The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99
It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.
Mona Lisa Mania!
The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.
It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.
Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.
The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.
The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.
For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.
ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF HELL II: The Conquest of Heaven, A Demonic History of the Future Concerning the Celestial Realm and the Angelic Race Which Infests It
Martin Olson. Illustrations: Tony Millionaire & Mahendra Singh. Feral House. 2021. 224pp. $24.99
Martin Olson is one of the best humorists around. Olson is known around Hollywood as one of the nicest and most hard-working of comedy writers. His special brand of satire has made its way to numerous comedy series on HBO, CBS, Showtime, Comedy Central, Disney, and FX. His last book was the critically-acclaimed Encyclopaedia of Hell, which includes a road map for a full-scale demonic invasion of Earth. Now, Olson tops himself with a sequel, The Conquest of Heaven, with Satan leading a coup of Heaven to replace God. Olson’s wry and relentless humor echoes Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.
Lord Satan dreams the Hell Cosmos.
This much-anticipated sequel picks up where Olson left off, writing again in the voice of Satan, we follow the Dark Lord’s latest scheme. Conquering Earth was mere child’s play when it comes to taking on the Almighty’s digs. And it’s not long before Satan runs into some difficulties.
After Hell’s army conquers Insignificant Earth and devours the human race in a celebratory feast, Lord Satan reveals that he will now journey deep into the universe to find the throne of the despised Creator. There Satan will depose God and take his rightful place as Emperor of Existence. Now, the secret sauce to making the story work hinges upon the voice of Satan. Again, that’s where the comparisons to literary giants like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce come into play. These guys satisfied that career high of nailing it, getting to channel Satan, as it were. And so Olson returns to those dizzying heights with his new book. Let’s dig in and see how he does it.
Lord Zyk battles the ghost of Abra Kadab.
First, you need to establish the character and, in Satan’s case, we’re talking about both a sophisticated creature and an egomaniac at an astronomical level. Satan is supposed to be all-knowing. But he’s also arrogant and pompous. Olson’s Satan maintains an other-worldly tone, full of regal turns of phrase and douchebag observations. In this excerpt, Satan has just set hoof on Heaven:
Yes, it was all Heavenly. All exactly what I hated.
I had come prepared with eye filters to screen out hideous beauty like the fountain. But I was unprepared for the audio component poisoning the air around me. Each festoon of flowers resonated with a different vibratory tone. Together, they emitted a hideously majestic symphony, a loathsome atmosphere of perfect harmony. Its precise overtones made my ears bleed. When I inhaled, the flowers’ sweetness produced cognitive dissonance with the natural filth that composed my lungs. I swooned, heaved deeply, and vomited the remains of a virgin I’d eaten into the azaleas. It was confirmed: perfect harmony was an unbearable toxin to my soul.
Satan is not exactly an easy guy to accomodate, even under ideal conditions, and here he is on arguably his greatest quest. Determined to discover the origin of his own creation, and to murder God, Satan must endure a series of obstacles in God’s Library akin to Alice in Wonderland, as well as match wits with a demented nun. And that’s just part of it, all leading to the shocking secret at the core of Creation. Could it have something to do with Satan? There’s a very good chance of that. To add some extra spice, there’s some other characters thrown into the mix like the equally pompous Lord Zyk and the wayward demon, Abra Kadab. The main thing is the journey which Olson masterfully keeps moving along. In this excerpt, Satan is dueling with a possessed book which has just lopped off his head. He’s later surprised to find out which book he’d been fighting:
Using a combination of my teeth and the vicissitudes of momentum, I climbed up my leg and torso until I reached the bloody stump of my severed neck. Through rapid licking, I then self-cauterized the wound, reconnecting my head to my body, and glared down at the culpable book.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the book that had decapitated me was a novelty edition of my own repugnant masterpiece of evil, Encycolpeadia of Hell, its ancient cover splattered with rose-red, black and purple coagulations of my royal demon blood.
What else might stand a chance against Satan but the very book prior to Olson’s latest misadventure with Satan? This kind of humor will delight readers of any age. Just think of vintage MAD Magazine. Sure, for the youngest readers, there’s the obvious parental discretion to keep in mind. This is, after all, a most unabashed Satan we’re dealing with here. The fangs. The claws. And everything else is all hanging out. But no risk of any exorcism! Honestly, if your kid is reading this, you can thank God that the kid has got good taste.
Early in this latest Jerome Charyn novel there’s quite an evocative scene of a bohemian living room which includes a framed print of Paul Robeson. It is a telling detail that gives a taste of how a character lives and breathes in their world. In this case, we’re being made privy to the inner world of the estranged wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill. As a creature of the theater, and as a free thinker, it makes sense that she’d enjoy a portrait of a trailblazer of racial equality. All the more so given this was one of her husband’s greatest plays! It’s just a quick little reference but a tick of information that the reader makes note of. It is these ticks of information that accumulate and bring a picture into focus. It is these ticks of information that add up in this novel to give us an in depth look at one of our most celebrated of writers, J.D. Salinger, one who preferred not to be looked at in any close measure.
