Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix by Drew Friedman

I keep discovering new categories of books that don't work as well in digital form. I was a somewhat reluctant convert to digital - I very rarely read prose that way, and have been consuming a lot of comics digitally largely because the library Hoopla app has scads of good stuff, including what looks to be the entire output of Europe Comics - so this is not surprising to me, but it is vaguely annoying when I momentarily overcome my prejudices only to discover I was correct after all.

Anyway: this is not a great book to read digitally. Anything large-format fits in that category, obviously, and a book of full-page portraits even more so. And yet I persevered.

Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix is the latest "bunch of full-page portraits" book from Drew Freidman, who I think now has not worked as a cartoonist in at least a decade. It follows several books on Old Jewish Comedians, one of famous Jews who were not necessarily comedians, a couple on Golden Age comics-makers, and one with all the US Presidents. Of those, the only one I've seen was Old Jewish Comedians, the very first - I was a big fan of Friedman's dark, celebrity-tormenting comics all the way back to the 1980s, but he mostly transitioned from that work to much better paid illustration work over the course of the '90s. (For the comics work, see The Fun Never Stops! And for the illustration before he started doing the themed-portraits books, see Too Soon?)

This book is explicitly a follow-up to the two books of Golden-Agers; it has a hundred-and-one of those full-page pictures on right-hand pages, each one with a short potted biography of the subject (by Friedman, I assume) facing it, tastefully printed knockout on black, as if it were a gallery show or index of the deceased. All of the portraits are of makers of comics, all people (mostly men, a few women) who were active in underground comics from 1967-1975. There's also a short section at the end with much smaller head-only illos of major underground publishers of that era, though many of these are also in the main section, since that's the kind of scene it was.

That's what it is. But what's important is that it's all drawn by Friedman, the master of the realistic grotesque, who draws lumpy, sweaty, hairy, specific people in amazingly characteristic poses in that stunning photorealistic style (which I don't think he still does by stippling, as he did in the '80s). He seems to have worked from photographs, but not by copying photographs. These are all new images, of these hundred-plus people in their prime, presented each when they were at the peak of being underground comics-makers.

Look, I still prefer narrative to portraiture. I'm a story guy. So there's a small part of me still somewhat sad Friedman left the worlds of narrative for portraiture. But he's so good at it - so incisive, so particular, so super-real - that this is obviously what he should be doing.

Any of Friedman's books are more interesting and resonant the more you care about and know the people involved. That's been the case way back to his goofy comics about Joe Franklin. So you do have to know and care, at least a little, about the underground comics movement and some of the major figures in it, to get much out of Maverix and Lunatix.

But if you do have any connection, to any of Friedman's books, they're like a distorted mirror, more real than photography, that reveals true faces. I do recommend you read them in physical books, though: that's a better experience.

Monday, March 20, 2023

This Year: 1982a

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more. 

1981 is a scratch, since I have two songs from 1982 that I can't choose between, and nothing from 1981 is even near that level. Next week's post will feature 1982b.

Can something be "our song" if only one of the two people thinks of it that way?

This isn't the song that played at my wedding for our first dance. I don't think it's as important to my wife as it is to me, though I know she likes it, that we played it a lot in the early days. I think she feels it as nostalgia at this point; it's still current to me. It will always be current. It's a song I knew before her, and maybe had as a model in my head before her.

But it's the song of my marriage. It always will be, in my head.

That song is Forever, by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, one of the purest, greatest love songs ever written, and one of the most criminally under-appreciated songs as well.

I want to leave it there, frankly. This is a love song that came out when I was thirteen. I heard it then, or very soon after. I loved the whole record, but Forever was a model: I wanted to feel like that, to believe like that, to love that purely.

But the song itself assumes the love and the connection, I notice listening to it now. It may even be taking place at a moment where the speaker has poured out his heart and there hasn't been an answer yet. It's not a song about us - it's a "I love you this much" song, poised at that moment of confession.

If I give you my heart, will you love me forever?

It's phrased as a conditional, but don't misunderstand: that heart is already gone, for good. Little Steven, in singing it, is asking if he made this huge leap of faith in vain, or if the woman he's singing to will reciprocate. The song doesn't have the answer. The song can't answer: this is what he says, all that he can say, everything he has to say.

If I can't have you, I don't want no one at all.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Quote of the Week: Distractions

The barmaid leaned forward to pour another round of beer, revealing her majestic décolletage. Conversation froze as everyone admired the Secrets of Nature. Talk picked up again when she turned away. This happened over and again, like clockwork. It seemed to encourage the pace of drinking.

 - Tony Perrottet, The Sinner's Grand Tour, p.41

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Perineum Technique by Ruppert & Mulot

Florent Ruppert and Jerome Melot, as I understand it, work together a lot. [1] But they are not a team; they keep separate credits rather than becoming some single-named entity calling itself something like "Meluppert." They also both write and both draw; I've only seen short breezy descriptions of how they work together with no more detail than that, but that is always mentioned: they both do both.

