Tag Archives: History

Seattle Focus: Jason Lutes and BERLIN

Megan Kelso with Jason Lutes

Cartoonist Jason Lutes was in Seattle to talk about the new book that collects his comics series, Berlin. It took place at The Elliott Bay Book Company, November 8, 2018. This event included a conversation with cartoonist Megan Kelso. It was co-presented by Short Run.

Berlin is a monumental work in comics. Few cartoonists will come close to such an achievement–and it couldn’t have been created by a  nicer guy. What came across, over and over, during this talk is the fact that Lutes is very accessible and down to earth. That open approach plays into part of what makes his landmark work so special. It all began when teenager Jason Lutes wanted to make sense of a documentary about the holocaust he was suddenly exposed to in a high school history class. The teacher for that class was an alcoholic who made no effort to hide his struggles. He literally set up the movie for his class and left to get a drink. That abrupt and careless action ultimately triggered an in depth exploration of Weimar Germany through a creation of an expansive work in comics that would take 22 years to complete.

#ProtectMueller march in Seattle on 8 Nov. 2018

It was not lost on anyone during Lutes’s talk related to the dismantling of the German government of the 1920s that concerned citizens, just outside on the streets of Seattle, were protesting Trump’s own inroads into dismantling the U.S. government. Timing is everything. That Thursday night book talk directly coincided with protests across the country in support of protecting the Robert Mueller investigation after Trump installed a loyalist as acting Attorney General of the United States. Details are everything. If you follow the characters and the rich narrative of Berlin, you can’t help but get an eerie sense of having a mirror held up to the past and to the present.

Cartoonists holding each other’s works: Jason Lutes with David Lasky

Authenticity is everything. What is so appealing about comics by Jason Lutes is the solid storytelling. That involves a dynamic use of the comics medium: a crisp consistency in step with strategically placed visual elements that are pleasing to the eye and move the story forward. A quick example: I was standing in line to get my copy of Berlin signed and I made a point of poring over each page as I flipped my way through. Right around the midpoint, there is a page made up of wordless panels showing a mysterious figure in a row boat. He reaches the shore to find what looks like a vicious snake. He picks it up by its jaws and overpowers it. That same character reappears in the book as does the snake, both providing just the right doses of symbolism as well as pure entertainment. It’s important to note that, while Lutes referred to vast amounts of research and reading, he also fondly recalled the influence of key works in pop culture. Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel about Weimar Germany, by Alfred Döblin, holds as much importance to Lutes as his viewing of the original Star Wars movie as a kid. Altogether, what you have in Berlin is an honest look from an individual processing and distilling at a meticulous level.

Cartoonists Revisit: Jason Lutes with Jennifer Daydreamer

For many in the audience that night, it was an opportunity to revisit a respected work and commiserate with a friend and colleague. Seattle is a lightning rod for countless creative people and that includes a high number of independent cartoonists. There’s a certain sensibility to the alt-comics artist with Jason Lutes being a prime example. As he discussed in his lecture, it was Seattle that he gravitated to in the 1990s. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Lutes moved to Seattle and worked for the comics publisher, Fantagraphics. He subsequently worked for the alt-weekly, The Stranger, just as it began publication in 1991. During this era, Lutes became part of a group of cartoonists that went on to form an integral part of the Seattle comix scene. That group included some members that were in attendance that night: Megan Kelso, David Lasky and Jennifer Daydreamer. It was a treat to have part of the gang together again on such a special occasion.

BERLIN by Jason Lutes

Berlin, the complete collection, is out now. It is a 580-page hardcover published by Drawn & Quarterly. Jason Lutes teaches comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Berlin, Comics, Comix, David Lasky, Donald Trump, Drawn and Quarterly, Elliot Bay Book Company, Germany, graphic novels, Independent Comics, Indie, Jennifer Daydreamer, Nazi Germany, Nazis, Seattle, Trump, Weimar Germany

Review: ‘The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office’

King Trump Confronts American Presidents. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

If someone could use an employee manual, it would certainly be the current occupant to the highest post in the land. Jeremi Suri’s new book guides us through what has become of the American presidency, from its development to its inevitable decline. If Donald Trump were to read it, “The Impossible Presidency” would provide much food for thought.

