, such as Germany, Italy, Holland and England. It’s rarely noted, but one thing that separates football from insular American league sports is international play, and so competitions range from national leagues of cities and towns to Champions Leagues of top clubs from each country, to Nations Leagues of whole countries vying for continental championships, to of course, the World Cup, a true world championship in which each of over 200 sanctioned nations around the world is eligible to compete.

There is no ‘offseason’, no recovery day, no ‘wait til next year’. The game is an engine of dreams, an escape into the infinite variety of human ambition and athletic creativity. So it’s perfect for a quarantine.

The rest of the world, by virtue of not having a corrupt goon leading it, is now mostly on the way to limiting the virus. After a short shutdown, most leagues are now back in operation, and with an obsessive agenda of making up game fixtures lost. So there’s a LOT of football on right now, albeit in half empty stadiums. US TV can not get enough of it.

First off, there’s the omnipresence of multiple leagues and competitions mentioned above. Coming from all time zones, it offers solutions to every unfilled time slot. My go-to is the European leagues, with offerings each day from roughly 6 AM- 4 PM. That leaves the evening for movies or reading (The US league, an acceptable brand of football comparable to Dutch or Swedish top tiers, and English and German second tiers, is on during the evenings, but for various bizarre reasons, my own local team is unavailable to watch, so it’s hard to not get seduced by the foreign games. Anyway, I haven’t been able to watch much Euro Ball in the last few years owing to prohibitive cable costs. I’m sure streaming will also become expensive after the promotional push is over.) So now is the time.

Football has now become my comfort activity for the pandemic shutdown. I did read a lot during the early days of shutdown, though I always read a lot anyway. As variety becomes a necessary quality in Q-time diversion, soccer fills the bill. Travel, exploration, cultural outreach and escape- football provides a little of all of those, if only in my mind.

I’m still reading, of course. What’s on my list? No surprise:

The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt: I said “exhaustive”. This 900-page monster is that. The first time I read it after the US edition was released in 2008. At the time I simply let large parts of it wash over me, a favorite strategy for large complex readings. But I kept it on the shelf, knowing a return was inevitable.

Goldblatt spares no detail, and the book might not be for the superficial fan. Goldblatt traces ancient origins then the growth of the game in elite English public schools. Then its adoption by the British working classes as the industrial revolution’s unionism brought a sudden surge in wages and the invention of the weekend, along with the railways as a way to enable professionalism with traveling teams then leagues. Chapter after chapter, a litany of the game’s spread to the myriad nations of the British Empire, and beyond: both formal colonies and informal trading partners. A given country gets British help building industry and railways; native workers get income and holidays; country absorbs football, adding its own cultural flourishes. As the game grew, it became irresistible to fascists and socialists, militarists and capitalists, industrialists, and always, the poor. and working classes. Each culture has its own history with football, and all the histories are here.

Here, the book becomes a story not of a sport, for the devoted fan, but of Industrial Age culture. If history is written by the winners, then football is the story of those brief moments in the sun enjoyed by the losers. A tiny South American country has a democratic renaissance and wins 3 world championships in a row (Uruguay). A Jewish cultural center dominates the world of European football before disappearing into the maw of fascism (Hakoah Vienna). And a ruined fascist realm itself finds rebirth in a new democratic national identity at the 1954 World Cup (Germany). Goldblatt does not set out to write an overtly Marxist history of the game, but he demonstrates clearly that the game can not be separated from the history of socio-economic development. Dictatorships can win World Cups ( Italy, 1934-38), but the game’s inherent celebration of individual and collective endeavor ensures that it is there on the front lines when dictators fall as well ( Arab Spring).

The question is: who writes those scripts? Soccer often looks like an amorphous codified bit of entropy to Americans weaned on the over structured spectacle of gridiron football, but there must be a reason why, as Simon Kuper writes in Soccernomics, Brazil wins, and England loses. It’s not called ‘the beautiful game’ for nothing. Its deceptive simplicity allows endless room for individual creativity, and if English imperial arrogance would not admit of cultural differences, the Brazilians added more than enough samba and Carnival to ensure the game’s continued appeal. And multiple world championships. Like How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer, this book deserves a wider audience than the typical, obsessive fan boy blather. But as football gains curious new fans here, it may get that.

