Tag Archives: Writing

Book Review: ‘The Last Mona Lisa’ by Jonathan Santlofer

THE LAST MONA LISA

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.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Jonathan Santlofer, Paris

Comics Artist John Paul Leon (1972-2021)

The Winter Men by Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon

John Paul Leon, an amazing artist in the comics industry with a highly distinctive style, has passed away. I got to know his writing partner, Brett Lewis, and that was such a treat. Brett, if you read this, please contact me. If you want to find out what John Paul Leon was all about, then just seek out THE WINTER MEN, one of the most dazzling and offbeat works of comics you will ever read: so quirky and inventive with its loving tribute to spy thriller tropes in a deliciously subversive way! This is all thanks to the creative team of Leon and Lewis. I love comics and I’m associated with comics on so many levels but it all comes down to the honest hard-working individuals who genuinely have something real and vital to bring to the table. John Paul Leon was such an individual. He is beloved within the industry and by the many fans who got to know his work.

John Paul Leon artwork for Static Shock

John Paul Leon, best known for his artwork for Static Shock and Earth X, gave us a highly energetic and gritty style all his own. Leon died on May 1, 2021, at the age of 49, after a long battle with cancer. The news came via Chris Conroy, a senior editor at DC Comics. He wrote: “It seems the news is out. Last night we lost John Paul Leon, one of the greatest draftsmen in the history of comics, the kind of artist that EVERY artist revered. Those who loved him had some warning, but not enough.” For the ultimate tribute to Leon, read this by Michael Davis, co-founder of Milestone Comics and co-creator of Static Shock.

May 5, 2021 by Tommy Lee Edwards, Organizer
Today was my first attempt at a full work-day since losing JP. Feels like I’ve lost a limb. My sounding board has gone silent. My rudder is broken & my boat’s full of holes. Glasses are fogged & it’s hard to read the map. Reading the lovely comments on this GoFundMe page is helping me stay the course, tho. Thank you.

A GoFundMe has been set up in support of a trust for John Paul Leon’s family. It is organized by Tommy Lee Edwards, John Paul’s studiomate.

Excerpt from Static Shock

Next, let me share with you a post from John Paul Leon’s dear friend and creative partner, Brett Lewis. You can find this and a lot of other goodies by visiting Brett at his Patreon. I only share this one particular post since it is so fitting at this time. This was originally posted back in August of 2020 and is a touching reminiscence of events prior to working on The Winter Men.

The Mail Man by Brett Lewis and John Paul Lewis

Years before Winter Men finally got set up at Vertigo, while we were still shopping it around, i found myself editing and writing a Karl Malone comic book adventure.

(He is a famous now-former basketball player for the Utah Jazz.)

I’ve never looked down on well-executed licensed books the way some do (especially then) and i didn’t want to hire or work with any hacks.

John Paul Leon is always at 100% commitment level and we’d been looking to do something long form for years. I’d also been encouraging him to ink his own work for years (an easier said than done leap in those days) and wanted to see him explore in comics the sort of line qualities& open to color linework he utilized beautifully in his private work & life drawing –where he explored his love of things like Alex Toth fully as well as the kind of gestural 60s-70s editorial illustration style we studied with Jack Potter at SVA. This seemed like a good time and place.

This seemed right.

Best selling comic in the history of Utah. And i did a press conference with the guy, Malone, which was fairly surreal.

The color printed too dark/oversaturated, but the original colors by my other college friend, and John’s hometown friend, Bernard Chang were lovely.

The character designs were by me and the great illustrator and designer Chris Jordon. Maybe i can find some of those.

Above are the only images from it i have at the moment. **

**

Was working on getting a PDF for you guys to enjoy the whole story and original colors, but by a confluence of events the old zip disk it was on has come to be missing in the effects of my friend who had been working on all my old computers and hard drives to rescue into accessibility some files of old projects when he died,

and due to quarantine i can’t go search where i need to go search for it. Yet.

Still hope.

I hope there remain many other small hopes where you are too.

