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The Resties

Each year end, to join in the fun of year end book lists, but also to sort of process what I’ve read, I put out a favorites list I call Besties. It’s actually two lists; one features recent or recently discovered books, with a Bestiest as top title; and the second dwells mostly on collections or reprints of past comics or comics critique or history.

You can read my favorite graphic novels and new work here; this is Part 2.

Penguin Classics: The Amazing Spider-Man, Lee and Ditko: Penguin announced that it was adding Marvel Comics (who they now distribute) to their well respected Classics line, and I’m sure the cultural guardians had heart attacks. But they are a first real examination of what made the Marvel revolution so important. This is early work, in the scheming jewel thieves era, before the fate of the universe hinged on every month’s pamphlet.

But the step up from the formulaic and very Freudian hack work of the 50s comics is clear. Peter Parker worries about money and family and romance, yet obviously enjoys the emotional release his adventures bring him. There are essays exploring the genesis of the title, and tensions between creators Stan Lee, a liberal humanist glad hander who breathed life into the characters and their fans, and Steve Ditko, a brooding, Randian Objectivist who liked his good and evil, if not his 4-color comics, in stark black and white. In a pop cultural sense, these precursors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe do qualify as classics. They exemplify a fairly simplistic society’s struggles for the hearts and minds of its children; as well as the creators’ struggle to prove it wasn’t a children’s medium to begin with.

Tom Strong Deluxe Edition 2, Alan Moore: Moore’s very intriguing Oughties attempt to rescue genre comics from infantility and the dustbin of history. Tom Strong is a Doc Savage type, brainy and muscular. He lives in a retro futurist Steam Punk version of our own world, and encounters monsters, Nazis and lost civilizations. So far, so Harlan Ellisonian.

Moore however, never misses a chance to satirize, lampoon or offer homage to well established pulp fiction tropes. This he accomplishes brilliantly with a team of illustrators skilled at mimicking earlier styles such as EC, Funny Animal and western comics and pulps. The plots are clever and intriguing on their own terms, but Moore’s love of meta-fictional context adds extra interest. He’s left comics now, disillusioned but unique in the canon.

Give My Regards to the Atom Smashers, Sean Howe: An early attempt to recruit top writers to define what childhood comics mean, this time read mostly for 60s Marvels, though there are explorations of European clear line, alternatives and classic newspaper strips. These are mostly childhood memories from established writers such as Lethem and Marcus and as such, not critical analysis, but impressions of what comics and storytelling mean. These are clearly the children Stan Lee was targeting when he flipped superheroes on their ears.

Strips, Tunes, and Bluesies, D.B.Dowd, Todd Hignite: Comics criticism comes piecemeal. There is no Harold Bloom to put their long history in perspective ( so far ). If this collection of essays on various topics has the feel of cleaning out the drawers, it may very well be, I didn’t see the exhibits they were companions to.

However, most are very readable and often, very necessary. A speculation on comics’ and animation’s mutual influence is thinly supported but intriguing, another that adds Tijuana Bibles to the historic lineage of underground comics feels incomplete ( why not 50’s fetish comics? ). But a survey of black imagery in comics is groundbreaking ( though it, too, could stand to lengthened). A timeline linking the histories of comics, graphic arts and printing technologies is very welcome.

The Bestiest of the Resties:

Why Comics? Hilary Chute: And why not? Chute explores comics, especially 80’s comics, a marginalized medium, in terms of marginalized people. This is an underreported aspect of comics: they give voice to groups that are often frozen out from more capital-intensive mediums such as TV and Movies, and are a huge part of popular history. As they always have been: early newspaper strips helped translate ethnic humor into mainstream entertainment.

Recently Aline Kaminsky-Crumb died. She was a good example of a feminist auteur who would have never been given opportunity in more mainstream media, but who had a huge creative impact in the ignored medium of comics. Alison Bechdel, who popularized the ‘Bechdel Rule’ about female representation in movies, would never have found a public voice without comics. Chute discusses theirs, and others’ importance in simple, never didactic terms within chapters dedicated to various themes: Sex, Queers, Cities, Superheroes, etc. 

