Friday, March 31, 2023

Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux

This is a book of miscellaneous short nonfiction; the double-barreled subtitle is "People & Places: Essays 2001-2016." And it is very miscellaneous, the collected work of more than a decade of occasional writings - introductions and magazine profiles and think pieces and "what does noted expert Theroux think about this thing" articles. For those who like variety, that's all good. For those trying to wrangle it into a single narrative and make grand statements, it's not so good.

Luckily, I'm much more of the former than the latter.

Figures in a Landscape follows Sunrise with Seamonsters and Fresh Air Fiend - presumably, if Theroux stays healthy and active, a fourth similar book will emerge around 2034, though he'd be in his early nineties at that point.

My sense - I've read in Fresh Air Fiend but not finished it, and I don't think I've found a copy of Seamonsters yet - is that this one is more literary and less travel-oriented than the previous books. The pieces here were written in Theroux's sixties and early seventies, the era when a notable writer is deluged with requests to write pieces introducing new editions, in this case of Simenon, Thoreau, Conrad, Maugham, and Bowles. He also does more rock-star journalism than I expected, with substantial profiles of Liz Taylor [1], Robin Williams and Oliver Sacks, plus a similar piece about a top Manhattan dominatrix (whom, characteristically, Theroux met on a trip in Africa).

There are some travel pieces, mostly about Africa, since this was the decade between Dark Star Safari and The Last Train to Zona Verde. There are also travel-esque pieces about places he's lived, particularly Hawaii, but also looking back to his times in Africa or commenting on the humanitarian-industrial complex (which he is not, as you might imagine, in favor of).

As always, I come to Theroux for his voice and viewpoint, which at its best feels like a smarter, better-informed and more authoritative version of the way I think myself:

Even my closest friends have seldom succeeded in exerting a malign influence on me. I am by nature pitch-averse, resistant to the selling mechanism. A persuasive sales pitch is no pitch at all, but rather something like a tremor that causes in me a distinct throb of aversion. Praise a product or a person to me, boost something or someone in my estimation, urge me to care deeply about a cause or a campaign, and my shit detector emits a high-pitched negative squeal that blorts in my head and sends me in the opposite direction.

("My Drug Tour: Searching for Ayahuasca," p.2)

I appreciate the way Theroux can be grumpy and clear-eyed simultaneously, deeply pessimistic (without ever being cynical) and yet admitting that there's always reason for optimism. The end of his introduction, about the work he has collected in this book, is characteristic:

As I write, magazines are closing, few television programs interview serious writers, and (apart from NPR) radio is mainly music and sports talk. The writing profession that I have always known is changing, old media is ossified, and what I know of new media is that it is casual, opinionated, improvisational, largely unedited, full of whoppers, often plagiarized, and poorly paid. But as I set this down, I feel I am probably wrong, confusing (as my son once wrote of old men) the end of my life with the end of civilization, and that it is fogeyish to disparage innovation, or to suggest in tones of astonishment that the barbarians are a the gate, because they have always been there, giving writers a reason to be vigilant, and unsparing, and fully employed.

(p. xvii)

I read Theroux for moments like that, for the way he can flow out at full force and immediately turn around and question his own premises. He's an unsparing writer in the best sense, in that the one he's least likely to spare is himself. Figures has several dozen examples of his work; I can't think of a better way to recommend it.

[1] Also including Michael Jackson, whom I never would have expected to see Theroux meet or write about.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

It Won't Always Be Like This by Malaka Gharib

If I wanted to be reductive, I could say that the comics memoir comes in two main flavors: childhood and trauma. They're a bit like chocolate and peanut butter, in that they can - and often do - mix, but they can be found separately as well.

It Won't Always Be Like This is a comics memoir, entirely on the childhood side. It's the second book by Malaka Gharib, whose I Was Their American Dream was, I understand, a different memoir of the same childhood.

And what I like about it are the ways it fits comfortably into a clearly-defined genre, telling its story in a lively, accessible style and with a quietly confident and reflective tone. I like that it's a good book of its genre, that it understands what a "comics memoir of childhood" includes, and does all of that in an engaging and open-hearted way.

Genres aren't bad: they tell us important things about the books we might read, not least whether we do want to read them. Won't Always Be is a memoir in comics form of a childhood in the late '90s and early '00s, by a woman of mixed Egyptian/Filipino heritage, focused on her summer visits to her father's new family in Egypt - and it tells that story strongly, in the ways that readers of comics memoirs expect and enjoy, with real insight and depth of meaning.

