Showing posts with label Genre: Biography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Genre: Biography. Show all posts

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Books: American Splendor presents: Bob and Harv's Comics


American Splendor presents: Bob and Harv's Comics
Written by Harvey Pekar
Art by Robert Crumb

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Growing up is - well - it's a strange thing: that's for sure and it changes you in ways that you don't expect.

I'm in no way a fresh-faced visitor to the world of Harvey Pekar and American Splendor: if you check those links below in the further readings section - you'll see that I'm previously written a few words about the American Splendor best of collection as well as  The Quitter (which is I guess would be best described as being like an extended American Splendor episode) and the book under consideration here: the charmingly (almost rustically) named "Bob and Harv's Comics" - well - I think that I must have tried reading it about three of four times over the past few years I've been working for Islington. It was on the shelf at the first ever library I worked at (that would be South Library for those keeping score at the back): and - hey: I liked comics - I knew that both Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb are (in their own off-beat and idiosyncratic ways) comic book heavy-weights that you know: are a big deal - the graphic novel versions of Kerouac and Picasso (or whoever).

And - man: that cover (have you seen the cover?). I mean: it's really really good. The way that the composition snaps you about: bouncing your eyes from the women's head on the upper left side: with her thought balloon ("Eat your hearts out, creeps!") popping out like a punch to the jaw and that sneer dripping off the side of her face leading you down to the sight of Robert Crumb - shivering like a leaf in a blizzard: racked with sexual inadequacy: and whose whole character is summed up completely by his pathetically avaricious eyes and his thought balloon: "I can never have her..." [1] and both of these figures (and - come on - it would have been a great cover with just them: I mean who needs more that really?) offset by louche [2] looking Harvey Pekar - purposelessly oblivious to the private hell unfolding in front of him: much more concerned with the idea of getting a comic out with both their names on ("You like money, don'tcha?").

And - well: yeah (short version) - I like the cover. I think it's good.

Of course - the problem is (at least for this reader) is that it sets the bar so high that when you step into the rest of the book: well - there's a real sense of deflation: for those expecting the same sort of knockabout humour and general sillyness  - well: you're going to need to re-calibrate your expectations.

Thankfully the introduction by Robert Crumb [3] is perfectly placed to help disabuse the hapless reader of any strange notions that they might have got into their head (like maybe this book is gonna be an Odd Couple / buddie-comedy: like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Rush Hour or whatever [4]?): for those of us thinking they're about to ride a fun little rollercoaster - his is the voice that comes over the intercom saying: "Oops. Sorry. Actually - this is just going to be a pleasant little bimbling [5] ride in the countryside instead. You don't need any seatbelts and you wave your arms and legs in any which way you want - because it's not going to make any difference seeing how our top speed is only going to be about five miles per hour...." (Ha!) Or - as he puts it (in a bit more of a downbeat kinda way): "Mostly it's just people talking, or Harvey himself, panel after panel, haranging the hapless reader. There's not much in the way of heroic struggle, the triumph of good over evil, resolution of conflict, people overcoming great odds, stuff like that... It's kinda sorta more like real life... A population raised on mass media spoonfed a constant diet of sensational, formalized story-telling, they're gonna be impatient with Pekar's comics."

Now - I vaguely remember the first time I read that intro and the kinda thoughts that it made me have (mainly because they're pretty much the same sort of feelings that I still have today): the first thought is that Robert Crumb sounds a bit like a snob (I mean the stuff he says he's basically just: "Oh yeah - all that stuff that everyone else likes is rubbish and the only stuff that's good is this small subset of stuff that I like." - I mean: oh my god - what is he? A teenage boy?) and also - well - as a proud consumer of mass media I've got to say: I think it's pretty churlish to dismiss it all out of hand. I mean - yeah: ok the large majority of it is pretty rubbish but then - the large majority of everything is rubbish (I think I read something somewhere recently where someone called this the 90% rule? As in - it's only the 10% of stuff that's really worth your time: but whatever) - I mean - mass media sensational, formalized story-telling (when it's done right) can give us things like Jurassic Park, Toy Story and Star Wars which - hell - I'll take anyday over some mumbley black-and-white art-house kitchen sink drama about how poor poor people are [5].

Also - as an argument for why something is worth your time: I've always found it to be kinda limiting and unconvincing. I remember as I was growing up I could never quite understand the appeal of David Lynch films [6] and when I tried to find out the reasons why everyone else seemed to rate him so much all I got was a variation of the line: "Oh - you know: it's so much better than that usual Hollywood rubbish." Maybe there's a fancy Latin name for this sort of thing [7]: but all I know is that it's not much of a glowing recommendation to say what something's not ("Say - why did you like that carrot?" "Oh - you know: it's not a dog. Man - I hate dogs.") especially when in the case of Lynch versus Hollywood or Pekar verses mainstream comics: the aims are so vastly different and the methods so contrary - that really all you're doing is making yourself sound like an idiot (sorry - is that a little bit too harsh? Sorry) [8].

But let's put aside this (frankly) puritan notion that it's only the difficult, non-mainstreamy stuff that's actually any good (oh - if only life were that simple) and instead try and talk about (and hopefully capture) what it is that actually makes American Splendor worth reading... (yeah?) because - like I've said: when reading it before I could never quite get to the point where I could get my head around what everyone was raving about: but now - with the benefit of all my advancing years: I think I might just be starting to get the hang of it.

Of course - what this all boils down to is stories (bear with me).

There was a line that I could have sworn I saw written somewhere on MaryAnn Johanson's Flickfilosopher website [9] (but which I now can't find) which said something like this (I'm going to paraphrase it a lot to make it sound more like me - ok?): growing up I used to identify myself as a film fan and as someone who liked reading books and - well - since starting running the Islington Comic Forum: someone who likes a good comic too. But more and more I've come to realise that actually the thing that really interests me (and is at the  root of all three of these) is story. The way we tell them, how they work, (how they don't work), the way they can make us feel, the way they make us think, what they mean: stories are my obsession and (yeah) there are very few things that I enjoy more than a good story well told [10].

Now: one of the things that I've noticed recently is the many ways that stories end up serving / reinforcing ideologies (I mean - yeah: ok - no duh right? But whatever).

Of course this is something that we're all conditioned to notice when we're kids. I mean - oh my god: working in a children's library I see this in seemingly every single children's book out there: all of them geared to deliver an important life lesson like: Make Sure You Always Say Please (The Elephant and The Bad Baby). Don't Be Stinky and Gross (Dirty Bertie). If You Can Talk A Good Game Then People Will Respect and Fear You (The Gruffalo). Your Parents Are Not Paying Attention To You - Deal With It (Not Now, Bernard). Change Is Inevitable, Relationships Are All About Compromise and Sex Is Death (Tadpole's Promise) [11] And - yeah - it's one of the mainstays of when you've just finished reading a book to a child to ask them: "Now - what do you think the message was there then?"

For me - one of the many barriers to cross to get to adulthood was being able to read a book that didn't have a stupid moral tucked away at the end and instead was just about you know - having fun, laughing at crazy stuff and enjoying the ride. What I didn't realise (and what has taken me years to fully come to grips with) is that - even if a story doesn't present itself as being moralistic - that doesn't mean that it doesn't have loads of twisted little ideologies (yes - that word again) buried all the way on the inside.

You want some examples of what I mean? Ok then: the latest season of Doctor Who (and probably all the seasons before that maybe [12] - but this is the first time I've only really noticed it) seemed to be operating on the assumption that ugly monsters = bad people and cute girls = good people [13]: and yeah - I guess it's unfair to pick on Doctor Who especially when everything else everywhere also operates on the same assumption: but whatever - the fact that it's pretty much all prevailing (and unquestioned) means that - while you think you're just enjoying the exciting adventures of a crazy man and his magical blue box - what's seeping into your head is a bunch of fluff about how looks are morally important (which I would have thought is a message that kids get enough of anyway - but oh well).

Another one (that's still fresh in my mind [14]) would be the new Star Trek Into Darkness film which - although everyone says it's "about" 9/11 [15] would be much more accurately described as being about the idea that it's wrong to kill people without a trail (which is kinda strange / kinda cool - seeing how every other mainstream action movie ever seems to think that the best way for people to deal with bad guys is just to shoot them in the head: preferably just after you've said something really cool).

