Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: CARTOON ANIMATION with Preston Blair

The wide wonderful world of Walter Foster books!

Maybe like me, you grew up with Walter Foster books. In the ’70s, when I was a boy, these oversized (old Life Magazine format) books were already wonderful relics from a bygone era, most dating back two or three decades. I knew, right away, that they came from another time and place but they were so well put together and the instruction seemed so crisp and clear that I just loved them even if I had no idea how I was supposed to take that information and become a famous cartoonist in New York or a famous animator in Hollywood. No matter. That could always be dealt with sometime in the future. These same Walter Foster books have been reprinted many times over filling the heads of countless people of all ages with fanciful dreams that may or may not ever come true. It didn’t seem to matter. The books themselves were so wonderful! I have been looking at a recent book from Walter Foster, now an imprint at Quarto Publishing Group. It is a classic and brings up a lot of happy memories, Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair.

Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Animation with Preston Blair is a fine example of the lineup of Walter Foster books from Quarto in a contemporary trade paperback format. Preston Blair, born in 1908, was trained in fine art and illustration and went on to become a leading animator at Disney. Blair animated such famous work as the Hippos dance in “Dance of Hours” and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both in 1940’s Fantasia. Blair is also known for his work at MGM, most notably his animation with Tex Avery. And he is also known for his work at Hanna-Barbera for The Flintstones. Blair offers plenty in the way of lively and inventive examples.

A page from Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Upon a closer examination, it’s clear that this book is a treasure trove of samples and guidelines to inspire an artist at any level. A book like this will help get you on track because it makes no pretense and gets to the heart of the matter: page after page of straightforward drawing. And new animators will appreciate plenty of examples of anatomy, perspective, and various movement along with timeless principles.

From Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Combining two previous titles, this manual is organized into six chapters covering cartoon construction, character development, movement, animation principles and animated acting. The retro drawings alone are worth the modest price for this 128-page fully illustrated book. Solid instruction never goes out of style and is timeless. This is recommended for all ages.

For more details, visit Quarto Publishing Group right here.

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Filed under animation, Art, Book Reviews, Education

Comics Studies: WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

Wisconsin Funnies. Catalogue edited by Terry Ann R. Neff. Exhibit co-curated by James P. Danky, J Tyler Friedman, and Denis Kitchen with contributions by Paul Buhle. Museum of Wisconsin Art. 2020, 248pp.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

The Real vs. The Ideal, ink on bristol, by Lynda Barry, 1989.

I have nursed a habit, that became a way of life, that became a saving grace. Specifically, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to my own lifelong work in the comics medium. Being a cartoonist really is something very special. It is something so special that all sorts of interested parties want to be part of the magic and that includes all sorts of academic types, galleries and museums. That is all to the good. Comics is still a relatively young medium in some respects so anything that spreads the word can’t be all that bad, right? Comics is an art form, owing so much to countless American contributions and around as far back as there’s been a United States, only now getting the sort of recognition it deserved all along. We can’t, nor should we, include every single shred of work ever made but we have a great bounty of examples to hold up as bona fide works of significance and value. The art show currently on view at MOWA (extended to January 9, 2021) is another step forward. Let’s take a close look at the museum catalogue.

Frank O. King’s Gasoline Alley, page from 1922.

It takes a historian’s perspective to look at Wisconsin and explain all the comics activity there as having a lot to do with Chicago. Well, it’s true. A hundred years ago, Chicago was a home for newspaper empires with a high demand for cartoonists. This is made abundantly clear in Paul Buhle’s essay to this catalog. If a young cartoonist wanted to make it big, a very good place to hone their talent would be in nearby Wisconsin. Keeping to a historian’s long view, we come to understand that comics got baked into Wisconsin bohemian culture. By the 1960s, it was so much a part of the local art scene’s DNA to make you think you were sipping wine and munching on croissants in Paris, where they embraced comics, the Ninth Art, with great fervor as opposed to your average American, especially a corn-fed citizen right in the heart of farms and honest working folk. All sorts of factors simply added up over time. For one thing, never underestimate a cartoonist’s need for peace and quiet. A more methodical pace can lead to a more cerebral and productive life. Wisconsin native Frank O. King, who made the big move to Chicago, showed the way with his deceptively simple comic strip honoring Americana, a comic strip which was also amazingly innovative, Gasoline Alley, which debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Take a look at the example above and you might see how this highly stylized format would have influenced another master of comics, Chris Ware. Along with King’s trailblazing work, add Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Claire Briggs (Casper Milquetoast), and Carl Anderson (Henry). For an in depth look, read Paul Buhle’s Comics in Wisconsin.

From Denis Kitchen, Star Reporter, 1972.

When you consider what gives a certain place its character, you must think about its guiding forces. One such consequential force of nature in Wisconsin is Denis Kitchen. This is the story of an enterprising young cartoonist who bought some farmland in Wisconsin and converted the barn into a comics studio. From here emerged Kitchen Sink Press, the legendary comics publisher. In 1973, Kitchen joined the back-to-the-land movement and converted a barn in Princeton, Wisconsin and all sorts of comics emerged, underground and mainstream alike. Kitchen was in a position to continue to grow as an artist himself as well as publish the work of other artists and help them out when he could.

From Buddha Crackers by Michael Newhall, 1977.

Michael Newhall, one of the indie cartoonists in the area, rented a space at the Kitchen barn for $50 a month or, given that he was perpetually cash-poor, would pay Kitchen with a work of art each month. While Kitchen would be the first to joke around about whether there truly existed an underground movement or if it was all just a bunch of hype, there was no doubt that numerous like-minded souls gravitated towards each other. For example, Kitchen includes in the MOWA show a portrait of some of the leading cohorts of that era: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, and Skip Williamson. Of course, that is just one snapshot of some of the creative folk at the time. Other cartoonists that were part of the scene in one way or another included Peter Loft, Mark Morrison, Peter Poplaski, Trina Robbins, John Porcellino, Lynda Barry, and even R. Crumb. Plus many others. Since Denis Kitchen is also an art dealer and collector, he also includes in his collection the work of some of the all-time greats of past eras like Al Capp, Will Eisner, Will Elder, Ernie Bushmiller and Milton Caniff. All these names are part of this amazing show at MOWA.