But Charyn dares to make “Sonny” Salinger the prime focus. To start with, Charyn brings the reader front and center into Salinger’s relationship with Oona O’Neill, the infamous daughter of Eugene O’Neil. Oona was only 18 years-old when she married Charlie Chaplin, who was 53. Truth being stranger than fiction, Salinger and Oona did actually date for a while. Charyn gives us a charming look into what that might have been like: more a frenzied exchange of hormonal excess than raw passion but, something to write home about, nonetheless. The whole affair is capped off by a masterful scene which involves Sonny and Oona obligingly having dinner with Walter Winchell as he holds court at his reserved table at the Stork Club. There’s much talk about Winchell’s chicken burgers. Mostly, there’s much talk about what’s the talk of the town, given Winchell’s prized roost as the leading gossip monger and media kingmaker. Winchell has everyone eating practically right out of his hand, except for the most stubborn like Ernest Hemingway, who makes a delicious cameo at Winchell’s table.
Utah Beach, D-Day Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944.
In keeping with the novel’s title, much of the action sees young J.D. Salinger doing his duty as an American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. If that sounds complex and full of intrigue, well, it is. We find Salinger is witness to the whole Slapton Sands debacle where American soldiers, training for the D-Day Normandy invasion, become human targets, shot by British “friendly fire.” While that is being covered up, nearly lost to history in every real sense, Salinger moves on to the real thing and lands with a second wave on Utah Beach on D-Day all the way to Paris. There, he meets Ernest Hemingway who encouraged his writing. All the while, Salinger goes from one incident after another interrogating Nazis and collaborators. Ultimately, Sonny Salinger witnesses firsthand the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, where corpses are piled high one upon the other.
No one can blame J.D. Salinger for going through one existential crisis after another. Talk about someone too close to a subject to be able to get some perspective and see the full picture! Here is a man who made his wildest dreams come true and then went on to live a life of the deepest regret. What if Sonny Salinger had managed to convince Oona O’Neill to run off with him and somehow he’d also found a way to avoid the draft? That was never going to happen! Each of them had stars in their eyes and were in mad pursuit of something greater than themselves. And Salinger would never have avoided the draft, it just wasn’t an option. It was definitely not a foregone conclusion that The Catcher in the Rye would ever be published either. But so it was. J.D. Salinger did not invent the contemporary teenager but his book caught on like wildfire as an emblematic work about quirky, neurotic, youthful rebellion. There it was–and still is. The great American novel at its most popular! Since it publication in 1951, it remains a bestseller at astronomically high numbers for book sales. Since it was first published in 1951, more than 65 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold. Around 250,000 copies of the book are sold each year, almost 685 per day. This is not what Salinger wanted. And yet it was profits from just this one book alone that allowed him to brood in seclusion for decades. The book that should never have been published–but was. To this, Charyn has an answer.
The Catcher in the Rye
If there is one thing that makes a case for the inevitable nature of Salinger’s celebrated novel it is his war experiences. This makes up the bulk of Charyn’s novel which places Salinger in numerous trials and challenges. Charyn is a master at creating haunting moments. He lays one upon the other and deftly makes his case. In so doing here, Charyn answers the question of how it was meant to be for Salinger to write that novel that unwittingly summoned the world. One such moment finds Sonny confronting a special Nazi bicycle brigade. One night, he spots one of these killers, in his rain cape and in his hunter’s cap. The reader can’t help but picture that strange image of a young man wandering the city in a hunter’s cap in Salinger’s novel. That same image is on the original paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye. Sonny witnesses the killer in his hunter’s cap shoot two of his friends at close range, execution style. Sonny, more an interrogator than a marksman, immediately responds and shoots the killer dead.
Back on Park Avenue…
Ultimately, Sonny Salinger must return to civilian life, to where he left off before going off to war in the first place. It means creating some distance to all things related to war, except for the greater truths that make sense for his version of the great American novel. At least that seemed to be what mattered most for a time and he would see it through. Sonny would pick himself up. He was back on Park Avenue, back on track to pursue his literary dreams, at least for a while. And so Charyn brings the reader up to this point. Sonny now has time to observe something other than horror. Sonny now can ponder, with his sister, Doris, the mysteries of a basement floor walker at Bloomingdale’s. Sonny now can ponder the mysteries of bananafish. And, in time, as if inevitable in more ways than one, Sonny can preside upon the unleashing of a literary and pop culture phenomenon, the story of a troubled teenager in a hunter’s cap.
A pet peeve of mine, a whole little schtick, was my often complaining about how museums and galleries would refer to some works as “comics-related” but never would go that extra step and simply refer to a work that was, indeed, a work of comics, like a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, as simply “comics.” Sure, when confronted with an actual comic strip or comic book, then, yes, that was comics. But when it was a work that was clearly utilizing all the elements of comics, was up to its eyeballs in the comics medium, it was politely referred to by the art world establishment as a “comics-related” work. Now, sure, one only needs to look at the Pop Art movement to appreciate that distinctions have to be made. But still, what was happening was that comics, as an art medium in its own right, was being dismissed. It can get complicated, needlessly so, in determining between high and low art and all the myriad interconnections. Comics have had a rough go of it, especially in the United States. So, what do we mean when we refer to comics and are all comics now supposed to be treated as works of art? No, all comics are not works of art. Just as all dime store novels are not works of art! Maybe that helps to clear things up. A new book, with the goal of clearing things up is Comic Art in Museums, edited by Kim A. Munson, a collection of essays, dispatches from the art wars. And make no mistake, when it comes to jockeying for position, on all fronts, there’s a war going on.
