Category Archives: Literature

Review: ‘The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery, Volume One’

“The Graphic Canon of Crime and Mystery, Vol. 1: From Sherlock Holmes to A Clockwork Orange to Jo Nesbø”

Jerome Charyn, one of our great writers, known for his Isaac Sidel mystery series among many other works, has said that “all novels are crime novels.” It is an intriguing idea. You may as well take it a step further and say that all narrative, even the Bible, shares something with the genre. It is in that spirit that Russ Kick brings us the latest in his series of great works of fiction adapted into the comics medium. “The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery Volume 1” is published by Seven Stories Press.

This is a take on the crime & mystery genre that proves quite refreshing and a true eye-opener. Russ Kick, in the role of curator/editor, has taken an offbeat path in order to emphasize just how diverse and unpredictable his subject can be. Kick goes so far as to not include any adaptation of two of the most prominent names of all: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Perhaps he’s saving them for another volume. As a cartoonist myself, I would find those two irresistible for adaptation. But I also appreciate that Kick is playing with a delicate balance of mixing the familiar with surprising elements. Take the cover image. What on earth is going on there? A woman has been left tied up to a bed as a man creeps upstairs. Kick manages to keep just the right unsettling vibe running throughout this impressive anthology.

Good crime fiction keeps you on your toes. You are not supposed to be on solid ground. You are supposed to expect the unexpected. To set the mood, as well as provide the necessary framework, Kick has done away with chronology and has organized each adaptation within chapter categories: The Act; Criminals; Whodunit; Judgment; and Punishment. Take the judgment theme, for example. Within that one you have a story from the Bible, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” a story from Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” and Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Neither of these would seem to be an obvious fit. There are certainly no gumshoe detectives here. But there is undeniable intrigue, and each story revolves around a crime. It is in Hawthorne’s case that we have that persistent double layer of gloom that resonates with a contemporary reader.

Excerpt from “The Scarlet Letter”

One of my earliest reviews of comics was the work of Sophia Wiedeman. I am quite taken with her eerie and understated comics. It is very nice to see her adaptation here of “The Scarlett Letter.” Hawthorne, like Washington Irving and Robert Louis Stevenson, is a true master of early American psychological thrillers. Wiedeman’s adaptation evokes the chilling air surrounded by poker face Puritans hungry for self-righteous violence.

Excerpt from “Headhunters”

But you really cannot deny yourself altogether the grit, glamour, and style that is so inextricably linked to the crime & mystery genre. The one piece that really satisfies that “To Catch a Thief” vibe is an adaptation of “Headhunters” by Jo Nesbø. If the name is not familiar, then maybe you have not tuned into the crime fiction trend coming out of Scandinavia and known as “Scandicrime.” Who knew. I have tended to see Scandinavians as rather mellow sensible sorts. But, no, push come to shove, and ditch the lutefisk in favor of brass knuckles. For this piece, Jackie Roche adapts a tale of a man leading a double life: corporate headhunter by day; master cat burglar by night. Roche has a perfectly light touch that gives this story an added touch of class.

Excerpt from “In Cold Blood”

For something decidedly chilling, there is the adaptation by Emi Gennis of the Truman Capote masterpiece, “In Cold Blood.” Gennis is another cartoonist I have followed and always find interesting. For her piece, she lets much of the plot speak for itself with minimal dialogue. Her stark and space style gives it all a nice edge.

Excerpt from “The Postman Always Rings Twice”

Sarah Benkin does something similar with her adaptation of the James M. Cain all-time classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Benkin’s approach brings home the old adage of how the best laid plans of mice and men can fail miserably.

Excerpt from “Strangers on a Train”

And one more: it’s fun to see a piece by Megan Kelso that turns up the heat on her usually reserved and understated style with her adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train.” It’s as if a lot of things that often go unsaid in a Kelso story are forced up a bit to the surface. That said, Kelso conceals where she needs to and leaves the reader wondering in the spirit of any good mystery.

“The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery, Vol. 1” is a 352-page trade paperback, available as of November 21, 2017, and published by Seven Stories Press.

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Review: THE GRAPHIC CANON, VOLUME 3, Edited by Russ Kick

Graphic-Canon-Russ-Kick-2013

Not all the work here is by cartoonists, per se, but most of it is and everyone here is part of the larger world of the graphic arts. We still live, may always live, in a world that, for the most part, thinks of cartoonists as only one thing. However, “The Graphic Canon,” edited by Russ Kick, and published by Seven Stories Press, gives you a taste of what is possible. You are certainly in capable hands with Russ Kick, bestselling author of “You a Are Being Lied To” and “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

This is a remarkable project that takes on the world of literature on a grand scale with Volume 3 dedicated to the 20th Century. Ah, the 20th Century, it was a time dominated by the most heroic and romantic of rebels. You are sure to find your favorite rabble rouser in this colossal book, heroic in its own right. It weighs in at 564 pages, literally a phone book worth of literary artistic expression, so the odds are in your favor.

