Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car. By Woodrow Phoenix. Street Noise Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2020. 208pp. $16.99.
Power Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine. By Mohammad Sabaaneh. Street Noise Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2021. 118pp, $15.99.
Street Noise Makes Noise (but in a good way)
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
This is a review about two outstanding comics. But it is first of all a review of a new comics publisher. A veteran of the book trade, founder and publisher Liz Frances, jumped into the fast-changing world of GNs a few years ago, after a considerable career in the publishing industry. She has explained to interviewers that she wants to create books that count, that have both passion and social value. Certainly so, but I see these two books rather differently. Not that I doubt her explanation for a minute. What I think I perceive is a glimpse at a new generation of comic artists and their art.
Neither of these books is particularly close to traditional comics styles, the kind that my older sisters lovingly employed, when I was six, to teach me how to read. I remember more or less precisely that moment in my life. Looking back from a distance of about seventy years, I can easily grasp the big change. Comics are now certain to be “read” in very different ways, sometimes on devices that do not look or act like printed books, although the books on review here are printed. The real change, however, reflects how artists themselves learn and come to see themselves. As Parsons comics teacher and comic artist Ben Katchor reflected in an interview book, a few years ago, the internal logic of the young artist is no longer the world of the drawing board nor any other fixed spot.
Crash Course author/artist Woodrow Phoenix, a British citizen, whose parents emigrated from Guyana, where the CIA overthrew a leftwing government in 1960 and perhaps arranged for the assassination of the rebellious Walter Rodney in 1980, is a very radical person in his own way. He delivers a powerful message to the heads of readers, certainly to mine, in pounding page after page.
How does he do it? Because he explores in words and expressionist-like drawings the things we know, but do not want to think very much about our cars and our driving. Despite being a key form of death and injury around the world, not even to speak of vast environmental damage, driving has dug itself into our brains. Even if we spend maximum time (as I do) either biking or walking, for most of us, the car is always there. It gets us to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment, or to “get out of the city” for a while to visit friends and relatives. Not to mention moving distances for major changes in our lives and work. All these could certainly be done without cars. Given contemporary arrangements, only with real difficulty.
But there’s far, far more to it, and at the psychological core, cars have been ingeniously devised and stylized to make up for the insecurities and shortcomings of our individual lives. “Individual” is key here, as he explains, because each driver lives within a second skin, competing with others in the same circumstances for safety, speed, and psychological reinforcement. Merely reciting the names of models recalls the vicarious excitement, exoticism, and terribly real speed, made all the more attractive because the depictions in every media never show anyone in the real, constant traffic jam. In every hour of an average commute, twenty minutes is spent locked in very boring lines, rousing the desire to get ahead of every competing car and to cut corners by going ten or twenty miles per hour over the law or passing in the breakdown line.
All this, as Phoenix makes so vivid, is dramatized by the sheer eeriness of a vast but empty parking lot. And just as vividly by the violent use of cars to run down political demonstrators, acts now apparently made non-punishable. Cars have created non-spaces across the world, at the same time that they have become weapons, in many ways the weapons of daily use.
Power Born of Dreams begins in prison, an Israeli prison, and that is the most fundamental fact of this book. The second most fundamental is the artist’s technique: linocuts, recalling a past era when leftwing artists of the 1920s struggled to make a living outside of the magazine world. As the artist says, “I was unable to carve my name onto the walls of my prison cell.” So, he chooses a kind of carving, to carve the stories of imprisoned Palestinians, on paper.
The lines are spare, the background black. Interrogation goes with confinement, and each reinforce the other. Israeli companies have made themselves world-famous with “crowd control” techniques, tried out mainly in the West Bank against Palestinians protesting the loss of their homes and their land. The artist’s road out of mental confinement is his art. He can see a tree outside and become a tree, for a moment. Then come back to his own reality behind bars.
He is, in real life, a citizen without a country. No Palestinian who lived in East Jerusalem can be allowed Israeli citizenship, not even marriage with an Israeli can make that happen. Leaving East Jerusalem can easily preclude returning, ever. And even remaining in your home means awaiting the dreaded moment when you will be driven out by a would-be Israeli settler insisting that not even a long family history in this spot, this house, entitles you to remain there.
A large part of the narrative is the deeply personal, deeply disturbing story of the artist himself. During the Second Intifada, he set himself on the task of drawing portraits of the dead, drawing the victim in the mortuary, then giving the portrait to the family the next day, at the funeral. A young boy, the brother of one of the victims, asks, “Can you make my portrait?” The artist says no, he only draws the dead, and this boy surely has a long life ahead of him, but learns days later that the boy, too, has become a martyr, trying to avenge his killing of his brother.
