Michigan Murder Mystery

Writer Jim Harrison is to letters what Woody Allen is to film. If that seems a stretch, consider: both are prolific, releasing a new work (or more) yearly. Both were born during the Depression, two years apart, both in December. Both mix drama and comedy into something that’s entertaining as well as thought provoking. Both are fixed on the complications resulting from relationships and sex. Both are obsessed with mortality. Both have tried their hand at writing from a woman’s point-of-view. Both are connected to specific locations, Harrison to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Allen to Manhattan’s Upper Westside (and more recently, Barcelona and Paris). Both are revered in France.

Okay, it’s still a stretch. The grizzled, one-eyed novelist and poet who wrote Legends of the Fall and some 30 other volumes of prose and poetry is more at home in the outdoors than the bespectacled urbanite who wrote and directed Interiors (no matter how much  of A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy takes place outdoors) . And while Harrison’s characters, like Allen’s, often dwell on the fact that their days, as everyone’s, are numbered, they don’t all take it personally. They’re more stoical about it.

Take 65-year-old Detective Sunderson from Harrison latest novel The Great Leader. “He thought just because you’re older doesn’t mean that death is imminent every day. There’s generally a tip-off when it’s coming.” Tips, being the detective’s stock-and-trade, need to be acted on. And Sunderson’s been given more than a few.

If your hunch is that detective fiction is out of character for someone as literate as Harrison, you’d be half right.  Detective Sunderson doesn’t break from the manly Harrison mold. He’s burly, fond of brook trout, dogs and deer livers.  He has a frustration-inducing appreciation for female posteriors and is prone to use whiskey as a cure. Three years ago, his troubled lifestyle cost him “the world’s finest woman,” according to his niggling 85-year-old mother. It’s his down-home style of introspection, in light of his vices, that stands him apart from the usual sleuth.

Recently retired after a career policing familial abuse, small-time drug dealing, and bear poaching, our detective is hardboiled country-style. When asked why he continues to follow The Great Leader out of the hummocks of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Arizona and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, he claims he’s investigating the evil connection between religion, money, and sex. A more accurate answer: he’s pursuing himself.

If this doesn’t exactly sound like Manhattan Murder Mystery that’s because it isn’t.  There are plenty of dark moments and intimations of mortality in The Great Leader, though balanced by comic action and witty asides. Plot? Only the barest, vulture-picked bones. Along the way, Sunderson is threatened with a sodomy charge, has a run-in with a Mexican drug kingpin, eats prodigiously and suffers gout. It’s not a thriller and there’s not a lot of suspense. But if you’re fond of existential puzzles, then The Great Leader is your rib steak.

In this age-of-anxiety sense, The Great Leader is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s1985 mystery City of Glass, an existential detective yarn in which the unraveling thread of the central charter’s psyche is more knotty than the mystery he’s trying to solve. While Auster’s tale is surreal, Harrison’s is well-grounded. Auster says, “nothing is real, except chance.” Harrison counters, “there is no truth, only stories. “ As a detective, Sunderson‘s heard plenty.

The real mystery here is Sunderson himself. Even as he plots the downfall of the cult leader for his taste in 12-year-olds, he ogles his 16-year-old neighbor girl, an exhibitionist whose bedroom window is just 30 feet from his. That and the excitement he feels almost every time a woman bends over cause him to curse “the distracting nuisance” of the biological imperative, like “carrying around a backpack full of cow manure.”

Harrison is skilled at straight-talking life’s big issues and the book is full of homily. “Crime did pay but usually very little,” Sunderson observes. Or, when marveling at the rejuvenating powers of time spent in the wild, “A creek is more powerful than despair.”

Not all such insight seems worthy: “Men would say they were as horny as a toad but who among them knew if a toad was horny?” Sometimes, Harrison’s dialog seems unnaturally smart, as when a tough plainclothes cop, describing religion as a drug, says, “you know, the Marxian opiate of the people.”

But by and large, Sunderland’s social and political one-liners give a jolt on almost every page. He’s outspoken on religion, Republicans, the FBI, American history (especially when it came to Native Americans), 9-11 and justice (“When a guy with four DUIs runs over a kid and receives less time than a college kid with a half-pound of pot…”); all tempered by his unruly self-doubt: “…what were his conclusions worth? Hadn’t he been put out to pasture?”

