Burn, Baby! Burn!

Headlines we’ll never see:

Protests at AIG Spur Arrests, Tear Gas

Tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the AIG International Building in lower Manhattan today as police used tear gas in an attempt to break up the demonstration. Meanwhile, another several thousand demonstrators blockaded the entrance of the New York Stock Exchange and police report several fires burning along Wall Street.

And one we did.–Cabbage Rabbit

Walter Mosley In Context

The recent controversy Attorney General Eric Holder stirred when he remarked that we’re “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race made us think of Walter Mosely’s latest book The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow. Fortlow, the central figure of a couple previous Mosley works, is an aging ex-con and convicted killer who takes advantage of a windfall to establish round-table discussions that are anything but cowardly. He brings together a rather improbable group of men and women—not all black— to a South Central L.A. home where “they can take themselves seriously” and “look for a kind of wisdom” but mostly to figure out something to do:

“I know what you feelin’,” the ex-convict said. “I might as well ask you to fly. But you know people dyin’ ten thousand miles an’ one block away from here. We go to bed knowin’ it. And when we wake up it’s still true. We bring chirren into this world. We make love here. At least we could take one evenin’ every week or two and ask—just ask, what is it we could do about this shit?”

The resistance to the idea, voiced by a young gang banger, is what you might expect:

“I expected to see a room fulla black men ready t’stand up and tell the cops and the whites what we won’t take no mo.’ But instead I come into a house fulla bitches, beaners, an’ chinks. And then you got this Jew. What the fuck am I s’posed to do with that?”

It’s surprising then that most of the external conflict in the story is generated by the LAPD. And while the cast of characters may border on cliché, the discussions they generate are not. They have the sort of exchange that we need in this uncivil society but don’t seem to get. And there’s a dose of honesty that we liberals, anxious to forget our repressed biases (contrary to popular belief, the last presidential election did not prove we progressives are all cool about color) need to embrace. Socrates:

“We are all racists here. You, me, the baby inside’a Luna and the one on Cassie’s lap. In this country you born in racism, bathed in it every day of your life.”

Holder’s defenders claim the context of his remarks was overlooked. Regardless of the context, there’s no doubt he was speaking truth. I’ve often thought of the time I spent in South Central L.A., how I was welcomed into homes and businesses, be they in Watts or the Crenshaw commercial district. But I never got over the fear that I was bathed in growing up with a Southern-born grandfather and a knee-jerk racist father. Forget the slur-alert regarding Holder’s use of the word “cowards” that went out from those on the right who see America exclusively as home of the brave (and don’t you forget it). But even Mosley’s bravest characters are a bit uncomfortable at times with what they face, even if they’re just words. The point is to do something. And that’s what some Americans in this time of trouble are resisting…doing something.

Mosley’s book is more than just a conversation starter. The race questions, though played large, take a backseat to the personal issues his characters face. That’s part of Mosley’s genius. He addresses individual struggle in the larger social context. I no longer like to segregate Mosley’s crime fiction (Easy Rawlins and others) from his serious fiction (there’s no explaining how my local library classifies some of his books as mysteries and others as straight fiction). Let’s just say that, as an American author, Mosley is no coward.–Cabbage Rabbit

Herbert Love

We’re reminded again why we love Bob Herbert. In today’s column, there’s this:

What I know is that the renegade clowns who ruined this economy, the Republican right in alliance with big business and a fair number of feckless Democrats — all working in opposition to the interests of working families — have no credible basis for waging war against serious efforts to get us out of their mess.

And this:

More than 4.4 million jobs have been lost since this monster recession officially got under way in December 2007, and we’ve got people wigging out over earmarks. Folks, get a grip. Some earmarks are good, some are not, but collectively they account for a tiny, tiny portion of the national budget — less than 1 percent.

Herbert is a voice of reason. He doesn’t forget recent history. He sees things in context. And he understands the needs of working class families…unlike most of the twittering class.Cabbage Rabbit

Headline Funnies

It wasn’t meant (or assigned) to be a Top Ten Comics of the Year list but somehow that headline was stuck on top of my roundup in the OC Weekly last January. Maybe it was because the paper, in an effort to save money, had just dumped its managing editor position which meant my long-time colleague and editor Rich Kane was out of a job (Rich and I go back to the Jay Levin-era at the LA Weekly). But, hey! The Village Voice Media management puts their best interest first and it isn’t quality. What follows is that year-end roundup of comics, not a top-ten list (sure some would have made it…let me think over which ones), all worth checking out…

Don’t tell my parents. But I discovered adult comics when I was still a kid. It was the tail end of the underground comics revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. My childhood interest in Mighty Mouse and Tom Terrific and later Batman and Green Lantern had begun to sour when I discovered Mr. Natural, Captain Pissgums and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Here was high adventure. Natural—he of “Keep on Truckin’ fame– kept a baby alive in the desert by forcing it to commit an unspeakable act. Pissgums liked to lop off the members of his fellow pirates. And the Freak Brothers thought times of weed and no money were easier than times of money and no weed. Oh, brave new world!