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathon Wilson: A game that began as two mobs trying to kick a ball across open fields to a rival town’s city walls retains its transparent aims, but doesn’t always reveal its intricacies. The British in its early days of organization in the 1850’s saw no reason to complicate things much beyond a limit to the amount of people rushing the opposite goal, and that stodgy puritan athletic smugness continued for decades, but others, notably in Europe and South America, quickly saw that a rapidly professionalizing game rewarded innovation. Wilson chronicles the long journey from massed forwards dribbling toward goal to the modern formations that have made managers millions.

The whole thing got started with the ‘center half’, a deceptively named concept of moving a forward back a little off the front line to entice his opposite numbers to advance, thus creating space behind to pass the ball into. The center half, as linking function, eventually drifted back to just in front of the goalie, as ‘sweeper’, and now seems to have manifested as the variety of roles included in the designation ‘defensive midfielder’ that seem to be an integral part of all successful teams. Along the way, 2-3-5 morphed into 4-2-4, and on and on with a high pressing 4-3-3 currently the Ferrari among the Volkswagens. And a 4-2-3-1 the Volkswagen Van of small club dreams, providing versatility in defense and attack. Each change subscribed to the calculus of creating time and space for the most creative players, though there were retrenchments as well, e.g., “Catenaccio’.

Suffice it to say, that this book, too, is not for the superficial fan, sitting on his couch stewing over a 1-0 scoreline, wondering when is the two minute warning so he can get some snacks. But if you’ve gotten sufficiently fascinated by the game’s mysteries to wonder just how that sneaky little pass before the killer pass came to be, then you might find it your tankard of Tetley’s. As for me, having long ago become obsessed, I came up with the plan to read this tactical history in tandem with Goldblatt’s cultural one, alternating in roughly two-decade increments, comparing the game’s social progress with its strategic leaps. I’m now up to the mid-50’s through 60’s, a golden era for most of the game’s important regions, except England, of course.

Not nearly as dry and technical as it might seem, this book amplifies the way that each culture made football its own taking its inspiration and often its narratives from Goldblatt. Often it is individuals, whether players or managers, who inspire tactical innovation. And sometimes, as in the case of Brazil, it is an entire cultural project, to bring the individual expression of the ghetto and the Carnival, into a high performing team level. The results have been known to bring down governments, so it is far from a trivial story.

Will football show the way to a safer communal celebration of sport? Will it dull the violent racism of populists or surrender to it? Will its globalist momentum lead to expression, or repression? Will women, gays, blacks lead its next resurgence? The answer may lie with a rag tag neighborhood game and 22 beat up pairs of sneakers being played somewhere (everywhere?) to a hip hop beat, or, in other words, the beat of a different drum.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, and I’ll be watching, for sure. That’s what makes it a great escape, for me, and for ghetto kids of all stripe. It obviously can’t be quarantined out of existence, because it’s what dreams are made of.

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Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Postmodern Fabulism; Post Truth Distraction

Vox published an article on how Americans got through Election Night: mostly by carbo-loading and mass quantities of alcohol. Please add four beers, and a giant plate of Cacio e Pepe to the statistical totals. My analysis of the 2020 election- *burp*

After leaving ABC’s wall-to-wall election coverage 1:30 AM Wednesday morning, then getting some surprisingly untroubled sleep, I returned to it upon waking before finally punting early Wednesday afternoon. Since then, it’s mostly been 538 blog auto-refreshing every 15 minutes or so, interspersed with some purposely mindless household chores.

Reading, or even (fictional) TV watching in this agitated state has not been realistic. I’ve gotten well into several projects, and for whatever reason, haven’t finished them. Perhaps a post on what I haven’t finished during this bizarre year? But for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve been working on this Fall:

Postmodern History Around early July I finished Part 2 of Mason and Dixon, the main part of the story in terms of length and subject. This is the third time I’ve read this book- though I did it in segments; Part 1 during 2019, then 2, and I’ll finish the relatively brief Part 3 sometime, probably over the Winter. It forms, along with works by John Barth, the Ur text of postmodern historical fiction, and most of the other things mentioned here would not exist had it not been published, in 1997. I’ve mentioned it before here, and may again in depth when I finish this reading, but here’s a quote to explain why it inspired my Fall reading and viewing, and defining the spirit of postmodern history fiction:

““Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.”

