Books, Comics, Music

Hey Kids! Comics!

Blustery and frigid winter has made February its home here. We got a mild November and December, January could not make up its mind, but the last 2 weeks have been definitive, lock down winter.

We even have snow, of which the Squish approves. I feel cheated when it’s frigid and brown. I love the kind of minimalist landscape and diffuse light that the snow brings, and would probably be distilling the bleached gray blues and fat yellowy whites in ink on paper right now, if I hadn’t committed to some part time work to pay some bills.

That will come. Right now I’m bunkered in, fiddling with my rabbit ears to pick up al Jazeera reports on Egypt; peeking in on the yearly cultural car wreck of the Helmet Bowl, the epitome of American Sporting Exceptionalism (one team wearing garish satin capri pants will be declared “World” Champion, but I’ve usually forgotten which one it is by May).

Mostly I’ve been reading. I have a small stack of Atlantic Monthly, featuring the usual blend of abstract speculations, mixed with hard nosed, iconoclastic bubble-bursting (After expounding on Tea-Baggers’ inherent self absorption, one recent issue advised that coal is the key to our energy future.)

The latest McSweeney’s is always a good read, if you can ignore their bizarre, almost perverse, love affair with Roddy Doyle. OK, I actually read the latest thing for once, and it was a sort of a departure, meaning, not quite as “Commitments”-like. You also have to indulge them in a typical, gratuitously silly short story about a Pontiac Sunfire that enrolls in high school. But I like that they’re not afraid to try different things.

But this here bloggy-blog is going to be about comics.

There are several graphic novels out in the last few months that are worth a peek. I’ve been playing catch-up on these, as the outlay has gone up, and all the big names get a release date near Christmas.

For those who don’t indulge in this far corner of the literary universe (including those who don’t consider it even a part of the literary universe), a bit of recent history: As the alternative comics movement, which traces its lineage back to R. Crumb and Mad magazine, has made a progressively larger impression on the mainstream, with some of the bigger names appearing in the Times and New Yorker etc, the publishing strategy has transitioned from traditional comic book format to a more European “album” format. This means top artists are being seen in nicely bound, even hardback Tintin-style books which appear about once a year. This makes for attractive, more easily accessible complete stories that appeal to the adult they’re written for, rather than the booklet form, which adult readers still associate with adolescent entertainment. it also makes for prices in the 15-$25 range, rather than 3-$5, but perhaps I’m getting bitter.

I’ll start with a title I’ve spoken of before, Love and Rockets, which is a continuing story (30 years, now!), but which contains semi-complete episodes within the larger whole. Love and Rockets New Stories #3 is such a jumping on point. There are several stories written by two brothers, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. Gilbert’s stories tend to be bizarre, cinematic and hyper violent. They have their rabid fans and are interesting to me, but I’ll concentrate on my favorite of Los Bros, Jaime. He presents three separate but subtly interconnected tales here, and looks to have returned to his “Locas” ( “Crazy Women”) storyline after a diversion into a tangentially connected space fantasy.

Two of the tales take place in modern day suburban L.A. and concern his primary heroine, Maggie Chascarillo, and one takes place in 50’s Oxnard, CA, and fills in details about Maggie’s youth. They’re worth reading for their cleanly written dialogue and simple graphic power. You sense the vast backstory underlying the characters, but the subtly interacting narratives here are perfectly functional as independent tales.

“Wilson” , by “Ghost World” auteur Dan Clowes is a completely self contained book , which actually features a series of blackly humorous one-page gags. There is a complex set of influences in the shifting styles, including “Peanuts” and Mad Magazine, and as we follow the main character, we realize that these gags are interconnected, too, and a satiric narrative on the notion of “family” emerges.

“Wally Gropius”, by Tim Hensley, a newcomer, satirizes 60’s comics such as Richie Rich and John Stanley teen comics with a visually kinetic and subversive, sometimes even surreal, sight-gag type humor.

Comics superstar Chris Ware has also published a new episode in his ongoing Acme Novelty Library (#20), and though interconnected with other ongoing characters, this story is actually a stand-alone tale of one person’s life and struggle to find meaningful connection. Ware can be a real mope, but his quiet depiction of aging, and his hugely influential design sense which has expanded well beyond the borders of comics and into popular culture at large, make him the first name in modern graphic narrative. Though he will probably never equal his breakthrough masterpiece, “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth”.

