Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adapted by Peter Kuper. Foreword by Maya Jasanoff. New York. W.W. Norton, 2019, $21.95.
It is difficult to bring to mind a classic novel more overinterpreted than Heart of Darkness, and the reason has far less mystery than the novel itself. Joseph Conrad projected himself, his Victorian Britain, upon the African (more specifically, Congo) landscape, and intellectuals but also readers ever since have projected themselves upon his distinct literary creation.
Teachers have been assigning Heart of Darkness for well over a century, reinterpreting Conrad again and again, at least as frequently as literary theories shifted. Anti-colonialism and Negritude offered the sharpest criticism, amounting sometimes to rejection of the idea of writing the novel at all. Neo-colonialism, the reigning reality of our time, has renewed the ambiguity. The jungle and all its flora and fauna are under extreme assault. That the US/CIA chose to have a foremost African champion, Patrice Lumumba, assassinated just three generations ago pointed up the living contradictions that Conrad glimpsed or perhaps did not glimpse.
Peter Kuper is an artist for contradictions and for graphic novel adaptations. An adopted son of Manhattan, he has depicted the city with as much dread as any painter, filmmaker or musician could manage. His adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle outdoes his adaptations of Kafka, in my view, because the horrors of that urban giant, Chicago, are themselves monumental. Did Kuper suspect he would go from jungle to jungle? We wonder.
At any rate, Kuper makes every effort to be as faithful to the sprit of Conrad as he can. He wants to make an immanent critique of colonialism as seen by the soldiers and statesmen of colonialism. They are coldly calculating in their pursuit of riches and fame, including the extermination of all the dark-skinned humans in sight, by outright murder or working them to death. And yet they are also mentally twisted adventurers, for who else would participate in such an ugly and dangerous mission?
Marlowe, as demonstrated in the novel, can understand horror when he sees it, and as a commercial agent is very much part of the machinery of it. The vanishing of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, the need for the trek into the jungle, is the test of Marlow and arguably, the test of artist Kuper, who has traveled widely, lived for extended periods in Mexico, not to mention being part of a peacenik, anti-imperialist political magazine collective for forty years and still going.
Kuper offers us several remarkable pages of explanation, in his introduction, of how he approached what he calls “the fraught history of cartoon stereotypes.” (p.xx). He explains technique as well as purpose of subverting Conrad’s text while still being faithful to the literary quality—no mean trick.
Whether this is successful, we can best judge as the pages pass and we find ourselves deeper in the jungle, deeper in the horrors of managing the ghastly enterprise. Actually, of course, Marlow is mostly halfway on the outside, a fellow white man, looking in. And becoming more savage than any black man or woman of the jungle.
Kuper manages to explain, with the brevity of a single panel, the deepest desire of the one intellectual, Kurtz, through his protege: that booty would remain but every black skinned human would be exterminated, an insane and impossible task.
Kuper saves his darkest dark for the final pages, Marlow’s return home to London, where he meets but cannot truly confront the belief in Kurtz’s eminence. These last pages drip with blacks and grays, driving home the point.
The cartoonist Typex presents a comics biography of the artist Andy Warhol that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If you thought you knew Andy Warhol, then read Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. This is quite an ambitious and fascinating biography, a work of art in and of itself. Typex delivers such a detail-rich account in this 562-page book and leaves you wanting more! He does this by keeping to a crisp and finely-tuned and organized narrative. We go from one period of time to the next, evoking the quotidian while distilling the essential. In the process, the reader is treated to a behind-the-scenes look at Andy Warhol’s personal and professional life.
Andy Warhol meets Edie Sedgwick
An inquisitive cartoonist like Typex is not one to be easily satisfied with a standard comics biography, especially for such a towering figure in art and pop culture as Mr. Andy Warhol. Love him or hate him, Warhol has left a significant mark on the culture and, if not for never fully recovering from a murder attempt and a botched up gallbladder operation, he would have remained active that much longer. He would have found a way. That is what this book is all about: finding your way even when you might seem, like Andy Warhol, to be the most unlikely person to do so.
