Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Ben Katchor: Conversations (Conversations with Comic Artists Series)

Ben Katchor: Conversations (Conversations with Comic Artists Series)

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Ben Katchor: Conversations. Edited by Ian Gordon. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019. 220pp, $25 paperback.

The scholarship of comic art is booming, so far as “booming” means well-attended university classes on comics and the identification of icons among the artists, a la literary theory and teaching. This is not an altogether agreeable development for understanding the history of comic art, first of all because the iconic identification tends to push at least 95% of the artists into the background, also because the background itself, the historical context, can slip dangerously away. Never mind: we take what we can get, often tasty and nourishing tid-bits of a larger, still mostly hidden history.

Katchor is definitely sui genesis, a considerable thinker, In a field where better- and lesser-known artists are inclined to explain themselves through their drawing, and when pushed, to talk about their lives or their own work rather than the comic art of the age, let alone comic history, he is rare. Is it perhaps his being personally soaked in the history of diasporic Jewry, of which his Yiddish-speaking father, survivor of the Holocaust, was a prime example? Or just as likely the boyhood in Brooklyn that he talks about, the now-vanished world of mulit-purpose candy and cigar shops with racks of dime comics?

Whatever the case, Katchor has often said that he identifies not at all with the mainstream Superhero genres and lost interest in them fairly early. He explains that he owes more to his experience in the small-scale, typesetting experience in New York of the 1970s, in another world that has faded so completely that it seems archaic as the once-booming garment trade in downtown Manhattan. This experience offered him, we can guess, a way to orient himself toward the physical presence of older buildings, neighborhood vernaculars of older people in particular, things to keep in memory and rework in his art. His maiden voyage into the book world. Julius Knipl—begun as a newspaper strip in 1988—is a tour through an imagined but not wholly imagined city, reality stretched out and reworked in art and dialogue.

The source of this volume is another key because Katchor was serializing, in at least a few of the alternative weeklies and then more and more. He sometimes shared a page with Lynda Barry (recent MacArthur winner) or the later best-selling Alison Bechdel.  He had the steadiness of a schedule to meet, ideas to cook up with art.

Toward the end of the old century, he had a regular gig at a prestige architectural magazine, Metropolis, and he began his long stint of teaching. Within the classroom, he made yet more important observations. His students, uninterested in the Art Speculation market of gallery painting, were more interested in “comics” but not necessarily like any comic art yet in existence. They were entering a phase of publishing and self-publishing, with scant chance of making real money or even having much distribution, but ample opportunity to find themselves within their work.

His own work is so unique,  in a way cut off from the history of comics, newspaper comic strips as well as comic books, and yet it is impossible to look at any of his books—Hand-Drying in America, and other Stories is his most recent, until The Dairy Restaurant appears next Spring—and not see the kernel of comic art in what he prefers to call “picture stories.”  The German word Bildergeschichte, “combining pictures and stories” (p.77) is certainly workable, but to that general definition Katchor adds the unique notion “autographic writing,” a literary-visual tradition with the very handwriting of the artist inscribed in the work. Lynda Barry has often made a similar point about young fingers getting ready to draw anything: drawing is an extension of drawing around the fingers.

There is another angle of Katchor that I wish to pursue. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, offered a history of sorts, of criticism if not scholarship of comics. Its publisher, the University Press of Mississippi thereby made itself an early claim on scholarship in the field at large, and has continued to be one of the leading scholarly publishers on comic art. As in the title of the Heer-Worcester anthology, comics were for past generations seen as  a form of literature. To my mind, Katchor seems to defy rather than accept a “literary” slot for the drawing of a certain kind of comic, but then again, perhaps not.

It is memorable that Gilbert Seldes, whose Seven Lively Arts (1924) offered the first major defense of the popular culture distrusted when not ignored in the genteel culture of the day,  was also the first to point out that comics were actually destined to be “despised” in extremis.  Their very popularity among the unwashed and barely literate classes of Americans naturally placed comics at the bottom of the bin, most obviously with the most vulgar of pulp productions, i.e.,  pornography. They were wicked, corrupting literature.

(Not that this association was entirely mistaken. The comic book industry giants arising in the ‘thirties had indeed dabbled in pornography, and the “Tijuana Bibles” had a long and fruitful run until the breakdown of censorship rendered irrelevant.)

