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.