It opens with Gharib at the age of nine, just arriving in Cairo and being surprised to meet her father's new young wife Hala. Over the next few years, Hala has three children, and Gharib also spends time with cousins closer to her own age. Won't Always Be is a very episodic book, as it has to be - it covers more than a decade, and she's only part of this Egyptian family for a couple of months a year, as a break from her "regular" life back in Los Angeles.

It's more about her relationship with Hala than about her relationship with her father, though, as someone who once spent a summer visiting a workaholic father in a strange hot climate, I sympathized with her attempts to both connect to her father and define herself separately from him. It's a bit about how she fits in with the larger family, but more in the sense of a general growing-up memoir: I'm even more different over here than in my everyday life, so what does that mean about me?

Gharib is the primary focus of her book - it's not quite a "how I grew into the adult I am now," since this is only a small slice of her childhood, but maybe it's a "how this distinctive aspect of my life molded me, without me realizing at the time." The secondary focus, particularly towards the end, is Hala - as Gharib grows up enough to empathize with her, to think about what Hala is doing and feeling, what her life is like.

Gharib draws her story in an energetic, somewhat loose style - I feel like a lot of comics memoirs do something similar, settling into an art style with large open faces and minimally-depicted backgrounds to symbolize childhood. Her lettering is similarly loose and lively, giving the whole thing a personal, conversational tone - the pages don't look rushed, but they look quick, like Gharib is telling this story to us immediately, without filters.

Again, this is a strong example of the comics memoir of childhood, "I lived in this foreign place" subcategory. I think these are often marketed first to younger readers, as models for their own lives or just parallax, but this is an adult book by an adult looking back, so there's no reason to limit it to that audience.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

I have children, but I didn't carry them: I'm the other parent. I have children, but their birth was a long time ago: my younger son was born in 2000.

Which is to say I inevitably read a book like Kid Gloves, Lucy Knisley's comics-format memoir of her pregnancy and the things that came before it, with interest and some knowledge but a definite detachment.

Another way to put it, inspired by a restaurant my family likes in a nearby town: when you have bacon and eggs, you know the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed.

Lucy Knisley, like my wife, was committed. All pregnant people are, and this is a book slightly more for them than it is for their non-pregnant partners (and for adoptive parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so on). If I wander into criticism anywhere below, remember it's likely that Knisley, having lived it, is right and I am mistaken.

Knisley, up to this 2019 book, had a comics-making career entirely focused on memoir, in ways that may have made a lot of people jealous. My life is absolutely nothing like Knisley's, starting from the basic not-able-to-get-pregnant thing, and she made me jealous a few times - she told the stories she had to tell with grace and insight, making them deeply moving and resonant. There were two books of extended European travel, French Milk and An Age of License. A book about family and learning to cook, Relish. A book about traveling with older relatives, Displacement. And, immediately before Kid Gloves and most relevant to it, the memoir of her wedding and all of the planning and events before that, Something New.

Now that I've scared away the people upset by pregnancy cooties - which more men than you'd expect, and not a few women, have serious cases of - I can get into the Trigger Warning. Knisley had two miscarriages before her healthy baby, and there were some medical complications when she did give birth. For some people, that will mean you want to steer clear of this book, and maybe even have already stopped reading.

But miscarriages are vastly more common than many people (me, certainly) realize: one in four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. Knisley explains what that means while also telling her own story: the strengths of Kid Gloves, like all her previous work, is that combination of personal perspective with deeply researched expertise.

Kid Gloves semi-alternates between chapters about Knisley's own pregnancy journey, starting with her troubles with birth control in earlier years, and with somewhat humorously-titled sections on "pregnancy research," which dive into history, demography, social expectations, sexism, and a lot of biology to give a more factual look at what pregnancy is like or can be like. That makes it deeper and more useful than a "here's some stories about when I was pregnant," and I think of that as characteristic of Knisley's work: she's dependably focused on telling the truth, as deeply and thoughtfully as she can, and not just on telling her own stories.

She's also not shy about talking about the physical side of pregnancy, which may also scare off some of those without uteruses. There's a lot of vomit, a fair bit of breastfeeding, and the whole panoply of other body changes that come when several pounds of growing, moving new person start shoving one's abdomen off in all directions.

Let me expand that: Lucy Knisley is not shy in her work. Her greatest strength is that desire to see clearly, to explain precisely, to guide carefully, to narrate fully - all the things she experienced, all the things she learned, all the things she wants to make sure the world knows. Her art is precise, just a bit cartoony, with soft colors and thin lines, and she's really good at the page that diagrams a pregnant body, or explodes into multiple text boxes to cover multiple aspects of a single thing, or just shows how she felt when something happened. 