Suri’s prose has an inviting conversational tone that lifts the reader up. His main argument is that, after a long period of expansion, the job is now collapsing in upon itself. For the first part of the book, we read about the presidents who transformed the office: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts. The second part of the book follows the fall: JFK and LBJ; Reagan; Clinton and Obama. FDR was the last president to fundamentally remake the job and save the country, and the world, in the process. No one else is going to top that. Furthermore, the job has become so complex that no one person, according to Suri, can ever hope to juggle all the responsibility. Spoiler alert: Suri advocates for a two-person job with a president and a prime minister. Of course, we’ve already established a partnership between president and vice-president since Carter. But that may not be enough.

It is Donald Trump who so neatly underscores Suri’s thesis about the decline of the job that he cannot help but cast a long shadow over the whole book. Suri uses contemporary politico lingo currently associated with Trump. Suri describes past presidents as responding to their “base” and “doubling down” on important issues. More to the point, Suri provides numerous highly relevant examples of how presidents have appealed to the male white voter. This is a fact that each president has wrestled with from the very beginning.

THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY by Jeremi Suri

In a work full of evocative and highly informative passages, what Suri does with FDR stands out. Suri weaves a series of recollections by Saul Bellow as a Depression era youth who is galvanized by the reassurances of FDR, the man on the radio, with the funny posh accent, that everyone intently listened to. In the case of FDR, his word was as good as gold. When FDR ordered an increase in the money supply, he answered any criticism over its legitimacy by stating, “How do I know that’s any good? The fact that I think it is, makes it good.” As Suri points out, that kind of common sense meant everything to a struggling boy like Saul Bellow. It was real words backed up by real action.

In a very accessible and compelling style, Suri guides the reader in distinguishing the most consequential American presidents. In this excerpt, you get a taste of Suri’s writing as he compares Lincoln to FDR:

“If Lincoln was the nineteenth-century president, Roosevelt was the twentieth-century American leader.

Lincoln’s presidency anticipated Roosevelt’s. The latter had to contend with the collapse of the American (and world) economy, but they both spent much of their presidencies at war. In retrospect, Roosevelt’s ability to respond creatively to the Great Depression and echo Lincoln’s war performance is truly exceptional. No other president faced the same range of existential challenges. As a consequence, no other president had so many opportunities to change the basic structure of American society, and vast sections of the modern world. Roosevelt turned the darkest of times into the brightest of new hopes. He was not only the first welfare president, but, by 1944, the first global president, influencing more parts of the world than any previous American executive. He pioneered the New Deal and then globalized its reach.”

No less heroic is the way that JFK navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. In sharp contrast to FDR’s time, Suri points out, the job of president had become so compartmentalized that, even at the height of the crisis, JFK was hamstrung with a schedule crammed with activities of little to no real significance. The office had taken on such a life of its own that it was assumed the president would simply pick how his advisors wanted to strike at Cuba not whether to discuss other options. Of course, we know JFK found another option. But, in the case of Vietnam, the system forced his hand. For LBJ, it was more of the same: another president distracted as well as compelled to great action.

Suri states that gradual and incremental progress is the new template fashioned by Clinton and Obama. But, Suri goes on to say, a sense for bold action must not be lost. For Clinton, it was not responding to the genocide in Rwanda. For Obama, it was not responding to ISIS as the threat emerged. In both cases, each president was conscious of the risk of overextending and held back when they should have acted. As for Trump, Suri seems to see him as more of a warning that we’ve hit rock bottom and now we must plan for what lies ahead. This is an essential book for putting our current state of affairs into proper historical context.

How Much More of King Trump? Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

The focus of this book is to show how the modern American presidency has evolved into a colossal apparatus. In turn, the role of a modern American president has become virtually unmanageable, too demanding for just one person. Or has it–or is that the crucial problem? To be sure, it is a problem but solving it won’t resolve other government dysfunction. Suri does not delve into what his proposed solution would gain. A team of president and prime minister, as he suggests, would still be at the mercy of a corrupt and compromised Congress. But one step at a time. A post-Trump America, in and of itself, will be a step in the right direction. More and more Americans, even loyal Trump supporters, are coming to see that something is fundamentally wrong with our current chief executive, his election, his entire administration. One American president who Suri does not cover is President Jimmy Carter. Here is a president who valued integrity and did quite a lot of good while in office. Look it up and you’ll see. This book is just the type that inspires you to keep looking up in more ways than one.

