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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

While 2007 was a busy year for new graphic novelists and cartoon artists of all kinds, particularly now that they’re getting some long overdue respect, one of the real treats for the genre came late in the year when W.W. Norton (in their infinite wisdom) re-released a pleasingly hefty pile of books by the late, great Will Eisner. As in father of the graphic novel, as in the churning vortex of industrious creativity during the bastard art form’s early formative years, as in mentor and inspiration to a generation of artists from Michael Chabon to Frank Miller, as in the reason that the greatest creative award in graphic novels and comics is named the Eisner Award. Yes, that Will Eisner.


Norton secured the rights to the Eisner back in 2004 (he passed away in 2005) and have been steadily releasing nicely presented trade paperback and hardcover editions since then. The trilogy that made up A Contract with God came out in 2005, while a quarter of Gotham-centric titles were bundled into the hefty Will Eisner’s New York a year later. Those four titles—City People Notebook, New York the Big City, Invisible People, and The Building; all originally published between the early-1980s and early-1990s—were then released last December as individual paperbacks.


As groundbreaking as Eisner was in pushing the idea that comics could be not just serious but also art, in a sense, there remains an overwhelming sense of the past around his work, even the material drawn only a couple decades ago. The rubbery-faced goons who galumph through these books, all exaggerated features and shabby clothes, seem at first like caricatures out of some Depression-era vaudeville. Eisner’s faces are rarely just there, instead registering Dickensian pathos or Broadway musical-style joy, without a lot of shading in between. The style is right out there and populist in the great early-to-mid 20th century style, located visually somewhere between Mad and Playboy. These stories of love and loss in the great big city of New York range from the two-page character vignettes of New York the Big City (all true then as they are now and fifty years hence) to the fairy-tale tragedy of The Building, many of them moral fables anchored around a particularly concrete piece of real estate, whether it’s a subway grate or office building.


Being the fantasist at heart, these books seem almost a truer expression of Eisner’s heart than the three weighty “autobiographical stories” bundled together in Life in Pictures (also released late in 2007 and reviewed in full by PopMatters’ Erik Hinton here). Although the trilogy—To the Heart of the Storm, The Name of the Game, and The Dreamer—contain a number of sharply drawn portraits that limn the corners of the Jewish-American experience, whether in high society or a comics sweatshop, they seem more forced and less organic than the self-contained fables of the New York novels. Some things just beg to be made up.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008

As 2007 was coming to a close, time, and the allocation thereof, took a runner, and left many of us in the critical appraisal business with too much to opine upon and a shortage of waking hours in which to do so. The problem was, that once you make your existence and potential usefulness known to publishers, they don’t exactly take holidays. In other words, whether or not time existed in which to appraise them, the books just kept coming in. They piled up on the desk, in dark corners, dust beginning to gather on their perky press releases, and waited in passive aggressive accusation to have their pages turned.  Eventually, in between the usual year-end wrapping-up and holiday commitments, they are dragged out and opened up—particularly the graphic novels because, let’s face it, they’re shorter and the covers are always better.


Herewith, a miscellany of opinion on some items that came across the transom over the past couple months.


Super Spy by Matt Kindt (Top Shelf)


The setting is never quite clear but it seems to be your basic World War II-era Europe, all long shadows, nice suits, trains, and fedoras. But in Matt Kindt’s odd, haunting novel, the details are merely backdrop to a more existential tale about the moral blankness and enervating suspicion that must form the life of the spy. In taut, sepia-toned panels, we follow spy after spy as they struggle through Byzantine codes and indecipherable instructions, parsing enemy from lover, and more often than not meet death, bleakly and pointlessly. Kindt’s book appreciates the romantic trappings of fictional espionage, but undercuts it at every possible opportunity with cynical humor and an understanding of the tragedy of lives wasted in the shadows.


Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly)


This slim little volume of racial and sexual self-loathing has already been roundly and rightly praised elsewhere, but let’s give it another pat on the back. Tomine is a queasy chronicler of the bad relationship, as he so acutely showed in 2003’s Summer Blonde, but he outdoes himself here in a scenario about a Japanese-American slacker in his late-twenties who’s doing his level best to suffocate any chance at success (particularly romantic) in his life. Like Chasing Amy without the groin jokes.


Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm by Percy Carey (Vertigo)


Given the deep love given comics by so many rappers, it’s a strange oversight how so few graphic novels even come close to depicting their world. Sentences is a half-successful attempt to try and make up that disparity, and in the meantime try to also add an entry to another woefully underused graphic genre: the memoir. It’s the life story of Percy Carey, aka M.F. Grimm, who grew up on the Upper West Side back when it still had some grit, and later got into rapping at the same time that he was also hustling, ending up in a wheelchair for his troubles. Though Ronald Wimberly’s manga-inspired art has a welcome edge to it (recalling a reality-based The Boondocks at times), and Carey’s voice is refreshingly straight-ahead and no-excuses, the overall effect is somewhat less than exciting.


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier by Alan Moore (DC Comics)


In the League books, Alan Moore has pretty much had a grand old time pressing into service his frightening knowledge of literature for a cracking good series of superhero adventures that thrill as much as they make you want to stock up on Penguin Classics. This newest mini-classic—in which the League enters the postwar era in somewhat ragged fashion after the police state of Orwell’s 1984 goes on the wane— is as rollicking a ride as any. Moore’s imagination works overtime on spot-on literary pastiches (everyone from Evelyn Waugh to H.P. Lovecraft, Virginia Woolf and Victorian-era erotica) that are interleaved in between story episodes containing the expected lashings of fights, escapes, and skullduggery. Too clever by far, but by the time James Bond shows up (as the villain) and you’re using the helpfully included 3-D glasses, it hardly matters.


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007
by Raymond Cummings
System of a Down: Right Here in Hollywoodby Ben MyersDisinformation, 2007

System of a Down: Right Here in Hollywood
by Ben Myers
Disinformation, 2007


Heirs apparent to Rage Against the Machine’s abdicated rap-metal throne, fellow Los Angelinos System of a Down exploded onto the national scene right around the time (a) those willfully monotonous agit-proppers parted ways and (b) terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, lending the lyrics “self-righteous suicide” an eerie prescience. System radiate a political, social, and cultural disgust as intense as that of their forebears, but there are a few key differences: System’s conception of metal is both dizzyingly psychotic and pan-global, reflecting the activism-friendly quartet’s varied musical interests, shared Armenian-American heritage, and appreciation of the value of rock spectacle through a cracked prism. With hit singles like pop-thrash, mock anthem “B.Y.O.B.” (from 2005’s Mesmerize) or the alternately lush and abrasive “Chop Suey!” (from 2001’s Toxicity), System had their cake and scarfed it, too, on a level most artists pray to hit—delivering surreally subversive steaks under dazzling sizzle and making the charts. While Right Here in Hollywood certainly won’t be the last word on the group, it serves as a handy repository of media reports to date, many of which U.K. author Ben Myers penned for Kerrang!. Scholarly, this ain’t: there’s an unnecessarily nasty, partisan edge to the walls of cultural exposition Myers builds while relating System to the general cultural climate of the late 1990s that leaves a bad aftertaste; a shame, since the windows opened into band members’ individual lives reveal a lot.  Who would have thought that pre-System, inventively histrionic lead singer Serj Tankian founded and ran a business customizing “accounting software systems for the jewelry industry in California”? Or that System, early on, were known as Soil? Or that these four go cuckoo the chronic? Answer: anybody with a day to kill and access to Google. But Myers’ deserves credit for compiling all these separate strands and interview pieces into a compelling narrative—and this is important—really exploring the nuts, bolts, emotions, influences, and impacts of System recordings and related side-project output, something super-fan’s biogs like this one usually can’t be bothered with.


Rating: 6


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Tuesday, Oct 2, 2007

Bruno Schulz was shot dead in the street by a Nazi, not an unusual fate for a Polish Jew in 1942. A hundred nameless people shot dead in the street by Nazis (vaguely, historically, without anything to connect us to them any more than we were intimately connected to the Chinese miners suffocating underground or the limbless torsos of Rwanda years ago) is a statistic, but the author of Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass shot dead in the street by a Nazi is a literary outrage, mentally palpable, a cut that time will never mend; there will not be another Schulz. Never again that particular, melting, ecstatic prose, that combination of Kafka and backwards-looking sorrow, a yearning after childhood so vivid, so intense, that he had to resort to Symbolism to explain it. Rubbing salt in the wound come rumours of one final manuscript, The Messiah, which seems to have vanished completely, drafts and all.