A Short History of America, serigraph by R. Crumb, 1993.

The catalog for the show does a great job of presenting the subject of comics in both an insightful and irreverent way. One thing all of us art lovers can’t help but address is what is it that we really want to see. What will it be that compels the viewer to seek out the museum in the first place? While this or that movement will come and go, at the end of the day, the actual human being who is investing time and energy to view an art show will have a significant say in what works advance and, over time, are bestowed with greater legitimacy. It may not always be a work invested in identity. It may not always be a work of raw and simple quality. Or a work of realism.

From Kings in Disguise, script by James Vance, art by Dan Burr, 1988.

From Alice in Watergateland by Bill Sanders, 1974.

From Dreams by Leilani Hickerson, 2011.

From Wildcat Bill From Grizzle Hill by Marty Two Bulls Sr., 2013.

What it will be, one hopes and expects, is work that best represents the comics medium. That, of course, needs to be carefully considered by those in a position to keep the ball rolling. That said, by presenting as wide a variety of thoughtfully selected work, MOWA does a great service to comics. Now, getting back to the catalog, if you want not only a taste of some of the best comics from the last fifty years, but also a fascinating look at the counterculture over the years, then this is the book for you. For an exploration of a particularly notable zeitgeist, running from the late 1960s to early 1970s, turn to a  wonderful profile in the catalong of Denis Kitchen by James P. Danky. If there ever really was an underground comix scene, Denis Kitchen would certainly know.

The Bugle, cover art, ink on bristol by Dan Burr, 1975.

Danky follows the history of American underground newspapers, beginning in 1964, with a parallel narrative to Kitchen’s own career, starting with his leap into publishing in 1969 at the age of 23. Over the years, Kitchen became part of undergound comix history. In 1970, for example, R. Crumb invited Kitchen to publish his next comic, Home Grown Funnies. That title proved to be Kitchen’s all-time best-selling comic book, eventually totaling 160,000 copies. Among the landmark work that Kitchen published was some of the best graphic novel work by Will Eisner, including securing the rights to Eisner’s seminal work, A Contract with God. Kitchen would go on to develop The Bugle, his own contribution to underground newspapers. He would go on to other notable ventures, like his partnering with Stan Lee for Comix Book. The rest, as they say, is history–with much to share. For instance, much of the artwork for this art show comes from the collection of Denis Kitchen.

From Will Elder’s Goodman Beaver Meet S*perm*n, 1962.

So, with all the amazing achievements accomplished by cartoonists, why would any serious cartoonist who, by all rights, has created art, ever question whether they have truly created art? Because there are countless people who get in the way for countless reasons. Maybe their mother didn’t love them enough. For example, you have people from various other disciplines who suddenly lurch their way into the comics bandwagon. You have critics and academics who do it, not from sincere interest, but because it can seem like an easier way to gain attention and prestige. This results in more and more blathering from a pretentious echo chamber. No art form deserves this. Then there’s the more straightforward elitist prejudice against an art form from those in the establishment. The best example of this is the ongoing war between fine art painters and the artists who work in the comics medium, part of the larger highbrow vs. lowbrow war. Of course, hip painters are hip to hip comix, but I digress.

A typical comics blowhard. Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, by Jay Lynch, 1976.

And, by the way, if you think for a second that my referring to pseudo-intellectual blathering is just something I’m pulling out of thin air, I have news for you. It goes on all the time. Your typical review at The Comics Journal, for example, has perfected this posturing tone, a mix of hyperbole and odd use of language. And I’m really not sure for what purpose. It seems that many who aspire to something great get caught up in their own web of stilted expression. It brings to mind a scene in one of the comics on view at MOWA. It is an illustration by Jay Lynch for the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, 1976. In one corner you see a pudgy middle-aged man wearing a cartoon wig. He is trying to impress a sexy woman in a Playboy bunny outfit. He drones on about his doctoral thesis on Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip, Nancy. He states: “the basic tenets of Bushmiller’s cosmology are to 20th century man essentially what Manichaeism must have been to your typical Albigensian.” I can see that a work of profound beauty, like Nancy, can inspire someone to overreach with the most curious of prose. But does it help advance the cause of comics? I only drag The Comics Journal into this because I know these folks can take it. In fact, one might argue that the quirky attitude at The Comics Journal can be traced back to the subversive humor of cartoonist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, who is included in the MOWA show.

From You Had to Be There: George Mosse Finds Himself in History, art and text by Nick Thorkelson, 2014.

Getting back to the hi-lo wars, Photography had to run the gauntlet and prove itself a legitimate art form up against Painting. And, today, a lot of painters are intimidated and in awe of photography as well as video. For comics, it seems like there’s still a bit of a problem about making proper room for it at the great Art table. This is a problem that doesn’t have to exist if common sense were allowed to rear its ugly commoner’s head.

From One Flower Child’s Search for Love by Trina Robbins, 1972.

That brings us to this show currently on view at MOWA. I sincerely believe that the biggest obstacle to understanding comics in the United States (because I don’t believe this dysfunction really exists elsewhere) is a disingenuous notion that comics need to be on some “separate but equal” plane outside of other art forms; or comics require experts to explain how to properly read and appreciate it. No doubt, thoughtful discourse is welcome but a lot of it comes down to common sense too. Some work meets the highest of standards and some doesn’t even come close and has not earned a place of honor. Some comics are so simple it seems like any child could have made them. And some comics are highly sophisticated and unquestionably demonstrate the work of a master.

From King-Cat Comics and Stories #75 by John Porcellino, 2015.

At the end of the day, a comic can tell you a lot if you’re willing to simply share some time with it. The MOWA show is an excellent opportunity to spend some quality time with some exceptional comics.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

Kitchen Sink Press Headquarters, Princeton, Wisconsin, ink on bristol by R. Crumb, 1985.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Comix, Counterculture, Culture, Museums

Review: ‘Constitution Illustrated’ by R. Sikoryak

Constitution Illustrated by R. Sikoryak

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Constitution Illustrated. by R. Sikoryak. Drawn & Quarterly, 2020, 128pp. $18.95.

Editor’s Note: It is a distinct pleasure to have Paul Buhle do the honors with a review of the new book by R. Sikoryak. As a side note, I had the opportunity to interview Sikoryak in 2019. You can read, and view, it here.

