. Move Higher

Our lack of a Playlist: The Week In Rapid Rotation and other posting the last couple weeks (thanks to the hundreds, if not thousands, who inquired after our absence)  is due to another move,  from our beloved rabbit hole in Montana to a warren in the hills north Santa Fe, New Mexico. If living at 5,000 feet wasn’t high enough, life above 7,000 feet should thin our blood sufficiently to keep what’s left of our gray matter, now mostly hare,  from falling completely away.  As has been our life-long practice, I’ve hopped down here without a job except that which I bring with me:  the usual writing-for-dollars assignments that vary  from the evolution of the big band to the evils of commercial compost.  Short answer (once again): I did it for love. Or to follow it.

Leaving beloved friends, colleagues and high-school students (but don’t tell them that) made things difficult. But the journey was magical, leaving Bozeman at five one afternoon and driving through the night across Wyoming and northern Colorado: the surreal plume of smoke from a coal-fired electrical generating plant hovering in its own light, the deer caught browsing the Interstate median yards away from the corpse of a road-killed sister). Our moving van disappeared into Colorado for two days and after it arrived in New Mexico, our mover’s help likewise disappeared, leaving me and a diminutive, amazingly strong local named Eusebio to carry much of the load up the last steep 20 yards of our driveway the van couldn’t navigate.

Santa Fe has been welcoming despite the usual hassles of obtaining utility and internet hook-ups, transfering bank accounts, searching for affordable health care, getting lost in the tangle of streets and making our new home suitable for human habitation. A wonderful symphony concert, a very good meal or two, a beautiful snowfall and fabulous green shopping at the local Farmers’ Market have already justified the move. And, every time I look out the window towards the distant Sandia Mountains (the Sangre de Cristos pile up so closely behind us they can’t be seen) I think, for once, I’m going to enjoy living above ground.–Cabbage Rabbit

Marvel Boycott

A number of comics websites are calling for a boycott of Marvel Comics, specifically any Marvel product (and that includes a lot more than actual comics) that have anything to do with characters or stories created by the late, great Jack Kirby after a federal judge in New York declared that Kirby’s heirs had no claim for a judgement against Marvel and its parent The Walt Disney Company. The judge ruled that Kirby’s creations, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four among them (all in collaboration with Stan Lee), were “work for hire” and that the family had no argument for copyright. It’s the biggest row over a comic creation since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went after Time Warner over the creation of Superman.

Well-known illustrator/cartoonist Seth took to his website to support the boycott and defend  Kirby’s legacy while attacking Marvel, Disney and Marvel mavern Lee:

The corporate lie about Kirby’s role in the creation of all those characters is abhorrent. It’s a bold faced lie. Everyone knows it’s a lie. No one is fooled. Everyone lying for the company should be ashamed. Stan Lee should be ashamed. What the Marvel corporation is doing might be legal but it certainly isn’t right.

Count me in, not that I spend any money on Marvel products, especially movies.  The issue –who owns an artist’s creative work  — is one that applies to much more than comics.  I haven’t liked Marvel since it was purchased by the Mouse. And I haven’t like the Mouse since it tried to throw me out of Disneyland for having a smeared entry stamp (and long hair, no doubt) all those years ago.–Cabbage Rabbit

Philip Levine – Poet Laureate

Welcome news today that Philip Levine has been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. I enjoyed Levine’s 2010 collection News of the World with its recycled memories and working class tales as well as its plain-spoken language , something often required of American poets; see Ted Kooser but, not so much, Levine’s predecessor W.S. Merwin. I’m hoping this will result in an updated collection of the 83-year-old poets work, so we may chart his aesthetic course even as his poetry springs more and more of memory.

Death and Taxes

You’ve gotta believe that most all of what you read in David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King was written by David Foster Wallace. After all, the manuscript was trimmed from “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks” worth of paper  to 548 pages, as editor Michael Pietsch tells us. But then, we don’t know how much stitching Pietsch had to do. We know there was no “outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters.”   He tells us he edited “lightly,” and that he cut out”unintentional distractions and confusions…”. And I thought confusions were what Wallace was all about.

Pietsch says, “There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. All these materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was the closest timing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world.”  This may suggest that the editor did a lot of writing to bring it all together. It also gives us a way to discern, in its dull and stammering way, what is stitching to what is Wallace.

Does it matter what is Wallace and what is not? Of course it does. And our take is that most of it is, in its being “gorgeously alive” (well, maybe not “gorgeously”  but “grindingly” or “sadly”) and in its glimpse into Wallace’s  “amazing mind.”  What’s amazing about it is its willingness to pursue detail, to pose self-reflecting questions and see a number of answers, to find the most absurd circumstances and put them to sound use.

It matters because I can’t help wonder if the young man who is at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Il isn’t — it is! — David Foster Wallace and that as he explains his adolescence in terms of his job aspirations (what a turnaround!), he’s telling us about what that amazing mind went through. There are other characters of interest, drawn in Wallace’s too-revealing style, as if, again, he were writing about himself.  The  narrative is Pynchon-like  in its time-out-of-mind pacing. And there’s some paranoia  — big-brother type paranoia–  thrown in for good measure.  What’d you expect? It’s the IRS.