This enables a far-ranging discussion on the potentials of the medium, with getting bogged down in the need to explain comics histories or pay tribute to genres. The book moves smartly, and the illustrations are very cogent. Lee and Kirby, the stars of Penguin Marvel Classics, are mentioned in passing, and creators’ reactions to comic books’ long history of caped demigods, such as Moore’s ground breaking Watchmen, give us a real sense of how far the medium has come since Spider-Man first swung.

Next week, I’ll post an update on my Winter/Spring class offerings, and I’ll later this Spring have news on studio doings and MoPrint ’24.

#besties #comics #graphicnovels #Marvel

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It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Besties

Besties, if you’ve been living in a MAGA echo chamber, are my breathlessly anticipated yearly list of best comics. Or, as Marvel called their comics for a brief moment during the Stan Lee fever dream of superhero magic that jump started the Marvel Cinematic Universe many decades ago when bell bottoms were wide, and colors 4-, and garish: “Pop Art Productions”.

The Marvel Bullpen bombast of the previous graph being highly apropos. For me, it was a year when there was allowance money to spend, and time to fill with the end of my part time job, and the relentless persistence of covid. So the early Marvels are a recurring theme. Specifically, the Marvels predating my youthful discovery of Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Romita’s Spider-Man, when I was still quite beguiled by Barks’ Donald Duck and Stanley’s Little Lulu. A testament to my superior taste in four color graphic fiction even then ( we won’t mention the reams of Harvey and Archie dreck I ingested then, or the forgettable Classics Comics my parents brought home for us in the probably unnecessary project of steering us toward ‘real’ books).

Filling in the gaps of comics history was overall, a sort of a theme this year, whether it be the constrained glories of Silver Age mainstream DCs and Marvels newly enshrined by Penguin Classics, the newly published innovations of Garo magazine mangas, or the burgeoning critical literature surrounding comics new and old. I did read several newer creations as well, but as the year ended, I was immersed retrospectively in Europe’s “Clear Line” revival of the 80’s.

All our lives, we’ve been steered away from an entire unique medium ( not a ‘genre’, unless you want to sound like a moron ) by well-intentioned parents or self-appointed moral guardians. What were they afraid of? As if the presence of Benday dots, newsprint, and hack writers imposed by rapacious publishers was proof that the ancient and elemental creative combo of words and pictures were harmful to curious readers. Even when the DCs and Marvels started to leave me wanting more, I somehow found the more ambitious Euros and DIY indies that could satisfy my fascination with comics. And this year, apparently, I needed to know why.

As always, there are two loose categories: newly created, or sometimes, newly discovered productions ( The Besties); and older collections, reprints and critical surveys (The Resties). For ease of reading, I’ve separated the two into two separate posts.

Besties

Alone In Space, Tillie Walden: A newly published collection of early work, new to me. Contains End Of Summer, exquisite long story/novella that anticipates her sublime On A Sunbeam, and is beautiful in its own right.

These are subtle hybrids; existential teen dramas and grand space operas where the emotional distances and drifting allegiances of adolescence are stretched across the void. Her ink work is architectural, using empty space, rather than obsessive detail to focus us on important moments in time. This does not mean, however, that there is not richly rendered illustration, often, of architecture.

I wonder how many adults miss her exquisite books because they are routinely shelved in the Young Adult section? Not that the MAGA thugs haven’t worked diligently to keep her in the public eye (Oh no! Lesbians!) Oh- to be a teen again and come across these magical things in the library.

Are You Even Listening? Walden: Down to Earth coming-of-age road story with magical realist elements that perhaps suffers in comparison to her others, but is certainly strong. Included here because it demonstrates the broad range of this important young creator.

Crickets #7, 8, Sammy Harkham: Conclusion to the epic Blood of the Virgin tale of ‘C’ grade movie making in 70’s LA. Without going back and rereading the whole arc in one go yet, I’m not sure I place it higher than his fabulist Poor Sailor arc, but it’s unique and rich in characterization.

