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Books, Comics, Music Culture wars Politics Reading List Uncategorized

Reading List: First World Problems

This is a real grab bag, partly because in the rush to finish up some deadlines this fall my reading was very fragmented. It’s very unjust when life upsets my reading schedule, I just want to be on record with that.

For a brief while, I wasn’t really reading much at all. Some of these are also leftovers from earlier readings this year that I’d never put down impressions for. This is mostly comics, as that’s something that fit my frantic pace of life, but I did return to prose eventually, and there are a couple of those here as well.

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso: a critical fave that I’d alluded to in my Besties list as needing to read. It got nominated for a Booker prize and attracted attention. I read a rather rambling and contrarian review of it in the Longbox Coffin blog, and it sparked my memory. 

It delineates the spirit of our post 9-11, post-truth world (fear, rage, conspiracy and misguided, even corrupt, populism seem to rule our discourse, whether Right or Left). Thus the book is rather bleak, mostly. The art mirrors that social entropy in simplified, almost emotionless cartooning and flat color. Everything looks fluorescent-lit.

Though the book’s not fun to read, it stays with you. I almost put it down, and did avoid it a couple of nights where its creepy atmosphere of fascist media bullying hit far too close to home in Trumplandia. The current conservative trope of infested, dangerous cities, lifted from 60’s conservatism, and dating back to the anti-immigrant politics of the early days of the GOP’s turn toward fascist politics in 1912, are proof of that. It’s hard to see positive human interaction in our venomous, twitter-fied online dialogue, but the book ultimately does offer for one main character, at least, a way out. Fear of change, an armadillo like interiority, are the gateways for the numbing negative populism ranging through our public dialogue. Interpersonal contact is the exit strategy. As always, love is the answer.

I also got Kramer’s Ergot #10 and Now #6 in the mail. They are the two preeminent comics anthologies now, and it’s interesting to compare them. They’re both published by Fantagraphics, a long-time pioneer in alternative comics, but are edited by different people. There is much intersect, but they are not identical.

Now is the latest in a long line of Fanta anthologies, meant to test drive new creators, or promote company stalwarts. The company, led by Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson, has debuted so many of today’s comics stars that it’s easy to lose count, and foolish to not keep up with their latest discoveries. Now, edited by Eric Reynolds, features international artists and has increasingly showcased very abstract comics. Kramer’s has never been afraid of abstract or expressionist comics and has returned often to its favorites. That’s because Kramer’s, a franchise edited and originated by Sammy Harkham in the 90’s and self-published before being published by the legendary and now deceased Alvin Buenaventura before ultimately landing with FB, has developed a kind of stable.

Both these most recent issues feature Steven Weissman, an artist whose hyper charged ‘kids’ comics FB first published in the 80’s, but who now brings a surreal humor and a real zest for fabulism to many other traditional genres including the western, or the fairytale.

Both also are prime promoters of the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad/ ‘cartoon brut’ schools of comics as exemplified by Marc Bell, Helga Reumann, C.F., and Mat Brinkman, etc. These 20-oughts era movements constitute a revival or continuation of the zine subculture that grew out of punk rock in the 80’s and earlier, the comics subculture of the 50’s and 60’s, especially undergrounds. Some, like Bell, trace their roots ultimately back to the ‘big foot’ style of the turn of the century newspaper comics. Many of those were expressions of marginalized cultures, often Jewish.

So while FB (Now) has always sought out and attracted young innovators looking to get published, Kramer’s may possibly have the deeper roots in self publishing. Either way, or both, one can get a nice overview of cutting edge comics, especially if periodic visits to Spit and a Half.com, John Porcellino’s online mini-comics clearing house, are added in.

These are clearly a world apart from the fan-boy oriented mainstream publishers of superhero fantasy found in the direct market shops; but also the newer, burgeoning young adult genres advocated by libraries and school reading programs. Comics are an expanding medium, and in exploring their relationship to the art, design and literary worlds, these two titles are essential.

Songy of Paradise, Gary Panter: Panter also got his start in the punk rock era, and is best known for a series of LP covers he did for Frank Zappa in the 80’s; and the sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse on TV. He was a Raw Magazine mainstay. Here he takes on Milton’s Medieval biblical fantasy, Paradise Regained, which I haven’t read. The Temptation of Jesus in the desert is here enacted with Panter’s hillbilly character Songy. It’s a large format comic, and Panter is able to really stretch out, proving that his punk/expressionist style is in no way incompatible with great design and a sense of place, which his post apocalyptic comics have always had. Panter’s thick, unrefined, but very precise and evocative line must have been an inspiration for the cartoon brut comics creators but his dry humor masks a genius for Candide-like satire that sets him apart.