“The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office” is a 368-page hardcover published by Basic Books. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Editorial Cartoons, History, Political Cartoons, politics

Review: ‘Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City’

Tenements, Towers, and Trash!

Cartoonist Julia Wertz has a distinctive outlook (irreverent, pithy, snarky) that has gained a loyal following of readers. With her latest work, she brings her unique style to bear on the Big Apple. It is an honest, funny, and insightful approach to learning about how cities evolve, particularly New York City, the quintessential urban mecca. Early in her cartooning career, Wertz said she resisted writing some sort of coming-of-age book set in NYC. Now, more mature, she can dish on the history of the city that never sleeps while also, inevitably, sharing something of her journey of self-discovery. It all makes for an intoxicating blend: “Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City,” published by Black Dog & Leventhal.

Wertz sets up a poignant and vulnerable starting point: the remains of the New York World’s Fair of 1964. It’s not a pretty sight. No, it’s a mishmash of faded totems to the future. Ironic stuff, indeed, irresistible to a wise-cracking cartoonist! Surely, you know that most, if not all, cartoonists have a sardonic sense of humor. And Julia Wertz is just the sort of sardonic tour guide you would want. But it’s not just about the snark–far from it. Sure, Wertz puts the 1964 World’s Fair through the wringer, deeming it a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. Now, the 1939 New York World’s Fair had style but, in its own way, it too was a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. This sort of comparison easily lends itself to delving deeper and therein lies what this book is about, what makes it unique and beautiful.

Egg Creams, best to keep them simple.

New York City is all about the tension between the pretty and the not so pretty. Wertz revels in this fact. It seems as if she can’t get enough. Just when you think you have this book figured out, Wertz will delight the reader with shifts in narrative, compelling visuals, and overall heart-felt enthusiasm, the sort of lust and vigor you’d expect from an Indiana Jones in the jungle except this is Julia Wertz on countless urban expeditions. She tracks down everything: bagels, egg creams, The Village Voice, railroad flats, micro-living units. It’s all here and then some.

I love New York almost beyond words. My heart goes out to Julia Wertz and her marvelous long walks spanning hours upon hours and covering multiple boroughs and miles. I highly recommend taking this book on a NYC trek of your own. It’s a hefty hardcover but, if you make it your primary item in your backpack, you’ll be just fine. You can make your own comparisons and connections guided by all the amazing drawings that Wertz has to share of bygone and contemporary New York. This book is really an inspiring combination of prose and artwork and comics. This is simply a dazzling book collecting a treasure trove of insight and information and making it all feel like a carefree conversation.

223 W. 42nd Street in 1964 and in 2014.

“Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” is a 284-page hardcover published by Black Dog & Leventhal.

If you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see Julia Wertz at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run, or the the Seattle Public Library. At Short Run, on November 4th, Wertz will be giving a slideshow/talk about her urban exploring from 3:30-4:30pm at the Vera Project. And at the downtown Seattle Public Library, on November 5th, Wertz will hold a slideshow and conversation with cartoonist Nicole Georges from 2-4pm.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Julia Wertz, New York City, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival

City of Seattle Commissions Graphic Novel To Promote Historic Steam Plant

Drawing by David Lasky

Has a major American city ever commissioned a graphic novel as a public art piece before? Seattle is on board! Cartoonist David Lasky and writer Mairead Case have been selected (from 71 applicants) by the City of Seattle to create a fictional graphic novel centered around the historic Georgetown Steam Plant. The goal is to increase awareness of this unique landmark with a graphic novel geared toward young adults.

Panel from “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song”

David Lasky is the co-author (with Frank Young) of the Eisner-Award-winning graphic novel biography, “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song.” Chicago writer Mairead Case is the author of the acclaimed prose novel, “See You in the Morning.” A story by Lasky and Case, “Soixante Neuf,” was featured in Best American Comics 2011.