Is what I'm saying starting to make sense? (Maybe I'm just babbling like a loon here: I dunno: but what the hey - let me stick with it a little more and see how much further I can get...).

If I had a point here then I guess that point would be this: stories are attached to ideas and in the giant majority of cases - the type of story people tell will end up revealing an awful lot about how they see the world: their beliefs, their motivations - and etc etc etc. And - don't get me wrong: I don't mean that as a pejorative: in fact one of the reasons that I tend to love the genre of science-fiction so much is that it's one of the best genres for fixing a story to an idea and seeing how that plays out [16].

Which (oh my god finally) brings us all the way back round to American Splendor and what it is that makes it worthwhile reading: because - basically - if the all the other types of stories out there are bogged down and laden with all these signifies and whatnot then what's refreshing and special about the stories that Harvey Pekar tells is that mostly - they're free of these sort of concerns. And compared to the hustle and bustle of these sorts of interpretative - whatever - traffic jams with all the screaming and hollering and honking and noise blah blah blah: a Pekar joint is like a nice quiet walk through the countryside allowing this reader at least - the chance to enjoy the roses - that is: the small and delicate grace notes of stories untethered from their usual moorings.

I realise that - ok - that maybe sounds like a big heap of nonsense: so let me try and be a little bit more specific: first of all I guess I should say (for those of you who have never even heard of Harvey Pekar or Robert Crumb and have just been sitting patiently at the back hoping that I would get around to explaining) what exactly this comic book is.

Ok - yeah: it's called Bob and Harv's Comics and it's a collection of (mostly pretty small - like 3 or 4 page) strips written by professional curmudgeon [17] Harvey Pekar (who writes about the small daily events of his own life [18]) and illustrated by Robert Crumb (who is one of the best names to drop into a conversation if you want to sound like you're like sophisticated about what kind of comics you like "What do I like to read? Oh - you know: this and that: I read a lot of Robert Crumb - so yeah: you know.").

And in terms of what this book (and - well - pretty much everything Harvey Pekar wrote) is: or at least maybe the best way to think about it - and yes I realise that this might sound a little bit silly to say - but one of the reoccurring thoughts that struck me as I read this book for the third/fourth/whatever time is that - well - this is what people did before youtube. By which I mean: if you wanted to capture life as it was lived and freeze it in amber for future generations - then a mighty fine way of doing that was to get in down in story. And once I realised that - then Bob and Harv's Comics became less of a fruitless pursuit for all the typical story goodness that I normally look for (the thrills, spills and chills or whatever): and much more like listening to a record of old tape recordings and appreciating not the story structure (which is kinda all over the place: with some stories (I'm thinking particularly of Hustlin' Sides here - a tale about the perils of selling records at work) ending just at the point as they start to seem like they're going somewhere) or architecture (which is what normally holds my interest [19]) but rather: zooming into the detail and admiring the way that the individual rooms are furnished: the weave of the carpet, the smell of the wood, the way that the light streams in through the windows: that kind of thing - you know? Which - if you want to try and translate that means - the way that Pekar can capture a character in a few chosen words or squeeze the messiness of human life into the space of just a few pages: with all the awkward pauses and poorly chosen words that propel us forward: you know - that kind of thing [20].

Which I guess is what (spinning around back to where we sorta started) makes that Robert Crumb introduction kinda - well - wrong. As what (I would say) he doesn't quite understand (and so can't quite sell to those of us not already primed to buy) is what makes this book worth the effort. I mean - ok: it is true that "a population raised on mass media spoonfed a constant diet of sensational, formalized story-telling, they're gonna be impatient with Pekar's comics." but the reason isn't because Pekar is offering a better version of the same dish - it's that he's offering a different animal altogether (dogs and carrots again - which yes - is a pretty lousy metaphor I know - but what can you do?).  

So yeah: the first story in the book ("The Harvey Pekar Name Story") is just Pekar spoint blank staring straight at the reader: like the only suspect at a police line-up: or a comic without a microphone manages to cover a whole heap of ground in only a few pages - connection, loneilness, bullying, humour, death and idle philosophy all just floating above his seemingly random tossed off musings: but the joy of it really resides in the way that Pekar manages to affix his own self into the page so that by the end of - it doesn't feel like you've been taken on a ride in the way that most stories do (which is a good thing: because who doesn't like rides - right?) it's more like you've just had a brief snatch of conversation with a random passerby.

At one point describes his writing style (half-jokingly - I think) as "New neo-realist" but I'd prefer to think of it more as just a guy talking about his life and sharing selected moments with any readers who venture in. And yeah: there's not much real action or adventure or (at least not in this book - maybe elsewhere?) much in the way of romance even: but still - when you leave: you'll feel like you've got to know another life a little better: and even if it's a bit musty smelling in places - I guess (growing up) that's the kind of thing you start to appreciate as being important.

But - like I said: I'm obviously just getting old.

[1] And - damnit: I can perfectly hear the way he says that in my head: but can't quite place who is reminds me of: it's somewhere in the neighbourhood of Droopy Dog mixed with a small tinge of Glenn Quagmire: but somehow that's not quite the full mixture - dagnamit: I wish I could put my finger on it (oh well).

[2] Is that the right word? I dunno - it seems right: but maybe not?

[3] There's another introduction (at least in my copy) by Harvey Pekar - but we're gonna let that one slip by the wayside. Because - well - I don't want to be writing this thing forever and - hell - we'll be getting on to some other stuff Pekar says in a bit...

[4] I was incredibly temped to make this list go on forever - but decided that I would just write down the first two that popped into my head and just leave it at that: LUCKY FOR YOU.

[5] And just to clarify: my point here isn't that art house cinema is rubbish (I'll admit now that I can find myself partial to a cheeky little bit of something intellectual or whatever now and again) - it's just that mainstream stuff isn't bad just because it's mainstream and that obscure stuff isn't good just because it's obscure - both can be good and both can be bad: but it depends on the thing itself - right? And you shouldn't just write things off without giving them a chance or exploring further (I mean - when I put it like that it sounds so obvious that how can you even bring yourself to disagree I know...): I mean - maybe this isn't true - but the way he presents himself leads me to think that Robert Crumb is the kind of guy who'd refuse to watch E.T. because - "all mass produced stuff is rubbish" - which (for me) just kinda makes him a chump.

[6] Which - strangely - didn't stop me from watching most of them. But then I've always been slightly perverse like that... And (and I think this was around the time I watched Inland Empire whilst half asleep and/or reading a magazine profile he did about his paintings) I finally came round to understanding what it is that makes him worthwhile: and yeah - while I could go into detail about what I think that is - maybe that's something that I should leave for another time...

[7] One of these maybe? I dunno... (I was going to check - but (man) that list is long).

[8] And it's not just Robert Crumb who thinks this way. Whilst I was writing this I stumbled across this Comics Journal feature (Blood and Thunder: Harvey Pekar and R. Fiore) which reprints letters written by Pekar back in 1989-1990. (Normally I would recommend reading the whole thing: but - man - it's kinda long: so maybe not this time). Interesting highlights include: "...most comics critics and fans have low standards. They like escapist, pulp-derived stuff that will transport them from “mundane” reality into what they believe is a more exciting, glamorous world of the imagination. They crave adventure stories in which life is at risk, where great fame and fortune can be won." (omg - that's me!) "Many comic book fans don’t like to read about everyday experience; they say such writing is “bo-o-o-oring.” It may also be painful to them; they’d rather fantasize than contemplate their own world. When they become comics critics, too often even the most well-read among them praise and overrate flawed, escapist work." (Yes yes and yes: I totally love myself some good escapism) "Genre novels rely for their appeal on contrived, tricky plots, sensational adventures in which lives, power, and wealth are at stake, idealized protagonists, too-good-to-be-true heroines, and other stereotyped characters. Obviously, they’re very popular. People who don’t take art seriously, who just want superficial entertainment, enjoy genre literature, TV, and movies." (Ha! It's like my whole outlook summed up in a few choice sentences).

[9] Which is pretty good and you can read for yourself here.

