Blood of the Virgin by Sammy Harkham review — Painfully Honest Scenes From a Marriage

Pantheon edition of BLOOD OF THE VIRGIN

Blood of the Virgin. Sammy Harkham. Pantheon, Penguin Random House. New York. 2023. 296 pp. $30.

A quick and apt description of the comics created by Sammy Harkham would be “painfully honest.” While this sentence alone may not mean very much to the vast sea of potential readers, it will resonate with many, not only the comics aficionado but the general reader. This particular work is at the masterpiece level when it comes to full-length graphic novels. Fans and critics alike have been patiently waiting for the various parts they’ve read published elsewhere to all come together and so here we go: a story about Hollywood, its underbelly; in fact, the exploitation scene of the 1970s. Our anti-hero, Seymour, working at one of these cheap movie studios and patiently waiting his turn, has been promoted leaving him in charge of his own movie. This level of responsibility, and relative notoriety, easily consumes him threatening an already shaky relationship with his wife, Ida.

Over a decade in the making.

Like any worthwhile graphic novel project, this book has been many years in the making. The bulk of the book was created in installments and appeared in the author’s own self-published comic book, Crickets, as well as his legendary ongoing comics anthology, Kramers Ergot. Anyone who seriously follows the indie comics scene will at least be aware of Sammy Harkham. Diehards will closely follow his every turn. And, for the vast majority of readers, this will be the first time they are exposed to this work.

Oh, Little Piglet!

Harkham’s cartooning style is a classic approach in the great tradition of working from reality and paring away to the essentials. This style fits in with great comics from the last century like MAD Magazine. It’s a very readable style that embraces personal moments between characters. We see Seymour and Ida, over and over again, at their best and worst. We certainly see plenty of Seymour at his worst. The stage is set early on with the big hint that Seymour doesn’t appreciate his wife and maybe the same goes for Ida. We proceed waiting for the other shoe to drop. The whole business with exploitation movies may as well be one big MacGuffin compared to what happens to these two. Harkham makes us care over and over again.

Hollywood, then and now, has always been a tough business.

Hollywood looms large over everything. That can’t be denied. Seymour is in the storytelling business, even if it’s a very small and cheesy slice of it. Maybe he just needs to be a part of it, a way to live forever. It’s more than half way into the book before there’s any mention of why Seymour does what he does. He claims to love horror movies. Even the cast he’s directing admit they love rock bands more than movies. Maybe Seymour loves the movie-making process more than just movies. That remains a question. Seymour himself remains a question.

Kvetching and kibitzing at Canter’s Deli.

Seymour’s story is about a young man who must do something. If it isn’t making movies, then maybe it would be making comics. Throughout the book, we see him following his passion of making something of himself. He doesn’t really know all that much about movies, about women, about the world around him. All he really knows is that he must do something. One epiphany may lead to another but, while you’re busy living your life, it can look like one big mess. And it is a mess. As Ida puts it, “Even at its best, life is just really annoying.” In the end, Ida and Seymour are an immature young married couple who can’t afford yet to fully appreciate each other, themselves, or even their child. Such is life and Sammy Harkham manages to strike the right chord with each and every painfully honest key.

Is it worth turning your life upside down for five minutes of faux wisdom?

It’s funny how a story that spans a few weeks can take fourteen years to complete. Such is the nature of bringing to life a fully-formed comics masterwork. If you are among the select number of comics aficionados who have diligently followed this story as it came out in issues of Crickets, and think you’re done with it, I encourage you to read the whole thing through now in its collected form. It may not be as you remembered it. Maybe it’s not, at its core, a story about storytelling. Well, that’s only part of it. After giving this a read from beginning to end, I stand by my interpretation that it’s a steady and deliberate look at callow youth trying to make sense of it all. It’s certainly not only about Hollywood ambition. If it was, Harkham wouldn’t have devoted an entire issue of Crickets to Ida’s sudden detour, her visit to see her parents in Auckland.

Portrait of a Young Couple.

This story is exploring the existential crisis we all must confront. Is Seymour going to find salvation in the movie business? Unless he’s really serious about seeking out what is most artful in the horror movie genre, then maybe he’s just as likely to move on to other pursuits. But, at this particular point in time, movie-making is his thing. What is it that matters most to Seymour? Even with his movie passion supposedly locked in, he would be hard pressed to articulate what his priorities are. Other readers will have their own opinions. This is one of those special graphic novels that genuinely invites its own book club! Who knows, maybe Blood of the Virgin will ascend to that most coveted of heights: spoken in the same breathe with Maus and Persepolis. It’s that good!