Typex is most interested in subverting any Warhol hagiography and bringing Warhol down to a human scale. Perhaps influenced by the books he chose for reference material, Typex often tamps down Warhol’s reputation in favor of depictions of him munching on Hershey chocolate bars and lusting over young men. No doubt, Warhol was a highly idiosyncratic individual but he was nobody’s fool and a workhorse. Scant mention is given in Typex’s book to Warhol’s contributions to art history. Typex acknowledges Warhol’s commentary of consumer culture but rather reluctantly. Very little is said about Warhol’s landmark use of serial imagery or his revolutionary use of silkscreens. Warhol made art history, after all. That is a major accomplishment and it sort of gets a bit lost in this otherwise marvelous book. You can say this book is not where you go for art history lessons, per se. This is a book decidedly about a scene or a set of scenes. Then again, it’s what’s happening in those scenes where you find the most interesting art.
Adding to the level of interest Typex has for his subject is how he’s presents his work. He has full page and two-page spreads to evoke the energy and mayhem of various moments. And, for much of the book, he keeps to a nicely packed grid format, nine panels per page. He goes that extra mile by anyone’s standards with including a program guide of notable players from each time period. In fact, Typex is just as concerned with the characters surrounding Warhol than simply Warhol himself. That could account for the somewhat slim analysis of Warhol’s actual career and work. You have to find a way to balance it all out and properly address Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground, Valerie Solanas, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the countless followers all in search of their own fifteen minutes of fame. It is Valerie Solana who ultimately stands out among the pack with her unhinged grasp for fame and attempt on Warhol’s life. And it is Basquiat who breathes new life into Warhol just as the two of them are nearing the end.
Warhol was driven and he also had a lot of help from his evolving network of colleagues, mentors, and a myriad of aspiring artists, dreamers, and party people. The Andy Warhol phenomenon did not happen overnight nor did it exist without various setbacks. Andy Warhol was neither god nor monster. It all comes back to the fact he was driven. He had the skill, the intellect, and the resources to actually make art history and, despite any naysayers, that’s exactly what he did. Typex explores this ambition as he sees fit while also demystifying the man and his times. Overall, this is quite a fascinating read to be added to other notable books on one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. In the end, I believe Andy Warhol would have approved of this book.
Typex is a Dutch illustrator and graphic novelist. A graduate of the Amsterdam College for the Arts, his work appears in many nationwide newspapers and magazines. He has illustrated numerous children’s books and has published some of his own. His graphic novel biography, Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, is published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. He lives in Amsterdam.
French Comics Association
You can see Typex this weekend if you’re in the D.C. area and this event happens to fit into what you’re doing. Typex will be there as part of the invited guests touring with the French Comics Association. The FCA will be taking part in this weekend’s American Library Association Conference. Okay, if that makes sense, then congratulations, you are a true Typex fan and well above average in every way.
There are many things strange, altogether strange, about this oversized volume. But they are things that Crumb-watchers and devotees of the short but tangled history of the Underground Comix will appreciate and even revere, if “revere”is an accurate and acceptable word. The Book of Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Books, opens a door wide for rethinking comics and comix history.
The trajectory of the rise—but even more, the fall—of the wildly experimental genre continues to rouse debate, not to mention a lot of quiet grousing among former participants, artists, editors and publishers alike. By 1973, when Underground Comix, had barely begun, a widespread legal assault on Head Shops threatened to eliminate the customer base. Censorship somehow avoided, comix moved on to the next obstacles that may best be seen as inscribed in the historical moment.
The great social changes hoped for by the young generation did not take place and were not going to take place in the short run, at least. The comic artists, very much part of their time, joints to long hair, inevitably felt the effects. Working for practically nothing, although owning their own art, many began to wonder whether comix were a career or a dead end. Could the comix movement transform itself into a viable living?
Denis Kitchen had one idea, taking the commercial route with Marvel as publisher of Comix Book, which both paid artists better but also owned what they drew for that issue of the magazine. A sell out or a practical step toward stability? The question went unanswered because the project folded after 5 issues, unable to achieve stability in the mainstream newsstand market. Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman had a different and more traditionally aesthetic notion, a quarterly Arcade magazine published by Print Mint. A truly beautiful magazine, perhaps the best that the genre ever produced, it also failed, in a counter-culture market where readers were not accustomed to comix appearing on a punctual quarterly schedule rather than the more customary sporadic, lackadaisical pace.
What dramatic step might be next? That was the burning question for many artists and would-be editors, as the movement began to lose its momentum. But it was not the only thought, especially for many who simply continued under deteriorating circumstances. The otherwise persuasive argument offered by Patrick Rosenkranz that Underground Comix was doomed as a genre by 1975, may be true, but it also minimizes the reality that much high quality work appeared during the later half of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.