Kid Gloves is not for everyone - there's more body stuff in here than will be comfortable for a lot of people - but it's a strong book and one that I hope will find a lot of people who might become pregnant in the future and give them a lot to think about and plan for their own lives. And, along the way, tell them the story of this woman and her family and eventual healthy, happy baby - and that's why people will want to read it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Fatal Bullet by Rick Geary

Rick Geary's most obvious oeuvre consists of a sequence of small-format books about historical murders, spanning three decades from Jack the Ripper in 1995 to The Black Dahlia in 2016. [1] Each one is meticulously crafted and deeply researched before drawn with Geary's complex illustrative line, and they usually feature maps and diagrams of murder scenes alongside traditional comics panels.

The Fatal Bullet was fairly early in that sequence; it was published in 1999. Unlike most of Geary's choices, there's no mystery in this one, nothing central still unknown today. Geary here tells the story of Charles J. Guiteau's 1891 assassination of President James A. Garfield, which was done in public and has nothing mysterious about it at all.

Well, other than why Guiteau did it. And that's what Geary looks to explain here: he explicitly sets a 19th-century moralizing tone - somewhat tongue-in-cheek - in the front matter, with a chart depicting "The Two Roads" - the "happy, prosperous life" of Garfield and the "downward path" of Guiteau. And the book follows in that mode: pitched somewhere between penny-dreadful and serious-newspaper, sounding largely like an account from the time period, Geary outlines the lives of both men to show how they came to their fatal encounter.

The one thing this doesn't allow him to do is diagnose Guiteau, who clearly had some kind of mental disorder - he was found sane and guilty at trial, of course, but he was driven to the murder by a monomania about factions in the Republican Party and and vastly inflated sense of his own importance. Any serious modern psychological profiling of Guiteau would break that historical model, and that may be why Geary avoids it. Or maybe no one knows what Guiteau's problem was. 

In any case: he was a nut. A "frustrated office seeker" - he had no qualifications besides a stump speech he wrote supporting Garfield that was never actually used and his own boundless faith in himself - who wanted to be made ambassador to a major, cushy European capital and had been bugging Garfield and his Secretary of State for months. With no luck in that direction, he got it into his head that killing the president would miraculously make everything better and get him the job he wanted.

It didn't work, obviously. Guiteau was immediately arrested, held until Garfield died, then speedily tried and executed. But murders are about people doing extreme things for extreme reasons; that's what this whole long series of books by Geary are about, in the end. And this is somewhat atypical in its lack of mystery, but otherwise right down the middle of the style. Geary's art is lush and immersive as ever, the words are energetic and carefully researched, and the whole thing told excellently. What more could you want out of a murder tale?

[1] And he's self-published a small shelf of similar books since then, actually.

Monday, March 27, 2023

This Year: 1982b

"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. Last week was 1982a; here is 1982b.

I love songs that tell stories; I love songs that set a mood. I love long songs; I love songs that command attention. I like punk - the impulse always, the outcome often - but even more I like ambition, where a band is trying to cram a whole world into one track.

Sometimes they succeed.

Wall of Voodoo's Call of the West is one of the successes. A few weeks ago I wrote about The Eagles' The Last Resort, a song about the lure of California - Call of the West is in the same general territory, but much further out, in the wilder badlands.

Call of the West is not about the appeal of any civilized land, any safe place, any monument or society or group. It's about that old nagging desire to get out there, as far as possible, as fast as possible, as separated as possible. To see who you really are in a landscape that throws everything into high relief.

The dream of the American West, and of other frontiers all around the world: the semi-lawless place where everything is possible, and all of the old controls of the civilized lands fall away.

Of course, it also immediately denies that catharsis is possible, now, if it ever was:

Sometimes the only thing a western savage understands
Are whiskey and rifles and an unarmed man
Like you
So you got to keep on the move
Don't let that fancy paintjob fool you

The sound is almost apocalyptic, right on the verge of violence or transformation. A droning, demanding beat that never slacks. And it doesn't sound like any traditional depiction of the American West - this isn't a cowboy song.

You're a long way off from yippie-ki-yay

One of my first "Quotes of the Week" here was the long spoken section near the end of this song, and it's still pure, still the perfect distillation of that endless American desire for something else:

"There's a conflict, " he said. "There's a conflict between land and people. The people have to go. They've come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body  work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have  their own CB radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell Time-Life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe, maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face."

