Mosley’s Memory

Walter Mosely’s meditation on his first memories in The New York Times is a detailed account of awakening consciousness. Mosely, at the age of three — the year most likely is 1955  —  opens his eyes in front of the television in his parents’ home. He is suddenly flooded with images and sensations. He says, “in some essential way,” it was the beginning of his life.

“There was a sense of excitement tingling in my shoulders and thrumming at the back of my head; an electricity that made me want to laugh out loud, but I didn’t laugh…There was dark blue carpeting beneath my knees and the room I was in, the living room, was bright because of daylight that came through the windows and also from the front door of the adjacent dining room. This door was open but the screen was closed.”

What might have been stolen from this memory had the television been on?

That Mosley’s visual memory of  specific events some 55 years past are so acute and detailed isn’t so surprising in light of his fiction, which is also acutely visual and focused. His 2010 novel, The Last Days of Ptolmey Grey,  centers on a nonagenarian who suffers the consequences of reviving lost memory. But it’s safe to ask:  Does Mosely really remember all this detail? Does he really remember the floral pattern of his mother’s dress, the “spiky” feel of the grass beneath his bare feet, the paleness of the violet dahlias his father was digging with a hand trowel?

I’ve often been credited with unbelievable recall of my early years. I astonished my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with details of an overnight stay in Children’s Hospital, a horse sticking its head through unshuttered windows one humid night on  distant cousins’ south Texas farm, the events surrounding my sisters birth; all occuring just before and when I was three. As I picture these things well over a half century later, I remember the times I remembered them and wonder if my memory is just recall of the memories, something akin to imagination, and not the memories themselves.

Mosley’s account, clearly remembered as he states, recalls the same kind of awakening Chris Ware illustrates in his last couple graphic novels as the pixels of toddler consciousness gather into image.  But Mosley goes on to express doubt at the depth of his formative memories. Nor does he attribute recollection to the mind:

The boundaries have become smaller as I have aged. The passions have receded and the sun shines less brightly. But none of that matters because the primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal.

In the way a poet might, Mosley ties imagination, a creative function, to a symbol of the human spirit. It’s a brilliant piece, poignant and meaningful to our experience as well as his. —Cabbage Rabbit

Death of Comics Reboot

Take aways from the publicity surrounding the “reboot” of DC’s line of comics:

— Starting over as issue #1 means not being bound by previous story line.  So maybe Lois and Clark aren’t married. Now what? “Part of the nature of culture is that we retell stories that are meaningful to us, again and again, in different ways,” says Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, “pointing to Homer’s “Iliad,” Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Dante’s “Inferno” as ‘continual reboots of Greek mythology.’” Yeah, what would happen if Odysseus never made it home? Would Homer have increased sales? Myth making — even superhero myth — builds on shared narrative and collective understanding. This is one of the great attractions we felt towards Superman when we first started reading him centuries ago. We knew the story of his leaving Krypton and being found by Ma and Pa Kent, we knew the back story to his dog Krypto and the arrival of Supergirl,we carried a torch for Lana Lang (that red hair) and on and on. We lost interest as the stories pulled away from established myth and were long gone by the time Superman’s origins were rewritten in 1986. It’s more than continuity. It’s legend.

–“The success of superhero movies like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” did not entirely rub off on the comics that inspired them, with individual titles struggling to sell more than 100,000 copies at $2.99 or $3.99 a copy.”  Comics are not spin-offs, like action figures, but stand-alones.

–“Recent reports by ICv2, a research company that tracks pop-cultural products, said that in July dollar sales of periodical comics were down 4.27 percent from the same month last year, down 4.6 percent in June and down 6.3 percent for the second quarter over all. Sales of graphic novels at traditional bookstores were up…” That says something encouraging. The kids, whatever their ages, are alright.

–Envy. In Rolling Stone, Grant Morrison, who’s doing the reboot of Action, says “I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it’s unhelpful to all of us, and it’s coming from people who have money and success to talk  like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the  others, and it’s indefensible.” On the other hand, he says he stayed away from comics groupies.

–Morrison also says kids are abandoning comics  and turning  to movies. If that’s true, it’s a blow to our collective imagination.

–While this discussion in The New York Times‘ “Arts Beat” blog of the first reboot — Justice League #1 — does little to advance the craft of comics criticism, the comments that follow do.  Comment #2 quotes Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes saying Batman’s fans have “healthier egos” because Batman was a model of hard work and self-betterment. After all, unlike Superman, he was only human. That has changed, as has Batman, in these steroid sculpted times (no, I’m not accusing Bruce Wayne of following Barry Bonds). This commenter notes that heroes have both become more psychologically real and less human appearing.