Panel excerpt from “High Art Lowdown,” Artforum, December 1990, by Art Spiegelman
Perhaps one of the greatest villains, or scapegoats, in the ongoing war between high and low is Roy Lichtenstein. And that’s a shame because his is a brilliant body of work. In the tradition of comics at its most brash, Art Spiegelman, known for Maus, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, fired off a salvo aimed right at Roy Lichtenstein in a review he created using the comics medium on a page in Artforum, December 1990. It was a review of the latest attempt to place comics in a fine arts setting: The Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low: Modern Art and Pop Culture. Spiegelman would have been far better off had he taken his time to calmly comment on the show instead of feature Lichtenstein and the supposed wrong he’d done. To be clear, Roy Lichtenstein did nothing wrong. Simply put, he took comics from one context and put them in another. Taking one thing and repurposing it is as old as cave paintings. Seriously, look at an artist like Édouard Manet and you can see what intriguing results you get from recontextualizing. Pop Art was doing this left and right and it wasn’t always simply a comment on consumer trash culture. It could also be contemplating formal issues, right down to playing with the juxtapostion of Ben Day dots. It was a lot of things and one thing you can definitely call it is art.
Program cover, The Comic Strip: Its Ancient and Honorable Lineage (1942). Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.
As Kim A. Munson’s research bears out, the earliest comics shows, from the ’30s and ’40s, did not feature pointed issues of legitimacy. In fact, it was more of a display of craftsmanship that was honored. We seem to come full circle in honoring craftsmanship with the landmark Masters of Comic Art show from 2005 but more on that in just a moment. Really, all of this coming to terms with comics comes down to what one group of connoisseurs thinks over another group of connoisseurs! What I appreciate about Munson’s book is how objective she is with the multitude of facts to dig through. Anyway, it was a very different scene when comics began to be shown in anything resembling a formal gallery setting. As Munson reports, back in the ’30s and ’40s, comics were appreciated and everyone was happy, just as long as you tolerated the common view that comics were quaint Americana. What makes things more complicated is that, in so many cases, comics are no better or worse than soap operas. So, your head will explode if you try to justify all comics. That’s where overanalyzing can run you aground. So, when in doubt, consider some common sense. There is agreement that comics can rise to high levels of excellence, such as the work of Milton Caniff, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. It has to do with originality of content and masterful and innovative use of formal elements. Honestly, you know it when you see it. You don’t have to leave it up to so-called experts to explain to you what is art and what is not art. It is a stereotype, really, to say that all diehard fans of comics are only interested in a particular plot. But the connoisseurs and so-called experts too often conclude that’s the case.
Comics have gone through a series of misunderstandings, especially in the United States. While Munson’s book doesn’t explicitly state that it is only covering U.S. comics, it does naturally slip into that focus. This is a collection of written pieces inextricably linked to American taste. It is that taste upon which the perception of comics depends upon in many ways. We Americans want to have it all, be brash and outspoken while being respected on all fronts. Collectively, we are not a shy bunch. And, as a group, we seem to be compelled to push and pull. And so something as egalitarian as well as just plain fun and stimulating as the comics medium is not going to get a free pass. So, where to begin? Well, in the beginning there was ignorance and indifference. As Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher of the prestigious Kitchen Sink Press, notes in his essay in this book, it seemed like comics came to life long before it gained any respectability. You could walk into the offices of United Feature Syndicate in the ’50s and find the original work of Al Capp, their star cartoonist, strewn across the floor of a storage room, complete with footprints. Al Capp, himself, hadn’t figured it out either and likened his world-famous Li’l Abner comic strip to a quick minute’s read on its way to becoming fish wrap. Even when it came to how to display the comic strip in public, it was thought that the finished printed color strip from the newspaper was far superior to the original. Heck, at first, original comic art wasn’t even considered an option as viewing material; and then, once found acceptable, it was simply pinned to the wall with tacks, no need to bother with framing it. That’s a far cry from today, of course, since first-rate work from the all-time best cartoonists is now properly valued. Denis Kitchen certainly knows this as his agency represents the estates of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Capp, and many others.
So, how do you do justice to a work of comics, on a gallery wall, that was intended to ultimately be printed in a relatively small reading format? The fact remains that comics as an art form simply needs to be approached on its own terms. It’s not painting, for example, and doesn’t need to compete with it. When you come down to it, it is a hybrid art form, both visual and literary. Sure, there are comics without text but, essentially, comics is a form of storytelling. And, at the forefront, as I always like to point out, is the cartoonist-auteur, the one person who is engaged in the creation of a work of comics. This person might feel like creating outright paintings and all sorts of drawings and work in other media. What matters here is that comics, as an art form does have a core modus operandi: visual storytelling that uses visuals as a language and tends to be an artful combination of word and image. At its core, it is a sequential art or, at least, a form of storytelling. So, is it mainly visual or literary? It’s both. It’s a hybrid. Among the various art shows that have attempted to show comics, one of the best was 1991’s Misfit Lit and that’s simply because it was put together by Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, as well as Larry Reid, folks who intimately understand comics. The big secret is to display the work in proper context.