X’ed Out is the latest opus of Raw Magazine veteran Charles Burns. This may be the most intriguing new book on the list. Raw, which kept the flag flying for cutting edge, adult oriented graphics during the 70’s and 80’s, has given us many breakthrough artists over the years, such as Art Spiegelman (Maus); Gary Panter (Jimbo, Peewee’s Playhouse, and countless Zappa LP covers) and David Sandlin (Land of a Thousand Beers).

Burns has been contributing to The Believer magazine, and has now released a hardback album format graphic novel, which is not complete, but this is the first segment, so it’s a good time to jump in. Burns traffics in the horror that lurks just behind the mundane, and seems to be on his game here. We enter immediately a dream-like mise en scene which carries over even after the main character has “woken up”, as if the whole story was the kind of lucid, cyclic dream in which you believe you’ve awoken, only to realize you are dreaming still. The art is clean and depthlessly noir. We’ll have to see if Burns can keep the narrative moving as briskly as the first segment; his last major work, Black Hole, did seem to bog down a bit.

You can get a nice, inexpensive overview of current efforts by these and other artists by seeking out The Anthology of Graphic Fiction by Ivan Brunetti, which seems to have entered the close out market. Brunetti, with out getting didactic, tries to link all the diverse strands of this movement toward comics’ artistic maturity, and even throws in a few of the lesser known classics of the newspaper era.

Ultimately, the recent history of graphic fiction and humor is one of censorship and marginalization. Creative magnificence abounds, as well as truly affecting characterization, but as with 80’s and 90’s Rock, there’s no way to see what you’ve been denied until you just jump in.

Books, Comics, Music Culture wars

All in Color for a Crime

My last post was a sort of improvisation on the subject of comics and the culture wars. Since I’m on the subject, here’s a tip for some very interesting reading: a good book has hit what I like to think of as the book lover’s sweet spot- available in remainder as a HC, but newly released as a PB. The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu, outlines one of the earliest battles in the culture wars: the comic book censorship hysteria of the 50’s.

Subtitled “The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America”, The book gives a pretty good outline of what not to do when under attack by the moralizers. Like the movies, comics- thanks to turn-of-the-century artists like Herriman, McCay and others who popularized newspaper comics by showing the heights the medium was capable of, were a very robust pop culture medium in the 30’s and 40’s. Like movies, they responded to pressure to tone down their sensationalism by forming a self-censorship program. Unlike the movies, the comics, usually published by exploitive money men with little regard for the medium’s artistic potential, panicked and gave in to excessively restrictive controls on content. Thus not only killing the sales, but ripping the creative heart out of the medium and turning into the infantile hack work most of us remember from childhood. They would not fully recover their appeal to committed creators until the 80’s, as noted in my L&R post. But by then, the medium was almost totally marginalized.

The book reads like a breeze, offers colorful portraits of the characters on both sides of the battle, and carries a lot of relevance for those who’ve noticed that the pop culture media (movies, music, comics) have never matured here as they did in Europe. Hajdu has written books about NYC folk musicians, and Billy Strayhorn, and doesn’t talk down to comics, as many in the mainstream do.


Weekend Squish: Book Review

It’s Pynchon month in Squishytown! We started the festivities off by bussing down August 4 to Tattered Cover for his latest, INHERENT VICE. Things really ramped up with a 94-word run-on tribute sentence wedged into the previous Squishtoid post – still far short of the 400+ monster that opens MASON AND DIXON, but I guess that’s why TP has a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Squish doesn’t (yet).

And now, because 77,000 reviews ( one for each wacky TP character moniker) in 2 weeks just don’t seem enough, comes my review. And unlike all the others, this one doesn’t mention the word “paranoia”. Oh. Damn.

Thomas Pynchon, a writer whom many associate with dense, hard to read doorstop -type books, has created what will surely become the entry point for his work with INHERENT VICE. The previous entry point, CRYING OF LOT 49, deals with the same place, Southern California, and many of the same cultural and metaphorical issues, but doesn’t have two things that VICE does: the easy flow of genre (here, detective) fiction, and an agreeable, heck, lovable- central character who smokes way too much pot, in much the same way Phillip Marlowe drank way too much whiskey.

That combination, lifted whole from the classics of the Noir era, smooths the way for Pynchon’s usual mix of irony, pathos and satiric humor, and provides a peek into the heartbreakingly funny and ineffectual lives he celebrates, along with the crushing, relentless systems of power and control that provide the juice for his electric and very post modern prose. It’s always sex magic versus death-mongering with Pynchon, but here he adds in a lot of nostalgia for late 60’s Los Angeles, and a spirit of place that, like Raymond Chandler’s, feels like the real deal.