Writing together is uncontroversial; lots of people have done that inside and outside comics for centuries. Drawing story pages is more complex - there's thumbnails and finishes, or pencils and inks, or Marvel-style, or a newspaper-strip style "you do the backgrounds," or even oddities like "I'm no good at hands, you do all the hands."

However they do it, they do do it. They've published a number of stories together over the past nearly two decades. Actually, that raises the further question: has their collaboration changed radically at any time? Would we ever know?

The Perineum Technique is a 2014 bandee desinee translated by Jessie Aufiery and published in the US by Fantagraphics in 2019. It's a love story, or maybe a sex story - a modern one, of two modern people in Paris, probably about thirty. They're both in modern occupations, and their relationship is mediated by technology. They're old enough to know what they're doing and young enough to be unsure what they want.

He's JH. She's Sarah. They met on a dating app, and have been masturbating together, joined by webcam, at least daily for about a week. He'd now like to meet, to maybe turn this - whatever this is - into something more conventional. She doesn't.

He's our viewpoint; she's more distant, less knowable. (Insert cliché about women in a book about sex created by men: you probably know all of them as well as I do.) She says she's worried he'll turn out to be violent or unpleasant, but we also think she might just be happy with this and not really willing to give it up for something entirely different and more conventional.

Not that either of them are that conventional. JH is a video artist, preparing for his new show. Many of the sequences of this book are either staged as those videos, or were the inspiration for those videos - there are visuals here that are clearly impossible, either metaphorical or representing an inner landscape. There are other sequences that are not exactly what happened "in real life," too - multiple potential answers to a question, conversations that continue after one person leaves, characters whose clothing changes from panel to panel. Perineum Technique could be described as taking place primarily in JH's head - I don't think that's true, but it's an interesting, plausible description.

That visual inventiveness begins on the very first page, before we even know what the story is. It's baked in: we see all of this story through JH's artistic eye. And I suppose we are meant to understand that this relationship with Sarah has rejuvenated and transformed his art - though JH does say, near the end, that the transformation may not be the best thing for his career, that his regular buyers may not be interested in his new work.

But that's the thing about art, and about sex: not everyone is interested in the same things. And the ones who like the things you like, the ones who understand what you want and care about, are always the most important.

That's why JH chases Sarah: he's pretty sure she gets him, and think he gets her. But she makes him jump through hoops to pursue an IRL relationship - they first meet at a swingers party, for example. And the title refers to using pelvic-floor exercises to, as Sarah puts it, "[stop] your ejaculation, but you still have an orgasm." She demands he do that, exclusively, for at least two months before seeing her again.

Maybe that's the source of the crazy imagery that inspires JH's new work: he's weirdly sexually frustrated, and obsessed with Sarah.

They do meet again, at the end of that several-month period. They do get together, to some degree. The technique is a success. Whether the relationship is a success is a bigger question, and not one this story will answer. But they seem to have both been inspired for their creative work, and they both seem to be energized and ready to move forward, and I have to count that as a happy ending.

Heh. Pun not intended.

[1] They're also both men, which should be unsurprising to people who know French names but may be odd to people who know them from the very female centric caper series (with Bastien Vives) starting with The Grand Odalisque.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Sinner's Grand Tour by Tony Perrottet

We all want to believe we're unique, until we realize we're doing the same damn thing as a million other people a lot like us. For example, I am a middle-aged suburban man; therefore I will read a bunch of pleasant but undemanding non-fiction.

I don't have to like that to realize it's true a lot of the time. I do tend to grab books from my shelves that I think I can get through quickly and will enjoy at least moderately. [1] And then I damn them with faint praise here, which I seem to be already doing today. (Sorry! Maybe I can raise the tone of the praise before I'm done.)

That's how I came to The Sinner's Grand Tour, a 2011 travel book by Tony Perrottet that was originally a series of articles for Slate under a slightly more shocking title, in which the tourist was a "pervert." I've never read Perrottet before, and I got this book semi-randomly, when it was mostly new, during a grand buying orgy while the chain Borders was flaming out. It sat quietly on my shelf since then.

And I use the word "orgy" deliberately - maybe jokingly, but deliberately - since that's what Grand Tour is about, in a classy, historical way. Perrottet is a historian, mostly - of the "writing about it for publication" kind, I think, most of the time, rather than "talking to undergraduates" - and this is a history of... well... famous European smut and sexy stories, basically.