[10] The only bit on the Flickfilosopher website I could find that relates to this was this bit: "There’s one thing I care about most when I approach a movie: the story. Is the story engaging? Is the story interesting? Is the story something that will keep me diverted or entertained or provoked for two hours? This means that a film that does not tell a story that appeals to me on some level has, in my reckoning, failed as a movie. I don’t care how gorgeous the cinematography is if I don’t like the story. I don’t care what a technical marvel the FX are if I don’t like the story. I don’t care what an amazing performance the marquee cast turned in if I don’t like the story. This is an analogy I like to use. There are two restaurants: One serves the best meal you have ever had in your life. The service is perfunctory. The ambiance is forgettable. But the food is the amazing. In the other restaurant, the service is impeccable and supremely attentive. The atmosphere is spectacular. But the food is shit. I would rather eat at the first restaurant. Every time. The second restaurant does not interest me in the slightest. Of course, ideally, I would choose, if I could, to eat in a restaurant where the food is to die for, the service is slavish, and the setting is magnificent. But this is not always what is on offer. Movies are the same way. I will take a great story that is not technically distinguished over a beautifully presented story that does not speak to me." (and - well yeah: what she said).

[11] Sorry - like I said - I work in a children's library and this is one of my rare opportunities to vent some of this stuff out.

[12] I mean - obviously yes: seeing how Doctor Who always has a monster-of-the-week it needs to have ugly evil beings doing bad stuff to people. But I could have sworn that one of the messages it used to deliver was that "it's not what you look like - it's what's inside that counts" which I would say is something that gets violated most notable in that Rings of Akhaten episode where The Doctor and Clara work out that the bad people are bad because they look bad and the good people are good because they look good.

[13] One of the few exceptions to that was the episode Hide - which most people seemed to think had a bit of a cop-out ending but (for me anyway) actually managed to reverse a lot of the "all ugly things are bad" propaganda that the rest of the season had been espousing. Of course the way it did this was to make everything as sappy as humanly possible - what the hell: it's a child's show which means that it gets away with making you feel a little bit gooey on the inside.

[14] Mainly - it must be said - due to the heated back-and-forth discussions me and my esteemed literary flatmate have had on this very subject.

[15] I'm looking at you Forrest Wickman (and also - yeah: every other film reviewer in the world all of whom have seemed almost contractually obliged to say something like: "oh yeah - this film is totally about 9/11") . And - ok yeah: while I can see why you would be confused seeing how - as he points out - seemingly everyone attached to the film has something along the lines of "oh  yeah - this film is totally about 9/11" and the fact that there is loads and loads of 9/11-style imagery scattered throughout the film (flying things crashing into buildings and people running around screaming etc) - but then (and I think this is an important distinction to make): there is a big difference between what a film (or any story really I guess) shows us (or tells us about whatever) and what it tells us. So the Star Trek Film is a story about people in space - it shows us lots of explosions and stuff (in a kind of 9/11 reminiscent way) but it's not really about 9/11 seeing how it doesn't really have anything to say about it (compare and contrast: George Orwell's 1984 says that Totalitarianism is bad for the human spirit, Catch 22 says that war is messed up and - what? - Star Trek Into Darkness says that - what? - 9/11? (What does that even mean?) It references the event - but doesn't have anything substantive to say about it - yeah?) - but anyway: this is all completely beside the point (although I'd like to make a final reference to some Slavoj Žižek (obviously) who provides one of the best examples between what a story shows us and what it tells us by demonstrating in this clip how and why The Sound of Music is racist). So... yeah. Enough of this.

[16] Or as Philip K Dick puts it (much better than I could): "I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as 'a story set in the future,' [nor does it require] untra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society... that comes out of our world, the one we know: This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society… There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation…so that as a result a new society is generated in the author's mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader's mind, the shock of dysrecognition. [In] good science fiction, the conceptual dislocation---the new idea, in other words---must be truly new and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader…[so] it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create…. The very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create---and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness."

[17] A word which - it feels like - was especially minted for him.

[18] "Anyway that was one of he most interesting incidents that's ever happened to me in a super-market."

[19] With - well - a particular fondness for ones that look like they were built by M.C. Escher (if that's not stretching the metaphor too far: but you know what I mean right? Twisty time-travel or whatever. Jake Gyllenhaal sitting in a cinema next to a guy in rabbit suit or whatevers.

[20] With a large smattering - and I guess this is another thing about growing up: the more you experience you more you can find yourself relating to - of "oh my god - yes: that's so true!" my favourite being: "But that's one nice thing about working for the government. The government has more tolerance for diversity "


Further reading: American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor, The QuitterBreakdowns, I Never Liked YouHicksville, David Boring, Black HoleJimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on EarthThe Beats: A Graphic History.

All comments welcome.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Books: Kirby: King of Comics


Kirby: King of Comics
By Mark Evanier

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Yeah. To be honest - I wasn't really much looking forward to reading this. I mean - it felt like I'd already done most of my "homework" (which is what doing this blog feels like sometimes) when I read that Men of Tomorrow book and so - in my big pile of books to read - it's kinda just sat their lying at the bottom (which seemed the best place for it - I mean it's a pretty colossal book - the kinda thing you'd grab if someone broke into your home and you were looking for the best thing to whack them across the head with). And then: when I did start reading it (and a few months ago now I should admit) I only got a few chapters in (like halfway through Chapter 3) - and - well - yeah - reader: I got bored - and so - I put it aside and said to myself (avoiding my own eye contact): yeah yeah yeah - I'll come back to it and read it properly sometime real soon - I promise! And then - well: nothing.

I was kinda tempted just to post like a one paragraph review [1] (something like; this is a book about Jack Kirby - that's the guy (Joss Whedon aside) who's pretty much responsible for The Avengers movie - he never really got his fair dues - it's an outrage - the book is his history - end) - but then - well: I've been doing a pretty job (recently) if I do say so myself - of not being so half-assed with the blog and trying (mostly) to write stuff a little bit more than the bare minimum.

And then: well - at two different websites that I like to read now and again (ok - fine - I have them saved on my favourites) - Grantland and The Comics Journal website (which is worth tuning into if only for Tucker Stone's Comics of the Week column - which is always so very enjoyably caustic [2]) - extracts from a new book called Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (by some dude named Sean Howe) [3]. Looking back - I don't really know how I got to this point - sitting - eating breakfast and reading about the history of Marvel comics (and like I said - not once - but twice - on two previously unconnected websites) and it not being something awful (I mean - about two years previously I think that if you'd given me the option of reading about the history of Marvel - I would have given you a polite smile and a "thanks but no thanks" - and yet here I was - reading this stuff willingly and with no hope that I would be getting anything out of it apart from the pleasure of reading it...). And - well - I guess that made me think that maybe - reading a whole book about Jack "The King" Kirby (well - reading as in - picking up from where I left off at least...) wouldn't have to be quite such a chore.

So: I went back and decided to give Kirby: King of Comics another go and (you know what? you know what?) I'm super glad that I did.

But then I guess a lot of what made my second-go-around so much more fun than the first-time-a-go-round is that - as the book is arranged chronologically (boring) all the fun stuff (ie Marvel and Stan Lee) doesn't really happen until Chapter 4 ("Facing Forward") and so before you can get to all that you need to make your way through all the build-up and well - frankly - that's the bit that I could have done without (and if you want some advice? If you're starting the book and you're getting bored then I would just skip to the good part - you're not missing much if you do): I mean - it's like if you're reading about John Lennon - who cares what he did before the Beatles? Let's get to watching him fighting it out with Paul (is that so wrong?)

I guess I'll also say this just before we start: the thing is with non-fiction book reviews (that is - you know - the proper books: without any pictures ) is that for me it feels like it can be a little bit tricksy to work out what exactly to write - with comic books (yes those are the ones with the pictures) even if you give away the whole plot it can be difficult to give away too much as long as you only stick to just writing about it. Because (unless of course you scan in images and pages from the book: which is something a lot of review sites tend to do - I guess because it makes things a lot easier to talk about - instead of trying to sum up how the art looks in words you can just go: see? It looks like this [4]) words can never really come close to replicating the experience of actually reading a comic. But books - I mean - what I'm going to do now is basically just highlight and quote all my favourite bits of the book which means that (by the time I'm done) there might not be much left for you to enjoy (it'll be like watching Goodfellas when someone's already done the "what am I clown?" bit - you know?): but whatever. I just wanted you to know I guess that it's something that I'm aware of (and feel a little bit bad for) - but then - well - deal with it - because I'm gonna do it anyway (hell yeah).