Saga V. 10, Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Back from a 3-year hiatus and following a dramatic conclusion to V. 9, it was hotly anticipated and possibly that’s a set-up for some transitional hiccups. It’s clear that the narrative driver is shifting from Alanna to her hunted, interracial ( interspecies?) child Hazel, which might occasion some writerly uncertainty or slowing. New elements (Rock and Roll!) are introduced, but some of the complications we’ve visited before (drugs). And episodic comics, with their almost obligatory end-of-chapter reveal, are hard to sustain ( So no, not sex).

But it only begs the question of the emotional impact of V.9’s concluding death (no spoilers) which is glossed over with the story skipping ahead a couple of years. And this detracts a bit from the story’s real treasure: how love trumps war.

Yeah, Saga‘s never gonna not be on the Besties. Staples’ art is still eye-popping and twists and turns are everywhere. With 8 chapters to go, there’s time to regain the propulsive energy of the earlier segments, at least until they start billing it as ‘Pop Art’.

Red Flowers, Yoshiharu Tsuge: In casting about, in the late 70’s and early 80’s for a truly artistic use of this amazing medium after an adolescence of superhero fantasy, I first discovered the title story of this newly published collection of pioneering 60’s manga as a pull out supplement to an early issue of Raw Magazine. It stuck with me, but not enough to include the vast amounts of dystopian Sci-Fi mangas of the 80’s in my limited budget. This is far more down to Earth.

It took the discovery of Garo Magazine’s innovative mangaka of the 60’s, untranslated into English until very recently, to get me hooked. Hayashi, Sugiera, Matsumoto and now finally Tsuge’s pioneering alt comics, influenced by Pop Art, Poetry, French New Wave films and Japanese folklore are now being translated and seeing the light. These quiet, delicate semi autobiographical shorts of sometimes humorous, sometimes troubled characters in the Japanese countryside are lent context by the estimable Ryan Holmberg, scholar of Japanese pop culture.

And the Bestiest:

The Bloody Streets of Paris, Jacques Tardi: I did not see this one coming. I ran across it in the cluttered warrens of Westside books, where one is required to dig for one’s treasures. A 1996 adaptation of a Leo Malet noir, with a twist: it takes place in Vichy France.

I’d read Tardi before, part of the Clear Line revivalists I’d also encountered with other Euro cartoonists in the 80’s Heavy Metal mag ( also, Raw). And Fantagraphics translated another Malet adaptation of his, Fog on Tolbiac Bridge, mid-decade (also worth a read, though seemingly set later, in the 50s). Tardi, with his dense, fluid, eccentric take on Clear Line, the French/Belgian/Dutch revival of Herge’s Tintin style, brought to Malet’s mysteries a real feel for hard boiled genre fiction. He seems to have adapted several, but whether they’ve all been translated is unclear to me.

I haven’t read Malet. He has apparently been translated, but they are hard to find, and very pricy when available ( $289 for a mass market PB!), according to a quick Google search. My noir murder thriller phase passed long ago. I can’t judge his novel from this adaptation, but I can point out that this story is really kind of a set piece, with its grasping, small time bureaucrats and quotidian Vichy corruptions ( oh, and cigarettes! Has anyone written a history of cigarettes in literature?) Like most genre, chance can be relied on to supply narrative motion when logic becomes lazy, and coincidences abound. Almost everyone who appears plays a role in the mystery, and a wildly improbable gathering of all of them in one room feels inevitable. And funny.

This book is rich with obsession and characters who are drunk with it, and its Vichy setting and complex schemes along with its Bogart-like protagonist, Nestor Burma, put it squarely in league with classics such as Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, though it inhabits its own world without a hint of pandering or poseur-ing. The climactic scene, though, is as cliche as any in the noir tradition can be, and is hilarious for that, relieving the heaviness of what Tardi makes the book’s central metaphor: black ink as blood. A metaphor, I might add, that can only be executed in comics.