Ironically enough, as the heroes have become (a trend one applauds) more human in complex psychology and in the details of their lives (marriages, social relationships, emotional depth), they have become way more cartoonish in the art, turning almost into abstract images, which lack of realism creates a real disconnect (for me anyway) between physical and emotional being.

I believe that those who favored Superman were imagining themselves inside of Jung’s theory of exceptionalism: children believing they were princes or possessing  super powers of  other forms of difference and not part of their own lives and families. Alien, like Superman.

–“Arts Beat” blog reviewer George Gene Gustines, without using the words “youth” or “demographic” feels the same way I felt when reading Justice League #1. Responding to reviewer Adam W. Kepler’s remark that, ” There’s nothing in this first issue that’s innovative, in either the story or the art,” Gustines says:

That feeling just confirms for me that I – as a long time reader of comic books – am not the target audience for this. This initiative is part of the quest for the fabled “new reader,” which, for the sake of the industry, I hope is found.

With 11 pages of ads for future issues of “The New 52!” as the reboot is called (and a Batman themed Converse shoe ad), not counting inside front and back covers, well, I doubted that the Caped Crusaders teaming with Green Lantern, coming so conveniently close to GL’s movie release, my readership was the point. The commenters discuss serialization and speculate who the audience for superheroe comics is, the suspicion being that DC is shooting for a “new,” “younger” demographic. Doing so may risk their current readership who, as commenter #1 speculates is in their mid-20s -to-mid-30s and which probably (my speculation) doesn’t end there. Sure enough, as I was reading the Times I column, here comes CNN with a “most requested” news item coverage showing buyers lining up for the Justice League release. No one there looked to be under 30…maybe the parents were keeping the kids at home.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Best Comics of …

The best thing about The Best American Series’ The Best American Comics is that it reminds us of comics we enjoyed a couple years ago. Anyone who stays half-way current  with alternative comics and graphic novels will have seen a good portion of what’s in each edition of this four-year old series. Still, there’s always something missed as well as something new to discover.

The latest volume, edited by Big Baby and Black Hole artist Charles Burns, fits the bill. There’s well-known stuff from the Crumbs, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Jason Lutes, Tim Hensley and Art Spiegelman, stuff we enjoyed back in the day, as well as a less easily obtained piece from Chris Ware. The Rabbit had overlooked Kevin Huizenga‘s popular Ganges series. He found Huizenga’s “Pulverize”– an ironic story of the cruelties of  dot-com life and video games–to be the collection’s previously-unseen highlight. Then there’s always new material he absolutely missed (blame rabbit hole isolation) such as David Sandlin‘s demented, magenta dream-work “Slumburbia” pulled from the pages of Hot Wire.

Another service The Best American Comics series provides is to remind us of what’s become tiresome. This year, it’s parodies of classic comics, complete with comic-like advertising, no matter how crude or absurd. Tim Hensley’s brightly-colored, Archie-inspired teen serial “Gropius” (three installments spread through this volume) didn’t strike us as funny this time around. Michael Kupperman’s “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” is a clever-enough comic-tv series spoof, drawn in classic golden age style, that plays too far past its initial couple of pages. This stuff’s been done before and better by Ware, Spiegelman and others all the way back to Harvey Kurtzman.

In the past, the guest-editor’s introduction has often served up insight into craft and creation. Burns’ piece, disappointingly,  is standard bio fare. We learn that his father collected comics and that his parents succumbed when, as a child, he demanded all six volumes of the Tintin saga published in the U.S. by the Golden Press. We’d never realized that Olympia, Washington’s Evergreen State College was a comic breeding ground, but Burns, Matt Groening and previous series editor Lynda Barry were all there at the same time. The story of Burns’ association with Spiegelman shows that the mentor-student relationship is as rewarding to comic illustrators as it is to other artists.

We all knew that The Best American Comics, always published in time for the holiday gift  cycle, is best suited for the casual and non-comic reading public. But it serves a purpose–or two–for fans as well.–Cabbage Rabbit

Ware’s Well

It’s not too late to appreciate Chris Ware’s cover and story in The New Yorker‘s November 2  “Cartoon Issue.” Young trick-or-treaters stand at doorways, their faces hidden behind white masks, while their parents wait back on the sidewalk, their faces masked in illumination from their personal communication devices. What a great image! The story inside is equally clever and layered: generational,  revealing of interpersonal relationships and delusion, graced with beautiful imagery and designed , like a Pynchon novel,  in circular fashion. Who is that eyeless blond at the center of it all? Ware’s recent stories have been (mostly) focused on women–see The Acme Novelty Library Number 18–and it’s fair to ask what this Midwestern male can tell us about females. The answer is apparent in this latest story of mothers and daughters. They serve as a means to discuss the reoccurring foibles of men and the human condition at large.  The irony of the story’s last line–“Poor Mom…She was still naive in so many ways”–speaks to our own, unavoidable naivete.  See the Rabbit’s Chris Ware interview here.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Comic Genius

