Friday, November 17, 2017

Quote of the Week

Something cheery and bright to see you into your weekend....

"The moth don't care if the flame is real
'Cause flame and moth got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation."
 - Aimee Mann, "The Moth"

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Two Themed Books of Single-Panel Cartoons

So I read two books of themed single-panel cartoons this past week. Since it's hard to write about a bunch of random single-panel cartoons anyway ("Some are funny, some are not. Some are by this person, while others are by this completely different person."), I decided I might as well stick them together into one post to maximize the awkwardness and minimize the number of actual posts on this blog.

I didn't say it was a good decision.

So first up is the clearer model: Books, Books, Books, edited by cartoonist S. Gross and handyman writer/editor Jim Charlton, published by Harper & Row in 1988. The edition I read was paper-over-boards, though I suspect it also exists in paperback form.

Books, Books, Books collects something like a hundred and fifty cartoons, roughly one to each of its un-numbered pages. One is from Playboy, a bunch are from the New Yorker, and the bulk are from places that didn't demand credit here and so didn't get it.

And, yes, they're all about books. Reading them, writing them, shelving them (at home, in libraries, in book stores), thinking about them, and mentioning the names of famous writers in passing. These were mostly contemporary cartoons at the time: there's a lot of Roz Chast, Sidney Harris, and Jack Ziegler, with some Eldon Dedini and at least one Charles Addams reaching back further.

There are obviously no gags about ebooks or Amazon here -- this is more like the world I started working in just a few years later, where the bookstores have big tables up front with stacks of books. I found this mostly funny, in a slightly New Yorker-y way: a few cartoons are arch, or require some knowledge of an author or the book world, but most are just jokes readers would get. It does what it sets out to do; this is what I'm saying.

The other book was a bit weirder: National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons, published in paperback by contemporary Books in 2002 with no imprint on the spine, no price anywhere, and no editor listed. (So this may have been a special publication for some reason -- maybe one of the periodic attempts to revitalize the eternally-dying NatLamp brand.)

From the copyright page and internal evidence -- viz: the fact that page numbers start from 7, run to 128, disappear for about 120 pages, start up again at 7 and ruin to 128 again -- I believe this is a compilation of three books originally published in 1992, 1994, and 1995. So my guess is that it incorporates '92's Truly Tasteless Cartoons, '94's That's Sick, and '95's Truly Twisted  Cartoons. The book itself explains none of this: there are three cartoons on the back cover, a title page, and a copyright page, but otherwise no text. (The first numbered page -- that first "page 7" -- is actually page 3 of this book.)

And, yes, the theme here is bad taste, as was traditional for NatLamp. The first book (section?) has the best of the '70s era -- not that it's all good, but it's memorable and generally the strongest work from that era. The second book is second-tier stuff from the same era, mostly -- what was left in the vault for a second go-round. And the third book is rougher and newer work, with a bunch of things that don't quite gel but are clearly trying to be offensive. I thought NatLamp was solidly dead by 1995, but these could easily be cartoons from the sputtering last days of the magazine in the 1980s. (I thought I kept reading it to the end, and I don't remember these cartoons or, mostly, their cartoonists, but that doesn't prove anything.)

So what we have here is a book created for a now-unknown commercial opportunity, out of three earlier books that were pretty much just ransacking the vaults of a basically-defunct magazine. The stench of product is all over it -- but if that makes it any more tasteless, how could we possibly complain?

Most of the jokes are juvenile, though many of them are at least arguably funny. They run the gamut, starting with lots of sex jokes (particularly deviant sex and a fair bit of oh-ho-aren't-gay-people-hilarious) and running through bodily fluids, death, and dismemberment. Once again I'm reminded how much Rodrigues focused on amputees and S. Gross on blind men: both are well-represented here.

If you're too young to have read NatLamp in the '70s, there are many things in this book that will offend you. If you did read NatLamp then...you'll probably still be offended by many cartoons, though more likely the half-baked ones towards the end that lazily poke a sensibility without making a good joke out of it. No matter who you are, many of these cartoons will not strike you as funny now, and some of them were never funny for any conceivable sane human being.