Deep thinking comic artists have been pretending to be non-serious since the early days of daily comic strip glory. Hard-working cartoonists stationed at their drawing boards would be seen as entertainers, and for a long time, they could hardly be anything else. If they had their own deep ruminations, they seemed to keep their seriousness to themselves. Even the fabulous Rube Goldberg, editorializing in 1949 about the fears of atomic warfare (the drawing got him a Pulitzer) made possible or probable catastrophe into a joke, his happy little domestic world, like any other domestic world, in danger of being blown to smithereens.

R. Sikoryak’s homage to Pogo in Constitution Illustrated.

“Pogo,” with a depth that at least a fair number of readers grasped in the work of Walt Kelly, may have marked a new stage, and never mind the earlier exceptions. Kelly was brilliantly droll but the issues were deadly serious. You could buy his books in oversized paperbacks, something that was also true of Li’l Abner, but for most readers, the heavy sexual suggestions of Daisy Mae surely overcame the New Dealish sub-content.

Talk about superheroes!

When comic art became “art” —from the most ponderous of underground comix to Raw Magazine—the old definitions seemed to go out the window. But did they? And so we get, sooner or later, to R. Sikoryak, the master of the droll, none better. If I were pressed to offer one candidate for author and book high definition comics today, it might well be Sikoryak and Masterpiece Comics (2009) and for this reason: the complex relation of text and image is not literal, random or even satirical in the usual sense. His art compels a second look or second thought, definitely not on the same wave length as the first one.

Sikoryak, born in 1964 and educated at Parsons, actually worked on Raw (so did Ben Katchor, among others), co-edited a Jam with Art Spiegelman, and set out on a career that includes books, illustrations for the New Yorker, World War 3 Illustrated and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has also usefully raised the profile of other artists with his continuing Carousel slide shows.

Peanuts mashup.

He has one astounding narrative-artistic innovation, not entirely new but never so well developed before. As a post-modernist of the popular culture world, he recuperates the leading images of cartoonists of the daily and comic books perfectly, at least as well as the original artists drew them, but with entirely different dialogue. This could be a shtick and might be for other artists, but for Sikoryak, it is a serious method. The work of the original artists, be they E.C. Segar or Gary Larson, Chester Gould or Gary Panter, gains a new articulateness. The images are not randomly chosen, in other words.

The Unquotable Trump (2017), a political stroke, references what seems to me his seminal work, once again Masterpiece Comics, which quite literally goes through the Canon from the Bible to Dostoyevsky, with wonderful sidebars (Wuthering Heights re-enacted as an EC Comics horror-tale, for instance) taking apart the originals and re-enacting them.

Scrooge McDuck mashup.

His target in Constitution Illustrated is either more or less elusive. Precisely drawn versions of the most familiar and often the most familiarly banal comics, early classics to standard superheroes to the most miserable of the dailies—all are seen in these pages.

But wait. The text in Masterpiece Comics was taken from the apex of literature. The text in Constitution Illustrated is the…US Constitution itself.

What can you (that is to say the artist) do with THAT?

Americans now face the gravest constitutional threat within their own history, a history brief compared, for instance, to that the Chinese, but long in terms of a modern republic. Especially a republic claiming to be a democracy, even a model democracy.

Krazy Kat mashup.

The choices of “classic” comic art and excerpts from the Constitutional text are very carefully chosen. Popeye and Olive Oyl are seen on an eighteenth century frigate, warning Wimpy about Tax Duties on taxes and revenues. Albert Alligator (with a proper 18th century wig) warns a jury of Okefenokee residents about the rights of the accused at a trial. Nancy and Sluggo explain the apportionment principles in the election of a president. And so on.

One is more than entitled to ask: what does this add to the original? Or: are we only being entertained?

Sikoryak is too subtle to offer an answer. But there is an answer, underlying so much of his work. The inter-working of text and dialogue demands, like Brecht’s plays, the participation of the viewer. Passivity, the idea of this work as a joke, is repudiated. Whatever he was trying to do in The Unquotable Trump, he is also insisting upon here. Wake up, reader. Look at the constitution with new eyes. Or else.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Drawn & Quarterly

Review: COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS, Edited by Kim A. Munson

Comic Art in Museums

Comic Art in Museums. Edited by Kim A. Munson. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 386pp, $30 paperback.

A pet peeve of mine, a whole little schtick, was my often complaining about how museums and galleries would refer to some works as “comics-related” but never would go that extra step and simply refer to a work that was, indeed, a work of comics, like a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, as simply “comics.” Sure, when confronted with an actual comic strip or comic book, then, yes, that was comics. But when it was a work that was clearly utilizing all the elements of comics, was up to its eyeballs in the comics medium, it was politely referred to by the art world establishment as a “comics-related” work. Now, sure, one only needs to look at the Pop Art movement to appreciate that distinctions have to be made. But still, what was happening was that comics, as an art medium in its own right, was being dismissed. It can get complicated, needlessly so, in determining between high and low art and all the myriad interconnections. Comics have had a rough go of it, especially in the United States. So, what do we mean when we refer to comics and are all comics now supposed to be treated as works of art? No, all comics are not works of art. Just as all dime store novels are not works of art! Maybe that helps to clear things up. A new book, with the goal of clearing things up is Comic Art in Museums, edited by Kim A. Munson, a collection of essays, dispatches from the art wars. And make no mistake, when it comes to jockeying for position, on all fronts, there’s a war going on.

Panel excerpt from “High Art Lowdown,” Artforum, December 1990, by Art Spiegelman

Perhaps one of the greatest villains, or scapegoats, in the ongoing war between high and low is Roy Lichtenstein. And that’s a shame because his is a brilliant body of work. In the tradition of comics at its most brash, Art Spiegelman, known for Maus, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, fired off a salvo aimed right at Roy Lichtenstein in a review he created using the comics medium on a page in Artforum, December 1990. It was a review of the latest attempt to place comics in a fine arts setting: The Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low: Modern Art and Pop Culture. Spiegelman would have been far better off had he taken his time to calmly comment on the show instead of feature Lichtenstein and the supposed wrong he’d done. To be clear, Roy Lichtenstein did nothing wrong. Simply put, he took comics from one context and put them in another. Taking one thing and repurposing it is as old as cave paintings. Seriously, look at an artist like Édouard Manet and you can see what intriguing results you get from recontextualizing. Pop Art was doing this left and right and it wasn’t always simply a comment on consumer trash culture. It could also be contemplating formal issues, right down to playing with the juxtapostion of Ben Day dots. It was a lot of things and one thing you can definitely call it is art.