Like a classroom full of gifted children, each artist here has taken their chosen work of literature, immersed themselves in it, and turned in their best effort. Not all the contributions here are exclusive to this book but most are. And, like thoughtful and caring students, these artists don’t let ego get in the way or stray too far from the goal. They fall into two lines of attack: illustration and adaptation. Within these two camps, we get just about everything under the sun, an exciting array of talent, over 80 artists, that will please hardcore lit fans and newbies alike. Among previously published work, there is Robert Crumb’s rarely-seen adaptation of Sartre’s “Nausea.” Another gem is David Lasky‘s unique take on “Ulysses.” Reproduced here, you get the original 1993 mini-comic version.

"Ulysses," adapted by David Lasky

“Ulysses,” adapted by David Lasky

Check out the first pages of this book to find a homage to “Heart of Darkness.” Matt Kish is known for creating illustrations for each page of “Moby Dick.” Here you see him bring that same level of obsession to Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece. Reproduced are some selected illustrations with the promise from Kish will go on to fully illustrate “Darkness” page per page.

"Heart of Darkness" illustration by Matt Kish

“Heart of Darkness” illustration by Matt Kish

Ellen Lindner‘s illustration for “The Bell Jar” sums up in great measure the internal struggle that Sylvia Path attempted to endure.

"The Bell Jar" illustration by Ellen Linder

“The Bell Jar” illustration by Ellen Lindner

Tara Seibel provides some fanciful illustrations for “The Great Gatsby” that evoke the jazz age.

"The Great Gatsby" illustration by Tara Seibel

“The Great Gatsby” illustration by Tara Seibel

Among the adaptations, Julia Gfrörer gives us some very intriguing images inspired by Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum.” In the introduction, Russ Kick helps the casual reader to relate by jokingly suggesting that Umberto Eco’s masterwork is a much more complex version of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Full of metaphysical and philosophical observation, it centers on three characters who work at a vanity press who concoct elaborate conspiracy theories and then discover that maybe they’re true. Julia Gfrörer is clearly up to the task.

"Foucault's Pendulum" adaptation by Julia Gfrörer

“Foucault’s Pendulum” adaptation by Julia Gfrörer

I think this unusual adaptation by Julia Gfrörer is a good place to linger since it goes a long way in representing the best you will find in this book. Gfrörer has taken on a wildly complex novel, found an opening, what she entitles, “The Chymical Wedding,” that explores the alchemical wedding in “Foucault’s Pendulum” and runs with it. This certainly doesn’t come across as Lit 101 filtered through comics. No, it does what you’d hope for: Gfrörer wears Umberto Eco like a well-worn pair of pajamas. Is that appropriate? If you don’t feel comfortable with what you’re doing, how will your reader? Gfrörer lets herself go and, without trying too hard, turns in her assignment. It’s just what editor Russ Kick would have expected.

This is the thing, there are any number of ways to go about your adaptation. “The Mowers,” by D.H. Lawrence, for example, is pretty straightforward and has a deft and gentle touch by Bishakh Som.

"The Mowers," adapted by Bishakh Som

“The Mowers,” adapted by Bishakh Som

Another ethereal and arresting approach comes from Caroline Picard with her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “The Voyage Out.”

"The Voyage Out," adapted by Caroline Picard

“The Voyage Out,” adapted by Caroline Picard

Emelie Östergren provides her heart-felt interpretation of “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs.

"Naked Lunch," adapted by Emelie Östergren

“Naked Lunch,” adapted by Emelie Östergren

“The Graphic Canon, Volume 3” is such a mighty undertaking that you just can’t go wrong. I come back to the idea of a powerful vehicle that demonstrates what’s possible. We’d be fools to think we’ve got literature and fiction all figured out. And we’d be fools to think we have the comics medium all figured out. It’s a post-postmodern world, but that’s no excuse. There is something very traditional about writing stories and creating comics and that’s quite alright.

Issues of storytelling will not be resolved in the 21st Century and never will be. If Russ Kick is around (gee, anything is possible), or maybe a descendent or disciple, we will find that Volume 4’s tribute to the 21st Century (available only digitally?) will continue the good fight for a good story. And we will find that all three volumes of “The Graphic Canon” have held up considerably well.