Is there anything more American than that desire "to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face"? I think not. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Quote of the Week: Fully Assimilated

Thom hunched his shoulders as he told his self-deprecating jokes. He is a friendly and cheerful man, with an amiable demeanor. Had he not been the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, I'd have described him as having the humorous demeanor of a Manhattan nebbish. The door was open for me, many times, to say to him, "Oh, Thom! You're such a nebbish!" But that would have been a mistake. Still, it was surprising to find myself in a situation where I was toning down my Jewish character traits so as not to alienate a Ku Klux Klan leader who reminded me of Woody Allen.

 - Jon Ronson, Them: Adventures with Extremists, p. 180

Friday, March 24, 2023

Back to Basics, Vol. 5: Revolutions by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

I'm still croggled by the idea that someone would have the idea "hey, this aspect of my life would make a great, fun, light-hearted comics series" and then have the idea "this other guy should write it so I can draw myself doing the things he writes about!"

But that's what happened in the Back to Basics series, which I am now at the end of. Round about the turn of the century, Manu Larcenet moved to the French countryside and decided to make a series about that. He teamed up with Jean-Yves Ferri to write those stories - I have to assume Larcenet told Ferri about incidents in his life and gave him some vague plot outlines, otherwise the whole thing becomes too silly and fictional for me even to imagine - and then Larcenet drew what Ferri wrote about fictionalized Larcenet. Since the series is semi-autobiographical, Ferri is also an occasional character, and the creation of the very stories we're reading (and their promotion, in one of the books) is an element of the humor and the plot.

There were five books in the series: Real Life, Making Plans, The Great World and The Flood all came before this final book, Revolutions. The whole thing wrapped up by 2008, with translations into English only coming a decade later - Revolutions, in this edition, was published by Europe Comics digitally in 2017, with a translation by Mercedes Claire Gilliom.

There are definitely elements that repeat: Manu and his partner, Mariette, moved to the sleepy rural Ravenelles to begin the series, and the various rustic types there - especially a local old lady and hermit - are recurring characters. But each book tends to have a different plot structure, and a new complication, which are not necessarily picked up in later books.

The Flood, for example, was largely the "we now have a baby" book. That baby is now a toddler, and she's not quite as central this time, though Manu and Mariette do know that you can never ignore a small child. This book, on the other hand, is one part "Mariette is going back to school" (for something the book never makes clear) and one part "there is a contentious election in this sleepy town" (which is oddly more serious and political than anything else in the series).

The current mayor, who has been a minor and mostly pleasant character throughout the series, is still mostly a bumbling rustic but now is also a secret schemer with shadowy allies, who wants to get rich by building a Krashdiscount "megamarket" in town. Manu-the-character gets caught up in the political campaign, though we don't see anything positive about the other candidates - and only realize there are more than two very late in the book - mostly as a way to ramp up his anxiety and confusion, which admittedly are central elements of the whole series.

The jokes about Mariette changing and growing (subtext: away from Manu) also seem more important and less frivolous than the stories in previous books. The tone of Revolutions is roughly the same as previous books, but the things Ferri and Larcenet are making jokes about are much weightier and less goofy than before, which makes the book more than a little uneasy. I know nothing about Manu Larcenet's personal life, but Revolutions implies a whole lot about why it's the last book in the series - whatever in his life transformed into these stories, it was contentious and problematic and messy.

So Back to Basics doesn't end quite as well, or as pleasantly, as it started. But even this last volume is funny, and mostly light-hearted. Maybe I should say that it always strives to be light-hearted, as darker thoughts poke in, intrusively, here and there.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Snug Harbor Stories by Will Henry

I used to read a lot of strip-comics collections: I assembled a full set of Doonesbury back in the day, kept up with Dilbert until the writing on the wall was too obvious to ignore [1], and had multiple books from probably a dozen other currently-running strips over the years. But, somehow, the past decade or so has made that seem old-fashioned. Maybe because of so many re-runs (Get Fuzzy, for example, which I still read in the paper but can never tell if it's actually new, because it generally isn't) and legacy strips (too many to mention, not that I ever cared for most of them in even their earlier forms), maybe because of just the weight of time.

Will Henry's Wallace the Brave is probably the first newspaper strip where I've read two collections in...ten years? More or less? So I may end up grumping about some aspects of the strip, because what I apparently do best is grump, but let me underline that first: I like this a lot more than just about anything else I've seen in a newspaper for a bunch of years.