The series of Anarchy Comix, also Wimmen’s Comix and some dozens new entries of various kinds, lay ahead. Kitchen actually expanded his line of comics with Kitchen Sink, relocated to Princeton, Wisconsin, and among his titles, Gay Comix is a particular stand-out in anyone’s memory of the field changing and growing in content even as it shrunk in size. It was, indeed, shifting toward the more uncertain market of the ill-defined “Alternative Comics.” Also consider that the “classic” strips of the 1920s and 1930s, reprinted in Arcade foreshadowed Kitchen’s own reprinting of past masterworks by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and others. Not to mention The Comics Journal, soon emerging as something like the trade publication of the field.
RAW and Weirdo would serve as markers in any narrative of an evolving comic art in the US, en route to the recognition of comics as art, the museum exhibits, award ceremonies, and even the Superhero-swollen ComiCons to follow.
It would be a mistake to avoid entirely what the historians used to call “geographical determinism.” Comics, comic books, had always been centered in Greater New York, never mind some printing locations as far as Racine, Wisconsin. Underground Comix emanated from the Bay Area and had the region’s sensibility stamped upon them, never mind some smaller regional operations. Giving up on Arcade, Art Spiegelman moved Back East. RAW not only emanated from New York but pointed back to New York, in the old literary adage that, culturally speaking, North America is half in the sunshine and half in the shade….that is, everywhere west of the Hudson River.
Much to the credit of co-editor Francois Mouly, RAW encompassed global comic trends, but not only that. Ben Katchor, one of the freshest of the new artists to appear in these pages—himself from a Left Yiddish family background—was to comment later that RAW had shrewdly marketed itself as a lost branch of European art and literature. This would prove decisive in uplifting the genre toward acceptance as an art form, in New York above all.
By vivid contrast. Weirdo was very, very California, published by the Crumbs in Winters, an extended outpost of the Bay Area. The idea of the “outsider,” if already well established in the art world, here unapologetically reached an extreme.
The Book of Weirdo testifies to the vanishing California sensibility as it pays homage to that unique publication in a nonacademic and unpretentious manner that often eludes the burgeoning field of comic art studies at large. Jon B. Cooke is at once a comic fan, editor of an ongoing comics “pro” fanzine (Comic Book Creator), and a gifted writer and designer. He follows, in this work, the tradition of a couple dozen authors, also non-academics in background, who have done admirable work on such subjects as EC Comics and their great artists or writer-artists as Wally Wood,Will Elder and Bernard Krigstein.
That said, The Book of Weirdo is a most unusual work of devotion. Rather than a straightforward narration, it offers extended commentaries by dozens of Weirdo contributors, and several essays—the longest of them unsigned but evidently the work of the editor himself. This is, by intent, a collective project, with Cooke seeking to impose a light hand even if the creation owes to his extraordinarily careful attention to all aspects of the subject.
How much was Weirdo a response to the publication (and phenomenon) of RAW, moving comic art “uptown” toward new and for many, uncomfortable realms of sophistication? This is a question unsettled, destined to be unsettled, among comics historians, not to mention the editors and artists themselves.
What else was weird about Weirdo? As Crumb himself wrote in the first issue, the new effort marked “another new magazine, another MAD imitation, another small time commercial feature with high hopes, obviously doomed to fail.” This is a reference to the number of MAD knock-offs that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s, in some cases lasting decades after Mad Comics turned into MadMagazine in 1955. Several of them even boasted former Mad artists. They were generally, if not without exceptions, dreadful by any reasonable standard, or perhaps just by the high standard of Mad.
From another angle, Weirdo was arguably closer to Humbug, Kurtzman’s third effort after Mad and the slick but doomed Trump, or his last magazine effort, HELP! Humbug and HELP! sought to combine comic pages with fiction, new art by youngsters—including, in HELP!, some of the soon outstanding u.g. comix artists. In the same magazine, “fumetti” or photo-caption combinations appeared, although in Weirdo’s fumettis, Crumb casted himself in the remake of the girlie magazines of the 1930s-40s with humorous shenanigans of dames and the men chasing them. What did this add up to?