Reason I put it down: Part 3 may be the ( bitter) sweetest, most lyrical writing that the antic Pynchon has ever done; an elegy to a man who did his best to see shadowed nuance and promise in a raw land of hard lines. Savoring it. It may be the funniest, most magical book about USA I’ve ever read. The above quote amplifies how important it is even now as populist anti-truth remains in power.

Dickinson, Apple TV: Please don’t base your biographical essays on it! A sexed up poetic soap opera with retro futurist clothing, vices, and soundtrack, with Hip-Hop vibe, and an O.G. Death. I found it on the free trial gig, so don’t get to watch more, if I don’t sign up, but would watch this again for sure. For one thing, American Romantic poetry in hipster drag. LOTR-style CGI graphics for The Maid of Amherst, and last but not least, Death with silver teeth caps.

Historically, of course, it’s a mess. It touches down on biographical detail only briefly enough to pogo off into another manic pixie fantasy. In my summer of ED geekery, this is matched by, and sometimes exceeds for sheer over-the-top interpretation only by Camille Paglia’s Dickinson-as-Sadean Spinster/Dominatrix. That is saying a lot. Here’s a brief checklist:
Dad’s a misogynist Puritan: check. And relatively accurate, though probably overplayed. Misogynism being more conventional, ‘loving’ puritan wisdom during this era, than scenery-chewing animus
Lesbian Fling with sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, including distinctly non-puritan horizontal bop suggestive scene : check, but don’t blame the show; certain critical bios have offered up this literary wank fest for years now.
Mom and Vinnie as Cinderella’s cruel step sisters: check. Not very accurate and unnecessary, given the overplayed father conflict.
Fabulist/Feminist but nonetheless, manic pixie, vibe: check. Dickinson did have suitors in the early years, before she pushed the outside world away and retreated into her room. Her letters reveal an almost bratty intellectualism, soliciting then whirling away from ‘preceptors’ such as Higginson, almost begging for a literary spanking. This is a subtle and difficult thing to convey in an episodic drama, and I don’t think they’ve gotten it right. Death as Hip Hop MC, complete with dreads, caps and ganja: check. And a CGI coach. This is what they get right, and I’d like to see more of it when I watch the rest of the series. Emily Dickinson makes for horrible period drama, but the poems, with their shifting syntax and ambiguous rthyms make for rich fabulism.

Reason I stopped: Apple TV sampler episodes 1&2. I haven’t signed up for the stream yet., though it’s not expensive, so I may after the election chaos settles down.

Sot Weed Factor, John Barth: Kind of a picaresque rollicker that inspired Pynchon and Neal Stephenson. Very fun so far, and very glad, after all these years of promises to myself, to get to it. A delight, a lovable naive loser type of tale that harkens back to Candide, looks forward to M&D, and on top of that, has a weird sort of Jeeves and Wooster (Wodehouse) dynamic as well. The Age of Enlightenment as a door slam farce?

Reason I put it down: it wasn’t the pacing, that’s for sure. Kind of a page turner, really. And funny as hell, with a gangly Oxbridge slacker presuming to apply to the position of ‘Poet Laureate of Maryland’ after having written one quatrain of verse. After a long shutdown, European football finally started up again, and inspired, I began reading two histories of football ( more on that in a future post).

The Great, Hulu. Also in the category of, kids, do not write your term papers based on this, and filed under Pynchonian /Barthian fabulism. After reading Robert K. Massie’s very comprehensive biography many years ago I can say that this is only somewhat factual-“Occasionally true” is how the show describes itself. But the spirit of the thing seems pretty dead on, with Orlov, Catherine and her Lady-in-Waiting plotting to take over the rule of backwards, Age of Reason-era Russia from emotionally arrested Peter II ( son of Peter the Great). Fantastic visuals.