Program cover, The Comic Strip: Its Ancient and Honorable Lineage (1942). Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.

As Kim A. Munson’s research bears out, the earliest comics shows, from the ’30s and ’40s, did not feature pointed issues of legitimacy. In fact, it was more of a display of craftsmanship that was honored. We seem to come full circle in honoring craftsmanship with the landmark Masters of Comic Art show from 2005 but more on that in just a moment. Really, all of this coming to terms with comics comes down to what one group of connoisseurs thinks over another group of connoisseurs! What I appreciate about Munson’s book is how objective she is with the multitude of facts to dig through. Anyway, it was a very different scene when comics began to be shown in anything resembling a formal gallery setting. As Munson reports, back in the ’30s and ’40s, comics were appreciated and everyone was happy, just as long as you tolerated the common view that comics were quaint Americana. What makes things more complicated is that, in so many cases, comics are no better or worse than soap operas. So, your head will explode if you try to justify all comics. That’s where overanalyzing can run you aground. So, when in doubt, consider some common sense. There is agreement that comics can rise to high levels of excellence, such as the work of Milton Caniff, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. It has to do with originality of content and masterful and innovative use of formal elements. Honestly, you know it when you see it. You don’t have to leave it up to so-called experts to explain to you what is art and what is not art. It is a stereotype, really, to say that all diehard fans of comics are only interested in a particular plot. But the connoisseurs and so-called experts too often conclude that’s the case.

Denis Kitchen

Comics have gone through a series of misunderstandings, especially in the United States. While Munson’s book doesn’t explicitly state that it is only covering U.S. comics, it does naturally slip into that focus. This is a collection of written pieces inextricably linked to American taste. It is that taste upon which the perception of comics depends upon in many ways. We Americans want to have it all, be brash and outspoken while being respected on all fronts. Collectively, we are not a shy bunch. And, as a group, we seem to be compelled to push and pull. And so something as egalitarian as well as just plain fun and stimulating as the comics medium is not going to get a free pass. So, where to begin? Well, in the beginning there was ignorance and indifference. As Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher of the prestigious Kitchen Sink Press, notes in his essay in this book, it seemed like comics came to life long before it gained any respectability. You could walk into the offices of United Feature Syndicate in the ’50s and find the original work of Al Capp, their star cartoonist, strewn across the floor of a storage room, complete with footprints. Al Capp, himself, hadn’t figured it out either and likened his world-famous Li’l Abner comic strip to a quick minute’s read on its way to becoming fish wrap. Even when it came to how to display the comic strip in public, it was thought that the finished printed color strip from the newspaper was far superior to the original. Heck, at first, original comic art wasn’t even considered an option as viewing material; and then, once found acceptable, it was simply pinned to the wall with tacks, no need to bother with framing it. That’s a far cry from today, of course, since first-rate work from the all-time best cartoonists is now properly valued. Denis Kitchen certainly knows this as his agency represents the estates of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Capp, and many others.

Misfit Lit

So, how do you do justice to a work of comics, on a gallery wall, that was intended to ultimately be printed in a relatively small reading format? The fact remains that comics as an art form simply needs to be approached on its own terms. It’s not painting, for example, and doesn’t need to compete with it. When you come down to it, it is a hybrid art form, both visual and literary. Sure, there are comics without text but, essentially, comics is a form of storytelling. And, at the forefront, as I always like to point out, is the cartoonist-auteur, the one person who is engaged in the creation of a work of comics. This person might feel like creating outright paintings and all sorts of drawings and work in other media. What matters here is that comics, as an art form does have a core modus operandi: visual storytelling that uses visuals as a language and tends to be an artful combination of word and image. At its core, it is a sequential art or, at least, a form of storytelling. So, is it mainly visual or literary? It’s both. It’s a hybrid. Among the various art shows that have attempted to show comics, one of the best was 1991’s Misfit Lit and that’s simply because it was put together by Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, as well as Larry Reid, folks who intimately understand comics. The big secret is to display the work in proper context.

It is work from the cartoonist-auteur that gets to the heart of the matter and best speaks to the issue of comics as art. Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art, which began in Seattle and then went on a brief tour, provided not only a showcase of superstar talent but a serious look at the comics medium through a rich variety of work including Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz, Basil Wolverton, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, Roberta Gregory, Chester Brown,  Charles Burns, Peter Kuper, William Messneer-Loebs, Jim Woodring, and many more.

Maters of American Comics

Often, what people want is to be dazzled and one show that did just that was the 2005 show, Masters of American Comics, which, in no small part, was a reaction to the very same MOMA high low show of 1990 that had so incensed Art Spiegelman. This was a chance to set the record straight. Comics, all by itself, without need of comparison to painting, would dazzle an audience. This is a prime example of comics experts setting the tone. Art Spiegelman acted as a consultant and helped to choose the fifteen featured cartoonists, which included himself. No harm done, really. It was a wonderful show. And it served its purpose. As co-curator John Carlin put it, this was an opportunity to give a certain set of cartoonists an added “glow,” in the same spirit as, in the late ’50s, French critics elevated popular Hollywood directors Hitchcock and John Ford to the level of art-house icons. What was once one thing became another.

The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.