— Brett Lewis

John Paul Leon artwork for BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT

There’s an old link buried somewhere within the innards of this site that has by old review of The Winter Men. I will go ahead and post it all here as it is such a wonderful time capsule and just goes to show the excitement that comics can elicit. The Winter Men was part of the Wildstorm imprint (originally, it began as part of Vertigo) at DC Comics and stands as an amazing example of the artful and edgy stuff you can find at DC Comics when all the stars align themselves properly! Ah, this is a double feature as it also includes a review of another oldie but goodie, RED HERRING. This would be a great time to issue a special hardcover edition of The Winter Men. Let DC Comics know how you feel if this strikes a chord with you.

REVIEWS

Well, wet your whistle on this, pardner. This review was originally posted at Newsarama, November 18, 2009:

REVIEW: THE WINTER MEN

“The Winter Men” is a patchwork quilt of observations and red herrings that takes the spy thriller to new heights of eccentric fun. It’s one of those stories that starts out about being one thing and ends up embracing everything. Meet Kris Kalenov, the main character in “The Winter Men,” he is your guide into the underworld and beyond. It’s a new world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Kalenov is no longer a star player in a Soviet secret weapons program. He has become a Moscow cop, usually full of vodka and, at the start of this tale, is keeled over drunk on a sidewalk covered in snow.

I did not discover “The Winter Men” when it was a comic book but, considering its production delays, including its switchover from Vertigo to Wildstorm, it’s understandable that it somehow slipped by me. Luckily, I did not have to experience any long waits between issues and got to read this new collected trade in one sitting. This is a good read anytime and anywhere but I also see it as perfect inflight reading. Aren’t spy thrillers very popular in airport bookstores? I believe this to be so. It’s because you’re out of your element and open to adventure.

One big thing about “The Winter Men” is that it gets you way out of your element. It’s like “Goodfellas,” one of the best movies about gang life, all about wiseguys and getting whacked. “The Winter Men,” is all about Russia’s new Mafiya and its biznessmen and getting under the right roof. There’s also something akin to “Watchmen” going on in the background, a uber-man that was once the pride of Mother Russia, but it’s Kalenov and his rough and shady bunch, that will have you delight over this convoluted plot as you would in, say, an Elmore Leonard novel.

“The Winter Men” has a real attitude about it too. It promises the world, heroically keeps up with its ambition and, if it falters, shrugs like a good world-weary Russian. Kalenov, our drunk Moscow cop who once was so much more, would prefer to just live quietly and make do with his less than perfect marriage. But too much has happened in the past and it can’t be ignored. “We once filled the sky with heroes…but now they’ve fallen to earth…” That is an intriguing refrain that is looped throughout the book. Within the span of the first few pages: hints of the Soviet super-hero program, a woman is shot, a child is kidnapped and Kalenov is picked up from the snow and enlisted to solve the crime of the century, although he doesn’t know that yet.

All this reminds me of any number of very good television series that, from the narrative, the characters and the production value, are clearly a cut above. And these shows usually make big promises and it’s okay if they don’t deliver on all of them since it’s the world that the characters inhabit that’s most rewarding. I think of shows like, “Life on Mars,” at least the American version, or “Life” or “Dollhouse.” In fact, it’s interesting to consider if these shows would have done better in finding an audience if they were less about process and more about results but, then again, these shows are primarily about attitude. The promises they make, real or not, can be legitimate fuel for the story’s engine.

Another connection to “Watchmen,” I think, is the group of heroes that Kalenov originally belonged to. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the line-up is recalled by Kalenov in a regular loop throughout the book: Drost, the soldier; Nikki, the gangster; Nina, the bodyguard; Kalenov, the poet; for a total of four, or five, if you include The Siberian. There’s even a sepia toned photograph of the gang in much happier times: Nikki has just told a joke and it has The Siberian in stitches. Along with the irony, it’s those details, the atmosphere and texture that this book thrives on.

There are a couple of scenes that come to mind. And, like everything else here, the writer and artist team of Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon tackle it with gusto. One has Kalenov and Nikki creating a disturbance in a McDonald’s so that they can unbolt from the floor a plastic table and chairs console to take home. The employee desperately tries to convince an irate Kalenov that the mayonnaise does adhere to city regulations with “well above the forty percent fat requirement.” Another good one has Nikki in the middle of a full-on turf war with other soft drink vendors. Informing the mayhem and murder are quotes from a self-help best-seller like, “Lose Control to the Maximum.”