Snug Harbor Stories is the second collection of the strip, after the self-titled first book. It was published in 2019, soon after the strip started running in newspapers. (If I'm reading the Wikipedia entry correctly, it had an extended try-out on GoComics starting in 2015, the first book hit in 2017, and it was actively syndicated into papers starting in 2018.)

And this is a strip comic, so this book is the same kind of thing as the first book, only more of it. I feel like the strip these days is really focused on the kids and from their point of view - so, for example, the teacher and parents are seen from a metaphorical kid-height rather than being viewpoints - but some of these earlier strips are more obviously coming from an adult perspective. I enjoyed that difference, but great strips develop focus and stick to it, so the overall change is both expected and admirable.

I also thought there were even more inventive layouts in this book than the first one, which could be Henry getting comfortable with what's possible within the physical constraints of the strip. My mostly-uninformed idea would be that inventiveness is easier digitally - as when the strip was only on GoComics in the early days - than in print, but maybe newspapers are not quite as hidebound and backwards-thinking as I assume.

I still like Spud as a character a lot better than Wallace, though I don't think I'm supposed to. Wallace can just be too much of a muchness, constructed to be the eternally wide-eyed optimist dreamer, like a Tom Sawyer with all cynicism and sneakiness surgically extracted. Spud is quirky and weird and particular, like normal people. But one of the things that makes a great comics strip is characters you argue about, even in your own head - strips are formed over time, through lots of moments and jokes and recurring ideas. So even my saying, "I like Wallace the Brave the strip better than I like Wallace the character" is a good sign for the strip as a whole.

Anyway, this is about a bunch of six-year-olds, and, like all comics, they're smarter and more articulate and have more physical freedom of action than any six-year-olds have ever had in the real world. Calvin and Hobbes is the most obvious predecessor: the two strips have a similar sense of infinite possibility and joy in the outdoors and exploration. But Wallace is more about community and friendship - Wallace himself is central, but he's not the whole strip. He's the catalyst or the glue, but the strip is as much about his friends and family as about him specifically.

And Henry is an inventive, somewhat loose artist with great sound-effects, a willingness to draw weird stuff (people, places, layouts - all of it) and a complete and total lack of fussiness at all times. It's a lovely, always organic-looking strip full of energy and life

I still think the best way to discover a strip is day-by-day rather than in clumps; the good ones stick in your mind even in small doses like that. But, when you're ready for a larger dose, Snug Harbor Stories (and the book before and, so far, two books after) are there.

[1] From the evidence of my bookshelves, I think this was 15-20 years ago, which is even longer than I thought. I also should note that I wrote this post in early January, before the recent unpleasantness. But Dilbert's creator has been a wealth of unpleasantness for quite some time now.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

Some books age better than others. It can be hard to predict, sometimes, but usually pretty clear in retrospect.

Them: Adventures with Extremists is a mostly humorous non-fiction book by Jon Ronson, about how he spent the five years up to 2001 talking to a bunch of racists and extremists of various stripes, united mostly by the fact that they all believed in "a secret room from which a tiny elite secretly rule the world." In practice, what they have in common is that they hate and oppose liberal, capitalist democracy, and want to see some form of authoritarian government - from their particular point of view, of course, rewarding their people and following their rules - instituted and all of those other people firmly put in their place.

The UK edition seems to have come out in the spring of 2001, from this Guardian review. The US edition I just read, in QPB's reprint paperback edition (traditionally reprinting the hardcover exactly, and published a few months later) has a couple of references to 9/11 in the preface, so I think it was hastily updated in mid-September for US publication soon after - also see this New York Times review from early 2002.

The spine of Them is Ronson's quest for that "room" - the place the secret masters of the world meet. Following common conspiracy theories of the time, he assumes the organizing society of the secret rulers is the Bilderberg Group, an annual conference of global industrialists and politicians that could be characterized as "secretive" or, to less paranoid types, as just "private." [1] For the book, Ronson appears to mostly go along with the premise, up until the very end: to agree with the racists and terrorists that "them" are ruling the world and keeping down "us," or at least agreeing with it as long as it's funny and he can keep searching for the fabled room.

Ronson never deeply engages with the core conflict he has, because it wouldn't be funny. But he's a secular Jew talking to a lot of crazy people - fundamentalist Muslims, Ku Klux Klan leaders, white supremacists, David Icke, Alex Jones - all of whom firmly believe in this conspiracy and all of whom use language that at least very strongly implies that the secret masters are Jewish. He's not quite saying "So, this Protocols of the Elders of Zion stuff - where do you think they get the babies?" but he's not that far away from it.