Comics Journal #304: Simon Hanselmann Interview: I was delighted to see this feisty little mag ( also Fantagraphics) available at Tattered Cover for the first time in a while. Gary Groth doing his Gary Groth thing, long form interviews of comics creators, that in the strictest sense usually need an editor, but in the long view, now after roughly 35 years of them, form an irreplaceable study archive of some of the greatest creators of the 20th and 21st Centuries. ” Moving on to your Kindergarten years… ,” I swear I read in a Patsy Simmonds interview once. That gives you an idea of what to expect.

But who else was ever going to do such a complete job of documenting ignored cartoonists and writers, with many of the earliest ones now dead? I really doubt there’s a lot of critical source material on Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman, for example. TCJ is comics’ magazine of record.

This is a very timely interview, in that it touches on issues that are hot topics in comics, and indeed in many pop cultures; such as #metoo, transgender issues, and queer identity as pertains to satire and biography in comics. Hanselmann raises some interesting questions in regard to the comics subculture, in which snap judgement and the ‘cancellation’ phenom of say, Twitter are very definitely in force, as in all pop culture. This is a very complex set of questions, as he points out, and may not always be compatible with creative freedom.

I’m also reading a radical feminist survey of Julie Doucet’s work from the 80’s/90’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but sometimes creative work- however ground breaking a feminist vision Doucet’s work was- viewed through that prism can suffer from a lack of balance and perspective in understanding what the artist’s vision and motivations actually are. I haven’t finished it, so it’s premature to say more, but I’d like to return to the topic soon.

Paul Gravett’s overview Comics Art, which seeks to touch on but not comprehensively examine, current and historical issues in a refreshing survey of international comics, is his best book. He had real flashes of insight in Escape Magazine, a British publication that featured comics and criticism from both sides of the Atlantic in the 80’s, but his Graphic Novel was too much a coffee table dog and pony show intended for newbies during the first blush of comics’ entry into the mainstream to be of much use to the serious student of the medium.

This one explores issues surrounding comics’ history as a marginalized medium, its use by marginalized populations, and its structural development to examine its nature as a unique art form. There are copious examples and Gravett does not always go to the usual suspects from American or British newspaper and comic book publishing, instead taking the opportunity to introduce lesser known artists worldwide.

While I do not always agree with his choices, he uses them well to explicate his ideas in a compendium of short essays on various topics. I’ll return to it again in a comparative sense, I’m sure.

I wanted to sample the new volume of Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, and Jordie Bellaire without having to wait for the ‘graphic novel’ album in March. I’ll still buy that, I’m sure. The only place to get a ‘floppie’ of the first issue is the comic book store, so I did one of my periodic ‘State of the Comic Shop’ visits and spent an hour sifting through the various titles on offer. I have my thoughts on that; it’s also a separate post, that ties into the current transition of alternative/ literary comics from comic shop direct market to the bookstore market. But I did enjoy the first installment of the new arc, which takes place in 30’s Hollywood.

I have hopes that I’ll be bewitched by it as much as the first volume, a sort of goth spaghetti western, that I discuss here. I was a little disappointed by the second, a World War I narrative that did not attain the same heights of fabulist synergy. As you may have guessed, it’s one of the oddest series out there. I discovered it during my first survey of mainstream comics, just after I left my day job and had time on my hands. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to mainstream comics now, but again, I’ll try to work up some impressions before the year is out.

And that brings me to my “Besties”, which when I wrote them for the first time last year I just assumed would be the typical yearly survey. But I’m not the type of reader who tries to keep up with current releases, so I have to get on Amazon or Goodreads or something and try to figure out how many of this year’s releases I’ve actually read. I promised myself I would make note of 2019 reads as I read them, but now the holidays are crowding in and I obviously haven’t done that. Reading Listing is hard! But I’m determined to have my Besties, even if it has to include leftovers from last year, such as Sabrina, or Coyote Doggirl, a sort of feminist “Lonely Are the Brave” in bubblegum colors by Lisa Hanawalt that I finally got to this year.