It is work from the cartoonist-auteur that gets to the heart of the matter and best speaks to the issue of comics as art. Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art, which began in Seattle and then went on a brief tour, provided not only a showcase of superstar talent but a serious look at the comics medium through a rich variety of work including Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz, Basil Wolverton, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, Roberta Gregory, Chester Brown, Charles Burns, Peter Kuper, William Messneer-Loebs, Jim Woodring, and many more.
Maters of American Comics
Often, what people want is to be dazzled and one show that did just that was the 2005 show, Masters of American Comics, which, in no small part, was a reaction to the very same MOMA high low show of 1990 that had so incensed Art Spiegelman. This was a chance to set the record straight. Comics, all by itself, without need of comparison to painting, would dazzle an audience. This is a prime example of comics experts setting the tone. Art Spiegelman acted as a consultant and helped to choose the fifteen featured cartoonists, which included himself. No harm done, really. It was a wonderful show. And it served its purpose. As co-curator John Carlin put it, this was an opportunity to give a certain set of cartoonists an added “glow,” in the same spirit as, in the late ’50s, French critics elevated popular Hollywood directors Hitchcock and John Ford to the level of art-house icons. What was once one thing became another.
The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.
It all comes down to legitimacy. We creative types all hunger for legitimacy, especially if we’re creating work that we know is deserving of more serious acknowledgement. Comics, as a whole, have been howling for such validation. Case in point is the career of R. Crumb, the ringleader of much of the mayhem and glorious creative output of the underground comix movement. Is a lot of that work today under fire? The short answer is yes. In more recent years, what has Crumb done in order to perhaps appeal to a larger audience? Crumb turns the Bible into a comic book! For anyone familiar with its contents, it basically allows Crumb to be Crumb. Crumb recently took on The Book of Genesis with spectacular results. This is a case of a savvy master creating a work with one eye on the printed result and another eye anticipating a presentation of original artwork to the public. Another recent Crumb show was at the prestigious David Zwirner art gallery in New York. For that show, Crumb was presented in historical context. And, since Crumb is still an active artist, one room was dedicated to recent work that was as vibrant and compelling as anything you would expect from one of Chelsea’s blue chip galleries. Sure, a lot of these were more one-shot portraits but that’s really the whole point. Comics is an art medium. And artists are artists. Sometimes artists create comics and sometimes they create other forms of art. And when a work of art is comics, well, there’s no shame in saying that. The point is that Crumb was able to ride the waves of an often provocative and controversial career. Finally, he’s been there to guide the narrative, set the record straight, and firmly establish his position.There are a number of essays in this book that conclude Crumb is Crumb and that’s worth respect.
Whoever gets noticed the most then gets to move forward and, ultimately, gets to be remembered for posterity. Sometimes merit is not the most important factor but sheer persistence in determining who reaches to the top. However, it is only after numerous cycles of shows, reviews, and whatever else, before the true artists become most apparent and remain standing. After a long process, common sense will play a more important role, and out into the world, like a reborn babe, will emerge undisputed names like George Herriman, Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.
I can’t stress enough the importance of objectivity in a collection such as this. Munson has done such an admirable job of organizing this multitude of dispatches from the front lines, including her own work. And, all the while, she doesn’t step in to clear the air with any speculation of her own. She lets the work speak for itself. And, in doing so, it’s clear to me that she sees there is plenty of work still ahead in understanding comics. The very last piece included in this book is from 2017 by Alexi Worth and explores the work of Jack Kirby. For me, and perhaps to any careful reader, the frustrating conclusion Worth reaches is that there is a strong case to be made for Jack Kirby creating what amounts to art, despite the fact he had to work in such a minor art form as comics! In Worth’s opinion, comics is essentially a mass entertainment machine: “The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of boxes into heterogeneous flow.” Poor Jack Kirby, in Worth’s view, was held back by comics “because his pictures were conceived as sequences.” How can you appreciate the artist if you don’t appreciate their art medium? Let me just insert here that I’d welcome further discussion with Worth since, to be fair, I see this as an evolving discussion. I also believe it is settled that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. We don’t want that to get lost. And, again, I’ll state here that there is a wide spectrum of comics, not all linear and dependent on identical panels, although it doesn’t matter. In fact, comics do well with a set of limitations. Jack Kirby literally pushed the constraints of the picture plane. Other masters of comics, like Steve Ditko, seemed to revel within a certain set of order. And, despite what Worth concludes, comics don’t need to be hemmed in by addressing action only from one panel to the next. Many artists can speak to the interconnection of activity that is possible taking place all over the page as well as the dynamism going on between facing pages. Artist and scholar Frank Santoro is certainly a leading advocate of creating comics that work with the entire space not only between panels but also between pages. Well, the process of understanding comics goes on and this book will absolutely help with the ongoing discussion!