Perhaps your reading of “The Winter Men” will find it keeping to all its promises and even holding the answer to the meaning to life. God knows, it is certainly within its reach. If you find fault, some blame, maybe a good bit of it, can go to the fact the series was cut from a promised eight issues down to six. There are parts to the story that do appear truncated. And the ending does seem to come all too quickly. However, the fact remains that this comic is really about the quirk and it’s all there for you to enjoy.

“The Winter Men” collected trade releases on November 25.

Hope you enjoyed this installment of Comics Grinder and I welcome you back for more. You can always check in too at the Comics Grinder site.

And here’s another quirky title, very much up my alley, that I enjoyed from way back. This review was first published at Newsarama on August 12, 2009:

Wildstorm-Red-Herring

Best Shots Extra: WildStorm’s RED HERRING #1
by Henry ChamberlainDate: 12 August 2009 Time: 05:55 PM ET 0 0Reddit0Submit0

Red Herring #1
Writer: David Tischman
Pencils: Philip Bond
Inks: David Hahn
Color: Guy Major
Lettering: Rob Leigh
Published by DC Wildstorm

Reviewed by: Henry Chamberlain

In Stores Today, August 12, 2009

Well, it’s true, as David Tischman says in a recent Newsarama interview, Philip Bond knows how to draw sexy women. So does David Hahn. That’s how we lead into Wildstorm’s latest cool caper comic, Red Herring. A young woman in a lacy bra has just slipped into a pump while chatting on her cell phone. Her languorous pose is surrounded by little bits of intimate narration: “It’s been crazy-busy at the office and talking to your mother calms you down.” We proceed a few pages as Maggie MacGuffin tries to find the right outfit while keeping in mind, as the story title suggests, “Blue Makes Her Look Fat.”

With such a stylish beginning, we smoothly move through what is a top-notch sly and sexy story. One goal of this opener is to connect Maggie MacGuffin with male lead, the titular Red Herring. As characters, they could not be more different. They seem to only share the fact that their names represent literary dead ends, false clues in a mystery, but they prove to be very much alive. They are not meant for each other but that could be fun too.

I haven’t had quite as much fun with a comic since another Wildstorm series, Mysterius the Unfathomable. This is a totally different scene, the world of high rollers and espionage in Washington D. C., but it’s definitely got a similar ultra-cool and clever style. Where Mysterius was very good with details about magicians, Red Herring provides the right balance of insider dealing and conspiracy theorist satisfaction.

We already know that things are never quite as they seem so it makes perfect sense to spice up the ambiguity by having fate bring together a party girl with a conscience, Maggie MacGuffin, and an earnest gumshoe secret agent, Red Herring. Couldn’t make matters any worse, could do it? Well, maybe so. Did I mention there is a possible alien subplot and people are already trying to kill Red before he kills them? Yeah, things could get very messy.

This first issue is probably chock full of MacGuffins and red herrings. As for the details that add texture, they build up quite nicely. The narrator mocks Maggie as she struts her way to Capital Hill. “Compromise is the ESSENCE of politics. That’s what your AP History teacher said.” Maggie works down in the lower levels of Congress “where the offices are small and the salary’s even smaller. Two weeks barely pays for a good pair of shoes.” At first, we see Maggie filing away papers but then we come to find out this meek office worker is actually the lover of a high powered Congressman.

The tempo slows down for some procedural scenes with the no-nonsense Red Herring. So far, Red is proving to be a little too dry for his own good. But he has this thing about his glass eye and so he may prove to have some interesting issues. . Red is supposed to be about ten years older than Maggie and the plan, according to David Tischman, is to keep these two platonic. That could be a pity. Or maybe it’s a red herring.

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Filed under Brett Lewis, Comics, DC Comics, John Paul Lewis, Obituaries, Vertigo, Wildstorm

Interview: Jerome Charyn on J.D. Salinger, History and Heartbreak

Jerome and Henry discuss writing, history, and J.D. Salinger.