West elevation exterior of engine room.
The Georgetown Steam Turbine Station, built in 1906 is now a National Historic Landmark. The plant is owned by Seattle City Light and has been working to restore the plant. It is open for tours the second Saturday of each month and is occasionally used as a teaching facility for steam power engineers and hobbyists.

Here is a brief email interview I did with Mairead Case today:

What went through your head when you got the news about being chosen for this special graphic novel project?

Well I was, am, sincerely grateful: to be from a city that celebrates public monuments with comics, and to have visibility and support for the creative relationship David and I have pretty much always had, even when nobody else was looking. Grateful to have work that includes time for oral histories and site-specific research (no screens!). And aware of the responsibility to accurately represent Georgetown’s diverse history—we want to use this platform to amplify and illuminate the stories that are already here, not co-opt them. For real. (Also, I was really happy to have news that would make my mom proud.)

Are you already envisioning what your routine will be like with the project?

David and I are both pretty focused, detailed nightowls so I expect we’ll have a focused, detailed, nightowl routine. That said, it’s amazing to have financial support for this project so it’s really exciting to think about how we might work in new ways with that gift. (We might even work in the daytime, ha!) But no matter what we’ll be collaborating closely. And we will probably listen to Bowie at some point.

Did you ever think you’d be creating a graphic novel about a steam plant?

I feel like I’m supposed to say no here, but why not? When I was a kid I wanted to be a tightrope walker so maybe this is not that far off.

What do you think this project might say about the role of graphic novels in America?

Ah, I think our role is to make the book and then other people can tell us! But it is terrific terrific terrific that Seattle is supporting a project like this—it’s really wonderful that an American city in 2017 is using art to build community, as defined and remembered by that community. I’m used to telling (maybe yelling a little too) at the government about that, and am still gobsmacked that this time the government was all “we know. Go.” I hope that other cities say “Go” too. The talent is here! American cities, if you want me to send you lists about the talented storytellers I know in your neighborhoods, just send a flare.

You can keep up with this intriguing project right here.

And, if you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see David Lasky at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run.

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Filed under Comics, David Lasky, graphic novels, Mairead Case, Seattle, Seattle-Georgetown, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, Story, Storytelling, writers, writing

Review: ‘Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities’ by Hamish Steele

“Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities” by Hamish Steele

Who knew that ancient Egyptian (3000 BCE – 30 BC) mythology could be so much fun? Well, a very creative and funny guy named Hamish Steele sure does. Read his take on these creation tales in his new graphic novel, “Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities,” published by Nobrow Press. It is always a pleasure to review a book by Nobrow as they consistently bring out books that will appeal to a wide readership. This book I peg at ages 13 and up. A tongue-in-cheek blurb on the back provides a friendly warning. It states that this book contains depictions of “incest, decapitation, suspicious salad, fighting hippos, lots of scorpions, and a golden willy.” So, keep that in mind.

Osiris weighs in.

Steele has created a “disruptive” comic interpretation of Egyptian mtyhology. It is as if he picked the brains of countless students who have had to slog through arcane history and literature and given them exactly what they wanted. How about The Canterbury Tales as told by Borat? The original is “bawdy” but still a bit distant. There is no harm in making it more accessible. In fact, the great Seymour Chwast gave us his take on The Canterbury Tales a few years ago and brings things to life in way that only the comics medium can do. What Steele does is follow the pantheon of gods and pharaohs as they attempt to rule over ancient Egypt, warts and all.

Isis on the hunt.

Take, for example, just how badly things go when a god is insecure. Ra, the sun god, senses that he has outworn his welcome among humans. So, what does he do? He turns his one and only duaghter, Hathor, into fury itself, hell-bent on killing humans. Not the best solution to a problem. Steele plays that up with sly wit. Of course, things get far more complicated once Ra drops off a few gods to fight over who will rule over humans as pharaoh. Gods being gods, nothing is beneath them. And here, Steele runs with it.

With an appealing style, Steele infuses these tales of gods and mortals with a zesty contemporary vibe. Steele’s approach is uninhibited, playful, and spot on. This would be a welcome addition in a high school or college classroom.

“Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities” is a 216 page full-color trade paperback, available as of September 15, 2017. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Nobrow Press right here. You can also find this book by visiting Amazon right here.