The underground era pushed the medium to surreal limits. But comics continued to evolve; even adult comics had to grow up sometime. Today’s comics not only contain all the fantastic and absurd qualities of their predecessors but have found a place for the everyday, even mundane values of life, often contrasted with strange, dare we say comical, illustrations.

Take David Heatley’s graphic memoir My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon Books, $24.95). In chapters on sex, race, mom, dad and kin, Wheatley is disarmingly honest about his emotions, biases and hangups. The drawing has something of an infantile quality, the characters, except mom, dad and the therapist, look like children and even some of the impossibly small panels suggest that it’s the little things that matter and we’ll never grow up. Dreams, complete with dates they were dreamt, don’t seem all that much stranger than the confessional vignettes. When was the last time you went to the butcher and ordered three pounds of vagina?

In its long history, the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets has played both sides of the coin: true life stories from the streets of Los Angeles and the Mexican homeland as well as the Hernandez brother’s own brand of wacky magical realism. Love and Rockets: New Stories # 1 (Fantagraphics, $14.99) transcends the series’ telenovela inspirations to include fantasies of aliens, a slot machine loving kangaroo who bums money from a talking penis, hormonal super heroines and a comedy team transported to a planet that looks a lot like Las Vegas. One of the straightest stories, the parable “Papa,” tells of an epic struggle against parasites. Strange, strange stuff.

Still, the trend in comics is to get real, even if the circumstances are unusual. Contrasting life’s little issues–like to where to buy diapers–with repressive politics brings the absurdity of both into sharp focus. Guy DeLisle’s Burma Chronicles (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95) accounts his days in Myanmar while traveling with his wife, an administrator for Doctors Without Borders. Told with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, DeLisle’s experiences contrast frustration and comedy as his family tries to establish day-to-day life in a country that even Kafka might not have imagined. Insidious, low-tech censorship mostly enforced with scissors, the frustrations of the aid organizations operating within the country, rampant heroin addiction in rural villages and random disappearances all make for complications. Like the vignettes themselves, DeLisle’s drawing has a subtle way of creating detail even in its simplicity.

The political backdrop in Rutu Modan’s Jamilti (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95) is the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. Modan’s previous graphic novel Exit Wounds followed the search for a missing lover thought to have been an unidentified victim of a terrorist bombing. In these seven stories, she concentrates on human issues: love under duress, parent-child relations, the artist’s responsibility to his parent culture. The softness of her drawing makes her characters fragile and unassumingly admirable.

Comics dealing directly with political history and personalities were on the rise in 2008. The year has seen graphic accounts of the war on terror, a biography of FBI director J Edgar Hoover and even a graphic adaptation of the Constitution. The best of the lot is Spain Rodriguez’s Che: A Graphic Biography (Verso, $16.95), not so much for its intriguing subject matter but for the way it’s handled. Rodriguez gives a clear-eyed account of the revolutionary icon seen so often on t-shirts and dorm room posters. He’s terribly sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution—who couldn’t be after the horrors of the Batista dictatorship?—but gives a good accounting of Guevara’s struggles with ideology and dedication to the people.

With a little bit of everything from 28 crazed cartoonists, The Best American Comics 2008 (Houghton Mifflin, $22) is an improvement over the series’ first two editions. Editor Lynda Barry, she of Ernie Pook’s Comeek fame, emphasizes the innocent, playful and creative side of the genre, even when dealing with adult themes. “Mammalogy,” Eric Haven’s time-traveling satire on evolution, super heroes and comics themselves, is alone worth the price of admission. Joseph Lambert’s end pages, the saga of a boy and his dog who keep romping as their lives and body parts are gruesomely destroyed, takes the fun to extremes.

An even larger collection An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories Vol.2 (Yale University Press $28) reflects editor Ivan Brunetti’s fascination with parody, perversion and the dark side of imagination. The selections from some 85 cartoonists, all exquisite in their depth and imagination, flow together in transitions sometimes based on content, sometimes on mood and sometimes on style. There’s a long tribute to Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman (including an essay by Adam Gopnik) and occasional Sunday strips from 50 and more years ago suggest the inspiration for contemporary work by Chris Ware and others. Brunetti’s own work is a glimpse into his selection process. Fantagraphics has just issued a second printing of his Misery Loves Comedy ( $24.95) and this sickest and most psychologically troubled of cartoonists is worth seeking out to see how deranged—and revealing– the art form can be. Just don‘t let the kids get a hold of it.–Cabbage Rabbit