The quiet move from genteel rejection to ambivalence and a sort of acceptance tracks with the Depression years to the War years, most notably the Cold War to follow, and the post-Vietnam rethink of American culture at large. As Heer and Worcester note in their introduction to their volume, the largely aesthete Partisan Review, refining its cultural views while moving politically from an anti-capitalist perspective to a ferocious Cold War liberalism, already precipitated  by the later 1950s a degree of discomfort.  What was wrong here? The complaints against “conformity,” directed against popular culture as much as the manners and morals of suburbia, seemed to apply also to intellectuals steadily making their way upward in the expanding college scene.

Or perhaps it was a professorial search for newer subjects, newer angles of vision likely to be interesting to undergraduates and the publishers of high quality paperbacks. More interesting critics and mostly younger critics, in any case, began to look in new directions. They were for the moment swimming against the tide washing over the New York Times as well as the literary magazines.

Someone described Robert Warshow, a favorite writer of the PR and surrounding circles, as possessing a 1950s view of movies and comics much the same as the cop in his cruiser, assigned to policing the ghetto, “understands” the dangerous neighborhood. The “Free Enterprise art” (in Henry Luce’s memorable phrase) of the high culture alternative seemed to repudiate, in one fell swoop, the Popular Front art of the New Deal era, anti-fascist Hollywood, the WPA-funded post office murals and the 1930s-40s literature of social struggles. Not that all of the painter-abstractionists, by any means, agreed with existing Cold War politics. Some were committed anti-capitalists and a few, following Picasso, even remained Communists! But the trope held fast until—it broke.

After Vietnam,  even during the later years of the invasion and mass bombing of Southeast Asia, the older assumptions of Cold War liberalism, artistic quite as much as political could not be sustained. Surely nothing repudiated these assumptions quite as drastically as the Underground Comix, arising out of the equally rebellious Underground Press. Ferociously antiwar (if also, at times, noxiously sexist) and even ecological,  their very presence inspired youngish men and women to experiment with the familiar “vulgar,” genre, seeking to reinvent what a comic could be.

The underground generation and a somewhat younger cohort would create the feminist comic, rediscover the “wordless comic” (of the classic 1920s-30s woodcuts, along with older versions) and in Raw magazine, show proof that global art, global audiences had come to a new stage of defining comics, and just in time. Comics no longer occupied the center of attention in a newspaper trade that was dying, anyway. That painting genre that meanwhile survived and even flourished among the investors’ set actually disguised an important positive kernel: figurative art had made a comeback. Alice Neel an elderly leftwing counterpart, in her way, to the most artistic-minded of the younger comic artists, could stand for the ongoing artistic rebellion. Neel, too, Went Naked.

Here we may return comfortably to Ben Katchor, The lush color pages of Hand-Drying in America seemed to bring out something never hidden but never quite fully expressed in his previous work. He would say afterward that the imaginative depictions of an early Manhattan (and fictional offshoots, the re-imagined favorite vacation spots of lower middle class Jews generations ago), along with the inhabitants and their language, were in fact his own dreamscape. Hope is not quite lost, in the troubled real world around us, because anything is possible for the dreamer. “No one,” he commented to a critic after the volume was published, “has yet seen these strips as a dream critique of the waking world.” We could fairly call this observation “surrealist,” but in spite of a fondness for elements of the vernacular, surrealists were largely caught within a set of assumptions about what is revolutionary or not. Katchor evades the distinctions.

He does, however, share the harsh criticism of capitalism that marked the surrealists, now so many artistic generations ago.  He is not and cannot be a literalist in his work, but he has become an insightful as well as a ferocious observer about the direction the system is taking us.  Occupy Wall Street, centered in the very neighborhood where he practiced the small business of the typesetter, seems to have loosed something in his mind, awaiting a spark. And then there’s repression. “I feel like we’re replaying World War I, with the Espionage Act being revived and journalists being threatened for merely doing their jobs,” he tells an interviewer. “And on top of that, the ecosystem is collapsing. It’s a nightmare…”

He adds, in a note to the reviewer, that Julius Knipl was, after all, a critique of the world, “aligned with those people who were unhappy to see the gentrification” of yesterday’s New York, with the end of the street and cafe life that made it so interesting.  If his fellow art school students of the 1970s saw making comics a form of professional suicide, Katchor saw this as a political act. He quotes the formidable art critic Meyer Schapiro, writing under a pseudonym in the New Masses of the early 1930s on an art exhibit of the John Reed Clubs, as insisting that a good revolutionary picture “is not necessarily a cartoon, but it should have the legibility and pointedness of a cartoon, and like the cartoon it should reach the great masses of workers at little expense.”