Blood of the Virgin is now available for pre-order. The Pantheon collected edition comes out May 2, 2023.

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We Are Not Alone review — Roku Original is a Delightful Sci-Fi Comedy Series

The Office on the dark side of the universe.

We Are Not Alone, a new Roku Original, debuts on January 27 on The Roku Channel and it is a promising sitcom: not one moment is wasted; solid casting; creative production value for a low budget sitcom; engaging story; solid humor; characters jump right in. In my previous post, I discussed what content like this can mean for Roku’s future. In this follow-up post, I share a few observations from viewing an advanced release. From what I can tell, this is a feature-length pilot for a sitcom.

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Roku Original Sci-Fi Comedy: WE ARE NOT ALONE

Maybe, like me, you are a Roku person. And maybe you noticed this new offering, a sci-fi comedy, We Are Not Alone. I’m intrigued. I’m intrigued on two main tracks: first, I genuinely think I’ll like watching this; next, I have a feeling this could be one of those turning points which adds to Roku’s profile as an original content provider, as it moves beyond its original purpose of just making streaming devices. Last year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story was a significant step forward for Roku as a serious original content provider.

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Hurricane Nancy: Animals and Free Speech

How is your year shaping up?

A new year is off and running with its inevitable highs and lows. “Here’s to life being good, despite it all!” answers artist Hurricane Nancy. Add to that a couple of new works to consider this time around, with accompanying commentary by the artist . . .

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Maureen Burdock Interview: Finding Your Way in Comics

Seeking home once more.

Queen of Snails: A Graphic Memoir. Maureen Burdock. Graphic Mundi. 2022. pp 228. $25.95

Towards the end of our chat, we landed on a panel (above image) in Maureen Burdock’s new graphic novel, Queen of Snails, that found her younger self, all of eighteen, looking relieved and renewed. In fact, that moment in the narrative was filled with tension but, at the same time, one could read into that face a great deal of wisdom after having traveled so many miles. This younger version of herself was coming to the end of a phase in her life.

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Jerome Charyn on Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles and Hollywood Heartbreak

There’s that moment in Citizen Kane, after Kane has lost it all and he turns to Bernstein, his right-hand man, and Kane says, “If I hadn’t grown up wealthy, I could have been a great man.” It’s a wonderfully odd thing to realize that, if only you hadn’t been given everything in the world, you just might have amounted to something. That’s one way of reading it. In this case, the ultimate answer may, like so much in this film, remain a mystery.

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Hurricane Nancy: Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

We are ringing in a new year and coasting along a bit during the holidays, getting our bearings as we contemplate doing it all over again. What a treat to have Hurricane Nancy with us to share more of her work. This is what Nancy says about the above artwork: “If only life was this simple. I could dress up and be whatever I want for any occasion. Not get sick or worry about our future. Just dress up and decide to make a great holiday and bright future!”

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MAVERIX AND LUNATIX book review by Paul Buhle

Artists of the Underground, Yet Again

Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of the Underground Comix. By Drew Friedman. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2022. $34.95.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Art Spiegelman

Some of the “Underground comix” artists themselves,  along with older generation savants including Harvey Kurtzman, predicted that the new, stunning and challenging genre of comic art of the late 1960s-70s would likely have a limited shelf life. They had a point. The UG comic was totally rebellious against existing standards, its sales depended significantly on “head shops” selling soft drug paraphernalia, and upon publicity generated by the ephemeral “underground” newspaper circuit. Artists, a few dozen of them, leaped into the breach because they  urgently wanted to express themselves without censorship or limits, and to have a copyright on their own creations. Such a phenomenon could no more likely survive a decade or so than  the $75/month apartment rents or $10 nickel bags of dope.

Aline Kominsky

And it didn’t. By the middle 1980s, a more modest version, “alternative comics,” seemed to mirror the pale version of the UG press, the local “alternative weeklies.” The Revolution had come and gone and left its artists largely stranded. A few made large names for themselves in new venues, Art Spiegelman by far the most famous and accomplished, along with Robert Crumb, who could be described as entering a slow fade. Others struggled to go onward. Among the artists still at it, Bill Griffith and a few others have continued to shine. In the end, the Undergrounds had sacrificed themselves, so to speak, for the birth of a large and diverse comic art.