You’ve heard it said, even sung: Every picture tells a story. No where is that statement more true than in comics. And no comic illustrator tells deeper, more meaningful, more entertaining, more eye-pleasing stories than Chris Ware. Ware’s comics are so innovative, so artistic, clever and literate that they bridge the gap between pop and fine culture, even as they never pretend to be anything other than cartoons.

Memory serves Ware, coloring his panels with a sort of cartoon nostalgia. His work is out of the great comics tradition: Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Little Nemo, a host of troubled superheroes, the 1960s and ‘70s underground comics of R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and others, even Mad magazine parodies and Japanese comic knock-offs. Editions of his long-running Acme Novelty Library are introduced with arcane and satiric advertisements straight out of marketing’s quaint past. It’s easy to picture Ware at his drawing desk behind a swirling pair of X-Ray Specs, those that offered suckers the chance to see through the clothing and the world at large. But there’s one big difference: Ware’s actually work. How else to explain his insight?

Since the success of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, Ware has been everywhere; in art galleries on the cover of The New Yorker and the pages of The New York Times, as editor in 2004 of the landmark, all-comics edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Number 13 and, more recently, The Best American Comics 2007.

Even as he connects with the comics of our youth, Ware always brings something new to his panels: new illustration styles, new ways of arranging panels, new depth of thought, experience and emotion. His amazing Jimmy Corrigan transcends time and space in a depressingly lonely epic of fathers and sons. His series Rusty Brown is a delayed coming-of-age saga of a man-child in love with collectibles. Quimby the Mouse—he’s no Mickey– avoids a real life as he indulges in the worst pop culture has to offer.

The latest edition of his The Acme Novelty Library, Number 18, pulled from Ware’s Building Stories series, is an Eleanor Rigby tale of a young lady with only a leg-and-a-half, a girl “too eager to be loved” who suffers insomnia, the ignorance of an indifferent society and nagging self-doubt of the sort that seems to surface often in Ware’s writing and sketch books. The story’s emotional depth and subject matter, ranging from abortion to xenophobia, make it Ware’s most literate work to date. That release, and the publication of a second volume of his sketchbooks, The Acme Novelty Datebook Volume Two, made good reason for a talk with the artist himself.

Ware doesn’t do many interviews. Notable exceptions include his participation in Todd Hignite’s 2006 study In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists from Yale University Press and a 2001 interview with The New York Times in which he asked its author, “This interview isn’t going to be printed in “question  & answer” format, is it? … Because a lot of my thoughts tend to come out muddled and ungrammatical and, if nothing else, inarticulate.” One of the publicists told us Ware doesn’t like interviews and we guessed it’s because of his work ethic. “Cartooning takes a really, really long time and is hard, lonely work,” he writes in the introduction to The Best American Comics 2007. ”Pages upon hundreds of pages are drawn and thrown away before any writer or artist eventually finds him or her-self. The reader may even reliably calculate that the time it takes to read a comic strip story to the time it took to draw it is roughly 1: 1,000.” Or, as he states in one of the ads from Acme Novelty Library Number 16: “Ruin Your life: Draw Cartoons! And Doom Yourself to Decades of Grinding Isolation Solipsism and Utter Social Disregard.”

So, after frequent and pitiful pleading to Ware’s publishers and publicists, a reply came back saying Ware would agree to an interview–not by phone but by e-mail–limited to five questions. When the answers didn’t come back in the allotted two weeks we became dismal. But, like Rusty Brown in pursuit of a 1970s-era Pillsbury Funny Face Drink Mix figurine of Looney Lemon, we persisted. Unlike Rusty Brown, our patience was rewarded. “Here are my constipated and over-thought answers,“ he wrote. “My apologies for the delay in getting these back to you, but our household was struck by a rather unforgiving bout of bronchitis (due, I think, my daughter’s just starting to attend preschool) so I was “held back” a bit.”

We found the answers to our questions considered and anything but constipated. Self-doubt is an artistic affliction and a number of the entries in the new Datebook are self-critical. How difficult is it for him to maintain confidence in what he’s creating?