But on to the fun: and like I said up above: the best bit of this book is around the halfway mark when Jack and Stan get together and start producing hit after hit after hit after hit (that's: The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The X-Men and (depending on who you believe - and for me this wasn't something that I was previously aware of) Spider-Man [5]. I mean - yeah before that there's stuff about his life as a street-kid and all that (and for your hardcore Jack Kirby fans - you should know that towards the start there's a rare Kirby story (presented in sepia tones) that comes across like Will Eisner (if you like that sort of thing) and then after that (altho there's an early career highlight when he creates Captain America with Joe Simon) there's his wilderness years when - not really being equipped to do much else apart from draw comics - he bums around doing cheap knock-offs and romance comics that all seem to only last a few issues before they're cruelly cancelled... But then: most of this was stuff that I already knew from reading that Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book - so it didn't really manage to hold much of my interest... (sorry Mark). It's only just before we get to the good part that we start to get hint's that something big is coming (and the foreshadowing is almost farcical - like if it happened in a movie you'd think it was too chessy) like: Kirby making a short story for DC about a man finding the hammer of Thor and transforming into the God of Thunder... a story about "a brute called the Thing." ...several creatures named the Hulk and (my favourite) "a sorcerer named Dr. Droom (Dr "Droom"? What the hell is a "Droom"? An evil broom maybe?) for Amazing Adventures magazine. (As well as getting a sense of just how dire and unprofitable comics were:  "Jack told of walking into the offices one day around 1961 and finding Stan [Lee] weeping. The comic line had been discontinued. "They were taking out the office furniture" Kirby recalled on more than one occasion  "I told them to stop.")

And then: yeah - it's on to the Stan and Jack show: with the white-hot fire of creation (did you know that the mighty Galactus was inspired by "science magazines" and the fear of a hostile corporate take-over?) slowly giving way to the smouldering flames of resentment as Stan nabbed all the glory while Jack was left worrying about whether he would ever get his due recompense and recognition (and so we get heart-breaking sentences like: "There was a steadfast belief that the company's financial success would trickle down his way.") And it's interesting seeing the different reasons why it happened that way: one suggestion is that it was hard for the general public to make sense that one person did the writing whilst the other one sorted out the artwork [6] - so that even when Stan and Jack would meet journalists together - the article that was printed would only just mention Stan. Then there's the fact that Stan had more connections and was way higher up in the corporate rankings - while Jack was just a lowly artist: the janitor to Stan's executive manager. And (most cruelly of all) there was the fact that Stan Lee was just - well - (if you've ever seen Stan Lee talk then you know that this is just stating the obvious) - a natural showman: He "...gave a much better interview than Jack. He was witty, charming and eminently quotable." While Jack Kirby was more. Well - like he man himself says: "If you'll notice the way the Thing talks and acts, you'll find that the Thing is really Jack Kirby... He has my manners, he has my manner of speech and he thinks the way I do." So - you know: not so good at being presentable [10]. And (at the risk of making too much hay out of it - and being a little bit too earnest): there's kinda one of the problems with the modern world - forget about when American is going to have it's first women President - you know what are the chances of them electing someone who isn't photogenic? (At this point - pretty much non-existent I'd say - no? [11]).

I don't know if this was intentional (I suspect not) but I like the way that the more you hear about Stan Lee in this book - the more that rosy image of American's favourite uncle starts to slip away: and there's loads of little remarks scattered throughout the book (and I know - maybe this is just me) - that start to seem like cheap shots: Like: "Cosmic rays. and all forms of radiation, in those days of atom bomb testing and scares, would prove to be an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all origin device for any comic scripted by Stan Lee." [12]

And then - well yeah - after the highs - the rest of the book charts the slow descent of Kirby's career as he's subjected to various humiliations such as seeing one of his poster artworks (artworks posters?) for the Incredible Hulk being "redone" by another artist - where the guy does nothing more than just change the face: and then gets all the credit. And lot's of stuff like that. (Oh - and I don't want to forget to mention Marvel's head honcho Martin Goodman who sounds amazing: here's the book talking about Spider-Man's first appearance in an anthology magazine called Amazing Fantasy: "Goodman hated it and cancelled the comic before receiving any sales figures... Subsequent reports, bolstered by reader mail and Stan's enthusiasm for the property, would prompt him to launch a Spider-Man comic the following year - the same month, in fact that he declared The Incredible Hulk a flop and cancelled the book." [13]. I mean - it ends on a high note: but then I guess when you have a whole life to pick and choose from (and especially someone as influential as Jack Kirby) you can spin the narrative in whatever way you like: I mean - it would have been equally possible to leave the reader feeling bummed out and howling at the injustice of it all (maybe just a sentence comparing the amount of money Kirby earned and the money that Marvel earned out of him - or something like that?).

But: hey - I'm gonna do the same kinda thing and just mention my favourite bit tucked away at the end: (This isn't actually connected to any of his comic work - but what the hell). Around about the time of the launch of the  The Pioneer 10 spacecraft [15] (which for some reason (?) the book calls the "the Jupiter Plaque") a newspaper thought that it would be a good idea for an article to approach a bunch of artists and have them submit their designs for what they would have done if they had been lucky enough to be asked to send their artwork out in space. Kirby drew (what else?) two superheroes (which the book says was done to scare away any aliens who saw it [16]) and the following text (which I managed to source from elsewhere - the book doesn't have the first part): "It appears to me that man's self-image has always spoken far more truthfully about him than does his reality-figure. My version of the plaque would have revealed the exuberant, self-confident super-visions with which we've clothed ourselves since time immemorial. The comic strip super-heroes and heroines, in my belief, personify humanity's innate idealism and drive. However, I would have included no further information than a rough image of the earth and its one moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between 'discoverers' and 'discoverees,' history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter Plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear trail to our door. My point is, who will come a-knocking - the trader or the tiger? [17]"

But yeah. Would I recommend this book? Well yeah - if you're a Jack Kirby fan: then apart from all the word stuff - there's loads of full-colour reproductions of his art to smack you - WHAM! - in the face (I mean - I haven't really read that much Kirby stuff - but still: I've never seen his stuff look better than how it does here): and it's nice how it all feels so honourable - as in: you can tell that it's written by someone who's doing his very best to try and honour Kirby's name and legacy: at the start of each chapter there's a different quote from such high profile names as Nicolas Cage ("It's clear when you see it that's it him. That's what art is about."), Harlan Ellison ("No praise is too much.") and - erm - the drummer from System of a Down (that's John Dolmayan as if you didn't already know...) - so that's nice too. Plus: like the book says: "To several generations Jack Kirby was comics." so it's cool to be able to take a peek under the hood and get a sense of both the legend and the man.

Here's to you to Jack.

[1] And in fact the only notes that I had written for it so far just said: "This is a nice book - super-sized and heavy" and "And - yeah - I mean - ok - that's a cool cover. HULK SMASH! And all that." - which such give you some idea of how empty my tank was... All I could think of to say was how the stupid thing looked. Never mind what was inside.

[2] Sample quote: "Did you know that Nicholas Gurewitch posted a new comic at the Perry Bible Fellowship site last month? Because if you did, then hey, screw you pal: that’s the sort of thing I would have liked to have known about, and I had to find out on wiki-fuckin’-pedia, and you know how I feel supporting Julian Asspackages, or whatever that guys name is. Wikileaks? Wikiwhatever, I don’t have time to listen to your keester anymore, as I just got an email that the cancer might be back. New PBF! It’s part of a string of heartbreak comics that might hit closer to home if I hadn’t gone full Zero Dark Thirty into not knowing anything about what goes on in the lives of the people who churn out the milkshakes that fill my particular trough. In other news: I now refer to comics as milkshakes, and I now think of reading as an experience akin to eating liquidized food out of a long piece of metal not dissimilar to a urinal."