But they all are "Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted," which is what we were promised. So good work to the entirely uncredited drones who assembled this in '92 and '94 and '95 and '02. You did your jobs, boys -- oh, you know they were all boys, whatever their ages -- and produced what you were asked to produce. Can we all say the same?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/11

This is one of those weeks where I don't have any books to mention -- nothing came in the mail, I didn't pick up anything at the library, and I haven't even bought books in a while. (I keep looking at the unread shelves and calculating how long it will take to go through all of them.)

So this post is pointless this week: there's nothing to list.

Next week may well be different, so I hope you come back then.

You may now continue your usual Monday morning routine.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Quote of the Week

This song came on in the car one morning recently, and I was struck by how well this middle verse paints a picture of a moment:

"It's been years since I moved away
But at Christmas I come home
And I saw her reflection
In the window of a store
She was talking to herself
Not too simple and not too kind
I walked on by, it was complicated
And it stuck in my mind"
 - They Might Be Giants, "She Thinks She's Edith Head"

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz

Success can take a while to be really obvious. Charles M. Schulz launched the daily strip Peanuts in 1950, and eventually it became a massive world-wide phenomenon that took up all of his time and required a number of helpers to do the ancillary work. (Schulz famously wrote every word, drew every line and lettered every panel of Peanuts from beginning to end.)

But, later that decade, he was still doing other odd projects, just in case that daily strip didn't keep growing. One of those projects was a weekly single-panel cartoon for Youth magazine, which he did from 1956 through 1965, mostly under the title "Young Pillars." Youth was the teen-outreach arm of something called the Church of God, which is described as a "religious movement" but probably was a more traditional evangelical organization, with some flavor of Protestant theology behind it. (A movement is not a single thing, and can't be "headquartered," as the Church of God was, "in Anderson, Indiana.") Those strips were collected and re-used and re-purposed over the years, and eventually all brought together in their original form as the book Schulz's Youth in 2007.

So the first thing to note is that these are supposedly humorous cartoons commissioned by a church group, which automatically limits the scope of their humor. (Even the most liberal church puts a lot of things off-limits, and it looks like the Church of God was a vaguely middle-of-the-road mid-century American Protestant organization.) And it's all about good, honest, upstanding church-going teens, so jokes about then-current teen topics like juvenile delinquency were Right Out.

What we get, instead, is a parade of inoffensive mildly amusing cartoons about very bland whitebread Middle America boys and girls, whom even Archie and Scooter would think are a little dull. Not all of the jokes are about "stewardship" and singing in the choir and collection plates and bible commentaries and church picnics and Sunday school...but a whole lot of them are, and calling many of them "jokes" is stretching the word inordinately. These are mostly pleasant drawings of pleasant young Christians being pleasant and doing pleasant things either vaguely church-related or, at the very least, entirely acceptable to a 1950s church for white people.

Did I mention how white and Middle America this book is? It's like a concentrated dose of 1954 directly to the vein, from a world that had not yet discovered irony. It is the book equivalent of a covered dish.

Schulz's drawing is generally good, though some of his adults suffer from really gigantic heads -- maybe because he was trying to differentiate them from the teens. I think the main audience is Schulz scholars and particularly artists who want to study his line -- Peanuts was all the same kind of thing for long stretches, but Schulz's Youth has offices and jalopies and weenie roasts and various bits of ecclesiastical architecture, besides the obvious gangly Schulz teens, who are somewhat like his Peanuts kids but interesting and appealing in their own way.

But if you are a bland Midwestern white Christian offended with The Way Things Are Nowadays, this book may be just the warm bath you want to sink into and forget that other kinds of people actually exist and want to have a say in the world, too.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Collected Hutch Owen, Vol. 1 by Tom Hart

Sometimes you can see someone's ideals collide with reality in real-time. It's most common when looking at a collection of works originally created over several years by someone really politically committed and idealistic -- starting out strident and confident, and then getting knocked about by life.

It's not a happy thing. But the world doesn't fit any ideals we have of it, so it's a necessary process for some people -- to learn that their dreams aren't shared by everyone, and that the world is often as horrible as it can possibly be and never as good as it can possibly be.