Crumb had remarked (to me, in a 1977 interview in Cultural Correspondence) that “artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics….” Adding, “there’s a charm in the ‘looseness’ of the culture of our generation, the lackadaisical approach…besides, our parents threw all the old traditions in the garbage can without a second thought and left us to root around for the remnants in the back alleys of the culture….”
That nicely sums up the aim, several years in advance, of the new venture. Even when the artists in RAW seemed to be slumming, or portrayed subjects in assorted outrageous ways, they were still….sophisticated. RAW could not be as raw as Weirdo was, even if it tried.
And there’s more. Recently, one of the most outstanding and cerebral artists—she now teaches at the University of Michigan—observed that the Weirdo artists and editors “were my tribe.” Phoebe Gloekner’s comment makes sense in several different ways. Her work was exceptionally dark, with stories rooted in San Francisco’s post hippie cultural underground of drugs and male predation upon young girls, also of the rage felt by those who did not become part of the city’s notorious Good Life. Along with Dori Sedi, who died at an early age from a lung aliment while contributing steadily to Weirdo, Gloeckner may express best, in her comics there, the anxieties that suffused the magazine’s pages.
The stories of the artists, many of them hardly seen before or after Weirdo, are revealing, touching and plain strange, and in a way, the best argument for the originality of the Book ofWeirdo. Most were young or youngish, a large handful making their entry into the world of comics or moving further along the way. The list is an honor roll: Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Robert Armstong, Terry Boyce, Daniel Clowes, Julie Docet, Drew Friedman, Carol Lay, Steve Lafler, Joe Matt, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Carol Tyler, Jim Woodring and Ivan Brunetti, and those are only the artists whose names I recognize!
But it is the occasional anecdote that stands out, for this reviewer. For instance: at one point, Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb received a curious offer to take over a talk-show slot at Fox’s entertainment network! The whole thing was impossible: Pekar could no more quit his hospital job for a Manhattan gig that could be cancelled at any time than Aline could split her time between New York and Winters. Still, this small non-event points toward an outsiderness that might come inside. (Pekar himself was treated to the award-winning biopic, American Splendor, whose production in Cleveland really did force him to quit his job.) It came inside or rather, comics themselves came inside, with the Pulitzer Prize (and MOMA exhibit) for Art Spiegelman, with glowing if only occasional New York Times reviews for the likes of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and arguably with the success of superhero characters on the big screens. Comics had become a twenty-first century art form.
Readers of The Book of Weirdo will surely want to discover their own favorite anecdotes, make their own sense of the barrage of details included here. I’m guessing they will be happy to do so.
Paul Buhle has edited more than a dozen nonfiction historical comics. He struggles to understand the 36 year gap between his first effort (Radical America Komiks, 1969, reprinted in 2019) and next (WOBBLIES!, 2005).
Special thanks to Jay Kinney and Ben Katchor for comments on this review.
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.
Hi Jax & Hi Jinx: Life’s a Pitch – and Then You Live Forever by Dame Darcy
Dame Darcy is a notable alternative cartoonist who burst upon the scene in the 1990s with her series Meat Cake which was published by Fantagraphics Books from 1993–2008. Her unique “Neo-Victorian” style can also be found in her other roles as fine artist, musician, cabaret performer, and animator/filmmaker. In 2016, Fantagraphics Books issued the omnibus, Meat Cake Bible. Now comes a comprehensive look at the life, work and recollections of Dame Darcy, Hi Jax & Hi Jinx: Life’s a Pitch – and Then You Live Forever, published by Feral House. This is a unconventional memoir befitting such an unconventional figure. For starters, Darcy’s family has theories regarding her great-great-great-uncle John Wilkes Booth. According to Darcy, Booth was a victim of mind control when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Not only that, Booth was scurried away after the murder and lived in hiding all thanks to the Illuminati. With that sort of family lore, Darcy has had plenty to tap into in service of her art.
A recurring theme in Darcy’s family is drama and fantasy. Many in her family have performed on stage. It’s that desire to break free from predictable reality that is the driving force behind Darcy, in her life and in her work. The need to escape and create other worlds found itself into little poems, stories, and comics. For example, one such story in this book finds an 11-year-old Darcy exploring the family farm which becomes her own little kingdom. She slips up a trapdoor to the hayloft. With the help from a friend, the hayloft is converted into an art studio. But that’s only the beginning. She discovers a hidden drawer in an old trunk and finds a turquoise necklace. She also finds a note from a little girl who is being held captive by a cult. Then she hears laughter and looks out the window to see a mysterious girl wearing the same necklace as Darcy. The girl keeps staring. Then she smiles but she has no teeth. Suddenly, she does a backflip and disappears. And there you have a taste of a Dame Darcy experience.