Visit Seven Stories Press here. You can also find “The Graphic Canon” by visiting Amazon here.

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Filed under 20th Century, Comics, Fiction, Graphic Novel Reviews, Illustration, Literature, Novels, Russ Kick, The Graphic Canon

Mark Z. Danielewski at Town Hall, Seattle

It was a treat to see Mark Z. Danielewski directing a performance of his marvelous work, “The Fifty Year Sword” here in Seattle at Town Hall this last Sunday, October 28. Much to celebrate as “The Fifty Year Sword” has just become available as an ebook and, get this, as an ibook. And, yes, that’s me with the author himself as he was kind enough to pose for pics during his book signing.

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THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD Review

“The Fifty Year Sword,” the novella by Mark Z. Danielewski, seems to be the stuff of urban legend. The book was first published on Halloween 2005, in the Netherlands, with only 1,000 copies printed in English. The following year, another 1,000 copies in English were printed and that was it. Sccores of fans have only heard of it but have not been able to easily get to read it. That changes with the wide release on October 16, 2012. For those familiar with Mr. Danielewski’s work, particularly his “House of Leaves,” they know to expect intriguing play with narrative, words and graphics. And that is exactly what they get with this novella.

Mr. Danielewski is definitely not a writer who just holds with tradition. We can also see that he deeply respects the art of visual storytelling. The elements he incorporates have a sacred quality to them. You’ll be swept up by the ethereal embroidery artwork that intermingles with the text. You’ll also be caught up by the spontaneity: words seem to bubble up and spit out at just the right moment. As a ghost story for adults, this novella feels like Edgar Alan Poe at a poetry slam, just to give you an idea.

The story begins with the adults gathering to do their duty and attend the fiftieth birthday party for cantankerous Belinda Kite, someone they don’t particularly care for. We then shift our focus to the children who will be in attendance, a spooky set of five orphans who are chaperoned by befuddled Chintana and someone only known as, The Social Worker. Finally, we turn our attention to the truly spooky character at the center of it all, The Storyteller, who is inextricably linked to the eponymous sword and to the fate of each partygoer.

Part of the magic here is the word play, from creative spelling down to how the words are presented on the page. The same spirit of “House of Leaves” is here where typography will literary follow what transpires within the story. For those new to Mr. Danielewski, there will be that satisfying “shock of the new.” Some enjoyable new words you’ll find are Chinata’s choices: indacitation, torpididor and annahiliation. Characters here don’t just speak, they “sputstuttersob” or have a “rumbidilling” voice. They don’t simply creep around. They “diminishide.” Here is an example of what can happens to words in this world:

“‘the w  orld there w  as

                                           “‘con  st  antly

“‘sev   er  ed.

This is how it looks on its actual page:

This passage is describing The Forest of Falling Notes which is part of The Storyteller’s journey that he is retelling to the five orphans as they sit in a cramp little parlor. It is dimly lit by five candles that reveal a most curious box with five latches. What is or is not significant about The Storyteller and his story will remain unclear in this absorbing ghost tale that becomes more mysterious, and haunting, to the very end.

“The Fifty Year Sword” is published by Random House. Visit Random House and learn about the special limited edition of “The Fifty Year Sword.”

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COMIC-CON 2012: MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI INTERVIEW

Mark Z. Danielewski is known for his cult novel, “House of Leaves,” (2000). MZD’s work, while vastly experimental, also provides a rich narrative. As he puts it, his works require courage from the reader. That courage, his readers would say, is greatly rewarded. In this interview, we discuss the art of fiction, the writer’s struggle, the forthcoming ebook editions of “House of Leaves” and “Only Revolutions,” the October release of “The Fifty Year Sword,” as well as what lies ahead with MZD’s 27-volume, “The Familiar.”

From the start of this interview, MZD’s mind is playfully, poetically, constructing.

I hold up a party hat promotion for “The Fifty Year Sword” and make it sound like that’s the actual book. He, of course, runs with it! He looks over the party hat, reads the brief text and declares, “We’ve just read the whole book together!” We talk about “House of Leaves,” “The Fifty Year Sword” and the art of fiction. I ask what he thinks the great experimental writer, Donald Barthelme, would make of current trends and that sparks a wonderful reminiscence. The whole interview I found to be quite magical and I hope you will too.

Everyone is waiting for their copy of “The Fifty Year Sword.” It will be available in the states on October 16, 2012.