Like LOT 49, and another earlier NoCal novel, VINELAND, that are quickly being formed by the commentariati into an ad-hoc trilogy, the goofy proles and bra-less babes who redeem their floundering, drug enhanced lives, speak to the betrayal of simple pleasures by those nameless, humorless forces of greed and frigid fear that would bulldoze a community to erect soul-less developments rather than nurture a neighborhood. Only this time, unlike past TP epics, even some of the villains have names and come off as flawed, almost lovable losers themselves.

Discussing plot is always somewhat beside the point in Pynchon. His characters are questers, lighting off manically in search of answers to questions they know not, stopping for a quick buzz or fuck along the way. There is enough here to keep the lovable losers scrambling and the pages turning, but Doc Sportello, The laid-back, hard-“baked” PI who tries to sort it all out, understands that in the end, it’s finding kinship through the smog that makes a city, however Noir, vivid and real. Pynchon appears to have made that leap as well, with the later novels, from VINELAND on featuring progressively more sympathetic characters; special mention made here of the exquisite MASON AND DIXON.

But will VICE please the lovers of intricate, labyrinthine masterpieces such as LOT 49, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, and V? As one who’s read all of his books, many twice, and counts RAINBOW among the century’s best, I say it doesn’t have to. Pynchon’s done his fair share of heavy lifting. He’s metaphorically compared Information Theory to Thermodynamics, hefted Riemann surfaces and Hollow-Earth theories and squished in hashish and weird menages a trois. Now he wants to be Chandler or Elmore Leonard, or even Jeff Lebowski. Or all three. Wait, that’s a weird menage a trois, too.

Pynchon, if the famous Simpsons “appearances” and the trailer he did for VICE are any indication, may want to be popular for once. That’s not such a bad thing, and INHERENT VICE is not such a bad way to get there. If you never got past the famous 100-page barrier of GR, this eccentric yet agreeable book may get you to the bottom of the mystery of why it’s worth another try.


Goin’ Down the Road…

We’ve all got wheels,
to take us far away.
We’ve got [Squishtoid blogs] to say, what we can’t say…

-Flying Burrito Bros.

Spent the weekend listening to mountain music. That specific mix of Bluegrass, Folk, and Country Rock I first inhaled after leaving the bleak, Hard-Rock steel yards of the Queen City of the Lakes many moons ago.

It hasn’t changed much since I left the Queen City of the Plains (so many queens! There’s a Dame Edna joke in there somewhere..) to come to the Denver Punk scene. Some of it I can go months or even years without. But I don’t mind snoozing through the obligatory Grateful Dead homage to get to the good stuff- Billy Bragg or Gram Parsons. This is the sound track of the many mushroom- and pot-fueled mountain camp outs I’ve stumbled through out in the sage, under the Wyoming moon.

It’s late summer in the Rockies. That time when each hot day contains a hint, like a strip of cool white tan line at the edge of a well-filled yellow bikini, of something to be simultaneously longed for yet postponed as long as possible: Fall. Downtown Salida sitting in its 19th century glory on the banks of the preternaturally turbulent Arkansas River ( August would normally mark the end of flow, and the rafting, but we’ve had a wet Summer), rimmed by the Collegiate Peaks -tall iconic pyramids dappled with the slightly tarnished sunlight of August and skimmed by the fluffy billowing white clouds strobing by like freight cars, with the rustle of cottonwood leaves and the strum of mandolin riffs from the stage at this little festival in the park, is where wraith-like, Autumn ’09 first appeared for this Squishtoid.

It was a pleasant enough show, with a fairly steady stream of interested visitors, many of whom, I heard later, were still raving about my work when they entered the local Mexican bistro across the street; faint praise indeed when none were willing to put pen to checkbook. Oh, well.

Driving out, late sun sliding across rippled arpeggios of mountain peaks like a Sneaky Pete Kleinow solo, then up past the tailings and Superfund degradation of Leadville and onto 70 and down through its interminable, apocalyptically signed descent- ” TRUCKERS DON’T BE FOOLED! STILL 4 MORE MILES OF 6% GRADE WITH TIGHT CURVES!” and as a GP-synth-fill grace note the jagged lightning strokes slashing and hacking away at Lyons, or some other some poor farm town east of Denver.

