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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.

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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?

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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 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.

Categories
Books, Comics, Music

The World Is a Funny (Book) Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Books, Comics, Music

Book Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Culture wars MoPrint 2016

Get Back, Stack

 

Month of Printmaking Colorado has been going pretty well. It’s an artist/volunteer run event,  and Denver’s getting too big to do a large scale event with out professional organization and promotion, really. But the crowds have been pretty good, and the press has covered it well. I was pretty relieved when all of the first month’s burst of shows, events and openings (including my own) were over. Then I caught a mild flu. So I got myself on the couch and finished up several books I’d been reading. I recovered just in time for DINK (Denver Indepedent Comics Expo), a small gathering of the city’s burgeoning small press cartoonists and publishers held in an old Masonic hall downtown. There were also several nationally-known creators there and I picked up quite a haul of new stuff to read; I could easily have spent more time and money there, but I needed to get to a printmaking event.

I haven’t done a reading list since New Year’s Eve, so I’d like to catch up on what’s happening in my book stacks. There are two main ones, both titteringly high in the Winter crepuscule, so this is a long post. 

The Sea and Civilization, Lincoln Paine, is clearly a morning book. That is to say, when I’m not too busy, I can snatch an hour or two with coffee on the couch as rush hour jets by. This is important now, as my body clock makes serious, complex books hard to read at night. Some, like this one, get carried everyday from the Living Room stack (Po-Mo doorstops, notes-heavy history) to my Bedroom stack ( shorter, or humorous fiction or nonfiction, such as ambitious, large graphic novels and edgy short story anthologies), but the sheer weight of the many historical facts crammed into it makes my eyes heavy, and not many pages get read.

The Sea and Civilization deals with the role the seas played in furthering civilization, trade and exploration from the dawn of history on. Some how the author, Lincoln Paine, keeps it to 750 pages, including notes. Paine writes clearly and at a good pace, starting with the fascinating and awe inspiring tale of the ancient island-hopping exploration of Oceania, and through the story of the Egyptian trade and development on the Nile, and subsequent expansion into the Mediterranean and Red Sea. More familiar are the tales of Portuguese, Spanish and English exploration and colonization, though for me, the broad perspective he brings, fitting piecemeal seafaring tales from my youth into larger, economic and social trends satisfies my ship design and key battle geekery with a new found desire to understand cultural history as a whole. For instance, the advent of the printing press has a huge effect on European expansion because of the sudden availability of charts and navigational data. The book has maps to help visualize the myriad place names, though this is precisely the sort of thing for which I bought a historical atlas.

Pure Pajamas, Marc Bell: Pre-dates the Stroppy book I mentioned previously and is less refined- a little more fragmented and edgier of line and humor. The riffs on E.C. Segar and R. Crumb are more evident, and the humor- which sneaks up on you- is yet more surreal. Some things come close but miss altogether, such as some cartoon takes on song lyrics. Others anticipate the strange, commercialized dystopia of Stroppy, and its vapid, eager, Candide-like characters.

Sammy Harkham is a cartoonist and editor in the same vein of younger, somewhat surreal cartoonists whose simple, somewhat nervous line harks back to earlier times and definitely is a riposte to the over-worked, computer-assisted mainstream press. I met him at DINK and picked up Everything Together, a collection of shorter pieces that effectively highlight his well-tuned sense of irony, bathos, and precisely paced cinematic distance. I also got Crickets #5, the latest in his ongoing storyline about a small time movie producer in L.A. He very nicely signed and inscribed them with small drawings and we chatted a bit, but I thought of a dozen more things I’d’ve liked to ask him as I hurried off. And I know I will suffer collector’s remorse over not picking up the copy of the fourth Kramer’s Ergot ( cutting-edge comics anthology, soon to publish #9) he was offering for $50. 

Beverly, Nick Drnaso: These spare, candy-colored suburban nightmares recall nothing so much as the tone in Salinger’s Nine Stories. A surprising assertion, but the parallels are inescapable, and one story even takes place on a family vacation. There is a vaguely disquieting, even menacing tone, and the narrative drifts along, as if in a fish bowl, just short of resolution.  There are vague connections, with characters being referred to by other characters in other stories, and we have a hard time parsing which of them are actually menacing, and which are the menaced. Nor do the emotional weight in the words and pictures always sync up, a careful manipulation on the author’s part that proves as much about comics’ unique strengths as I’ve seen anywhere outside of Chris Ware. I was also reminded of Adrian Tomine, and others who’ve melded the simple lines of long ago Sunday Funnies with an existential dread.

