Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography
Herbert Marcuse is not a household name in the same way today as, say, Marshall McLuhan, another intellectual who broke into mainstream consciousness. However, Marcuse was a huge focal point for many protesters during the sixties and his ideas have great relevance for today’s challenging times. I say this as a way to cast as wide a net as possible for potential readers of a very compelling new work in the comics medium, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, co-authored and drawn by Nick Thorkelson, edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew T. Lamas, published by City Lights. It was my pleasure to get a chance to interview Mr. Thorkelson.
Herbert Marcuse, a hero of the student protest movement.
Marxism. Socialism. Capitalism. Philosophy. All of this does not add up to light and casual reading. However, a concise grinding through the comics medium can result in something quite enlightening–and here Nick Thorkelson succeeds to unpack issues with just the right touch. If you are at all interested in the politics and philosophy behind the tumultuous times we live in, then you will appreciate diving into this graphic biography. We cover in this interview just enough to give you a sense of the subject at hand. There’s the pesky sound of a leaf blower that momentarily vies for attention but it just goes to show that life is forever moving forward which is rather apropos to the spirit of our chat. Without a doubt, we live in dangerous and troubling times but, by learning from the past, it informs and inspires our present and our future. If you are not satisfied with the status quo, and dream of a better future, then you’ll want to read this essential guide to Herbert Marcuse.
Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia is a 128-page trade paperback in duotone, available now, published by City Lights.
Berlin is a monumental work in comics. Few cartoonists will come close to such an achievement–and it couldn’t have been created by a nicer guy. What came across, over and over, during this talk is the fact that Lutes is very accessible and down to earth. That open approach plays into part of what makes his landmark work so special. It all began when teenager Jason Lutes wanted to make sense of a documentary about the holocaust he was suddenly exposed to in a high school history class. The teacher for that class was an alcoholic who made no effort to hide his struggles. He literally set up the movie for his class and left to get a drink. That abrupt and careless action ultimately triggered an in depth exploration of Weimar Germany through a creation of an expansive work in comics that would take 22 years to complete.
#ProtectMueller march in Seattle on 8 Nov. 2018
It was not lost on anyone during Lutes’s talk related to the dismantling of the German government of the 1920s that concerned citizens, just outside on the streets of Seattle, were protesting Trump’s own inroads into dismantling the U.S. government. Timing is everything. That Thursday night book talk directly coincided with protests across the country in support of protecting the Robert Mueller investigation after Trump installed a loyalist as acting Attorney General of the United States. Details are everything. If you follow the characters and the rich narrative of Berlin, you can’t help but get an eerie sense of having a mirror held up to the past and to the present.
Cartoonists holding each other’s works: Jason Lutes with David Lasky
Authenticity is everything. What is so appealing about comics by Jason Lutes is the solid storytelling. That involves a dynamic use of the comics medium: a crisp consistency in step with strategically placed visual elements that are pleasing to the eye and move the story forward. A quick example: I was standing in line to get my copy of Berlin signed and I made a point of poring over each page as I flipped my way through. Right around the midpoint, there is a page made up of wordless panels showing a mysterious figure in a row boat. He reaches the shore to find what looks like a vicious snake. He picks it up by its jaws and overpowers it. That same character reappears in the book as does the snake, both providing just the right doses of symbolism as well as pure entertainment. It’s important to note that, while Lutes referred to vast amounts of research and reading, he also fondly recalled the influence of key works in pop culture. Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel about Weimar Germany, by Alfred Döblin, holds as much importance to Lutes as his viewing of the original Star Wars movie as a kid. Altogether, what you have in Berlin is an honest look from an individual processing and distilling at a meticulous level.
Cartoonists Revisit: Jason Lutes with Jennifer Daydreamer
For many in the audience that night, it was an opportunity to revisit a respected work and commiserate with a friend and colleague. Seattle is a lightning rod for countless creative people and that includes a high number of independent cartoonists. There’s a certain sensibility to the alt-comics artist with Jason Lutes being a prime example. As he discussed in his lecture, it was Seattle that he gravitated to in the 1990s. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Lutes moved to Seattle and worked for the comics publisher, Fantagraphics. He subsequently worked for the alt-weekly, The Stranger, just as it began publication in 1991. During this era, Lutes became part of a group of cartoonists that went on to form an integral part of the Seattle comix scene. That group included some members that were in attendance that night: Megan Kelso, David Lasky and Jennifer Daydreamer. It was a treat to have part of the gang together again on such a special occasion.
“My Father’s House” is unusual in many ways. It is an honest and loving portrait of the author’s father, beautifully written, that provides a unique window into Nazi Germany. The book is made up of numerous vivid details such as this passage:
Once, my parents had lived a truly magical life. In the early years of their marriage, between the wars, they lived with their friend Baron Wilhelm Farnbühler at his castle near Stuttgart. The Baron had his own wing; my parents, with Uli and Anita, had theirs. In the great hall, in a cage, there dwelt an owl, who preferred to eat living things: rabbits and mice. His lame wing folded into a crutch, he shrieked into the night and rattled the bars.
I simply happened upon the life and work of Beatrix Ost while in the process of exploring. It began while I was doing some research for a book review of, “Jerusalem,” a graphic novel that relates to the creation of the State of Israel. I had also just written a movie review of a documentary, “The Flat,” about the unusual relationship between a Jewish couple, who had emigrated to Palestine during World War II, and maintained a friendship, after the war, with a high ranking Nazi official. Life is complicated. Things are never quite as they seem. In the case of Beatrix Ost, this is an enormously talented person: writer, artist, desginer, actor, and theatrical producer. She is what she appears to be and so much more.