He travels through the UK, France, and Italy, starting with the British Museum and ending at the fabled vacation isle of Capri, looking for records of things like 18th century Hellfire Clubs and the Marquis de Sade, Casanova and randy medieval peasants, chastity belts and historical condoms and the great brothels of Paris. He's trying to visit and view as much of those things as he can, and most of the chapters are largely about the roadblocks in his way - most obviously near the end, when he wants to see some smutty frescos Raphael painted in the Vatican, which are now in a highly secure area used by the Pope to meet with visiting heads of state.

I don't know if he did this on purpose, but he was also doing this in high summer, in the company of his wife and two young sons (ages 10 and 3), which is not the usual baggage train for an assault on the Great Smut-Dens of Europe. (Wife, maybe, depending on the relationship. Kids, definitely not.) So there's also a lot of material about negotiating with the family about spending the next two weeks in a lousy rented flat somewhere boring, far away from the ways the rest of his group would want to spend their summer. The descriptive copy of the book, perhaps sensing mentioning this would ruin the mood it's trying to set, wisely keeps silent.

But it's an interesting, quirky thread to the book, making it much more than just "a tour of some smutty historical sites in Europe" - if I wanted to be expansive, it turns Grand Tour into something more like the tug-of-war between desire and necessity, between what anyone wants and what they need to do to keep their normal life going.

I mean, you're going to read Grand Tour, if you ever do, because you're interested in that smutty history. I think a lot of people are interested in smutty history, but, being someone who is interested in smutty history, I would, wouldn't I? But know, if you do, that there's more here than that.

Perrottet is a pleasant, discursive writer here - he's got a lot of good material, and makes strong use of it. I'm not going to claim this is some lost classic, but it's a lot of fun and about something of perennial interest (maybe two things: sex and travel), and I read it quickly, smiling a lot, laughing a few times, and learning things I'll probably never have a chance to work into polite conversation.

[1] The odd thing there is that the books I get the most out of are always the ones that demand I put the most into - demanding, thorny books, more often fiction but not always. So there's a weird Benthamesque weighing of inputs and outputs going on the back of my head, I think: is this book worth it?

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Ordinary Victories, Vol. 2: Trivial Quantities by Manu Larcenet

I want this book to be thinly veiled autobiography - I think it is, but I even more want it to be - largely because there's an unflattering portrait of an older creative man, "Farrell," and I like to imagine Larcenet transmuting someone he knows and dislikes into fiction.

Perhaps I should back up slightly. Trivial Quantities is the second of four "Ordinary Victories" albums, all written and drawn by Manu Larcenet almost twenty years ago - Trivial was published in French in 2004, and this Europe Comics edition, translated by Joe Johnson, is from 2015. The main character is Marco Louis, a photojournalist with an anxiety disorder, who is trying to switch from doing what sounds like mostly war photography to gallery work, and at the same time just started up a new relationship with a woman, Emilie. The first book was just Ordinary Victories.

The plots are loose and discursive, flowing through Marco's life and covering several months of time. The central spine of Trivial is a major gallery show Marco is part of - so is Farrell, who is famous and does amazing, inspiring work and is also a completely horrible human being - but there are lots of other threads and themes, from Marco's relationship with his brother and with their Alzheimer's-afflicted father, Emilie's dissatisfaction with living in Marco's old bachelor pad, and the new photography work he's doing, of the workers in a shipyard, his father's old colleagues.

Those are the obvious ones: Larcenet has quieter, more buried themes as well. The rise of the right-wing, and more generally how "ordinary" people are treated by the world, and how they fight back. Artistic sensibility, and the question of whether horrible people can do good things, make great art. The question of forgiveness: are there things in a person's past that are just completely unforgiveable, and where is the line for those things?

Larcenet doesn't preach, and doesn't even present this all, really, from Marco's point of view. Marco is central, but it's a big, complex world, and he's wandering through parts of it, making sense of what he can. He's a damaged person himself, though the reader can forget that for long stretches. Larcenet tells this story quietly, without fussy or obvious framing, in an illustrative, somewhat cluttered style with lots of details and pools of black ink on every page.

This is not a series that will tell you what to think about it, or even "what it's about" in any programmatic way. It's the story of one creative life - or a particular time in that life - and I think it's transmuted from a similar time in Larcenet's own life, which makes the distance and even-handedness even more impressive here. And, again, I really want to know who "Farrell" really is, and how Larcenet knew him. But I probably never will.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Sunburn by Andi Watson and Simon Gane

Andi Watson is a criminally underrated maker of comics. He's done great work for almost three decades now, but I never see him included on the list of greats. Maybe it's because he never dabbled in the core Wednesday Crowd (is it still Wednesdays? I lose track, and the big day was Friday way back when I cared) comics - the closest he's ever come is Love Fights, a relationship story set in a superhero universe.

I don't know Simon Gane's work as well, but what I've seen has been impressive - lush, illustrative pages with style and energy and a clear viewpoint. His Paris, with Watson, is particularly impressive.