And, not to complain about things Ronson couldn't have known, but nearly every direction he investigated got worse and more violent over the next twenty years, largely because they got media attention from people like him. The opening chapter follows Omar Bakri Mohammed, who repeatedly described himself as "bin Laden's man in London." He wanders around the fringes of the burgeoning US militia movement, and spends extensive time with Alex Jones. None of that is his fault, but it was, at the very least, a very unfortunate choice of subject matter, and Them is a book that arguably has helped to make the world worse.

On the other hand, it's zippy and humorous! Ronson doesn't make jokes, and isn't specifically lampooning these extremists - his thesis, as best I can characterize it a generation later and after the book itself turned out differently than I think he expected, is that these people are all mistaken but honestly so, and that there could be a path to bring them back to sanity if people engaged honestly with them.

Them is interesting as reportage rather than for what Ronson brings to it, at this point. It shows the embryo forms of several strains of paranoid hatred that later became much worse. It's an unfortunate book, and I think an essentially misguided one - if Ronson were less interested in being light and humorous, he could have done something vastly better. But it was the late '90s: history was over, the world was at peace, and nothing bad would ever happen again, right?

[1] They are much less so these days, with their own website and a Wikipedia article. And even in the late '90s, they were talked about a lot, and not only among the paranoid: the only "secret" thing was that participants didn't attribute ideas and discussions to each other, to keep them private.

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

Friday, March 10, 2023

Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers by The New York Public Library

Librarians answer questions - that's probably Job Two, right after "manage the flow of books." And the bigger the library, the more questions.

New York City has a particularly large and famous library system, which has answered a lot of questions over the past century or two. And, in 2019, they decided to get a book out of it.

But Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers isn't any of the obvious "answers to questions" books you might be thinking of now. It's not a compendium of the most common questions they got, over any period of time. It's not made up of the most difficult or interesting or relevant or any kind of metric that one could devise.

No, instead this book answers questions "selected from a cache of those written on file cards between the 1940s and the late 1980s, as far as we can tell from the dates on each card." (p. v) Even quirkier - and the preface does its best to obscure this fact - but it's clear that these questions were not answered at the time, or, at least, that the original answers are now lost.

So this book collects new, 2018-vintage, answers to some random questions originally asked between 1944 and 1983, giving reference information suitable to an asker in 2018. Which is weird, because it's not what the original asker would have wanted, since (I presume) none of them were time-travelers.

I mean, it does make the book more useful to modern readers, since a 1944-vintage answer to a 1944 question might have sent the querent to a reference source that's hugely outdated or just nonexistent today. But it does make the reader wonder if these questions were ever answered, or just carefully noted down in a box for future librarians to discover and marvel at.

The questions are generally odd and random, from "Can you give me the name of a book that dramatized bedbugs?" to "Do you have any books on 'Human Beings'?" The staff of the Ask NYPL then give short answers, occasionally giving the real facts but more often doing the librarian thing of listing several useful references or giving a Dewey number for us to look things up ourselves.

There is also a cover an occasional illustrations, of a whimsical nature, by Barry Blitt.

And the whole thing is pretty short, since it's designed as a POS book for impulse buying, to be read in quick moments in between doing other things.

They are peculiar questions. They are fairly practical answers. I can't fault the title or scope at all: it does what it says it will do. It's a smaller and less historic book than I expected, but that's mostly on me: this is just fine for what it is, and it says clearly what it is.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

The World of S.J. Perelman

Sidney Joseph Perelman was one of the three titans of New Yorker humor writing in their classic era, the decades before and after WWII. Benchley was witty and focused on his befuddled persona; Thurber was a cartoonist and a fictioneer with a closer relationship to the real world, in his quirky, fantasy-filled way. Perelman was the purest, the most New Yorker-ish of the bunch, the one who perfected the fabled "Shouts & Murmurs" idea of taking two concepts - often expressed as news clippings - and slamming them into each other at high velocity. Perelman was the writer's writer of the group, the one with the ridiculously large working vocabulary, the one constructing fanciful flights of whimsy on whatever random topics came to hand, for decade after decade.

These days, he's probably best-known for scripting two Marx Brothers movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. He also wrote a lot of other things for Hollywood, in the era when writers were hired guns, and even won an Oscar for the 1956 Around the World in 80 Days. But his real legacy is his short comic essays, collected in more than a dozen major books and almost as many remixed collections as Best of and Most of and Home Companion and others.