Fairy tales are common to all of us and make for a perfect jumping off point to other flights of fancy. Darcy revels in all the fanciful tropes and mashes them up to reveal and confess to the reader and herself. A platform has been set up, made up of whimsy and autobiography, and from it Darcy has reached wondrous heights. With this collection of drawings, comics and observations, Darcy is able to use extended prose to fill in the blanks and bring all the various bits of background into focus. Oddly enough, all the added material, written out as it is, has its own ambiguous charm and doesn’t detract at all from the otherworldly mystery found in her comics. Darcy offers up here a most enchanting book.
Hi Jax & Hi Jinx: Life’s a Pitch – and Then You Live Forever is a 305-page trade paperback, with black & white illustrations, published by Feral House.
To the tell the story of a writer and the writing process is quite a unique challenge. Sure, you want to include some scenes of the writer in the act of writing but then what do you do next? This new graphic novel, Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography, published by NBM, solves the problem very nicely. French writer Laurent Queyssi and Italian artist Mauro Marchesi bring to life a very unusual person, famous writer or not. The appeal of this book comes from how both writer and artist tease out for the reader a portrait of very delicate, chaotic, and brilliant individual. Let the details fall into place as events unfold. See how one person can be so blind to his own destiny while bursting with intelligence and creative output. After a while, you don’t care what he’s famous for. You’re just rooting for him to survive another night as the walls start to cave in all around him.
It’s perhaps helpful for me to mention that I’m putting together a book that parallels this book on Philip K. Dick in very interesting ways. My book is about another science fiction writer, George Clayton Johnson, who was born in 1929, roughly the same year as Dick but who enjoyed a happy and long life. Dick’s life was relatively short and not without its tragedy. Johnson and Dick are very different writers but they both were part of a certain time and sensibility. Even though Dick was somewhat of a recluse, he did enjoy connecting with people on occasion. Like Johnson, he got to know some of his heroes and colleagues in science fiction, like Harlan Ellison and A.E.van Vogt. Both Johnson and Dick had high ambitions. While Johnson generally flourished among people, Dick would much rather recede into the background. Both dared to be as nonconformist as possible. Dick was darker, stranger, and willing to open more doors into the unknown.
An honest assessment, that’s what we crave from a biography. NBM is certainly amassing quite an impressive collection of them. The trickiest to get right, and probably the most satisfying, is the exploration of a creative person and the creative process. That classic writer’s block is on full view on more than one occasion in this book as is the overall struggle in a person’s life. We get a very clear and precise picture that manages to keep to a steady chronological order with necessary temporal detours. This is Philip K. Dick under the microscope. Backed my thoughtful planning, Queyssi provides a script that seems to effortlessly bring into play a myriad of carefully researched dates, places, and times. When you think of it, Dick was essentially an enigma. You didn’t necessary go see Blade Runner with a clear picture of the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Mauro Marchesi’s artwork is as clean and crisp as Queyssi’s well-chosen words. Marchesi solves another challenge: finding just the right ways to evoke the fantastical in a story about a writer writing weird and strange content. You don’t just want to play with scale and have a scene with Dick reduced to the size of an insect just because you can! But that sort of thing is irresistible so you make the most of it and, when the time is right, Marchesi pulls out all the stops. He has some beautiful wordless sequences that definitely balance out a narrative that, at times, needs to rely more on text. One that really packs in just the right dose of mystery and ambiguity has Dick seated at a park bench trading in a gem for a book with a total stranger. Like spies passing through the night, they discretely make the switch, one finely polished gem for a book that points towards another book in Dick’s future.
For fans of Philip K. Dick, as well as new readers, this will prove to be an engaging read. As I say, after a while, you’re not thinking of Dick as just a famous writer. No, he’s got some pretty compelling ordinary problems of his own along with the extraordinary ones! One of the most fascinating aspects, however, does have to do with being a famous writer. Time and again you see Dick fighting against being known as a science fiction writer. Back then in what was its golden age, science fiction was snubbed as only being “genre.” You would think someone as smart as Dick could have seen through the snobbery of the literary establishment. But, no, even Philip K. Dick wasted precious time and energy desperately trying to fit in!
Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography is a 144-page full color hardcover. For more details, visit NBM Publishing right here.
The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt
Jerome Charyn is one of those rare breed of writers able to write some of the most earthy stories involving some of the most larger-than-life figures, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Teddy Roosevelt. For TR, Mr. Charyn pulls out the stops offering up the man in his own voice, a magnificent mashup of macho and aristocrat. Bully! TR, as he looks out from Mount Rushmore, remains one of our greatest personifications of America. And with his new novel, Jerome Charyn completes his run at Rushmore. He managed to tackle Washington and Jefferson in 2008’s Johnny One-Eye. He dug deep into the psyche of Lincoln with 2014’s I Am Abraham. And now we have The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt, published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.
Indeed, TR was a manly man right down to having a mountain lion on a leash as his pet. It’s during the Rough Rider period of his life that we first meet this big cat, Josephine. She was the mascot for TR’s own cowboy regiment off to fight in the Spanish–American War in 1898. An invasion of Cuba did not officially call for men on horseback. However, TR had other ideas. As an act of sheer will, TR got his Rough Riders. This excerpt offers a taste of this most quintessential TR adventure. Here we are just as U.S. armed forces begin departure to Cuba joined by the now celebrated Rough Riders:
We were mobbed at every station along the route. Folks welcomed us to their own little war parades. Half-mad women scribbled letters to Rough Riders they had never met and would never meet again. Some proposed outright marriage. A few of our bravos fancied a particular lady and disappeared from our caravan of seven trains. Leonard cursed their hides. But these bravos managed to find us at the next station, or the next after that. A horse died of heatstroke, but we didn’t lose a bravo, not one. People would shout from the tracks, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy,” and I realized why the Army regulars hated us so. We had captured the imagination of blood and battle somehow–the Rough Riders represented the romance of war. We could have risen out of some biblical rapture. The Army couldn’t compete with cowboy cavaliers.
Let’s shift gears to another aspect of the storyteller’s bag of tricks. Here’s a taste of the pulp fiction action adventure vibe found here:
I had clocked twenty minutes, like pulse beats in my temples. Winters-White kept me from plummeting into that gnarled jungle floor. He tapped me on the shoulder and removed the blindfold. We were in a slight clearing, a bald patch without a single root or tree. And in this clearing was a canvas chair that might have come from a general’s tent. A man in a pince-nez and cowboy neckerchief sat in that chair. I’d have guessed he was my age–a few months shy of forty. He had a jeweler’s nimble hands. His mustache was almost as red as mine, and his eyes were probably just as weak. I couldn’t imagine him as a sniper, shooting at children and nurses from the Army Nurse Corps. Yet here he was, in the green uniform of a Vaquero.
“We’ve met before,” he said in a slight accent.
Wouldn’t it be something to see a Cowboy King movie? There is room for a sequel as this novel covers Roosevelt’s life right up to September 6, 1901, the assassination of President William McKinley, a day that would catapult TR as far into the arena as he had ever dared possible. That said, you really don’t need to look any further than this novel. Cowboy King is a novel at its best: engaging, immersive and compelling.
Teddy Roosevelt, an American original.
The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt is a 286-page hardcover, available as of January 8th, published by Liveright. And be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website where you can purchase a signed copy.
I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:
“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”
So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.
The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.
Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.
You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.
Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.
The comics medium can be as clear and as ambiguous as the work requires. One of the great things about comics is its unlimited and distinct potential to alternate between clarity and mystery. When you feature yourself in your own work, you seek the right balance. Someone quite capable of playing with those modulations is writer/artist Ariel Schrag. Her recent collection of comics is entitled, Part of It: Comics and Confessions, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ms. Schrag is known for a number of brilliant memoir comics that feature her growing up, struggling through high school, and finding her way. While her work can neatly fit within the categories of YA and LGBTQ, it certainly transcends any label or genre. And don’t let anyone tell you different: a good coming-of-age story will always be welcome and never go out of style. We’re human and we all have our own unique tales to tell. This new collection of comics provides compelling proof of that.