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Filed under Books, Comic-Con 2012, Fiction, Literature, Mark Z. Danielewski

HUCKLEBERRY FINN Reeks Of The Past In A Most Glorious Way

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reeks of the past. It reeked of the past when it was first published in America in 1885. And it sure as hell reeks of the past today — but in a most glorious way. Mark Twain knew what we he was doing. He was fully engaged in the American scene, warts, bruises, gunshots and all. As I carry around an eReader with me, I am reading more of the books I’ve been meaning to read. This one has been high on my list. Today, being Memorial Day, seems a particularly appropriate time to consider this classic, although any day of the week will do as well.

Upon my reading, I come away with the conclusion that, despite the controversy, Mark Twain’s novel is indeed a landmark work of American fiction and, I’ll go one better, is essential. At this point, it’s hard to imagine it fading into obscurity and yet there are those who continue to try to see that happen. The arguement is that we, as a nation, have moved beyond such issues of race. But that’s really nothing more than an attempt to sweep things under the rug and isn’t the American rug already pretty lumpy from being swept under?

The biggest problem of all for “Huckleberry Finn” is the fact that it is a work of art. You see, a true work of art will always confound the literal-minded. As in life, and as in art, there are no neatly tied up resolutions. No, instead, ambiguity presides. The main character, Huck Finn, does not behave in a systematically heroic fashion. What he does is behave like a boy with a mind, heart and soul of his own. He makes numerous choices, not always the right ones. And, arguably, the other main character, Jim, the runaway slave who Huck has embarked upon a journey with, is not perfect either. Both are products of their time, America circa 1840, and both are individuals in search of freedom as they know it. Twain, the keen social observer, set up the perfect vehicle from which to comment on American life. He knew as well as anyone that the end of the American Civil War had not led to the freedom that African Americans had been promised. What it had led to was the dark era of Jim Crow, nearly a century of systematic racial discrimination from 1876 to 1965.

Twain maintains an impressive balancing act throughout the novel. The story is told by a thirteen-year-old and yet manages to bring about older insights. It is a story very much of its time, using language of its time, while still transcending it. And he adroitly shifts from broad humor to more poetic passages. There are three main parts to the story. There is the most poignant first part where we find Huck at the hands of his abusive father and his subsequent dreamlike escape on a raft with Jim. Then, after a number of mishaps, we settle into a long burlesque section where Jim and Huck are at the mercy of two con artists. And, finally, the last part finds Huck reunited with Tom Sawyer in a surreal episode where they appear to make an utter mockery of Jim’s plight as a runaway slave complete with torturing him with rats, spiders, snakes and a series of humiliations. This is the part that makes Hemingway have to add a disclaimer to his decree that all American fiction begins with “Huck Finn.” He concludes that the last twelve chapters are not worth a damn — which is rather meaningless. The fact is, taken as a whole, the novel does a fine job of revealing a nation struggling with its own dysfunction.

If anyone was expecting Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to have a perfect epiphany and, without hesitation or distraction, welcome Jim to his rightful place among humanity, Twain is there to say the reader has another thing coming. If a nation can hardly come to grips with what it has wrought, don’t expect two boys to figure it out. What they will do is mirror their own environment. And, with any luck, maybe they will rise above it because they should before too long. That is Twain’s hope for the characters, for his country, and for his readers. In time, with any luck, maybe we will all rise above what has been wrought because we should before too long.

The fact is that the building of a nation is, and always will be, a wild and wooly affair. There are things that can never be lived down and yet we must carry on. We must carry on because we have no choice but to do so. But to forget, no, that is taking things too far. Just as Twain will not let the reader off the hook when it comes to how two boys will behave, he is not going to make it comfortable regarding how a nation behaves. It should be as clear as day that Huck’s beloved friend, Jim, is not a “nigger,” in any sense of that word and yet Twain uses the term repeatedly as the characters in the book refer to him and to any African American. The word is used by the high and the low, from the most ignorant yokel to the country doctor. Huck uses it matter-of-factly without giving it a second thought. And that’s a huge point in the book. The word stings, it hurts and humiliates. But, if all the grown-ups are using it, then why should Huck question it, right? But, despite the predominant feelings of the time, Huck does question Jim’s state as a slave.

The controversy rages on about whether or not to teach this book in high school. To that problem, I suggest another way of looking at it. What if no one had been around to capture on video the beating of Rodney King? Or any number of acts that have occurred since then? We should think of “Huckleberry Finn,” in one sense, as a master recording of those sort of things, the things we wish would just go away or had just never happened. Instead of attempting to ban Mr. Twain’s book, we should be praising Mr. Twain. For those who think we’re better off with easy answers and forgetting the past, “Huckleberry Finn” is just the sort of book you should consider. As much as this classic is speaking to the past, like any excellent work of art, it clearly speaks to the present and the future.

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