Sunderson eventually chases down a sort of religion of his own, one anchored in extended family and the natural world. Like Alvy Singer in Allen’s Annie Hall, he finds solace in his surroundings, a beauty and buzz of life that’s present no matter which landscape he’s in. It’s this revelation that helps him get his man. I won’t tell you which one.–Cabbage Rabbit




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

Sons and Brothers

Craig Thompson of Blankets fame asks a silly question in the introduction to Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper:  “Does Art Enhance Our Lives Or Distract From It?” Then he makes what might be an unpopular decision between fantasy and reality comics. (And shouldn’t that be, “Our Life”?)

“The Superhero,” he says, ” is escapist. The DREAM. Clearly a distraction. But [reality] is its own abstraction–distilling life to its most mundane, suppressing the dream with CYNICISM.” He goes onto say the Brazilian brothers Moon and Ba (twins!) travel both. Daytripper takes a magical realism approach, its hero is oh-so-human. It follows a “miracle child” and son of a famous writer through parallel universes of the same life, but not the same death.   Added twists: the son, Bras, aspires to be a great writer like his father but is employed scribbling obituaries for the local paper. He stands in shadow. Lovers and a friend, sometimes only their memories, tie the episodes together.

Ba’s artwork is much more round and human in his brother’s story, more sharp-edged and angular in his work for Matt Fraction’s Casanova Luxuria, which appears more commercial. Casanova comes down on the fantasy side, fantasies of several types, the best of which is probably not the legions of sexy, female robots. Sure, the sex in Daytripper is good, too. The best parts of Cassanova (there is a collected Volume 2 out; haven’t read it) are when the characters are at their most human.  Contrast that with Daytripper‘s  magical mystery tour of (multiple) existence, all of it all too human. Fantasy and reality–one can’t seem to exist without the other.–Cabbage Rabbit

Digging Up A Deadly Past

The Gaza Flotilla Raid in May that left nine dead and dozens wounded has already faded into the background of oil-soaked news. While in Seattle earlier this month, the Rabbit witnessed attempts at keeping the issue alive: dueling protests on the University of Washington campus in which both bullhorned sides invited the other into the space between them for “real” discussion (neither side budged while we watched), and a large, pro-Palestinian march the following day through downtown. Similar actions have been  reported around the country and the world. The opposing UW protests emerged in our mind as an symbol of how little chance there is of worthwhile resolution to the West Bank and Gaza issue. No doubt,  by the time summer is over, the flotilla incident will be just another footnote in a long, cruel and bloody struggle.

The death toll in the flotilla incident is small compared to that alleged in the two incidents illustrated in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. The book is a long account of Sacco’s investigation of two actions in Gaza that occurred back in 1956, one in the town of Khan Younis that left 275 Palestinians dead, another in Rafah that left 111 dead. While the overall effect of Sacco’s narrative is one of shock, disgust and shame it also serves as a reminder of the on-going nature of repression and killing that has marked the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for some 60 years.

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Grorazde is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, researched, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, injecting his search for stories into a larger narrative. This injection strengthens his reporting with its wide-angled, contemporary background to, in this case, events over 50 years old. That he concentrated on personal accounts, often to make up for a lack of official documentation, makes his work extremely engaging. Perspective–no pun intended– is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper’s magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of the massacres that occurred during the ’56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people and this will disqualify him as a legitimate source for many. Yet anyone reading his book and examining the illustrations cannot help but conclude that the Palestinians suffer overwhelming poverty, repression and the effects of  what amounts to war. His infrequent sympathies for Israelis thrust into terrible situations as well as infrequent but obvious disapproval of some Palestinian actions offer precious little balance to a story that has little of it to offer.

In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges  the “scant” official documentation of the events he investigates as well as the questionable reliability of oral testimony. What documentation he was able to discover by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces is listed (and quoted) in the Appendix. He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his landscapes, he says that drawing comes with “a measure of refraction” and should be seen as such. (It’s surprising how little things have changed from his depictions of 1956 to the  current day drawings.)

Sacco makes clear the complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth.  He claims that the half of Gaza’s workforce which once worked in Israel have found themselves replaced by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.  Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live.  He notes what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or the rare teaching position funded by UNRWA. He finds that the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty seems to be to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid agency as a facilitator of “democratization.”  “Basically, it’s bullshit,” says the man.

