Don’t underestimate the power of that which can unite and that which we share in common. We all want family, friends and community, right? We all want good health. We all want to be inspired. So, here’s a list of that which can unite us and that which most, if not all of us, have in common one way or another as the USA celebrates the 4th of July in 2019:
Plants: Trending now in a big way are plants! Opening a boutique shop? Consider plants. Plants have become the new hot item to post on your Instagram.
Gardening: Right along with plants, think gardening. The farm to table movement has taken root all over by now!
Pets: Pets are beloved in the USA. Movies have been dedicated to pets. People carry them in baby carriages and dress them up in outfits. You can’t walk for long without spotting a dog and human strolling together.
Family: Blood is thicker than water, as they say, and there are all kinds of family. Office family. Step-family. Bi-racial family. Adopted family. You need your family!
Health and Fitness: Cross-Fit. Vegan. Carnivore. Weight Watchers. Noom. Fitbit. Paleo. Keto. Watch your step and buyer beware. But, whatever you do, stay active!
Pizza: Dominos. Grocery store bought. Wood-fired. But let’s get serious, you really want a New York slice!
Comics: Now, more than ever, comics has the power to entertain, to inform, to be inclusive and to inspire. Beyond the superhero genre, comics can take on any subject in a variety of formats and styles.
Movies: No doubt, we all have of favorites. Superhero movies are still going strong and, if the trend holds out, there is still much more to explore. The actual comics, ironically, are not nearly as popular.
Home Entertainment: Netflix. Hulu. Amazon. HBO. There’s a lifetime of new entertainment no further away than your couch and, in 2019, we’re still in a golden age.
Music: We round it out with perhaps the best way to unite people: the power of music! Yes, music can help create goodwill and send you soaring to new heights.
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.
In Herman Melville’s last novel, “Billy Budd,” we follow the fate of an orphan plucked from adversity and conscripted into the British Royal Navy. In the graphic novel by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, the lost little orphan is carted off into the service of the Soviet Union. Like Melville’s main character, there is something special about this boy. As we find in much of Charyn’s work, we have a protagonist of limited means compelled to honor his great potential. However, as we begin, we have only an emotionally stunted, ignorant lad with a hideous harelip. It is 1954. Stalin is in power. Yuri cannot resist all that is offered to him by the Soviets. In fact, he has no choice. “Billy Bud, KGB,” originally released in France in 1990, has recently been re-issued, with a new English translation by Jerome Charyn, by Dover Comics and Graphic Novels.
Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.
Mr. Charyn’s literary career began in America in 1964 with his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” a story of underdogs fighting to remain in their tenement apartment. After 19 prose novels, including the Isaac Sidel crime noir series, Charyn decided to adapt one of his stories into a graphic novel. That led to more. It all began with 1987’s “The Magician’s Wife,” with artist François Boucq. They also collaborated on 2014’s “Little Tulip.” Another graphic novel by Charyn in a similar spirit is 1991’s “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” with artist Jacques de Loustal. All four of these stories have multi-layered plots, primarily set in New York City, and filled with offbeat characters.
Yuri encounters the spiritual realm.
Our main character, Yuri, seems to be a typical malleable cog but something burns inside him making him go astray. He is far too innocent and ignorant to be in command of his intuitive desire to rebel. All he knows is that there must be more to life than what his Soviet handlers are telling him. Luckily, Yuri stumbles into a friendship with an instructor that will inform the rest of his life. Comrade Grigori’s unique artistic skills and broad knowledge have made him an asset over the years at the KGB training camp. But that same treasure trove of knowledge makes him very dangerous to the Soviet agenda. As a tutor, mentor, and friend, he provides Yuri with a key to unlock his soul.
It’s not easy being a spy.
By fits and starts, Yuri emerges as material for a competent secret agent. The KGB arranges a few encounters with prostitutes in order to, in their view, make Yuri more worldly. And then he’s shipped off to America. His new identity, a knowing nod to Melville: William “Billy” Budd, the lost soul. It will be up to the newly minted Billy in New York City to struggle with his life’s purpose. Stavrogin plucked him out of a ditch and gave him a future. Grigori opened his eyes to life’s possibilities. And Red Eagle, a Native American mystic, may offer him the salvation he’s hungered for all along.
Yuri gains a deeper spiritual connection.
Both Charyn and Boucq work in such a synchronized and nuanced manner that was as rare a treat then as it is now. Such pairing can only happen when the time is right. Today, readers in America and in general, are far more receptive to this level of quality. While a unique challenge, some creators choose to control all aspects of their work alone. But, as this graphic novel collaboration makes clear, the results can be stunning when writer and artist work together. We can all thank novelist Jerome Charyn for being a true trailblazer in adding his unique literary talent to the pantheon of exemplary work in comics. This book is a mesmerizing story and comics of the first order.
BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq
“Billy Bud, KGB” is a 144-page full color trade paperback. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here. You can find it at Amazon right here.
Also note a Kickstarter campaign going on now thru May 21st for a deluxe reprint of FAMILY MAN, a collaboration between Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.
The immediate impact of these photographs is undeniable: Outrageous oblivion. Everything torn apart, inside and out. Nothing spared. Nothing redeemed. You quickly draw your own conclusions despite what your more sober thoughts might tell you. This is a book about total destruction, along with numerous more measured considerations. “Abandoned America” takes you on a most unusual journey with this collection of photography by Matthew Christopher, published by JonGlez Publishing.
“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.