Reason I stopped: Obsessive election viewing and 538 blog refreshing. The fate of democracy, the tawdry melodramatic tragicomedy that is 44. Corrupt, viciously puerile, toxic entitlement in governing. Who the hell would emulate Peter II when they could emulate Catherine the Great?

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware. Ware publishes his stories as weekly segments in the Chicago Reader first, then as graphic novel segments, and finally as complete volumes, this being Volume I. Revisions are part of that process. So I’m reading this as a whole for the first time, and spotting differences from his other books, Jimmy Corrigan, and Building Stories. But I’m halfway through and it has to be judged on its own. There’s a real exploration of fantasy as a compensating defense against emotional estrangement that Corrigan and Building Stories don’t really attempt. Compelling metaphors in the Mars story-within-a-story sequence, and in superhero fantasies of children. Visuals are of course strong though not as structurally schematic as the previous two major works. Thus the pacing is very fast, though the time does not get expanded as effectively, a Ware trope that he usually makes work brilliantly and expansively, and which counteracts a tendency toward relentlessly bleak emotional narrative.

Reason I put it down: I sort of know where it’s going. Can Ware bring new insight to his hopeless losers and callous winners? There is actually a second volume planned, presumably being seen in the Reader right now. The intermediate periodical installments have been eliminated, seemingly. It’ll go straight to the compendious graphic novel collection format we see here. So there’s plenty of time to absorb it.

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Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Reading Edge: Anime and Cartoons, the End of Cultural Quarantine?

With the shambolic response of tRump’s insane clown posse to the coronavirus, I think the virus restrictions will be lasting all Fall ( til November 3?), so I broke down and got a new TV. Now I’m able to stream and binge-watch a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen for years, such as Adult Swim cartoons. Given my recent reading list, it was no surprise that I wound up spending time with Anime classics, as well as Anime-influenced American cartoons.

Cowboy Bebop: I watched this on my brother’s videos in the early 90’s then saw quite a few episodes replayed on Adult Swim. They are very stylish though characteristic 80’s anime with a creative musical soundtrack. The backstory is of bounty hunters in the farthest reaches of the solar system in the 2060’s, but as the episodes go on, a more developed romantic backstory featuring two rivals for the same woman emerges. Characters are added along the way, and their backstory is explored as well. 

Thus, a fairly typical retro futurist genre pastiche takes on a bit of emotional heft. There’s humor and violence, but the surprising twists in the back story keep things fresh. Nonetheless, the overall concept is genre, and much of the backstory feels a little grafted on. There’s a lot of violence, in the mode of the ‘stylish’ violence of the 90’s.

In constructing this clever pastiche of popular genre tropes ( sci-fi, detective noir, western, with a strong dash of very 60’s Hollywood action thriller), the Japanese/ American creators seem to be borrowing a page from Sugiera’s 70’s/80’s Gekiga manga style. Pop Culture influences are mixed and matched in an almost off hand way. As with Sugiera, the American cultural appropriation is very prevalent, but the series retains its eastern flavor. The music helps to keep things fresh, provides a thematic glue between disparate styles and time periods, and seems to inform the pacing of the visuals, also reminiscent of Garo-era gekiga, such as Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy. The series held up well after a long lapse in watching it, and seems to fit in with its place in Japanese Manga/Anime. 

Samurai Jack, Genndy Tarkovsky: This was a turn of the century Adult Swim staple, but one I did not get to spend a lot of time with owing to schedule and other priorities ( Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Home Movies, Space Ghost Coast to Coast). It was always unique and intiguing, and never easy to just drop in in the middle of. This differs from those above in every way. It’s neither cartoon brut nor Hanna Barbera mash-up rescued from the vaults. It was a true original cinema-style cartoon series conceived by Tarkovsky and others and was clearly intended to advance the animation art stylistically. It’s certainly one of the most visually beautiful animation series ever, combining Oyvind Earle-style mid century modernism and landscape design with a color sense that borrows from cubism and 50’s advertising art, but also Japanese folk art and 60’s psychedelia. It really is a treat for the eyes, and won many awards for its visuals. 