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Filed under Comics, Education, Egypt, Hamish Steele, Humor, Myth, Nobrow Press

Interview: Mark Gottlieb chats about project with George Clayton Johnson

Émile Zola illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Mark Gottlieb is a composer and a lucky person to have been a lifelong friend of screenwriter George Clayton Johnson. This friendship led to a collaboration between Gottlieb and Johnson on “Zola,” a compelling musical that features the Dreyfus affair, a scandal that rocked France at the end of the 19th century and reverberates to this very day. There are a number of things to unpack and discuss here. We begin with an overview of what the infamous Dreyfus affair was all about and go from there, with plenty of recollections about the great ole storyteller, the timeless, George Clayton Johnson.

The Dreyfus affair focuses upon a wrongly accused man who made the perfect scapegoat for the time. Considering how Rod Serling was such a steadfast advocate for human rights, it is quite fitting to find George Clayton Johnson, one of Serling’s fellow writers on The Twilight Zone, as co-creator of this musical. Johnson was always a person to side with the nonconformist. So, it was natural when Gottlieb, in search of a libretto, came calling on George. The two entered upon a partnership and worked, off and on, on the Zola musical for many years. Since the death of George Clayton Johnson in 2015, the impetus has been to get the musical out into the world. To that end, Gottlieb is contacting like-minded souls such as myself to help spread the word. As someone who also got to enjoy a special connection with George, it is my pleasure to present to you this conversation I had with Mark Gottlieb recently.

Now, a little history: The Dreyfus affair occurred during France’s Third Republic. It was sparked by the wrongful imprisonment of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. The matter would officially drag on until 1906. Dreyfus was convicted of treason for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans in December 1894. At first the public supported the conviction; it was willing to believe in the guilt of Dreyfus, who was Jewish. Much of the early publicity surrounding the case came from anti-Semitic groups (especially the newspaper La Libre Parole, edited by Édouard Drumont), to whom Dreyfus symbolized the supposed disloyalty of French Jews.

The effort to reverse the sentence was at first limited to members of the Dreyfus family, but, as evidence pointing to the guilt of another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, came to light from 1896, the pro-Dreyfus side slowly gained adherents (among them journalists Joseph Reinach and Georges Clemenceau—the future World War I premier—and a senator, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner). The accusations against Esterhazy resulted in a court-martial that acquitted him of treason (January 1898). To protest against the verdict, the novelist Émile Zola wrote a letter titled “J’accuse,” published in Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore. In it he attacked the army for covering up its mistaken conviction of Dreyfus, an action for which Zola was found guilty of libel.

What follows is my interview with Mark Gottlieb. Here we begin with the Dreyfus affair and quickly dig deeper into the issues involved. Then we steadily see how Gottlieb and Johnson joined together as a creative team. In the process, we get a unique inside view into the world of George Clayton Johnson, a unique voice in storytelling. He is best known for iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone like “Kick the Can,” and “Nothing in the Dark.” Among his work, he is also known for writing “Man Trap,” the first episode broadcast of Star Trek, as well as being the co-writer, with William F. Nolan, of the landmark science fiction novel, “Logan’s Run.” Lastly, I have to say, I believe this interview will really hook you in. The proper warm up and set up is done and off we go:

For the interview, click the link right here.

Stay tuned for more news on the Zola musical.

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Filed under France, George Clayton Johnson, Mark Gottlieb, Music, Musicals, pop culture, Social Justice

SIFF Review: ‘The Reagan Show’

All Hail, the Gipper!

We’ve heard plenty about how the media helped to construct Donald Trump. We see how another White House and the media interacted in, “The Reagan Show,” a new documentary by filmmakers Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall). Pacho Velez was on hand this weekend for a Q&A after the film’s showing at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Ronald Reagan is as much icon as enigma. He managed a life and career treading upon the surface. In their documentary, Velez and Pettengill work mostly from archival footage, made up of official White House video and network news segments, to revisit a man who was at his best as a flickering image just beyond reach. The Reagan administration made the big switch from documenting the president in video instead of the traditional, costly, and confining 16mm film. Video allowed for continuous unencumbered recording. It became known as White House TV, perfect for a former Hollywood actor. The documentary perfectly mines all the irony attached to our first reality TV president. What we get is not so much bloopers, or even anything substantial behind the scenes, but a better sense of a president who was painfully too old and woefully disengaged.