We’re not ready to make comparisons to Infinite Jest…may have to read it again (that was last summer’s project). And there’s one thing certain: it is unfinished. But this is definitely a David Foster Wallace novel, even some of it wasn’t written by him.–Cabbage Rabbbit

Roth Stops Reading Fiction!

Philip Roth’s interview in the Financial Times ahead of his visit to London to pick up the Man Booker International literary prize is an exercise in avoidance. Roth avoids answering the tough questions by letting the interviewer get away without asking them. For an author who’s used alter ego to advantage,  Roth is presenting himself in a way we doubt is really him.  Way to play it!

If Roth’s claim that he no longer reads fiction is the article’s attempt at something resembling sensationalism  — “I read other things: history biography…I wised up”– the rest is something so predictable that I predict you’ll be bored. What is interesting is the journalist’s hand wringing about the author’s reputation and love of privacy. She can’t believe  he’s being nice. “As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended.” Hers is a sterling example of procrastination and out-and-out avoidance with, no doubt, a bit of hero worship as well, despite that bit at the end about feminism.

She should have slapped the guy. Just kidding.

Even more interesting are the comments that follow The New York Times “Arts Beat” blog item on Roth. People hate the man! They hate fiction!. They hate people who hate fiction! Talk about Indignation! These are exactly the kind of feelings that Roth’s been able to inspire over the last 50 years. This is why we love him. And Zuckerman, too. —Cabbage Rabbit

Comic Investments

Jonathan Last has an interesting article in the Weekly Standard dated June 13 comparing the comic book crash of 1993 — what?! You didn’t know? — to the housing bubble. Yes, yes,  it’s the evil neo-neo-con and self-appointed Svengali William Kristol’s rag… but I think the story makes some interesting comparisons…criticisms below.

While speculation drove up the price of collectible comics, publishers strove to make every comic they released collectible. While you may not live inside a comic (or maybe you do, figuratively) its value, minus speculation, becomes personal. But let’s not forget the role of demand-and-supply or the roguish business practices of greedy middle-men.

Last, a comics collector as a kid, gives a good history of the run-up to the crash, plotting how comic rose from pulp to treasure in a half-century or so. By 1992, “At the investment level, high-value comics were appreciating at a fantastic rate. At the retail level, comic-book stores were popping up all across the country to meet a burgeoning demand. As a result, even comics of recent vintage saw giant price gains. A comic that sold initially for 60 cents could often fetch a 1,000 percent return on the investment just a few months later.”

What brought comics down, he says,  was part speculation and – here’s where housing comparisons become murky –  distribution. The two largest comic distributors, not to be confused with the two largest comic publishers (DC and Marvel), strictly controlled who would sell comics off the shelf. As Last points out, they required financial reserves, large orders and high sales; until 1979. Then the two largest distributors, Diamond and Capital City, in an attempt to do away with their smaller competition, lowered the bar. (It’s worth noting that one of the best authorities on all things comics, Mile High Comics President Chuck Rozanski, believes that the comics speculation bubble of the 1990s is a myth.)

The cut-throat policy of these two distributors, Last says, “had the practical effect of turning many collectors into dealers. Comic book shops proliferated, growing from 800 in 1979 to 10,000 by 1993. Diamond and Capital City were so successful that they drove every other distributor in America out of business.”

Because wholesale comics purchases are made months in advance, and retailers are forced to swallow any stock they don’t sell, the suppliers were unaware that sales had fallen precipitously, even as they continued to add new retailers. The crash of these new, poorly capitalized and inexperienced comic stores came quickly. “The weakest of them folded first, and their demise began a cascade.  Publishers saw a rapid and dramatic decline in orders, so they moved to reduce costs by cutting back the number of titles they shipped. Which led to less product for the remaining retailers to sell. Which pushed the stores on the margins of survival out of business. The death spiral was on.”

Last says that nine out of ten comic stores closed during the crash and that publisher sales dropped by 70%. But the biggest burden fell on the collectors/speculators, many of them like Last himself, still kids. “As a 12-year-old I had a collection worth around $5,000, Last confesses. “By the time I was ready to sell my comic books to buy a car—such are the long-term financial plans of teenagers—they were worthless.”

Last’s comments on comics and the housing market regaining their value are worth reading. Certainly some high-end comics will never depreciate just as housing at the extreme upper end has lost less than your run-of-the-mill tract home. High-value art might make for a better comparison. And the story of what saved comics – movie rights and merchandise sales – has no obvious parallel in housing (apartment sales?). But both have value even though it’s worth remembering that comics, because of their size and easily porous paper, make for poor shelter. Comics weren’t always an unlikely investment for collectors. But their returns, like their tales, often prove imaginary.–Cabbage Rabbit

Noir, Noire, Noirish

Noir is like porno: You know it when you see it.  You can see it everywhere. Films — its most referenced birthplace– and literature (yes, literature, pulp included) and, don’t forget, comics. Its most recognized characteristic defines it as urban set piece dating from the 1940s; though, in its way, timeless.