Milton Caniff show at Society of Illustrators, 1946.
Here is a book that would make one hell of a movie. There’s even a moment in the book when one of characters suggests they’re in the middle of movie-worthy activity. That said, you might have heard that this novel is well on its way to a movie adaptation thanks to no less than Duchess Meghan Markle and the new movie production company she is launching with Prince Harry. Well, this news calls for a proper review of the book in question and I’ll do my best to give you just enough of a taste without spoiling anything.
Part of what prompted me to write this review is a bit of serendipity. Lloyd Scott and I are both biracial and we both chose to speak to that within a political thriller. Well, mine is not quite as intense. Look it up, Max in America, and you’ll see what I mean. But still, I think that connection is pretty uncanny, especially how we both share our experiences with identity, being seen as the Other, and playing with being a raceshifter. You can say that our backgrounds provided the fuel for our work. I like that. Election Year is offbeat and eccentric, in the same spirit to what I’m doing too. So, let’s take a closer look.
Meet Maverick Johnson Malone, our main character, a Millennial working to help elect Suni Wainwright as the first woman, and youngest, U.S. president. It is the pivotal year of 2020, and there’s excitement in the air. The only problem is that Maverick hates Suni because she’s so fake! This summation is only based upon casual observation until one day it is based on far more than that. It turns out that Suni is a Russian operative–and so the plot thickens.
Ryan, Maverick, and Jay. illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Given all that we know about a certain occupant in the White House and his Russian connections, the plot to this novel has found a funny indirect way to tackle the issue. Lloyd has attached humor to her Manchurian candidate that provides a light and breezy way into her political thriller. The humor going in features Maverick Malone who, at first, seems rather klutzy and self-absorbed. It could be Rome burning in the background but Maverick will keep obsessing over why her ex is such a jerk. This adds up to a pitch perfect Bridget Jones vibe. Lloyd has also created a believable office culture made up of staff working to get Suni Wainwright in the White House. Often, it is Maverick Malone to the rescue with a new idea to put out the latest fire but that is usually overshadowed by her own disgruntled attitude.
Then things transition to a more serious tone. We do have the fate of American democracy to deal with, don’t we? Gee, that question has so many levels of irony that it leaves my head spinning. In fact, the story truly finds its groove just prior to the political intrigue, as the reader gets to know Maverick better. What emerges is the story of a young biracial woman who feels alienated. Part of the problem is her dysfunctional family. Her White mother and Black father are wealthy and distant. As much as she is frustrated by having to constantly explain her racial background, she finds the even greater divide to be money.
Like a good work of film noir or crime fiction, this novel is meant to please with its fair share of twists and turns. Lloyd has fun tapping into a style with the energy of a young adult novel. Maverick is already into her thirties but still full of Millennial spunk. It is this energy that carries the reader as Maverick goes deeper with her sleuthing. Along the way, Maverick finds love with Ryan, a dashing young biracial much like herself. And, to round things out, Maverick develops a greater sense of responsibility as she finds herself caring more for Jay, a Black girl who lives next door to her. It is this trio who all become caught up in the intrigue and danger that threatens to kill them all. And, even when the tension is high, Lloyd manages to insert a little irony as when Jay has a meta-moment. Jay wryly observes that the three of them seem to resemble yet another comedy adventure but with plenty of diversity.
Overall, this is a unique joy ride of a thriller. Yes, it provides those unexpected twists and turns. But the most unexpected revelations run deeper than any car chase. At the heart of it, this is a story about confronting the status quo and finding the right solutions to ultimately achieve the change that we all want. Lloyd Scott brings up many provocative issues, which pop up as events heat up. It is our main character, our shero, Maverick Malone, who is in a position to truly empathize with the Other in America. It is Maverick who can appreciate, even when passion might overtake wisdom, that life is full of complicated contradictions.
While there is plenty of humor, and action, to be found here, this is also a story about trying to understand some painful truth. For all the rip-snorting good action we find here, there’s also just as robust rounds of political fisticuffs, like this particularly pointed salvo: “You have no idea the extent of your privilege. The geographical luck of your births, freedom is a right from your first breath, and all you do is complain. We on the outside know, we see how endowed with opportunity you are and the means to do great things you have at your disposal, but all you Americans do is spend your time infighting. Refusing to see the truth of things, running down the climate clock for everyone with your pollution and your insolence. It’s time for it to end.” Well, now, if those aren’t some fighting words, I don’t know what is! Yes, if the action doesn’t get you, the heated political talk just might be enough for you to want to see how this political thriller all comes together.