One follows Nestor Burma around the city streets under grey skies as he follows the black trails of wet pavement beneath a thin dusting of snow. The whites are parsed out like the skimpy nuggets of facts Burma allows us, and the police: pale faces, dustings of morning snow (never pretty, Christmas Eve-style mounds, always thin and contingent with the blacks bleeding through), and in every panel, between sardonic lips and grasping fingers, the cigarettes.

And that brings up the reasons for adapting a tale like this to comics, and what is gained. How Malet might’ve traced those black trails in the Paris streets, or did he at all? The fleshy, corrupt faces, the effervescing matches, the dwindling butt ends. Tardi aspires to the visual alchemy of Huston’s Maltese Falcon, which Crowther of the New York Times called “a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos”. He has blended the agreeable clear line of Herge’s Tintin, the rich spot blacks of Terry and the Pirates‘ Milton Caniff, and the patient eye of Huston, including a 7-minute single take while Bogie, slowly losing consciousness, talks with Greenstreet, into an intoxicating, spiked drink. This was Huston’s first film. Coincidentally, his last, The Dead, similarly lingers on snow to express the fragility of emotional connection. Tardi is in very good company with his inks and paper.

Film is a visual time art, with Huston it’s poetry in motion, with the director in complete control. Comics are also a time art, also visual, but it is we the reader who control the motion and the poetry. Tardi knows this- his Paris street scenes could be picturesque documentary sketches of a city during a bleak winter of occupation, but the black inky trails invite us to be mindful of the corruption and violence that bleeds through human nature like ink through tissue. The process, the slow graceful creep and melt, the blotchy palimpsest of the Paris street- Tardi understands the interaction of white with black, and in this way, he has made something as poetic as Huston, as it is entirely of its genre, not dependent of any source except our fears and imaginings.

Genre is a word that critics often (and ignorantly) apply as an insult to comics (spoiler: it’s a medium, not a genre). But like many artists from Huston on, Tardi sees genre -and ink on blank paper- as liberating and revealing, rather than confining.

The translators made a clumsy choice of a title, seizing on Tardi’s metaphor as a cover for the grisly crime of disposing of Leo Malet’s original one, 120 Rue de la Gare, an homage to Poe, who is invoked several times in the story. If every positive review must contain a negative, there it is. Everything else is pitch-perfect. The only times the story drags is when the reader deliberately slows to take in the Paris and Lyons street scenes and interiors.

Tardi makes Malet’s Nestor Burma his own, and demonstrates the power of the comics medium as an interpreter of literary art.

Next week: The Resties.

#comics #bestof2022 #booklists #bestcomics

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Whereas:

Whereas: I’m having a good Summer, drinking coffee and reading in the cool mornings, and when the afternoons get blazing hot, I simply pour a gin and tonic or a white wine and sit under the ceiling fan, reading any number of various diverse books that have piled up, until it cools enough to venture back into the living room and watch TV, and

Whereas: Whether from a pandemic defense mechanism of shopping online for books, or from nice long walks around the city that always seem to end in a bookstore, resulting in any number of various diverse books that have piled up, and

Whereas: I’ve purged number of previous and similarly various and diverse books to make room for the new books, which is necessitated by my limited shelf space, but which I also suspect to be a sort of finicky churn rather than the brilliant, incisive “curation” I flatter myself to be my overarching goal in collecting various diverse titles, and

Whereas: I’m nibbling away at these diverse piles (see what I did there- having implied an amorphous, single pile in previous ‘whereases’, I’ve now sneakily revealed the existence of several piles, the rhetorical diversity of my scene-setting having now expanded from individual titles to various placements around my small apartment, and

Whereas: I don’t mean to imply by this ( the previous ‘whereas:’) that I am awash in teetering piles of books like some sort of doddering, reclusive hoarder. To be clear: the bookses are in their proper places on a shelf or a side table, not encroaching on floor space or seating; I can see the TV, and out the window; I can find my keys. And