Civilizations, by Armesto-Diaz: a big survey of world history from the perspective of how civilizations interact with and modify their natural environments. It eschews the traditional ‘progressive’ history of flood plain civs to sea/trade/colonialism to ‘modern’. It advocates against a top-down hierarchy of ‘advanced’ v. ‘primitive’. It’s somewhat provocative and interesting, well written and highly readable. But I dawdled, had to take it back, as it was due. I got just over halfway through it, and was enjoying the lively almost bantering tone, and some pretty fresh thoughts on how to judge social and civic innovation through the centuries.

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende: from the freebie pile at work ( it’s not been released yet). My bucket list of South American writers continues, and this one has two, really- Allende, and Pablo Neruda, whose social conscience and poetry inform the story of a couple who span two eras of socialist experimentation, from Republican Spain through Allende’s father’s brief, doomed Chilean reign. The omniscient narration and dreamy factuality of S.A. lit is here, though the realism is far from ‘magic’. Highly readable, certainly sad at times, but ultimately hopeful.

I don’t call myself a socialist, but we certainly need a lot more of the democratic kind right now, as the proponents of unregulated capitalism have failed and are becoming more corrupt. This book is thought provoking about leftist agendas, their pitfalls, and the obstacles they face.



Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List Workshops

Summer Comics for Lazy Daze

I’ve reached a point in this summer that can be considered both blessing and curse: My last full workshop of the summer session has been cancelled so I have lots of time for reading and projects (yay!), but of course, I’m completely broke.

I should define terms. By ‘broke’, I mean each first of the month, I pay critical bills and trek to the grocery to assemble a decent store of food, and whatever’s left ( in this case, nothing) is used on clothes, books, restaurants, etc. Trips to the library for books, dvd’s and lately a Spanish conversation group, are my entertainment. Inventorying and scanning youthful ‘collectibles’ for sale is for beer money. And of course, there’s time for ongoing studio work. Whether I eat steak or lentil curry pretty much depends on what’s on sale. I enjoy both, and cooking in general, so all in all, it’s not a bad life. Writing for my blog helps me to process this, and also to promote the next workshops.

So here’s a description of some additional Fall workshop offerings, namely, two Denver Public Library drop-in classes at Hampden Branch in September. I’m still waiting on a full Fall Library schedule.

And below is a recent partial reading list.

(In a Sense) Lost and Found, Roman Muradov: This is the second GN, and the third story overall, I’ve read by this very appealing artist, who I think comes from an illustration background. His stories are rich in innovative visual design and textures, and as art, are glorious to look at. His stories are not that engaging, and can in fact be obscure and precious, because he foregrounds the illustrative concerns and his pictures, sometimes constrained by a too-rigid 9-panel grid,  become too clever by half. 

In many panels, for instance, he  has decided to experiment with a very muted, low-value color scheme, and I think a veteran comics person would intuitively know that with the limitations of printing, one must include a generous amount of highlighted contours, or the action gets murky. A lesson imparted in the noir films of the 40‘s, or also in Milton Caniff’s classic newspaper daily adventures, and which Muradov thinks doesn’t apply to his somewhat bland fable of a young woman searching a  dark city for her lost innocence. Long segments would be gorgeous visually, if a few highlights or even mid-values were included to provide a way into the action.

Similarly, however attractive the drawing, his uniformly hard-edged images contradict the air of mystery and depth he is trying to evoke. They would be fine in a simpler, more minimal illustration, but Muradov aspires to a comics tour-de-force, sprinkled liberally with Joycean word play, only without having done the homework. Its superficiality overwhelms its ambition. Eisner is another comics great who evokes the mist and mystery of urban alleys with well modulated color and minimalist ink effects. And Maria and Peter Hoey (below), who also come from an illustration background, source the evocative lighting of 50’s Hollywood or the welcoming secondary colors of mid century advertising to make sure the story remains front and center. 

Muradov has great potential, and is improving. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art, a subsequent GN ( this is his first) features a lively retro futurist noir tale with gorgeous ink effects, and a recent story in Now #4 simplifies and hones his unique visuals even further, though the narrative  in both remains obscure at times. They both include scenes in rain, Lovingly rendered, as is all his work. As they say, there is a very important difference between drawing and cartooning. 

On A Sunbeam, Tillie Walden: I got this from the Young Adult section in the library, where if one is seeking to keep caught up with current trends in comics, one must sometimes go. The category is rapidly expanding, thanks to libraries and school reading programs, and the publishers and writers are paying attention, since that is definitely where the money is. The current Comics Journal (303), has an article about its history and current state, if that interests you. 