Too soon, the John Reed Clubs were folded into the American Writers Congress and once again, the famed novelists drawn to anti-fascist politics were exalted, with their prestige and style far from comics (that the last phase of the Writers Congress, in Hollywood, would highlight scriptwriting for Hollywood is another contradiction too distant for consideration here). The Daily Worker itself had a couple of excellent comic strips for some years. It cannot be said that they were taken seriously as an art form.

Now, perhaps, after all this time, including the rise and fall of the wildly explosive and critical EC comics, followed by the rise and fall of the underground comix genre,  something is on the way again. If it happens, if it is actually happening, we can thank Ben Katchor for his insights as well as his own artistic contributions. He’s a deep thinker of a genre that has few, indeed.

Paul Buhle is actively producing radical comics.

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Review: ‘How to Draw Without Talent’ by Danny Gregory

How to Draw Without Talent

Do a web search and you’ll find numerous folks offering tips and inspiration on how to create art. Among your many options, you will find Danny Gregory. What sets him apart is a combination of amiable personality, common sense advice and guidance, and a certain tenacity that hooks you in. Danny Gregory is known for a number of inspirational books, including The Creative License and Art Before Breakfast. His latest book is How to Draw Without Talent, another useful and fun look at getting into an art habit. This title also happens to tie in with Sketchbook Skool, an educational and art community platform founded by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene. How to Draw Without Talent is published by North Light Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Don’t let criticism inhibit you.

This is a book made up of one simple bit of guidance built upon another bit and so on. Before you know it, you are immersed in a book that is intended to be highly accessible and motivational. The idea is to get folks who are interested in pursuing art to go ahead and make the leap. There are a number of approaches and there’s plenty of room for various books and methods. What is appealing about Danny’s way of doing things is that he opts for a very straightforward narrative. He’s a regular guy appealing to regular folks. And isn’t that the majority of us readers? Danny wants to knock down anything that might get in the way of someone new to art. He invites readers to join in and emphasizes that no prior knowledge is required. In fact, as the title suggests, no prior talent is required either! That’s a good solid message: Don’t worry, be happy, and dive in.

Helpful tips.

It’s interesting that what Danny offers actually crosses over and will appeal to any background. You can be something of a seasoned artist and still get something out of what Danny has to offer. Much of what Danny is about is finding ways to keep your interest and engage you in a variety of exercises. If you like what you see in this book, then perhaps you’re ready to level up and take a Sketchbook Skool “kourse” where you follow along  video instruction as well as have the opportunity to participate in the SkoolYard social network. The kourses are reasonably priced and you keep the videos to pursue at your own pace whenever you like or to complete right along with fellow students in real time. I’ve recently gotten involved with Sketchbook Skool and find its creative world to be quite useful and rewarding. That said, this new book proves to be an excellent place to start your own creative journey. You’ve got nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.

Easy to follow exercises.

How to Draw Without Talent is a 128-page trade paperback, in full color, available as of November 26, 2019, published by Penguin Random House.

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Review: ‘My Brother the Dragon’

My Brother the Dragon

Here is something else that I picked up at Short Run over the weekend. My Brother the Dragon is written by Galen Goodwin Long, illustrated by Jonathan Hill, and published by Tugboat Press. I had a nice conversation with Galen. She said she was quite happy with the results. I certainly agree. This is something of a hybrid: a mini-comic and a children’s book. I am very impressed with the level of sophistication and understated grace. If you aspire to creating a children’s book of your own, this is an excellent example of what is possible within the indie community.

My Brother the Dragon

This is the story of a little boy who sure loves dragons. He loves them in every possible way. The story is told my his big sister who has a problem with her brother’s dragon obsession. The story is simple and easy to follow and the artwork is spot on and delightful. This book came out in 2016 and I’m happy to have stumbled upon it. Visit Tugboat Press right here.

