Reading List: A Short Detour

I haven’t touched the TV. I worry about myself sometimes when I do that. How culturally out of touch does that make me? I did sign up for the library’s Kanopy movie streaming service. But after reading a magazine article about him, the first film I searched for was Jacques Tati’s “M. Hulot’s Holiday. I think you can see why I don’t watch TV. But cabin fever sets in when I’m cooped up at home, and restlessness is not conducive to large reading projects. My solution is brevity.

Magazines were what I’d read while working full time, or fiction and nonfiction in small bites. A large book I’d put down before the quarantine explores cultural historical vignettes in aid of a larger history of Britain’s wars with Napoleon. It has short chapters, each one on a different aspect of life, industrialization, navy, press, politics and is just the ticket right now, with the added benefit of drowning in others’ distant sorrows, rather than my free floating anxiety.

If the reading list seems fragmentary and unfocussed, I’m going to put it down to plague living. It- and not my inherent laziness is the driver behind the various trivial home improvements, online Scrabble games, puttering on eBay, and popcorn dinners that have interspersed the exercising, business promotion and mind improvement I intended would fill my days.

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges: I’m on his second cycle of stories, The Garden of Forking Paths from 1941, after starting with 1935’s a A Universal History of Iniquity. I started with “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote”, spectacularly meta-fictional and funny, but thought provoking for sure. The conceptual labyrinths are profuse, and there is, at the ends of his bright surrealist hallways carefully hung with curiosities, the dream-like mystery of empty rooms.

Pierre Menard is a man who wants to write Cervante’s Don Quijote, word for word. Not transcribe, mind you, but create it by becoming alive to its necessity, and erasing from his mind anything not integral to its creation, such as the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In a way, isn’t this what we do when we read it? ( I read Part One.) It’s what I’m currently trying to do preparatory to trying Tristram Shandy, and I suppose, Ullysses.

 A bright, warm, vaguely deserted spring morning is the right time for this type of mind game, and I think a dark roast, with just a touch of milk. My cup was black with a matte finish, contrasting with the blonde veneer on the end table. The cat was chasing a toy lobster around, had gotten a treat, and then climbed up onto the couch to settle in next to my thigh. These plague days at times create their own sort of clarity.

The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham: This is an inspiring read about the censorship battle surrounding the greatest novel in the English language, Ulysses. Spoiler alert, love- and art- wins. Birmingham does not cheat for drama, adding in rich detail about the conception and writing of the book, and the people who risked it all to see the book in print. In a measured, but uncompromising way, he also introduces us to the (spoiler alert) men (yes mostly men, and the defenders were often, not always, women) who made a moralistic crusade of keeping it from the eyes of Americans and Britons. It is part literary critique, part smuggling adventure, and part courtroom drama, and when the final triumph comes, in 1933, after 12 years of government overreach and harangue, there were tears in my eyes.

Like any book about this dense, challenging, earthy but ultimately uplifting book, the final result is to make one want to read it (again, in my case). And Birmingham provides loads of context for first or second-time readers, or perhaps any reader. I devoured this book, and I’m anxious to use the enforced downtime to get back to the original. We’ll see.

Fantastic Four #37, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee: I sold this artifact from my teen age collection on eBay and read it one last time before shipping it off. It dates from ’65, when the Marvel phenomenon -snarky, angsty superheroes, existentially grasping supervillains- was just reaching its peak. A few months later Kirby, who did the storytelling, and Lee, who supplied the flippant dialogue- the ‘Marvel Method’, would hit their stride on this title, with a long run of sci-fi fantasy gems by Stan and Jack, with later series by Jim Steranko, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, et al that helped form the underpinnings for the now famous- and lucrative, Marvel Universe. 

But this one is a patched together mess, verging on pure hackwork, with the FF sending themselves rather arbitrarily off to a distant galaxy to deal justice to a Skrull murderer (of a protagonist’s father, a bit of a nasty edge to this business) left over from a previous issue. Everything about this story is off hand- The journey through a time warp, the revenge killing thinly disguised as justice, the conveniently conceived weaponry and the fairly preposterous victory scheme.

Kirby and Lee were never strong on female characters- Marvel heroines tend to be solicitous of male superheroes and often in need of rescue. Here, there’s a bit of sisterly solidarity as one rescues another conflicted woman from a codependent relationship with a supervillain. That’s about as good as it gets for this era- later, we see a typical Marvel resolution, as the Invisible Girl, having made a bold decisive move to tip the battle, then frets about her capabilities and defers to the boys to mop up. As a 15-year old I had no perspective on this embedded sexism. It, like many things from the era, all gets internalized. What internalized mental hackwork is still clogging American progress, in politics and pop culture even now? At the time these Kirby/Lee comics were being published, Japan’s Garo magazine was already pioneering a more mature vision of comics, and women such as Moto Hagio were a part of that.