Just about any reader has an opinion about J.D. Salinger. In his latest novel, Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn takes that most celebrated and enigmatic of writers and crafts a story about history and heartbreak. It is about history nearly lost. It is about history relived. It is about heartbreak of the most sorrowful. In the end, this is a dazzling work that will take you on trip that will give you a more vivid sense of World War II and the journey that led J.D. Salinger right to the precipice. Was J.D. Salinger a great writer. Yes, he had that magic touch, that artistic vision. What does Jerome Charyn do with this story? As Jerome was adamant to tell me, this is not a story seeking to find out who J.D. Salinger was in any conventional sense. This is, after all, a work of art, a work of fiction.

Slapton Sands was a debacle that was almost covered up and lost to history.

For me, I just want to share with you a marvelous novel. There’s so much to enjoy in the way of masterful writing. I cite one example here where J.D. Salinger finds himself levitating up and flying over Central Park on his way to Belvedere Castle. He is transformed back into a boy along with his sister, Doris, becoming a young girl again. They confront a sinister figure, a witch, who is actually Salinger’s estranged wife, Sylvia. Doris is puzzled when the witch invites Doris to a lesson she can’t learn in any school. What could that be? asks Doris. “What can you teach me?” The witch looks at Doris and replies, “How not to exist.” I know this is out of context but I trust you feel a chill from this.

J.D. Salinger was there for D-Day on Utah Beach.

Another reason you may enjoy my conversation with Jerome Charyn is the historic ground that we cover. We do talk some about literary theory and such. But, I think, a lot of you will find more than just interesting a brief overview of World War II. Yeah, in short order, we end up covering a lot of ground. But it couldn’t be helped. J.D. Salinger covered an enormous amount of ground during his service in the war. Salinger witnessed more combat than some of our most celebrated writers on World War II. Salinger was there to observe the calamitous Exercise Tiger, the D-Day landing at Utah Beach, and the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp. Salinger saw so much, too much. And it sort of broke him. But not so much as to keep him from going on the complete a small but significant body of work, which includes, of course, The Catcher in the Rye.

J.D. Salinger was also there for Hitler’s last stand at the Battle of the Bulge.

Given our conversation, and my continuous searching to understand, Charyn summed it up nicely towards the end of our talk. “As for meaning, I don’t know what the ‘meaning’ is. I know what the music is. The music becomes the meaning. I’m not a philosopher.” Yeah! Kick-ass writing without apologies. For Jerome, the war, J.D. Salinger, New York City from a certain era, all of this Jerome lived and breathed himself. So, creating fiction from it came easy to him. “History is a very strange kiss that lands on you and invigorates and destroys. It is the past that I’m most interested in. It is the past that I try to summon up in my own way.” J.D. Salinger wasn’t a person to dissect and create a profile from. For Jerome Charyn, J.D. Salinger was a haunted house which he moved into and built some solid fiction from. Bring your A-game reading to this one!

And J.D. Salinger was among the first Americans to witness the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.

Be sure to view is conversation. I kid you not, you’ll be glad to did. And, if you have a moment, your comments are always welcome.

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Filed under Interviews, Jerome Charyn

Book Review: SERGEANT SALINGER by Jerome Charyn

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn

Sergeant Salinger. by Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary Press. 2021, 286 pp. $28.99

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.

Oona O’Neill

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.

J.D. Salinger

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.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Jerome Charyn

Interview: Julia Wald and the Art of the Interview

The Suspension of Disbelief by Julia Wald

I ask that you keep going on this journey with me. I have been carving this niche for years and I feel like I’ve got it at quite a cozy level with just the right content and pacing. That said, it’s time for another thoughtful interview. For my video interviews, I add here a few notes and observations. Traditional journalism, like hard news reportage, will take an interview and create a concise summation. Some magazines are known for their long sprawling interviews where everything is transcribed. Of course, we also have a long tradition of various talk show formats, some thoughtful and some that are so casual as to blur right in with a dance segment on Tik Tok. Hey, I have nothing against fun and entertainment and I’ll engage in that when it makes sense. But, for interviews, I take them seriously, prepare for them, take off my Joe Cool hat and don’t engage in any dancing. Although, in a metaphorical sense, a good interview is sort of like a dance. The person conducting the interview leads while the person who is the subject of the interview goes about picking up one cue after another and making something out of it.