 

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Review and Interview: ‘Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White’ by Michael Tisserand

George Herriman, hiding his race in plain sight.

Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.

Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.

A life in black and white.

Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White

Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.

Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.

Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.

Michael Tisserand

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.

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Book Review: IT OCCURS TO ME THAT I AM AMERICA: NEW STORIES AND ART

It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art

What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.

Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass

Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.

Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey

Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.

Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond

I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.

The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner

It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Book Review: ‘The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt’

The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt

Jerome Charyn is one of those rare breed of writers able to write some of the most earthy stories involving some of the most larger-than-life figures, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Teddy Roosevelt. For TR, Mr. Charyn pulls out the stops offering up the man in his own voice, a magnificent mashup of macho and aristocrat. Bully! TR, as he looks out from Mount Rushmore, remains one of our greatest personifications of America. And with his new novel, Jerome Charyn completes his run at Rushmore. He managed to tackle Washington and Jefferson in 2008’s Johnny One-Eye. He dug deep into the psyche of Lincoln with 2014’s I Am Abraham. And now we have The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt, published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Indeed, TR was a manly man right down to having a mountain lion on a leash as his pet. It’s during the Rough Rider period of  his life that we first meet this big cat, Josephine. She was the mascot for TR’s own cowboy regiment off to fight in the Spanish–American War in 1898. An invasion of Cuba did not officially call for men on horseback. However, TR had other ideas. As an act of sheer will, TR got his Rough Riders. This excerpt offers a taste of this most quintessential TR adventure. Here we are just as U.S. armed forces begin departure to Cuba joined by the now celebrated Rough Riders:

We were mobbed at every station along the route. Folks welcomed us to their own little war parades. Half-mad women scribbled letters to Rough Riders they had never met and would never meet again. Some proposed outright marriage. A few of our bravos fancied a particular lady and disappeared from our caravan of seven trains. Leonard cursed their hides. But these bravos managed to find us at the next station, or the next after that. A horse died of heatstroke, but we didn’t lose a bravo, not one. People would shout from the tracks, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy,” and I realized why the Army regulars hated us so. We had captured the imagination of blood and battle somehow–the Rough Riders represented the romance of war. We could have risen out of some biblical rapture. The Army couldn’t compete with cowboy cavaliers.

Let’s shift gears to another aspect of the storyteller’s bag of tricks. Here’s a taste of the pulp fiction action adventure vibe found here:

I had clocked twenty minutes, like pulse beats in my temples. Winters-White kept me from plummeting into that gnarled jungle floor. He tapped me on the shoulder and removed the blindfold. We were in a slight clearing, a bald patch without a single root or tree. And in this clearing was a canvas chair that might have come from a general’s tent. A man in a pince-nez and cowboy neckerchief sat in that chair. I’d have guessed he was my age–a few months shy of forty. He had a jeweler’s nimble hands. His mustache was almost as red as mine, and his eyes were probably just as weak. I couldn’t imagine him as a sniper, shooting at children and nurses from the Army Nurse Corps. Yet here he was, in the green uniform of a Vaquero.

“We’ve met before,” he said in a slight accent.

Wouldn’t it be something to see a Cowboy King movie? There is room for a sequel as this novel covers Roosevelt’s life right up to September 6, 1901, the assassination of President William McKinley, a day that would catapult TR as far into the arena as he had ever dared possible. That said, you really don’t need to look any further than this novel. Cowboy King is a novel at its best: engaging, immersive and compelling.

Teddy Roosevelt, an American original.

The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt is a 286-page hardcover, available as of January 8th, published by Liveright. And be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website where you can purchase a signed copy.

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Book Review: ADAM by Ariel Schrag

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:

“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”

So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.

The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.

Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.

You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.

Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.

Adam is a 320-page novel, originally published in 2014 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Book Review: THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer

THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer is a successful artist and novelist. I had the privilege of hearing him read recently as he shared the stage with two other distinguished writers, Neal Thompson and Wendy C. Ortiz, at a panel on memoir writing at Hugo House in Seattle. Later, in person, I asked Mr. Santlofer if he ever considered doing a graphic novel, given his facility with words and images, and he said he’d love to do it! He’s on my radar right now. His book, The Widower’s Notebook, is quite a page-turner. I went to the Tin Table for a late dinner and couldn’t put it down. The waitress even said I could stay as long as I wanted. After making some time for the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I kept reading the next day and finished in another sitting. What I got from this book is a riveting narrative covering a heart-wrenching time in the author’s life.