These modern-day accounts of Sacco’s investigation and story gathering make the book far more relevant than just an account of the massacres. When those accounts do come, they are filled with horror, grief and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco’s most extreme panel’s are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn’t evolve but maintains a direct, composed style. The strongest work in Palestine is its portraits. Here, the portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes’ best illustrations comes in the narrative flow. Sacco is a master at finding the right action and composition to move his story forward and even the scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background has an impact on his story.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!” Sacco makes laughs at his own expense and his is the only overly characterized face: large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind  large, round spectacles. He also makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls in sections that recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

That party scene  serves to illustrate his frustrations — and hopes — beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and N.G.O.s are “hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?…Ahhh, even in the belly of the world’s most intractable conflict there’s a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!”

At end, Sacco feels shame for what he’s lost while gathering his accounts, “for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart.” This confession comes as something of a surprise as he has shown nothing but compassion for those who experienced the killings. In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account through his mind, from a perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop an empathy he didn’t have. If he didn’t succeed with himself — and what preceeds it suggests that he did — Sacco certainly succeeds with the reader.–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

Bradbury Lights Ups

It’s fitting–or maybe ironic– that Fahrenheit 451,  favorite of high school librarians everywhere, has been turned into a graphic novel. About half-way through Ray Bradbury’s familiar story of a world where books are put to the torch, Fire Captain Beatty tells the story’s wavering central character, Guy Montag, how books went wrong.  “Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater,” explains Beatty. ” No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive.”

Fahrenheit 451 evolved from a number of incarnations, or so Ray Bradbury tells us in his introduction to this new edition (Bradbury’s intro  makes the new book worthwhile even to those of its fans who might think the comic treatment sacrilege).  It’s premise, as any high school student from the last 50 years will tell you, is that books and the ideas they contain can be subversive and a challenge to authority. Firemen, no longer needed for their namesake purpose since the invention of fire-proof buildings, go about torching books and occasionally their readers. A mechanical hound,  symbol of evil technology, sniffs out and brings down. When Francois Truffaut’s movie of the same name came out in 1994 (minus the hound but with Julie Christie), Bradbury said the book wasn’t so much about censorship as it was about television destroying our desire to read. In the era of flat screens, Blackberries and iPhones, his message seems more heated even as Kindle and other e-machines seek to throw water on the flames.

Illustrator Tim Hamilton’s visualization of Fahrenheit may make it even more attractive to high school readers. With Bradbury’s blessing, Hamilton has skillfully distilled the story, paraphrasing or quoting the original verbatim, and illustrating it with panels that speak to contrast: fleur-de-lis flames against black backgrounds, dark figures against flaming umber backgrounds. Every panel is serious and to the point. Much of what’s seen  is presented, appropriately enough, in blacks, grays and twilight blues. Light and flame almost seem alive. Hamilton has a great sense of  suggestion and symbology. When Beatty and Montag have their discussion on the demise of the written word, Beatty’s pipe smoke swirls around the characters like a snake.

By turning the  story into a cartoon, Hamilton has neutralized some of the original’s hamminess. Re-reading the original for comparison, the Rabbit found the illustrated adaption more to his liking if only because it did away with some of the gravity and heavy-handed sermonizing that’s endemic to science fiction in general. No doubt, all those spinning high schoolers will find the graphic adaption more to their liking as well.–Cabbage Rabbit

Omega Redux

The Rabbit loved superheroes as a kid but seldom identified with them. It took growing up to do that. I was well into my 20s before I realized that every mild-mannered male had a secret identity, if not a colorful leotard with or without the requisite “S.”

I was somewhere in between youth and manhood, at least psychologically, when Marvel introduced Omega: The Unknown in 1976. There was plenty to identify with if I’d only been paying attention. Not that I could have imagined myself as the grim, buff-and-caped hero of the series or the adolescent, curly-haired James Michael, whose parents looked like Clark Kent and Lana Lang even if they were robots. But the identity confusion James Michael felt and his alienation; that would have been immediately recognizable and no more unusual than it was for a skinny, middle-class Midwestern kid to identify with a New York prep school brat named Holden.