A bus driver finds solace through the suspension of disbelief.

Anyway, I say all this because it’s particularly relevant to this interview. Essentially, this is an interview about interviews: how to conduct one, what it means, what you attempt to get out of it. I interviewed Julia Wald about her new book, The Suspension of Disbelief (review), an illustrated collection of interviews she conducted about life and work during Covid-19. In the course of the interview, we ended up talking about what it means when you’re working at a restaurant during a world-wide pandemic and suddenly it’s like all the lights are out and then, just as suddenly, you are out of a job, your source of income. We discuss who might have stepped in to help and who didn’t.

A disadvantaged man finds hope through knowledge.

And, finally, once an artistic and talented person is inspired to create a book about Covid-19, what responsibility, if any, does she have to the vulnerable people she has interviewed? Well, part of the answer goes back to the dance. If the dance partners have established a sense of trust, then there’s a very good chance that something worthwhile will result that everyone can be proud of. We focus in a bit on American journalist Studs Terkel (1912-2008), the icon of what came to be known as “literary journalism.” Terkel was most active from the 1950s to 1990s, creating his seminal collection of interviews, Working, in 1974. He was part of that old-fashioned gumshoe journalist/creative tradition: loyal to his readers and listeners, to his Chicago, and to the art and craft of journalism. Julia says that Terkel inspired her on her Covid-19 project and it shows and, ultimately, it demonstrates that she did right by all who she interviewed. Julia did it the right way, the old-fashioned way that involves hard work and integrity. It’s the best way. And it’s what inspires me to keep going on this journey.

Visit Julia Wald right here.

The Suspension of Disbelief is available at Push/Pull.

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Filed under Comics, COVID-19, Illustration, Interviews

Review: ‘Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter’

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter. Written by Brea Grant. Art by Yishan Li. Six Foot Press. Houston. 2020. 144pp, $18.99.

On my radar right now is a graphic novel about a teenage girl who is a direct descendant of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and has to deal with the pressure of living up to the name. She doesn’t see a career in writing in her future, worries about what her big purpose in life might be, and then she discovers she has special powers that help heal monsters. It turns out to be a really well put together read that is suitable for any age and, of course, a perfect book as we celebrate Halloween. But, beyond that holiday, this is also a wonderful gateway book to a better appreciation of reading, writing and the joy of books so it is totally something to be enjoyed by young readers, ages 12-18.

Good things come to life!

The winning combination of writer Brea Grant and artist Yishan Li makes this book very appealing. I sincerely believe you can create magic by teaming up two powerhouse talents who are genuinely having fun. This is such a book. And why? Well, there’s an endless number of ways to create a graphic novel but the notable ones manage to grab your attention in some unusual and distinctive way. Brea Grant has a very accessible and conversational style of writing. Yishan Li compliments this with her own very warm and personal style of drawing. Both manage to welcome and engage the reader. Even a somewhat jaded middle-aged guy like me will respond positively to this kind of presentation.

A most engaging graphic novel!

The opening page grabs the reader with plenty of fun and intriguing elements. We see what looks like a spooky shrine to all things Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. A couple of more panels and we get a close-up view of an oil painting portrait of Shelley. She, of course, says, “Hello.” It’s going to be that kind of book which we love, right? Just as much as we love the creepy vibe running throughout Netflix’s Bly Manor. A few more pages in and we see that a petite Goth girl is to be our main character. We go through some family history. And then, just as we’re settling in – Zap! – Mary has somehow achieved a cosmic connection with her frog specimen for Biology class. Something very unusual is happening and that’s just the start of it. Before long, Mary is becoming acquainted with a whole universe of monsters who are all relying upon her to cure their ills!