Mr. Santlofer has an uncanny observational style: you believe you’re with him. His writing is vivid and carries you along even when he’s writing about not feeling up to doing anything at all. It’s the mark of not only a good writer but an excellent writer to allow you into a life without you being aware of any of the effort involved. This is a story of a most significant loss, the death of one’s life partner. Santlofer achieves a level of the sublime by simply being in the moment. He does with his writing what he does with his drawings: evoke a sense of the hyperreal. You are really there with the author as he finds his wife, Joy, dying before his eyes, the subsequent rush to the hospital, and the frenetic tripping through memories.

We follow along as Santlofer reflects upon a grand life beginning with a young bohemian couple, just married, in Brooklyn, circa 1967. We progress in a stream of consciousness fashion from the birth of Dorie, his beloved daughter, to the recent death of Joy to the building up of a new life. The act of drawing helps with the act of mourning–drawings work when words seem to fail or seem to be not enough. There’s a touch of magic to art-making and it seems most explicit when examining an intimate and intricately crafted drawing. The excerpt below speaks to this process:

“I am able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it. You can’t think: this is an eye, or a nose, or lips, or you will not be able to draw them; an eye, a nose, lips are all the same, simply marks on a page.

Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she in no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I am not sitting in a dark room crying over a photo of my dead wife; I am at my drawing table, working.

Grief is chaotic; art is order. Ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion, when in fact the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others.”

A drawing is a complicated thing.

Santlofer’s book is about dying and about living. It is as much about mourning as it is about relationships, family, and the creative process. Indeed, art can save your life and Santlofer’s book eloquently and passionately speaks to perseverance and purpose.

The Widower’s Notebook is a 272-page paperback with illustrations, published by Penguin Random House.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Death, Death and Dying, Hugo House, Jonathan Santlofer, Memoir, New York City, Penguin Random House, Seattle, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

Editor’s Note: For those equally attracted to prose and to comics, Jerome Charyn has quite a significant connection with the comics medium. He has collaborated with some of the best artists in Europe. For instance, you’ll want to check out titles written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by Francois Boucq. A new title is in the works too. For additional posts, including those featuring comics, go right here.

Saul was the first king in the Bible but, as writer Jerome Charyn points out, he took a backseat to the celebrated David. It was David who gained all the glory and Saul who was left in the shadow. That’s not to say Saul wasn’t worthy. He simply wasn’t favored by God. It’s a tough place to be and a lot of people can relate to that. In his distinctive and vivid way, Charyn collects in his new book some of his best work on the theme of the underdog, the one deserving yet less embraced. In the new book, Charyn also provides a look back at a writer’s influences. In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

It matters little if you’re famous or unknown when it comes to being an underdog. New York mayor Ed Koch, for instance, shares a similar spot with Saul too. In one piece, Ellis: An Autobiography, the reader follows Charyn down the mean streets of the Bronx in the ’40s to an unfolding immigrant’s tale. The featured guest in this narrative is the famously accessible yet often maligned Ed Koch. In the process, it seems that everything is revealed all at once in a kaleidoscope of rich detailed observations. New York City, a city of ups and downs, had reached the brink in 1975 and was nearly bankrupt. Enter Ed Koch. He turned the Big Apple into a boomtown again. But the featured guest ultimately takes a backseat to his city since it’s New York City that’s the real star.

No one person, after all, is so much a star as part of something bigger. As Charyn makes clear in his enchanting writing, the glory is in the details. In another piece, Faces on the Wall, Charyn reflects on the power of film–and Hollywood in particular. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ran a tight ship but, in the end, the flickering screen held its own sway:

“The simplest screen was much bigger (and darker) than any of the movie moguls. The studios could tyrannize the content of a film, declare a land of happy endings, but they weren’t sitting with you in the dark. They could control Joan Crawford, but not the hysteria hidden behind those big eyes, or the ruby mouth that could almost suck you into the screen.”

Charyn takes pleasure in sharing the lesser known achievements. His admiration for such literary greats as Saul Bellow and Isaac Babel is infectious. But, with the same gusto, he champions less known writers like Samuel Ornitz and Anzia Yezierska. It is in doing so that he honors his offbeat choice for a hero, the much maligned and misunderstood King Saul.

