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Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Reading Edge:

The promised end of quarantine is just as slow to arrive as the sun. Snow and rain, which we’ve had a lot of, means movies and books. Mostly movies, these days, but that leaves room for larger book reviews. This post has sort of a theme, but begins with a personal weakness of my always associative reading agenda, a book on books.

The Book, Keith Houston: I get geeked out about books. That’s the point of this column. Books on books? Better not get me started. Oops- too late. The Book, with its cute diagrammatic design and very definitive-sounding subtitle: “A Cover-To-Cover Exploration Of The Most Powerful Object Of Our Time”, was always going to be a must-read.

However, this isn’t the book that I hoped, or fantasized, that it would be: a wholistic examination of books’ development, including the intellectual matter of their effect on culture. Despite the subtitle, little was really said about what makes books powerful.


Instead the narrative stuck close to the nuts and bolts of how the physical item developed, interesting, but not really as powerful as the ideas therein. It made for what is properly speaking, historical trivia- highly readable, take my word for it- but not essential to the understanding of just how books came to be so entrenched in our intellectual landscapes.


To be fair, at 325 pages of mostly fascinating details, there was little room to stop and contemplate the insistent whisper of the flipping leaves. But a discussion of Audobon’s The Birds of North America left one aching for at least some acknowledgement of the sweeping changes in ordinary life that the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible, or science tomes and maps, and maybe even the appearance of the novel, brought.


On the other hand, a fairly concise history of printmaking is found here, a real joy for a printmaker. Paper, we forget, is one of the great innovations in human invention, and here we are reminded. The internet- an earthshaking development in our own lifetimes- but can it compare with the only slightly more distant inception of mechanical presses- mass media? Again, the relationship between commercial printing and the spread of images and info among a rapidly expanding middle class is not touched on. The Book needs context, something that the object itself helped invent. That book is out there, I’m sure, or will be. This book provides diversion for bibliophiles, but only points out the need for something that gives books a bit more their due, culturally speaking.

Red Red Rock and Other Stories, 1967-70, Seichi Hayashi: An elegant trade paperback, published by Breakdown Press in England (2016), It is still available at cover price, unlike others of Hayashi’s work in English. It contains one of Ryan Holmberg’s excellent essays on the history and influences of manga which really add to the richness of Hayashi’s topical, Pop Art-influenced short stories. There are 4 collections of Hayashi’s pioneering early alt manga that have been published, including Red Colored Elegy, a moody, impressionistic tale of a relationship smothered by ennui, and Gold Pollen and Other Stories, which I’ve read, but which is impossible to buy for a reasonable price. I attribute this to Hayashi’s status as a landmark creator in the history of comics, but also to the sheer beauty and attention to detail of Picture Box’s publications before they went out of business.

This one makes for a great overview of Hayashi starting with early efforts in a sort of Euro/satirical leftist journal style, and gradually progressing to his peak style, which incorporates elements of Warhol’s Pop Art, Carnaby Street commercial animation, and even French New Wave cinema. Hayashi is to be considered integral with the Japanese Angura (underground) of the late 60’s, as Holmberg demonstrates.

Remember, all that American comics at this time had to offer to those interested in comics as a creative medium were the innovative but bombastic Marvels, and the raunchy, rowdy undergrounds. Europe was beginning to explore adult genre, such as sci-fi and crime, but the Japanese were the first to truly push the boundaries of the medium, through Hayashi, Sugiera, and and others associated with Garo magazine. Manga is impossible to ignore now, and these spare and thoughtful comics are part of the reason why.

Mysterious Underground Men, Osamu Tezuka: Another Picture Box product that is hard to find at a reasonable price. Again, it’s well designed, contains a Holmberg essay, and is a seminal manga artifact, being published in this country for the first time since its 1947 appearance in Japan.

Unlike the Hayashi and Tsuge works mentioned here, it is clearly aimed at children, and heavily influenced by Disney’s Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, not to mention Flash Gordon serials. But in it, as Holmberg explains, we see a first departure from Nansensu (nonsense) manga for children and toward Gekiga, the ‘dramatic pictures’ that paved the way for Japan’s groundbreaking Garo magazine in the 60’s. Tezuka himself, after starting the equally influential Astro Boy, embraced alternative visions, and started his own similar magazine, Com.

Red Flowers, Yoshiharu Tsuge.: This title story is probably the first manga I ever read, tipped into the pages of Raw Magazine Number Seven ( 1985), the infamous “Torn Again” issue, which also included a small section of alternative manga ( my first encounter with the wondrous strange Shigeru Sugiera). I was impressed by the story, a lush, bittersweet tale of children growing up in rural Japan, but didn’t see enough things like it to place it into context until I read an overview of alternative manga in the very excellent Comics: A Global History, by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner. I began seeing collections pop up on the lists of fave publishers Picture Box and D&Q. This is the importance of good criticism and book editing; it is a form of curation, and the medium needs that. I recommend those above-mentioned starting points for sorting through the vast befuddling landscape of manga, but I’m sure there are others.

I mention all this because the complete original collection is about to be released for the first time in English in the Fall as part of a series of Tsuge collections by Drawn and Quarterly. I’m not saying that this, too, will shoot up into hundreds of dollars on the secondary market, but it’s clear that the pioneers of alternative manga are starting to finally attract attention. They went a long way to making the medium appropriate for adult reading around the world, and they certainly deserve it.

Manga- Japanese comic books, simply put, are another aspect of how ideas and culture spread themselves to all corners through a simple codex of sheaves of paper.

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.