Mack Stuckey’s Guide to the Center of the Universe
A Kickstarter campaign has been launched (ends 8/28) for the illustrated novel, “Mack Stuckey’s Guide to the Center of the Universe,” a dark satire set in Seattle. This isn’t your “Sleepless in Seattle” or “Singles.” Join the campaign right here.
I am a big fan of Matt MacFarland’s DARK PANTS series. You can read my review on the previous two issues right here. The third issue is now out and it follows Phil, a teenager in Silver Lake, California, circa 1988. As Matt described to me in an interview, each new issue focuses on a different time and place in the Los Angeles area. The motif is a mysterious pair of black jeans and the sexual awakening they trigger in whoever wears them.
Page from DARK PANTS #3
For our hero, Phil, life has been hell as he struggles with his sexuality. Phil is navigating in a very oppressive environment. The last thing he wants to consider is being gay. But, once his fate crosses paths with those alluring dark pants, he gains enough confidence to explore his options a little bit. MacFarland is relentless in his depiction of Phil’s inability to be true to himself. It seems as if his embracing his truth is filled with nothing but pain. Gradually, MacFarland hints that Phil may ultimately find pleasure but it sure won’t come easy.
Reading DARK PANTS #3
The easiest thing that Phil can rely upon is his imagining having sex with teen heartthrob John Stamos. It’s a pretty funny and sobering fact. Phil thinks about it and he knows he likes it. But he’d rather hide. Things come to a head, so to speak, when Lisa, his supposed dream girl, lures him away to a bedroom. It’s his big chance to prove he’s not gay to his confused and frustrated self but all he can think about is…John Stamos. As for Lisa, she will have her day. It looks like she is the subject of the fourth issue set in Eagle Rock, California, circa 2016.
No matter how empowering those dark pants are, they are no match for an awkward teen. Phil is simply ill-equipped to harness his new raw power. He makes some progress but not quite what he might have expected. MacFarland’s drawing and writing is highly accessible. He immerses the reader in the inner turmoil that his characters are going through. With just the right touch of humor, MacFarland offers us stories of missteps of the heart that will stay with us.
If you are in the L.A. area this weekend, be sure to see Matt MacFarland on Saturday, July 16th, from 5-7pm at the Los Angeles County Store in Silver Lake. Find out more right here.
The Chronicles of Era: Whispers of Redemption (Book 1) by Scott B Henderson
The first thing that will impress you about this comic is the beautifully rendered work, finely detailed and full of energy. “The Chronicles of Era” is Scott B. Henderson‘s visionary epic, the work he’s likely most proud of, I would imagine, and he should be. Whether or not you’re a fan of sci-fi/fantasy, there’s much to enjoy here. We have a striking hero, Seth, a young guy with a distinctive swagger. When your main character comes across as alive and interesting, you’re off to a very good start.
A dream within a dream?
Henderson has a relatively rigid style that actually works well here to convey a sense of urgency. This is a harsh brave new world, a fantasy akin to the work of George R. R. Martin. Gods from a different time and place seem to be lurking in the background. You know, that sort of thing. That said, I was intrigued by the fact that Henderson’s characters, while depicted in a tight manner, have a lot of life to them. And I was impressed with Henderson’s use of some gay subtext. It is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it things. Our hero, Seth, having gotten to know Sid a little better, takes his hand and leads them off to bed.
Let’s Go To Bed…
A blink-and-you-miss-it moment. That makes total sense given that Seth is of a low station with limited freedom in a hostile environment. It mirrors real life and what other art forms can do with revealing only certain bits of information. Seth’s elastic sexuality is in clear view as well as sort of a secret within this book. Besides that one moment, there is nothing else quite like it, although Seth does enjoy wandering about in just a pear of jeans and leather sandals like a teen heartthrob. And the stage does seem to be set for him to become involved with, Caitleth, a beautiful aristocratic young woman. So, while Henderson gives ample time to war games and fantasy worldbuilding, he is also quite capable of evoking the oozing sexuality of youth. Henderson proves to be an interesting and insightful storyteller.
Reading “The Chronicles of Era”
Book I covers the first three chapters to this epic fantasy graphic novel under the story arc, “Whispers of Redemption.” For more details, visit Scott B. Henderson right here.