In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

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‘The President is Missing’ Could Make a Great Comic Book–Or Not

The President is Missing!

With great being a relative term and considering all the cliffhanger sequences so expertly crafted by James Patterson (let’s not fool ourselves that Bill is now a master at hardboiled airport thrillers), The President is Missing could quite possibly make for a decent comic book adaptation. The trouble is: are there any takers? All things considered, and there is a hell of a lot to consider, taken as a curious entertainment, the book did its job on me and I read it to the very end. As for passages that I can tell right away were written by Bill, I hit pay dirt at the very beginning (the president names his enemies and his virtues) and at the very end (the president names his enemies and his virtues). And the President Duncan character is so heavily influenced by Bill that he is clearly his alter ego. Tucked within all that is a pretty good spy thriller of sorts. Everything has been simplified to the point where it lends itself well to the demands for brevity and action in your typical comic book.

So, would you really want to read this? Could you even stomach it? A lot depends upon your politics, or more to the point, your opinion of Bill’s character. There are those living in a bubble who chalk up Bill’s abuse of women as simply the missteps of a cad. Everyone in this rarefied group, by the way, still uses the word, “cad” in casual conversation. I recall one talking head referring to Bill as a man of “enormous appetites.” This was all well before #MeToo but there are still plenty of Friends of Bill who simply are not up to calling him out and never will be. Bill is protected by much of the media as one who is too big to fail. Just read the review of this book in The New York Times. Nicolle Wallace, of MSNBC, serves up a fair and upbeat review. That could be a way to balance out the gotcha moment sprung on Bill on the TODAY Show on NBC.

That TODAY Show moment is now part of the experience of reading this novel. It can’t be any other way and that’s a good thing. Maybe Bill could have dodged a bullet if he’d had more presence of mind in that already highly calculated noggin of his. Why did he have a meltdown when NBC’s Craig Melvin asked him about Monica Lewinsky? At least Melvin did not directly refer to Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick or Kathleen Willey. Just the mere mention of Monica was enough. In the dust up that ensued, Melvin focused upon the idea that Bill really should personally apologize to her. Hell no, was Bill’s response. Hadn’t he suffered enough? Those legal bills to defend himself don’t pay themselves. Bill had clearly gone off the rails with his self-destructive response. What a contrast to a novel that depicts a president with razor-sharp dedication to the job. President Duncan is the president that Bill can only wish he could have been.

Hey, let’s do a book!

The novel’s President Duncan is a dashing war hero who, by all counts, is God’s gift to America. He is flawless expect for one thing: he’s just too darn honest and brave! Almost single-handedly, this Prez literally saves his country from the mother of all cyberattacks, one that is so dastardly that it could toss America into the Dark Ages. Dare I say, this is one heck of a superhero-like president.

For her New York Times review, Nicolle Wallace dusted off a handy quote just screaming to be inserted. This is the one by Tom Wolfe that goes: “The problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible.” How often has that old chestnut been used in genteel conversation? But it does make sense here. I can well imagine James Patterson coming to a screeching halt at his typewriter. For some reason, I see him as using a typewriter. And so he calls up Bill to ask him if North Korea is as bad as he’s heard. This, of course, was well before Trump fixed everything up. So, Bill goes over and asks Hillary and they begin to fight over competing interpretations. Bill says he’ll have to call him back. Anyway, Bill, or Richard Clarke, would eventually make “plausible” whatever hiccups occurred in the narrative.

But there’s this one particular moment that occurs right in the Oval Office of all places that may defy plausibility. This highly-twisted plot features Nina, a young woman who creates the computer virus that threatens America, if not the whole world. Again, I can well imagine James Patterson working himself up into a fit of frustration over this. Finally, he calls up Bill with his perplexing question. Bill ponders it for a long while and then replies, “You know, James, I do believe that it is quite possible for a young woman to find a way to discretely enter the Oval Office and be alone with the President of the United States.” The great James Patterson lets that sink in but has to add: “Alright, Bill, but I just have a feeling that someone will take issue with that. Heck, it might even happen on the TODAY Show!”

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Filed under Bill Clinton, Book Reviews, Comics, Humor, James Patterson, Monica Lewinsky, politics, Satire, Thriller