So I don't know how many people were eagerly awaiting their second collaboration, Sunburn, but I was definitely one of them. And the book does not disappoint.

It's another historical, like Paris. To my eye, it's set at the beginning of the '60s, but it could be slightly earlier - there are mostly '50s cars on the streets, but two-piece bathing suits are generally accepted. (The very first panel is a view of the main character's room, with a lot of little signifiers - James Dean, some group with guitars I'm not 100% sure of, a record player - to help immerse the reader. Watson and Gane work a lot like that: unobtrusively but clearly showing rather than telling.)

Rachel is sixteen, the only child of a suburban British couple. Her parents seem to be perfectly nice people, a little staid but loving and happy. She unexpectedly gets an invitation, from a business acquaintance of her father's, to spend the summer in Greece - and that's the story here, so she accepts.

Close readers will wonder at this to begin with: the connection is very thin, and the invitation is out of the blue: who is this couple, and why are they inviting a sixteen-year-old girl they really don't know along on vacation with them? Sunburn will explain this all, eventually.

But Rachel does not question her good fortune. She arrives quickly in sunny Greece - exact island and location left unspecified; this is a story about people and maybe the contrast between England and Greece, not about a specific place or historical time - and settles in with Diane and Peter, who are more stylish and young-appearing and sophisticated than she expected. They are friendly, they treat her like their daughter - or maybe a younger sister - and they introduce her to the life of this island, giving her fancy clothes to wear to the regular cocktail parties of their (seemingly quite affluent) set.

Among those introductions - well, central to those introductions - is a young man named Benjamin, whom Diane not-all-that-subtly puts together with Rachel. Again, a perceptive reader will start to think something is going on, and will learn more later.

Sunburn is the story of that place, that summer, and those four characters: Rachel at the center, her relationships with especially Diane and Ben, and Peter in a more distant orbit. I won't tell you what happens, or why Rachel was invited, but I will say this is a subtle story rather than a brash one, a story about people and relationships.

Watson and Gane tell that story quietly, through gesture and glances as much as anything else. The style is somewhat cinematic; Sunburn is the kind of graphic novel that could be adapted into film without too many changes. And they tell a deep, resonant, grounded story: I didn't see this until the new year, but it was clearly one of the best books of '22.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Spam Egg Sausage and Spam?

I just had a thirteen-year-old post unpublished by Blogger, because it tripped some spam detector.

I'm not going to tell you which one it was. I don't think anyone could guess, either: it's a book-review post, it's from 2010, and it's pretty much exactly like the other three-hundred-plus similar book-review posts from that year, and rather similar to thousands of other posts here, before and since.

I've reconfigured it - the version in the Blogger tool had lost paragraph breaks, for some reason - and republished it, so let's see if it sticks.

It stuck for thirteen years the first time, so I have reason to be optimistic.

It's very much like every other post on this blog, so I also have reason to be very, very pessimistic.

If this blog disappears suddenly, the likely culprit is Blogger's spam filter: I'm calling it first.

This Year: 1980

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

Some songs become mantras - personal or societal. Their refrains or verses burrow deeply into your head, reshaping how you think about life, becoming a quick response to all kinds of things.

And some songs are a mirror to reflect who you are at the time - you can come back to them and find the meaning has flipped entirely, that you now think the opposite of what you used to.

Same as it ever was.

My song for 1980 is Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads.

There were years when I would chant "this is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife" in my head. I don't know if I was trying to convince myself of something, or complaining to the universe about something I was due, or having some kind of existential dread about the life I was living that didn't feel like mine. Maybe all of those, in turn or mixed together.

This is the best song I know that says "I don't know how I got here; I'm not sure what here is." It's a deeply modern song, about a deeply modern feeling - that sense of dislocation and separation, about having what you don't want and wanting what you don't have and just being in a way that doesn't feel right.

I think the refrain leans toward acceptance, as the verses lean towards anxiety. I think that's the tension of modern life. And it's all propelled by that funky, lumpy beat, anxious in its own underlying way, always feeling more complex, just on the verge of falling apart entirely.

Like all of us. Like all of our beautiful houses and large automobiles.

There is only one thing I would argue with in this song, but it's central. Or maybe it's something sneaky I'm just realizing in this moment. It's not once in a lifetime: something that will happen and end. It's once in a lifetime, in that this is what this lifetime is like. A lifetime is "once." This is it.

Same as it ever was.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Quote of the Week: Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Mrs. Robinson?

Do young men nowadays still become hopelessly enamored of married women easily ten years their senior who have mocking, humorous mouths, eyes filled with tender raillery, and indulgent husbands? Back in the twenties, when it was a lot easier for a woman to be ten years my senior than it is now, I was privileged to know one who fitted these specifications and who inflamed me deeply.

 - S.J. Perelman, "The Longer the Lip, the Smoother the Grift," p.164 in The World of S.J. Perelman