It all comes down to legitimacy. We creative types all hunger for legitimacy, especially if we’re creating work that we know is deserving of more serious acknowledgement. Comics, as a whole, have been howling for such validation. Case in point is the career of R. Crumb, the ringleader of much of the mayhem and glorious creative output of the underground comix movement. Is a lot of that work today under fire? The short answer is yes. In more recent years, what has Crumb done in order to perhaps appeal to a larger audience? Crumb turns the Bible into a comic book! For anyone familiar with its contents, it basically allows Crumb to be Crumb. Crumb recently took on The Book of Genesis with spectacular results. This is a case of a savvy master creating a work with one eye on the printed result and another eye anticipating a presentation of original artwork to the public. Another recent Crumb show was at the prestigious David Zwirner art gallery in New York. For that show, Crumb was presented in historical context. And, since Crumb is still an active artist, one room was dedicated to recent work that was as vibrant and compelling as anything you would expect from one of Chelsea’s blue chip galleries. Sure, a lot of these were more one-shot portraits but that’s really the whole point. Comics is an art medium. And artists are artists. Sometimes artists create comics and sometimes they create other forms of art. And when a work of art is comics, well, there’s no shame in saying that. The point is that Crumb was able to ride the waves of an often provocative and controversial career. Finally, he’s been there to guide the narrative, set the record straight, and firmly establish his position.There are a number of essays in this book that conclude Crumb is Crumb and that’s worth respect.

Whoever gets noticed the most then gets to move forward and, ultimately, gets to be remembered for posterity. Sometimes merit is not the most important factor but sheer persistence in determining who reaches to the top. However, it is only after numerous cycles of shows, reviews, and whatever else, before the true artists become most apparent and remain standing. After a long process, common sense will play a more important role, and out into the world, like a reborn babe, will emerge undisputed names like George Herriman, Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.

I can’t stress enough the importance of objectivity in a collection such as this. Munson has done such an admirable job of organizing this multitude of dispatches from the front lines, including her own work. And, all the while, she doesn’t step in to clear the air with any speculation of her own. She lets the work speak for itself. And, in doing so, it’s clear to me that she sees there is plenty of work still ahead in understanding comics. The very last piece included in this book is from 2017 by Alexi Worth and explores the work of Jack Kirby. For me, and perhaps to any careful reader, the frustrating conclusion Worth reaches is that there is a strong case to be made for Jack Kirby creating what amounts to art, despite the fact he had to work in such a minor art form as comics! In Worth’s opinion, comics is essentially a mass entertainment machine: “The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of boxes into heterogeneous flow.” Poor Jack Kirby, in Worth’s view, was held back by comics “because his pictures were conceived as sequences.” How can you appreciate the artist if you don’t appreciate their art medium? Let me just insert here that I’d welcome further discussion with Worth since, to be fair, I see this as an evolving discussion. I also believe it is settled that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. We don’t want that to get lost. And, again, I’ll state here that there is a wide spectrum of comics, not all linear and dependent on identical panels, although it doesn’t matter. In fact, comics do well with a set of limitations. Jack Kirby literally pushed the constraints of the picture plane. Other masters of comics, like Steve Ditko, seemed to revel within a certain set of order. And, despite what Worth concludes, comics don’t need to be hemmed in by addressing action only from one panel to the next. Many artists can speak to the interconnection of activity that is possible taking place all over the page as well as the dynamism going on between facing pages. Artist and scholar Frank Santoro is certainly a leading advocate of creating comics that work with the entire space not only between panels but also between pages. Well, the process of understanding comics goes on and this book will absolutely help with the ongoing discussion!

Milton Caniff show at Society of Illustrators, 1946.

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Book Review: ELECTION YEAR by Lloyd Scott

Election Year by Lloyd Scott

Election Year. By Llody Scott. Independently published (June 2, 2020). 220pp, Free.

Here is a book that would make one hell of a movie. There’s even a moment in the book when one of characters suggests they’re in the middle of movie-worthy activity. That said, you might have heard that this novel is well on its way to a movie adaptation thanks to no less than Duchess Meghan Markle and the new movie production company she is launching with Prince Harry. Well, this news calls for a proper review of the book in question and I’ll do my best to give you just enough of a taste without spoiling anything.

Part of what prompted me to write this review is a bit of serendipity. Lloyd Scott and I are both biracial and we both chose to speak to that within a political thriller. Well, mine is not quite as intense. Look it up, Max in America, and you’ll see what I mean. But still, I think that connection is pretty uncanny, especially how we both share our experiences with identity, being seen as the Other, and playing with being a raceshifter. You can say that our backgrounds provided the fuel for our work. I like that. Election Year is offbeat and eccentric, in the same spirit to what I’m doing too. So, let’s take a closer look.

Meet Maverick Johnson Malone, our main character, a Millennial working to help elect Suni Wainwright as the first woman, and youngest, U.S. president. It is the pivotal year of 2020, and there’s excitement in the air. The only problem is that Maverick hates Suni because she’s so fake! This summation is only based upon casual observation until one day it is based on far more than that. It turns out that Suni is a Russian operative–and so the plot thickens.

Ryan, Maverick, and Jay. illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Given all that we know about a certain occupant in the White House and his Russian connections, the plot to this novel has found a funny indirect way to tackle the issue. Lloyd has attached humor to her Manchurian candidate that provides a light and breezy way into her political thriller. The humor going in features Maverick Malone who, at first, seems rather klutzy and self-absorbed. It could be Rome burning in the background but Maverick will keep obsessing over why her ex is such a jerk. This adds up to a pitch perfect Bridget Jones vibe. Lloyd has also created a believable office culture made up of staff working to get Suni Wainwright in the White House. Often, it is Maverick Malone to the rescue with a new idea to put out the latest fire but that is usually overshadowed by her own disgruntled attitude.

Then things transition to a more serious tone. We do have the fate of American democracy to deal with, don’t we? Gee, that question has so many levels of irony that it leaves my head spinning. In fact, the story truly finds its groove just prior to the political intrigue, as the reader gets to know Maverick better. What emerges is the story of a young biracial woman who feels alienated. Part of the problem is her dysfunctional family. Her White mother and Black father are wealthy and distant. As much as she is frustrated by having to constantly explain her racial background, she finds the even greater divide to be money.

Like a good work of film noir or crime fiction, this novel is meant to please with its fair share of twists and turns. Lloyd has fun tapping into a style with the energy of a young adult novel. Maverick is already into her thirties but still full of Millennial spunk. It is this energy that carries the reader as Maverick goes deeper with her sleuthing. Along the way, Maverick finds love with Ryan, a dashing young biracial much like herself. And, to round things out, Maverick develops a greater sense of responsibility as she finds herself caring more for Jay, a Black girl who lives next door to her. It is this trio who all become caught up in the intrigue and danger that threatens to kill them all. And, even when the tension is high, Lloyd manages to insert a little irony as when Jay has a meta-moment. Jay wryly observes that the three of them seem to resemble yet another comedy adventure but with plenty of diversity.