Well, all I’ve ever wanted to do with my “art” (whatever that is) is to see as clearly and truthfully as I possibly can — which is, of course an impossibility, — but at least it’s something of a modest goal. I know there are certain artists or writers who try to trick, fool or make fun of their readers or viewers, but that attitude, to me, is almost a sort of intellectual homicide. I also think it’s entirely up to the artist to be his or her own harshest critic; one shouldn’t expect the benefit of the doubt from generations of readers who haven’t been born yet (which I’ve also always thought should be an artist’s “target audience,” if I can employ a ridiculous contemporary cliché.) None of this changes the fact that I’m always dissatisfied with what I do; maybe it’s just a personality quirk, or something.

There’s a line in Ware’s latest Datebook that says, “I couldn’t shake the sensation that I am still a teenager watching it all happen before me—probably due to America’s perpetration of adolescence as ‘culture’…” Rusty Brown and Jimmy Corrigan seem to travel easily between their youth and adult years. We asked Ware to discuss this notion of the child/adult existing simultaneously and where it might have come from.

I guess some of this originates with listening to my grandmother tell me stories about her own childhood and early life; she was such a wonderfully gifted storyteller that the real world would seem to disappear when she was talking and the images she’d create would take over, so vividly in some cases that I remember them now almost as if they happened to me. She inspired me to try and get this same evocative sense into my own stuff, and in doing so I realized that everyone stores away and keeps similar memories and details alive within them, whether they’re readily accessible or not. Our consciousnesses are as fluid as water in a bathtub; we can go anywhere, anytime we want in our minds, and do, all the time.

Also, I guess I’ve realized as I’ve become older that our perceptions aren’t always the most reliable reporters of reality. This fact was really highlighted for me at the last high school reunion I attended: my forty-year old friends and I were sitting looking at an old yearbook from our fifth grade year and we all agreed that not only did the pictures of the eighth graders still look imposing and frightening to us, but that when we looked at each other, we couldn’t even see our forty year old faces, only those of the children we once were. I realized that something very strange was happening there — as adults, I’m convinced that not only our memories but also our mental generalizations of experience (i.e. words and concepts) affect and even distort our perceptions. Comics are a sort of in-between tightrope walk of all of these things.

Architecture, often of the unique or classic sort, serves an important role in Ware’s work. The narrative from the new book opens “Once upon a time, there was a building…” and closes with the same building. Why has Ware made architecture such an integral part of his work?

Again, it probably comes back to memories of the house I grew up in and memories of my grandmother’s house; I navigate those places almost daily in my mind, and the three-dimensional “maps” I’ve internalized are all also filled with stories, so for better or for worse I frequently try to work that way when I’m writing and drawing fiction. In the case of the New York Times strip, it was very specifically designed to be about one day in the life of a building itself, and so began and ended with images of it (as well as changed orientation in relation to the sun as it passed overheard, as pretentious as that is to admit.)

One of Ware’s most attractive features is the design of his pages: various sized panels, small panels clustered in larger panels as if to point out detail, full pages with arrows leading from scene/text to the next scene. Where did these design elements come from?

Well, again, not to flog this notion to death, but it really all comes from trying to work in a way that most closely resembles the way I seem to remember things and relate them to each other, as well as to reflect the texture of the world as I’ve come to know it; I want there to be a certain sense of detail and intricate level of resolution of information that’s analogous to my experience of the natural world. I think this idea of “the natural world influencing art” esthetic was sort of wiped out in the 20th century by modernism (or “art influencing the natural world”) and I guess I just feel more of a sympathy with the former, that’s all. I am not, however, trying to confuse anyone, but simply to recreate the same sense of contradictory certainty and uncertainty I have in my own experiences. Since I’m working visually, sometimes that looks unnecessarily complicated, though I’d hope by the content and presentation that it’s at least somewhat obvious that I’m not making fun of the reader. I work entirely by feeling, however, and so I trust what feels right as I’m working.

Ware says he’s looking ahead to Acme Novelty Library Number 19 and will continue work on both the Building Stories and Rusty Brown series. His response to a question on his editing comics anthologies reflects his view on the current state of the art.

I don’t think I’ll be editing any more anthologies again very soon after the last Best American Comics; I was afraid after the McSweeney’s issue I’d edited that my foisting my taste and love of all of those artists’ recent work twice in such a relatively short time would be something of an overload. It seems that my interest in experimental cartoonists who write about more or less real-life experiences isn’t necessarily reflective of the general comics readership, which is of course fine; I just genuinely believe I presented some of the best work published in 2006, and I was actually surprised by the varied quality of most of it once it was all gathered together. John Updike very eloquently articulated the difference between genre writing versus non-genre writing in a recent New Yorker book review, which bears repeating: “Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety … will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself.” It’s curious to me that the traditional genre content of the comic books which I grew up loving has now become an established part of mainstream culture, though I don’t think cartoonists trying to write human-scale stories in any way threatens that extremely widely-read establishment. I’m simply pleased that comics have started to show that they can plumb those sorts of depths, too.