I spent Monday organizing the garage, to avoid the sort of loading slip-up from Friday, in which a minor part of the tent was left behind ( Um. The roof). I avoided the 5 hour retrieval round trip thanks to a nice woman who had a spare, slightly wind-mangled pop-up, which thanks to the calm weather, worked like a charm. Except, of course, for the no sales part.

But to paraphrase Freewheelin’ Franklin, times of time and no money are better than times of money and no time. Part of the promised but still undelivered Squishtoid Manifesto, folks! Watch for it!

Of course, Freewheelin’ Franklin and his cannabinoid musings are very much on my mind lately, as I solaced my self after my zippo blanco show by laying in bed and finishing Inherent Vice. About which, full review tomorrow, though speaking as one who the only Pynchon books he hasn’t read twice are the ones he’s about to read twice, don’t expect a negative reaction, as it turns out to be kind of a page-turner without losing that delightfully bizarre TP mojo.

The run-on sentence in graf three being in his honor.

Days with out job: 139
Squishometer: “We’re not afraid to ride…”
Number of Words in Graf 3 Run-on: 94


Weekend Squish: A Squishing Comes Across the Sky.

Days without Job: 122

Days Without New Pynchon Novel: -3

In this newly job-less ‘slacker’s’ version of heaven, the required beach read is Thomas Pynchon. So the news, late last year, of an new TP novel, Inherent Vice, out August 4, is welcomed. The unusually quick turn-around, three years – with 10 not unusual for Pynchon, 13 the longest- makes me all squishy inside.The fact that it’s a Noir detective story, unusually light at 369 pp. compared to his last monster (Against The Day, 1000+), is intriguing.

The first reviews have been trickling out.Now they have reached flood stage. They tend to fall into three distinct categories: outraged screed; jaded, knowing intro for newbies; and thematic speculations.

The first, a hallmark of his Gravity’s Rainbow era, is now rare, though you can usually count on some curmudgeon at Slate or wherever to trot one out at some point. That 1974 blank spot in the list of Pulitzer Prizes for Literature is the legacy of this mindset. The second is now standard, and this one typifies the genre: bemused listing of Pynchon tropes; disclaimer about the rather nonchalant plots; toss in a snarky comment about the character names; and you’re done. Mail it in.

The third, my favorite, links the subject novel with his others in terms of Pynchon’s ongoing thematic obsessions, but without the jargon that tends to choke the academic journals clustered around our era’s pre-eminent Post-Modernist writer. These are the most useful to those trying to enjoy or understand the cult surrounding him, and Sarah Churchwell, in the Observer, provides a nice overview:

The book’s title provides Pynchon with a new metaphor for three of his oldest preoccupations: entropy, capitalism and religion, specifically Puritanism. For insurers and preservationists, “inherent vice” describes the innate tendency of precious objects to deteriorate and refers to the limits of insurability and conservation; it suggests that matter (and thus, by extension, materialism) carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.”

But since this is a Noir novel (of sorts), another kind of review has joined the fray, basically asking the question “Is it Noir?” And since the gumshoe genre is one of my favorites, I had to read “Death Becomes Them”, an exploration of literary giants trying out Noir in Newsweek, by Malcolm Jones:

“No one will ever accuse Pynchon of wearing his feelings on his sleeve, but in Inherent Vice there’s no mistaking his affection for his private detective, Larry (Doc) Sportello. Using Chandler territory as inspiration, Pynchon launches a tale as complicated as anything he’s ever written, a tale that involves rotten cops, a missing girlfriend, a murdered developer, and a sinister menace called the Golden Fang, which is a mysterious schooner used for smuggling, but also the name of a shadowy holding company and maybe even a Southeast Asian heroin cartel. There are times when the false starts, red herrings, dead ends, and duplicities get so tangled that all a reader can think of is the story about Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who, in the midst of writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep, had to call up Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur—and he couldn’t remember either.”

Jones’ conclusion:

Does it add up? Maybe. Do you get lost? Lured down a long linguistic dark alley is more like it. It’s always weird but always fun.

I’ll be at the Tattered Cover early Tuesday for my copy, and I’ll post my preliminary thoughts in a Weekend Squish soon, and more when I’ve finished it. The single quotes around “slacker” in the first graf above are a warning that I’m actually quite busy in the next three months, and don’t know when this will be.