Kirby was pretty overworked at this point, in order to capitalize on Marvel’s sudden popularity, and the drawn perspectives are jumbled, the faces rushed and inconsistent. Lee is not really in sync either. He did add a lot to Kirby’s more ponderous characters and situations, but here seems to never settle in to the rushed plot, whipsawing between quips and bombast. There are hints of what was to come: a 1-page photo spread, a brief abstract starscape, some leavening domestic humor. Despite what the fan letters in the back say, a fairly forgettable episode from Mighty Marvel. I did get a little cash for it- more books, incoming!

…Almost certainly including a trusty comics anthology, or two. Anthologies are a living history of a real renaissance in current comics, and a great way to keep up while spending small chunks of time or money. My tribute to those of my past is here, but it’s time to update with the two issues of European mag Scratches ( #’s 1, 2, Joost Swarte) that I was finally able to locate domestically and had delivered just as the lockdown was beginning.

Scratches is a showcase of Euro cartoonists for American eyes, and vice versa. It’s edited by Swarte, the man credited with helping to start the Ligne Claire revival in the 70’s (he coined the term) and bringing it to America, and to the essential Raw magazine. Neo-Ligne Claire naturally has a strong presence here, especially #1. Ligne Claire, (clear line) one of the essential stylistic movements in 20th century comics, is modernism in narrative pen and ink, with all that entails, including Herge’s proto-fascist racial stereotypes of the 30’s and 40’s. The revival, dripping with PostModern irony, implicitly comments on this history. Of course, other issues are inherent in 70’s and 80’s comics as well (see below).

Scratches, like its inspiration, the groundbreaking Raw magazine of early 80’s NYC downtown, presents subtle stylistic differences from its American counterparts, Karamers Ergot, and Now, which also have recent issues out. I enjoyed the opportunity to compare in real time the sensibilities of this Euro/NYC hybrid with the West Coast-originating American anthologies. I leafed through Kramers #9, and Now #6 from my shelf, to even up the samples.

A stylistic common that links all of these is a comics brutalism. This can take many forms, and is a direct reaction to the literary comics of the 80’s and early 90’s which espoused a sort of punk/DIY Neorealism, often autobiographical. Comics brutalism- cartoon brut? ‘cute brut’ Dan Nadel, editor of the art/comics journal The Ganzfeld calls it- expresses a love of the medium’s material qualities and tropes, in some cases drawing on comics’ roots in the googly eyes, sausage noses, and big foot look of the early newspaper strips, but also the scratched-out inking and spare dystopian noir of Golden Age comic books. These are beloved of our era’s punk, ‘ratty line’ artists such as Gary Panter. Its earliest antecedent, as far as I can tell, is oddly, Phillip Guston, who appropriated R. Crumb’s underground comics style for his signature, existential, politically charged paintings of big-foot neurotics, unblinking eyeballs and Klansmen in the 70’s.

Its most recent influencers, however, are the Paper Rad and Fort Thunder collectives of the late 90’s and early Oughts. They were part of a second zine and mini-comics explosion that began in the late 80’s with notably, feminist icon Julie Doucet. Their impact has been huge, and has also invaded animation and fine art.

Kramers Ergot has been a leader in showcasing these artists, such as C.F., Lale Westvind, and Anna Haifisch, who comments directly on art world hierarchies in #10’s acidly chromatic “Hall of the Bright Carvings” an adaptation of Mervyn Peake.

Scratches tends to look at these trends through the filter of cutting edge design as seen in Brecht Evens’ untitled sequences in both #’s 1 and 2, where water media fantasy figures evoke children’s book illustrations, but undergo sometimes vaguely disturbing transformation. Also a strong presence is the riotously iconoclastic Brecht VandenBroucke, who got the ‘Bestiest’ pick of the decade in my tragically under-coveted ‘Besties’ awards posted this year.

Now #7, which has been finding its way under Eric Reynolds, highlights a very literate and subtly constructed tale of a mother and daughter exploring mom’s sexual history by Kurt Ankeny. There is a slow peeling back of life’s narratives and falsities in a simple yet wistful colored pencil sketchiness. There is a never heavy-handed juxtaposition of interracial relationships and a frozen lake. There is much to find in comics right now, and in a new decade’s fever dreams, brief epiphanies abound. Neither does Now ignore cartoon brut.

Since we’ve already broached the subject, and since this post has dragged on almost as long as one of the Insane Clown President’s wack medical advisories anyway, let’s close by doing the numbers: my best count of the gender representation in these anthologies, for what it is worth to the reader, is: Kramers #10, 5 women/out of 30 artists; Kramers #9, 6/37; Scratches #1, 5/39; Scratches #2, 4/31; There is a “Scratches Academy” listed on the editorial page, with 2 women listed among 11; and Now #7, 2/14; Now #6, 6/15.

A strikingly consistent percentage, and the question is, why? We touched on the individual editorial visions; that is a variable. And comics, especially the solitary time-intensive, very low paying alternatives, seem tailor-made for socially, um distant, males. At any rate, they have not over the years, attracted a lot of women, and the audience has been mostly male, though those things are changing. Are these editors ( all male) pushing the boundaries only in a stylistic sense? I won’t presume to judge that. But only by being mindful of these problematic raw numbers can one expect to have a voice in their solution.