[3] The Grantland one is here (it's pretty boring at the start - but gets better about halfway through (be warned: it's a pretty big article) and after that Shannan the She-Devil picture you start getting stuff like this: "When they weren't at each other's apartments getting high, they were rampaging around with Starlin, Al Milgrom, and artist Alan Weiss, a Las Vegas–bred ladies' man who shared a Queens apartment with a rotating cast of five stewardesses. Together, they'd ingest LSD and wander Death Wish–era Manhattan at all hours. "We sort of took New York as this vast stage set," said Weiss. "We would launch ourselves to some part we hadn't seen yet, and go explore, day or night." There was the time they traipsed by security guards and wandered through the World Trade Center while it was being built. On one July night they went to Lincoln Center for a screening of Disney's Alice in Wonderland and hatched a Doctor Strange plot that included a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Then they walked to the U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan and climbed around on Daniel Chester French's four statues of the continents, where they envisioned a Defenders story in which Doctor Strange transformed each statue into thousands of living soldiers to battle hordes of Atlantean invaders.") The Comics Journal one is here. (It's a lot shorter and more concerned with showing how evil (and stupid) Marvel could be in the face of the 90s comic gold-rush than the joys of the creative process): my favourite bit: “If the Punisher appears in a panel with another character,” Jim Starlin was told, “that character should be killed within the next few pages by either the Punisher or someone else. If the Punisher appears with any object, it should be destroyed in an explosion as soon as possible.”

[4] And yeah - I will admit that recently I have been thinking about maybe following suit and adding pictures into the main body of the text of these posts (you know: it would make things look a bit prettier, and would help to break up the text - and would make talking about the artwork a lot easier ("See? It looks like this.")). But - well - if I started then it would feel like I would have to retroactivily go back and do it for everything: and - well - that could take a while: plus - there's something to be said for committing to a certain way of doing things and just sticking to it no matter what. And - hell - someone it's good not to have those crutches (and - hell - now I think about I guess it's something that I can hold my head up about? "Pictures? On a comics blog? No thank you. I'm much better than that if you please." etc)

[5] Yep. There's a contingent of people out there that think that Jack Kirby had a hand in the creation of everyone's favourite web-crawler (and - no - I'm talking about this). But - hey - I'll leave it to you to read the book and let you make your own mind up in the face of the evidence (What do I think? I dunno if I could say for sure either way...).

[6] In fact - due to the "Marvel Method" (writer and artist sit and have a chat and work out the basic story beats - artist goes away and draws it all - and then writer comes in afterwards and fills in the word balloons) - it's more like Stan Lee would says something like "Wouldn't it be great if the Fantastic Four had a fight with God?" and then Jack Kirby would go away and then come back with the Galactus trilogy. In fact - Stan Lee had so little to do with the story that the first time he ever saw the Silver Surfer his first remark was something like (sorry - I should have written it down - but I think this is pretty much right): "Who's the nut on a surfboard flying through the air?" [7]

[7] And yeah: the way that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came into conflict is worth it's own footnote: the author doesn't make that much of it - but there's a moment when he remarks that: "Jack saw the Surfer as a creature formed of pure energy, one who had never been human, which explained why he'd been roaming about the Fantastic Four comic, asking Earthlings to explain love and hate and other (to him) alien concepts. In Stan's story, the Surfer had been a man on another planet who scarified human form to save the woman he loved." Because that right there seems to expose the fault-line in the way that tended to do stuff: the fantastical versus something a lot more down to earth: the cosmic instead of the mundane. Of course when these view-points were blended together you got the kinda of great mix that you get in the Fantastic Four - where one second they're battling space monsters while the next - they're squabbling amongst themselves (families huh? Who'd have 'em?) but it also makes sense in terms of their characters - Stan always with one eye on how things were gonna play and the best way to game the system: while Jack spent most of his time with his head in the clouds - staring up into the infinite and orchestrating epic battles between demi-gods and beings of awesome power [8]. And even tho (yeah - I'll admit it - I'm not that much of a fan of his artwork [9] - shocking I know) I still know which mentality I prefer: and which one tends to produce the stories that it entertains me to read (here's a clue: it's not the one with the cornball ideas of people sacrificing themselves in order to save the women they love: that's a bit too much like cheap overwrought melodrama for me...).

[8] Which I guess is how he managed to successfully predict the rise of the San Diego Comic-Con. Quote: "It will be where all of Hollywood will come every year to look for the idea of next year's movies."

[9] In fact (and I hope that all the Kirby fans out there won't hate me too much for saying this?) but my favourite bit of art in the whole book was the Sky Masters of the Space Force stuff (yeah - not the most subtle name out there...) only to then discover that it's one of the few bits (only bits?) of artwork where it's Kirby working with someone else (some guy called Wallace Wood). Oh well - I guess the pure unadulterated Kirby just isn't for me. Maybe it's too potent (actually - claustrophobic would be a good word to sum up how it makes me feel) or something - I dunno. But hey - I tried.

[10] In fact it sounds like Jack Kirby talks the same way I write: "He had a tendency to ramble from topic to topic, leaping about and leaving one sentence unfinished while he began three others." (A kindred spirit!)

[11] But hey - as with most things - Doug Stanhope says all this stuff much better than I ever could.

[12] And working my way through the book I kept being reminded of a thing Tim O'Neil over at The Hurting last month where he basically listed every single major comic book writer (from Alan Moore all the way to Jim Davis) and then wrote down the nastiest possible thing he could about them (I least I think that was the point - maybe I got the wrong end of the stick? I dunno - you can read it for yourself here) the Stan Lee one (the thing that kept springing into my head as I read) puts it really succinctly when it says: "Probably deserves every bit of credit alongside his collaborators, but will go to his grave vaguely dissatisfied by the fact that no one likes a company man." (and yeah Stan Lee = a company man through and through). (Or (even better) like Alan Moore recently said: "...back in the day “there was a reason why “Jolly” Jack Kirby wasn’t always jolly, why “Sturdy” Steve Ditko wasn’t always sturdy, and why “Smiling” Stan Lee was always smiling.”")

[13] To which the author Mark Evanier [14] (for some reason I kinda imagine him as sounding something like Troy McClure) wryly notes: "Talk about a guy who was slow to realise when he had a hit on his hands."

[14] I was looking for some more information about him and found this on amazon: Mark Evanier met Jack Kirby in 1969 and became his assistant and official biographer. A writer and historian, Evanier has written more than 500 comics for Disney, Gold Key, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, several hundred hours of television (including eight seasons of Garfield) and is the author of Mad Art (2002). He has three Emmy Award nominations and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America - which well left me a little stunned. I mean - if he's written so much and has a Lifetime Achievement award then how on earth did he write such - pedestrian and unimaginative (oh the irony) sentences as: "He was the guy who took comics to new levels of imagination... and then he took those new levels of imagination to still newer levels of imagination." (I mean - really? That's the best you can do?)

[15] From the mighty power of wikipedia: "Pioneer 10 (originally designated Pioneer F) is a 258-kilogram robotic space probe that completed the first mission to the planet Jupiter and became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System." At the behest of Carl Sagan Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 carry a 152 by 229 mm (6.0 by 9.0 in) gold-anodized aluminium plaque in case either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life-forms from another planetary system. The plaques feature the nude figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft."

[16] You can see it here. (Although if it's meant to scare aliens off then I don't know why they're both smiling - wouldn't it have been better to have them looking stern with their arms folded?)

[17] In other words: DAMN YOU SAGAN - YOU'VE DOOMED US ALL!

Links: Andrew Tunney Article: Some Thoughts on Nick Fury.

Further reading: Marvel Visionaries: Jack KirbyAlan Moore: Storyteller, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, SupergodsSupreme.

All comments welcome.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Books: Are You My Mother?


Are You My Mother? 
By Alison Bechdel

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Everyone likes at least one M.I.A. song right? Paper Planes? Galang? Amazon? Ok - whatever. The point is her first album - Arular - takes its title from the political code name employed by M.I.A.'s father, Arul Pragasam [1] while her second album - Kala - is named after her mum (and blah blah - both albums apparently reflect each parent's life and the themes permutate the music blah blah blah): well - it seems like Alison Bechdel's thoughts run in much the same way - after produced her long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over 20 years she finally branched out into "proper" graphic-novel-dom with her critically acclaimed book Fun Home back in 2006 which mainly dealt with her recollections of her father - Bruce Bechdel and so - now comes Are You My Mother? which - well - you work it out...