Judge of Character

It’s the commonly used coffee house criteria to define enjoyable fiction: “I identified with the characters.” If we recognize ourselves or others we know in a story, we’re more susceptible to being drawn in. But the characters in The Book Of Other People, an anthology of character sketches/short stories, aren’t exactly people you would want to identify with. There’s one person in the story “The Liar” you might want to be; that is if you have a Messiah complex. Even then, you might not want to identify with this Jesus, seeing that he has doubts about who he really is. Another character you might identify with is a monster. Really.

This gaggle of character sketches, most of them about less than admirable characters, is edited by Zadie Smith, author of Beauty and a couple other novels. Smith brought together 23 (mostly) fellow celebrity writers and instructed them to “make someone up” (the book’s proceeds benefit a children’s writing program in New York). We suspect that some of these characters aren’t made up as much as they are actual sketches of people the writers know. Take Jonatahn Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” who’s the type of smothering, busy-body mother (“Have a cookie,” is the story’s first sentence) of the type we all know.

In style, these sketches are out of The New Yorker school of short stories. Indeed, half a dozen of the stories here, including Smith’s own, were first published in the magazine and many of the book’s contributors are familiar to New Yorker readers. As such, the collection is diverse in class, race and setting. We’re not told so much what the characters look like as we are told what they’re thinking. Sometimes what they’re wearing is important as in Vendela Vida’s “Soliel” in which the lingerie-as-evening-wear look suggests feminine motives. In a sense, the collection defines the current state of the short story. Apparently, one of the characteristics that define today’s short stories is the unlikable personalities of its protagonists.

So we have Heidi Julavits’ “Judge Gladys Parks-Schutlz”, an “insincerely cheery” woman, a judge known “for her imperviousness to human context,” a person who is interested only in outcomes. Then there is A.L. Kennedy’s “Frank,” a man whose obsessive desire for repetition and familiarity is so important it drives his wife away. ZZ Packer’s “Gideon” is a gutless guy who collects crickets and doesn’t have the conviction to out his inter-racial relationship. In George Saunders’ “Puppy,” you won’t like the suburban mom with a van full of kids out to buy the puppy, or the white trash family who has the puppy available. You certainly wouldn’t identify with David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle.” You‘d never throw yourself at anyone like that. You may not end up liking any of these characters. But you’ll certainly enjoy the stories they inhabit.

The likable, innocent characters here are either children or child-like. No, not the selfish children packed into the suburban mom’s van on their way to buy a puppy. The 11-year-old who accompanies Soliel to Lake Tahoe in pursuit of a good time is extremely sympathetic, which makes the model set for her even worse. Chris Ware’s graphic childhood of “Jordan Wellington Lint” (the book has two stories in comic form) follows little Lint from his earliest perceptions on to more impressionable experiences. You won’t like what these experiences make of him. Probably the most loveable character is, well, the most loved, a crazed sex addict named “Magda Mandela” who announces to a group of construction workers, “I have a condom. Line up. I am ready.” But you wouldn’t identify with her (would you?).

The more exotic locations are populated with the best-drawn characters. Edwidge Danticat’s “Lele” is inhabited with seemingly respectable Haitians existing in a world of extreme heat, exploding frogs and a crooked judiciary. Adam Thirwell’s “Nigora”—she’s described as “a minor character”– is sympathetic until you start to question who fathered her unborn child and why she’s decides to carry it to an untimely birth.

The parodies—people you can laugh at—might be the most enjoyable. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ comic character “Justin M. Damiano,” chief film critic for justindamiano.com, faces an ethical decision after learning not to like anything. The author blurbs collected in Nick Hornby’s “J. Johnson,” with illustrations by Posy Simmonds, read a lot like the contributors’ bios at the end of this book, complete with those who were “short-listed” for various literary prizes.

Then there’s that monster in Toby’s Litt’s story. He has little sense of himself, no idea of what he looks like, little memory and no clue as to his sexual drive. I don’t know about you, but there’s someone that I can identify with.—Cabbage Rabbit

The Book Of Other People edited by Zadie Smith; Penguin Books, paperback 287 pages, $15

A version of this review was published in The Inland Empire Weekly