After the Snooter, Eddie Campbell: It’s been a while since I’ve read Scots/Australian Eddie Campbell’s comics and that was an oversight. He’d been one of my favorite autobiographical cartoonists from the 80‘s, though his approach was always more straightforward and literary than the very satirical or stylized American counterparts such as Joe Matt, Julie Doucet and recently, Gabrielle Bell. His scratchy, unfinished-looking inks and impressionistic zip-a-tones mask a real precision of characterization and setting. His dead pan voice over, understated banter and subtle shifts in narrative weighting draw you into a life well-lived but prone to hangovers, regrets, new freindships and old haunts. In short, the whir and whirl of life itself, which Campbell has always excelled at depicting.

As soon as I got home after finding this used copy at Tattered Cover, I went barreling to the graphic novel shelf to assure my self I hadn’t blindly culled my copy of The King Canute Crowd.  I knew this boozy, gestural early chronicle of working class bards and bastards would be next on the bedside stack. I also read Three Piece Suit, a series of linking shorter stories. Campbell has moved from the pub crowd into family and professional life and from England to Australia, all without losing his very understated humor. I will probably be searching out more installments I’d missed. Like Love and Rockets, the story takes on a sort of genius in the aggregate.

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Leandro Valentine: I extol DeConnick’s complex take on female anger and male repression here, and was quite excited to try Planet, which like PD, the company has gotten behind with value-priced TPB compilations. It’s a bit of a disappointment, though. BP is a fairly standard issue Sci-Fi dystopia, albeit with DeConnick’s strong feminist leanings and Fifties-style female prison sexploitation tropes built in. A male media-dominated near future Earth punishes “non-compliant” females by sending them off-world to a prison planet, where contemporary Hunger Games-like gladiatorial combat pertain. I get that it’s a mass medium, and all writers must entertain, and importantly, sell. This, however, is not nearly as original as Pretty Deadly, though the retro-grindhouse graphics by Valentine are pretty clever. I’ve “bitched” about comics’ dark, stereotyped themes before, and don’t really find them improved by simply stereotyping a different gender.

Love and Rockets #8 I’ve linked to my very early L&R homage so many times that it’s pathetic. Search for it if you like. Los Bros continue to explore their respective obsessions, with perhaps a few more missteps than in their earlier days. But Jaime’s 35 year Locas storyline continues its usual understated brilliance and emotional wallop here with a “Hoppers” reunion tale; and Gilberto’s  Palomar characters continue to provide over the top twists and turns. Amazingly consistent and readable saga that has flown underneath the pop culture radar for far too long.

Massive Vol. 6 Ragnarok, Brian Wood and Garry Brown: Ends the cycle of stories that began with the environmental activist vessel Kapital looking for its mysteriously missing sister ship the Massive, after a global environmental “crash.” A strange storm wraps things up somewhat abruptly, though two new series, including a prequel, have now begun. I may check them out, but I wonder if the author, like the near-future Earth he depicts, has run out of gas.

The Surface, Ales Kot and Langdon Foss. Another disappointment as Kot, one of the more popular writers in the mainstream, whose Zero spy saga I was very impressed with before dropping it as it was simply too violent for my taste, weaves a tale of three millennial lovers who attempt to escape a Matrix-like virtual reality for “The Surface”. Just as I was wondering whether I should care, Kot abruptly suspends this little metafiction for his own, blithely declaring that the characters were all “himself” and the comic is really about his relationship with his dad. Thus, the characters and situations from the first three chapters are jettisoned, and lushly rendered metafiction gives way to a spare, peeling away the layers-type surreal personal journey, which to me spells “self indulgence.”

Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell: A book I culled from the Ten Years in the Tub collection of Believer mag columns on books written by Nick Hornby. It was actually Assassination Vacation he’d recommended, but rather than go on Amazon and order that book the easy way, I prefer to poke through local used bookstores until I run across it, and this one turned up first. If the snark factor in this tale of Puritan intellectual infighting, banishments and Indian atrocities is glib seeming, its story sticks to your ribs like Thanksgiving dinner. And does even the word “Puritan” call to mind boring, black-coated prudes? I can tell you Vowell’s writing of it reads like a breeze. (Bedroom Stack!).

The Puritans who left 1630 England with John Winthrop in the ship Arbella to found Massachusetts Bay Colony were non-separatists, anti-Catholic but still nominally pro-Anglican. But the colonists soon soon saw a faction of congregationalist “separatists” emerge who wished the right to treat with their god without the controlling mediation of any Church . This faction rose under the wing of Roger Williams, who was eventually banished to Providence, RI, which he founded. This conflict of ideas, as well as other, more violent conflicts with Indians and Anne Hutchinson, Vowell exploits wittily to tell the rich story of still simmering

If Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon was lifted by Reagan to justify American exceptionalism, so his refusal to surrender the colony’s charter anticipated by 150 years the (real) Tea Party. If Williams saw all central authority as against God, so also was he the founding voice for religious freedom and separation of church and state, now anathema to his evangelical descendants. And the guiding Puritan ethic- if you disagree with someone, simply move West and impose your will on the natives (don’t forget the gun powder!) remained a central, polarizing zeitgeist through the era of Manifest Destiny and into today’s Bundy-stained politics.