Overall, this is a unique joy ride of a thriller. Yes, it provides those unexpected twists and turns. But the most unexpected revelations run deeper than any car chase. At the heart of it, this is a story about confronting the status quo and finding the right solutions to ultimately achieve the change that we all want. Lloyd Scott brings up many provocative issues, which pop up as events heat up. It is our main character, our shero, Maverick Malone, who is in a position to truly empathize with the Other in America. It is Maverick who can appreciate, even when passion might overtake wisdom, that life is full of complicated contradictions.

While there is plenty of humor, and action, to be found here, this is also a story about trying to understand some painful truth. For all the rip-snorting good action we find here, there’s also just as robust rounds of political fisticuffs, like this particularly pointed salvo: “You have no idea the extent of your privilege. The geographical luck of your births, freedom is a right from your first breath, and all you do is complain. We on the outside know, we see how endowed with opportunity you are and the means to do great things you have at your disposal, but all you Americans do is spend your time infighting. Refusing to see the truth of things, running down the climate clock for everyone with your pollution and your insolence. It’s time for it to end.” Well, now, if those aren’t some fighting words, I don’t know what is! Yes, if the action doesn’t get you, the heated political talk just might be enough for you to want to see how this political thriller all comes together.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Race, Race Relations

Book Review: IMPACT Comics from Dark Horse EC Archives

EC Archive: Impact

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

EC Archives: Impact. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2020.  168 pages. $49.95.

Impact Comics, which lasted only 5 issues, would be memorable if for only one story. As Greg Sadowski, the forgotten fan-biographer of artist Bernard Krigstein suggests,”Master Race,” a mere eight pages and scripted by Al Feldstein (Mar., 1955), is the masterpiece of anti-fascism but also of comic art design and execution. It enters the mind of the Holocaust survivor as he discovers, tracks down and wreaks revenge upon a human monster within the bowels of Manhattan’s subway system.

How could this humble popular art carry the weight of serious modern art, so serious that it escapes the then-current cult of abstract expressionism? This is the story worth telling.

Impact Comics (1955) may be viewed simply as a technical triumph of popular might. The story lines are taut, the art is crisp, and if we were to choose a single outstanding feature, it might actually be the coloring work of Marie Severin, master craftsperson of the field. We might also view Impact within a broader context.

MASTER RACE, original first page, March, 1955.

Comic art, comic book art and narrative, must be amongst the most improbable subjects in all of art history. Or perhaps this was true until the recent rise of comic art studies in college courses, online journals,  and Comi-Con panels bringing together living artists with aficionados. But never, since the rise of the fan world and press, has the comics field been without its own small legion of self-taught scholars and devotees, going way back to the early 1950s. In this small world grown surprisingly larger, EC publications have had a special place of honor. EC war, science fiction and above all humor publications brought traditional comic book art to its apex and….edge of demise. Impact, with only a handful of others, remains or rather retains in its best stories, a treasured sample of what might have been.

The longer backstory will be familiar to most readers, and can be noted briefly here. Comics publisher Max Gaines’s sudden death in 1949 threw his mini-empire into the hands of his widow and son. The younger Gaines, to his own surprise a shrewd and driving businessman, hired some of the great talents of the field, including of course Harvey Kurtzman, destined to transform the field of printed humor with Mad Comics and, more famously, Mad Magazine.

By the early 1950s, time was truly running out for EC comics as constituted. Congressional investigations and the imposition of the Comics Code would drive the most lucrative EC genre, i.e., horror, to the wall, and with it the whole venture of EC comics. Perhaps television would have swallowed up the field soon enough anyway? We do not know. But millions of readers, not all of them under the age of 20, were reading and buying comics of a wide variety so long as they were available, with print runs often in the hundreds of thousands.

EC became known, through nearly all its lines of merchandise, for “snap” endings, the surprise on the last page or even in the final panel, carrying the message of the story at large. Strikingly unlike its competitors, EC also had an unusual propensity for what might be called social themes. Its Sci Fi line featured the world of post Atomic war destruction, or space travel revealing some weakness—less often, strength—in human nature. (Some of the best story lines were adapted, or swiped, from Ray Bradbury.) Military history offered something almost unknown in other companies’ war comics: the tragedy faced by civilians in both sides, and the horror that might be found in the eyes even of the victorious American patriots.

Artist Bernie Krigstein taps into the zeitgeist of an anxious era.

In the “Age of Anxiety,” when psychoanalysis was said to have replaced Marxism or any other social reform theory as a favorite pastime of intellectuals, EC actually had its own short-lived Psychoanalysis Comics. But seen carefully, psychological issues penetrated all of EC’s lines, as soldiers, space travelers and even perpetrators of murder seemed terribly troubled, driven by urges that they finally could not control.

Bill Gaines evidently viewed the creation of Impact as a kind of bracing mechanism against the end of his little empire. Al Feldstein, the all-purpose editor also taking over Mad Magazine from Kurtzman, who resigned in 1956, was the hard-driving editor seemingly willing to take on anything, and make Impact as nearly perfect as he could. The determination by writer (often enough, Feldstein himself) and artist, shine through in one way or another on nearly every page and every panel.

ShockSuspense (1954), the earliest entry in the then-new Impact series, was closer to horror comics with violent and sometimes supernatural stories. It was also more politically dramatic, now and then. A KKK-style lynching story of Southern life substituted a bosomy white dame for a black man, but dealt heavy blows to violent prejudice. Another story showed a redneck crowd beating to death an actual veteran who did not take off his hat to salute the flag because…he was blind.

Most of the Impact under review stayed closer to the hard-hitting, small films and often live television drama of the time, where a rising business executive realizes the more rottenness of the world he has entered, or the frantic striving for domestic happiness in the suburb leads to bitter alienation and heavy drinking. The protagonists here are cheating themselves and others of happiness, cutting corners in business and life, or even by accident of some childhood trauma cutting themselves off from adult fulfillment. What remains the most vivid, in the “snap” ending, is that uncertainty of life itself in the supposed paradise of modern consumerism at its apex.  And the possibility, if not perhaps likelihood, that wrong-doers will get their punishment in one way or another.