This is not to say that the story doesn’t ascend to compelling heights at times, though it doesn’t always attempt to transcend its home genre, a bushido action series with many fight scenes. But Jack, the hero, must make difficult choices and this often redeems the regular violence, along with the pure stylistic energy of its animation. A class in color theory could be taught around its schemes, with their minimal elegance, ranging from complex tonalities to eye opening complements with rich secondaries a linch pin for its almost literally surreal naturalism. I’ve always extolled thoughtful secondary colors, balanced with hot primaries, and well considered neutrals in my work and in my classes. I enjoy Samurai Jack as a delicious bit of eye candy.

The stories are minimal as well. Jack has been banished to a dystopian retro future that is both medieval and coldly metallic by a demon, Aku, he has defeated in battle. In order to administer the coup-de-grace, and set his people, as well as future generations free, he must find a way back to the past. So he travels on a quest for a way back, helping peoples he meets, and battling demon monsters and robots. All in the rich chameleon colors and anime-influenced stylizations. An evocative simplicity rules.

The show is not really anime, but in its stripped down but elegant animation and nods to bushido and eastern martial arts, it feels that way at times. The pacing is patient and the cartoon enjoys the ride. There’s a joie de vivre in the half hour increments of Jack’s journey. The series went through 4 full seasons during the aughts before it was cancelled without reaching a conclusion. A movie was vetted before it finally returned in 2017 for a concluding 5th season. The wait was worth it, as the final season includes many masterful segments before reaching its stirring, even delicate, conclusion. Unlike the earlier seasons which meandered without any real momentum at times, the final season accelerates without sacrificing its evocative visuals and contemplative pacing. 

I haven’t seen all the episodes (101!), but this would be one well worth owning a collection, as even now, I watched rapt as episodes replayed. They really are that gorgeous. I think Akira is probably an influence ( another anime I haven’t seen in a long while) and of course, peak-era Disney. But this is a very original series and really has set the bar for a modern cartoon. Its vision speaks to the art of animation, as few cartoons do. 

Sherlock Hound, Hayao Miyazaki: Miyazaki is the ‘Japanese Disney’ to some, though others insist on Osamu Tezuka. The appellation itself may be a bit racist, as neither is really derivative of the House of Mouse, though Tezuka was definitely influenced in his early years, before Astro Boy. At that time, of course, Japan was awash in American pop culture such as comic books and movies, during the occupation from the mid-40’s to mid 50’s. It’s fascinating to see how they processed and appropriated these influences in Manga and Anime ( e.g, Sugiera’s pop Nansensu- nonsense) And my discovery of Sugiera’s freewheelin’ mash-ups got me curious about the roots of manga and anime. Miyazaki came later, and this series, which was an Italian-Japanese collaboration dubbed into English for British, and then American audiences bears his unique stamp at times. 

Sherlock Hound is an adaptation of Holmes, of course, with anthropomorphic dogs. It’s a fairly run-of the-mill Saturday morning concept, but the 6 episodes that Miyazaki directed bear his signature pastoral steam-punk stylings. Some of the same giddy panoramas are here, depthless blue skies, and the love of retro-futurist machines. There was some sort of interruption in production, and by the time the series came back, Miyazaki had launched Nauusica of the Valley of the Wind, and did not return to it. 

These are available on the Open Culture web site, where you can see anime from as far back as the 20’s, including a 30’s Fleischer Brothers- influenced short about a haunted temple. As an aside, there are classics from Jan Svankmeier, The Brothers Quay, and also Lotte Reiniger, for those who read my review of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly: The Rat.

If anything, the return influence of these early Japanese pop culture inventions on American creators is probably underrated. The American stubbornness on infantilizing cartoons ‘ for the sake of the children’ stunted creators until well into the late 70’s, and in Tartovsky and Adult Swim, Raw Magazine and Watchmen, more recently, Pretty Deadly and Jimmy Corrigan, you can see American creators beginning to rise above the weight of censorship. (Not all of those titles are completely American productions, of course.) Garo magazine revolutionized manga and anime in the 70’s. Alternative comics and Adult Swim followed in the 80’s and 90’s.