So the book is highly recommended, and now I’ll probably cave and order Assassination Vacation from Powell’s as I’ll soon be visiting one of its (un)holy centers: Buffalo, NY, where McKinley met his end. I’ve also begun my long-postponed reading of The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s examination of Roosevelt, Taft and the Muckrakers. I’ll post about those in the Summer.

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Culture wars

Reading ‘Pretty’

 

“When I was dreaming of what the future of women in comics could be, I was dreaming of her. I just didn’t know it yet,”

-Gail Simone, comics writer and activist ( Women in Refrigerators Blog) on Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Pretty Deadly Volume I (Image Comics) makes one of its stronger statements right on the opening credits page. In a historically male-dominated medium, it is rare enough even today to have a woman writer; rarer still to see two women as lead creators, as with Pretty Deadly’s Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. Four of five who exercise creative input on this book (writer, artist, colorist, letterer, and editor) are female. I’ve written before about comics as a place where larger issues in the culture wars often get hashed out. Pretty Deadly would be significant even if it was a routine story set in a dusty genre. But it is far more than that.

I’ve described it as a “spaghetti western/ folktale/ pulp fiction bloodbath/ magic realist feminist revenge story”, but its roots in a movement toward creators’ rights in comics, and its embedded questions of what constitutes justice in a violent world place it squarely in a larger dialogue about nature, narrative and power.

I plucked Pretty from the rack because of its arresting colors and imagery, and because it had Jordie Bellaire’s name on the cover. A digression: those who may be considering dipping their toes into the burgeoning pop culture art form of comics, and who are confused by the hundreds of titles now being published (some, as ever, are pure dreck), would do well to do as I quickly learned to do: try anything with Bellaire’s name on it. She’s a colorist who has revived comic book art with her subtle yet expansive tones, comprising complex modernist secondaries with gothic, blood-drenched earth tones. These somehow never lose touch with the non-literal, transgressively lurid tones of comics’ limited, 4-color past. She’s not an owner of the projects she works on, but she’s become in demand among creators and publishers seeking to set their projects apart from the muddied primaries and pat mythos of the longstanding DC/Marvel house style, and apparently now has her pick of which stories to work on. Her taste and intuition rarely fail her, and her comics are always interesting.

Emma Rios’ art also caught my eye. Gestural and impressionistic, like alt-comics superstar Paul Pope’s, yet darkling and obsessively rendered, almost crepuscular at times. The dynamism of this Spanish artist’s pen work and page design brings an appealing, cinematic eye to a very complex tale.

The one member of this team I couldn’t know much about until I sat down and read her, is writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. There was quite a bit of buzz about her because of her re-working of Marvel’s then-typically sexualized Captain Marvel (a female character). DeConnick does not censor herself much, nor does she seek to censor others. In reference to Captain Marvel, she said: “I wasn’t like, writing feminist pamphlets, you know. I was writing stories about this lady who shoots beams out of her hands. But I had the gall to have inter-generational female friendships and a largely female cast and, you know, every once in a while, a joke. It ruffled feathers and I thought, Well, if that’s what we’re going to talk about, then let’s talk about it.”

DeConnick’s complex, non linear storytelling is a series of spaghetti western set-pieces; allusive, surreal and often frenetically violent, refracted through fable, manga-style fight scenes and featuring a crowd of startling female characters, from tattooed revengers to feathered creator/saints. My first reading left me confused but seduced.  The narrative is difficult to parse without close reading and reveals itself, even then, only fitfully, as in a fever dream. It begins as a story within a story in a small 19th Century southwestern town, told medicine show-style on an appropriated hanging platform by a pair of drifters, a young, strangely costumed girl, and a graying blind man, of a Beauty imprisoned in a stone tower by her jealous husband (the Mason). Despairing Beauty summons Death, who instead of granting her release, falls in love with her and fathers a child by her. This story itself is part of a fabulistic framing narrative related by a skeletal ghost Bunny to a Butterfly, both of whom are also alluded to in the main narrative.