So instead of writing about her Dad she's writing about her Mum - when I first found out that's what the pitch was I kinda shrugged. I mean - you see little glimpses of her Mum in Fun Home - but there was nothing in those glances that made it seem like she deserved or needed (or whatever the word is) her own complete book - I mean - yeah - she was an actress and there were some unfulfilled dreams and everything but - well (and I guess this isn't surprising when you read a book where her relationship with her Dad is literally the whole story) but it seemed like - her relationship with her Dad was her whole story and that her Mum was just the other person that happened to be around [2].

But that's an error. In fact - while Fun Home was a (still kinda daunting) 240 pages Are You My Mother? (do I have to put in that question mark every time? I guess so...) is  289 pages (which damnit isn't as impressive as I thought it would be before I checked the page lengths but I guess the point I wanted to make is that it feels somehow much longer and more expansive - like I thought it was going to be 350 pages or something like that). Instead of blues and greens this time Bechdel is using reds and pinks and browns (I don't know how much to read into that - maybe it's because - her issues with her Dad were more subdued and simmering - while with her Mum - it's more all more alive and lively or something - or hell: maybe she just liked the way it looked?).  The other notable change for me - is that while Fun Home (as good as it is) came across in parts as being a little bit - well - pretentious (not that I have anything against long words - but damn she sure used a lot of long words) - Are You My Mother is a bit more relaxed about the language it uses [3] and doesn't feel like it has to struggle so much to put on a show and be - well - ostentatious about things [4]. Plus (altho this is left unsaid - but gives the whole book a lingering feeling of illicit electricity): writing about someone who's dead is much easier than writing about someone who's still living - and yeah - her ongoing relationship with her mother (and her mother's reactions to the things she writes - Fun Home and Are You My Mother?) gives the book a pulse and feeling of danger that wasn't in Fun Home. The past book was more a clinical autopsy - while this is more like surgery undertaken when the patient is still wide awake.  

Still - apart from all that - what's the book about? What's it like?

Well... let me try and explain with some examples (hold on): I think I've already mentioned on his blog that there was a time way back when - when I used to work in a mental hospital library and (because there was nothing else to do) I spent a big fat dollop of time there playing around on the internet and one of the things I found there was a brilliant music webzine (is that still what we're calling them?) called Stylus Magazine (now since defunct: (wipes away tear)) and - particularly a writer called Nick Southall - who was amazing [5]. The thing that I used to love about him (and if I'd seen that he'd written a new review - I'd wait until I'd made a cup of tea and had some biscuits before I read him - seeing how it was like - you know - a proper treat and all that) is that when he reviewed an album - he wouldn't just go - this is a band who are like this and this is their PR bumpf and this track is good and sounds like this - this other track is alright and blah yadda etc - but rather he would - I dunno what the best way to say this is - but he would make a connection with something in his own life or with a particular thought or something that would illuminate things in some way and make them - gah - make stuff meaningful or whatever (I'm sorry - I'm English - so of course it's very difficult for me to try and write in a sincere way about things which are important to me and touch me in a dopey emotional way - it's just not in my nature - stiff upper lip and all that: tally ho!). And so - even if he was writing about a band that I had never heard of or an album that I never intended to listen to or whatever [6] - it would still be totally worth reading [7]. And the thing I took from that and what I've tried to do - in a very slipshod way admittedly - is to write about the books on this blog in such a way that - if someone was so inclined - they could still read the things I've written about all these bloody comic books - and still get something out of it - even if they had never read them or never planned to read them or whatever (something I've failed to do much more than I've managed to do - but still) [8].      

To try and cash this out: what this means and what I'm trying to say is that: if you're going to properly review something (or whatever other word you want to substitue for "review" - "analyse" "talk" "understand") then - well - there's this sort of equation that you need to fill in: you can't just describe the thing (so: as we're talking about comic books: that would be just to say: this is the writer, this is the artists - this is the plot - and I give it 8 marks out of 10) but rather: you've got to (if you want to make what you're writing "good" or (hopefully hopefully: even if it's a bit much to ask for) "meaningful") fill in the space of your reaction - and describe what it links up to - or what associations it draws up and all that (in fact - maybe just read [8] seeing how Mr Southall says it all much better than me: even if he is talking about music).  With me so far? Well - for Alison Bechdel who - well (no duh) - isn't writing a blog but a book - and who isn't writing about something that someone else has created (an album or a comic or whatever) but well - not to put too fine of a point on it - but someone who created her that little equation is squared and blown up to the power of infinity: as in order for her to try and describe who or what or how (whichever option you want) her mum is - she also needs to also try and describe her reaction to that as well (otherwises it's just boring old describing - and no one wants that [9]) and so: who and what and how she is which - well - obviously - only leads to a dizzying recursive loop [10]. (Not that that's the only recursive loop in town: Taking about her mum (and the fact that she throws away her journals) Bechdel says it feels "as if she is comparing her own selflessness to my self-absorption. But of course that's just evidence of my self-absorption." - oh boy). So - in trying to a get a hold of and pin down her mum - she also has to try and understand and pin down herself. Does that make sense? 

And if it sounds like I'm making too much of all of this - I'll mention here that the book is evenly divided between her mum and her therapy (in fact: a good alternative title would have been: Are You My Therapist?)  and that the journey of the whole book is - in a sense - to reach a some sort of an understanding of both her mum and herself. And like she says: "Analysis is in no hurry to get to the bottom of things. Therapy is usually a shorter term proposition, more focused on symptom relief."[11]: which doubles as a secret manifesto for the book itself - it's not just there to make you (or her) feel better - it's more about churning things around and seeing what floats to the top - and then taking those things and matching them with other things: there's one point where she gets a letter from her mum where she says: "Patterns are my existence. Everything has significance. Everything must fit. It's enough to drive you crazy." (To which Bechdel responds in her narration by saying: "This search for meaningful patterns may very well be crazy, but to be enlisted with her in it thrills me. "Why do you and I do that?" I am carrying on her mission.") This is pretty much the crux of the whole book - indeed (if you were so disposed to say so - altho it does sound a bit much) the crux of human existence - looking for patterns and making order where there isn't any [12]. 

And just in case you're thinking - well - surely we could have got all this from just reading a book (a proper one - with no pictures) [13]? The I should say that this is all entwined perfectly with the pictures. In fact - special mention must go to the one part where your attention gets directed to three different places at once - the image of the scene - plus an unseen voice coming from inside - plus the narration covering both of those with insights from Donald Winnicott (a major player): having your consciousness sliced over in three ways is a strange experience - like trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. I mean - it's thematically linked to all the other stuff - but it's still a virtuoso performance (and pretty cool). Plus - and I'm gonna struggle to get this down - so - apologises - but one of the thoughts that struck me as I read this was her now almost trademark (she does it a lot in Fun Home too) use of interspersing the images with parts of highlighted text [14] from letters from her mum and the work of Donald Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, etc. Of course mostly this just shows how attached she is to the written word (and like I said before - it makes sense that she gets a lot of love from the literati seeing how indebted she is to novels and stuff) but the thing that I noticed is how - even tho she's writing what is - still essentially a book (you know - it has pages and stuff) - when she quotes from other people - it feels like she has the upper hand. That she can show you the world in three dimensions - while typical novelists can only give you the words. I'm not trying to say that comics are better than novels here (because - hey - that's silly and is a bit like trying to compare apples and oranges [15] and blah blah blah) but that Bechdel by placing one inside the other manages to kinda caption off the stronger text ("stronger" in that: in our culture thus far - Virginia Woolf means much more and has more - I dunno - import - than a mere comic book (with the exception of maybe Watchmen? [16])) and so manages to stay in charge. If I saw the same thing happening in a novel (with bits of the text from other books inserted inbetween the lines the author had written) the line of demarcation would be (obviously) much less clear and it would be harder to shift the feeling that you were reading something that had been - well - cut and pasted. But Bechdel (and it helps that she actually draws each letter so that we're not just looking at text - but a picture of text - but then - lordy - what's the difference right? "This is not a pipe" and all that [17]) manages to assert a sort of authorial dominance by subsuming other people's words into her comic book world. 