Growing up in the ’80s, I don’t recall that era as particularly quaint but the footage in this doc proves otherwise. One such moment could have come right out of the Eisenhower White House. To illustrate how in command the president was, Chief of Staff Howard Baker recites what is supposed to be a decisive moment between Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Just prior to a tough round of negotiation, Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would autograph his World Series baseball. This gesture supposedly disarmed Gorbachev and left Reagan with the advantage. It’s a nonsensical anecdote but it apparently disarmed the media just enough to look away and move on.

Pres. Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev

There is plenty of obliging on the part of the media to be found here. Some hard-hitting questioning too, especially by ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. But the president’s charm is ever present. The only tarnish comes with the complex Iran Contra scandal. It is complex enough to allow Reagan something of a pass. For the most part, this doc focuses on the work between Reagan and Gorbachev. As Velez pointed out during the Q&A, Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War, whether or not that’s true. Overall, he achieved the status of an icon. In reality, as this doc makes clear, the Reagan administration did a lot of stumbling and had the unbelievably good luck of having Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin.

Under certain circumstances, the press, and various other power brokers, will always look away. There will always be exceptional circumstances (FDR, for example, was never photographed in a wheelchair). But when a president so flagrantly abuses his power, then that gentleman’s agreement is forced off the table. Ronald Reagan remained a gentleman. And, for that, he was saved by the establishment. The media asked tough questions but they were always open to being charmed. And Ronald Reagan could be relied upon to charm with the best of them.

While this documentary has its share of irony and self-awareness (Reagan’s plea to “Make America Great Again” is included), it cannot help but get caught up in the murk of Reagan “charm.” As Velez stated in the Q&A, he aimed for this documentary to follow a narrative of success with a happy ending. Sure, Velez did not want to demonize Reagan. Fair enough. But to allow Reagan off the hook with a story that closes with him achieving a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets is pretty generous. You may as well end a story about Nixon with him opening relations between the US and China. To Reagan’s credit, Velez pointed out in the Q&A, he always seemed sincere. In comparison to today, that does count for a lot.

You can follow “The Reagan Show” on its Facebook page right here. The documentary will air this Labor Day on CNN. You can still catch it at SIFF this Wednesday, June 7th. Go to SIFF for details right here.

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Filed under Documentaries, Movie Reviews, movies, politics, Ronald Reagan, Russia, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF, Soviet Union

Book Review: ‘Jerzy: A Novel’ by Jerome Charyn

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.

Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.

It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.

As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.

It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”

Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:

No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.

It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.

What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:

“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Hollywood, Holocaust, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, writers, writing

Review: BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

Yuri and Stavrogin: It is a matter of trust.

In Herman Melville’s last novel, “Billy Budd,” we follow the fate of an orphan plucked from adversity and conscripted into the British Royal Navy. In the graphic novel by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, the lost little orphan is carted off into the service of the Soviet Union. Like Melville’s main character, there is something special about this boy. As we find in much of Charyn’s work, we have a protagonist of limited means compelled to honor his great potential. However, as we begin, we have only an emotionally stunted, ignorant lad with a hideous harelip. It is 1954. Stalin is in power. Yuri cannot resist all that is offered to him by the Soviets. In fact, he has no choice. “Billy Bud, KGB,” originally released in France in 1990, has recently been re-issued, with a new English translation by Jerome Charyn, by Dover Comics and Graphic Novels.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Mr. Charyn’s literary career began in America in 1964 with his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” a story of underdogs fighting to remain in their tenement apartment. After 19 prose novels, including the Isaac Sidel crime noir series, Charyn decided to adapt one of his stories into a graphic novel. That led to more. It all began with 1987’s “The Magician’s Wife,” with artist François Boucq. They also collaborated on 2014’s “Little Tulip.” Another graphic novel by Charyn in a similar spirit is 1991’s “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” with artist Jacques de Loustal. All four of these stories have multi-layered plots, primarily set in New York City, and filled with offbeat characters.