This narrative disjunct is a distancing device which suffuses the whole book. It punctures the genre-based Sergio Leone spaghetti western ambience so artfully created by Rios and Bellaire and goes farther back to its stolen roots in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, or more pointedly, its obscure Hollywood homage/sexploitation remake, The Outrage (1964). It forces us to ask (on every level): who is telling the story? And while DeConnick does not immediately make her answer clear, it’s a question that haunts any post-Second Wave feminist enterprise like an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

This sort of layered writing opens itself to criticism, especially in comic-book land, long the home of tortured, loopy, plots and clumsy, expository dialog. Though DeConnick does not make it easy to tease out her meanings, she does provide plenty of food for thought. Pretty Deadly is a tale of paired opposites, many of them unusual by virtue of being wholly female. Binaries of character, allusion and metaphor create most of the intrigue, tension and drama in this taught, very fragmented narrative.  Here, Deathface Ginny- Pretty Deadly’s central anti hero, a violent, implacable revenger of troubled victims, is paired with Sissy, painter, poet, pruner of Death’s overgrown winter garden, in a sub-texting of Persephone’s journey to and from the underworld. DeConnick forthrightly addresses the themes implicit in her raging mythology: the human scourges of spiritual rape, sexualized repression and vengeance. Ginny rebels against her mother’s imprisonment by The Mason and (her father) Death, so she also vies with Big Alice, a warrior woman who is Death’s enforcer and is sent to bring her back to the underworld. They both hunt Sissy the bird-costumed medicine show beggar, for different reasons too complicated and spoiler-laden to go into here.

Death (the idea, not the character) is often paired with creative impulse, violence with redemption, and the way is fraught, DeConnick seems to say: self-inflicted wounds are another binary- in one chilling confrontation, Alice scarifies her face to match Ginny’s tattoos.

Pretty Deadly's mostly female creative team finds a stark beauty in violence and revenge. Copyright Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Emma Rios.
Pretty Deadly’s mostly female creative team finds a stark beauty in violence and revenge. Copyright Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Emma Rios.

Sissy has another mirror in Molly the crow, a companion of Eastwood-like drifter Johnny Coyote, who reveals to her-and us-her real role in the drama. Johnny and Ginny form another pair of opposites. DeConnick has been quoted about her desire to create a female version of The Man With No Name, Leone’s (in Fistful of Dollars) quintessential Clint Eastwood role. But in a book full of anti-heroes, DeConnick, an avowed feminist who regularly advises aspiring young female comics creators on how to navigate the embarrassingly male geek space of the comics industry ( “My advice? Be terrifying.”), does not demonize men. Johnny feels he must protect Sissy, and empower her with narrative truth, and he pays a price. Another of Sissy’s male protectors is Fox, also hunted for a dark secret that is revealed only after the book’s propulsive, biblical, lyrical cacophony of sex, betrayal, retribution, swordplay, fire and flood has been irrevocably loosed. Yeah, swordplay. This is a wild little book, people.

And what is DeConnick saying? Though her imagery is rich and alludes to archetypes both ancient and more recently minted, it’s hard to confidently say, really. For one thing, the creative team (including editor Sigrid Ellis and letterer David Cowles) are not done telling the story yet (more on that below). Clearly these women are just as capable of darkness, violence and ultimately, redemption, as the men. Nor is Pretty Deadly a ‘feminist pamphlet’. She lets all of her characters fight their own battles and their own demons, even when they themselves are, technically, demons.

After too long a wait, Pretty Deadly Volume II has begun, in comic book form. I missed the first installment, but snatched the last copy of the second. I won’t try to describe it on such incomplete reading, but it does not lack for ambition- it jumps one generation ahead in time, to WWI; and one genre to the political left, to war comics. It’s a genre that Kurtzman and Elder rescued from rote patriotic juvenilia in their 50’s EC Frontline Combat series. But it’s as male-oriented a genre as it gets, and once again, DeConnick and Rios do not fear to tread.

The conversation about this book can only continue to grow. It has not, to my knowledge, been addressed in the rapidly expanding field of academic comics criticism and close reading (please link in the comments section if you have knowledge that I don’t), but I would be surprised if the screenplay(s?) aren’t already being banged out. In fact, I’m betting the price of Pretty Deadly’s upcoming Volume II graphic novel/compilation ( $14.99, May 2016 ) that the preceding is also true of DeConnick’s other current project, Bitch Planet, a sci-fi women’s prison sexploitation-themed story. DeConnick has in fact signed a script development deal with Universal Television, along with husband Matt Fraction, also a comics writer (Sex Criminals).

If her seemingly endless capacity for invention, vivid characterization, and mythic staging can be channeled into a real, coherent fictional thesis on what women’s existential -and justifiable- rage might mean to them and society in light of their often redemptive (and also existential) creativity, then we will be talking about Pretty Deadly for years to come.

But already there’s a message in its author’s refusal to bow to convention of any sort. In reference to a question about those who seek to “rebrand” the word ‘feminist’, she says “I don’t flinch, when I say I’m a feminist.  You don’t get to define that for me”.

 

 

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Landscape Monotypes Soccer

A Good Used Bookstore, For the Love of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading List:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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