In the Age of Covid, add this to your #StayAtHome reading list: a sprawling graphic novel in the grand tradition by a romantic Italian artist-writer, a true auteur-cartoonist, Davide Reviati. He’s one of those bulls in a china shop who is not afraid to break any so-called “rules” to storytelling. The more cloistered set might find his work a bit confounding but, no, this is authentic and passionate work. I like to call this kind of intimate and uninhibited linking of word and image, “letting the sketchbook come to life!” That’s exactly what is happening. The story, ostensibly, is about a bunch of local rough-cut teens in a rural Italian village who lock horns one doomed summer with a band of Roma gypsies. It takes a long time for anything to happen and it feels like really nothing is happening. This, of course, allows plenty of room for anything to happen during this nearly 600-page work!
Raw rage on the page.
Guido, a pint-sized punk, is supposed to emerge as our lead character but he seems to get pushed back down by the rest of the ensemble. Another tough local teen, Grisu, with his lustrous mane of hair, perpetually steals the show. Then, among the Roma gypsies, there’s crazy Loretta and even crazier Gyppo. Reviati is merciless in his depictions of both the locals and the Roma pariahs. No one is spared; no one is particularly likable in this gritty tale and therein lies the challenge for the reader to see what to make of things. Reviati does not claim to have any easy answers and is more trusting of any hard-working local mechanic than most academics whom he finds to consume mountains of books but not even shit out one letter of insight. There’s certainly much truth in that observation.
A reverie of masterful drawings full of whimsy and compelling metaphor.
Jamie Richards provides a brilliant translation to Reviati’s first book available in English. All the quirky dialogue and posturing appears to have been saved intact. Richards’s translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, Serena Vitale’s interviews with Viktor Shklovsky, Shklovsky: Witness to an Era, and Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua.
Born in Ravenna (Italy) in 1966, Davide Reviati leads a double career of illustrator and cartoonist in publishing and the press (Il Manifesto, La Stampa, L’Unità), while collaborating in the screenwriting of movies. Morti di sonno, his graphic novel published in Italian by Coconino Press in 2009, was awarded the best album prize at the 2010 Napoli Comic Con. The French edition (published by Casterman) won the award for the best book in translation in 2011.
Spit Three Times is best described as a languorous graphic novel but in a most offbeat and delicious way! Reviati, by allowing himself a large canvas, gives his characters all the room they need to bare their souls. In fact, there is quite an intriguing sequence with the local boys all dreamily lounging about naked, letting it all hang out, without a care in the world, uninhibited and unbridled. Perhaps one will only add a cowboy hat to his attire as he gets a beer. Maybe another will decide to literally piss on his friend as a prank. And then, just as impulsively, they all jump in for a dip in the lake. They all laugh for no reason. The scene gently dissolves as Reviatti adds the grace note observation that, “at twenty, you’ll laugh at anything; at forty, we only laugh in scorn.” That’s the sort of world-weary wisdom found here that charms every page.
Spit Three Times is available as of April 28, 2020. For more details, visit Seven Stories Press right here.
Max in America: Into the Land of Trump by Henry Chamberlain
There’s not a moment to lose. I’m getting fired up and ready to go sell some books. Hey there, friends, consider getting a copy of Max in America: Into the Land of Trump, available at Amazon or ask me directly or go to my blog’s store. I’d love to know what you think and don’t be shy about reviewing it at Amazon too! But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what author Stacey E. Bryan has to say over at her blog…
Some books just sneak up on you and you’re hooked. Such is the case with the crime novel, Gunning For Angels, by C. Mack Lewis. I can easily see Sam Rockwell play the role of private eye Jack Fox. And then there’s his live wire teen daughter, Enid Iglowski. The way these two meet is pretty hilarious and intense. Both of them court danger and trouble which all adds up to finely tuned contemporary pulp fiction. Lewis revels in all the cheap detective tropes and seems to have an endless supply of deliciously melodramatic metaphors.
Lewis has constructed a rollicking story with a touch of noir that revolves around the murder of a local tycoon. Daniel Hargrove had three daughters and each of them is quite different: one has brains, one has gorgeous legs, and the last one is simply strange. The girl with the brains is Eve Hargrove and she hires our hero, private eye Jack Fox, to drop a case started by the girl with the legs, Jeni Hargrove. Each sister is a raving beauty and spins a web that Jack can’t help but get caught in. Then there’s Bud, a seasoned police detective trying to solve the same murder if his family life doesn’t get in the way, including his heart condition. Into all this intrigue, walks in Enid Iglowski, all of sixteen, and ready to bite and claw whoever gets in her way of finding out the truth about her father, the conflicted lover boy, private eye Jack Fox.
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
A good crime thriller ends up placing assorted characters together from different social strata. Think of The Thin Man‘s sophisticated Nick and Nora trying to talk sense to a jaded teen hoodlum. Lewis enjoys those type of interactions as much as any good writer. Take for example a scene that brings together quite a spicy mix all at once. Bud, our senior detective, has been talked into bringing along his son Chip, a classic heartthrob, to observe him do his job. Father and son are in a swank mansion owned by the ultra-sexy Eve, still wet in her swimsuit from a dip in her negative edge pool. Eve is contemplating bedding Chip while Bud is thinking out loud about the teen crush Enid has for Chip. Finally, Eve momentarily flirts with Bud and threatens his heart condition. Fun stuff!