“Candy” was a notorious novel from 1958 by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. It had sex, satire, and more sex. By 1968, director Christian Marquand brought to the screen something which was equally notorious and it had sex, satire, and more sex. There’s a story that Buck Henry, the screenwriter, tells in a bonus feature on the DVD. Marquand, Henry, and a producer, Peter Zoref, would routinely go to lunch during the filming. Zoref was regularly verbally abused by Marquand but, on that day, Marquand took to slapping Zoref. Henry admonished Marquand to stop. When Marquand ignored Henry and resumed his abuse, Henry threatened to use his knife on Marquand–which he ultimately did! With a knife impaled into his hand, Marquand began to maniacally laugh. He just kept on laughing and laughing. To this, Buck Henry conceded some form of greatness on the part of Marquand! And, with that said, it gives you a taste of “Candy.”
1968 was a long time ago, no two ways about it. So, we take that into consideration when viewing such a work as this. It is not an unequivocally classic piece like, say, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” No, no, no. It is not that. However, a case can be made for it being a misunderstood gem. There are some interesting things going on that raise it above a typical Sixties exploitation movie. In fact, there are plenty of entertaining scenes to make this worthwhile and a lot of that rests on the stellar cast of actors. Everyone on board seems okay with the premise and play it to the hilt: a young woman, a veritable ingenue/sex object wanders about as various middle-aged men ogle her and dare to fondle her. Candy, on the other hand, does not find the potential suitors to be repulsive. She is mostly concerned with being given a decent reason to take her clothes off. Silly. Surreal. Disturbing. Check all of the above.
We begin with Richard Burton as Candy’s first suitor. That turns out to be quite impressive. And the list of suitors goes on from there: Ringo Starr, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and Marlon Brando. At one point, I sort of started to think that director Marquand had set up a cynical trap for all these A-listers putting them in a situation that would leave them looking ludicrous. But, no, that does not really happen. Everyone survives, if not excels. Burton is brilliant as MacPhisto, a latter-day Lord Byron with a throng of young women in a frenzy over him. With any woman at his disposal, MacPhisto becomes transfixed by Candy, played to spaced-out perfection by Ewa Aulin. The only problem is that MacPhisto is all thumbs, like most of the men depicted in this movie, when it comes to actually having sex. Candy is all for it but MacPhisto proves to be trapped within a bubble of his own self-delusion. Fast forward to Marlon Brandon, as Grindl, the charismatic guru, who proves to be a capable seducer. While all the rest of the men marvel over Candy the sex object, Grindl has no problem firmly placing hand over mons and proceeding. Whether true zeitgeist or more kitsch, “Candy” has a certain colorful quality to it that makes it hard to resist. It is a masterpiece train wreck.
“Candy” has been released on DVD from Kino Lorber. You can find “Candy” at various outlets including Amazon right here.
Chester Brown is one of our treasured cartoonists, right up there with such greats as Seth and Daniel Clowes. Now, do the greats always get it right? No, I won’t say that but, on their worst day, I would prefer them over many another cartoonist. That said, Chester Brown’s latest graphic novel appears to be an ambitious continuation to “Paying For It,” his memoir on his relations with prostitutes. For his new book, he explores, among other things, the morality of prostitution by taking it all the way up to Jesus Christ in “Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,” published by Drawn & Quarterly.
The narrative follows what seems like a loosely based collection of Bible stories but it turns out to be a carefully grounded argument in favor of the significant place for prostitutes in the Bible. In fact, Chester Brown argues here that the Virgin Mary was a prostitute or engaged in prostitute-like behavior. It can be asking a lot for some readers to accept. However, Brown provides a good deal of scholarship to back him up. And he lays it all out with compelling comics.
The book is really great in its honesty and clarity. I see where it might make an overly sensitive person feel sad with all the depiction of unfairness but that’s not the point at all. Chester Brown paints an authentic picture of the matter-of-fact harsh life of the Biblical era. Morality was a whole other creature in the Bible. We require this world depicted clearly in order to buy into the narrative.