Donne can ask us not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, but in Schulz it tolled for this one world, this capsule of beauty that was Bruno Schulz, tucked away in his backwater village of Drohobych, a bachelor whose self-portraits show him with a slightly bowed head, peering sideways (a requirement of self-portraits you might think, the artist having to look sideways at the mirror, but witness old Rembrandt calmly gazing forward or Mervyn Peake with his globular eyes and stallion hair), alert, even wary, as if he spent his life waiting for that bullet. Here he was at 50, only just starting to have his stories published, the beginning of a new career, really, before this thug put a bullet in him, not knowing that this man had a history, not knowing about the father, Schulz Senior, who turned into a horsefly, a cockroach, and a crustacean, who dried up and was swept away, who collected birds, did deals with a black-bearded man who might have been the devil, and preached the genesis of creation around the figure of a tailor’s dummy—not knowing about Adela the housemaid of unusual and suggestive powers, or the other housemaid Genya who made white sauce out of invoices—not knowing Nimrod the puppy or Dodo and his brain disease—not knowing the mysteriously Proustian and metamorphic Book, “a large, rustling Codex, a mysterious Bible … an enormous petal-shedding rose”—oh this foul dumb goon, whose only claim on our attention is that he shot Bruno Schulz.


Some writers die of old age, some of sickness or cancer, some of suicide or drinking, and some die like this, stupidly, but leaving great beauty behind: “enclosed in a glass capsule, bathed in fluorescent light, already adjudged, erased, filed away, another record card in the immense archives of the sky.”


(The quotes in this post come from Celina Wieniewska’s translations of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe and Sanatorium pod Klepsydra.)

Further Reading:
A Schulz website in Polish.
A Schulz website in English.


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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007

You have to wonder if the manuscript for The Uncommon Reader had been just sitting in Alan Bennett’s trunk gathering dust for years, its every attempt at publication rejected by publishers prior to the success of last year’s film The Queen, after which gently entertaining tales about the Queen Mother told from her point of view became much more salable. Whatever the case may be, Bennett’s novella is a charming little diversion that will leave Angolphiles sighing with pleasure and most everyone else grinning, if a touch underwhelmed.


Bennett’s conceit here is that one day the Queen (or she refers to herself in conversation, “One”) happens to be walking the corgis on the grounds when she comes across the palace bookmobile. Thinking it would be rude not to take a book, she checks out an Ivy-Compton Burnett title and heads on her way. This simple act leads to Her Majesty opening up whole new vistas in her heretofore-unreflective life. One book leads to another and soon she is devouring the printed word by the bushel, always with a stack on the nightstand and one or more in her purse. She even keeps one open in her lap while in the car, absent-mindedly waving to her subjects.


A wit of no little talent, Bennett has a good time with his little fancy of an idea, smartly wielding some trademark dry Anglo understatement: When the Queen tells her husband that there’s a bookmobile on the grounds, he responds, “Jolly good. Wonders never cease.” Although the author is wise not to dig too deeply into his subject (this is thin terrain), he gets good mileage out of observing the Queen’s developing tastes—she absolutely devours Proust, but while reading Henry James at teatime, lets out an irritated, “Oh do get on”—and watching how her growing obsession affects her abilities to act Queenly. As state functions become more and more tedious, she looks to literature for escape. Stuck next to the president of France, she asks him for his opinion on Jean Genet (hasn’t heard of him). Later, she survives a painfully boring trip to Canada only by a chance meeting with Alice Munro whom she got talking to and, “learning that she was a novelist and short-story writer, requested one of her books, which she greatly enjoyed.” Such are the perks of royalty.


Although it may be difficult to peruse The Uncommon Reader without imagining Helen Mirren voicing her lines (there are worse things), and won’t take you more than a couple hours to finish, Bennett’s sliver of a story is a perfectly enjoyable take on the joys and dangers of literature.


It just may not be worth $15.


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