Page from Part of It
Part of It is a collection that culls through some of Schrag’s best work over the years. Probably the best piece is one from a 2004 anthology with an eyeglasses theme. In this one, we find Schrag having been sucked into a vortex of vacillation over just what constitutes the perfect pair of eyewear. Is it promoting the best experience possible? Does it look right? Does it fit right? Is it dated? Is it…sass? Just one meaningless derisive utterance from her little sister triggers heartbreaking regret. Schrag tentatively enters a room with her latest choice in glasses. All it takes is one negative comment, “Sass,” from her sibling, and it’s all over.
Just wanting to be “part of it.”
Ms. Schrag has proven to be quite a funny and adroit writer. As an openly gay woman, she has shared excellent insights and observations. That said, whatever a writer’s background, it’s the work that speaks for itself in the end. Sexuality is not the key element, for instance, in the eyeglasses piece just mentioned above. In fact, sexuality is often part of a bigger picture in a typical auto-bio comic. You simply share things about yourself in the process of telling a story, in the service of the narrative. If all goes well, your tale combines the universal and the specific in a satisfying way. While all these pieces come from different places and times, Schrag finds common ground and eloquently returns again and again to a theme of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be “part of it.” This is a great collection of comics. Wonderfully wicked good fun!
Part of It: Comics and Confessions is a 176-page trade paperback, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Bob Woodward has a book out on Trump. You may have heard of it. It’s entitled, Fear, published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Woodward, a legend in journalism, was in Seattle for a Q&A at the Paramount Theatre this Wednesday night. Local pundit Knute “Mossback” Berger was the moderator. Mr. Berger asked a series of mellow questions. He asked, for instance, about the book’s title. The great thing about interviewing someone like Bob Woodward is that half the battle is just to show up. No matter the question, Mr. Woodward will proceed to paint a vivid picture. Regarding the book title, that took him back to Candidate Trump, long before his campaign was considered substantial. It was the job of Woodward to still pose serious questions, the same sort he’d posed to Candidate Obama and others. That day, the pivotal question was asked: What does power mean to you? The scene that played out was something close to Shakespearean. Trump seemed to turn his attention out toward a confidant in his mind’s eye. Power, and holding on to power, Trump said, is achieved through striking fear.
It is during an audience Q&A that things can get quite interesting. For Woodward, this was a time to riff, to explain, to clarify, in any way he pleased. Each response turned out to be a gem. It meant he took his time and didn’t get around to everyone who dutifully lined up with a question. Each answer took on a life of its own. One question might begin a discussion on a related subject. One answer would emerge prompted from a question asked earlier. It would result in such gifts as Woodward recollecting the day that he finally got former President Gerald Ford to reveal the details of the Nixon pardon. The common assumption had been that a deal had been struck. And, indeed, a deal had been offered by White House chief-of-staff Alexander Haig. Ford refused a quid pro quo. There was no reason for it since he was to replace Nixon anyway. It was only later, with the prospect of Nixon continuing to damage the country, that Ford chose to pardon him. It wasn’t an easy decision and it was clear that this decision would seal Ford’s fate. It was a decision that he would never be able to recover from as a candidate for president in his own right. In retrospect, it was to be acknowledged as a courageous decision. Ford went on to be the recipient of the Profile in Courage award in 2001. It was presented to him, at age 87, by Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter. A lesson in not be too quick to judge.
FEAR by Bob Woodward
The final answer, again originating from one question and yet seeming to answer them all, was a true showstopper. This last gem found Woodward looking back to some of his earliest memories. He was playing with two previous questions: the idea of what in his life caused him the greatest shock; and summing up the crisis we live with today with a dangerously incompetent commander-in-chief. Woodward had already painted a picture of an easily distracted Trump. And that got him to thinking of how some things should be fundamentally understood, like the difference between right and wrong. As a young Naval officer, Woodward served aboard the USS Wright, and was one of two officers assigned to move or handle nuclear launch codes. This was circa 1965. It was seared into Woodward’s psyche that the fundamental responsibility of an American president is to stay out of a nuclear war. But Trump was oblivious to the most basic facts. He openly questioned the existence of NATO. He did not understand the most basic facts of global interconnection. So, in order to best answer that question asked a while ago regarding what shocked him the most, Woodward just had to refer back to Trump, a president so brazenly ignorant that he compels his Secretary of Defense to have to answer, “Mr. President, we do these things in order to avoid World War III.” That’s enough to make anyone lose their lunch.
Fear is surely required reading. It is definitely a worthwhile book and measures up with Mr. Woodward’s best.