Brown is making the case that this is just how things were, this is how these people would have reacted to various behavior, and this is how the God in this Bible would have responded. It all follows a Biblical logic. And this allows Brown to make his argument seem all the less controversial. Sure, it would be well within reason that Mary could have, even would have, been a prostitute or engaged in prostitute-like behavior. It is not beyond the realm of what one would expect in the world of the Bible.
All this begs the question as to just how Brown and/or the Bible defines prostitution. How did people view prostitution in the world of the Bible? All things being relative, according to this graphic novel, residing in another village could inspire just as much, if not more, scorn than just being a prostitute. Ultimately, it was just another part of a harsh world. It was out in the open and, even if it inspired scorn, people were more honest about it than they are today.
Just as interesting as Brown’s observations on prostitution is his evocation of the world of the Bible. In Chester Brown Bible stories, we best see that world for what it is by having Brown turn up the heat a bit more. For instance, Brown includes the story of the prodigal son, the wayward lad who misspent his inheritance on prostitutes. The boy is embraced by his father and provided with a lavish celebration. There is the younger obedient son, the one who stayed home. But when he protests to his father, the father does not only ask for understanding, as commonly depicted in the Bible, he also explicitly chastises his loyal son for not having more initiative. The corrupt son is viewed as the hero. Might makes right. The industrious son is viewed as a fool. What Brown suggests is that this is going on implicitly in this story as well as in other Bible stories. It certainly feels that way.
“Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus” is a 280-page hardcover available now. For more details, visit Drawn & Quarterly right here.
The sexual revolution. The war between the sexes. Just plain sex. It can get complicated, confusing, messy. In 1968, Robert Crumb and his merry men staked their claim to uninhibited expression in underground comix. Yeah, these guys had a few things to say. From their point of view, the establishment was totally out of whack and they had the antidote. Crumb would show us all, in his opinion, just how wild the id could run, no matter how offensive. A couple of years later, along comes Trina Robbins with another view, the view of the opposite sex, which proved a great counterbalance and reality check. For the first time, this groundbreaking work, from 1972 to 1992, is collected in “The Complete Wimmen’s Comix,” published by Fantagraphics Books.
The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, published by Fantagraphics Books
The topic of sex is endlessly fascinating, to be sure. What men like Robert Crumb seemed to envision was a “telling it like it is” approach. In similar fashion, Trina Robbins and her female compatriots were showing sex and related themes from a very different point of view, that of the opposite sex. Yes, there was more than one point of view! Who knew, right? Issues of abortion, male performance, and abandonment, had a voice within the pages of Wimmen’s Comix. While the groovy hippie guys may have thought they had it figured out, cartoonists like Lee Marrs demonstrated with great humor and insight that the groovy guys were just as likely to be ugly pigs as their buttoned-down mainstream male counterparts.
“All in a Day’s Work” by Lee Marrs, 1972
From the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix, in 1972, there is “All in a Day’s Work” by Lee Marrs. A young woman enters the work force to find herself fending off abusive male co-workers and bosses. When she quits and starts a job at a co-op, the men turn out to be just as abusive. A few more twists and turns and the main character, an alter ego for Marrs, stands naked pleading, “What Can I Do?” In a piece nearly twenty years later, entitled, “Men & Women,” by Roberta Gregory, she sees a systemic problem. Gregory sees leading policy makers, both male and female, pollute the air with their own misinformation about men and women.
“Men & Women” by Roberta Gregory, 1990
As Trina Robbins states in her introduction, the level of quality of comix from women steadily increased with the years. At first, there were only a few women cartoonists. Then, after the hiatus and subsequent return of the magazine in the ’80s, there were plenty of women cartoonists. And, now, it is a whole new world with more women cartoonists that ever before.
The Complete Wimmen’s Comix is a two volume hardcover set, totaling 728 pages, black & white with some full color pages. For details, and how to purchase, visit our friends at Fantagraphics Books right here.
“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” is a graphic novel originally published in 1996 by Seven Stories Press. It caught my eye on my last visit on the last day of business at Seattle’s Cinema Books. Funny how we find our comics sometimes. A perfectly compelling work was just sitting on a shelf waiting for me to finally take notice. Kathryn Hyatt proves to be a devoted and thoughtful fan of all things to do with Marilyn Monroe, one of the most celebrated and misunderstood of Hollywood stars.