So it’s a very exciting time to explore cartooning, which cannot at all be separated from earlier innovations by Japanese and European creators. I was excited to receive a copy of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy in the mail this week. It’s a beautiful book I’ve read before from the library, that I’m excited to re-read in the context of these later landmarks. Exploring this history is a counterpoint to the American exceptionalism that has stunted all forms of American culture. We’ve proven that exceptionalism is a recipe for disaster in health policy. Let’s not make the same mistake in our readings of pop culture.

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Books, Comics, Music Pynchon Reading List

Reading Edge: Strange Landscapes

Sugiera’s Nansensu gangsters in an Utrillo streetscape.

Outside my window, in the park, people are anxious to get on with their pre-pandemic lives. I’m not sure that will ever happen, but it’s a fantasy that won’t let go, and it’s leading to a resurgence in infections.

I have the luxury, and the imperative, to keep quarantining, to a certain amount. The recommendation for people my age is reduce contact by 65%, and while that may be unattainable as the world rushes to get back to what was once viewed as normal, I’m going to try to remain at home as much as I can.

The school is still closed to live classes, but online classes are starting, and I’m doing what I can to transition. I have a corporate slave job on a college campus that remains closed, and I do not miss that. There’s plenty to do at home, whether in my studio/office, or online.

I do miss the actual studio (at the school) which also remains closed. And I miss popping into a pub for a beer and a burger and a soccer game, but again, there’s no hurry, Fall or Spring will be fine for a return.

So that leaves, for the quiet evening hours after trying to maintain a career, reading. I’m watching movies online for variety, I’m tuning in as soccer comes back on TV, but mostly, I’m reading. Even what little online shopping I’m doing is mostly for books. In analyzing what I’m reading, I find I can’t really analyze what I’m reading. Part of the purpose of writing about what I read is to help me process it. Later, I might come back and look at these quarantine lists and think, hmm. Right now, it seems random, and you’re getting it face value. Most of these books were ordered on small press-oriented web sites at bargain prices, or pulled from my shelves after buying them on spec from used bookstores, so that may explain their eccentricity. But maybe not.

Last of the Mohicans, Shigeru Sugiera: One of the main joys of reading this beautiful little Picture Box volume is the long critical essay by Ryan Holmberg, whom I’d encountered in some Seichi Hayashi reprints from the library and who did a lot to put my ignorance of Manga into a historical context with other comics timelines. These essays, probably too detailed for many fans, touched on the artists who I’d encountered sporadically in the pages of Raw, and The Ganzfeld. Later on, the Mazur and Danner book, Comics: A Global History, 1968-Now brought my curiosity to a head. 

This book, as Holmberg explains, was a part of an artistic renaissance in mid-60’s Japanese Manga that for the first time, treated comics as an artistic art form. But it also is a remake of a manga that exemplified the cultural crosscurrents in play in occupation era Japan. The sources of this, American movies, often as filtered through American comic books, are at play ironically in both versions of Mohicans. Neither is so much an adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel, as a Pop Art pastiche of cultural assumptions surrounding it. 

This is apparent in the visuals of the original comic, with some characters played in ‘straight’ images swiped from western movies and Classics Illustrated comics, which aspired to a literary/historical truth, but often missed by miles; and others conforming more to ‘Nansensu’ (Nonsense) children’s Manga of the 50’s. Thus the original 50’s version is strange enough, with big-eyed, round headed Astro Boy-style characters interacting with characters and scenes from Hollywood. Iroquois-era Native Americans find themselves anachronistically dropped into the sweeping John Ford vistas of Monument Valley, and Hawkeye, now a manga cutie, mimics the impossible action sequences of post war DC/Dell western comics. 

Sugiera’s second version of the comic ( printed here) does not stop there, though. Conversant with the intervening cultural appropriation aesthetic of Warhol’s Pop Art movement, and still fascinated by the comics and movies American GI’s introduced to occupied Japan during his formative years and before, Sugiera redoes the comic in the early 70’s, heightening, rather than downplaying its cultural collage. Characters such as Oliver Hardy and Little Lulu are added. Some characters seem to spring from a stylized, mask-like Asian folkloric aesthetic, others remain rooted in mass media ‘realism’. Holmberg exhaustively traces these sources, and the book, which it should be obvious- is pretty silly on its surface, now lives on my shelf, awaiting another reading as I continue to explore other works from this fascinating period in manga. This includes a riotously synthetic short from Sugiera that I ran across in The Ganzfeld #4 which mixes primitive manga characters with Utrillo street scapes and- Mr. Potato Head. A feast for the eyes, and a little explored instance of the clash of cultures. 