Yuri encounters the spiritual realm.

Our main character, Yuri, seems to be a typical malleable cog but something burns inside him making him go astray. He is far too innocent and ignorant to be in command of his intuitive desire to rebel. All he knows is that there must be more to life than what his Soviet handlers are telling him. Luckily, Yuri stumbles into a friendship with an instructor that will inform the rest of his life. Comrade Grigori’s unique artistic skills and broad knowledge have made him an asset over the years at the KGB training camp. But that same treasure trove of knowledge makes him very dangerous to the Soviet agenda. As a tutor, mentor, and friend, he provides Yuri with a key to unlock his soul.

It’s not easy being a spy.

By fits and starts, Yuri emerges as material for a competent secret agent. The KGB arranges a few encounters with prostitutes in order to, in their view, make Yuri more worldly. And then he’s shipped off to America. His new identity, a knowing nod to Melville: William “Billy” Budd, the lost soul. It will be up to the newly minted Billy in New York City to struggle with his life’s purpose. Stavrogin plucked him out of a ditch and gave him a future. Grigori opened his eyes to life’s possibilities. And Red Eagle, a Native American mystic, may offer him the salvation he’s hungered for all along.

Yuri gains a deeper spiritual connection.

Both Charyn and Boucq work in such a synchronized and nuanced manner that was as rare a treat then as it is now. Such pairing can only happen when the time is right. Today, readers in America and in general, are far more receptive to this level of quality. While a unique challenge, some creators choose to control all aspects of their work alone. But, as this graphic novel collaboration makes clear, the results can be stunning when writer and artist work together. We can all thank novelist Jerome Charyn for being a true trailblazer in adding his unique literary talent to the pantheon of exemplary work in comics. This book is a mesmerizing story and comics of the first order.

BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

“Billy Bud, KGB” is a 144-page full color trade paperback. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here. You can find it at Amazon right here.

Also note a Kickstarter campaign going on now thru May 21st for a deluxe reprint of FAMILY MAN, a collaboration between Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.

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Filed under Comics, Dover Publications, François Boucq, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jerome Charyn, Russia, Soviet Union, Spies

Review: THE BEST WE COULD DO by Thi Bui

THE BEST WE COULD DO by Thi Bui

THE BEST WE COULD DO, by Thi Bui and published by Abrams ComicArts, is one of those rare graphic novels with an in depth family theme. This sort of book belongs in the select group of titles like PERSEPOLIS and FUN HOME. In fact, you usually need to turn to the superhero genre, with all its universes and lineages, to find a story in comics that focuses on anything remotely to do with family. I say this tongue-in-cheek but it’s fairly true. Anyway, anytime you add family, you are likely adding something interesting to your story. What happens in Bui’s graphic novel is thoughtful, funny, and totally interesting. When was the last time you read an epic saga about a Vietnamese family? Well, this fills that void in a very compelling way.

Page excerpt from THE BEST WE COULD DO

Thi Bui studied art and law, thought about becoming a civil rights lawyer, but became a public school teacher instead. Someone with that kind of background is just the sort of cerebral and sensitive type of person who gravitates to creating comics. Bui was born in Vietnam and arrived in America with her family as a refugee from the Vietnam War. Her immigrant experience, without a doubt, is part of a continuum that will outlive our current political machinations. This is a story that goes beyond that and addresses the struggles that any family will confront as one generation must come to terms with another. It is also a story about finding one’s self both within and outside the context of family. As Bui discovers, close proximity to family does not necessary mean close ties to family.

Page excerpt from THE BEST WE COULD DO

Overall, Bui has adopted a solid alt-comics approach to her work. It has that intimacy and spontaneity that evokes work coming out of a sketchbook. While Bui is not a career cartoonist who has honed years of experimentation with comics, she provides an engaging and polished style. It will be interesting to see if she chooses to further develop her work in the comics medium. She has created a beautiful book.

Page excerpt from THE BEST WE COULD DO

“The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” is a 336-page hardcover available as of March 7th. For more details, visit Abrams ComicArts right here. You can purchase through Amazon right here.

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Filed under Abrams, Abrams ComicArts, Comics, Family, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Immigrants, Immigration, Vietnam, Vietnam War