This is, as I say, an exceptional book. I go through quite a lot of books and I really need a wow factor to get my attention. I think the main reason that this is the right stuff is the book’s originality and sense of humor. Sure, we’ve all been down many a Sabrina-like road. The thing is, there’s room for more if done right. There’s a fresh approach here that wins me over much like all the attention to detail you find in a John Hughes film. I dare you to watch the last ten minutes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and not be blown away by the impeccable timing. There’s a good amount of that to be found in this book. I think, for example, of the banter between Mary and Polly, a very smelly and anti-social harpy. Or, I really enjoyed some of the more subtle touches like the set-up establishing Mary’s mom engrossed in work on her laptop even while supernatural laser beams are darting across. This book is hard to resist, whether or not it’s Halloween.

For more information, go to Six Foot Press right here.

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Interview: Lloyd Scott, author of ELECTION YEAR

Election Year by Lloyd Scott

Lloyd Scott has written a brilliant novel, ELECTION YEAR, that is part satire, political thriller and action adventure. On top of that, it is a heartfelt and insightful look at where we are today in the United States. You may have heard about Meghan Markle set to produce a film adaptation of this novel. Well, now you can hear Lloyd Scott, in her own words, talk about her work in this exclusive interview. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to interview Lloyd Scott. We are both writers and we are both biracial. I draw great strength from having this dual perspective. As I’ve shared before, I am Mexican on my mother’s side and Anglo-Saxon (is that a fairly good label?) on my father’s side. Well, we discuss race and many other things in this interview which you can listen to in full by just clicking below. Lloyd Scott also reads from one of her short stories. For more information on ELECTION YEAR, go to the official site: https://www.electionyearlloydscott.com/

Lloyd Scott’s novel features a biracial young woman working for a high powered politician, also biracial, who is on her way to becoming the first woman US president. You can read my review here. When I discovered Scott’s novel, I couldn’t help but make connections to my own novel, Max in America, which follows a biracial man who has lived all of his life in Mexico and is suddenly trying to make a life for himself in the United States. Both novels present an offbeat and idiosyncratic narrative, that can be enjoyed on many levels. A driving force in each novel is a searching for understanding from a biracial perspective. That is definitely true, and I’m thrilled to be in the thick of it. Being so close to this, I can start to wonder if I’m making too much of it. But I’ve gotten a thumbs up from Lloyd Scott herself so that will settle it for me.

In my interview, Lloyd Scott shares about her work as a sign language interpreter in the DC area. That makes total sense to me as she was able to draw from countless observations that contributed to helping her create some of the novel’s backdrop featuring political high-rollers. Asked about how she came to write her novel, Scott shared that it all began when she just happened to listen to a radio program describing what it might be like if Russian operatives actually infiltrated the White House. The highlight of our chat might be when Scott recited from one of her short stories, “Salsa,” a very funny tale of  searching for meaning and avoiding misunderstanding. Talking about issues of race took on an interesting life of its own and, I sincerely believe, we had a very productive exchange. As Scott closed out our chat, she quoted the wise words of Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Wise words we can all try to live by.

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Interview: Barbara Slate and a Career in Comics and Graphic Novels

Barbara Slate self-portrait

Barbara Slate spent twelve-hour days working on The Mueller Report Graphic Novel in order to get it out in a timely manner. In fact, her book got mentioned by a Republican representative during the Trump impeachment hearings in the House of the U.S. Congress. Trump went on to be impeached by the House. But there’s more to Barbara Slate. Here is an in depth look at a wonderful career in comics and graphic novels. Barbara Slate is known for being a pioneer in feminist comics. Her first big break came with her character, Ms. Liz, which began on greeting cards (selling over two million), then a comic strip, and even an animated short on NBC’s Today Show! What an honor. And, as I suggest, there is much more like writing for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Harvey Comics and Archie Comics. Among her many accomplishments in the visual storytelling biz, I was intrigued with the fact that she wrote 150 Betty and Veronica stories for Archie Comics! We cover that in this interview! Barbara was always fascinated with the friendship between these two young women who were so different. And, by the way, what the heck did they see in Archie in the first place? Good question.

Barbara Slate lecture poster

So, as always, I share with you about my own journey to better understand and appreciate the comics medium. I do it by sharing of my own work and by reviewing as much material as I can. And, of course, I do it by putting together special interviews such as this. You can say that I do my best to find a different angle to the people and subjects I choose to focus on. And I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. Not when I have creators like Barbara Slate to help guide the way.