Writers Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak and illustrator Farel Dalrymple’s new Omega is less pumped and super. Their James Michael, here named Titus Alexander, is a skinnier, less curly-haired and handsome kid. But the shared story—battling battalions of alien robots while figuring out their own identities—is, if you can believe it, more believable in Lethem and Dalrymple’s hands. Alexander’s parents are tired and worn, even if they are robots. The women who become his guardian angels are fatigued and hardly bodacious. Super villains don’t just fall out of the sky as they do in the Marvel series which ran through ten issues of Omega The Unknown and two issues of Defenders before vanishing (still available in the Marvel collection Omega: The Unknown Classic). The main antagonist, other than alien robots, is a scene-stealing, self-promoter in a fuchsia body suit who monopolizes the local superhero franchise with an army of surrogates and a panel truck. His fearsome name: Mink.

Yes, Lethem plays for laughs as well as parody. He’s a genius at injecting elements of fantasy even though there’s not as much contrasting reality as there was in Fortress of Solitude. He’s extracted the best facets of the original Omega and done away with some that drowned its fantasy in commercialism. It’s an improvement on the original and, at the same time, something entirely different.

In his notes at the end of the remake, Lethem calls Steve Gerber and Mark Skrenes’ original Omega “simply the greatest single comic book I’d ever read.” But after its promising first issue, Omega reverted to serial Marvel form, dropping in appearances from Electro and, yes, The Incredible Hulk as well as a cameo from Spider Man. Lethem sticks with Mink and the robots while keeping all of the original’s clever devices: James-Michael/Alexander’s sympathetic pain for the shadowy Omega, their shared, palm-sized super power, Omega’s struggles to deal with life on Earth, and Alexander’s own struggle to survive in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.

One of the standout sections in both the original and the remake concerns Alex’s bullied fellow student. The statement here is that street life can be as terrifying as an invasion of alien robots. Dalrymple’s drawings, as stereotyped as the originals were exaggerated, spare us the visual consequences of intimidation that the original does not. Despite the stereotypes, the illustrations lend a further element of believability to the story, even at its most surreal turns. The dully lit, often dark backdrops from colorist Paul Hornschemeier, and the grayness in the deteriorating Omega’s face, make for a sort of visual foreshadowing. There’s a standout panel early into the tale of our young hero and his roommate in front of the New York Public Library that suggests a little knowledge is like entering a shadow. Dalrymple’s most manic scene is the full-page that opens section VI. There’s a palpable madness in the single eye, seen through a desk magnifier, of a robotics student as he works on an alien appendage. Section VII, drawn by the acclaimed Gary Panter, is a child’s nightmare of the devolving situation, primitively horrific in black, beige and blood red.

The original Omega is known for its overly ambitious caption narration, words that dealt with the metaphorical elements of the story in grandiose language (sample: “THE ENERGY—THE CREATIVE FORCE—COULD BE DISCIPLINED ONLY SO STRICTLY, HELD SEETHING IN CHECK ONLY SO LONG, BEFORE IT BURST FORTH—“). In staying true to this form, Lethem brings the story a new sense of literacy (“NIHILISM MAY BE THE SOLE BRAND OF SELF-ASSERTION THAT CAN’T BE PACKAGED AND SOLD BACK TO ITS ORIGINAL OWNER”) as well as finding an excuse to have some fun (“KILL OR BE KILLED, EAT OR BE EATEN, ENGULF AND DEVOUR… DON’T PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD”).

There are details galore to put together as one tries to make sense of the plot, not all of them welcomed by this long-eared reader. Robotic insects, tap-dancing street people and a giant, severed hand keep things complicated. A fictional fast food conglomerate plays an important role and Omega is taken in by a kindly old man who serves hot dogs and Italian ice from a street wagon. A pensive, over-sized bust in a park watches over all. Some of the comic turns here threaten to derail the story. Others are just part of some symbolic shtick. At one point, the starving Omega climbs a tree and grabs a bald eagle for his dinner.

Still we expect comics to be comic, even if they are about revenge and interplanetary destruction. Lethem and Rusnak have succeeded in taking the myth of a boy come to Earth to save a second planet (shades of Superman and Terminator!) from out-of-control robotics (Blade Runner!) and making it smart, intriguing and worthy of illustration. The last several brilliant pages share something important with the original: no chance of a sequel. Then again, in comics…..—Cabbage Rabbit