Which brings me to the 2000 British collection The World of S.J. Perelman, assembled by no one actually identified and introduced by Woody Allen, back when that was a positive. I'd read nearly all of Perelman over an extended binge back in the '90s - I love writer's writers, as a rule, and Perelman is my favorite of that New Yorker school - but it had been a while since I'd read any of his work.

At some point between 2018, when I bought this book, and December of 2022, when I picked it back up, I'd read the first eleven of the forty-one pieces here, and then, over a couple of days during the Christmas holidays, I read the rest of it. I'm not going to try to anatomize those forty-one short pieces: they're varied, and the usual rule about anatomizing humor applies. Most importantly: this is a good collection of Perelman writing, and Perelman writing is like nothing else. If you are a reader at all like me, put him on your to-read list right now.

It doesn't have to be this book - the other career retrospectives like Most of are equally good, and pretty much any of his original collections from Strictly From Hunger (1937) on as well - since Perelman had a style and maintained it for his whole career. Late-30s Perelman might have written about somewhat different topics than early-70s Perelman, but he wrote the same way, and had the same flights of language.

Look, let me quote a few titles at you - if they amuse you, the stuff in them will as well:

  • You're My Everything, Plus City Sales Tax
  • Come On In, The Liability's Fine
  • White Bimbo, Or, Through Dullest Africa With Three Sleepy People
  • Eine Kleine Mothmusik
  • Monomania, You and Me Is Quits
  • Three Loves Had I, in Assorted Flavors
The peak of Perelman is that sense of whimsy and that joy in words; he mixed Latinisms and Yiddish like no one, before or since, and delivered exactly the right word over and over and over again through a long, hugely funny career. You should read Perelman: that's my point. Go do it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

World Record Holders by Guy Delisle

This is a flashback: you need to know that first.

Guy Delisle's comics career has been mostly circling the lands of memoir - a series of longer, more serious books about his travels, created when he was a working animator and/or lived in interesting places of the world (Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles, Jerusalem), and a series of shorter, funnier books about his "bad dad" parenting style (User's Guide, Even More, Owner's Manual, Handbook). His most recent major book, Factory Summers, was also in that mode: a look back at the job he went back to, several years in a row, while he was in school.

The outlier is his book Hostage, which is non-fiction and the story of one person's time in a particular place, but was about someone else, not Delisle himself.

But Delisle's first couple of books [1]  were stranger, quirkier things: two collections of short wordless comics, full of transformations and uneasy connections, Aline and the Others and Albert and the Others. They were originally published in 1999 and 2001, with North American editions in 2006-7. Like a lot of creators, Delisle started with shorter comics and then turned to book-length stories.

And he was making comics before the Aline and Albert stories - there's a French book, Réflexion, back in 1996, which I suspect was short comics. If I were a betting man - and I am very much not - I would say some of those stories are probably in this book.

Which finally brings me to World Record Holders, a collection of Delisle's short, mostly earlier comics. It was translated by Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall and published in 2022. It collects twenty-two stories, originally appearing in various places - mostly magazines and anthologies, I think, with a whole lot in Lapin, a couple from Deslie's 2002 French collection Comment ne rien faire, a handful in Spoutnik, and a few other scattered publications - between 1995 and 2014. But the 2014 story is an outlier; other than that, the newest piece is from 2007, and about three-quarters were published by 2002.

These are very much stories by a young creator trying new and different things; the art is mostly similar to Delisle's mature style, but "similar" covers a lot of ground, and the level of finish varies a lot here, along with other details of line width and shading and use of blacks. That's a lot of fun to see, and the styles generally work well for the individual stories.

It opens and closes with two short autobio stories, from 2001 and '02, of Delisle - in very much his modern style - confronting the blank page early in his cartooning career. They make strong bookends, and also help bring the reader into the odder, quirkier material in the middle: most of these comics are not about Delisle at fact, I'd be hard-pressed to make any overall statements about this collection, to say what it's "about" in any comprehensive way. 

There are stories that may have been experiments, or try-outs, or explorations. Shaggy dog stories, artistic exercises, a few pieces of short autobio. A whole lot of a variety, in art and tone and matter and style - but all Delisle, all pretty successful, all enjoyable to read. And, yes, there is a title story - it's buried, almost exactly in the middle, so you'll have to find it to learn what records Delisle is talking about.