“They tore down the tree and destroyed the nest?” is his dialogue among two birds. “Imagine living without a home.” This leads, as it must, to an apparently tragic conclusion: the settlers slice up an imagined Palestinian homeland, in the geographical territory agreed to at Camp David, into slices smaller and smaller, divided from each other so that travel and work, not to mention emergency medical care, become almost impossible.
Things could change, at least theoretically. But a humane outcome could not alter the power of Mohammad Sabaaneh’s artistic descriptions, their capacity, we hope, to open hearts of readers everywhere.
Paul Buhle on Comics: Lafler at Large
Steve Lafler’s 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona
Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler’s 40 Hour Man
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona. By Steve Lafler. Cat Head Comics, 2020. $9.95.
40 Hour Man. By Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler. Manx Media, 2006. $18.00
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
Steve Lafler’s themes and art work take us back, at least, to the Alt-comics of the 1980s-90s but in form and content, back further still. He’s an original, by any standard, whose inspiratino hails to the glory era of the Underground Comix and the downslide that followed and followed and followed. Not entirely unlike Peter Kuper, Lafler got himself and family to Oaxaca, Mexico, for years at a time, using local influences and themes for his volume Lucha Bruja.
He has offered us helpful information about an earlier influence, explaining not only 1956 but an earlier, out of print whopper Bughouse (issued also as a set of three volumes) on the lives of jazz musicians, depicted most curiously as insects of various kinds. Lafler’s father, a garment center buyer of the 1940s-50s, swam metaphorically in a world of hard-selling and mostly Jewish middle-men, hustling between manufacturers and buyers. Noir screenwiter Abraham Lincoln Polonsky captured them perfectly in the film I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951), more recently revisited as the husband of the lead character of streamed television’s “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.”
Never mind. In Lafler’s reconstructed world, a prime interest, bording upon obsession, is the jazz of Manhattan’s 52nd St, then at its apex, and the hipsters who hung out there, interacting with the salesman. Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk and so many other marvelous musicians could be heard on any given night, and among them, players who would jam for hours after closing at practially any location. The multiracial hangers-on, Latina or Black, work the angles, mainly providing a portion of the sex trade while taking in the music. In this case, the Ramona in question is also Ramon. They get into trouble and get out again, as much as possible in this 54pp, with more to come in later installments.
Does it have the feeling of the real thing? Yes, at least metaphorically so, within the natural limits. The businessmen seem less cut-throat and lacking the New York, Yiddish-heavy accents of the more colorful part of the trade, but so what? It’s Lafler’s version. His hipsters are likewise his own creation, but not far from what we can learn from scholarship of the time and place.
The typical mindless office meeting.
I am more drawn to 40 Hour Man, for which he supplied only the illustrations. The writer notes his debt to Harvey Pekar, a debt both fascinating and curious. A collaborator of mine during the final decade of his life, Harvey had a unique approach to almost everything. He made daily existence in a heavily ethnic, most declining blue collar city seem entirely real, from job to home life. But it should be noted that Harvey’s 35 years as a file clerk at the VA hospital gave him a centering, stabilizing place in life. He was a good file clerk and proud of it. Our protagonist in 40 Hour Man is the opposite.
Here we have a steady romp from one bad job to another, always at about the minimum wage, in the neoliberal American economy of the 1980s-90s. Alienation is the name of the game, and if 1950s writers introduced the idea to the public (Karl Marx had written about it in his youthful 1944 manuscripts), our protagonist is living it day by day and hour by hour. He is no struggling proletarian with a vision of workers’ triumph over capitalism. He just wants to get along while doing as little as possible, and the jobs encourage, even demand, such a response. He also wants to drink and get high, something easier to achieve by moving from job to job, sometimes leaving, jsut as often getting fired.
His adventures fascinate, but what fascinates more is the bullshit character of the jobs and the management that appears almost as lost as the protagonist. Like the sometime higher-level employees of the popular British comedy “The IT Crowd,” they sit at their desks, sometimes give or accept “directives,” and also try to get through the day, nevertheless setting themselves off notably from the proles who have no desks and mainly move product from shipping floor to transport.
Sometimes the protagonist has rather more stimulating work, like clerking at a record store or even playing intern in a local radio station. No job looks like it will last, and none do. Our hero has no real aspiration beyond getting through the day or week, and this goes on until he meets the fictive and real woman of his life. By the end of the book, he seems to have removed himself from the Karmic Work Cycle, and we don’t need to know how.
The joy of this book is more visual than literary, although both are appealing. Lafler seems to me at his peak in adapting his comic drawing to the text. The antic ambles could be traced back to Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and for that matter Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few movie heroes. Everything that can happen more or less does happen, although the update has more drugs and alcohol than hardly ever allowed in film until the age of the screw-up The Cable Guy.
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