Paper Moon by Peter Bogdanovich
Enjoy this book on many levels, including a first-rate murder mystery and an intriguing dynamic between father and daughter that brings to mind the poignant, and hilarious, pairing of Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 endearing classic film, Paper Moon. The plot thickens when suddenly fingers point to Enid somehow being accused of murder. This is a yarn that just keeps going! Lewis is definitely having a good time with it and that crosses over for the reader. Lewis is not afraid to shift the action into high gear as the plot sees fit. You just never know what will happen next in this hip and clever noir crime novel set in Phoenix, Arizona.
Gunning For Angels is the first book in a trilogy and you can find it at Amazon right here.
Jerome Charyn’s latest novel encompasses the decline of the Third Reich as seen through the eyes of a special set of characters. It’s about a country that has lost its soul and about a young man who hungers to feed his soul. Charyn conjures up a narrative punctuated with powerful imagery such as when he steadily rolls out thoughts of Georges Rouault, artist of sad kings, clowns, and Christ. Most prominent of Charyn’s recurring themes comes from the silent film classic about the diabolical Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist slave. What better metaphor for someone claiming that they were trapped into following orders. That is the life of the “Cesare” in this novel, one Erik Holderman, a small but vital cog in search of redemption.
Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920
The ways of the world are writ large here. This is the story about a Caligari and a Cesare as well as a whole people who became, as an incisive bestseller so phrased it, “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Yet even in this dark world there is room for light. Erik is not merely a zombie slave. Nor is Canaris merely his Dr. Caligari. Between the two of them, they mean to undermine the Nazis as much as they can and save Jewish lives, one life at at time. This is mostly a dark world and yet one that somehow allows for the existence of Emil, a mystical dwarf who could have walked right out of a Georges Rouault painting.
The Little Dwarf by George Rouault, 1938
Erik, the obedient assassin, finds his fate inextricably linked to Lisalein, a most beguiling woman who equally courts sympathy and danger. All comes to a head when Lisa’s life is in peril once she ventures too close to the false paradise of Theresienstadt. She can’t help but follow her father who is convinced that the little cultural hamlet will prove to be his haven. The narrative definitely has much of the energy of a thriller as Erik must run to keep up with events. But there is so much more here. This is a very dark world, after all, and that requires the fine scalpel of a master storyteller to reveal truth. Much in the same spirit as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its underscoring the tragedy of the Allied bombings of Dresden, Jerome Charyn underscores the tragedy of Theresienstadt, an all too real place that trapped and killed–and haunts to this very day.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1819–1823
Jerome Charyn has a highly distinctive voice in the same company with other literary greats like Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Part of Charyn’s magic is his use of sustained imagery and metaphor. He has his favorite motifs which include wolves, werewolves, magicians, criminals, and tattoos, all sorts of things that either evoke something disturbing, supernatural, or otherworldly. In this new novel, for instance, he describes Hitler as a magician with his henchmen wolves. And it makes sense that Charyn would gravitate to the Nazi way station of Theresienstadt. It hadn’t been enough for the Nazis to deceive and/or kidnap Jews into this glorified holding pen. The Nazis forced Jews to oversee each other and even determine who would be next to go on to Auschwitz. That brings us to one last Charyn motif in this novel, one of the most sobering depictions of unbridled inhumanity, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. In a novel full of its share of the grotesque, it takes an artist with a precise touch such as Charyn to achieve such artful results.
Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, by Rachel Maddow, published by Crown, 432 pages, $30.00.
Blowout, a comics digest, by Henry Chamberlain
If you want to understand something about how the world works, then a must-read is Blowout, by Rachel Maddow. It doesn’t matter what your politics are for this book to make an impact. Maddow drags out some major skeletons in the closet into the light of day on a global scale. In this case, we’re talking about our relationship with fossil fuels, which isn’t much better than our relationship with nuclear energy. Maddow guides the reader up and down this perilous rollercoaster journey. Anyone familiar with The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC knows that Maddow favors an in-depth approach that connects all the dots. For me, someone who often finds it helpful to “doodle” and combine concise words and images, Blowout proves to be an excellent subject to dissect.
Close-up of comics. First panel.