Attempts to define the black genre narrowly — as to media, tone and content — always run into road blocks, the latest being the video game L.A. Noire (the “e” apparently added to avoid skirmishes with James Ellroy’s  attorneys even if his collection L.A. Noir takes place in much later times). The Xbox  and PlayStation3 notion of  noir contains every cliche and convention of pulp, hard-boiled and doomed-to-fail action (with a not so heroic hero).  Revivals of noir come about every few years –think L.A. Confidential or the recent publication of Black Lizard‘s big, burly collections — and noir rebirths and revivals  are perennial.

Ellroy himself takes a stab (huh) defining the genre in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century which he edited with crime-fiction scholar and bookstore owner Otto Penzler.  Ellroy’s interest here is literature, not film (despite his connections). He separates it from  the hardboiled detective school  calling it an “offshoot.”  Then he gets to the meat: “the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance…flawed souls with big dreams… the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad.”

It’s the “big dream” that makes noir, a film movement mistakenly thought French, all American.  The American dream’s delusion is one of possibility, climbing above one’s class, coming by the money, hook or crook, to reach a lifestyle that we (and them) will never attend. It’s not winning the lottery. It’s getting away with someone else’s prize.

Noir “canonizes the inherent human urges toward self-destruction,” says Ellroy.  We see the American dream in the slow dissolution of the middle class, princely financiers exploiting tragedy of their own making, the imperative and unwinding of American Imperialism. The only difference between the individual and national delusion is that the country, even as it squanders lives and treasure in foreign wars and investments, never sees its unwinding. The squandering comes to noir’s protagonists so predictably, so quickly and, occasionally, furiously that everyone can see it coming. Except them.

Penzler underscores these characteristics in his introduction to the noir collection. “Noir works…are existential, pessimistic tales about people…who are seriously flawed and morally questionable…greed, lust, jealousy and alienation lead them into downward spirals as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.”

While arguments for an inclusive theory of noir — including the video game which is, after all, more of a hard-boiled detective scenario –are commercially prevalent (everything from colognes to iPad apps), Penzler seeks the specific. He says detective fiction and noir are “diametrically opposed with mutually exclusive philosophical premises.”  The hard boiled school, of course, is equally existential, pessimistic and stocked with characters with moral flaws. But its central character, so often compared to knights of old or troubled western gunslingers just looking for a little peace (the pulp connection) is there to solve , resolve and rescue, even if he — and its always a he —  doesn’t succeed (think Chinatown).

Surprisingly, it’s the women, even as they play to type, who often control destiny in noir fiction. In the movies, there’s Barbara Stanwyck manipulating the hapless Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity. In her introduction to the section entitiled “Dames” in Penzler’s collection The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, Laura Lippman suggests that the scheming  woman of noir, who take charge of their circumstances if not their fate (and are often beyond rescue) were better feminist role models than the ’60s figures she grew up with: Julie Andrews, the June Taylor Dancer and Betty and Veronica. “Even if women take the lead in these stories,” she writes, “there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.”

The main point in the Ellroy/Penzler noir collection seems to be that the genre isn’t period specific. Good noir is still being written, and by the usual suspects. The book ranges over the classic noir years of the 1940s and ’50s. But most of the selections were written past those days. Nor are they specific to urban environments. Tom Franklin’s wonderful 1998 piece “Poachers”  is Faulkner-like in its regional , rural setting and dialogue. It’s lower-class, backwoods characters possess the same clueless, psychological flaws and the classic noir sense of inevitability as any urban back-alley, flophouse hotel confession.  Ellroy’s own 1988 piece “Since I Don’t Have You” is  one of the collection’s best, involving Howard Hughes, the gangster Mickey Cohen and a voluptuous beauty named Gretchen. Confusing genres, it also involves a detective, Turner “Blood” Meeks, a reoccuring Ellroy character who has a dead-end role in the film L.A. Confidential.

Noir is particularly timely today. Anything that takes place in America and focuses on misguided greed deserves our attention.  The consequences of Narcissism,  image delusion and out-and-out lack of brains assures bad outcomes. Or sometimes they’re too clever . Sometimes they get away.  Often there’s  animal-like behavior as if humans can’t resist the demands of our own evolution. What except the exteriors is different today than it was in the late ’40s?

Film noir’s harsh lighting and harsher story lines born of German expressionism are perfect for self (and national) reflection. Noir has always had a rural component. So much of America was still rural in noir’s heyday. It was easy to jump into your car and escape L.A. for the God-forsaken desert or mountains. One of noir’s best, Out of the Past , is a 1947 thriller staring Robert Mitchum that takes place entirely in and around the high Sierra near  Bridgeport, CA.

Noir can’t be defined by place, time or urban-rural contrasts. But I think Penzler and Ellroy have it right with their “downward spiral” of “seriously flawed and morally questionable” characters who are led by “greed, lust, jealousy and alienation.”  That’s the timeless scenario. It’s the psychology of it, our own proximity, the view of the not-so-faraway edge these unfortunates fall over.  A flirtation with our dark side, the reality; better than reality TV. And no detectives allowed.-Cabbage Rabbit