Steven Ringgenberg’s Foreword offers us a general picture of the publication within EC’s frantic efforts for life, Grant Geissman’s Introduction expertly guides us through the intentions of Gaines and Feldman as they marched through the bi-monthly schedule toward something that, as it turned out, was only a prelude to the fabulous success of Mad Magazine.

Excerpt from MASTER RACE, known as “The Citizen Kane of Comics.”

It would be almost inside baseball to note that Jack Davis, among the most brilliant of all Mad Comics artists, did all the front covers of the series, or that he was joined in the stories themselves by a distinguished crew of George Evans, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall and of course, Bernard Krigstein. And of course Marie Severin, who was also the last of the EC bunch to live well into the 21st century.

Only those who went on to Mad Magazine, foremost Orlando, were to gain much recognition. Krigstein, who led the failed effort to unionize the field of comic book artists (publishers bought off the best talent and threatened to fire everyone else) during the early 1950s, became an art teacher and painted for his own pleasure, mostly landscapes.

Thus did a genre and its makers disappear. But not without leaving behind a legacy of sorts, and a print item to be repurposed for the next generations. Impact was first reprinted by Gemstone Publishing in 1999 and here, by Dark Horse, presented again in fine form with fresh introductory and explanatory material.

EC Comics Archives: Impact is published by Dark Horse Comics.

Paul Buhle‘s next comic, drawn by Sharon Rudahl, is a life of Paul Robeson (Rutgers University Press, October, 2020.

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Review: YEAR OF ZINES! by Sarah Mirk

YEAR OF ZINES! by Sarah Mirk

Year of Zines! Publishing funded in part by Regional Arts & Culture Council and patrons of Pateron, 2020.  224 pages. $12.

What is a zine? Many people have never heard of one or only have a vague idea. A zine is not necessarily a work of comics, although it often includes some form of comics. A zine is often a personal work running for a certain amount of pages, typically a dozen or two dozen. And a zine is cool but it’s not meant to be cool. It just is. If you try too hard to make one, it will show. If you gravitate too quickly to the zine scene without any prior knowledge, it will show–but that’s okay. Zines are intended to be the opposite of the big glossy corporate magazines. Any original zine artwork is usually only at a functional or even crude level. Zines are often ironic and sarcastic and have a rough and gritty aesthetic. Zines tend to be small, modest, the size of a pamphlet or brochure. And they are usually self-published.  If they are not, then they’re published by a co-op or non-profit. But zines are most often the work of one person, usually someone who finds themselves misunderstood by a general audience, actually enjoys working alone, and yet is also welcoming like-minded souls. You dig? Blogging and zine-making share a lot of overlap! Alrighty then. With that said, let’s take a look at a wonderful book all about zines, and a collection of zines to itself, Year of Zines! by Sarah Mirk.

Panel excerpt from YEAR OF ZINES!

Another thing you need to know about zines: the creator is often immersed in one particular subject or theme per zine. Zines take dedication. Zines can sometimes seem obsessive but that’s part of the charm. Think of the fanzine. Now, in case you haven’t heard of them, fanzines are one of the most celebrated forms of zines. These tend to be home-made dedications to a beloved pop or movie star or any cultural phenomenon. This tradition goes back to the dawn of fandom. The most common trait of fanzines is a collage of cut-up photos from various magazines that have been re-arranged within the curated pages of the zine. It’s so punk. It’s so DIY. Before the internet, if you were searching for a platform to express yourself, you most likely found your way over to zines. You figured out some basic layout techniques and made your way to your nearest Kinko’s. Okay, now Sarah Mirk is hip to all this and a whole lot more. Zines today are not dependent upon runs to the local print shop. Zines can be virtual but, at the end of the day, zines are zines and a printed copy stills exerts its own power and energy. Print is not dead, and don’t you forget it! You see this in what Sarah Mirk has done with her own work with zines. She gets it. Zines share a bit of the same vibe as spoken word with their direct and concise narrative. Mirk understands that a good zine requires focus and specificity. If you start a zine on the theme of “not caring,” then you stick with it and see it through to resolution, just like a masterful comedian sees through a precisely-timed bit of comedy.

Panel excerpt from YEAR OF ZINES!

Of course, zines can cover virtually any topic or subject. Literally, if there’s something you’d like to discuss, then a zine could be a viable platform for you. And, yes, it’s true: no prior experience in the creation of zines is required or expected. You don’t have to worry about prior writing experience or drawing experience or whatever. And the most serious of subjects are open for discussion. In my own experience with leading workshops, I have always stressed that the most important thing is to focus on what you need to say and the rest will fall into place. And so it is in this book. Sarah Mirk is basically talking about her life, all the things she’s dealing with, and the world-at-large. That provides a pretty broad canvas. In her book, she tackles such subjects as gender, privilege, boundaries, finances, the environment, and much more.  Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that no one owns the zine scene. Zines are for everyone and Sarah certainly embraces that egalitarian spirit.

DRINK MORE WATER!

So, I hope you’re getting a sense of what a zine is and what a zine isn’t. And, in the process, you’re seeing that Sarah Mirk is a fine practitioner of the subtle art of zine-making. In fact, if you enjoy her collection of zines that she put together over the span of  one year, then you’ll likely want to follow her other work and pursuits. One last thing, I’ll point out one more fine example. If you’re looking for a neat little collection of observations of growing up in your 20s, do check out Sarah’s zine, Drink More Water – Be More Honest: 30 Lessons from My 20s. In this zine, Sarah provides an irreverent look at everyone’s favorite decade, your glorious 20s! It’s a time when you might look your best without trying at all while also a time when you have a sinking feeling you don’t know if you’ll ever amount to anything. And then, enter your more sober and wiser 30s. Well, with that sobering thought, there’s so much more I could say about zines but I’ll save it for next time. I like what Sarah Mirk has done with this quirky and highly distinctive art form–and you will too. And I hope you will see how accessible and ubiquitous zines are. In a sense, this review, and certainly this blog, is a zine. See what I mean? You only need to go as far as the nearest desk and chair, or whatever is comparable, and try it out yourself.