So, yeah: Tom Hart's The Collected Hutch Owen. (The "Volume One" is a bit odd, since there haven't been any further volumes in the seventeen years since -- though there have been other book-length stories about Hutch.) It came out in 2000, collecting four thirty-some-page stories from the '90s about a rabble-rousing street poet named, obviously, Hutch Owen.

In the first two stories, his antagonist is a cartoonish business leader, the kind who wants to cut down a grove of pristine trees just to have a place to park his blimp before a parade. (As in: that literally is one piece of that story.) That guy disappears in the back half of the book, as Hutch or Hart grapples with the fact that most people don't want to live in a shack in the woods with no heat, light or running water, printing poetry and trying to sell it on the streets. And that's pretty much what Hutch has to offer: absolute, uncompromising autonomy, unconnected to anyone else except through his art, a lifestyle that five seconds of thought will prove is not something that can scale up to more than one single hard-headed goofball.

Hutch doesn't see it that way because Hutch can't see it that way: his whole point is to kick against the pricks, and Hart set him up to have the maximum number of pricks to kick against. (Going to work at a regular job, as we see, is betrayal of all ideals. I suppose getting married, living in a real house or having children would be tantamount to treason to Hutch.)

Hutch is exhausting, on the page as he would be in real life. He's too earnest, too strident, too in love with his pure vision of what life should be, and utterly unable to make any compromises or understand anyone else's point of view. You're either him or a sellout.

I suspect that pose got harder for Hart to work with as he got older himself: Hutch is cartoonishly successful in the first story and semi-realistically battered down by the last one. But there always new young idealistic people: the universe creates them every day. So there will always be another Hutch Owen to bang his head against the world until he realizes how good it feels to stop.

(The hope, always, is that the head-banging will change the world for the better along the way. Over the long term, that may be true, but in the long term, we're also all dead.)

Hart used an energetic, primitivist 'zine look for these stories, as if they were dashed off quickly (and maybe they actually were). That suits Hutch's disheveled DIY aesthetic perfectly, and Hart clearly sympathizes with Hutch, even if he does come to identify less closely with Hutch by the fourth story here.

If you have sympathy for Hutch's fuck-the-Man attitude, you might like these stories better than I did. If you're substantially to my right politically, you will loathe Hutch with the heat of a thousand fiery suns. So calibrate your interest accordingly.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/4

Howdy! As the time this posts, I will be off at my alma mater for a College Search 101 program with my younger son, but know that I am with you in spirit! (And I nearly always set my posts to go at specific times anyway.)

Like every other Monday, I'm going to list the new books I saw in the past week. I got two books in the mail -- go me! -- and here's what looks interesting about them too early on a Sunday morning (as I write this):

Shroud of Eternity is the new novel from Terry Goodkind; it's the second in the Sword of Truth sidebar/continuation series "Sister of Darkness: The Nicci Chronicles" after this January's Death's Mistress. It's coming in hardcover from Tor on January 8th, 2018 -- is 2018 really that close? where does the time go? -- and features, well, Nicci and her compatriots continuing their peregrinations around this particular incarnation of fantasyland.

If you've never read Goodkind before, and are wondering what kind of fantasy writer he is, let me quote for you the first sentence of this novel:
Rotting human flesh glistened in the sunlight, discolored by the bruised hues of putrefaction.

That kind of fantasy writer. If that's your thing, he's very popular, and you can get in at something like a beginning with Death's Mistress, which presumably will be out in paperback at the same time as this new book. So go to it.

The Nine is the first in a urban fantasy series -- set in a city named Corma, in what may be our world in the near future or some other world in some other time -- by Tracy Townsend, coming from Prometheus as a trade paperback November 14th. A "black market courier" -- is there really that much courier work that you can specialize in that much of a sub-set of it? fascinating! -- loses a magical book to nefarious forces, falls in with several others, and learns said book is A Really Big Deal. As in, written by God big deal, possibly ending the world big deal -- that kind of big deal.

It has quotes from Max Gladstone, Curtis C. Chen, and Sam J. Miller, a really snazzy cover, and, despite my snark, doesn't sound like anyone else's books, which is entirely a good thing.