It's not a perfect book. Reading it the first time round (and who knows maybe my mind will change the next time I read it?) I thought that the ending was a little - well - unsatisfying. Especially compared to the way Fun Home wrapped up in an almost symphonic fashion (with different variations of ideas building on top of each other: the closet comparison I can think of in how it made me feel is (however wanky this may be) that track on Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album An Ending (Ascent) [18]) - but then it's easier to achieve some small sense of - well - let's use the appropriate term - closure - with a dead person than someone who you're continuing to have a relationship with (also - and I mean this in a good way - it really felt like it was a book that could have gone on forever - and so probably any ending was always going to feel a little abrupt - like wrapping something in a box and putting a bow on it - even tho it's still growing and changing shape). But for anyone interested in - well - making connections and trying to understand (is this too much? I dunno) how life works - then this is a book that you should check out. Gloria Steinem (on the back cover) [19] describes it (and I love this) as "...sort of like a comic book by Virginia Woolf"or The Guardian (even better!) call her: "a sort of lesbian Woody Allen." But however you want to phrase it: this is the real deal. Not just entertainment - but in it's own strange, awkward way: enlightenment (or as close as we're likely to get). 

[1] This is great: "After she returned to the UK, aged 10, Maya heard nothing from her dad, until she summoned him back into her life by calling her first album Arular. "I thought that if he Googled himself, he'd get my LP and then he'd get in touch." The tactic worked, but their relationship is still fraught." (from this article)

[2] And this is all kinda flipped in Are You My Mother - as we only see little tiny glimpses of her father - which is kinda strange: like seeing a ghost from a TV show on another channel - and I wouldn't be surprised if anyone who read this book first would think - gosh - how on earth could she write a whole book about him?

[3] Altho to say that Are You My Mother? is a bit more relaxed about language seeing how - in a sense - it's all about language (Er-zatz or Er-zatz?) and the stresses it can cause (communication and the lack of it: blah blah blah) - but hell - hopefully you know what I mean. 

[4] Well - at the start at least - before it starts going into the psychological jargon (and I'll admit that I had to look up "Cathexis" - and if you don't know what that is - I'd say that you should too). But then it's not pretentious if you're using the long words because you need to - rather than just showing off (maybe you should look up the definition of pretentious if you don't know what I'm talking about... ha!)

[5] In fact - is still amazing and blogs under the name Sick Mouthy (Read him! he's very very good).

[6] And hmmmm - what is the right criteria here? Do people only read reviews of things they love or of things they hate or what? I tend to try and read everything so I'm not best placed to say.

[7] And hell - as we're talking about that kind of thing - can I link you to Pitchfork's review of At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command (quote: "The following is a partial transcript from the third and final debate between Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Candidate Al Gore.") (And if you're wondering why Pitchfork is no longer that good then you should read this n+1 article by Richard Beck: 5.4 Pitchfork, 1995–present (Personally I would have called it 6.8 - but whatever).

[8] Which was going to be the point where I quoted some Nick Southall. One of the lines that has really stuck with me over the years was one from his take on Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to The Head: "They don’t smack so much of the bedroom to me as the kitchen, people half-sighing as they dry the dishes and wait for their pasta to boil, rather than frantically, desperately miserable adolescents cursing their own birth." But then reading over the review again - I realise that he makes some remarks which are pretty pertinent here: "There is a weight of responsibility to the music writer, then, to account for themselves. I don’t think it’s acceptable (in most circumstances) to simply say “I like something” or “I dislike something”; I think you owe it to the people reading to extrapolate on why you feel the way you do, to help them hear a record the way you do so they can get something out of it too. And sometimes you owe it to yourself (and the readers) to explain something, to capture an idea, to draw links between things, to try and contribute holistic lines to the huge Venn/spider diagram of our culture. It’s not about just being a buying guide, about trying to offer a definitive statement, an objective truth (no such thing exists) about a record. It’s about trying to capture the feelings and thoughts that make you love a song or a hook or a turn of phrase or a sound. And it’s also about giving reasons why not when you can. And that’s what I’m doing now. Too often a review is written quickly, too often a record isn’t given time, because the barrage of stuff (asked for and unasked for) is too much, and sometimes one simply wants to listen to music because one loves it and not because one has to deal with it."

[9] That would just be a book that went: My Mum is a nice lady. She used to do acting in the plays. She liked to wear the pretty dresses. etc (Spoken in a voice like a child reading their homework out loud in front of the class - you know - like The Streets). And - oh god - can you imagine how boring that would be? In fact - you don't really need to. My literary flatmate (the one who likes to read the books that don't have any pictures in (ha - what a chump)) asked me what it was that I was writing. And I was like: oh it's called Are You My Mother? it's like a memoir and stuff - and he was like - oh: are you writing about how much you hate it? He's just started to read this blog (and in fact - he even helped me out a bit by pointing out bits where I've said stuff that I didn't mean to - so thanks literary flatmate!) and he recently read the thing I wrote about Make Me A Woman by Vanessa Davis which - yeah - I totally hated. And his take on the whole thing is kinda similar to mine (even tho he hasn't read Make Me A Woman or Are You My Mother? or Fun Home or Blankets or any comic memoir really) in that - well - who would want to read a memoir? It's just someone recounting bits of their life - and who wants to spend their time reading that? And I guess that's the point of why I've writing all this and what I'm trying to get at - it's that Are You My Mother? is not just a memoir and is not just recounting moments in her life - it's more like someone using the bits of their life as fuel to talk about other things. To use a life (her life, her mum's life) as a starting point - and then taking things from there. In fact there's a bit in the book where she says this almost overtly when speaking to her mother she says: "Yeah, but don't you think that... that if you write minutely and rigorously  enough about your own life... you can, you know, transcend your particular self." And man at this point (to steal a move from the book): I still can't work out how to get A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in here - but I just want to say - that that was the first book that showed me (I read it soon after it first came out - and yeah - I think a part of that was something to do with it's amazing title) that people speaking about their lives didn't have to be boring and - in fact - could create some of the best writing out there. But - then yeah - no duh. 

[10] Oh - and saying that just makes me want to go and reread Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid again. But that's another story (and not a comic book - so probably not something I'll ever really get around to writing about - ho hum).

[11] And speaking of Analysis and Therapy - ladies and gentlemen I give you: Dr. Tobias Funke.

[12] Here's a cool word that I've just discovered: "Pareidolia". "A psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.The word comes from the Greek words para (παρά, "beside, alongside, instead") in this context meaning something faulty, wrong, instead of; and the noun eidōlon (εἴδωλον "image, form, shape") the diminutive of eidos. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia." (see here for more).

[13] Although if that's the way you're feeling - maybe you're reading the wrong blog?

[14] Which created yet another doubling effect through the fact (as you can probably tell from how much stuff I've written down here) that I decided to take this post a little more seriously than I normally do - and so wrote down notes as I read it (look how seriously I'm taking all of this) - so kinda ended up highlighting bits of the book (note: not actually highlighting obviously - goddamn - it's a library book!).

[15] Altho - in my mind - that's a cliche that's now been forever linked in my mind with The Thick of It:
Quote: "It's not my role to have a preference - I sell the apples. If you want me to sell the apples, I'll sell the apples. But if you want me to sell oranges, then I'll go and tell people that the apples, the apples are shit Olly, they're shit - I'll say go on, check out our oranges."

[16] That's a joke. I think. I dunno.