Beatrix Ost comes from a world of the rich, those F. Scott Fitzgerald has noted as “different from you and me.” Ost is not here to deny the world she was born into. She was born in 1940, in the castle from the above passage. However, given this difference or distinction, Ost finds a way for you to join in. It is, in fact, a world not so different from you and me. It is far more earthy and raw than you may imagine.
This may sound trite, but many readers may relate to the stories presented here if they think of the landmark musical, “The Sound of Music.” As jarring as it is to juxtapose Nazis with Bavarian folklife, general audiences understand, in the context of the musical, how two Germanys could coexist: one run by Hitler and another very different one. It takes a strength and boldness to be able to bring out a multitude of memories that are innocent and sweet amid a backdrop of war. Ost engages the reader on a Proustian level, never missing a beat of recovered memory and dipping deep into a well of language that consistently produces gems.
Think of this book as a collection of passages that, as a whole, bring out a greater truth. Each passage is like a little story of its own. Consider this passage from “The Gleaners,” describing people during World War II coming to the Ost family farm in search of food. They would come in search of even the smallest potato. Dieter, a member of the household staff would be dispatched to fetch a bunch of the teenaged girls from the girls school to help themselves to potatoes. They arrived in what they could muster up for the latest fashion, all hardened by the war but joyful:
The girls trudged along behind the plow, collecting potatoes in sacks. When the sacks were full, they were tipped into a cart. It started to rain. The girls sought shelter under the one available roof: the potato wagon. But the rain got through between the narrow planks, and after a short while, they were drenched. Their cheap dresses rode up above their knees, clinging to their thin bodies. Little rivulets of color ran down their legs.
It is Ost’s father, Fritz, who looms larger than life over this landscape of memory. He did his military service in Africa and subsequently retired, including his membership in the Nazi party. He had only belonged to the party to help his friends, particularly his Jewish friends, secure safe passage out of the country. He was a proud man that seemed to only want to be left alone to rule over his estate, Goldachhof, a rural paradise of manor, farm and stables, about twenty miles out of Munich. If there were Nazis amidst the circles he travelled in, he didn’t want to know. What he, and his wife, Adi, did know was to help those in need and Goldachhof proved a haven for refuges many times over. It is this backdrop that little Beatrix grew up in and learned the ways of the world, from getting by on rations to celebrating the dawn of a new world ushered in by the Americans.
This excerpt gives you a taste of the exuberance of youth faced with big change. The Americans, all brash and exciting, had finally arrived. But they make a few missteps. A couple of homesick Texans decide to ride a couple of the carriage horses, who were not meant for riding. Then some soldiers got the nutty idea of going fishing with hand grenades. This was far too much for Herr Ost and he finally managed to restore order by bringing in a high ranking American officer to have a talk with his men. But change had arrived and there was no turning back:
Now we children played Yank all winter long as we sledded down the granary path on our Jeeps. We still had our “Judenstrick,” ersatz cigarettes made from the winter-dried marrow of elderberry twigs, but we were infatuated with everything the Americans brought into our little world. They had landed among us with the exciting utensils of their exotic culture. Chewing gum. Nescafe. Powdered milk. Hershey’s chocolate. Blue jeans. Johnson’s lotion. Marlboros. Things useful and also symbols of hope, the end of terror. Our blue days were gone–love live The Blues.
How such a book came into being is remarkable. “My Father’s House” is an inspiring and enlightening work. It can be appreciated on many levels, not the least of which is in the classroom. You can purchase it here.
In the big scheme of things, Nazi Germany is not exactly ancient history but, as this documentary makes resoundingly clear, people can be more than eager to turn a page and move on. “The Flat” demonstrates in so many ways how difficult it can be to find the truth to something once the dust has been allowed to settle. In the case of one Israeli filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, his life will never be the same once his grandmother has passed away and it is up to family members to sift through her belongings in her Tel Avi apartment. They find the usual clutter of old books, numerous handbags, shoes, and knick-knacks. It all appears rather quaint and humorous until old relics from the past emerge with a distinctive connection to Nazi Germany. What on earth, for instance, is someone to make of a series of old newspapers featuring “A Nazi Travels in Palestine”? It sounds like a sick joke but it’s far from it.
Documentaries sometimes take the rap for creating more drama than the subject would have generated on its own. Here you have an eager documentarian who, once confronted with bits of disturbing facts, keeps hunting for more facts, and then confirmation of facts, at an appropriate slow boil pace. The camerawork, the tone, the intention of this film feels like a close friend diligently attempting to figure out a problem rather than drama for drama’s sake. What Goldfinger discovers is that his grandparents were close friends with an SS officer and his wife. It was a friendship that lasted well after World War II. But why? Kurt Tuchler, the husband of Goldfinger’s grandmother, was a leader in the Zionist movement. And the SS officer was Leopold von Mildenstein, who promoted, so to speak, the Jewish establishment of a homeland in Palestine.
The story takes on an air of a good mystery as Goldfinger continues to push against polite resistance to reveal secrets. He has met his match with the two central players who seem to stand in his way. Goldfinger manages to strike up a friendship of sorts with none other than the daughter of Leopold von Mildenstein. Once Goldfinger has already made the viewer aware of enough evidence to indicate that Mildenstein was a high ranking Nazi official, his daughter maintains he was never a Nazi in the first place. This conflict is not something that Goldfinger will let stand and, in his own mild-mannered way, he will pursuit it. Then there is Goldfinger’s own mother who is more skeptical than supportive of her son. This conflict will not be left alone either as Goldfinger picks away to expose the truth. Goldfinger is self-aware and realizes what can be accomplished and what may not. At one point, he asks himself what he should do with what he’s discovered already. In the process, he reveals much about what people are willing to tolerate before they must ask themselves what to do with what they have discovered.
“The Flat” is currently available on DVD and you can find it here. Visit IFC Films here.