[1] In English translation, at least - assuming that means something for wordless comics. I see from Wikipedia that Delisle did a number of books in French that have never been translated, and I'm particularly intrigued by the "Inspecteur Moroni" series.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Daubigny's Garden by Bruno De Roover and Luc Cromheecke

Is it still a bandee dessinee if it's by two Dutch creators? I don't know if there's a manga/manwha equivalent for the European continent, with "comics" getting a slightly different name in each language that are still clearly similar. I mean, I'm pretty sure Germans and Danes and Poles and Slovaks don't all use the French term all the time, but the Franco-Belgian publishing industry is big and dominant enough that they all probably know it.

So I'm not sure what to call Daubigny's Garden, an album-length story in graphic format by Bruno De Roover and Luc Cromheecke, translated into English by James Vandermeersch in 2017. Maybe I'll just be quintessentially American and just call it "comics."

The title references three paintings of that name by Vincent Van Gogh, and the frame story here involves Van Gogh. But the bulk of the book is a quick potted life of a precursor, which is being told, sort of, by a local doctor to Van Gogh: Charles-Francois Daubigny of the Barbizon school. We see Daubigny born in 1818 and then follow him through his painting career, most often with his great friend Camille Corot, in a series of episodes that make the book somewhat staccato.

De Roover seems to be interested most in Daubigny's landscape work, and especially his painting out in nature - en plein air, I should probably say, if that isn't slightly anachronistic in this context - than in the outlines of his career. The episodes depicted here are mostly of Daubigny working, getting out to a hillside or down a river to paint some landscape. We do see him at a major salon a couple of times, but never in his studio and never making drawings, which was apparently his other major work.

Daubigny, as seen here, is a genial, friendly man, often self-deprecating and generally good-natured. There are no major upheavals or problems in his life - he has a very 19th century cough, from his infancy, which I think is meant to prefigure his death at the relatively young age of sixty-one. We see him working, and get minor background details that imply his career went well, and that he was successful, happy, and settled. But the book is about the painting, about how Daubigny loved to get out in the world, look at it, and try to fix it on his canvas.

Cromheeckie draws this book in a cartoony style; his people have big noses and eyes and his backgrounds are often sketchy blocks of color, especially on multi-panel, dialogue-heavy pages. He doesn't seem to be trying to ape Daubigny (or Van Gogh) in any way, which is entirely to the good. His style is light and engaging, which matches the lightness of the story De Roover is telling.

Daubigny's Garden is the kind of book where I suspect a museum or other cultural institution might have been behind it in some way: it's so specific about a culturally significant thing that it feels like someone wanted exactly that. I can't find any reference to that in the book itself, though: it may just be these two Dutch guys are huge fans of Van Gogh and/or Daubigny, and so this is just the book they wanted to do.

Monday, March 06, 2023

This Year: 1979

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

This is not the first big anti-war song I heard: I know that. I grew up in the '70s, and Vietnam-era music was all around, slowly turning from hot anger into sweet nostalgia. All that was on the radio, all the Fortunate Sons and Alice's Restaurants. I got the Woodstock soundtrack not long afterward, and I'm pretty sure that's where I heard the Fish chant, not on the radio.

Kids are reflexively anti-war, I like to think. They live in a simpler moral universe, to begin with. And, selfishly, my generation was anti-war because we knew the draft was still active and we could see the Cold War heating and cooling around the world - a few years after this, a lot of boys my age thought huge swaths of us would end up fighting and dying somewhere in Latin America, like those before us did in Vietnam and Korea and so on. The fact that it didn't happen doesn't retroactively make anything better, doesn't take away the fear and doom of all the years before.

But that's all background. The point of this song isn't that it's anti-war; it's that it's personal. Sure: personal isn't the same as important, in Pratchett's phrase, but personal can be powerful, especially when the singer is singing his own words.

This song gives me a visceral reaction, even now, even forty years later. I am forced to cry, at least a bit, at the end, every time I hear it. Sometimes even just thinking about it.

For 1979, my song is When the Tigers Broke Free by Pink Floyd, the song that was too personal and jagged to make it onto The Wall record but did get into the subsequent movie. I had it on a single - I have no memory, now, or when or how I bought it, but I had to specifically put that one song on to play, and knew what it would do to me, and yet I did it.

It's a story-song, and I gather that it's basically true: this is what happened to Roger Waters' father, and he made it into a song about what happened to "Pink's" father for The Wall project.

What I've always taken from it is this: even the most justifiable war, even the violence that can't be avoided, even the best possible case for fighting - it all leads to inevitable, wrenching tragedy. No one is whole afterward.

"And that's how the High Command took my daddy from me."