[17] And this would be the point that if you wanna read more about that sort of stuff - you should try out: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

[18] Which you may recognise from the following places (deep breath): TV - James May on the Moon - opening sequence / TV - Chris Morris's surreal TV comedy series Jam / TV - American drama Nip/Tuck, in numerous episodes / TV - Ouroboros, an episode of the British comedy series Red Dwarf / TV - Top Gear (Series 7 Episode 3), as the presenters drove supercars to the Millau Viaduct / TV - Top Gear (Series 13 Episode 7), during the final sequence of the series and closing credits as Jeremy drives the Aston Martin Vantage V12 / TV - Dan Cruickshank's documentary Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World / TV - 2010 Party political broadcast by the Liberal Democrats for the United Kingdom general election, 2010 / TV - Home, the final episode of the British comedy/drama series Love Soup / TV advertisement - for the PlayStation 3 / TV advertisement - for the NSPCC Liberal Democrat party political broadcast / Film soundtrack - Drive (2011) / Film soundtrack - Traffic (2000) / Film soundtrack - Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006) / Film soundtrack - 28 Days Later (2002) / Film soundtrack - Clean (2004) / Game soundtrack - Thief II: The Metal Age, Mission "Trail of Blood" / Cover - Arturo Stalteri, on his 2001 album Cool August Moon / Cartoon - David Firth's cartoon Milkman / Sample - Used in Frou Frou's song "Hear Me Out" from the album Details / Sample - Used in Burial's song "Forgive" from the album Burial / Portion - The song was used by Coldplay in the lead up to the beginning of the first song, Politik, whenever they played live on their A Rush of Blood to the Head Tour. The tune cut out the moment Politik began. / Radio - This American Life - Used in the episode "Prom" broadcast April 29, 2011 (phew).

[19] Altho I will admit I don't exactly know who Gloria Steinem (and neither did my girlfriend when I asked her) - but I'm guessing - she's a famous feminist writer of somekind? (Checking checking: Ha! Yes! "Gloria Marie Steinem (born March 25, 1934) is an American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader of, and media spokeswoman for, the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s." - I WIN.)

Links: The Comics Journal Review, Guardian Review, Open Salon ReviewComic Book Resources Interview, The Comics Journal Article: Six Observations about Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Archive Are You My Mother?.

Further reading: Fun Home, The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, Couch FictionAsterios Polyp, Habibi, Literary Life.

Profiles: Alison Bechdel.

All comments welcome.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Books: Make Me A Woman


Make Me A Woman
By Vanessa Davis

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I mean - no duh - (I know this ain't exactly a new insight) but taste is a funny thing isn't it? 

There was this thing that I read about a few years ago called "The Napoleon Dynamite Problem." What it was was that Netflix wanted to improve their recommendation programme ("You liked ___ ? In that case maybe you will also like ____ !") and offered a prize of $1 million to the first people who could improve their algorithm by 10%. Most of the time it seemed it was pretty easy to work out what people liked - I mean - if you liked Aliens then you'd probably like Predator and that kinda stuff (because - well - no duh) but the problem was with films like Napoleon Dynamite. The thing with Napoleon Dynamite is that it was next to impossible to predict who was going to love it and who was going to hate it - so - to use myself as an example: the reason I decided to watch it was because everyone I knew said that it was the kind of film that I would adore and - god - Simon Pegg (who - in case you can't tell is kinda one of my personal heroes if nothing else than Tim Bisley) gave a quote somewhere and said it was his new favourite film or something - and wait a second - I think I may have actually brought it on DVD without having watched it beforehand because hey - everyone says it's great yeah? - and well - let's just say that was the last time I did that.

But watching Napoleon Dynamite gave me the same feeling as reading this book - just what the hell are people enjoying so much? What the hell am I missing?

I'd never heard of this book before I saw it sitting in one of our library crates (blah reservations other branches etc) but - oooh - a new comic in expensive looking hardback! And a front cover that looked like it could be an extract from a Beryl Cook painting [2] so - as usual I was game before I'd even started reading it. And (ok - that old adage about never judge a book by it's cover probably includes it's back cover too - but whatever) on the back it had three glowing little recommendations: “If you don’t like [Vanessa Davis], you don’t like anything good.” —Vice “What distinguishes Davis’s take is a reflective hunger formeaning and connection in the very mundane.” —Bust “Vanessa Davis’s autobiographical slice-of-life drawings are both totally relatable and sweetly surreal.” —Bitch. Now - I've never heard of Bust and Bitch (and I'm a little wary of googling them on a work computer) but I guess I should have heard alarm bells instead of going "ooh - this should be good" when I saw that the top quote was from Vice magazine [3]. Because Vice magazine sucks balls and well - so does this comic.

There's a Doug Stanhope line that goes: "Babies are like poems. They're beautiful to their creator, but to other people, they're silly and they're irritating." And I reckon that goes double for the stuff that people write in their diaries and double-triple for stuff in their diaries that they then decide to illustrate and then put into a comic book for me to read. I know I've said this before about other comic biographies that I've wrote about on here but - damn it - I say it again (and I'll say it in caps) : WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT YOUR LIFE? For me - a grumpy late twenty-something but whatever - I need a reason to make my way through a bunch of drawing that look like they were drawn by - well - Napoleon Dynamite (or - wait - even better - Eagle vs Shark! [4]): and (come on) at least give me some small semblance of a story instead of just a random selection of two of three page vignettes - all of which seem to swirl around Jewishness rather than Womanhood (maybe the title should have been: Make Me a Jew? [5]) 

There's that HBO sit-com Girls that seems to be a bit love/hate in the responses it gets (no one on the internet it seems can just say it's ok). Me - I really like it and think it's almost genius. But this book - it's like - all the negative things people say about Girls - that it's self-obessed and boring and of no possible interest to anyone apart from the people that made it - etc - all those things are how I feel about this book.

But - hey - it's all a matter of taste. So - whatever.  

[1] You can read about it at this New York Times article "If You Liked This, You’re Sure to Love That" here.

[2] Beryl Cook: you know - the artist who draws the people with the sausage arms hanging out in pubs. I wouldn't classify myself as an actual fan - but she's kinda cool and the idea of a whole comic illustrated in that fashion seemed like it could be interesting... (altho it turns out that Vanessa Davis' art doesn't really look like Beryl Cook at all - oh well).

[3] If you haven't heard of Vice it's basically the magazine of choice for American Apparel wearing trendy hipster Shoreditch scum. And - trying to find out the review where that quote came from I found this review: "Vanessa Davis's drawings have a softness to them that feels like sympathetic memories. Maybe I'm off here, but it feels like she views the world in a forgiving way, whether she's showing us the time when everyone was having bat mitzvahs or some Israeli dude was treating her poorly. Everyone is a lovable goofball. There's a particularly good comic in here about going to the sex store with Karen of Meh fame [1. Who? 2. Oh my god - is there really a band out there called "Meh"? (I'm trying to google it but I'm getting nothing. 3. "Going to the sex store with Karen of Meh fame" sounds like a sentence from Sugar Ape - but then I guess every page in Vice sounds like a sentence from Sugar Ape] and being observed by a Hassidic man. It's odd when you run into Hassidic men in places like that. I remember seeing a few at that goth/fetish party they used to have at Siberia [well weapon]. I also remember seeing a couple at a Death in June show on a Sunday morning at the Pyramid Club a few years back. Maybe they were just Orthodox.   Anywayahs, as you may have cottoned, there's a whole load of stories in this book relating to Jewishness.  I especially like one strip where she describes how great Purim is to her boyfriend while he turns up his nose at the concept of "gross Jewish food."  Later he is giggling while reading  a biography of Hitler before bed." I mean ok: I know I'm not one to talk seeing how pretty much this entire blog is just me going on off-tangent digressions (for example: see [3]) - but really - what the hell? What the hell?

[4] A Napoleon Dynamite rip-off that looks better than Napoleon Dynamite. I haven't actually seen it - but I have watched the trailer quite a few times. And it's got Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords! So bonus points for that plus: the title always makes me think of this Thee More Shallows song (double bonus!).

[5] This should go without saying - but I'm not trying to be anti-semitic (like duh). But when oh so very many films, books, comics etc of the past 100 years have touched upon the Jewish experience in one form or another (I won't even bother to write a list of the awesome stuff that's out there because if I did it would probably take all day) - then you really need to bring something new to the table because otherwises - what's the point? And why should I bother to waste my time reading your book?

Links: Smith Mag Interview, Book Slut Review.

Further reading: American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, Clumsy, I Never Liked You, Marzi, French Milk, Hilda and the Midnight Giant, Breakdowns.

All comments welcome.