The book is a lesbian romance at its heart. I’m sure it’s on some Red State Trumpster’s hate list somewhere already. Yes, I’m looking at you, Alabama. There are in fact, no male-identifying characters in the story, as far as I can tell, a somewhat incidental fact that will undoubtedly lead to Twitter-pated outrage over what messages about love’s untamable diversity the book imparts. It is a lovely book that is much more than that. 

The main characters are engaged in restoring old buildings in far flung space.  A separate narrative explores a somewhat Harry Potter-like private school for girls. One character, a troubled, very restless and impulsive girl named Mia, links the two threads, past and present. This provides ample opportunity for both adventure and school girl drama, and Walden, with subtle pacing, is good at both. The art is both intimate and panoramic at times, and the facts on the ground unfold slowly, and -rare in Sci-Fi, many conflicts are solved without violence. It’s a great read for either young, or older, adult, in short. 

What’s a Paintoonist?, Jerry Moriarty: Moriarty’s latest work lacks the fine balance of memoir, surrealism and quiescent expressionism of his earliest work. There are some great images here, but others seem thin and loosely formed. The overall premise, of Moriarty exploring his life through the eyes of himself as a teenage girl, seems not to arouse the same wry, loving humor as Jack Survives, his groundbreaking and rather brilliant early work in Raw Magazine of the 80’s that views the world through his father’s eyes. 

The girl character, Sally, seems to be an attempt to know his older sister, but the character gets bound up in adolescent sexuality, mostly that of a young boy, and only rarely demonstrates any girlishness. A shop woman’s large breasts are glimpsed tumbling onto the counter as Sally buys a soda. Is it an adolescent boy’s memory, or a girl’s? More convincing is a scene where she climbs a tree to impishly urinate on a passing adult. There are scenes filled with Hopper-esque mystery, such as the girl taking refuge on the porch of an abandoned house in a sudden rain, but the linking, interview style black and white panels lbetween never approach the dense, voyeuristic, claustrophobic yet somehow nostalgic atmosphere of Jack Survives. Nor its wry humor. A loose central narrative of leaving/ return ( Moriarty frames the images around leaving his NYC loft to return to his parents’ upstate NY home.) similarly fails to generate any real emotional tension, showing spare images of his studio, intended to be ghostly, but here, just simply empty. It’s a shame, as the one artist one would trust to properly evoke the haunted vacancy of lived-in spaces would BE Moriarty.

One wishing to acquaint oneself with Moriarty’s special genius for linking American idioms, would be better served by going to the earlier work. 

The Customer Is Always Wrong, Mimi Pond: Mimi Pond appeared in old National Lampoon Funnies Pages issues during the 70’s. This is a memoir of her day job during the run-up to that gig. Many who lived through that period will recognize the milieu, when drugs infused every corner of youth experience, and restaurant gigs provided a family- and party-like background to unsettled lives. 

This is Pond’s story of those strange times, and she sticks to the events and characters that affected her in her youth, without trying to over-dramatize or universalize them. So the story almost became my own memories. A neat trick, but not enough to make this more than a voyeuristic peek into the past.

Worn Tuff Elbow #2, Marc Bell: This follows from #1, 14 years ago. I recently re- read earlier collections, such as Stroppy, and Pure Pajamas, that delineate Bell’s surreal dystopian class-ridden world of rich, entitled bureaucrats, blank faced robot factotums and tubelike proles, with non-plussed humanoids between. It’s funny and bewitching, with the antics and endeavors mostly centered around low-gain working class striving for free lunch, or poetry contests. It’s a very retro cartooning style with E.C. Segar and R. Crumb the obvious reference points, but other more far-flung affinities pertain. The angst level being turned up to 11, Phillip Guston is an immediate association. For instance. I did abstract over a creative/aesthetic/cultural lineage from Segar ( Popeye, a ‘big foot’ everyman, with agency) to Crumb ( neurotic, id-obsessed everyman with agency) to Guston (neurotic, surreal, KKK-beset everyman, without agency) to Bell (passive, beset by dystopian forces, no agency). A more succinct, yet concise, history of comics in the 20th/21st C. one would struggle to find. At its terminus, dense and beguiling world building meets funny, relatable characters, and cannibalised human relations are the norm. 

Coin-Op #7, Peter and Maria Hoey: I made a trip down to the Denver Independent Comics Expo (DINK) in Spring, and had a nice conversation with Maria, whom I’d met before. I haven’t met her brother Peter. They alternate appearances, and apparently, so do I. 