Pig Tales, Paper Rad: Paper Rad is a comics collective which grew out an earlier zine group called Paper Radio, and is contemporaneous and linked to the Fort Thunder collective. This digest-sized collection espouses, if it does not directly reference ( I don’t know for sure), the zine resurgence of the late 90’s and early aughts. 

The pigs referenced are big haired, ‘fab’ fashionistas who like to party and shop. The plotting is abrupt and even arbitrary, and the satire deliberately obscure. The cartooning is garish, cartoon brut imagery that seems to source the 70’s faux psychedelia of Saturday morning cartoons. The book is a flip book, and the other side, Cartoon Workshop #3, makes these references even more explicit, with Hanna-Barbera type images spliced in. This is also put out by Picture Box, a now-defunct imprint published by radical comics/art critic Dan Nadel which I’ve been searching out on small press oriented sites because they offer the most comprehensive selection of an edgy comics underground that hasn’t quite reached the mainstream yet. It’s coming on fast, though. 

Nadel edited and published The Ganzfeld, a journal which only lasted for 7 issues, but which represents a very momentous and substantive look at how comics, as art form, intersects with high art. Thus, if you are interested in understanding comics as one of the 21st Century’s most vital art forms, then any book with the Picture Box imprint is a great place to start. 

Nadel doesn’t seem to have been able to make it work. Remainders from his often exquisite output are still available on the web, usually at remainder prices. They are intellectually very ambitious, and range from examinations of Henry Fielding to post war manga to ’00’s zine collectives, the undercurrents of pop culture made manifest. He has made the linkages between comics and high art explicit, at times; for example, a long article on the Hairy Who, the Chicago Art Collective whose images and aims often intersected with comics. 

Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, Thomas H. Johnson: I found this slim volume from the 50’s a few years ago at a favorite little shop on Broadway, Fahrenheit books. I put it away for a rainy day read which the pandemic brought along. 

As an amateur reader, I often run into a problem with more challenging material, as Dickinson, with her highly specialized imagery and language and difficult rhythms, definitely is. That is: critical support materials related to the poems often (unsurprisingly, I guess) prefer to address other academics, embedded in the wars of words surrounding a given author, rather than a general reader. I’ve complained about academic jargon, but it goes beyond that. Certain critics just do not want to take time addressing basic concepts of American Romantic literature covered in undergrad courses, and skip right to theses that will make their careers. 

I did take several Lit classes in my undergrad career, but none that I can recall, on poetry. Thus, Johnson’s discussion of the meters and rhyme schemes in Dickinson was very welcome. Not that his treatment of recurring themes and metaphor in E.D. are simplistic. It makes for a gem of a book, a real page turner, in fact.

I’m not trying to minimize the intense investigations of academics who like Dickinson. In fact, this book will make a possible return to Cynthia Griffin Wolf’s examination of the poet, which I put down 2/3’s through, not out of confusion, but more out of a sense of having come into the middle of a conversation, more likely, and more enjoyable. 

I received a 3 issue bundle of Pressing Matters, a beautiful printmaking magazine from England, and I’ll write about that upcoming. I also got Powr Mastrs, a book by a Paper Rad alum, C.F., a tour de force in comics brut lyricism, and will try to mention that. I’m re-reading Pynchon’s wonderful funny/scary Mason and Dixon, and ordered a collection of critical essays on that, and those will get a post. With Dickinson’s revivalist gothicism, Sugiera’s pop culture frontier pastiche, and Pynchon’s surreal Enlightenment walkabout, I guess we do have a slender theme: American Romanticism in the Blender for 100, Alex.

I do miss the pub, but books provide a certain amount of companionship, and I don’t mind being judged by the company I keep.

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