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

Now, a few words on the two recent titles that we feature in this interview. First, let’s cover The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. And then we’ll take a look at You Can Do A Graphic Novel. First off, I think Barbara has definitely created one of those books that becomes a keepsake. I am constantly culling through my books but this one is a keeper. And why? Well, within its 107 pages, it masterfully makes sense of one mammoth of a book that deserves close attention. The actual Mueller Report, a text-dense book clocking in at nearly 500 pages along with supplementary material, lays out how Russian interference has wreaked havoc upon our electoral process as well as provides a jaw-drawing look at how the Trump team, with Trump himself very much involved, have obstructed justice. A stream-lined concise graphic novel actually makes sense–and this is it! This book is, no matter what the subject, a perfect example of how to condense a complex subject into a compelling read.

Page from The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

Barbara Slate has the magic touch with bringing the essential facts in better focus. The reader gets to know all the players and what they did. The often Byzantine-like world of Russian oligarchs is treated in a straightforward manner. A con game that no one was expected to be interested in or even be able to follow is made accessible. As we’ve heard many times over, it was not Robert Mueller’s place to determine if the President of the United States, no matter who they are, should be impeached. It is up to Congress. As we all know, Congress took a very different path than would have been expected on their way to impeachment. The Democrats had the compelling case all along with the Mueller Report but they chose to focus on Ukraine. That said, the Meuller Report is still with us, many portions of which await removal of redactions and future days in court. This graphic novel remains a handy guide for when the chickens come home to roost.

You Can Do A Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

If you’re looking for a wonderful instruction manual on comics, then you’re all set with Barbara’s You Can Do A Graphic Novel. This book will guide you through the process of telling your story through comics. You can aim for doing a full-length graphic novel in the long run. But, to begin with, you can follow these easy-to-follow steps and learn all the components to storytelling. This 232-page, fully illustrated, book will delight newcomers and even more experienced cartoonists because you have Barbara Slate sharing techniques and industry insight from a long and successful career.

Pages from You Can Do A Graphic Novel

As I say, even more experienced cartoonists will welcome the easygoing and highly informative format. Yes, you too can learn how to properly plot a comics script. Barbara Slate learned from the best. When she first started at DC Comics, she was taught the color-coded plotting system by none other than Paul Levitz, one of the biggest names at DC Comics. The book is perfect for all ages, and it will specifically appeal to young people just starting out.

Barbara Slate is one of the best. Check out her website to learn more about her work and her online comics courses. Visit Barbara Slate right here.

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Book Review: ELECTION YEAR by Lloyd Scott

Election Year by Lloyd Scott

Election Year. By Llody Scott. Independently published (June 2, 2020). 220pp, Free.

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.

 

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Review: ‘The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz’

The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz

The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz. By José Alaniz. San Diego: Amatl Comix, an SDSU Press imprint, 2020. 128 pp. $18.99.

The college newspaper has a long tradition as an incubator of exciting talent. The Daily Texan, at the University of Texas, is a prime example, home to such notable alumni as Berkeley Breathed, Chris Ware, and Shannon Wheeler. Jose Alaniz’s The Phantom Zone first appeared as a comic strip in UT’s Daily Texan in 1992-1993. Now, imagine a book that not only collects some of the best work Alaniz did at UT but also provides a look at later work, including comics and scholarship. That is what you’ll find in The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz.

The Phantom Zone, circa 1992

This book is a very special treat on many levels. For those of you interested in the process of creating comics, and storytelling in general, this book is invaluable. As for me, I’m compelled to share this with you for a number of reasons. First, I feel a great connection to Alaniz simply for the fact that we’re both Mexican-American. We’re also of the same vintage but, more than just being part of the Gen X crowd, I had my own comic strip, Danny, running in The Daily Cougar, at the University of Houston in the late-80s. In my case, one of my characters was ripped off by another cartoonist and appeared in The Houston Post for a while. And then life moved on. I’d always been heavy into liberal arts, ever mindful of an uncertain future, but always faithful to my art. I made the big move to Seattle in the early-90s seeking a receptive creative home base. And so did Alaniz! Fast forward all these many years, and Alaniz found himself befriended by many of the same cartoonists in the community I was a part of. Small world! I have to say all this because Alaniz speaks to these similar building blocks. It’s also a big world too because I’ve never met Alaniz. Now, I hope that can be corrected. This book has proven to be such an awesome introduction!