Stars burn bright and then they burn out. While this holds true for the career of Marilyn Monroe, that is only the briefest of descriptions. What Hyatt does is pay tribute to the human being and the artist. A mountain of books have been written about Marilyn Monroe but her unique life and work forever fascinate generating more and more stories. Hyatt carves out a path in search of some clarity.
Marilyn Monroe was the committed innocent artist. She was innocent in the sense that she was uncompromising in her pursuit of purity of purpose as she saw it. She had to overcome many obstacles none the least of which were her own feelings of low self-esteem. Even when she seemed to have a control over her own sexuality and image, she was still haunted by misgivings. Hyatt lovingly brings us into that world. For instance, the photo shoot that would lead to the iconic centerfold in Playboy was bittersweet. Hyatt evokes the scene with great empathy. Monroe may be thrilled by the attention upon her beautiful body but, at the same time, she only agrees to pose in order to get her car back from being repossessed. And she continues to replay harsh criticism from earlier years that she is “unphotogenic.”
Hyatt has a nice feel for capturing the mannerisms and movement of Monroe. It’s a mixture of a crunchy underground vibe and a more smooth and polished approach. The zest for pursuing her narrative is clearly there. What I’ve come to find in comics biographies is that the cartoonist’s depiction of the subject is akin to an actor’s portrayal. The best versions aren’t direct impersonations but are the creator’s unique interpretation. Hyatt mapped out in her mind the quintessential Monroe and everything that came before and after. She also had to map out what to focus on in the larger-than-life world of Monroe. And that process is akin to a novelist’s work. The overall result is quite stunning.
Monroe’s sexuality was, and remains for us in her work, the undeniable focal point. There are a number of well-chosen scenes where Hyatt addresses this key issue. There are a certain number of depictions of Monroe nude which Hyatt handles with grace. Those depictions wouldn’t work if they were simply meant to titillate. If Hyatt had felt a need to really get provocative, she could have taken a lewd turn but, instead, she is interested in humanizing. In that regard, Hyatt includes a scene of Norma Jeane as a little girl appearing naked before her family. It’s an interesting harbinger. We come to see that Marilyn doesn’t have a problem with her own skin but that will not prove to be as simple out in the world.
Much in the same way that the Kennedy dynasty will forever fascinate, the life of Marilyn Monroe will always have something to say on a personal and a universal level. The theme of Hyatt’s book is a close look at a particular woman who managed, by sheer determination, to place herself in the forefront of public discourse. We see Norma Jeane’s struggle to become Marilyn Monroe. It happens gradually, by fits and starts, as she navigates casting couches and fickle to malicious critics. Through the process, she fully appreciated the status she achieved and gave back as much as she could. However, the misgivings would never go away. She was an innocent artist and that is the deeper layer that sustains her legacy.
“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” can be found at Amazon right here.
“Frank Miller’s Big Damn Sin City” is just what the doctor ordered, if he has a decidedly dark side. “Take one volume of Sin City and repeat until you have completed the omnibus.” Big Damn Sin City collects Frank Miller and Lynn Varley‘s seven stories: The Hard Goodbye, A Dame to Kill For, The Big Fat Kill, The Yello Bastard, Family Values, Booze, Broads, & Bullets, and Hell and Back. That totals 1,344 pages. All in time for the much anticipated Sin City sequel, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” set for August 22, 2014.
Northwest Press has recently published two excellent anthologies that feature a stellar roster of cartoonists exploring issues of sexuality. Both are highly recommended as showcases of comics discourse. It can be a challenge to find the right balance when putting together any anthology, especially one collecting works in comics. You want to find a way for each work to compliment the other in a medium that quickly signals the reader. In both these cases here, you have two books worthy of exploration, one a recent entry and the other from last year.
Patrick Moote is a talented young man who thought he had a big problem. He thought his penis was too small. So, he goes on a journey of self-discovery and we get to go along with him in the documentary, “Unhung Hero,” which releases on DVD and iTunes on December 10, 2013. Does size matter? On a logical level, of course not. But director Brian Spitz and actor/comedian Patrick Moote are on a quest to explore the deep insecurities we all face in a crass and overstimulated world glutted with porn and unrealistic expectations.