I regret not asking more questions about their method of collaboration, but the convo took a nice turn into printmaking, so was wonderful anyway. I picked up a silkscreened  Illustration and The latest issue of Coin Op. I don’t think I even spent $40, so they could probably charge more for a very limited edition hand-pulled silk screen and a pretty much full-sized GN, but on the other hand, I know from experience that it’s in the nature of these festival-type shows, that you often have to compromise on price to keep sales up. Still, many there were selling giclees and other commercial reproductions at close to the same price, and there is a major difference there in quality and provenance. So on the one hand, I was pleased with scooping up a deal, but also mindful of the fact that the task of educating the general public on what constitutes an original print versus a reproduction continues. 

Coin Op is their ongoing comics series which I first encountered in Blab! magazine, which was the first I know of to collect work from both the comics and graphic illustration worlds that it turns out, many artists ( such as the Hoeys) inhabit. Nobrow is another, later magazine that performs this function in Europe. 

So as you can imagine, Coin Op affects a clean, cool, retro commercial style, but with a very unique, incisive intellectualism that comments on varied topics such as M.C.Escher’s spatial experiments, old R&B music, and even, often through collaboration  with writer C.P. Fruend, film history and iconography. A quiet irony abounds. This issue has a wordless visual oddysey featuring their ongoing characters Saltz and Pepz, a romantic epic that seems to have its ancestry in one of those grade school film strips about The Making of Paper, and two of their engrossing filmographies, one on 50’s Sci Fi movies with a vaguelt dystopian conspiracy theory thread, and one that explores the life of proto-Noir producer Val Lewton. 

They are dense with looping allusions and visual hijinks (in each issue, there is always an ‘exploded view’ sequence, ala Frank King’s classic Gasoline Alley Sunday strips), and in my house they get read over and over. They recently collected the previous six issues of Coin Op, along with some of the earlier Blab! material, a steal at $30. 

The Hoeys, perhaps becuase they probably earn their living from illustration, haven’t received a lot of attention from the alt comics world, but that may be changing, as they were just nominated for an Eisner Award for the above-mentioned romantic ‘pulp’ tale “Supply Chains” from this issue. They occupy a rarified space between the angst-ridden, expressionistic  scrawls of the more punk cartoonists, and the disturbing cartoon brut displacements of the Fort Thunder school, a place where advertising art and marginal cinema goes when we’re through ignoring it. 

A Western World, Michael DeForge: These are collected stories, and take various approaches to DeForge’s continual search for innovation, both visual and narrative. Example: A story about idyllic reincarnation on Saturn begins in media res, with an unseen factotum explaining to the ashen, newly elevated vice president just why he’s acceded to the highest office.

DeForge has been adding softer visual textures to his backgrounds behind his attenuated, harder-edged figures. A sort of chiaroscuro develops, which matches and heightens the subtle emotional longings of his characters. He’s got a unique voice and style, which is as responsible as any for refining the Fort Thunder-style cartoon brut into a sort of sci-fi fabulism that will probably define the next phase of avant grade comics.

Leaving Richard’s Valley, Michael DeForge: DeForge’s latest full length work is a melodrama of masochistic longing and toxic attachment, played out in a post industrial Eden made alluring with its smudged grays and Hello Kitty-style smiley-faced denizens. It is Manga’s cute creepiness, elevated to quasi-biblical epic.

And it all began as a four panel web toon. A subtle mirroring of Peanuts’ wry punchlines propels us into its dark human drama. In this, it recalls Jillian Tamaki’s brilliant( and hilarious) Super Mutant Magic Academy, which also began as a web toon, and which achieved a sort of unitary dramatic power. There is real poetic, even diegetic, alchemy in these sorts of unassuming cartoons, as if someone had taken episodes of a sitcom, say, That 70’s Show and turned it into an opera ( have they?). Tamaki’s Academy is about a young girl’s coming out; DeForge’s Valley is about the moral boundaries of friendship and love. DeForge doesn’t reach the power of Tamaki’s narrative climax, but he is not afraid to break faith with the punchline in service to psychological inquiry ( I cried until I laughed?) He is again, always- a visual innovator here, and if the book flags a bit as it ends, it will -again- probably be very influential.

Last minute update: It’s been announced that Kelly Sue DeConnick’s, Emma Rios’, and Jordie Bellaire’s very intriguing Folk/Western/Apocalyptic epic Pretty Deadly will return in September. Already re-reading the first two volumes in preparation. Expect more in this space on that.