Whereas: I think I owe you people [and by ‘people’, I do in fact realize that I’m probably a couple of ‘whereases’ past the point where anyone but me is still reading this] a close parentheses), and

Whereas: I also never really finished the ‘whereas’ a couple of whereases ago, in the fever dream of my parenthetical diversion; and meant to point out that despite spending entire mornings reading many of the various and diverse titles I have not, as of yet finished a single one, a pathetic failure of focus which I document in great detail (oh, good!) here, and

Whereas: I heretofore, forsooth, have probably had enough fun with compound Anglo-Saxonisms for the day and should probably get to the ‘Hereby’ part, a call to action of sorts-really, a call to inaction, when the gin and tonic and the couch are factored in- in which I would like to actually finish a book, I

Hereby: Do declare August to be “The Month of Finishing a Book”, any book, even if it is only:

Bluets, Maggie Nelson: a marvelous little volume of sequential thought events, mini-essays connected by rich allusion and intra-textual poesy, epiphanic nuggets of shame and regret built around a single thematic hue. It’s the kind of book that, in reading it on a very non-July-like cool morning in the shade by the lake, causes one to pause and stare off toward the mist and mountains, lost in pleasant digression that probably has the joggers wondering: what the hell is that doddering fool doing sitting there, staring into space? To which, I reply, to myself: ‘Where are these young fools running to? Or ‘from?’, a dear friend added, one night over the phone.

Bluets is simple enough, and yet rich enough, to merit a second read. But that’s a different Whereas.

Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To the Tudors, Peter Ackroyd: I’d put it down because I was about to read about the Wars of the Roses for about the 3rd or 4th time, and the fear was, I’d go through all of the English hyper violence for a 4th time, and yet still not be able to summarize the Wars of the Roses. Bingo! But it’s not Ackroyd’s fault. He condenses the narrative nicely enough, and provides lots of cultural perspective, though not enough to explain the constant chopping up of people. I’ll pick up the second volume dealing with the Tudors and the Stuarts next. Not to mention the Puritans- more hyper violence.

That leaves several unfinished books from last month, a task I’ve complicated by… buying more books. There was a stretch of pleasant days in August, and after doing my best to patronize small online booksellers during the pandemic, the idea of getting out and spending in local brick-and-mortars appealed. I found:

Why Comics? From Underground To Everywhere, Hillary Chute: a very engaging and fresh look at the Alt Comics renaissance of the 80s, 90s and Oughties that I found at Kilgore, who have a separate small section for comics criticism and history, which is burgeoning. The question becomes, do these now regular books by big publishing houses just tick a box, or are they original scholarship? This one is.

New Essays On The Crying of Lot 49, Patrick O’Donnell, editor: The last of the early Pynchon novels I haven’t yet re-read, I found this 1990 gem at Westside Books, North Denver’s trippingly abundant shop, on a too high shelf behind a short overstuffed shelf unit, next to a chair piled teeteringly with un-shelved books. Finding stuff is a whole afternoon’s project here, but find it, I did. It has an essay comparing Pynchon with Borges, and was never NOT going home with me.

The Amazing Spider-man, by Lee! and Ditko!: RepubliQans who think nothing of storming the Capitol are undoubtedly clutching the pearls That Penguin Classics now has a Marvel Collection. Overstuffed, but not stuffy, Westside had this new. There are essays, cultural context, and the comics themselves, an odd and utterly compelling blend of Lee’s Liberal hucksterism, and Ditko’s incipient Rand-ian Libertarianism. These pre-date my discovery of what Lee called “The Marvel Revolution”, and are fascinating to me. They are the roots of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there had been nothing like them before.

None of which advances the prospect of actually finishing the other books. But I’ve got all Fall for that, and fulfilled the proclamation, so ‘Theresthat’, withal. Howbeit.

#Reading Edge #Bookstores #Summer Reading

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Fast NonFiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Close Your Eyes and Think of Besties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bestiest:

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

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

Resties:

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

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

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

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

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

Bestiest of the Resties:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List Uncategorized

Reading Edge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List

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.

Categories
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.

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