It is through the process of creating comics, storyboarding, and visual storytelling, activities that I’m very familiar with, that incredibly powerful facts can bubble up to the surface. I’ll jump ahead right now and tell you, with all the relevant news going on as I write this, that facts are facts and it’s important to pin them down. I point your direction to the comic that is presented here that I created focusing on Rex Tillerson, a prime example of how those in power, left unchecked, demand and grab even more power, as much power as possible. I also created an info-mural that gives an overview of the whole Blowout book. That said, this comic adds some finer precision to make a point. It’s as one digs deeper, connects those dots, that those facts bubble up that need to be pinned down and examined. At a time when we’ve heard so much about finding the ultimate “smoking gun,” when one news cycle is drowned out by another, I point you to the fact that, once in office, the Trump administration hurriedly did whatever it could to remove sanctions on Russia. But Congress acted in a bipartisan manner and shutdown any attempt to remove these sanctions. However, Congress looked the other way on another related matter, getting rid of Section 1504 of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
There are very real consequences to letting Big Oil bullies, like ExxonMobil do at they please. Section 1504, the much despised safety valve to help curb corruption, that the Trump administration successfully pushed Congress to make disappear was there to try to turn back the Resource Curse. When countries find themselves with vast amounts of valuable resources, like oil and gas, it is the corrupt power players who win and the citizens who lose. There’s no trickle down effect! Nope, it’s just a dictator and his family with cash to burn. As is pointed out in Blowout, the 1504 measure was only trying to fix a very messed up system:
It’s worth repeating what the late Republican senator Richard Lugar wrote when he sponsored the measure: “When oil revenue in a producing country can be easily tracked, that nation’s elite are more likely to use revenues for the vital needs of their citizens and less likely to squander newfound wealth for self-aggrandizing projects.” Lugar has also been clear-eyed about the cost to the United States of allowing corrupt government actors in those countries to consistently fail their own citizens. The Resource Curse, Lugar wrote, “exacerbates global poverty which can be a seedbed for terrorism, it dulls the effect of our foreign assistance, it empowers autocrats and dictators, and it can crimp the world petroleum supplies by breeding instability.”
Somehow, that wasn’t a compelling enough argument for Rex Tillerson or Donald Trump.
Maddow begins connecting the dots with John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company and we end up with Rex Tillerson and ExxonMobil. The first oil strike, the big bang that set it all into motion, was on August 28, 1859, long before there were any cars but not before a profit motive had been established. Fast forward to our own times, ExxonMobil, a descendant of Standard Oil, reigns supreme as the most profitable business in the world. Going back to John D Rockefeller, big oil has always felt entitled to do as it pleases, by whatever means. With Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil had the perfect CEO, both savvy and ruthless. As Maddow points out with great detail, Tillerson had no qualms about who he built a relationship with, including a very cozy one with Vladimir Putin, even if it put lives in danger. As Tillerson explains, if he could get away with something that favored ExxonMobil, then he was going to do it:
“Was there any country in the world whose record of civil rights was so horrible, or whose conduct was so directly a threat to global security or U.S. national security interests, that Exxon wouldn’t do business with it?” Rex was asked during an official U.S. Senate investigation. “The standard that is applied is, first, ‘Is it legal?'” he replied. “Does it violate any of the laws of the United States to conduct business with that particular country? Then, beyond that, it goes to the question of the country itself. Do they honor contract sanctity?” Contract sanctity, that’s the top. Below that, it’s all negotiable.
And it is Rex Tillerson who ends up becoming Secretary of State, at least for a while.
Once the genie was let out of the bottle, humans developed a rather disordered relationship with oil…and its close cousin, natural gas. When oil reserves became less of an easy grab, it was natural gas that seemed to be the energy alternative we’d all been looking for. Except natural gas was never really such an easy grab. Accessing it involves a process popularly known as “fracking,” which is highly disruptive and has resulted in a record number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, a darling of the fracking industry, and a region where earthquakes were nearly nonexistent. This is a thread in our story that travels the globe as more and more regions experience fracking–and subsequent environmental damage. From that already toxic mix, you can add rampant corruption inextricably linked to the search for oil and gas. But don’t let it overwhelm you. Maddow maintains a steady narrative pace, all the better to make sense of it all. For instance, let’s not overlook for a minute the significance of Ukraine which figures prominently in Putin’s designs for dominance. The plan had been to keep Ukraine dependent upon Russian natural gas–but then Ukraine discovered gas of its own. No matter, Ukraine had to bend its knee or it would be broken. The truth was that, ever since the break up of the Soviet Union, the people of Ukraine wished to be free. Instead, Putin inserted his gangsters, like Dmitry Firtash, to maintain control:
There was a pile of money to be made in natural gas in Ukraine, so there were plenty of very interested parties. Firtash had to be able to deal with bankers, pols, and, most important, organized crime bosses. All of them well armed. All of them locked in a dangerous and uneasy partnership that sometimes proved fatal for the unluckiest. Firtash knew certain dinner invitations could come with a side order of assassination. Even into the early years of the twenty-first century, the natural gas business was still operating by “the law of the streets,” Firtash explained to the U.S. ambassador of Ukraine. “It was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member,” Firtash said. He did what he had to do.
As many of my readers have come to appreciate, I aspire to the high standards of the auteur cartoonist, the artist-writer who processes compelling information into concise words and images. It is something I’ve done on some level as far back as I can remember. Sometimes, I can’t help myself and will take a riveting read and write a full-on prose review. And then there are times when some sort of “comics digest” is in order. So, I’ve taken some key moments in Blowout and turned them into what amounts to an info-mural. You can see the whole layout to my info-mural by viewing the video below.
Maybe I got something out of my system for now. I provide this without a focus either to the right or to the left. I sincerely believe that we only need to look back to the dark days of Watergate to see how a crisis, mired in polarizng politics, can inevitably lead to a consensus that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed, for the sake of not only one country but for the world at large. Looking beyond fossil fuels, we need to embrace renewable energy sources now more than ever. It wasn’t that long ago that an electric car seemed to only be a futuristic dream. Now, it’s common. We can do it.