R. Crumb

Galleries, scholars,museums and even collectors might have tried harder to document the UG phenomenon. From the beginning of the genre until the end of the century and somewhat beyond, any serious attention remained scarce for what had been accomplished in the burst of energy, and by whom. The advance of  something called “Comic Art” powered by the recognition of RAW magazine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, to leave the past behind. The handful of artists who managed in the following years to get recognition in the New York Times and elsewhere were mostly of younger generations, and if graphic novels blossomed as a genre for the under-30 reader, anything like official appreciation lagged when it did not reach the surface of recognition.

Nancy Burton

And yet . . . a dramatically fresh art for its time: millions of readers (if we count the readership of the underground press), a lot of talent, all this leaves a record, somehow. The many collections published by Fantagraphics and others, reach readers seriously interested. Actual journals (mostly on-line) help to bring forward young scholars and help situate them in academic programs. Selected library collections consolidate holdings and provide guides. Beyond all that, there is an uncertain, informal but very real  record of the evolution of comic art at large, with the Underground Movement increasingly recognized as a legitimate and important art form in its time and place.

S. Clay Wilson

Drew Friedman is a self-described fan or even Fan Boy of Crumb and others in the day, drawn to them and their stories personally, and for that matter, helped along the way of his own career by Crumb among others.  Best seen, Maverix and Lunatix is an homage in the best way that Friedman can provide. And what an homage it is!

Richard Grass Green

He draws over, or redraws, photos taken from some past period in an artist’s life,  unpredictably from early in their careers or later on. Crucially, he has done the research to provide useful details (including birth and death dates) for nearly a hundred artists. More than a handful of them appeared with such brevity in the UG comix, remained so obscure, that Friedman’s’ work offers revelations of an unseen subculture. Other artists, who made quite a name for themselves in some brief moment before turning to other art forms, lifestyles, or simply collapsing into early deaths, find their stories helpfully here as well. Surprisingly, then, this is, in some limited but important way, a scholarly text.

Spain Rodriguez

Most readers will, naturally perhaps, direct their eyes to the drawings, which range from the spectacular to the plainly weird (well in keeping to the genre), then look across the page to the mini-biographies. Here, and perhaps also in the drawings, there is a lot of personal tragedy. Roger Brand among others succumbed to alcoholism, others died in road accidents in the US or abroad, some just turned up dead in apartments with no further accounting.

Denis Kitchen

Others, plenty of others, simply turned from comic or comix into sturdy careers in every corner of graphic design, or painting, teaching art, or even web design. What nearly all have in common is a hole in the personal saga: their life in comics was essentially over. Perhaps that life had been too brief, too early in most of their lives, for its eclipse to remain a bitter disappointment. But I wonder.

Evert Geradts

It is slightly amazing to me that so many, with wild and carefree (not drug free) lifestyles, lived so long and are in many cases, still alive! In their seventies. Not all, even of those depicted as alive in the book: we now seem to be losing the UG artists by the month if not the week,  Diane Nooman (aka Newman) and Aline Kominsky within the last six months, Justin Green passing just early enough for his death to be recorded here.

Harvey Pekar

For this reviewer, at least, the faces depicted by Friedman look out at us with an aura of innocence, even for those with the kinds of personal habits that would not come close to the usual description of innocence. They were on hand at the creation, they took part in one of the great, still unacknowledged leaps of comic art, and they watched it collapse, even if it did not collapse most of them. This is something that can be appreciated only by looking at the art and reading the capsule biographies, not once but repeatedly. Thanks, Drew.

Paul Buhle, publisher of Radical America Komiks (1969), has been an essayist in several of the volumes exploring the history of the undergrounds including Underground Classics, the exhibit book for a traveling exhibit of the art.

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Draw Your Future! — Visual Sensemaking

Visual sensemaking is a method to help you organize thoughts and plans by using simple content. It can be used in so many ways. If you happen to be artistically inclined, it can take you on some very interesting paths but it is there for anyone to use, whether you are an artist or not.

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Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2022

Comics Grinder considers 2022.

We are nearing the end of another year and it’s time once again for some sort of list of the best work out there in comics and graphic novels. I truly find these lists useful. I know that various things often don’t fit neatly into annual recaps and such. Works are generally years in the making, often coming out in different editions, spilling over into more than one year of promotion. That said, lists are a way to pin things down and are fun to go back to and compare what you thought then with what you think now. I gather some choice titles. Sometimes a Top Ten will suffice. January is a good month to take stock and jump back into last year’s pile (so many titles are latecomers). It works this way: November through February bleeds through a mad rush of marketing into a slower season for contemplation and planning for the new year, a good time for reviewers to pull out a few more titles that were hot during the last year. Here is a Top Twenty-Five list of comics that made it onto my radar during 2022.

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