The Phantom Zone, circa 1998

If José Alaniz had never kept up with creating comics, he would still have much to be proud of and satisfied with. Today, Alaniz is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Mr. Alaniz is the author of  Komiks: Comic Art in Russia as well as Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Both titles break new ground in comics scholarship from two very distinct approaches. Alaniz spent a good bit of time in Moscow and concluded that the Russian culture did not have much of any connection to comics so he investigated. Alaniz also found it intriguing how mainstream superhero comics explore issues of disability, death and dying and that led to him writing on that. Along the way, Alaniz probably missed creating comics on an ongoing basis. Once you’ve experienced the constant pace of creating a daily comic strip, at a significant level, it never leaves your system entirely. You have this compulsion to express yourself on a regular basis. The act of regularly creating comics gets under your skin. It is very intimate and intense. And it can metamorphosize into all sorts of other forms of self-expression: prose writing, including fiction and journalism, and engaging with other media as well. You are an exhibitionist, liable to walk around naked down the street if given half a chance. But the comics medium is a very specific thing and it has a way of calling back those who have participated at deep level just like a certain mistress may hold sway over a past lover.

Old Edinburg, Dead and Gone!

The Phantom Zone is an intriguing title for a comic strip. It seems to harken back to a good 0ld-fashioned adventure comic strips by such greats as Milton Caniff. Add to it the fact that Alaniz is playing with issues of youth, identity and culture, and it’s easy to try to draw some comparisons to the, by then, well established alternative comics scene of the time. Love and Rockets, the comic book series, and leading alt-comics title, by the Hernandez brothers: Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario, would undoubtedly have been known by Alaniz. It is asking a lot of any young person to try to live up to such giants as Milton Caniff and the Hernandez brothers but many an aspiring cartoonist is compelled to give it a go. Once you’re in the thick of doing a regular comic strip, all bets are off. An overriding worldview kicks in and guides the cartoonist. Comics can be a great equalizer since it cuts deep, ignores any fuzzy boundaries between high and low culture. Suddenly, Archie Comics and Popeye must be given their due, honored and respected. Academics traditionally would thumb their nose at the likes of Jughead and Brutus and dismiss these clowns as “drivel.” And, of course, they’d use such an arcane term to add to the sting. But a true cartoonist, someone actually writing and drawing in pursuit of something artful, they know the true value of such legendary characters. And so Alaniz bravely entered the fray. Soon, he had something brewing, riding upon the shoulders of too many other cartoonists to mention. It is fascinating to read the early college efforts and then compare that to later work revisiting the same characters.

Plastic People

From that experience, it was onward to further exploration in creating comics. Pivotal in this process, as Alaniz shares, is his taking part in monthly informal get-togethers with various cartoonists at a local Seattle cafe. Prior to the pandemic, each gathering was an opportunity for cartoonists to draw up comics that were then collected and printed into an ongoing anthology known as, Dune. I’ve often been invited but I never attended, mostly because it conflicted with my job. But I’ve had countless interactions with most of these cartoonists. As many of them can attest, I’ve been at the forefront of many comics events which they happily participated in. Some of the most notable cartoonists from this scene include: Max Clotfelter, Marc J. Palm, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Seth Goodkind, Jim Woodring, Eroyn Franklin and Megan Kelso. Again, I can’t stress enough how valuable this book can be to anyone interested in the comics medium. It all began for Alaniz with a youthful creative impulse and just look where it took him. Overall, The Phantom Zone comic strip does a decent job with carving out something in the auto-bio tradition. What is truly most compelling is the life that José Alaniz carved out for himself.

The Phantom Zone comic strip

Amatl Comix is an ongoing series that compiles the best in Latinx comics presented by San Diego State University Press.

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