Sarah Mirk’s YEAR OF ZINES!

Visit Sarah Mirk right here.

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Max in America: Into the Land of Trump

MAX Comics Grinder Promo 2020

Max in America: Into the Land of Trump by Henry Chamberlain

There’s not a moment to lose. I’m getting fired up and ready to go sell some books. Hey there, friends, consider getting a copy of Max in America: Into the Land of Trump, available at Amazon or ask me directly or go to my blog’s store. I’d love to know what you think and don’t be shy about reviewing it at Amazon too! But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what author Stacey E. Bryan has to say over at her blog…

via Max in America: Into the Land of Trump

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March 12, 2020 · 9:57 pm

Book Review: ‘Gunning For Angels’ by C. Mack Lewis

Gunning For Angels by C. Mack Lewis

Some books just sneak up on you and you’re hooked. Such is the case with the crime novel, Gunning For Angels, by C. Mack Lewis. I can easily see Sam Rockwell play the role of private eye Jack Fox. And then there’s his live wire teen daughter, Enid Iglowski. The way these two meet is pretty hilarious and intense. Both of them court danger and trouble which all adds up to finely tuned contemporary pulp fiction. Lewis revels in all the cheap detective tropes and seems to have an endless supply of deliciously melodramatic metaphors.

Lewis has constructed a rollicking story with a touch of noir that revolves around the murder of a local tycoon. Daniel Hargrove had three daughters and each of them is quite different: one has brains, one has gorgeous legs, and the last one is simply strange. The girl with the brains is Eve Hargrove and she hires our hero, private eye Jack Fox, to drop a case started by the girl with the legs, Jeni Hargrove. Each sister is a raving beauty and spins a web that Jack can’t help but get caught in. Then there’s Bud, a seasoned police detective trying to solve the same murder if his family life doesn’t get in the way, including his heart condition. Into all this intrigue, walks in Enid Iglowski, all of sixteen, and ready to bite and claw whoever gets in her way of finding out the truth about her father, the conflicted lover boy, private eye Jack Fox.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

A good crime thriller ends up placing assorted characters together from different social strata. Think of The Thin Man‘s sophisticated Nick and Nora trying to talk sense to a jaded teen hoodlum. Lewis enjoys those type of interactions as much as any good writer. Take for example a scene that brings together quite a spicy mix all at once. Bud, our senior detective, has been talked into bringing along his son Chip, a classic heartthrob, to observe him do his job. Father and son are in a swank mansion owned by the ultra-sexy Eve, still wet in her swimsuit from a dip in her negative edge pool. Eve is contemplating bedding Chip while Bud is thinking out loud about the teen crush Enid has for Chip. Finally, Eve momentarily flirts with Bud and threatens his heart condition. Fun stuff!

Paper Moon by Peter Bogdanovich

Enjoy this book on many levels, including a first-rate murder mystery and an intriguing dynamic between father and daughter that brings to mind the poignant, and hilarious, pairing of Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 endearing classic film, Paper Moon.  The plot thickens when suddenly fingers point to Enid somehow being accused of murder. This is a yarn that just keeps going! Lewis is definitely having a good time with it and that crosses over for the reader. Lewis is not afraid to shift the action into high gear as the plot sees fit. You just never know what will happen next in this hip and clever noir crime novel set in Phoenix, Arizona.

Gunning For Angels is the first book in a trilogy and you can find it at Amazon right here.

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Book Review: ‘Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin’ by Jerome Charyn

CESARE by Jerome Charyn

Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin by Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary Press, 2020, 368 pages, $26.99.

Jerome Charyn’s latest novel encompasses the decline of the Third Reich as seen through the eyes of a special set of characters. It’s about a country that has lost its soul and about a young man who hungers to feed his soul. Charyn conjures up a narrative punctuated with powerful imagery such as when he steadily rolls out thoughts of Georges Rouault, artist of sad kings, clowns, and Christ. Most prominent of Charyn’s recurring themes comes from the silent film classic about the diabolical Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist slave. What better metaphor for someone claiming that they were trapped into following orders. That is the life of the “Cesare” in this novel, one Erik Holderman, a small but vital cog in search of redemption.

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

The ways of the world are writ large here. This is the story about a Caligari and a Cesare as well as a whole people who became, as an incisive bestseller so phrased it, “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Yet even in this dark world there is room for light. Erik is not merely a zombie slave. Nor is Canaris merely his Dr. Caligari. Between the two of them, they mean to undermine the Nazis as much as they can and save Jewish lives, one life at at time. This is mostly a dark world and yet one that somehow allows for the existence of Emil, a mystical dwarf who could have walked right out of a Georges Rouault painting.

The Little Dwarf by George Rouault, 1938

Erik, the obedient assassin, finds his fate inextricably linked to Lisalein, a most beguiling woman who equally courts sympathy and danger. All comes to a head when Lisa’s life is in peril once she ventures too close to the false paradise of Theresienstadt. She can’t help but follow her father who is convinced that the little cultural hamlet will prove to be his haven. The narrative definitely has much of the energy of a thriller as Erik must run to keep up with events. But there is so much more here. This is a very dark world, after all, and that requires the fine scalpel of a master storyteller to reveal truth. Much in the same spirit as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its underscoring the tragedy of the Allied bombings of Dresden, Jerome Charyn underscores the tragedy of Theresienstadt, an all too real place that trapped and killed–and haunts to this very day.

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1819–1823

Jerome Charyn has a highly distinctive voice in the same company with other literary greats like Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Part of Charyn’s magic is his use of sustained imagery and metaphor. He has his favorite motifs which include wolves, werewolves, magicians, criminals, and tattoos, all sorts of things that either evoke something disturbing, supernatural, or otherworldly. In this new novel, for instance, he describes Hitler as a magician with his henchmen wolves. And it makes sense that Charyn would gravitate to the Nazi way station of Theresienstadt. It hadn’t been enough for the Nazis to deceive and/or kidnap Jews into this glorified holding pen. The Nazis forced Jews to oversee each other and even determine who would be next to go on to Auschwitz. That brings us to one last Charyn motif in this novel, one of the most sobering depictions of unbridled inhumanity, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. In a novel full of its share of the grotesque, it takes an artist with a precise touch such as Charyn to achieve such artful results.

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